Web of Vengeance
The hallway was long and dark, with bookshelves along one wall, and a long line of portraits along the other. The girl's heart pounded behind her ribs as she walked down the hallway, her footsteps echoing into that waiting silence. She felt as though the portraits were watching her, those grave and silent eyes of her ancestors looking down on her - whether in scorn or pity, she did not know.
She knew enough to be afraid, and was proud enough not to tremble.
There was a mirror at the end of the hallway, just before the ornate door. The girl paused for a moment before the mirror, examining herself within it. She was viscanti, and perfect enough in face and form to have never worn a mask in her life. Her skin was the palest dusky rose, her eyes the colour of amethysts. Her horns were small and graceful, and her dark hair was like the billowing clouds above the Engine of Transformation.
The girl smoothed down the jeweled folds of her dress, and looked her reflection in the eye. Be strong, she thought to herself. For you are Valoia i'Xiia. You must not be weak. Her chin tilted bravely upwards, and she turned away from the mirror, knocked on the door, and stepped within.
The viscanti nobleman inside was masked, even here in the privacy of his own home. Yet his yellow eyes were sharp as he regarded her, and she dipped him a deep curtsey. "Valoia," he said, in a bored voice. "I have been expecting you." As she moved to sit in the chair opposite him, his voice cracked like a whip. "Do you think to take a seat, girl? Your insolence knows no bounds."
For Valoia, it had been no more than sheer reflex; but she knew that she had made a grievous mistake. "I beg your pardon, uncle Cenarius," she murmured quietly. "I shall stand."
"You will do no such thing," said Cenarius, his voice hardening as he left his seat and went around the desk until he was standing before her. "No, Valoia. You will not stand. You will kneel."
It was a good thing, Valoia later thought, that her head was bowed. Otherwise, Cenarius would certainly have seen the anger upon her face then, and that would not do. Instead, she gathered her expression into careful neutrality, and sank - gracefully, as befitted the dancer she was - to her knees. "As you will it, sir."
"Valoia i'Xiia," said Cenarius. "Lauded dancer, rising actress." His hand idly reached out to stroke her dark hair. "Some say, fairest of House i'Xiia." The grasp turned cruel, as he dragged her hair back, but this time she was expecting it, and no trace of pain showed on her face as she gazed up at him. "So young, so gifted - and such a fool."
She kept her silence as he paced around the room, his voice rising as he spoke. "What possessed you, girl, to give insult to a son of House n'Kylbar? Answer me!"
She gazed evenly forward at a stone in the wall, and when she spoke, she thanked the Fates that her voice was steady. "He slighted me," she said quietly. "Two months ago, he gave insult to my father's blood."
"And what did you do?" Her uncle's voice was very soft, and very deadly.
Valoia closed her eyes for a moment. She could still hear the crowd laughing and jeering, and the almost comical expression of outrage on the offending Zafhan n'Kylbar's face. "He came to - apologize, I expect. I told him that I would never forgive the slight."
She remembered every detail of that night. Zafhan n'Kylbar had come to her, right after her performance. The curtains were closed, but the crowd was still in the theatre, noblemen sitting in gilded boxes, commoners standing in the back. Zafhan had said, "Please, Valoia, you must forgive me. My family says - they'll cast me out otherwise! I'll be a pariah, on the streets. Valoia, you must help me!"
Valoia had felt nothing but contempt for him then. "How easily you grovel, Zafhan," she had said, letting her scorn seep into her voice. If only she had felt as much contempt for the antagonist in her play, the theatre reviews would still be talking about her next year. "Where now is the vaunted courage of the n'Kylbar? You are fit, it seems, only to beg. Then I command you. Kneel."
Zafhan, unwillingly, had knelt - just as the curtain rose for the encore. In front of an audience of a hundred of Magnagora's elite, and far more of its rabble, Valoia had pitched her voice to carry just so. "Zafhan n'Kylbar, you who insulted my blood, truly you have jackal's blood in your veins. You are a mongrel, n'Kylbar. You eat filth and you spew filth and you roll in filth, and I do not forgive you."
