The Humbled, sample chapters

The Humbled, sample chapters

I am going to announce the imminent release of The Humbled in just a few short days. The keen-eyed among you will already be able to find what they want and need, if they want. For the rest, here’s a couple of sample chapters, to give you the taste of the fourth and the final, I repeat final volume in The Lost Words series. Spoilers galore.

The Humbled, ready cover

Chapter 1

Stephan had always considered himself a man with a hunch for bets. Most of the time, he knew a good deal when he saw it. Now, though, he was completely out of his depth.

The High Council meeting was taking place in the office of the shipwrights guild rather than the official headquarters on Gunter’s Road. The main reason was the dispute between the dockworkers and the spice traders. It had all started when one of the laborers dropped a cask of saffron into the filthy water of the bay, to much dismay of everyone involved. The shipmaster had been furious, and had the worker whipped, but he had turned livid when the traders demanded he compensate their loss. It had soon bubbled into an insurance blister, and a fight broke out, fists flying, noses bleeding. The dockworkers were demanding protection and higher wages, shipowners refused to be accountable for lost profits when at anchor in large city ports, and the merchants wanted everyone to pay through their noses.

But that discourse was long over.

With the grumbling parties gone, the remaining councillors sat to discuss an even more delicate matter, one that involved pretty much everything.

The fragile political situation in Caytor.

Stephan was holding a letter in his hand, written by Master Sebastian. It informed the High Council of several worrying developments. There was open war between the Parusites and Athesians once again. Emperor James was dead. Lady Rheanna had been detained. It smelled like a disaster.

Stephan had missed most of the intrigue while locked up in Roalas, but he had quickly caught up on all the little plots and schemes and secret deals hammered out during his captivity. He still marveled at the audacity and stupidity of some of his colleagues and wondered what they had intended—and still probably did intend—to achieve.

He looked at the faces round the table, pale, calculating. They didn’t like this any better than he did. Most of them had seen at least one of their friends die championing the wrong side. Others had sponsored pretenders for the Athesian throne and were still licking their wounds. Stephan’s friend Robin had paid with his life for going over to James. For all practical purposes, the family estates of Councillors Otis and Melville now belonged to the miraculously resurrected Empress Amalia.

Stephan was almost glad to have her at the helm of the crumbling rebel force. Almost. He clearly remembered her conduct during the siege, her obstinate reasoning, and he wondered if she still remained as hard and unyielding as before. One thing was certain: she would have no reason to be friendly toward Caytor, not after supporting her half brother and so many imposters.

It was delicate. It was complicated. It didn’t smell of roses.

“What do we do?” He asked the obvious, breaking the silence.

The silence simply flowed back, like mud. No one spoke. They were thinking, more than they had ever done in their lives as politicians, investors, or moneylenders. They were gambling their realm and the best of their fortunes. The past two years had not been favorable to them in any way. Virtually every little deal regarding Athesia had gone sour. Stephan was starting to believe it was a cursed land.

“We do nothing,” Councillor Lamprecht said, biting on his pipe.

“Very easy for you to say that,” Vareck objected. The man had traveled from Shurbalen for this assembly. He had been one of the strong supporters of Emperor James and was still trying to figure out what he should do with the troops and money he had sent west.

“A wise businessman knows when to cut his losses,” Lamprecht countered, unfazed.

“Everything we do risks the peace with the Parusites,” Uwe of the cartographers guild said, his fingers busy turning a gilt goblet, the foot making a raspy noise on the hardwood tabletop.

Councillor Doris sniffed, her face contorted with what looked like rage. Stephan did not blame her. She had lost her children to Parusite mercenaries. Ever since coming back, she had championed war against King Sergei. She simply would not relent, and she refused to go back to Monard.

Stephan knew he was among equals, but he felt he had a slight advantage in his favor. None of his hostage comrades had tried to negotiate their freedom or secure the peace. He had been the only one to engage the Athesian hosts in some kind of talks. This gave him a better understanding of what the empress was all about, and so he thought he should lead. Well, a man must not complain if a dire situation led him to fortune.

