This story is part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection.
When the gods had begun “blessing” individuals with supernatural powers in exchange for loyalty, Clare was the first.
She hadn’t even needed to swear any devotion.
Because, unlike all the others, she had received blessings from multiple gods at once.
Clare strode out of her chambers. Her violet-tinted knee-high boots clapped against the stone floor, and servants turned their heads to get a glimpse of her. Nilde had recently ordered their craftsmen to design her a new outfit. It was ridiculous. She was supposed to be a warrior-ruler, not an emblem of fashion. But Nilde had insisted the boots and violet tunic would enhance public impressions of her. At least Clare had been able to keep the functional black-leather skirt.
Clare pushed through a pair of large iron doors and descended the tightly spiraled stairs into the stagnant depths of the dungeon. The door at the bottom was locked, but the guards recognized her pace and opened it before she reached it. Nodding briefly at them, she entered the dungeon.
Cells lined the right side of the hall; the wall on the left was bare, lit by occasional torches. Water dripped in the distance. Near the fourth cell, Riccardo was squatting and washing his hands in a basin of water. Redness still lined the creases in his palms.
“You’re finished already?” Clare asked. “I expected my presence would be needed to break the man.”
Riccardo stood. His curly hair clung to his sweaty brow. “Queen, I was about to summon you. He broke easily.”
Clare peered into the cell where a one-eyed man with a gnarly beard hung against the wall, legs limp and battered. He moaned softly.
She returned her attention to Riccardo. “You’re fortunate then. Are you desensitized yet?”
“I doubt I’ll ever get used to torturing people, Queen.”
Clare crossed her arms. “Forget about that—what did you learn?”
“Only that the couple and their children were insignificant.” Riccardo looked away. “He murdered them to make a statement.”
Clare clenched her jaw. “Should anything stop me from thrusting my hand through his heart?”
Riccardo shrugged. “The Rose hates you, not him. He joined simply for the pay. He was a street thug in Livorna who needed work.”
“Joining a group that hangs innocents by their entrails is how people obtain jobs in Livorna these days?”
“I never said he was honorable.”
Clare studied the prisoner. He didn’t look like a fanatic—just a pathetic man with nothing to live for. She turned back to Riccardo. “He’s not worth bloodying my hands over. Give him a public hanging. Ensure that a message is sent to the Rose. Did he mention any names?”
“We already captured the other members of his Rose group in Livorna. The only superior he spoke to was a man that went by the name of Kel.”
“Was it actually Kel?”
“The man wore a rose-petaled mask, but he didn’t bind anyone’s life to an object, so we can’t confirm his identity.”
“Did he have turquoise eyes?”
“Our prisoner didn’t notice.”
Clare pursed her lips. “Of course he didn’t.” She glanced at the man again and caught him staring at her. He quickly averted his eye.
After the violence the man had committed, he didn’t even have the courage to look her in the eye. Clare balled her hands into fists. “Maybe I do have something to say,” she muttered, and she walked into the cell. “You!”
The man’s head snapped up to meet her gaze for a moment.
“Do you know who I am?” Clare leaned close to him.
The man opened his mouth to reveal blackened teeth, but he kept his eyes downward. “Everyone knows who you are, Queen. You’re the First of the God-Blessed. I … I just didn’t realize…”
“I looked so young? Yes. Eternal youth does that.” Clare put her left hand on the manacle holding the man’s right arm to the wall. “Will you look at me when I talk to you?”
The man slowly obeyed, his eye wide with fear.
“I have a name for people who presume they’re brave enough to cut a little girl open and hang her by her intestines.” Clare tightened her grip on the manacle. “Do you know what I call them?”
“I don’t need to hear it.” The man glanced nervously at her hand.
“I call them cowards.” Clare applied pressure to the manacle. It began to flatten, squeezing the man’s wrist.
“P—please.” The man cringed.
“Save your repentance for the gods.” Clare gritted her teeth. “I want to hear from your own lips why you did it.”
“I—I could be a great guard in your service. I’m a good fighter—just add me to your army.”
“After your savagery?” Clare pushed the manacle until it cut into the man’s skin. He yelped.
“What did the Rose promise you?” Clare snapped. “Four pieces of gold for each child you hanged?”
“They said we’d make a point!”
“Oh, you made your point.” Blood from his wrist flowed down Clare’s arm. “You’ve demonstrated how heinous the Rose organization is.”
The man writhed. “I don’t care about their aims!”
“Should have considered that before you started killing children.” Bones snapped. The man screamed.
Clare glared at him. “Would you like to divulge anything before I sever your hand?”
“Queen!” the man cried. “I—I could at least be a servant.”
“Tell me something.”
“They’ve sent men here.”
Clare paused, the manacle half-embedded in the man’s wrist. “Here?”
“Acropolis,” the man gasped. A tear from his sole eye ran down his cheek. “I don’t know anything else. I just know they want to make a statement.”
