The Caustic Queen
The Roman’s name was Solus. She had never seen him before the kyrios’ funeral because he’d never stepped foot in the Half-Step City before that day. He’d brought a student with him, a young Philosopher just as young as him that called himself Griffon. They both wore the scarlet cult attire of the Rosy Dawn Cult.
There was no place in the city of Olympia for an agent of Damon Aetos, to say nothing of a Roman. Few would notice their passing, and none would mourn it. If anything, the Burning Dusk would thank her for her efforts. Polyzalus’ gratitude was a boon even her queen could not deny the value of, now more than ever since the kyrios’ passing.
It would be quick. The man, the boy, had taken her by surprise in the chaos of the funeral rites. It would not happen again. The next they met, he would be the one in the dirt. Looking up at her in pitiful, impotent fear and anger. Disgraced, as all his kind had been disgraced in the end. Impotent, as all Romans were.
Or so she had planned.
From the day that he arrived, the foreigner wrapped the Raging Heaven’s significant men and women around him like a cloak. He held the late kyrios’ favored Heroes in his palm with eerie surety, as if it was only natural that they would be dancing to the tune of a lowly Sophic cultivator from a land of savage conquerors. And dance they did. It made it difficult to reach him with any sort of subtlety, especially with the catamite in his grip - the Howling Wind Cult’s young prodigy was always listening.
But difficult was not the same as impossible. Solus was not always alone, and he made no effort to hide his presence when he was. Centuries had taught the Caustic Queen patience. She watched and she waited. She measured her might against the bizarre amalgam of his refinement, and found him wanting in her mind.
When the inevitable opportunity presented itself to her, she struck without hesitation.
“And you failed. He beat you back again.”
Thalestris looked down on her daughter with such contempt that the shadowed grove itself reacted. The trees bent and twisted away from the kneeling crow as if in disgust, like she might taint them with her disgrace. The bright eyes of predators leered out at her from the cover of their shade, regarding her as prey.
The Despoiled Queen’s daughter stared silently ahead. Her thoughts were nearly as still as her body, as silent as she could make them. Inside the Queen’s domain, everything was hers to keep.
If her daughter acknowledged the truth too boldly, even in her mind, Thalestris might hear it.
So she very carefully did not recall the truth of what had happened that night. The night the Roman went to the temple of the Father and anointed himself and his student in starlight marrow.
The night the Raven spread its wings.
She hadn’t been the only one to take note of the Roman. She hadn’t been the only one to want him dead, either.
If she had been a younger woman, she might have stepped in the moment the pair of lesser assassins exploded out of the olive oil pool at the feet of the Father’s statue. The ensuing brawl was short and brutally one-sided, but for those short moments the Roman was distracted. She could have almost certainly struck him down before any of the four noticed. A drop of poison would have been enough.
The Roman sneered at his companion, and she felt the contempt in him like a slap to her own face. “I refuse to skulk around like a Crow, picking at corpses and offal.”
And oh, she was tempted.
But she waited, even so. In the end, she was rewarded for her patience.
Longevity was guaranteed past a certain point of refinement - survival, on the other hand, was not. The oldest cultivators were the wisest because the fools always died young. Kronos taught a new lesson every day. Those that learned, lived. Caution was queen.
She had ascertained the Roman’s true age the moment her spiritual poison entered his veins. Twenty years old. It wasn’t a question of if he would make a foolish mistake, but when.
The Roman and the Young Griffon spoke freely while they looted the corpses of their would-be killers, plainly revealing their ignorance as they fumbled for the most basic understanding of the realm which they inhabited. Fresh Philosophers, both of them.
She had been kicked like a dog and thrown through a stone wall by a fresh Philosopher.
The Caustic Queen bit her lip until she drew blood, but she controlled her ugly impulses and waited for her time. Soon after, it came. She watched with equal parts anticipation and incredulity as the Roman cracked open the ink-black bones of a crow construct and sucked the marrow from its center.
