Two weeks ago I published the first story in my House of Cards inspired fantasy, and this is a continuation of it, fused with the characters and world of my work-in-progress novel, The City of the Gods.
She was twenty one or two two, except when she was eighteen or twenty five. Oriana had as many names as she had ages – each town along the coast knew her as someone other than she truly was. The people here knew only that she, and her twin brother, hailed from the farmlands of the west and had come to make their fortune in Hisaland’s capital, Ostrona. At least, that was the story they told whenever anyone concerned themselves enough to ask which was not often, for in Ostrona, asking questions was a sure way to an untimely end.
Allegedly she was a dancer by profession, but the crowds she drew each night did not come for dancing skills, such as they were, they came to watch this alluring young woman dazzle them from her stage. They came, men and women both, to see her grace and breathe in her beauty. Sometimes they came to do more than see, and that was when her brother stepped in.
He was oddly handsome too, with sharp features and a fire in his eyes. No one knew how he did it, but he moved faster than he should be able to and had stopped the unwelcome attentions of groups of five men and more entirely by himself. That was not to say that she could not look after herself, or that the attention was always unwelcome. She had a string of lovers from dukes to paupers, and while the nobles she slept with offered her wealth and titles, she rejected each of their gifts, no matter how generous. No attachments, that was her condition, that and the man must appeal to her. There seemed to be no logic to the string of men she allowed into her bed; some were fat, others thin, some were tall, others short, some were balding, others had a full head of hair. Looks did not influence her, none of Ostrona’s men knew what did.
Tonight the she slept with not one man, but two. One was a sailor and the other a cook, the former worked aboard a galley in the queen’s navy, the latter served in the household staff of one Lord Merrion, an unaccomplished general who owed his position to his family’s ties to the monarch. Yet the new queen and her husband were said to be keen to root out those who were less than exemplary in their service, and there were many. Whether the Baron’s Alliance had the sway to save him from this purge remained to be seen, but the queen had made herself few friends at the top of society since taking the throne after the death of her brother.
Oriana watched an apparition of herself in the bed from a nearby seat, the men could not see her, only the imitation she allowed them to. She did sleep with some of those she invited after her show, but not most. Some said that the basis of all magic was illusion, it was so much more than that, yet illusion was her strongest skill and one she pushed to best advantage. Standing she departed and, passing the inn’s landlord on the stairs, she nodded. After a moment he returned her nod with the same vacant expression on his features that he always wore, the one that seemed to question why he gave Oriana and her brother their meals without expecting pay and their rooms without demanding rent.
Leaving him to struggle with the questions he could never bring himself to broach with her directly, she walked out into the street. Her brother suddenly appeared beside her as he was wont to do. As a child it had frightened her, for that was before they had understood their powers and how to use them, and he had been suitably mischievous for a younger brother, but their sorcery complimented each other and she was not sure she could do what she now did without him.
“Have your efforts borne fruit?” Kiran asked, his eyes scanning every window and every doorway. Over the years there had been times when they had been forced to flee from small towns or villages, and he was always ready.
“They have, the sailor was aboard the ship which transported them to the city and the servant has seen their lodgings within the palace.”
“She will want to know,” he said as they walked out onto the street and she raised her hood to avoid unwelcome attention. The city was often caught in mist, and covering oneself was not unusual.
“I’m sure she will,” Oriana replied as she pulled up her cowl to conceal her face, “but I want to see them first. I want to know why the queen is so keen on these visitors from Alays.”
“Isn’t the princess still missing? The girl is said to fit the age and description.”
“True enough,” she nodded, “but if the queen feared a threat, she would remove it and she would not ask us to monitor their movements unless they were important. More important than the exiled princess of some backwater little city most back home have never even heard of, at least.”
Her brother chuckled softly, “if you think you know her mind, I fear you might truly be lost. Unless you spent time alone… you didn’t, did you?”
Oriana looked back without saying a word, he would ponder that question for the rest of the no matter her answer, so she gave him none. Ostrona had been a pleasant city not so long ago, a city of canals and parks where the tensions between the social classes were not nearly as severe as they were elsewhere in Hisaland. The people had been, if not happy, at least content. These days there were dark whispers about the queen, her parentage, her right to rule. She could not leave the city for fear that her own nobles might attack her and with the realm open to invasion by the Dark God’s hosts from the south, the Balusakans were on the verge of annexing the entire kingdom, or so it was said. Some would probably welcome it, at least the Imperium feeds its people. Balusaka lay to the north, a vast empire which brought stability and trade with it wherever it went; the problem, was that it most often did so with the swords of tens of thousands of its legionnaires.
At first there had been but a trickle of refugees from the countryside, but now they came in ever greater numbers and Ostrona could cope no longer. The children that played on the streets as they walked were bareboned, and their clothing was threadbare. Winter was not far off and as a child with flaming red locks, not unlike herself fifteen years past, crossed her path Oriana wondered whether it would be hunger or disease which killed her first.
Lord Merrion’s estate was walled off from the rest of the city, but the houses surrounding his manor were higher than the walls. The queen’s network in Ostrona was extensive and there were safe houses and hidden dens across the city. One overlooked the private chambers of the noble and his guests, by no means a coincidence. The queen did not tolerate such things.
“Do you want to sleep? I can take first watch,” Kiran asked and she nodded, the effect of holding the illusion was draining. She dozed off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow and she dreamed, though when her brother woke her she could not recall anything beyond blurs. Darkness had set in and she settled in for what she assumed would be long, quiet night. Neither of them knew what they were looking for, but she would know it when she saw it. An hour passed before a knife suddenly appeared at her throat, “I won’t kill kill you if you won’t scream,” the accent was exotic and heavy, from the corner of her eye she could see her brother still slept. Looking up the woman pressing the knife against her, she nodded.
Image: Eddie Mendoza.