Originally appeared in The Secrets of Magic
Virot’s jaw tightened slightly, but he maintained a cheerful expression. He didn’t like the idea of the twins monitoring him for their own amusement. He liked it even less if they did it on mother’s orders.
“I did as I was asked,” he said. “I broke up the Ilyssa conspiracy to take over the docks before it could even get started. I killed the Ilyssa’s chief negotiator and sent a strong message to the other noble houses. And I did it with my usual flair and efficiency.”
“You did it with a spell that no one in the family has ever heard of,” Vinya said. “And you did it to the second son of the Ilyssa. His father is very upset.”
“So is our older brother,” Val droned. Vinya bounced the ball of thread lightly off of her twin’s forehead.
“Hush, now.” Vinya smoothly caught the ball and resumed adding string to it. “That was the secret part.”
Virot relaxed. “I see.” He bowed to the twins, then stepped forward. They remained as they were, facing each other and coiling string, without looking up. “Excuse me,” he said evenly.
“No, little brother. Mother made herself clear, and we promised. Sit and talk with us awhile. Val’s arms must be getting tired.” She patted the stone stair beside her. “Come on now. Obey your elders.”
“Look into your own future,” Virot said quietly. “And see what will happen if you don’t get out of my way.”
Vinya laughed merrily. “You can’t hurt us. We’re family.”
Virot feigned shock. “Who said anything about hurt? I’m merely pointing out that we all have secrets.” Val started to moan, but Vinya shushed him. “Since you told mother about my new spell, it’s only right that I tell her about the entrails you’ve been using for your predictions lately. You’ve been warned about taking children from the neighborhood, haven’t you? Several times, if I’m not mistaken.”
Val wailed softly and dropped the rest of the string. Vinya took his hand and squeezed it, crooning softly until her twin settled down.
“Oh, Virot,” she said. “Cruel Virot.” She pulled her moaning brother closer and held him tight. “Go on,” she said, her voice muffled by Val’s long hair. “But at least tell mother that we tried to stop you.”
Virot smiled wide. “I’ll do better than that. Blood has spilled tonight. The feud between Maglan, Ilyssa, and their allies will most likely resume in earnest. Even our brother cannot complain if you use the children of our enemies, no matter what part of the city they come from.” He casually inspected the hilt of his saber. “It would be very easy for you to collect your specimens if I made a point of driving them toward the manor, wouldn’t it?”
Vinya caught his meaning and returned his smile. “Yes, little brother. Yes it would.”
“Consider it done.”
Val looked confused, but as Virot passed them, Vinya was whispering excitedly in her twin’s ear. As he entered the family manor, Virot heard his older brother give an exultant cry and clap his hands together.
Virot’s mother sat high on a thronelike chair in her luxurious private chamber. The gems and precious metals that decorated the walls were worth more than the rest of the manor combined. Her chair had been carved from a dragon’s skull by master craftsmen.
She carried the symbol of her supreme power, the Maglan family scepter, tightly in her right hand.
Lady Maglan was over seventy years old, her limbs thin, and her skin stretched tight across her face. She had yellow cat’s eyes, complete with vertical pupils, and her hair was a shining cascade of copper strands that had been enchanted onto her head. She was not an overly vain woman, but she understood the importance of appearances. Upon the death of the children’s father thirty years ago, she had adopted the copper hair as an accessory to the family scepter.
Currently, she and her eldest son Vozama were receiving a visitor. Vozama was a stern, pinched, white-haired man with long arms and sharp nails. A man with the Ilyssa crest on his shirt was glowering in front of the two eldest Maglans.
“Virot, my boy. Come sit by my side.” His mother’s voice was calm but hard, her innate sharpness hidden like a dagger in a sheath. Virot always likened her style to a slow stab rather than a brutal thrust.
Virot hesitated. He did not routinely participate in this kind of meeting. “Mother. Brother. I wasn’t sure you’d be pleased to see me. The twins...”
“Sit,” she commanded, and Virot lowered himself to the steps next to his mother’s feet. “I think I may need you after all.” To the Ilyssa envoy, she said, “You were saying?”
The messenger looked suspiciously at Virot then continued. “Simply put, your position is indefensible.” Virot noted that he spoke in a slow, official tone, reciting a message he had been made to memorize. “You do not have the resources to control the docks, and you do not have the power to conquer Ilyssa. Maybe twenty years ago but not today.”
