Interlude, sixteen years earlier
Chloe walked down the stairs and towards the great hall, hand in hand with her mother. Her father had returned earlier that day and she was going to be allowed to have dinner in the great hall with him and mother. Honestly, she had mixed feelings about her fathers return, her mother ate every meal with her when her father was away, while when he was home she only ate with her about half the time. On the other hand, she did enjoy the infrequent times when her father was able to spend time with her, and the rare occasions she was allowed to eat with him and her mother in the great hall. There was also the fact that her mother was far busier when her father was gone, and so spent less time with her. All in all, she decided, she was glad her father was back.
As they walked through the doors to the great hall, Chloe gazed around in the same wonder she felt every time she was allowed to enter. The room was huge, as was the table that took up much of the front of the room, even the smaller tables that filled the back of the room were far bigger than the one she normally ate at. But as they came near the table her eyes were drawn away from the gorgeous tapestries that covered the walls, and the ceiling, with its’ enchantment that made it a mirror of the sky, and to the man sitting at the head of the table.
“Father!” she called out as they drew near, and ran ahead of her mother.
Her father stood up quickly and caught her up in his arms.
“Chloe.” He said, while hugging her tightly. “How have you been? How’s your sister? I’ve missed you so much.”
“We’ve both been well, and I’ve missed you too.” Chloe replied, her face pressed against his chest.
Her father put her down as her mother arrived, he gave her a tight hug as well, and whispered something in her ear, before sitting back down at the head of the table. Her mother sat to his right and Chloe sat in a chair drawn up directly beside her mother’s.
The meal was delicious, as was the tea they drank. She remembered her mother telling her that the tea they drank had come from another continent, aboard one of the ships that filled the harbor. She was imagining just what sort of journey that would be, as a servant placed a bottle of wine on the table and removed the cork, pouring some into her wine glass that sat beside her father.
Just as her father started to reach for the wine glass, her mother’s hand darted out and grabbed his glass. After drinking the contents, she leaned in and whispered into his ear. Recently Chloe had found that if she focused, she was somehow able to make sounds seem louder to her, and her mother’s behavior left her curious, so she focused on what her mother was whispering.
“You just got back this afternoon” Her mother was saying in a tone she had never heard before “and while the equinox celebrations will take up all your time tomorrow, you’re mine for tonight, and believe me, you will not want the problems too much alcohol can cause”
Her father chuckled and grinned, before whispering back “Come on woman, a glass or two won’t cause any problems. With you, not even a couple of bottles would be enough to keep me”
His voice trailed off and a look of horror spread across his face. Her mother stood up suddenly, and with that movement, Chloe was once again able to see her mother’s face. The sight left her utterly stunned, then a horror matching her father’s started to fill her. Blood was leaking out of her mother’s eyes, ears and nose, and her face was twisted in pain. Moments later her mother began to retch, again and again. What came out of her mouth looked like blood to Chloe at first, but something darker soon started coming from her mouth. Some of the bile coming from her mother splashed on her and her father, then her mother collapsed to the ground, only twitching for a few moments before going still.
Several months later
Chloe was staring out the window, even though the sun had long since set and she could no longer see the courtyard clearly. After the death of her mother, her father and some mages had interrogated the entire staff, using truth spells and whatever compulsion was required to get them talking. Chloe had been utterly horrified by how many of the people, who she and thought were nice, and cared about her, had been selling information to one noble or another. The resulting purge had been, thorough.
After the investigation, it had been found that the poisoner had worked for one of the two counts who her father had just settled a dispute between. The two counts, who both owed fealty to her father, had disagreed about which of them owned a large chunk of land. Both had sent troops to assert their ownership. That would not have been terribly unusual, but when the battle was over, the victorious count decided he would push forward, farther into the other count's land. When both sides started conscripting large numbers of their peasants, and even considered recalling the forces they owed Chloe’s father, her father had stepped in to settle the matter.
Chloe found it ironic that the count who had tried to poison her father had been the one who the deal had left in with the most land. Apparently, the count had hoped to completely conquer his neighbor, while Chloe’s mother had been had been busy establishing a regency for Chloe, and that after that, as the most powerful count in the march, and with a regency acting for a minor, he would be free to do as he pleased.
