Ruthless Gods – Emily A. Duncan

All was darkness. Vast and cold and alive. She could feel it breathing, shifting, wanting from her. There was nothing to stop it from consuming her. Her arms were bound to a slab of stone—there was no escape from this place she didn’t recognize. She couldn’t remember when she had stopped fighting. But the real fear—the blistering horror threatening to tear her apart—was that she didn’t know who she was. “That will return.” A soft voice curled around her, calm, the hand against her hair gentle where all others had been hard and cruel. “You will be allowed one thing, you see. It will be returned when the process is finished. But not until the taste of it becomes a bitter wine that you crave and detest in the same breath. When it is something you would kill for but would kill you if you had it, only then will it be given back.” She yearned to reach for the voice. It was terribly familiar.

It was bones and gold and blood, so much blood. A boy with a throne and a boy reaching for another and a girl with hair like snow who did not belong. But none of that mattered here. The darkness was creeping beneath her skin. Settling inside of her, making its home within her bones and swimming through her veins as it tore her to pieces and re-formed her into something else. If she could scream, she would. If she could fight, she would. But she could do nothing. She could only suffer her fate. There was only the dark, stretching on for so long that she wondered if she had imagined it all.

There had never been a voice. There was never a gentle hand against her hair. There was nothing, nothing but this darkness. 1 SEREFIN MELESKI A viper, a tomb, a trick of the light, Velyos is always reaching for whatever does not belong to him. —The Letters of Włodzimierz Serefin Meleski inhabited the sliver of night that was ripe for betrayal. It was a time when knives were unsheathed, when plans were created and seen into fruition. It was a time for monsters. He knew that span of hours intimately, but even knowledge of the inevitable wasn’t enough to make it less painful. It wasn’t like he spent his nights awake because he was expecting another tragedy. No, he did it because it was easier to drink himself into oblivion than face the nightmares.

He was awake when Kacper slipped into his chambers. To rouse him, clearly, but he probably wasn’t particularly surprised to find Serefin lying on the chaise in his sitting room, one foot braced on the ground, the other leg kicked up against the back. An empty glass on the floor within reach and a book hanging over the arm where Serefin had put it to mark his place as he considered the same thing he had considered every night for the last four months: dreams of moths and blood and monsters. Horrors at the edges of his awareness and that voice. The thin, reedy voice that needled him from a place past death. It never left. Those strange intonations hummed constantly in his veins. “Any trouble is of your own making,” the voice snipped. He did his best to ignore it. “Who is it?” he asked Kacper.

The hammered iron crown had long since been placed on his head, his palm cut and bled on an altar as he was named king of Tranavia—his downfall was oncoming. The nobility had never liked him, not when he was the High Prince, and certainly not since his coronation. It was never a matter of what or when, only who would be the first one brave enough to strike. He had let the tense whispers go on and put off explaining fully how his father had died. He was tempting fate. Tranavian politics were messy. So very, very messy. “There’s a collective meeting happening,” Kacper answered, voice soft. Serefin nodded, not bothering to sit up. He’d anticipated it from the slavhki who had been supporters of his father.

“Ksęszi Ruminski is involved,” Kacper continued. Serefin winced, finally standing. Nicking his finger, he lit a few candles with the magic sparking from his blood and wiped his hand, movements slow. Żaneta’s family had been demanding answers for months. Serefin was at a loss for what to say. “Oh, terribly sorry, she committed some light treason and the Black Vulture decided she would be better served amongst his kind. Tragically awkward situation, but, there it is! Nothing to be done.” It was a constant, festering point of anxiety that had settled underneath his skin. Yes, Żaneta had betrayed him, and, yes, he had died for it, but did she deserve the terrifying fate Malachiasz had chosen for her? “You’re being unusually calm about this,” Kacper noted. “What will they do, I wonder? Hang me? Toss me in the dungeons and forget about me?” Kacper deflated some, shoulders slumping.

“I hate when you’re defeatist,” he muttered, shoving past where Serefin stood to make his way into Serefin’s bedchambers. “Where are you going?” Serefin asked. He contemplated the bottles in his cabinet before pulling a miraculously full bottle of vodka from the shelf. “I’m not defeatist,” he murmured. “I’m pragmatic. Realistic. This was inevitable.” “A coup is not an inevitability,” Kacper snapped from inside the room. Was he packing? “None of this would have happened if you had hanged that damned cleric instead of forcing her into the same odd limbo you’ve forced on the rest of the country. But you didn’t.

And here we are with a coup on our hands because we have no one to blame. Do you want to end up like your father?” Serefin flinched. He took a long drink. Dreams of moths and blood and his father’s body at his feet. He had not landed the killing blow but it was his fault all the same. “No,” he whispered, brushing a pale moth away from the flame of the candle. “No. You don’t.” But that is likely inevitable, too, Serefin thought morosely. Kacper would not take well to him saying it out loud.

