“Those who are Chosen are chosen by the gods?”
“That is one belief. However, being one of them you need to know everything. Some whisper that the Chosen are not blessed by Tamura and Donya at all, but that they are creatures of evil. The extraordinary skill of the Chosen, they believe, simply isn’t natural. In addition to uncanny skill, the Chosen are remarkably beautiful and have eternal youth. Even if you live to be a hundred you will never look a day older than thirty. Moreover, your beauty will be immune to destruction. Scars will completely fade. Some people see the combination of eternal beauty with unnatural skill as proof that the Chosen are demonic. They believe that, rather than sending the Chosen, the gods protect humanity from them by making them rare, as if they were such an aberration that even the gods couldn’t always stop them from being born.”
“So which one are they?”
“That, I believe, is entirely up to the individual Chosen.”
“Ah, yes. Your cruelty to your female servants is legend. Such hatred of women can only be the product of fear.”
“Fear?” he scoffed. “Hardly!”
“Perhaps your mother spanked you one time too many,” she went on, unperturbed. “Perhaps the first time you dropped your trousers for a girl she laughed. Perhaps it’s just in your nature to be a homicidal misogynist. I really don’t give a damn, Dermot, because you raped my mother, and if you didn’t have reason to fear women before, you son of a bitch, you sure as hells will before I’m done.”
“You and Baezha have both established solid reputations for guarding the trade caravans,” he said. “Indeed, it is said that bandits have avoided caravans you were known to be guarding. Some are calling you the Death Queens.”
Aleena raised an eyebrow.
“Are they? I hadn’t heard that one.”
“Some of the merchants running the caravans say you’re rather… independent.”
Aleena shrugged. “I suppose that depends on one’s definition of independent.”
“Disobedient,” Bertard said, somewhat impatient. “You’ve been known to defy orders.”
“Because the orders, coming from a merchant completely ignorant of battle, were suicidal.”
“Perhaps you assume too much?”
“A merchant trying to command me in battle makes as much sense as me telling him how to market his wares. When I am hired to do a job, I am honor bound to do that job to the best of my ability. They hired me to guard them, not jeopardize them.”
“And obeying orders from someone ignorant of war would jeopardize the caravan you were hired to protect,” Geron said.
“Make ready, lads,” Aleena told the guards. “Something’s afoot.”
She went from scanning the crowd to scanning the buildings behind them. Every balcony bore admirers, cheering and waving; every balcony except one. It was empty, the open doors behind it showing a dark room, its curtains waving in the breeze. Aleena fixated on it. Her gift gave her such a masterful understanding of strategy and tactics that her ability to anticipate an opponent bordered on psychic.
Even as she placed herself directly between the open doors of the deserted balcony and the princesses, she saw something dart from the doors in a blur of movement. It struck her breast plate with a terrific impact, glancing off the polished steel, up the slope of her right breast and over her shoulder as it knocked her back into the sedan and staggered the bearers.
“Steady on, you clumsy fool,” Jarella scolded.
The crowd laughed.
“Guards,” Aleena yelled, “surround the princesses, shields up! Baezha!”
She turned to Baezha and saw her looking up, sword in hand. Aleena joined her. A man with a dagger in his hand was falling straight towards the sedan. The crowd screamed. Baezha caught him using telekinesis, holding him up in the air. Then she drove him into the cobble stones, stunning him. She cast a sleep spell on him so they’d have a captive for questioning. Aleena was about to go after whoever was in that dark room when several firepots came arcing over the crowd. Eisen and the guards next to him raised their shields. Some firepots struck and exploded on them while others burst upon the cobblestones at the guards’ feet, splattering oil that blossomed in flames and inspired the crowd to further hysteria. The guards, their trousers on fire, danced away, while Eisen and his companions cast their burning shields away. With a wave of her hand, Baezha cast magic to extinguish the flames. As the fires went out, figures hooded and cloaked charged.
Aleena stepped forward to meet the first one. He held a curved short sword with a wicked serrated blade. Not knowing if her opponent wore armor under his cloak, she set her blade to be as sharp as it could. Her blade caught him in his left shoulder and emerged from his right rib cage, resulting in his head and right shoulder and arm separating from the rest of his body. Another one came at her from behind. She drove a kick into his stomach, then turned and split his skull. A third thrust his sword at her, but she knocked it aside and unleashed a counterattack too fast for spectators to follow. They saw her swinging sword as a blur of motion. Then the man dropped, his sword arm, forward leg, and head sliced off.
Baezha hurled glowing blue magic at one assassin in a motion like she was striking him with her palm. The mass of magical power drove him back into a wall with enough force to shatter his skull and several other bones. Another came at her, sword cocked over his shoulder. Baezha wrapped her telekinetic power around his neck and broke it while cutting down another one.
Eisen parried a thrust and stabbed his man in the neck, then blocked another assassin’s sword, grabbed his sword arm, then swung his sword in a low, backhanded blow, amputating the assassin’s legs just above the knees. Other members of the wolf pack took down their foes with the ruthless efficiency of sharks biting seals in half. With that, the assault ended, but there could easily be more assassins within the swirling crowd. Their entourage of artists and scribes milled about, aghast at all that just happened.
Aleena checked a dead assassin and confirmed her suspicion – he was a member of the Serpents of the Void.
“Get back to the palace!” Baezha yelled. “Now!”
The sedan bearers turned back toward the palace, hurrying as best they could under their burden. The guards stood on either side, shields up, the burned ones limping, but they hesitated.
“What are you waiting for?” Aleena demanded. “Get back to the palace!”
“That might not be the best idea, Mistress Kurrin,” Corporal Kade said. “Listen.”
Strident trumpet calls blared from within the palace walls.
“What is that?” Baezha asked.
“There’s been an attack at the palace.”
“My name’s Gorlik,” he said, his grin never faltering as he stared down at her. “I was hoping for this. The chance to put the God Makers’ strength potion to the test!”
She thrust at his neck, but he twisted aside and struck her sword arm in a nerve cluster, numbing her arm and forcing her to drop the sword. He drove a fist at her face. She barely avoided the blow; she didn’t expect such a big man to be so fast. Slipping aside, she drove the heel of her palm up into his chin. Pain shot through her hand and forearm as his head barely moved. His grin broadened. His hammer-like fist slammed into her forehead with a backhanded blow, sending her staggering back three steps before she fell.
He came at her in confident strides as she got up, her equilibrium still wobbly from the blow he dealt her. Her head felt full of cobwebs, whether from the blow or the sedatives she did not know, but her mental faculties were slow and clumsy, like a limb that had fallen asleep. He shot another fist at her. She slipped aside and came in to deliver a flurry of blows with hands, feet, knees and elbows, then backed off. He continued to grin, amused at her antics. Then he came at her. She could barely block the punches he sent at her. She tried to block one of his hooking punches and slowed it just enough to keep it from knocking her unconscious, but it did light off pyrotechnics in her skull. She backpedaled, trying to buy enough time to recover.
To do what, she wondered. My strongest blows do nothing but amuse him.
He came in with a nice opening in his guard. Aleena shot in and drove her fist into his abdomen with every bit of power she possessed, from her feet, up through her hips and torso, transmitting all of it through her arm into his belly.
She felt like she’d punched a stone wall. He looked down, smiling, and drove a hook punch into the side of her head and her world went dark.