State of Sorrow – Melinda Salisbury

The headache blossomed like a flower inside Sorrow’s skull, the agony unfurling petal by petal, until it was everything. She sucked in a deep breath and found the cause of the pain: the thick, sickly reek of Lamentia, creeping in through the open doors. She turned from the man standing before her and scoured the dim room, watching for ribbons of telltale smoke drifting across it. But there was nothing, no sign of the drug, and a glance at the others there, all politely waiting for their turn to talk to her, showed no one else seemed to have noticed it. She gave a tentative sniff and instantly the skin along her shoulders prickled, her whole body flooding with heat as her head gave a violent throb. “Miss Ventaxis?” The man, a steward from the West Marches, was staring at Sorrow. “Is everything all right?” All Sorrow could do was blink, clenching her jaw tightly and praying the nausea died away before she disgraced herself. “Miss Ventaxis? You really don’t look well.” “Can’t you…?” Sorrow spoke through gritted teeth. “Can you smell … anything?” The steward blinked, then sniffed. “No, Miss Ventaxis,” he said slowly. “I don’t think so. What kind of smell?” Sorrow shook her head and took a deep breath, regretting it instantly. She gagged, and the steward gasped. “Miss Ventaxis! Someone, please—” “No.

” Sorrow spoke firmly, holding up a hand. “I just need…” The odour seemed to swell again, and Sorrow abandoned what she was going to say, moving to the doors in three uneasy strides. She paused just outside her rooms, turning left and right, scanning the passage. There was no one in sight, save the two guards posted by the open doors at the end, and as Sorrow tentatively inhaled, steeling herself against fresh pain, she found the scent was gone. She gulped in lungfuls of clean air, her head falling back with relief as her headache retreated and the churning in her stomach eased. As she straightened she found a presence at her shoulder, and turned to see Irris Day behind her, eyebrows arched in question. Sorrow stepped closer. “I thought I could smell Lamentia,” she whispered. “Here?” Irris peered down the corridor, to where the guards were feigning disinterest in the two young women hovering outside Sorrow’s parlour. “I can’t smell it,” she said finally.

“Does your head hurt?” “It did. And I can’t smell it any more, either.” “It must be coming from the west wing…” Irris’s tone was thoughtful. Both girls turned again to the open doors, and Sorrow was struck by an idea. “I should go and see,” she said, trying to conceal her eagerness. “The palace is full of guests. It would be a disaster if any of them came across something they shouldn’t. I know your father would…” She trailed off as Irris gave her a long look, punctuated by a subtle nod of her head at the people waiting in Sorrow’s rooms. Sorrow’s shoulders slumped as she understood her friend’s silent message. She was going nowhere yet.

The emissaries and messengers had descended on Sorrow half an hour ago, surprising her and Rasmus Corrigan in the middle of an illegal game of Malice. Sorrow had answered the door and found the dignitaries begging for an audience, forcing Rasmus to hide the board and the pieces beneath the tatty cushions on a moth-eaten sofa, before making his escape. Sorrow looked back and saw the steward from Prekara shift uncomfortably on the very same sofa, as though she could feel the marble figures concealed beneath her. A swift burst of vindictive glee thrilled Sorrow at the woman’s discomfort, before shame doused it. It wasn’t the steward’s fault she and the other representatives had been sent to Sorrow’s rooms. The blame for that lay squarely with Charon Day, the vice chancellor of Rhannon, and Irris’s father. “I’ll go,” Irris said, in that moment sounding and looking exactly like the vice chancellor. “You have other work to do.” She gave Sorrow a consolatory pat on the shoulder and left her. Envious of her friend’s temporary freedom, Sorrow hesitated in the doorway, allowing herself one more moment away from the people waiting for her.

She wasn’t used to so many being in her rooms, and with the windows perpetually hung with the heavy black drapes, the air was dense and stifling. Even with the internal doors thrown open, the room now smelled of a thousand stale breaths, fresh sweat, and the sourness of despair. Eau de Rhannon, Sorrow thought, before she could stop herself. Then she sighed, steeling herself, and returned to the man she’d been speaking to. “My apologies. What can I do for you?” “I need to discuss the Decorum Ward in the West Marches—” He fell abruptly silent, hunching his shoulders, head hanging. Taken aback by his posture, and certain he hadn’t finished speaking, Sorrow waited, but the steward said nothing else. “What about them, Mr…?” It was her turn to pause, as she realized she’d forgotten the steward’s name. Charon would be furious if he were here. Hastily, she continued.