“Half your clothes have been eaten by moths.” Kacper sounded despairing. The door flew open. Serefin’s hand went to his spell book, adrenaline spiking. He shuddered, sighing. It was only Ostyia. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said flatly. “Lock that door.” She did. “I told him what was going on and he’s standing there drinking!” Kacper complained.

Serefin offered Ostyia the vodka bottle. Kacper poked his head out and groaned as she grabbed it and took a sip. She winked at Serefin—an exaggerated blink from her one eye. “Get back in here, Kacper,” Serefin said. Kacper huffed loudly and leaned in the doorway. “How long have they been meeting?” “I’m fairly certain this is their first,” Kacper replied. “They won’t strike tonight.” “But—” “They won’t strike tonight,” Serefin repeated firmly. He tamped down his rising panic, taking the bottle back from Ostyia. Anxiety had been steadily dogging his steps for months, waiting for him to falter.

If he paused and thought too hard about it he would be swallowed alive. He had to pretend this wasn’t happening. Kacper slumped against the doorframe. “Your desire to see to my safety is, of course, appreciated,” Serefin said, ignoring the dry look Kacper shot him. “You’re a good spymaster, but a tad hasty.” Kacper slid down to the floor. “Let’s figure out what they want first,” he said. He set the bottle down on the table, brushing away another moth. Ostyia frowned, moving to the chaise and perching on the armrest. She yawned.

“We knew Ruminski would want answers eventually,” Serefin said. “He’s been asking for months, Serefin. He simply got tired of waiting,” Kacper groaned. Serefin lifted his shoulders in a weary shrug. “Perhaps they can be reasoned with? Surely there is something they want that I can give them.” “Clandestine meetings by your enemies don’t suggest a list of demands that can be provided for,” Ostyia said. “The entire court is my enemy,” Serefin muttered, throwing himself down into an upholstered chair. “That’s the problem.” She nodded thoughtfully. He had tried to win the court to his favor but nothing was working.

There were too many rumors to combat that he couldn’t explain. He couldn’t reveal who had truly killed his father, and the whispers swirling through the underbelly of the court were starting to drift dangerously close to the truth. A Kalyazi assassin. The Black Vulture. Treason. Disaster. A missing noble. A dead king. Titles from the common folk that Serefin could not shake: King of Moths, King of Blood. Serefin blessed by something no one could explain.

What could the blood that fell from the sky that night be other than a blessing? Serefin had nothing but questions and resistance from his nobility. The Kalyazi were pressing Tranavia’s forces back, and even if Tranavia did not know Kalyazin’s only cleric had killed the king, the Kalyazi surely did. Renewed hope from Kalyazin was the last thing Serefin needed. He couldn’t stop the war. He couldn’t answer his nobility’s questions unless he wanted Nadya hanged and he found he didn’t want that. She had done what he could not, and while she was still from an enemy territory and a force for something Serefin did not trust or believe in, he would not have her executed. “What do we do?” Ostyia asked. Serefin raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.” There was an obvious solution to appease Ruminski, but Serefin was uncertain of how to attempt Żaneta’s retrieval.

From what he could discern, the Vultures had fractured significantly. He hadn’t seen many slinking around the palace, but he wasn’t about to go to the cathedral door and knock to see who answered. He rubbed his eyes, tired. He wanted to sleep through the night, just once. Instead he sought out the cleric, holed up in the library as ever, because, as she put it, where else was she supposed to be? “So his majesty has deigned to grace the poor boyar locked in her tower, wasting away,” she said when he found her. She was sitting in a high window alcove, one leg kicked off the edge. Her whiteblond hair was loose around her shoulders. Serefin couldn’t recall a time when it had not been carefully braided. He tensed, glancing through the gaps in the stacks to see if anyone was around to hear. But it was too early for any slavhki to be awake.

“It’s like you want me to be forced to hang you,” he muttered. She snorted softly, dark brown eyes dismissive. She had dropped the act of the clueless, backwater slavhka and the girl who had appeared in Józefina’s place was sharp and witty and completely infuriating. The handsome Akolan boy she was constantly with, Rashid, had quietly given Serefin new paperwork to explain this girl—pale freckles, pale skin, pale hair but curiously dark eyes and eyebrows—a far cry from red-headed Józefina. The paperwork was forged; the explanation surprisingly solid. Road flooding from the lakes had plagued their journey and they had arrived too late for the Rawalyk but couldn’t yet return home. It would do. Her given name was functionally Tranavian enough to pass, if spelled differently. She sighed, shifting to the corner of the alcove, and gestured for him to climb up. He settled in next to her and riffled through the stack of books she had piled up.