She had turned then and left, her stage cloak trailing dramatically behind her, leaving him kneeling amid the jeers of the commoners - and the thoughtful silence of the nobility.
Her uncle's words called her back to the present. "And have you not wondered, Valoia, why he came to make amends? I tell you now - that was House n'Kylbar's gesture of goodwill to us. They offered to me to have their wayward son convey his regrets, or to cast him out, for the insult he gave us."
He came to a stop before her, and almost casually backhanded her across the face. "And what did you do, fool girl?" Through her ringing ears, she heard him say, "You threw that back in their faces. Your pride, Valoia, has almost ruined our alliance. And make no mistake, girl. We need this alliance. If n'Kylbar allies with us, whether publicly or privately, our feud with the d'Murani still has some hope of victory. Otherwise, if they stand aside - or ally with d'Murani - then we are utterly destroyed."
She began to understand then, although on some level she had always known. "What does n'Kylbar demand?" she asked, and her uncle smiled grimly.
"Your disappearance," he said. "They care not how. And because I am merciful, I give you a choice. You may choose death. Or you may choose madness and a life in the asylum."
It was a cruel choice, and there was no lesser evil. Death was easy, quick. Painful, perhaps, given her uncle's tastes, but soon over. Madness was lifelong suffering and imprisonment.
And yet - she sometimes still remembered her own mother's words. "All knowledge is worth having," Lilaara i'Xiia used to say. "And all life is worth living." But Lilaara's own life had been cut short by a d'Murani knife in the dark, and Lilaara's husband, a bastard son of the n'Lochli, had died on the battlefields of Nil; and now there was only Valoia.
"I choose the asylum," she heard herself say.
The world was a whirling vortex of nightmarish shapes and shades, with ghosts that clawed at her, and shadowy serpents that coiled around her neck and choked her breath. Valoia saw her mother's face, looking down at her with cold regard before decaying into a hollow-eyed skull. And in those visions her uncle laughed and laughed at her, and from his mouth poured so many worms, wriggling slimily against her skin. Somewhere, a woman was screaming in terror. Dimly, as if through a fog, she realized that it was herself.
She did not know how long she had been screaming, or if there had ever been a time when she had not been screaming. The worms were everywhere, clogging her mouth, crawling down her throat, and she retched and retched and screamed some more, shutting her eyes tight to escape the visions.
Yet the images were painted inside her eyelids, mocking and inescapable, and there was no place to hide. So she clawed at her eyes, until she no longer could, because someone had bound her hands. And then she begged them to please, please take her eyes away, take her hands away, take her body away so that the worms and the visions and the horror would end. But they never did. Instead, they tried to give her water, and food, and when she would not eat they held her down and forced it down her throat, until she retched it up again.
Somewhere, a man was shouting. "Lord Cenarius's orders were to keep her alive," he said. "That means feeding her. I don't care how you do it, but make sure it's done, because if she dies, you had best start running!"
A door slammed then, and she heard a woman's worried voice. "By the Legion! If you die on me - don't die on me! Gods, these i'Xiia noblemen..."
i'Xiia. That was important. Why was it important? She couldn't remember. If only the worms would go away. The woman was still talking.
"-bloody intrigues and vengeances, giving us work to do. This is a scientific institute, not a prison -"
Vengeance. Yes. Vengeance on the i'Xiia. That was it. That was what she had to do. It was utterly important. But in order to have vengeance on the i'Xiia she had to find them, and in order to do that she had to get up. With a great effort, she tried to focus. The worms... the worms were shadowy, writhing, casting a haze of fear on her mind. But they seemed a bit fainter now. Go away, she thought. You have no power over me, she told them. My mind is strong. You are phantoms. The worms wriggled against her skin, and she shuddered, almost coiling back again in fear. But no - if she hesitated now, she would fall back into that pit of writhing snakes and slime, never to emerge.
"-giving us inmates driven mad by telepathy! What good is that? What scientific result can we possibly gain from such contaminated samples?"