Young and ignorant and foolish.
She did not hesitate. While the two young men collapsed under the onslaught of the Tyrant’s marrow, she lunged out of the shadowed arches lining the temple with a single rusted blade in her hand. The Roman first, and then the Scarlet Son-
At the very last moment, she heard the whistle of a falling blade and twisted sinuously in mid-air to dodge it. It cut a trailing strand of glossy black hair from her head, and she lashed out with her dagger and the full corrosion of her pneuma at the sudden assailant.
A clenched fist struck her in the face and white light exploded behind her eyes. She hit the ground outside the temple and bounced three times before she plunged into the Ionian.
When she resurfaced from the bottom of the sea, far enough beyond the breakwater that the stone locks of the great gorgon’s hair were only a distant sliver on the horizon, she was so furious that she tasted blood. Or perhaps that had been the punch. She glared hatefully across the sea, at the distant figure of the man that had preempted her. He’d sent her tumbling far enough that even a normal Heroic cultivator of her standing would have struggled to see him from this distance, but the huntresses of the Blind Maiden Cult had better eyes than most.
He sat cross-legged on the serpentine head of the breakwater gorgon’s hair that was furthest from the shore, the flames behind his eyes burning like torches in the night. The tip of his sword was buried in the stone and his right palm rested negligently on its pommel. His eyes roved left and right, searching for her, but before she could slip back under the waves and take advantage of that, her own flame betrayed her. His eyes met hers, and she realized too late that her tumble had torn the midnight veil from her face and exposed her eyes to the world.
The opposing Hero lifted his left hand in a lazy wave. The man was handsome, despite the faint imperfection of a scar trailing from the corner of his right eye to the bottom of his square chin. She glared daggers at him, willing him to die.
Then she noticed the color of the cloth beneath his cloak. It was red, though slightly darker than that of the cult attire worn by the Roman and his companion. A shade of scarlet that was sister to the dawn.
The Butcher of the Burning Dusk hooked a thumb back over his shoulder, in the direction of the distant temple they’d both been in just moments before. His eyes never left hers while his lips moved silently. He knew she could read them.
Don’t touch. You’ve poisoned enough wells already.
He allowed his true strength to uncoil like a serpent from its slumber, just for a moment, and steam rose up from the Ionian Sea for fathoms all around her as the heat of his pneuma washed over her. She had taken twenty-three steps up the stairway to heaven before the Butcher was even a bump in his mother’s stomach. She was his senior in every way that mattered but for one.
The searing glory of an Eighth Rank Hero boiled the Ionian Sea around the Caustic Queen, threatening to cook her like a fish. The rumors of his recent infirmity, it seemed, had been nothing more than that.
With longevity came prudence. The Caustic Queen dove back under the wine-dark waves of the Ionian and swam north until the boiling heat of the Butcher’s pneuma subsided. Her heart twisted and writhed inside her chest all the while. She’d lost her window of opportunity, but she hadn’t entirely failed. She had discovered something significant tonight, and all she’d had to pay for it was a mouthful of blood and some bruises.
Retreat was the wisest option. She knew that.
But longevity hadn’t yet cured her of her pride. The Caustic Queen added another drop of poison to her heart, and this one was for the Butcher.
“I was preempted,” the crow whispered in her own defense, and that was true enough. She’d faithfully recounted her failure to the Elder of the Blind Maiden Cult faction knowing full well that she would be reviled for her weakness, and of all the shameful details she had omitted only one - the Butcher’s true identity.
That omission was a lie, but a small one. Only a drop.
“You were hunted,” Thalestris corrected her. Narrow green eyes pierced through her, stripped her of her anonymity and laid her bare before the Queen. “You thought you were the huntress, but you were blind.”
[The young man stalks the maiden, unaware of the huntress in his blind.]
She bit down on her tongue and held it. The Tyrant’s ire willed her to be silent, forcing her teeth together. But with effort, and with spite, she forced them back apart.
