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The Necessity of Ruthlessness

by Nathan Weisman

Ava’s feet ached. It had been six hours since the procession of dignitaries and royals began. If she could just stretch her foot for a moment she might be able to find some relief—but she quickly shook the thought from her mind. If she distracted Raga Dasra even in the slightest, her sore feet would be the least of her concerns. She focused on the man kneeling before the Raga. The man was a walking paradox, dressed in the highest of Durani fashion, yet with pale skin betraying him as clearly Zikia. A scion of House Vahni, Ava concluded.

“In short, my lady, while my operations are progressing in the Wildwood, the Onyx Daggers are not sufficient to accomplish your goals there. Support from one or two of your Marshals would make all the difference,” the man said, his gaze fixed on the pure white marble floor of the court.

Dasra let the man’s request hang in the air, lackadaisically plucking a fig from a jeweled gold bowl beside her throne of gilded ivory. She appeared completely unfazed by the weight of the assembly’s attention. She split the fig open, and with a swift, violent motion, took a juicy bite of the fruit. At her feet, the Raga’s tamed horned lynx, Dusya, peered upon the silent chamber.

“It was with great trust that I bestowed the Onyx Daggers upon you. Despite your less than desirable lineage, you have kept that trust. You bring honor to House Vahni and myself, and you should be proud.”

Dasra tossed the rest of the fig to Dusya. The beast snatched the fruit from midair.

“However, my Marshals will not take orders from someone of your standing. You understand, of course. Yet I can ask Lady Amba and Lord Mihik to assist you as they see fit…”

Dasra left off as the sound of yelling from outside the throne room’s great doors echoed into the chamber. Within seconds, the Raga’s footmen moved into formation, blocking the hall’s entrance.

“Excuse me, Lord Kopa, we will have to finish this conversation at another time. It seems I have another urgent meeting.” Kopa rose, bowed, and retreated back among the ranks of the gathered nobility within the hall.

With a gentle wave of her left hand, Dasra ordered her men make way. Without waiting, Lady Luja pushed through the guards, still in her armor, followed by a column of Durani knights covered in the dirt, ash, and blood from the battles of Two Rock and Mahtis.

“My brother’s blood is on your hands, witch!” Luja wailed, marching down the hall pointing at the Raga. “Yalo is dead and Two Rock is still held by the Gudanna hordes. You are nothing but words and wind,” she continued, reaching the front of the congregation and spitting upon the marble floor.

Dusya stood, growling at the approaching woman, only kept at bay by Dasra’s soft touch on his head.

“This was not your first campaign, Lady Luja. You should know the risks of your service, as your brother did. You embarrass yourself and Lord Yalo’s memory by such uncivilized behavior.” Dasra’s voice issued calmly and soft as silk, yet her stare betrayed a ruthless hardness.

“You dare speak down to me, you upstart whore? You act as if it is not common knowledge that you won your station not on the battlefield but in your bedchamber.” As Luja said this, her glance shifted to Ava, who stood just to the left of Dasra’s throne, her eyes softening for just a moment.

“Lady Luja, you underestimate me.”

“I believe I see you clearly, and what I see disgusts me. I am of House Lipta; I have connections far beyond the Upper Empire in Karana-Naga, and in the Lower Empire. Hear me, Lords of the Durani: Dasra will pay. She will be cast out, and slaughtered in the streets like the stray cat she is. Cut your ties with her now or see them pull you down with her.”

The court erupted as the gathered lords and ladies turned to each other and shouted back at both Lady Luja and Raga Dasra. In the commotion, Luja turned and pushed through the crowd toward the door.

Dasra stood from her throne, regaining control of the room instantly without a word.

“Dear guests, I regret that rude interruption. While House Lipta may be well connected, they certainly seem to have lost their grasp of etiquette.” An uncomfortable laugh emanated from the court. “I believe Lord Vahni’s report was the last item of business. However, since Lady Luja has opened the floor, does anyone else have any other business they would like to bring forward?”

There was hushed conversation among the assembly, but no one stepped forward.

“Very well. We shall retire for the remainder of the afternoon,” Dasra said with a slight nod of apology to the court. All bowed in return as Dasra quietly made her way toward the rear of the hall and her apartments. Only Ava was permitted to follow the Raga into her personal chambers. Dusya stalked after Dasra, her ever-present shadow.