"I am strong," she whispered, and lashed out at the worms with her mind. They screamed shrilly - that was odd, did worms scream? It wasn't important - and coiled into a ball, writhing as she forced them down, down into nothingness, pounding at them with the knife that was her mind until they fell apart into so much smoke, powerless now against her. She bared her teeth in triumph, and struck again, just to be sure; but the images were gone, and suddenly her mind was clear.
She was in a small, padded room, lying on a narrow table. Her arms were bound with leather straps - she had not dreamed that part, at least - and there was a bowl of sickly-looking broth beside her. Her whole body hurt, as if she had been beaten with clubs. She supposed that might have been what had actually happened, but she was not sure.
The woman who had been ranting - the doctor, she supposed - was a masked viscanti in a white robe, with dark hair in a tight bun and lavender skin, and she was still muttering as she bustled around the room. Quickly, Valoia assumed a blank, glassy gaze, and the doctor did not appear to notice anything different about her as she came back to the table. With an irritated expression, she took the bowl of broth and poured it directly into Valoia's mouth. Valoia gagged and choked, but managed to swallow it without ever letting her eyes focus on anything.
Just then there was a commotion in the hallway. Out of the corner of her eyes, Valoia saw the trouble. One of the inmates, a mugwump man, was being carried out. Or rather, his body was: his face was bloated and discolored almost beyond recognition, a product of the leather strap knotted around his neck. Valoia supposed that he had momentarily escaped his own bonds, and strangled himself with them.
The doctor made another noise of impatience. "Oh, Legion," she sighed. "More work." With that, she left the room, extinguishing the sole lamp.
Valoia shivered in the dark after the doctor had gone. She was battered, bruised, and bound to a table; but her mind was clear, and within it, the wheels had begun to turn again.
Days - or maybe weeks - passed. It was hard to tell in the Asylum, for there were no windows in her room and the doctors came in at undetermined intervals. Valoia drooled and moaned when they looked at her, and thanked the Lords of Nil for her time spent in the theatre troupes when the doctors seemed entirely oblivious to her recovery. Most of the doctors were uninterested in her, but a few of them delighted in the fall of a noble - from i'Xiia, no less - and Valoia's screams when they visited her were all too unfeigned.
However, there was nothing she could do while bound to a table, and so she struggled each time they tried to feed her, screaming and ranting about snakes around her wrists, until the female doctor with the lavender skin sighed and unbound her hands. "Damn girl," she sighed, not unkindly. "Now stop fussing."
It was her chance. In one swift move, ignoring her muscles that screamed from long confinement and disuse, Valoia seized the strap that had bound her hands, and looped it around the doctor's neck. The doctor tried to scream, but only succeeded in making a small choked noise. She struggled, but Valoia held on like death itself, and soon the doctor went still and slack.
Gingerly, Valoia removed the mask from the doctor's face. Her skin was discoloured from the lack of air, as Valoia had expected, and it would be hard enough to distinguish between her pale lavender and Valoia's pale rose. Their hair was like enough, and a few hours of death would sufficiently confuse the features. She doubted that anyone in the Asylum had ever seen the doctor's face, after all. She was nowhere near perfect enough to have ever gone out in public unmasked.
Quickly, Valoia stripped and exchanged clothes with the doctor, slipping the mask on and striding confidently out the door, scouring her mind for memories of the Asylum. She had apprenticed here once, like every scion of the House, doing interesting experiments on the effects of dehydration on mugwump skin...
Ah, yes. An elevator. She stepped inside, and ordered the elevator to move down to the main floor. She hoped very much that, whoever the doctor she had killed was, she was authorized to leave the asylum. Valoia had to get out of the asylum - with any luck, they would think that Valoia was dead, and the doctor had fled out of terror at letting her die. But if Valoia was caught, all would be revealed.
There were two guards at the door. She gave them a curt nod and no time to ask questions as she passed. Half of command, she remembered her mother telling her, was projecting an aura of infallibility. Or, if infallibility was too difficult to obtain, at least to act as if one had no time for trivialities - trivialities being whatever one's enemies were doing at the moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the guards open his mouth, and then decide that it wasn't worth the argument.