Only he did not express himself in so many words. His fellow councillors were difficult men and women, highly opinionated, arrogant, and very much displeased for having to count losses in their ledgers. “We should probably ask ourselves, what is it that we want?”

“Trade going back to what it was.”

“Athesian land becoming Caytor once again.”

“The Parusites must retreat to their own kingdom and stay there.”

Stephan grimaced. “Unfortunately, I do not think it’s that simple. We should probably contend with the fact King Sergei will not relinquish Athesia. That territory was lost to us twenty years ago.” He snorted. “We haven’t really ruled Roalas for the past forty.”

“Lord Orson tells me the king hasn’t accepted his claim for compensation,” Vareck said, waving his hand. “It does not bode well for any future negotiation. We should expect no leeway from the Parusites.”

“They should be thankful we didn’t declare war after the Oth Danesh invasion!” Helmut shouted.

“Well, most of Empress Amalia’s soldiers are Caytoreans, so as far as King Sergei is concerned, we probably did declare war.” This was Uwe again. Next to him, the head of the glaziers guild was writing something, not really interested.

“What if the Parusites declare war against us?” Lamprecht suggested, knowing he was annoying his colleagues. But then, that was his style: cool, dismissive arrogance.

“They cannot,” Desmond explained, almost sounding like a teacher. “The nobles have all returned home, and it will be months before the king may summon them again. King Sergei is heavily engaged with the Athesians, and he must not expose his western flank either. I heard he declined a peace offer by the Kataji, so they might decide to invade the Safe Territories, or worse.”

“I would not worry about Eracians and the nomads right now,” Vareck said.

“And I heard,” Desmond plowed on, “the king’s got rebellion in Pain Mave.”

Councillor Evert snorted. “That place was ever a hotbed.”

Stephan raised a hand. Too many people were talking, not listening to the others. A typical meeting, except they were discussing the fate of the realm.

“If we go to war,” he spoke bluntly, grabbing their attention, “we need armies.”

“More losses,” Lamprecht teased, clamping his teeth round the bitten end of his pipe.

“If we do not go to war,” Doris hissed, “we remain the laughingstock of this nation, of the whole of the realms. There isn’t a single brave thing this council has done in the last forty years, ever since the Feoran uprising. We let them take over the countryside. Then Emperor Adam came, and we let him steal our land and people. We let his son do the same. No, we invited him! King Sergei unleashed his barbarians into our cities, and we still did nothing. Now, Empress Amalia has detained one of our own, again, and we fear displeasing her.”

“I am worried about the fate of Lady Rheanna,” Stephan agreed.

“She made her choice,” Lamprecht said. At that moment, Stephan so much wanted to plow a fist into those yellowing teeth.

“Technically, she is entitled to Athesian lands. Once she married the emperor, the ownership of Athesian lands became hers, too. Now, rightfully, the throne belongs to her, not Amalia.” Evert poured himself sherry from a crystal carafe.

Stephan rolled his eyes. This could become a dangerous discussion. He did not want anyone trying to champion Rheanna’s claim for the Athesian throne. That would be political suicide. The very fact the High Council had tried to use Adam’s bastard against his legitimate daughter as leverage over future negotiations and demands was justification enough for Amalia to decide she was better off just sending Rheanna’s pickled head to Eybalen.

“So we are in agreement then,” Lamprecht said, annoying fucker, spanking the table with his hand.

“Please,” Stephan said, trying to sound polite. “You’re not helping.”

Evert pointed at the few ladies in the crowd. “Any businessman must ask himself, or herself, how they can make the best from a situation. Any situation. Like during a ball or a large party, toward the end of the evening, when you see a beautiful woman puking excess food and drink quietly in a corner, do you help her, or do you cup a teat when she’s defenseless?”

There was a sigh of indignation among the ladies. Doris narrowed her eyes. If looks could kill, she would be skinning the pig now.

