Chapter 2.3 (Zara)

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Chhaya's eyes narrowed. "Zara," she said, her silvery voice dripping with barely repressed fury. "You are a worthy soldier. They do not call you our best for nothing, and I have personally seen to your training to be sure that you do not fail." Only a foot away from Zara, Chhaya stared down at her, brown eyes flashing. "How would you care to explain this? Why is Tyrus Johan not dead?"

Zara must've took a moment too long to respond, because suddenly she felt the cold spirits surrounding her. She knew the feeling all too well—it was her magic too. Chhaya had only ever revealed to one person how she experimented with the unnatural magic that even keepers of the dead, the riperas, dared not touch. For her discretion, Zara was rewarded with knowledge and power, learning from Chhaya how to steal souls, growing more powerful alongside her each year. A gift for her loyalty and service to the queen.

Granted, Chhaya was far more powerful. She had centuries more of souls' magic compared to Zara's few years.

Zara ignored the spirits, but it was difficult when she could feel the death and despair in the air, like the life had been bled from the room.

"It was a mistake," Zara said. She willed herself to stand straight. To look Chhaya in the eye as much as she dared. "I slipped. Injured my ankle."

Chhaya nodded toward the scrap of cloth in Zara's hand. "And what is that?"

"The bolt tore his tunic. Pinned it to a tree." She handed the cloth to her queen.

Chhaya took the fabric, then tossed it over her shoulder with little regard. It floated to the floor, landing beside the dead man's head. "You missed?" She stepped around Zara, circling her. "Interesting, considering you have never missed a shot in three years. Tell me, why now?"

Zara couldn't find the words to respond.

"Perhaps you are sympathizing with these traitors now? Is that what this is about?" She placed a hand on Zara's shoulder, fingers ever so close to clamping down. Those long nails so near her face.

Zara clenched and unclenched her teeth, forcing herself to neither shiver nor flinch. "No, my queen," she said quietly. "I'm no sympathizer."

"I should hope not. We both know what happens to traitors, do we not?"

And know she did. Chhaya damned the souls of traitors to the Land of the Dead, trapping them in the mortal world instead of allowing them to ascend into the Above to be reincarnated. It was one of Zara's greatest fears: her soul trapped, left to wither on an island away from everything she knew. In the rare instances Chhaya didn't damn a traitor's soul, it was because she had decided to steal it to make herself more powerful instead.

Chhaya studied Zara for a while longer, her expression thoughtful, before lowering herself onto her throne. She leaned back, hands clasped before her. "I know you are not happy with the work I have given you."

Zara's mouth fell open. "What?"

"No need for the façade, Zara. I should think we know each other better than that."

"My queen, I—"

"I know you serve me well," Chhaya continued. "But your demeanor when you return from your assignments has not gone unnoticed by me. I believe you could have accomplished your mission today, if you had been fully committed."

Zara drew in a breath, words of protest already rising to her lips, but Chhaya held up a hand. "I am not saying whether you are to blame. Merely making an observation."

Chhaya glanced down, sliding her fingertips over the armrest of her throne. When Chhaya paused, Zara didn't dare move, though she wanted to. She always wanted to be running away when Chhaya was like this.

"Your loyalty will be rewarded," Chhaya said, her voice delicate. "We will find an arrangement soon enough."

Zara's thoughts raced. Whatever the queen had in mind was bad news. It always was.

"In the meantime, I have a minor assignment for you. Get it done before dawn." Chhaya briefed her on the task, giving her the location of the tavern where she was to find and interrogate a known resistance member.

"Is that all?" Zara hardly dared to hope it would be that simple.

Chhaya's eyes drifted toward the dead soldier at the foot of her throne. "Kill the woman once you get the names from her, then track down and kill the rest. I've had enough excitement for the evening, don't you think?"

Zara forced her voice to remain steady. "Yes, my queen."

"Thank you," Chhaya murmured. "You know I appreciate all you've done for me."

This time, Chhaya's smile was genuine, and she returned it. Even now, reprieve from the queen's anger and disappointment was always a relief.

Zara hated that relief.

"Oh, and Zara," Chhaya said, as if their conversation had never lapsed, "do not fail me again. Dismissed."

Zara nodded, then turned toward the main entrance. She sensed someone watching from the stairs leading from the throne room to the grand library. It was a different feel from the spirits--instead of that vacant chill, she felt the energy of a living soul. Chhaya looked toward the stairway, seeming to have felt it too. Being able to sense life around them was a perk of their unnatural magic. It made it nearly impossible for someone to sneak up on them.

General Ivor stood on the stairs, elbows resting on the decorative railing as he looked down at them. The firelight barely reached him midway down the steps, but she could see him. He was around her age, his features narrow.

He didn't react to them. Just watched.

Chhaya nodded at him, and he returned the gesture. Right before Zara was about to look away, his eyes met hers for the briefest moment. They were a peculiar shade of brown, pale like the bark of a thornberry tree. Zara never understood it, but Ivor was one of the few people who didn't look at her as if she was a monster. The Leodians thought she was one, and her own people--the ones who hadn't strayed from their values--believed worse of her.

Her strange magic had a part in these rumors, but most of her reputation came from the things she had done. Taking life in the name of Chhaya, unable to remember the faces of those she had killed. It was unforgivable. But the false tales that were spun about her had been told so many times, she sometimes believed them herself.

Tell someone they're a monster enough times, and they'll become one, she thought bitterly.

Zara never knew whether to take comfort in the fact Ivor never looked at her the way others did. She had seen him torture men to death with hardly any emotion. Maybe he didn't fear her because he was just as much of a monster as she was.

But she held respect him, despite his actions. Not because he was a master at striking fear in people, but because he was the only person to defy Chhaya and still survive. Zara saw the evidence of his defiance: his scars. Thin, faint lines trailed his face, heavier marks crossing over the flesh on his arms. Zara knew there were more beneath his tunic, having once witnessed Chhaya torturing him for refusing orders.

Although Zara didn't understand why Ivor occasionally disobeyed simple orders whereas other times he executed men without flinching, she wished she had the bravery needed to stand up to Chhaya. Maybe if she did, she'd be able to look her in the eyes rather than recoil.

Instead, Zara kept her gaze lowered as she left the throne room.

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