Straight-backed, unchallenged, Valoia i'Xiia walked out of the asylum that was to have been her prison for the rest of her life.
Valoia stood in another study, this one of marble and dark stone, with gargoyles peering down at her from the dim shadows of the ceiling. Surreptitiously, she tucked a wisp of hair behind her ears, her fingers brushing the cheap, utilitarian paper mask that concealed her features.
The Heresiarch of the Nihilists looked at Valoia with narrowed eyes. "And who are you, who seek entrance to our ranks? Be warned that we are not for the faint of heart."
Valoia bowed and told the story of the persona she had concocted for herself. She was the child of a pariah, outcast from birth, with mutilated features that necessitated the wearing of a mask at all times lest the eyes of her betters be offended. "Nevertheless," she murmured, "I too wish to serve, and to atone for the disgrace of my birth." It was as perfect a story as she could make it. There were too many pariahs, all of them masked, for even the Heresiarch's spies to investigate any particular one with absolute certainty. The Heresiarch might suspect, but she would never know.
There was a long silence once she had finished her story. The Heresiarch looked at her with narrowed eyes. "That is a tale of ambition," she said. "And if it were true, it would speak well of your desire to serve." She leaned in close to Valoia, her eyes glittering. Like Valoia herself before her fall, the Heresiarch wore no mask, and her beautiful mouth curved in a deadly smile. "I do not believe a word of it," whispered the Heresiarch. "Remove your mask."
"My lady, I do not wish to offend -" Valoia cursed mentally. It should not have happened like this.
"You will offend me less with your ugliness than with your disobedience, girl." The Heresiarch's voice bore a hint of steel, and Valoia was very aware of the archdemon pacing behind her, close enough that its breath warmed her neck. With shaking fingers, she reached up and removed the mask from her face. Her mind was blank, sluggish with terror. If the Heresiarch knew it was her, so did House i'Xiia.
There was a mirror behind the Heresiarch's desk, and Valoia saw herself reflected there as the mask came off to reveal her face. She was perhaps a shade more gaunt, and there were dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes, but she was still recognizable, with her pale rose skin and fine-boned face, and her amethyst eyes. Still Valoia i'Xiia, who had once stood on the grand stage of Magnagora, focus of a thousand adoring eyes.
The Heresiarch's eyes widened briefly in surprise. The flicker was momentary, and soon hidden, but it was there, and Valoia felt the blank terror in her ease slightly as her mind began to turn once more. The Heresiarch had not, after all, been expecting her. That was good; that meant the order to remove her mask had been only her innate suspicion, and not evidence of any slip Valoia had made. But Valoia knew she stood on a knife's edge of danger. If the Heresiarch were to cast her out, or give her to House i'Xiia...
The Heresiarch laughed. "Well, well," she said. "If it is not the mysteriously vanished flower of the i'Xiia. And what do you seek?"
"To enter into the service of the Lords of Nil," whispered Valoia.
"It is not service you seek," replied the other, sounding almost amused. "It is power - is it not?" This was the edge of the cliff, Valoia knew. If she stumbled here, then she was ruined.
"Yes," Valoia said quietly, and now she was hurtling through the air, flying or falling, she did not know which. "Yes - my lady d'Murani."
Fatara d'Murani eyed Valoia appraisingly. "And why, my dear girl, did you come here, knowing who I am?"
"Because you are of the d'Murani," said Valoia, looking up at Fatara through her eyelashes. "And you have little reason to love the i'Xiia. Neither have I." She left the rest unspoken, but Fatara glanced sharply at her, and she could see could see the wheels turning behind Fatara's eyes. If Valoia succeeded in her vengeance against the i'Xiia, so much the better; if not, Fatara could still produce her and significantly embarrass the i'Xiia by revealing that their dear deceased daughter was not so deceased after wall.
Fatara d'Murani languidly rose to stand behind Valoia, running her fingers idly through Valoia's dark hair. Valoia braced herself, and was glad that she did not shudder at the touch. "Of course," Fatara murmured. "You are safe here." In the mirror, Valoia saw Fatara smile her deadly smile.