“Thank you for that lovely metaphor,” Stephan said dryly. “Ever a charmer.”

Evert nodded, ignoring the women around him. Some people simply refused to consider the problem seriously. But then, their assets were safe, and they had not spent a year as hostages, wondering if they might die the next morning.

“Things are just happening too rapidly,” Uwe said. “Our old allies and enemies are dying like flies. I hear Duke Vincent was assassinated. A rather tricky predicament. Whoever we try to negotiate with might end up dead the next morning. This presents us with a problem. We need to be sure we have a reliable partner who will live on to see their end of the bargain upheld.”

Yes, and Commander Gerald is dead, too, Stephan thought. Just a few more months of siege, he could have hammered out a peace, a solid, lasting, favorable peace.

From what reports and rumors Stephan had, King Sergei refused to talk to the Caytoreans. His sister, Sasha was a lunatic. Amalia…no one really knew what she might do now.

But he had not told the assembled council the most worrying part yet.

“If Lady Rheanna meets an untimely end…” Evert’s tone was pragmatic. “What do we do with her assets? Do we proclaim her a traitor and seize them?”

“That would be prudent,” Lamprecht agreed.

Stephan raked his hair. He was feeling desperate. “Our concern should be seeing Lady Rheanna released safely.” He knew he sounded like a hypocrite, but what else could he say?

“The key to this conundrum is King Sergei,” Uwe pointed out.

“He does seem inclined toward peace, it’s fair to say. After all, he released all of you when he could have easily kept you hostage, or worse.” Councillor Baldric stabbed a very pointed stare at Stephan, as if this was all somehow his doing.

“We need to decide what we want,” Stephan insisted. “Does the council favor the restoration of Athesian land to Caytor? Or do we agree that we seek peace and trade only? We can then sort all the other details more easily.”

“As long as we remain undecided, we won’t win any favor with either the Parusites or Athesians.” Doris rallied. “Our inaction suits them both. While we may argue about Amalia or James and what they did, they have a much better claim than King Sergei. One thing is certain, Roalas was never Parusite territory.”

Stephan breathed into his palm, thinking. If it were that simple for his colleagues to agree on a common cause, there would be no point in having the council, now would it? He tried to imagine what would happen if the High Council threw its support behind Amalia. Or maybe the king. What would happen then?

In a deep corner of his soul, he felt he should be grateful for being alive today, and that gratitude belonged to the Parusite ruler. But there was another corner, soaked in bitterness and national pride, bemoaning decades of humiliation. It went back to Adam, the man who had affirmed the reality of defeat with the Eracians and Caytoreans. The only question was, were they willing to accept it and move on toward a brighter future?

“If we assume we never get Athesia back,” he began.

“That land is rightfully ours,” Lamprecht goaded.

“If we assume that, then we must ask ourselves, who do we prefer at the throne? Adam’s daughter? Or the Parusite king? Do we want religion back in the lives of the small folk?”

Doris squirmed. “The Parusites must not be allowed to control Athesia.”

“How can we oppose them?” Uwe again.

“We recruit armies. Simple.” Helmut was standing now, drawing attention to his fat bulk.

“Even the simple threat of our intervention could swing the situation in our favor,” Desmond said. “The Parusite king relies on our neutrality to complete his conquest. Once he has the whole of Athesia in his hands, we will be facing a much bigger problem.”

“We must try to save Lady Rheanna,” Stephan told them. “She is the only one among us who managed to gain the upper hand with Emperor James. Otis and Melville tried coercion and trickery, and they paid with their lives. Perhaps we could convince Amalia that she poses no threat. Perhaps Rheanna might give up her claim to the throne in return for her freedom. We might forge an alliance with the Athesians. That way, we could legitimize all the fighting our troops are waging against the Parusites, Athesia becomes our protectorate, so we get our lands back, and that way, we gain power to threaten King Sergei.” And we best the Eracians, he did not add.

“Will Sebastian support us?” Evert voiced. He was drinking his third cup that morning.