“What about the Decorum Ward?” He made no reply, and Sorrow noticed then that the silence in the room had changed, becoming thicker, fraught, and that the cause of it – and the reason for steward’s sudden submissive state – was behind her. She turned to find the massive form of Meeren Vine filling the doorway, and instinct made fear scuttle like insect legs over her skin. As though he knew, and he fed on it, Vine seemed to expand, standing taller, seeming broader, his cruel gaze fixed on the steward. “And what is it you need to say about my men?” The captain of the Decorum Ward’s voice was a roll of thunder, rumbling from deep inside his barrel chest. The steward flinched, and something about the motion tugged at Sorrow, cutting through her own alarm. Vine had no business being in her rooms and she wouldn’t have him bullying people. Not here, at least. Here, she was the law. “Perhaps if you give him a chance to speak, we’ll find out,” Sorrow said, keeping her voice steady, locking her shaking knees beneath her mourning gown. Vine stepped forward, using his bulk to crowd her, so she had to look up to see him properly.

She forced herself to not lean away, but to stare directly into a face that might have been carved from granite. He had no hair, no beard, nothing to distract attention from his eyes, so dark they might have been black. Shark eyes, unreadable, and unforgiving. When he remained silent, Sorrow turned back to the steward. “Please. Go on. What do you need to say about the Decorum Ward in the West Marches?” The steward swallowed. “It’s not a complaint,” he said hurriedly, eyes flicking to Meeren Vine before returning to meet Sorrow’s. “Just, there have been a few … instances of disruption over recent weeks, and the Decorum Ward say they’re already stretched too thin for what they earn. We’ve told them there is no more money, but it was made clear that wasn’t acceptable to the Ward.

” He said the last in a rush of words, the syllables running together as he forced them out. “That’s why I’m here,” he said. “To ask for more funds. For them.” He looked again over her shoulder at where Vine still stood, before dropping his gaze to the floor. Sorrow hated having her back to the captain, hated having him in the palace at all. He should be outside, with the other animals, she thought. But she kept her expression neutral as she asked, “What kind of ‘instances of disruption’?” “Attacks against them,” the steward mumbled. “Them? You mean the Decorum Ward?” Sorrow wondered for a moment if she’d misunderstood him. “The Decorum Ward are being attacked?” He confirmed it with a single nod.

“It’s graffiti … mostly… And a brick was thrown through the Ward’s headquarters, with a note attached, calling them … well, nothing pleasant.” “I’m happy to be explicit if he won’t, Miss Ventaxis.” Behind her Vine leant down, bringing his mouth level with Sorrow’s ear. His sharp breath stirred the hairs that had escaped from Sorrow’s braid, and she fought to suppress a shudder. She spoke through gritted teeth as her nails bit into her palms. “That won’t be necessary, Captain Vine.” There was much in Rhannon she disliked, but nothing came close to the mixture of fear and hatred her father’s Decorum Ward wrought in her. None more violently than their captain. Only the most thuggish, vicious men and women – those who’d actually mourned the end of the war – had signed up to the newly minted Decorum Ward, following the death of Sorrow’s mother, with Vine climbing the ranks fastest of all. Sorrow was too young to remember, but her grandmother had told her how the Ward lined up proudly to receive their work tools: badges showing iron fists over crude hearts, and thick leather batons they wore proudly at their waists, unless they were smacking them menacingly against their own hands, or using them on the people.

Since then they’d prowled the various districts of Rhannon, spying, policing, taxing, and – whenever they decided it was appropriate – doling out punishments. It was their job to make sure no one in Rhannon ever forgot the deaths of Mael and Cerena. That no one behaved as though their every moment wasn’t soaked by the loss of the first lady and the Ventaxis heir. That everyone kept their heads bowed, and their mouths shut. It was no surprise now that the people were rebelling against them. There were only so many times you could kick a dog before it would bite. And apparently some of the Rhannish people were finally baring their teeth. Sorrow found she liked the thought of it. Good for them. “It’s not just the West Marches,” Vine said, and Sorrow turned her head towards him.

Happier he had her attention, he sauntered back to the doorway, folding his arms as he leant against the frame, blocking the exit. “There have been incidents in Prekara, and the North Marches too. Graffiti. They call themselves ‘the Sons of Rhannon’, these vigilantes. There’s animal shit –” Sorrow winced at the outraged gasps of some of the others there “– being smeared on the doors of the Wards’ homes. Stones thrown when our backs are turned. All them. We’ve tried appealing to the district senators, but they’ve done nothing. Say there’s nothing they can do. That’s why I’m here.