Life as a servant of Nil was more prosaic than one would imagine. Valoia spent more time learning rituals and daily tasks than forbidden knowledge and power. Heresiarch Fatara d'Murani in particular loved to give her menial tasks to complete. She was no doubt delighted to have an i'Xiia in her power, especially one who could not seek help from her own House, no matter what insult was given to her.
Nor were menial tasks the only thing that Fatara gave her. She also tested Valoia ruthlessly, and her punishments were similarly ruthless, should Valoia fail the tests. "Tell me, girl, about the different meanings of the carillons," Fatara might say.
Valoia would murmur her answer. "The bells of worship are rung in honour of the Five," she said. "The bells of judgment are rung when executions and public punishments are held. The bells of mourning were once rung at the deaths of great nobles, but it is now reserved only for the passing of a Heresiarch." And she would bow her head as Fatara found some fault with her answer, and then the archdemon would lash out at Valoia with his tail while her own little imp hid in terror.
Yet Valoia learned, and learned well. She learned to summon demons and fly on dark wings, to command the dead and make pacts with the Lords of Nil. But she was best at the art of tarots, which she learned secretly in the library at night. She supposed it was because of her n'Lochli blood from her bastard father, for that family had long been known as scholars and foretellers.
She learned of the Hanged Man card, which bound the victim with webs; of the Lovers and of Lust, and the difference between them; of the Dreamer which clouded the mind, and the Soulless that stole life away. Fatara seldom asked her about tarots - being an astrologer herself, she likely was unfamiliar with them. On those rare times when Fatara did test her on tarots, Valoia would feign hesitation and stumble over even the easiest answers, and Fatara would smile her cruel smile and beckon her archdemon to her.
Weeks stretched into months, and months into a year, and one year into two. Valoia watched, and waited. Fatara often sent her on errands into the city, as if she were a servant. Valoia did as she was commanded, and used the chance to observe the comings and goings of House i'Xiia's servants, until she could tell each one of them apart from fifty paces away, and could remember all their routines by heart.
The time to move came in the third month of the second year. Fatara had sent Valoia to the tailor's store to fetch her a new ceremonial robe, to commemorate her tenth year as Heresiarch. Valoia returned late with the robe, and stood silent through the inevitable storm that followed. Yet, afterwards, when she should have been lying whimpering in her room, she rose quietly and left the Tower of Dark Fates, her imp following like a dark shadow behind her.
This was one of the i'Xiia serving maids' nights off, Valoia knew. It also happened that the guard on duty at the side gate that night fancied the girl. Valoia had been watching their schedules for months - the girl would approach the gate at midnight, and the guard would follow her away from his post. They had, so far, never been seen - at least, by anyone except Valoia.
She drifted through the streets, waiting two streets away from the i'Xiia estate. Sure enough, there the girl was, a hooded, cloaked form with bright golden hair and pleasantly curled horns. Valoia gestured to her imp, which darted into the street in front of the girl, turning and beckoning mesmerizingly. Half in a trance, the servant girl followed the imp, walking slowly until she stood before Valoia.
Very quietly, and without any fuss, Valoia drew a dagger and stabbed the girl.
The girl crumpled to the ground, soundlessly. Valoia knelt there in the muddied street, holding a hand over the girl's face. There was breath. Good. She glanced at the wound in the girl's arm, which bled sluggishly, but seemed shallow enough. The servant girl would most likely live, if Valoia had not misjudged the dose of morphite she had applied to the blade. Valoia had no particular interest in keeping her alive, but she needed the guard, and it would not do to make an enemy of him, when she had enough enemies of her own.
She silently stripped the girl of her cloak and mask, and her imp towed the unconscious body away into a dark alley. Valoia raised her hood, concealing the fact that her hair was dark instead of fair, and walked quite calmly the rest of the way to the i'Xiia estate.
The guard brightened a bit at her approach. "You're late," he said gruffly, though he was smiling a bit. Cheerfully, he wrapped an arm around her waist, and drew her close.
