Queen Cassandra was sleeping by the time Rolanda returned from the council. Several of the queen’s handmaidens were by her side, clutching their prayer beads tightly in their small, white hands. Pendants of solid blue topaz hung from their frail necks, etched with Salacia’s likeness.
“Queen Cassandra,” Rolanda bowed her head. “I have just come from the council. I bring grave news…”
The queen raised her head slightly. “Rolanda, fetch some hot water with some lemon and some of my medicine. Then we shall talk.”
Rolanda resisted the sneer tugging at her thin lips. “Of course, Your Grace.” She bowed slightly and turned so her robes swirled outward like a whirlpool behind her. Rolanda couldn’t help but smile as she poured from the bowl of steaming water the palace pumped in from the hot springs below. Grabbing a half a lemon, she squeezed the juice into the Queen’s cup and grabbed a pinch of the powder the Queen kept near the lemons. Ha, medicine indeed. If only you knew, poor fool. She swirled the cup until the grains disappeared into the liquid, releasing a pungent citrus smell. However, this time when Rolanda brought the cup to the queen’s lips the woman had the gall to wave it away.
“I’ll not be spoon fed like a child.” She raised a hand to the bedmaids. “Go attend your duties.”
“Would her Grace like a prayer or song this afternoon?”
“What have your words done for my eyes? Go, I say.” She turned so her gaze was straight at Rolanda. Although she was blind and had been for years, somehow the queen always managed to make it look like she could see straight through you. It never failed to give Rolanda chills. Another week, maybe two and the shrieking bat would be dead and her eunuch of a husband would be too busy chasing serving girls’ skirts to care about running his kingdom.
“Yes, Your Grace. If you have need of me, I will be in the temple.” Rolanda bowed once more before following the giggling handmaidens out of the queen’s chamber. The girls immediately headed towards the king’s chamber. For a brief moment, Rolanda felt pity for the queen. She had refused to take another lover after her precious Sir Caldon disappeared and the king only laid with his queen once a year when alcohol consumed him.
Rolanda kept her head slightly bowed as she swept through the corridors and down multiple staircases. Everyone she passed was either weeping or keeping themselves busy so they hadn’t the energy to do so. Brennus had struck quite the chord amongst the populace. Even hours after the executions, people were still looking over their shoulders as they went about their work. Some clutched prayer pendants close to their chest as they worked, praying for strength from their patron goddess. Rolanda tried not to laugh at the poor fools. Her own pendant felt heavy and warm beneath her heavy robes. As she neared Salacia’s temple, the pendant seemed to come to life and pulled at her to walk faster towards the temple.
The temple was quite small next to the Grand Temple dedicated to Yuki. The bricks were painted a dark navy blue with whites and grays to represent rushing waves and currents. Flowers ranging from pale pink to bright green were planted around the base of the temple walls. Several plants stretched up and climbed up using cracks in the brick walls. A steady crowd of people were coming in and out of the temple. Each nodded their respects to the priestess as she passed through the main worship chamber. A towering statue of
Salacia looked down upon her people with her eyes half closed and her gaze directed to her outstretched fingers. Her dress, partially made from the water pumped out of the statue, tumbled like a waterfall into the fountain below where people knelt. As Rolanda passed, she overhead some praying for safe return of some ship that had been lost at sea.
Rolanda almost felt sorry for the poor mortals. The souls of their loved ones were likely converted to Naonet’s shadow dancers by now. At least they would be more useful than the blubbering women and children praying to a rock as if it could do anything.
She pulled the hood of her cloak over her face and exited through one of the side doors to a small library of the temple’s ancient texts. Two other priests were waiting for her. Once she closed the door behind her, they pulled out a book from one of the shelves.
After a small creak, the shelf swung open and revealed a dark staircase leading down.
Rolanda grabbed a torch and led the way. As the shelf slid shut behind them, the temperature began to rise until a thin layer of sweat beaded along Rolanda’s brow. At the bottom of the staircase, the three came to a black door with symbols carved along the edges.