“I was hunted, yes. But the situation has changed.”
The pressure redoubled and snapped her mouth shut again, cutting her tongue against her teeth. Thalestris dipped her head in acknowledgement, the Tyrant’s long curtain of hair shifting with the motion. Her hair was glossy black, the same as the crow’s own, and most nights it caught the light of the moon and seemed to glow at its edges. Tonight, however, the night sky was blind.
“So it has. Before, this child was an annoyance to all of us. Now he is a threat to me.”
In defiance of all common sense, the scavenger known as Solus had done more than nip and claw at the influence of his betters. He had somehow, impossibly, drawn them to his side. Through means unknown, he had stepped into the lion’s den not once, twice, or even thrice, but four times, and every time he’d emerged unscathed.
The Howling Wind faction’s door had been darkened first. The Hurricane Hierophant, Aleuas Pyrrhos, had given favor to the Raven.
Second had come the Scattered Foam. The Hollow Satrap, Ptolemy the Savior, had given favor to the Raven.
Third then, the Broken Tide. The Lawgiver, Drakon, least kind of the lot to scavengers of his kind, had nonetheless given favor to the Raven.
Fourth and final - thus far - had been the Alabaster Isles. The Raven had stepped into the King’s golden domain without hesitation, and he’d left it with Midas’ favor.
There were eight Elders on the mountain, and only space for one to sit the indigo throne. There had been balance in that struggle, eight lines drawn and eight factions opposed. Now the Raven had drawn a line of his own, and four of eight stood behind it. How far their favor went was a question no one dared to ask, but for each of the Elders that still stood alone, even the suggestion of a league against them was unacceptable.
For Thalestris in particular, the current circumstances were even worse. She was the only woman of the eight, the only Queen to stake a claim on the indigo throne. Hers had been a steep climb from the start.
Now a student of Socrates had charmed four of her rivals to his side. The odds were bleaker than they’d ever been.
“But that isn’t what you meant, is it?” Thalestris continued. The Despoiled Queen leaned forward in her throne of bone and loomed over her daughter. “Tell me then, what has changed? What can you do for me, if anything at all? What are you worth?”
The same thing she’d always been worth, of course.
A single drop of poison.
On that dead moon night, a huntress crept into the Raven’s nest. On nights like these, beneath the veil of the [Blind Eye Turned], she was like a ghost. Utterly invisible, forever downwind, a huntress with a knife poised. Until the moment she struck, no one would know she was there. Of course, if and when that veil was broken she’d be at the mercy of the Gadfly, or the Butcher, or whatever other horror the Roman had charmed to his side.
She hadn’t come here to die. So she kept her pneuma close, and in the silence of the night reached out with her soul for the warmth of a sister.
Terpsichore, she entreated, only to realize the Dancing Muse was already there by her side. The ephemeral woman had her translucent silks pulled up around her ankles, as if they’d make any sort of sound that could give them away. The Muse’s eyes danced merrily at the look the Caustic Queen gave her.
Ivy, the Muse whispered her own greeting. Again, as if the sound would be overheard by anyone else at all without her permission. Shall I set the mood?
Delightedly, the Muse manifested a lyre from the aether and drew her fingers smoothly across its strings. The chord it produced brought tears to her eyes.
The Raven turned abruptly from his alchemical furnace and caught the huntress by her throat. He didn’t call upon his pneuma, yet his grip was an order of magnitude stronger than it had been the night of the funeral.
She didn’t resist. She remained silent when he demanded to know who she was. Terpsichore strummed another chord, humming softly to herself, and the Roman known as Solus whipped his head around, questing for the source. He couldn’t see her, of course. That he had heard the Muse’s first chord at all had been intentional - he’d been included in this third veil, the one that stood above the veil of the Crow and the veil of the Blind Maiden both.
Fed up with her silence, Solus tore the veil away from her face. The storm vanished from his eyes.