"Wait," said Valoia. "I have something to show you." She reached inside the cloak, and before he could speak, she threw the card at his feet.
The card was Lust; she saw his expression subtly change, as he looked at her with a newfound adoration. "Darling," he began.
"Later," Valoia breathed, infusing her voice with all the breathless charm she had used on the stage, a lifetime ago. "I need to get in. Will you come with me?"
"Anything," the guard said. "Anything for you, my love." She rewarded him with a smile, barely visible in the lamplight, and strode past him into the estate as he trailed behind her, leaving the gate unguarded.
The estate had not changed at all. It was still as opulent as ever, with its dignified façade of black marble, and the dim light of candles shining through windows here and there. There was a servants' entrance, unguarded at this late hour, and they slipped through it unchallenged.
Navigating the hallways was a more difficult task. Dressed as she was in a house servant's garb, Valoia would not attract much attention; but the fully armoured guardsman certainly would cause people to stare. She bit her lip, and turned to the guard. "Do you know of Lord Cenarius' personal study?" He nodded. "Good. It is possible to get there using this staircase, and that is what I want you to do. Once you are there, I want you to stop anyone from going in. I don't care if you kill them."
"Yes," he breathed, his eyes still rapturously fixed on her masked face. "If you want."
"I want," she said, sharply. "Now go." At the very worst, he would draw attention away from her.
Once he had gone, Valoia made her uneventful way to the study, until once more she stood in that long, wood-panelled corridor with its bookshelves and its portraits. She felt as though the portraits were watching her still - but this time, she looked them proudly in the eye. I am i'Xiia, strong and true, she thought. And all will know it before the dawn.
She drew another card from her sleeve, and threw it at the ground. A crumbling tower blossomed from the card of the Fall, rising from the ground and teetering dangerously. She wrenched the study door and darted in, barely getting out of the way before the tower collapsed, blocking the doorway behind her.
Cenarius was in his chair, reading a medical text. He looked up with a brief start of surprise. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Have you gone mad, fool? I shall have the very skin from your back for this."
Valoia was oddly calm. She had been dreaming of this moment for two years, yet now that she was here, she felt suddenly very distant, as though all of this were happening to someone else. Slowly, with one hand, she reached up to her face and pushed her hood back. With the other, she removed her mask.
"My dear uncle. I've come home."
Cenarius' eyes were wide with terror, and his throat bobbed nervously as he spoke. "V- Valoia," he said. "My dear, it is wonderful to see you again - "
"And you, dear uncle," she murmured. Her voice was sweet, sweet as honey, sweet as poison. "I have so dreamed of our reunion. I have been so sad, ever since you sent me away. You must promise not to do that again."
Cenarius was sweating now, she saw. His eyes kept darting to the door behind her, but there was nothing to be seen there but rubble. He glanced towards the window, but they were on the very top floor of the house, and there was no escape to be had there either, not if he wished to live. "Valoia," he began, "I didn't - I was forced -"
"Oh, hush," said Valoia. "I have learned so much, uncle. I have been with the Nihilists, you know. They are quite ingenious people. I've learned to read the cards, you know. Shall I prophesy your future for you?" Out came the last tarot card from her sleeve. She threw it, and the Hanged Man erupted into a mass of ropes, entrapping Cenarius within.
She saw Cenarius struggle to control his voice, and his face had gone pale with fear. When had he become so weak, so contemptible? Or was it Valoia who had grown strong? "Did- did the d'Murani put you up to this? They will betray you, Valoia. Fatara d'Murani is a treacherous woman - "
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," she said. "But, dear uncle, you wound me. A bastard's child I may be, but you did not think I was -stupid-, did you?" She smiled her most charming smile at him. "Don't worry, uncle. Fatara d'Murani will trouble me no more."
In her mind's eye, she saw Fatara d'Murani slipping into the extravagant robes Valoia had brought her. Fatara checked all her clothing and food for signs of poison, and would not have hesitated to kill Valoia at the slightest sign of a poisoning attempt. But there was no way Fatara's poison-revealing spells could have detected seven symbols of the Soulless tarot, stitched into the lining of her robe in the two short hours since Valoia had gotten it from the tailor.