That was a difficult question. The last thing anyone needed was a division between the Caytoreans. But then, it had already started two years back.

Empress Amalia was probably facing the same problem he was, wondering who among her followers might choose greed over loyalty, who might decide that warring was too risky and just go back to being a loyal Caytorean once again. Stephan sure did not favor an outright war, like Doris, but he knew that weakness and indecision would keep Caytor on the losing end against King Sergei.

Recruiting fresh private armies might make sense, too, but paid soldiers were almost always a bad investment. The High Council still had a lot of wealth, but it was draining quickly now that the roads west were closed. Peace in Athesia was imperative. Stephan wished he had Adam for his enemy. The one man who had turned the gangrene in Somar and Eybalen to everyone’s prosperity. Now, there was a bunch of crows, fighting over the rotten leftovers.

He looked at his comrades. They all waged their own personal wars; they all had their hidden motives. He would not put it past some of them to have engaged in secret negotiations with this or that ruler. They had plotted against Adam, tried to rally imposters against his bastard. Bloody Abyss, James himself had almost been an imposter.

Stephan didn’t like the fact they would have to face Amalia. Women were difficult. The young empress had seen her little empire destroyed, and still wouldn’t budge. He had no idea how her defeat might have changed her, but he did not expect any miracles.

Rheanna’s plan had been genius. She had gone for the simplest solution of all, marriage. Empress Amalia remained without a husband, and that made her extremely vulnerable and yet immensely powerful. She could easily offer her maidenhood to any of the three realms and see them fight for the privilege. Reconcile with Sergei, marry one of his surviving sons? Reconcile with Eracia, find a suitable noble? Among those who still lived, that was. Offer herself to the High Council?

Who might be a lucky candidate?

A name popped into his head.

Now, if he could somehow convince his fellow councillors that it was the sensible thing to do. He doubted they would sympathize with his logic and ambitions. They all wanted to get richer and more powerful the next summer. That was the one thing that had never changed. Neither the Feoran Movement, nor Emperor Adam, nor all the wars had ever affected that.

Lady Rheanna herself was a valuable asset, but what she stood for was even more critical. If she died, there could be no peace with Athesia. If Amalia killed her, the High Council would be forced to side with King Sergei. No one wanted that. For generations, the religious fools had kept to themselves in their sunny south. Their presence in the heart of the realms threatened everything.

There would be a new civil war, Stephan knew. He just knew. The mercenaries serving Amalia would turn against one another, switching sides as this or that Caytorean paid for their services. The councillors would be forced to commence on a journey of assassinations to keep their agenda afloat. After last year’s dreadful experience with the imposters, Stephan could only imagine the magnitude of terror that would gush through Eybalen and other cities.

Lady Rheanna had to live, if only because she symbolized hope for profit.

We take a stance, for a change, he mused. We go against the Parusites. Not a pleasant prospect, but then, war never was. Only, for once, Caytor might actually come out as a winner. They had desperately avoided confronting their foes, one after one, and kept losing. This time, it could be different.

He had a plan. He had a scapegoat. What he needed to do was convince his colleagues to cooperate.

Then, a more troubling thought bloomed in his mind. If the empress somehow miraculously agreed to release her hostage, something she had refused to do the last time, what kind of reaction should he expect from Lady Rheanna? Would she be willing to forget the slight? Business as usual? For that matter, few of the nobles released from Roalas had any great love for King Sergei. In fact, most resented him, if only because he stood for something they never would. Worse, women were not as simple as men. They might take this kind of thing personally.

The potential for catastrophe was immense. Two women, both with a taste for power, both sniffing round the title of “empress” like hungry dogs. Oh, there was not a bard in Eybalen who could put it in words.

I am the bravest man in the realm, he thought. Because he was going to risk his body and mind and soul for the sake of national prosperity. And his own, of course.

“I might have a solution…” he told the council.

Chapter 2

Pacmad stood on the table, holding the shrieking baby above his head. “I have another son!”

