Chapter Thirty-Eight

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Thesul strode into the sunlit throne room and beheld carnage. Dozens of corpses--mostly courtiers' attendants, pleasurers and guards--littered the flooded floor. One or two of them, he noted with satisfaction, were Sisters. He had encountered many more bodies in the chambers and halls along his way.

It appeared his guards had gone soft. Thesul shook his head in disgust and stepped over the gutted body of a young man. The boy's innards had been plundered. As he splashed across the throne room, Thesul observed a few scattered hearts and livers, half-eaten, and more severed limbs than there were bodies to match. Bloody handprints marked the walls.

Savages, he thought disdainfully. This mess would take ages to scrape up. Not that any of it really mattered. The blood would be wiped away, the remains disposed of. All of the dead were easily replaced. There were always fresh young bodies eager to gain entry into the upper echelons of Alavardian society. Still, the fact that his palace had been so easily infiltrated irked Thesul.

Why had nobody woken the Sleepers? Were all of his subjects complete imbeciles, their minds grown as soft as their bodies? Was this how they repaid him for his generosity, his kindness?

A low growl rumbled in the back of Thesul's throat. When this disaster was over and cleared away, he would make changes to how this place was run. Perhaps he had been too liberal with the fountain. His subjects were more than happy to drink their fill, to give up their souls for beauty and all it bought them--but when it came time to use some of that gift to defend their home and their lord, they hid in cellars like rats. They screamed like children, and died like vermin.

One hour. I am indisposed for one hour, and my entire palace is overrun. I never should have sent General Istenra to Svard. At least she has some sense!

Thesul snarled and kicked viciously at the head of a nearby corpse. It snapped off its neck and went sliding across the smooth marble floor, leaving a smear of crimson in its wake.

Yes, the guards had failed. The palace was under attack. But that wouldn't last long. Even as he reached the entrance of the throne room, Thesul heard the city alarm begin to toll. Soldiers from the borderwall would arrive shortly--they at least knew what they were about. Their arrival would wake the Sleepers.

And when they wake, stars help you, Sisters. Stars help you.

He still needed to find the Reader. He thought she mustn't be very far away. Her voice had seemed so close--almost a lover's murmur in his ear.

The thought made Thesul chuckle.

He waded out of the throne room, down an echoing corridor and out into the blazing sun of the front courtyard. And there, at last, he saw his first glimpse of the battle.

The witches were felling all in their path with agile animal grace. A swift slice here, a snarling lunge there--it was almost a dance. A dance made up of beautiful savagery. Thesul had forgotten how lovely their smooth skin looked in the sun, glistening with blood and sweat.

The men and women who stood against them were being slowly but surely driven into a corner of the marble-walled yard. Despite their looming defeat, they kept on jabbing with spears and swords, hiding behind shields, shouting, screaming, scattering, dodging, forming haphazard formations only to be torn apart and scattered yet again...

What an embarrassment. This was no battle. It was a massacre.

Sisters of Night. Filthy moon-daughter whores. Thesul grinned. Oh, how I have missed you.

He paused for a moment longer to assess everyone's position. No one had noticed him yet. Excellent.

With one hand, Thesul smoothed back his hair. With the other, he straightened his gore and sea water-soaked garments. One last pause. One last glance. A smile.

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