That was why Valoia had been late: she had stitched the sigils into the robe herself, in thread that matched the colour of the lining, in places where they would rub against the skin. She knew that she had won, the moment Fatara had donned the robe. Your mistake, Valoia thought at Fatara, was thinking that tarots could only be written on paper - and that vengeance can only be taken by those more powerful than you.
Valoia drew herself back to the present. After all, there were more interesting and important things to do than to think of Fatara d'Murani at the moment. She took a step closer to Cenarius. He was still babbling. "I had to do it, Valoia. For House i'Xiia. I had to -"
Valoia simply smiled at him. "You've always wanted what was best for House i'Xiia, uncle. I know. Don't you worry. House i'Xiia will be safe with me. I won't let anything bad happen to us."
There was a commotion outside: someone shouting, and the ring of steel on steel. The guard she had captured was, no doubt, fighting off the other guards. Cenarius began to call for help. "Guards! Guards-"
"Oh, hush, uncle," said Valoia. "It's no use. Once, because you wanted to be merciful, you gave me a choice between death and madness. Now, because I am merciful, I give you none." She spoke a word of command, learned from long hours spent perusing tomes of necromantic lore, and Cenarius' cries for help turned to screams as an iron cross rose from the ground to wrack him.
Valoia leaned in close. "I do wish I could keep you alive forever, dear uncle," she said, regret in her voice. "Alas, it is beyond my skills, and we are short on time, so we must say farewell. Do send mother my love." She gave him a kiss on the brow, and laid the tip of her knife against his heart. "I could speed you on your way. But I don't think I will."
Then she simply turned away, dropping the knife to the ground, ignoring the screams and the increasingly incoherent pleas. Instead, she walked to the window, gazing at the dark city outside. "And what of you, Fatara d'Murani?" she murmured. "My lady Countess, has your time yet come?"
Somewhere in the distance, the bells of mourning began to ring.
"Is there anything I may do for you, Countess - I mean, Heresiarch?" The young novice bobs a nervous curtsey, and Valoia indulges her with a forgiving smile. She is sitting at the desk which was once Fatara's, and the girl is a child of the n'Kylbar. Bright enough, and expected to rise far, but perhaps overly high-strung.
"No, my dear. It's quite all right. But you really must pay attention to how you address people - after all, etiquette is etiquette, and it would not do to be rude." Then she laughs, abruptly, wondering when she had become so old and conventional as to be lecturing young ladies on the virtues of etiquette, when she herself had once shamed a son of the n'Kylbar before a thousand people.
The novice frowns for a moment. "What if there's someone I don't like?" she asks. "Do I have to be courteous to them as well?"
A child's question, surely, but not deserving of a child's answer. "Yes," says Valoia. "Vengeance is done in deeds, not in words." She remembers the aftermath of her own revenge. They'd found Valoia in the study, smiling brilliantly, wearing Cenarius' own signet. Of his body, there was no sign.
Few of the i'Xiia hesitated to swear their fealty to her then, and those who had soon found their children taken in by the Nihilists for being exceptionally gifted and suited to the service of Nil. That encouraged them to come to Valoia and express their heartfelt devotion to her, and she duly returned their courtesies and well-wishes - though not their children.
Fatara's successor as Heresiarch was a lord of House d'Vanecu, a spiritual and perpetually bewildered-looking man who ruled for two years and then resigned in favour of Valoia herself. Fatara's methods of teaching had fallen out of fashion with her abrupt death and the whispers surrounding it, and Valoia is content that it should be so.
Her reverie is broken - again - by the novice. "Heresiarch, today is exactly the fifteenth year of your reign - oh, pardon me for disturbing you..."
Valoia only smiles ruefully, shaking her head slightly in exasperation as she sends the novice out. Then she turns, and looks at her reflection in the mirror behind her desk. Her dark hair has some white in it now, and there are crow's feet around her amethyst eyes, but she has never donned a mask since the day of her vengeance.
Revenge was sweet, she decides. And life - life is good.