The crowd of his tribesmen exploded in a wild, loud cheer. Sonya had to cover her ears to numb the pain of their deafening roar.

Her captor handed the child back to its mother, then hopped down, shaking hands with his warriors. A very emotional display for such a primitive race, Sonya thought. Men ought to be aloof and distant from birth affairs, but she could understand Pacmad’s savage pride, even if it concerned yet another bastard, born to a lowly Eracian woman.

Seeing the Father of the Bear gloat over his offspring did not bring her joy. That was her weakness right there, the inability to squeeze babies out from between her legs. Every one born was a potential enemy, one that might interfere with her plans. But a frown similar to hers creased the face of Baroness Richelle, and that did bring her joy.

The whore had given birth to a girl. Pacmad had been visibly disappointed, Sonya markedly relieved. Her fear of becoming his second favorite at the court had come undone. Richelle might be a baby smithy, but she gave off rusty products. Like all stupid men, the nomads praised sons, always forgetting it was women who brought them into the world. Now, Pacmad might fuck the baroness again and again, until she whelped him a son, but that gave Sonya enough time to plan and prepare.

Any day now, she hoped, any day now.

The feast began. Sonya moved to her place by Pacmad’s side. Two dozen Eracian women were serving food, moving gingerly about the already drunken crowd of nomad warriors, mindful of their ill tempers and groping hands. It was as if the siege around the city did not matter. Pacmad was celebrating the birth of his first Eracian bastard, and he would not let anything spoil his fun.

Sonya stabbed a quick look at the mother. Not a lady, even. Just some common slut, with a big nose on her silly red face. She seemed to be in shock, smiling inanely, probably wondering if the child offered her immunity against beatings or maybe promised her another hot meal or some trinket. Sonya had no idea who she was, and did not care. The woman was irrelevant, meaningless, a peon in a whole different game.

Sonya thought she should feel elated to have been allowed to sit by her captor. He had allowed no other woman nearby. For some reason, he had summoned her and placed her at the same table with his killers. A fleeting thought of a mass rape crossed her mind, but she quickly dismissed it.

Pacmad’s eyes were glazed. Was he drunk? She doubted it. He must be pretending. For him, this celebration was all about asserting his power. But it also gave him a splendid opportunity to study his men at their weakest, when they were relaxed, fed, and inebriated.

Sonya realized she was biting her forefinger. She stopped. She was doing that too often lately, and her skin was callused.

“Something on your mind?” Pacmad asked her, looking at her from the corner of his eye.

She cursed herself silently. She could not lie now. “Yes.”

He leaned on his right elbow, toward her. “What it is, tell me.”

“I am worried about the siege.” She stalled, confessing a different kind of truth.

Pacmad clapped his hands. This was a sign for the cooks to remove the crispy goat from the spit and start carving the meat. “Worried? Are you worried that I might win? Or that you might lose?”

The throne hall was unrecognizable, Sonya thought as she gazed around her. There was nothing familiar there. The space was crammed with tables and benches, filled with smelly nomads, the air filmy with soot and smoke from the fires. Once a symbol of national pride, it was now just a filthy altar where the Kataji chieftain humiliated the captive Eracians.

“I am worried that many innocents will die,” she stated carefully.

Pacmad grinned mirthlessly. “If your women do their job, the city will stand.” He shrugged with his left shoulder. “If they don’t, they will die.”

Sonya wondered when her brave husband might finally commence his assault against Somar. For the time being, he was tightening the siege, making sure not even a lone warrior could sneak out. The Kataji were completely isolated. Pacmad’s efforts at negotiation had failed utterly. Even the promise of treason by some of the Eracian lackeys had borne no fruit. One day, Lord Rotger had simply vanished, never to return. Soon enough, three other traitors had stopped sending their information. The situation seemed rather hopeless for Pacmad. He was outnumbered, and he had a den of Eracian women as fickle allies in the siege. Only a real fool would trust them. Food levels were still decent, but soon enough, they would run out. With this kind of celebration, sooner than later.