Her father had immediately summoned half of the garrisons of all the nearby fortresses and towers, combined them, and marched on the count. Even against the small portion of her father’s forces that he had brought, the count stood no chance. His lands were swiftly conquered and added to those held directly by Chloe’s father, and the count, his wife, and his only child, were brought back to Twin Rivers in chains.
After her father’s return, Chloe had insisted on having all of her lessons in this room, as it gave her a good view of the courtyard. Her tutors had argued and insisted on teaching her somewhere else, but when she had gone to her father and begged, he had agreed, and ordered them to teach her there, if that was what she wanted.
While there was only one now, for quite a while there had been two gibbets hanging in the courtyard, facing each other. Her father had placed the count in one, and his son in the other. Then he had the count feed and healed just enough to keep him alive. When the son had died the count’s wife was placed in the empty gibbet. Now that the countess too was dead, Chloe’s father had been letting the count get closer and closer to death between the times he had him fed and healed.
Chloe had watched this through the window every day. At first, she had been overjoyed to see the suffering of the person who had taken her mother away, but now her patience and self-restraint had run out. Earlier that day she had managed to steal a stiletto, as well as its sheath and belt, and now she tiptoed through the castle, out to the courtyard. In the courtyard she walked to the chain holding the cage up, and began to climb, only to promptly slide back down. She tried twice more, then close to tears, got ready to try yet again, when she heard a voice behind her.
“Chloe, what do you think you are doing?”
She slowly turned, and saw her father standing behind her. She just trembled for a moment then balled her little hands into fists.
“I’m going to kill that man.” Chloe said determinedly “You got to kill his wife and son, and make him suffer, but it was my mother he took away, I want to kill him.”
Her father stared at her silently for a few moments then muttered quietly to himself, “She’ll have to be able to kill if she’s to be the next Marquis, getting her used to it young might not be a bad idea.”
He walked over to the chain and slowly lowered the cage to the ground, then shoved it onto it’s back. Chloe walked up to the cage, unsheathed her stiletto, placed it against the center of the chest, then drew her arm back. Her father caught her arm before she could bring the stiletto down.
“That’s not where the heart is, your heart's a bit more to the left.” he told her and guided her hand to the appropriate place.
As Chloe raised her arm, she saw absolutely nothing in the eyes of the man who had killed her mother. Then she brought the stiletto down.
About three years later
Dawn on Chloe’s tenth birthday was a clear and beautiful thing, and she watched it through a window. Chloe then rushed downstairs and wolfed her breakfast, eager to see her father. Her father had told her that as the next Marquis, she would be responsible for justice in the march, and that it was time she began to learn what that meant. Then he had given her a sheaf of papers with the details about the crimes of a recently caught criminal and the evidence against him. He had told her to be ready to pass judgment on her birthday.
With her breakfast finished she eagerly rushed to her father’s study and knocked on the door, then entered in response to her father’s invitation.
“Are you prepared to pass judgment?” her father asked
Chloe spent the next half an hour explaining and defending her conclusions.
“So you see,” she said at last “not only is he clearly guilty, death is certainly the appropriate punishment for his crimes.”
“I agree with your judgment in both respects, in fact, I anticipated this and have a death warrant for him right here, all you have to do is sign it, as the one who passed judgment.”
Chloe grabbed the paper and signed it. Chloe’s father looked at the signature, gave a satisfied smile, and looked back up at her.
“You killed a man with that signature.”
“Are you saying he doesn’t deserve it?”
“No, but the fact that placing your signature there is the same as killing a man is a lesson you can never forget. Come with me.”
Chloe followed her father through the castle, to a back chamber where a pair of bracers and an axe were sitting on a table.
“Put the bracers on, their magical and will give you the strength to use that axe.”
Chloe could feel her stomach sinking, “What do I need the axe for?” she asked, hoping her suspicion was wrong.
“As I said you can’t ever forget what your orders actually result in, this should teach that lesson fairly well”
After Chloe put the bracers on and picked up the axe, her father opened the door and lead the way through. In the next room, Chloe saw a bound man, his head resting on a block. The man raised his eyes at the sound of them entering and they widened at the sight of Chloe with the axe.
“And people call me the monster. How old is she? Nine? Ten?” the man asked, looking at her father in disgust.
Her father didn’t reply, instead, he looked at Chloe. Chloe shivered under the gaze and walked up to the man. She thought she saw pity for her on the man’s face for a moment, then it was replaced with a look of utter contempt.