“I believe a bath is order, Ava. Today has been… eventful.”

~~~

The Raga’s bath was an oasis within the palace. Exotic plants from throughout Eretsu gave the room the feeling of a rainforest. Red silk drapery hung over the room, tinting the fading light. It was here that Ava thought that the Raga could finally let pretenses and appearances lapse, and be herself. The room even put the vigilant Dusya at ease.

Ava sat beside the bath, idly toying with a few of the flower petals she had strewn over the surface of the bath. Across from Ava, Dasra lounged in the water, her eyes closed, head resting on a pillow at the edge of the bath. A smile, or perhaps a smirk, played lightly on her lips.

“Ava, darling,” Dasra said, startling the girl, who thought Dasra had drifted asleep. “What did you think of our surprise visitor this afternoon?”

“I… I was impressed my Raga’s ability to remain civil and composed in the face of such barbarism,” Ava ventured.

Dasra laughed. “You have certainly been trained well, Ava. Some of my best diplomats could not conjure such a well crafted answer that means nothing.”

“My Raga, it was not my intent to—”

“Please, Ava. Dispense with the formalities.” The princess reached past Ava to pour herself a glass of wine, her arm faintly brushing Ava’s. “I do hope we can be friends,” she added conspiratorially, her breath tingling Ava’s ear.

“Now, what did you really think of our Lady Luja’s little performance? I personally thought wearing her armor still filthy from the battle was overly theatrical, yet it seemed to play well with the lower nobles.” Dasra relaxed back into the bath.

“Truly, I don’t know how you can be so calm. The influence of House Lipta is legendary. Surely her threats are more than just noise.”

“Oh, no. I’m quite sure Luja’s show today was only her opening act. However, this is not the first time I have been cast in this role. I know it very well.”

“I have never seen Luja like that,” Ava remarked. “She was so forceful and angry. She has always been so kind to me in the past when she came to court.”

“She desires you, you know,” Dasra said bluntly, sipping her wine.

“I’m of a fringe Zikia House. Luja would never marry me.”

“Who said anything about marriage? There’s no need to feign innocence, you weren’t selected to be my lady-in-waiting by accident.”

Ava dropped the petal she was toying with, watching it settle on the water while she grasped for a response.

Dark deeds from Ava’s past raced through her mind. Bribes, seductions, and assassinations had been the price of her current rank. A collection of secrets, any one of which could bring down not only Ava, but her whole house.

Dasra began to chuckle.

“There’s no need to worry, Ava, your secrets are safe with me—devilish as they may be. There’s no need to talk of Lord Sukhar, or your other victims.” She handed Ava her cup. “Have a drink, you suddenly look flushed. It will calm your nerves. I didn’t mean to make you so nervous. You must forgive me.”

“If the rumors are to be believed, you have quite the collection of secrets youself,” Ava said, her voice wavering.

Dasra didn’t respond, but a smile crept across her face. “An impressive collection, if I must say so myself. I’m sure a woman such as yourself can understand how I came to amass them.”

“There usually is not much choice involved, Raga.” Ava accepted the cup of wine and drank deeply. “Secrets tend to force themselves on you as a matter of necessity, in my experience.”

“The world can certainly be a harsh place. Yet through its trials, it’s possible to forge oneself into something stronger. Have I ever told you of my childhood?”

Dusya shook himself awake, his eyes finding Dasra. The beast’s head cocked to the side questioningly. Dasra returned a reassuring smile to the lynx. After a moment, the cat’s attention shifted to cleaning its razor-sharp claws.

“I don’t believe you have,” Ava answered, “though you’re hardly ever so forthcoming. Perhaps Lady Luja’s act has had a greater effect on my lady then she cares to admit.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Dasra conceded. “Luja’s visit has made me realize I’m in need of friends. Friends whom I can trust.”

“Trust is a fickle commodity in the Empire. There never seems to be enough in supply, especially when you find yourself in the greatest need.”

“Indeed. Maybe I was mistaken to trust you,” Dasra jested, though with a hard edge to her voice. “Have no fear though, that’s a mistake easily remedied.” She glanced toward her lynx as it preened its claws.

“I did not mean to say you couldn’t trust me. I am your faithful servant as always,” Ava reassured, her tone softening. “You were going to tell me of your childhood?”

“I was, my way of returning the trust you so generously lavish upon me,” Dasra said mockingly. “My first lesson of the world was father’s murder.

“My Father, Lord Dairo, had lifted my mother well above any station she was born for, and for it he earned his siblings’ scorn. Soon after I was born, my father was called to arms as a Marshal for the Upper Empire in the Gudanna wars. During the first  battle of Two Rock my uncle betrayed my father, killing him during the fighting. Within a year of my father’s death, my mother was poisoned, I suspect also by father’s house.

“I was left orphaned except for Kino, an old knight of my father’s who suffered a grievous wound, scarring his face and leaving him unfit for battle. He became my guardian and teacher. He was a good, loyal, and—most importantly—shrewd man. It was from him that I learned to act a role, to be seen or not seen as I chose. Were it not for him, I’m sure I’d be long dead.

“Though orphaned, I was far from without prospects. When I came of age, I would be claimant to my father’s fortune, an inheritance his brothers wished to acquire. My uncles weren’t the only ones with aspirations to my father’s wealth, either. Suitors from houses great and small came to seek my hand. Yet Kino counseled me against taking any match.”