Yet, the general seemed unfazed. Either he was hiding his fear or he knew something else. That infuriated Sonya.

As a loyal wife, she had to assist her gallant husband any way she could. That meant planning patriotic sabotage for when the assault finally came. The city guilds and businesses were firmly behind her. Eracian pride be damned, they all had men to avenge. Pacmad’s conquest was grinding to a bloody halt.

But the bastard was smiling, unconcerned, a mongrel.

Sonya was angry at herself for not knowing, angry for not being able to crack his secrets. Even now, after so many months of her most dedicated scheming, he still mistrusted her, still kept things from her, made sure she was jealous and misguided just enough so she could not hope to best him. Her best sex tricks didn’t seem to work. Her utter dedication, almost beyond being just a mere act, didn’t make much difference. Under any other circumstances, she would have felt privileged to have found such a man, one who truly deserved her respect.

As a soon-to-be queen, though, she was above such trifles. She had a duty to her nation.

Pacmad made a happy sound when a plump servant placed a large tin plate full of steaming goat before him. He picked the hot meat with his fingers, chewed loudly, studied her from the corner of his mongrel eye.

Sonya cracked a perfunctory smile when the woman placed her own portion before her. She picked up the knife and fork and sliced a thin cut.

Pacmad drummed his greasy fingers on the edge of the table. He was staring at her now. She could not read his gaze, and that frightened her a little. Always, always, there was that tiny seed of fear that he somehow knew what she planned, that he had discovered Bart’s identity, that someone had told him about her plan. She never forgot he had Richelle and Aileen and all those other whores and that he might choose to replace her with one of them.

Finally, she had to admit, after a year of life-and-death scheming, she was getting a little tired. She could feel the end of it, the day Bart defeated Pacmad, and that hope made her nervous and weak.

“I haven’t seen a report on the city’s readiness yet,” he said in between mouthfuls. There was a thread of muscle or sinew stuck to one of his teeth, and he didn’t bother removing it.

So, this was a business meeting after all, she thought. He had not summoned her to partake in the celebration, it seemed. He was torturing her, ever so gently, and this new setting gave him a fresh opportunity. She had to be careful. There were eyes upon her, hundreds of them, women of the city among them. Like her, they had been beaten and raped, but they didn’t get to feast with Pacmad. They only had their pain and sorrow. Turning against her could give them respite from their misery. Out of pure envy. Or just simple pettiness.

Ever since receiving Bart’s letter, Sonya had made sure she was nice to the other women. They could betray her, and there was no reason to encourage them. Clerks, cooks, even maidservants, each one might choose to give her away, for a favor or out of malice. Sonya had even found a gift or two for Janice, to keep the stupid little bitch appeased.

The worst part was, women had intuition. They could smell something was wrong. All those whores might decide to interpret Sonya’s reactions or even facial expressions as a sign of weakness and then use it against her.

Charming Pacmad with his cock in her warm palms, in the privacy of her chambers, was one thing. In public, she was exposed, vulnerable.

She had the numbers imprinted in her mind. “The artisan workshops promise ten new blades and twenty spears every day. The fletchers have over nine thousand arrowheads to deliver. The gates have been strengthened, too.”

Pacmad grabbed a pickled onion from a platter and bit into it, juice running down his chin and dripping onto his tunic. “Majestic. How their hearts have turned.”

Sonya did not comment. Anything she said would just be wrong. Her plans had to be flawless; they had to be. If not, then she truly didn’t deserve to be the queen of her nation.

There was music in the hall, too. Men were sort of dancing, a tipsy gait and flailing of limbs punctuated by grunts and laughter. There were several instruments playing, bags and pipes and strings, each hooting a melody of its own. It sounded chaotic.

Sonya noticed the chair to the left of Pacmad was empty. She didn’t know why that was. Other warriors sat on both sides, busy talking and wolfing down meat, unconcerned with the vacant spot. Her tongue burned with a question, but she withheld it. She could not betray her curiosity. Whatever Pacmad did was significant, and soon enough she would learn. His lessons were simple and brutal.