Rolanda retrieved the pendant from under her robes and held it out in front of her. As she passed it along the door in a zig-zag pattern, the gold writing along the edges began to twitch to life. In a blink of an eye, they zoomed to the center of the door and merged with each other. The golden pool of light grew bigger and brighter until it consumed the whole door. A black spot emerged from the center and grew to the length of the door. Rolanda stashed away her pendant and stepped through the portal. Once the other two had also passed through, the portal closed and the golden pool broke back into writing along the door frame.
The room was small and death’s putrid stench oozed up from the stone floor. A pool of molten shadow bubbled from the center of the room. Rolanda and the two other figures strode forward and dropped to one knee, retrieving a dagger from the inside of their robes. Rolanda noticed the shadows around them tense in anticipation. The rush of air around them sounded like a sigh as they gently pressed the tip of their daggers against their palms until a line of red emerged. The pool in the middle stopped bubbling for a few seconds before starting again. This time it bubbled faster and the bubbles were bigger.
“Lord and Master Naonet. We bring great news.”
A column of bubbling goo emerged from the floor and slowly twisted into a humanoid shape. The figure was covered from head to toe in darkness except for half its face, which was scared from burns. His eyes were a dull gray and his hair was white with streaks of red, gray and black. His smile was yellowed like burnt parchment and his tongue as black as charcoal. Shadow dancers giggled like small children as they jumped about their creator.
“I shall decide what is good or bad. Report, each of you.” He nodded towards Rolanda. “You first, my sweet.”
Rolanda stood and unhooked her robe and shrugged out of the blue to reveal a red robe beneath. The garment was much thinner, which Rolanda was grateful for in this intense heat. The sweat was dripping off the back of her neck, sending chills down her spine. With one eye she kept watch over the shadow dancers who had come with her master. She ignored the knot that twisted in her stomach and counted herself lucky to be on the devil’s right hand than against him.
“We have just come from the council. The new High Senator is as malleable as we thought. The pendant is working like a charm. All the seers, whether they are real or if we whispered their names in his ear, are now being hunted as traitors of the land. If any are unconvinced, the bombing of the Grand Yuki temple will be tied to several well-known seers. Any words they say will fall on deaf ears.”
Naonet nodded. “What about our new recruits?”
The figure to Rolanda’s left stood and stood next to her. “We’ve brought in three hundred more within the last month from outlier villages. Most have been resistant but your children are persuasive. In another year, we’ll have enough to conquer Wynlan city. The Trinity Knights will never know what hit them.”
Naonet smiled. “Excellent. Now tell me about my child.”
Rolanda and the other two looked at each other. “Your child, Master? You mean the one who was stolen years ago?”
“Some of my shadow dancers found her alive in a village just outside the Goshken Forest. They got the wrong one though. Luckily they were able to track her to Wynlan before they lost her scent. She’s in the city, that’s for sure. I want her found alive. I need her heartstone.”
The third figure cleared his throat. “Two of my agents rescued a young woman from an attack on a village near the Goshken Forest. Should I bring her to you, my liege?”
“Yes, yes. It would also be prudent for Cassandra to meet an unfortunate end before she could see her daughter. Her husband will have no choice but to declare war on the murderer. Make it look like the Trinity Knights. It’s time the people saw them, but in a less than flattering light.”
“It shall be done,” the third figure answered.
Naonet’s voice began to fade in and out and sounded more like hissing steam. Naonet leaned his head to the left, cracking several joints. “This Brennus also intrigues me. Bring him to me as well.” A loud groaning sound filled the room. “I expect larger numbers for my army when next we meet. Steal from the homeless in the cities, particularly children. They have the strongest souls.”
Naonet’s form collapsed back into the pool and the shadows stood still once again. The temperature dropped considerably so that Rolanda could see her breath in front of her. Rolanda turned to the other two figures. “I’ll take care of Queen Cassandra. Bara, make sure Brennus makes it to our next meeting. Hallon, I want to see this girl your agents found.”