Vozama flushed and angrily flexed his fingers. Virot hid a smile. Mother didn’t react at all.
“And your message?”
“It is a demand, Lady Maglan, not a message. The savage who murdered the second-born son of Ilyssa will be given over to me. If I return to the Ilyssa manor alone, then you may consider the truce at an end.” He paused and dropped his formal tone. “My master will destroy you all. His minions will overrun the city. We have seen the portents, and the time of zombies is almost upon us. Within a generation, everything dead will rise again. The Machine God will repair and revive anything that has ever fallen, and those of us who have perfected this art will be rewarded. It has been foretold. Check with your own augurs if you do not believe. Be wise, Lady Maglan. Submit to us now, that we might spare you when the Age of the Undead begins.”
“I see. If you return alone, it means violence and conflict. And if you do not return at all?” She gestured to Virot. “Bring him up, my boy.”
The messenger yelped as Virot sprang on him, twisting his arms behind his back. He forced the man up three steps to the chair, then onto his knees.
“You will be my reply,” she said. She rose, drawing a long metal spike from her sleeve as she stood. Though old and thin, her arm flashed downward into the messenger’s face with the speed and force of a guillotine blade. She nodded to Virot, who let the twitching body drop.
“Deliver him to his master,” she returned to her seat, her breath easy and unlabored. “The feud is on.”
“But mother,” Vozama said.
The old woman raised her hand. “I know what you are going to say. ‘We are overmatched. We should negotiate. It’s better to have a small slice of the pie than to be dead.’ But there is only one way to deal with these grave-robbing vermin.”
“Hear! Hear!” Virot said.
“Hold your tongue,” Vozama said. Then, to his mother, “I would have said those things, mother, yes. And I would have been right.”
She shook her head. “They have been testing our resolve, squeezing our territory, and whittling away at our influence for the past five years while this damnable truce was in place. They are brutes, and brutes only understand a sharp blow to the face.”
Vozama crossed his arms, but Virot could still hear him picking at his own fingernails in frustration. “And when the zombies break through the main gate? When Ilyssa cutthroats murder us in our beds?”
Lady Maglan sighed and looked to Virot. “This is why I can never retire, my son. Your older brother knows how to use power but not how to keep it.”
“He is a worrier, Mother. It is his nature.”
“And you are an animal,” Vozama said. “All you need do is kill. It’s up to me to make sure that we live.”
“Hush, my children. Virot understands the use of force, Vozama. You would be wise to listen to him.” Virot smirked, and she added, “And you, Virot, should be more respectful to your elders. If Vozama worries, it is because he has the family’s long-term interests in mind. Glory belongs to the Maglans as a whole, not its individual members. We have survived, prospered, and dominated in this city for generations because we have never strayed from that belief. A Maglan has wealth, power, and most importantly, purpose. What more could anyone possibly want?”
Virot bowed his head. “Yes, Mother.”
To the still-furious Vozama, she said, “And the Ilyssa can’t simply kill us all in our beds. We have maintained the flow of commerce to and from the city for generations. The slavers and the smugglers and the pirate kings are used to dealing with us. If we disappeared overnight, it would take years to reestablish the level of security and trust that we provide. Each family would try to make its own arrangements, and full-scale war would break out in a matter of weeks. The Ilyssa know this. It’s one of the reasons they’re so angry all the time.”
“I think we are overestimating the Ilyssa’s grasp of the situation and underestimating their greed.”
“No, my son. The Ilyssa will bluster and perhaps even bloody our noses, but they will not storm the manor. If we don’t make a stand now and match them blow for blow, we will never revive our prestige. And our prestige has suffered lately.” She coughed dramatically into her fist. “I am not as young as I once was. What kind of mother would I be if I were to turn over the family business to you with our power at its lowest point in a hundred years?”
“So,” Virot said, “we will fight.”
“You will fight,” mother said, “and, I hope, with a little less relish than you exhibited tonight. We,” she motioned to Vozama, “will take up the other front. The subtler battlefields of negotiation and influence. If we all play our parts, the entire family will benefit. Which is as it should be.”
Both Maglan sons answered in unison, “Yes, Mother.”
Though he could see the wisdom of his mother’s words, Virot couldn’t stop turning over her rhetorical question in his mind. He had wealth. He had power. He had purpose. What else could he want?
To be continued...
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