The throne hall doors were closed, containing all that blue smoke within. Then, almost on cue, they opened, and the haze swirled. There was a definite change in the atmosphere. Men stopped making silly noise, their throats turning soft with hums and sighs of wonder. The pipes went silent, too. Sonya frowned. What was that?

Pacmad kept eating his onion, pointedly not looking at her now. Sonya brushed hair from her forehead, annoyed.

The crowd of killers parted, and Aileen came forward.

Aileen, Sonya thought with astonishment, her blood going cold.

Pacmad tossed the half-eaten bulb on the table, leaned back, and burped, a speck flying from his lips. “Aileen, join me,” he said nonchalantly.

The young woman was dressed in a thin, sheer gown. White lace and silk and gauze, with a touch of silver. It was a beautiful dress, and it fit her young form all too well. She looked breathtaking and very much half Sonya’s age. There was not a single bruise on her face, not a single tear on her cheeks. She looked serene, maybe even content, her eyes were clear and free of pain, and she walked steadily toward Pacmad’s side. Eagerly even.

Whore, bitch, slut, Sonya thought. She realized she was gripping the handle of the carving knife too damn hard. Gently, she released her grip, pretending nothing had happened.

Aileen weaved past the slobbering fools and murderers and sat by General Pacmad, opposite Sonya. The chieftain leaned toward her and whispered something. Aileen chuckled. Sonya was forgotten in that moment, forgotten, abandoned, betrayed.

One ugly surprise after another, she thought sourly, all her appetite gone. That little bitch used to cry when he raped her, and now this! What kind of foul trickery was this?

Pacmad spun around quickly. Sonya almost flinched. She thought she saw pure delight cross his features before he made them mellow again, as mellow as his brutal lines could be. “Richelle disappointed me. She told me she would give me a son, but she didn’t. Aileen here”—he probed behind him and put a meaty hand on the girl’s thigh, not even bothering to look—”she will give me sons. Won’t you, Aileen?”

“I will,” the little slut said happily.

How do you fight someone half your age and with a healthy womb, Sonya wondered. With murder, her mind replied. Her thoughts were dark, thick, gooey, like gelid winter ink. She had never wanted to kill someone so badly. Rip open the girl’s stomach and tear out her woman’s parts while she watched and screamed and begged. Whore.

She had not expected this. Oh, she had not expected this.

Pacmad dug a finger in his nose, came out with a nugget, and flicked it across the table. It landed in someone’s broth, but the warrior didn’t notice. “I want you to teach Aileen city business,” he ordered.

Sonya kept her lips pressed tightly, making sure no froth of indignation and rage escaped. She had to be careful what she said now. “Trade?” she managed eventually.

The chieftain gestured vaguely. “Everything.”

Aileen looked past the man’s shoulder. What was that? Sonya did not quite catch that glance, but she remembered holding the girl’s hand with Pacmad grunting on top of her.

I misjudged, Sonya thought, on the verge of crying.

There was a sudden commotion in the hall. Several men had cornered one of the serving women. She was trying to fight them off, begging, but they just laughed and hollered. Not quite a rape yet, but close enough.

Suddenly, it was too much. Sonya recalled the day Leopold was killed. She recalled her own violation. Bile rose in her throat, and she gagged, and retched on her plate. Pacmad made a grim face, but that did not stop him eating more meat.

“I’m sorry,” Sonya confessed, feeling weak, old, and defeated.

“Something you ate?” he asked casually.

“Maybe she’s with a baby?” Aileen supplied happily, her face alight with sincere hope.

Pacmad raised his brows, then shook his head. “Nah. Pregnant women puke only in the morning, I was told.”

Sonya wiped her mouth. She drank some wine and sloshed it in her mouth, trying to wash away the acid taste. The fumes rose in the back of her throat, numbing her panic just a little. “Too much smoke,” she heard herself say.