” “Does Lord Day know about this?” she asked. “I’ve sent him word.” “Then I expect he’s dealing with it.” Meeren Vine’s expression darkened. “That’s not good enough, Miss Ventaxis. We’re trying to do our job, the job your father told us to do. Collecting his taxes. Keeping his order. We’ve not had a pay rise in five years and now we’re dealing with insubordination and attacks. Surely that counts as an attack against him? What does he have to say about all of this? I want to hear it from him.

” “You can talk to me.” Sorrow tried to inject some steel into her voice. “I want the organ grinder, not the monkey.” “Remember to whom you speak,” Sorrow snapped, not needing to pretend at steel any more, as she turned fully to face him. “I’m the daughter of the chancellor. I’ll be the chancellor one day. Don’t forget it.” She paused, taking a deep breath, forcing herself to sound calm as she said, “Now, if you don’t mind, these men and women are waiting to speak to me. Feel free to join them if you have anything else you want to say. In your turn.

” His jaw was rigid with outrage, his midnight eyes boring into hers. Sorrow was too aware of the baton hanging from his belt, the size of his large hands, the corded veins that mapped his muscular arms. It felt as though an age passed, before finally he gave an obsequious nod and drew back. Sorrow kept her shoulders straight, and her chin high, as she deliberately turned away from him to address the room. “Does anyone wish to speak about something other than the Decorum Ward?” To her surprise, a single hand rose, and she beckoned the small, neat-looking woman forward. “Yes?” “Senator Kaspira has concerns about the Rathbone family again.” Sorrow hadn’t expected to ever feel grateful at the mention of the thieves and occasional pirates that plagued the district of Prekara, but right then she’d take them over the Decorum Ward. “I thought they’d gone to ground since Jeraphim Rathbone was jailed,” Sorrow said. “It’s his eldest son, Arkady—” “Oh, sorry, my lovely.” Meeren’s voice was a loud, oozing drawl as he interrupted.

“Am I in your way?” Sorrow whirled around to see Irris standing beyond the doorway, hidden behind Vine, her lips pressed together tightly. The captain of the Decorum Ward took a tiny step aside and held out an arm as though to welcome her, giving Irris no choice but to attempt slipping past him, or else remain outside. Irris appeared to consider her options, then pressed her body against the door frame and edged into the room. Meeren licked his lips as her arm brushed his stomach, meeting Sorrow’s eyes as he did. “You need to go to your father,” Irris said on a breath once she’d reached Sorrow. Her head gave a throb of agony that had nothing to do with Lamentia then, but everything to do with Harun. “Where’s his valet?” she whispered back. “I’ve sent him to get some rest. Sorrow, the man was exhausted. I don’t think he’s slept in days.

” There was a hint of reproval in her tone. “And Balthasar is with the chancellor.” “Then surely your father should—” “I went to him first.” Irris cut her off. “He told me to send you.” She paused. “I’m sorry.” Sorrow had thought her spirits couldn’t sink any lower. “It’s fine. I’ll go right away.

” She didn’t mean it. And from the look on Irris’s face, her friend knew it. But she nodded, allowing Sorrow the lie. “I’m afraid I have to ask you all to leave,” Sorrow announced to the room. “I have some urgent business to attend to. If you write down your complaints, I’ll do my best to get to them as soon as I can.” The people began to file out, their expressions a mixture of bewilderment and disappointment, but none protested, meekly doing as she’d asked. Vine remained in the doorway until last. “Are you OK?” Irris asked her once he’d gone. “What did Vine want?” “Mostly a good smack,” Sorrow murmured, mindful he might be loitering to hear.

“So, no, I’m not.” “Can I do anything?” “Arrange to have me kidnapped by the Svartans and kept there in luxury as a political prisoner until I die?” “I’ll write to them now.” Amusement laced Irris’s whisper. “Do you want me to stay? Or come with you?” “No; thank you, though.” Sorrow turned to her oldest friend. “I need a few moments alone before I deal with my father, that’s all. I’ll see you at dinner.” “All right.” Irris gave her hand a squeeze and was gone, closing the door behind her. Sorrow pulled at a loose thread on the hem of her sleeve.

She watched as the embroidery began to unravel, feeling a spark of pleasure at the destruction, until a soft sound behind her made her turn. Despite her command, someone had stayed behind. Rasmus Corrigan stood by the window, his violet eyes fixed on her

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