“Why even bother walking up to me?” The man sneered “You know you’re too much of a coward to do it. You know you can’t kill me, you’re just a stupid, weak, pathetic bi”
Chloe brought the axe down mid-word.
“Not quite the lesson I intended, but it’s close enough.” her father said quietly
Chloe felt sick throughout the day, but her father insisted she attend her birthday party.
“A noble of you’re standing will need to keep appearances up, no matter how she feels inside.” Her father had said.
Now, finally, she was able to go to her room, and to bed. When she opened her door, she saw Luna sitting on her bed, clearly waiting for her.
“Come here.” Luna said, opening her arms “I heard what you had to do this morning.”
Chloe rushed over to the bed and rapped Luna in a hug, which Luna returned. Both of them crawled under the covers, and Luna just held her, as she cried herself to sleep.
Chloe sat at her desk, on it sat a pocket watch, a bottle of wine, a wine glass, and a stiletto. The Wineglass was the same one her mother had drunk the poisoned wine from and the stiletto was the one she had used to avenge her mother. The pocket watch sat open on the table the smaller bead slowly rolling from one square to the next.
Like all watches, hers was magical, and had ten large squares for the hours and a hundred small squares for the minutes. The minute bead would travel across one row, go down one square then go the other way back, repeating the process until it reached the final square on the bottom row, at which point a metal guide would lead the bead back to the top square and the hour bead would progress one square. The hour bead was always guided back to the first square at sunset and sunrise, giving both night and day ten hours, even when one was considerably longer than the other.
Chloe watched the watch. She had been able to find out from old Vindell, who was always obsessive about details, precisely which minute her mother had drunk the wine, and she waited for that minute to come. She always spent the anniversary of her mother’s death thinking about the past. The happy times before her mother had died, her mother’s death, her first two kills, and all that came later.
Her father had not been content with that one lesson, there had been many, many more lessons, of all types. Her father often called on her to act as executioner for the convicted, but in some ways, those were the easy lessons. Other lessons involved her being assigned groups of people, sometimes soldiers, sometimes not, and having to perform a task. The task was always dangerous in some way, though never to her, and there would always be a lesson in it. The lessons could be anything from using logic instead of emotion, to listening to those who had more experience in a certain field, or anything else her father thought she should learn. If she failed to understand the point of the lesson then members of her group would probably die.
She had asked her father how he could just allow her mistakes to kill his subjects. He had told her that is was far better for a few do die now and truly teach her the lessons. If not, he had said, then many more would die, because of those same mistakes, when she took over as marquis and the tasks became things like commanding an entire army, passing judgement on disputes between nobles, or calculating how much food an area hit by a disaster would actually need to be shipped to it.
Chloe wondered, as she watched the minute bead slowly roll, how different her life would have been if her mother had not died. As the time of her mother’s death neared, she uncorked the bottle, and filled the glass. When the minute came, she drank the contents, closed her eyes, and prayed to Zalane. She prayed that if her mother had chosen to rest then her soul was at peace and if she had picked to reincarnate immediately, that she was having a good life.
Opening her eyes, she grabbed the bottle of wine and hurled it out the open window, enhancing her strength for the throw. The bottle soared through the sky and shattered against a tower. Chloe then wiped out the wine glass and placed it, and the stiletto, in a padded box, and placed the box at the bottom of her chest. Then headed to bed.
She left the window open for Ash. She knew her instructions to her had been dangerously vague, but as long as Ash stuck to them, she really didn’t care what happened. A part of her knew she would care the next day, or the day after that, but right now, she just didn’t. As her head hit the pillow, her mind returned to her mother, and tears began to flow down her cheeks.
The sound of cawing from her window was only enough to partially wake her. One caw became a chocked, gurgling thing, and was then replaced with Ash’s voice, quietly singing.
“But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide.”
Ash’s voice cut off suddenly, and moments later she heard a slithering sound. In the following silence, Chloe fell back to sleep.
The sound of the door opening and closing quietly sometime later was not enough to wake her back up, but the slight bouncing of the bed as someone sat down on it was enough to start the process. Chloe began to truly wake up when she felt her head lifted slightly, and placed on something soft, and a hand wipe the tear tracks on her cheeks. Before she had truly woken up, however, another hand started to stroke her head and a soft voice began to quietly sing a lullaby, and, exhausted as she was, that was enough to put her back to sleep.