Chapter Nineteen

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Shel backed away from the window slowly, allowing herself to melt into the shadows beyond the glass. Despite herself, she was grinning.

What a pretty little farce that was, she thought with amused disgust. They even drugged the prey first so it wouldn't squeal.

Had the little Sorceress seen what transpired in the dining hall not half an hour previous, Shel doubted she would have been able to run at all. She would have fallen senseless to the ground, or, perhaps, gone mad...

Alavardians did not kill with such humane efficiency. There was no fun in it. No desecration, no plundering of the flesh. For it was not simply the soul, the essence of life which these creatures craved—it was pain, pleasure, fear, horror, despair... all the things they could no longer feel.

You couldn't get any of that from a tidy little ritual like the one Thesul had just staged. It was a mockery, a filthy lie.

A waste of good meat.

Yet still, Shel grinned. Because this was a sign that Thesul hadn't won yet. He was still trying to hide at least some part of his true face—and that meant he was uncertain. Uncertain of his hold over the child, uncertain of his own victory.

That meant she still had time.

______

Orven rapped his knuckles lightly against the wood, then stepped back. He retrieved his lantern from the floor and waited.

He had his misgivings, of course--perhaps this was better saved until morning was fully upon them, as he had previously planned. But did any of that really matter now? Istenra was taking care of the guard at this very moment. Svard was secured, and it was nearly dawn anyway. What sense was there in waiting?

Besides, this way, there would be fewer witnesses.

After a suitably respectful period of waiting, he knocked again. "Cousin? It's me, Orven. I must speak with you for a moment. Please open the door?"

He paused. A sullen wall of silence greeted his request.

Of course. He'd hardly expected her to have the decency to be humble and obedient. It wasn't in her character.

With a resigned sigh, Orven pulled a ring of keys from his vest and inserted one in the lock. He gave it a decisive turn, then replaced the ring in his pocket. The door swung inward easily. "Ygrael? Cousin? I apologize for the interruption, but you see, it couldn't be avoided..."

"What do you want?"

Her voice was flat and listless, empty of emotion. He hardly recognized it.

"Just a moment of your time," he replied, lifting the lantern so he could see into the darkened room.

Ygrael sat huddled in a nest of blankets on the floor by her bed. He'd never seen her look like this--pale and thin, bedraggled, unkempt in every aspect of her appearance. Like some wan street urchin who'd stolen a particularly expensive gown--though even that bit of finery was crumpled and askew from having been slept in for several days.

Really, Orven thought with some distaste, she isn't nearly as comely after a few days without a hairbrush or change of clothes...

He lowered the lantern and stepped gingerly into the room. "I apologize for disturbing you."

"I asked what you want," she said, eyes watching him with an impatience that bordered on hostile.

Even in her state of degradation and shame, she still had the gall to be arrogant. Orven sighed inwardly.

"I need to ask you a question or two," he said. "Would you mind standing?"

"I prefer to remain sitting."

"Please," Orven said, trying his best to sound gentle despite the irritation bubbling in his chest. "This will only take a moment."

Ygrael gave him a long, weary look, then grimaced and got unsteadily to her feet. She swayed slightly as she took a faltering step forward. Clearly, she'd been in that same attitude for many hours, and her body was sore. Orven felt pleased--that small detail would make this much easier.

"Let us stand by the window--you look as if you need fresh air," he said, crossing the room briskly and setting the lantern down on the broad stone sill. The sky was beginning to blush with color, indigo fading to blue-gray as dawn approached with her palate of rosy fire.

Ygrael grumbled something inaudible, but followed him all the same. Clearly she had decided it would be more expedient to humor him until he'd discharge whatever bothersome business had brought him here to disturb her.

Don't worry, dear cousin, this will all be over shortly...

"Now will you tell me what you want?" she asked, glaring. Her eyes were sunken and red, ringed with dark, thin-looking skin. She looked positively unhealthy--and, by the smell of her, hadn't bathed in some time...

Orven wrinkled his nose and forced himself to lean closer. "I've come on a matter of formality," he said. "You see, now that your father is... no longer with us, and you are--well, regrettably no longer a suitable heir, it would seem that I--"

"You want me to sign away my claim, don't you?" she spat. Her face was no longer slack. It had tightened, become a white mask of contorted fury. "You want me to make it easy for you to take my place on the throne, is that it? You can't wait for the council to strip me bare, oh no, you want me to expedite the process, don't you?"

Orven sighed. "My dear cousin--"

"Don't you dare simper at me, you worm!" she snapped. "Don't you dare. You are not fit to polish the steps of that throne, much less sit upon it. I will not forfeit what is mine. They will have to take it from me--and even then, I will fight!"

In spite of himself, Orven smiled a small, cold smile. "I see. Well, it was worth a try, I suppose..." He reached out a hand, as if to give her a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. "I am sorry to have upset you, Ygrael. This must be a very trying time for you. I should have known it would be too soon to approach such a delicate topic."

She jerked her arm out of his reach and backed away--closer to the window.

"Keep your apologies for someone who cares, Orven" she growled. "I don't want your false pity."

"Ah." He took a step forward. "Perhaps that is just as well. Because you see, Ygrael, you hardly deserve it."

Her eyes widened. "You dare..."

He lunged. Ygrael didn't move--perhaps she was startled, or simply slow from exhaustion. Regardless, in an instant Orven had her bent backward over the sill, his hands on her throat. The wind whipped her long golden hair in the gray light of dawn. She struggled--tried to scream--but his hands were tight on her larynx, pressing harder, harder...

"I am terribly sorry, dear cousin," he grunted, leaning her further back, pressing his fingers deeper into her flesh. "Really, dreadfully sorry that it had to end this way. I had hoped you would have the decency to do it yourself, but I suppose that is too much to ask of a deceitful little witch like you..."

Orven braced himself, and was about to heave Ygrael bodily out of the window when the cold, unmistakable sharpness of a blade suddenly pressed against his throat.

"You unhand her, boy," a low voice hissed in his ear. "Or I'll carve you a new smile to match your filthy, lying tongue."

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