14 Coloine (continued)
But nothing happened. People began to calm down, once it was clear Cederic and Vorantor weren’t going to turn their verbal battle into a magical one. The kathana began to take shape. One of the Sais had just suggested to Vorantor that it was time to break for lunch when soldiers suddenly filled the doorway, pushing mages out of the way until they could make a double file along the southern wall of the room.
I wonder what kind of person can serve the God-Empress as a soldier. Never mind the awful uniform; she’s insane, and sometimes she’s the funny kind of insane that makes me dress up in beautiful but useless clothing, and sometimes she’s the unnerving kind of insane that makes her think she’s God, and sometimes she makes horrible demands of her soldiers, like killing that collenna master, and how in the name of the true God can anyone justify doing those things? Is it just that they’re afraid of her? Or do they enjoy being given freedom to indulge their own evil desires? I don’t understand.
So they all lined up along the southern wall, and I was bumped by people moving out of their way (I was standing near the northwest point), and then the God-Empress came in. She was dressed entirely in white today, thick white satin with a neckline that plunged to her navel and no jewels or anything that might distract from the sight of her perfect body outlined in white. Was that coincidence, or do Castavirans associate white with death the way we do in Balaen?
Vorantor went to her and bowed, all very proper, and she touched the top of his head to acknowledge him and allow him to rise. Cederic approached to make his bow as well, but she ignored him, so he was forced to continue kneeling through everything that came next. “Denril Vorantor, you have asked for a judgment,” she said, in that remote, formal voice that meant she was God.
“I have, my God. I accuse Cederic Aleynten of treason,” Vorantor said, and I gasped, but since everyone else was making similar incredulous noises, I didn’t stand out. Cederic raised his head to look at Vorantor, but said nothing.
“Your word is not enough,” the God-Empress said, raising a finger. Her nail was enameled pearly white. Four soldiers came to make a loose circle around the group that was Vorantor, Cederic, and the God-Empress. Vorantor was even paler than usual, and his self-control slipped enough that he grimaced with anger at the God-Empress’s words. I’m sure he thought Cederic’s word would have been good enough for her.
“I have proof for you, God,” he said. He reached inside his robe and pulled out a handful of familiar scraps of paper. I made a sound and Cederic’s gaze flicked to me, blazing with the message to Stay silent.
The God-Empress regarded the papers as if he were offering her a mass of writhing worms. A soldier in what I thought was a general’s uniform—in fact, the soldier who was Aselfos’s co-conspirator—stepped forward and took the papers from Vorantor’s hand, which was shaking. “I found these in Cederic Aleynten’s chambers,” Vorantor said. “Carefully concealed, but nothing is hidden from God’s true servant, which God knows I am.”
The general began reading the scraps of paper silently. “They are half of an ongoing communication between two people, one of whom requests that the other perform certain magical services in benefit of a proposed coup against God,” she said.
“Cederic Aleynten,” the God-Empress said.
“Yes, God-Empress?” Cederic said. I still can’t believe how calm he sounded.
“You plot against God?” the God-Empress said.
“I do not,” Cederic said. “Denril Vorantor is trying to discredit me. He has no proof of anything he has said.”
“God sees how he wears his Kilios’s robe though it is not a honey day,” Vorantor said. “He believes his rank puts him above everyone, including God. He wants to take God’s place.”
“Untrue,” Cederic said, and then he couldn’t say anything else, because a soldier stepped up behind him, grabbed his hair to lift his head, and put a knife to his throat. I opened my mouth to scream, and he gave me another look, warning me off. I should have struck that soldier. I know I could have found a way to make him drop the knife without hurting Cederic. Everything would have been so different—
Yes, different. And probably many more people would have died. I—I have been sitting here, trying to figure out how I could have stopped it all. I hate that the God-Empress makes me feel so helpless. That she has the power to make men and women do evil things, or convince them that they have to, which I realize isn’t the same, but what’s the point at which all your choices narrow down to just one? And what do you do then?
Well, I did nothing, except glare at Cederic so he’d know he had damn well better have a plan, or my plan would be to start setting people on fire. I’m not sure how much of that went through, but I could tell he knew I wasn’t going to wait much longer. I kept glancing at the God-Empress, though it was hard for me to take my eyes off Cederic and that so-very-sharp knife. The God-Empress wasn’t looking at him; she had her eyes fixed on Vorantor. “Would you serve God, then?” she said, her voice distant.
“With my life, my God,” Vorantor said. I spared a glance for him; he was glowing with ecstasy, the poor bastard.
“As God’s most high priest?” she said, still in that same distant voice.
“Until the end of my days,” he said.
“You seem interested in your life and the end of it,” the God-Empress said, and stepped around the still-kneeling Cederic and approached Vorantor, followed by a soldier. “God knows the count of your days, you know,” she said. “All of them. And she is merciful.” To the shock of everyone, she took Vorantor’s face between her hands and kissed him full on the lips. Then she took a step back, leaving him motionless, his eyes wide, and made a little gesture with her finger. The soldier whipped out his knife and drew it across Vorantor’s throat in one swift motion that sprayed the God-Empress with arterial blood.
to be continued…