The Father of the Bear pursed his lips, looking disinterested. “You have my permission to leave. Go out, breathe some fresh air.”

Sonya wanted to tell him she would stay, even if she coughed blood, because she did not dare miss this cruel manipulation. Instead, she nodded, rose, and shuffled out of the hall, surrounded by wild mirth and singing and the soft whimpers of the maid getting raped under a table.

The cool evening summer air slammed her in the chest like a mace. She almost gasped. The stars in the sky turned blurry. No, no, no. She was not going to cry. She was not going to cry. Queens did not cry.

There were dozens of Kataji troops walking about, slightly resentful for being on duty this night, chatting, talking about their simple lives and ambitions, talking about women, food, and battles. Some were gambling. Others were retracing their steps in silence, counting off the minutes till the next shift.

Sonya found herself on a city street, free to roam, free to go anywhere she wanted. With the siege so tightly in place, and the gates shut and chained, Pacmad no longer feared to let his captive women wander about freely. He knew they had nowhere to go. That was a part of it.

The other part was, caged animals never wanted to leave their prisons. They felt safe and sheltered inside. Sonya knew she could run away and hide in a cellar until the war ended. But she could not do it. Not really. The fear of being found and punished was unimaginable. The ever-so-slight doubt of Eracian defeat gripped her soul, an invisible, ghostly tendril. She knew that as long as Pacmad lived, she would never be truly free.

Pacmad had broken her.

She stood there for a while, breathing hard. Slowly, her pain receded, leaving her numb and weary. She wiped the tears that had somehow budded on her eyelashes. She was the realm’s queen. Her noble, brave, loving husband was out there, and he was going to save her.

If things were easy, any fool could have done them, she thought. This task has befallen me, because no one else has the wit and courage to do it. No one. You alone can save Somar, and you must endure the suffering and mockery and all the lies and threats.

Aileen was a dreadful enemy. Pacmad was smart and ruthless. She would never deny that. He was maybe the smartest man she had ever met. But that was no reason to admit defeat. She could not stop now just because she faced a terrible challenge, a great obstacle.

Get a grip on yourself. You’re behaving like one of those whores, she berated herself. This is unfitting the queen that you are. What would Bart think if he saw you like this?

She had to be pragmatic. She could never fight age, or the childhood disease that had left her barren. She could never change that. But she had other weapons. She was much, much smarter than Aileen, vastly more experienced and ruthless. The little whore might have a tender, soft pink treasure between her legs, but she knew nothing about court, manipulation, extortion, negotiations.

This is a great opportunity, she tried to convince herself. Pacmad had asked her to take Aileen under her wing and teach her. Mold her. Influence her. In fact, Sonya would have great power over the young cunt. She would be able to steer her in any which direction she wanted, maybe even turn her against the mongrel. Yes, that was it. This was a golden opportunity. Maybe alone she could not defeat Pacmad, but if she had Aileen at her side, even as her unwilling ally, she might actually gain so much more than by acting alone. Pacmad expected deceit and lies from her. He would not expect them from that whore.

Sonya had no idea how much time had passed when she got back in the hall. By then, her cheeks were dry and soft, and her eyes failed to register the fate of several other serving women. They were not her concern right now. Her eyes were locked on Aileen. Her target, her insider. The key to Pacmad’s soul. Perhaps through his loins, but still.

This was how a proper queen behaved. This was how a queen took initiative and led, unafraid, undaunted.

Pacmad’s eyes narrowed when he saw her enter. He seemed to sense a change in her, but she gave him no chance to explore it further. She grabbed a pitcher of wine and poured herself a cup, one, two, three, drinking happily, pretending to enjoy the birth of another bastard son. With each swallow, it became easier, this pretending, and her darkest thoughts sank deeper, away from Pacmad’s prying questions and his penetrating blue gaze. He would never know now.

Tomorrow, she would teach Aileen all about trade. Tomorrow, she would teach the little whore about manipulation. Everything she knew. Everything.