Tranavian texts on the old religions that were so decrepit and brittle they might fall apart in her hands. “Where on earth did you find these?” he asked. “You don’t want me to answer that,” she said absently as she returned to her book. “But do warn the librarian. Wouldn’t want the old blood mage to die of shock when he finds his banned texts collection ransacked.” “I didn’t know we had banned texts.” She made a humming sound. “Of course you do. Have to keep all that heresy at the forefront of the kingdom somehow, yes?” “Nadya—” “I do have to say,” she continued, “I am surprised these weren’t burned. You lot seem like the book-burning type.

” He wasn’t going to take that particular bait. They were quiet as Nadya read and Serefin paged through another book. He couldn’t quite figure out what she was studying. “Have you seen any Vultures around recently?” Serefin finally asked. She lowered her book and shot him an incredulous look. “Have I what?” He supposed he hoped the answer would be yes and everything would be simple for him; a mess easily cleaned up. “I should think the king of Tranavia would have more dealings with that cult than one captive peasant girl,” she said primly. “I hope someone overhears you saying these things and forces my hand,” he replied. That got a short laugh from her. She leaned back, dangling her legs out into the open air.

He didn’t even know why he was asking her except she had shown up in Grazyk at the same time as Malachiasz and clearly knew him; he didn’t know what they’d had between them. He’d never asked. But Nadya had said enough offhand to suggest she and the Black Vulture had been more than strange allies and what he had done was more than a simple betrayal. Why did he assume she knew more about the Vultures than he did? Her, the cleric from Kalyazin. It was ridiculous; this wasn’t getting him anywhere. He leaned his head back on the wall. “Why are you asking?” she asked. “I don’t have to give you my reasoning,” he reminded her. “Serefin, every day you make me regret not killing you a little bit more.” But there was no heat in her words.

They had an uneasy truce, and though Nadya was furious he had kept her more or less trapped in Tranavia, she didn’t seem altogether eager to leave, either. “Żaneta,” he said quietly. Nadya paled. He nodded curtly. “What happened to her?” she asked delicately. “Malachiasz took her.” She tensed at his name and picked at a hangnail, refusing to meet Serefin’s gaze. “She did betray you,” she said. It sounded like she was trying to convince herself that what Malachiasz had done was justified. “And I died.

” “And you died.” “Supposedly.” “They’re starting to talk, you know,” Nadya said. Her hand went to her neck, falling when her fingers met nothing but air. An absent tic he had watched her perform countless times. She had worn a small, silver amulet for a bit, but that too had disappeared. “We weren’t the only ones in the cathedral that night. They say, ‘Not even death commands this new young king.’” Serefin shivered. “My goddess is death,” Nadya continued.

“No one walks into her realm and returns.” Blood and stars and moths. And that voice, that voice. Serefin shoved it away before it spoke to him. “And what does she think?” Nadya shrugged listlessly, gazing blankly out over the library. “She doesn’t talk to me anymore.” This was not the conversation Serefin had come here to have. But the desolation in Nadya’s voice struck even him. “What will Tranavia think of a king who was brought back from death?” he said, after a long stretch of silence. She looked over, one eyebrow raised.

He remembered the halo that had shivered around her head, fractured and tainted. She lifted a hand, one of the pale gray moths that constantly fluttered around Serefin landing on her index finger. “Serefin Meleski,” she said contemplatively. “There has been a mark on you growing darker with each day. I thought…” She trailed off, waving her hand at the piles of books. “I don’t know what I thought … that I could help? That I might want to? It doesn’t matter.” “Help me? Or help him?” “It doesn’t matter,” she repeated, an edge to her voice. “If suspicion grows, neither of us will walk away unscathed,” he said. She nodded. It was already treacherous here for her.

If his court turned on her, he could do nothing. Though, he still wasn’t entirely sure why he wanted to protect her at all. “I shouldn’t want to help. You destroyed my home,” she said. Serefin had avoided bringing this up, but had wondered when she would. He closed the book and set it on her stack. Serefin had never had any intention of torching the monastery, and he couldn’t speak for what Teodore had done once he’d left. He’d found what he was looking for there: her. And the pressure from his father to capture the cleric to see how her power might augment a blood mage’s was gone. Serefin didn’t particularly care to discover the answer to that question.

He wanted to end a war, and it would be easier with this girl for leverage. “I did. I would be lying if I said I haven’t been waiting for some kind of vengeance.” “I would be lying if I said I didn’t want it.” “Look at us, being honest with each other!” She rolled her eyes. “Do you regret it?” “It’s war,” he said. She gave him a pointed look, and he sighed. “Nadya, if I let myself regret everything I’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning.” She made a thoughtful sound.

.

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