“Clearly you took his advice to heart.” Ava interjected. “I believe most of the realm has given up on courting you.”

“I certainly have taken his advice, but that isn’t why I maintain my independence,” Dasra answered with a laugh. “Kino was the only man I truly ever loved… One of two men I ever loved,” she corrected herself.

“Kino believed I shouldn’t be forced to act out of fear, that given time and planning I could negotiate a better future for myself. He was right, although he would not live to see it. He was ambushed by a band of assassins while returning from delivering yet another rejection to an aspiring noble from a low house. I awoke to find his head being delivered to me in a basket.

“You must understand, the court was not as stable as today. In the early days of the Gudanna wars, the Empire was awash in blood both within and without. The Gudanna invasion started just as the Emperor began his isolation. If it wasn’t for the infighting in the vacuum of his withdrawal, the Gudanna would still be nothing more than a roaming clan of barbarians.” Dasra scowled, relishing the bitter thought.

“If you desired justice as I did, you were left to your own means to serve it. It took me a year and half to narrow down who had ordered Kino’s death. In the end I held Grand Marshal Saline and my uncle Lord Devera responsible. Saline was retaliating for my rejection of her son; my uncle wished to make my inheritance his own.

“My vengence began by feigning defeat. I reluctantly agreed to become Saline’s daughter-in-law, and proceeded to plan the bonding ceremony. The key to any deception lies in the details: in this case, joining my accounts in the imperial bank to those of Grand Marshal Saline, and hers with mine. After all, we were family, if just for a few hours. On a similar note,” she added, “never underestimate what can be done with some coin and a bolt of cloth.”

“I believe I see where your tale is heading, Raga.” Asa passed the glass of wine back to Dasra.

“Oh? Then let us hear your prediction,” Dasra challenged, a joyful, fatal gleam in her eyes as she swirled the wine.

“There is hardly a soul in the Upper Empire, if not the whole imperial domain, who doesn’t know the tragedy of your wedding. In an attempt to save his brother’s wealth from leaving his house, your uncle turned your wedding into a massacre. Survivors speak of the ceremony being brought to an abrupt end by the scythe of a Winged Preserver crashing through the ceiling of the Lady Saline’s chapel, boldy carrying your uncle’s colors for all to see. In the ensuing chaos, all of Lady Saline’s family happened to perish, leaving you the sole heir to her house.”

Dasra gave a silent nod and a smile, as a teacher does in approval to student.

Ava continued: “The brutality of the attack, and the wide range of families that suffered casualties, made raising an army to crush Lord Gilgon easy. After a short contest, Lord Gilgon was defeated, and surrendered all his holdings to you, leaving you at the head of a powerful coalition. It wasn’t hard for you to establish yourself as Raga after that, ushering in stability and safety for the Upper Empire.

“What you were going to tell me was that the men who attacked your wedding were, in fact, hired by you. The casualties were specific targets you knew would stand in the way of your ascension, and of course who would blame you for the attack even if they didn’t see past the forged banners and uniforms. It was a scheme rivalling that of the Emperor’s own bloodless coup, for its flawless execution if not for its brutality.”

Dasra smiled and set the now empty glass on the edge of the bath.

“Like the Emperor, I did what needed to be done for the good of the Empire. But for my ‘scheme,’ the Empire would still be tearing itself apart.” Dasra rose from the bath, and Ava instantly wrapped her in a towel out of habit more than conscious thought.

“Yet that stability seems threatened by Lady Luja now,” Ava observed.

“If her boisterous threats are to be believed, I fear you may be right,” Dasra solemnly agreed. “Yet there still is time for us to take action.” She motioned to her office, a large room with a balcony overlooking the palace orchard. In the middle of the room stood an ornate stone desk.

“I would have peace, and to achieve it I will need your help, my lovely Ava. You are precious to me, and it is not with a light heart that I ask this of you. It is as you say, though: there is often little choice when life forces secrets upon us. On my desk is a letter for our dear Lady Luja. I would have you deliver it, with my love.”

Stepping into her dressing room, Dasra added “But I don’t mean to force this on you. Accepting this task is a choice you will have to make.”

Ava suppressed a shudder. “Of course, Raga. I do it gladly.”

Dasra clasped a gold bracelet inlaid with diamonds and emeralds around her wrist. “Now, I have dinner with Lord Laghu.”

As the princess made ready to leave her apartments, she stopped for a moment, straightening herself. “Safe travel, my Ava. I hear Lady Luja’s palace is magnificent this time of year.” Then, with a deep breath, she stepped through the door and back into the grand hall. Dusya followed her like a shadow.

After the Raga left, Ava meandered across the office. Sinking into the cushioned chair at the desk, Ava took up the sealed letter and flipped it around in her fingers. Finally she set the letter down, stood, and walked back to the door. Halfway to the door she stopped, turning back to the desk and letter laying there silently.

“What’s one more secret?” she asked herself, walking back and picking up the letter again.

Illustration: Joel DuQue