Clare grabbed the man’s chin and pulled his face toward hers. “Haven’t they already made a statement?”
“They want to prove you’re not invincible.”
“I never said I was.” Heat flushed Clare’s cheeks. One yank would crack the man’s jaw.
But no. She was better than that.
Clare released the man, spun on a heel, and marched toward Riccardo. “You hear that?”
“Then do your job properly and don’t claim you’ve broken a man when you haven’t.” She normally wasn’t that harsh to Riccardo, but he needed to understand the danger. “Our citizens’ lives are at risk, and you would have killed this man before you discovered that.”
“I’m sorry, Queen. I made a mistake.”
“One mistake could cause our citizens to be slaughtered.” Clare narrowed her eyes. “Do you still have ethical issues with torture?”
For a long moment, Riccardo didn’t answer. Then he spoke. “I’ll do what’s necessary.”
“I hope so. If you stopped torturing him because you felt guilty, you can resign from your commanding position now.”
“I’ll try harder next time.”
“You better.” Clare slowly exhaled. “Don’t you remember the numerous lives that were lost because of my mistake when I was young and naive about the ways of the world?”
“Trust me, Riccardo. Spilling criminal blood may make you uneasy, but the blood of innocents would weigh heavier on your conscience.” Clare headed for the door. “Finish dealing with this man.”
“Queen,” Nilde said as she entered Clare’s bed chambers. “An ambassador is here to speak with you about—”
“Don’t have time.” Clare continued to scrutinize the city map. “Or the patience.”
Nilde hovered over her, clutching her quills and reams of paper. “Is something wrong?”
“The Rose is slaughtering my citizens to try to fracture our kingdom into chaos. The real question is if anything’s right.”
“Did you pry information from the prisoner?”
“Acropolis is next.”
Nilde inhaled sharply. “They … they’re sending a group here?”
“Already sent. I’m surprised victims aren’t dangling in the streets.”
“Please tell me you found out where they’re hiding.”
“If I did, would I be poring over maps right now? The Rose keeps their members in the dark.”
“Should I alert the guards?”
“Already done. They’re raiding the crime district for anyone who’s had their life bound to a stone or flame.”
Nilde floundered for a response. “Well, then what can I do?”
Clare rolled her eyes. She liked Nilde, but her chamberlain had the annoying habit of attempting to involve herself in everything. “Just oversee the court. I won’t appear publicly until this matter is resolved.”
Wind thundered high above Acropolis. Clare gazed at the maze of buildings and streets below her. She didn’t fly over the city as often as she used to, but occasionally she enjoyed gaining perspective. Especially on days like today. She clasped her arms together as the gusts created goosebumps on her skin. Too bad the gods hadn’t bestowed temperature resistance with all her other powers.
Clare shook her head. She couldn’t let her concentration stray from the terrorists who had a cell in her city. If the past was any indication, the Rose would escalate their game. They had begun by hanging guards and burning buildings at the outskirts of her empire. As they moved inward, they had hung citizens. Then children. Now, if Kel was finally infiltrating Acropolis, the barbarity would intensify.
As if they could perpetrate worse crimes than mutilating children.
Hell has a special place for such people. But thinking did nothing. Only actions mattered. Clare spiraled back into the city, her sword swaying against her hip. If she were a disgruntled, amoral warrior trying to terrorize citizens with cruelty more atrocious than hanging children by their intestines, what would she do?
Clare swallowed as she realized the truth. The Rose wasn’t composed of demons. They were fanatics striving to shatter the kingdom’s peace by making people feel unsafe. The question wasn’t what would be worse than hanging children, but what would accentuate her weaknesses as a ruler.
The conclusion was obvious.
“Nilde.” Clare barged into her chamberlain’s study. “Warn all my guards about the festival tomorrow. The Rose is going to target it.”
Nilde spun around from the book-stacked table. Ink smeared her otherwise flawless cheeks and horror spread across her face. “You’re sure?”
“They aim to destabilize me, right? If they’re in this city, they want to do a terrible deed that multitudes will witness. That means attacking the biggest festival of the year.”
Nilde gulped. “That … that could be catastrophic. ”
“You think I haven’t already connected those dots?”
Nilde shook her head. “Of course. Do you know what the Rose has planned?”
“Killing? Causing terror? Seeding chaos? Do the specifics matter?”
Nilde slowly rose from her chair, set aside her books, and walked over to her. “I’m on your side, Queen. You know that, right? I’m not your enemy.”
Clare hadn’t realized until then how much she had been yelling. She avoided Nilde’s gaze. “I’m sorry. Today has been stressful.”
“You’ve been stressed for a while.”
“For good reason.” Clare pursed her lips. “I should have restored order to Morshan long ago. Look at me, Nilde. I have impenetrable skin, superhuman strength, the powers of flight—oh, and let’s not forget that I don’t age. I’ve had my blessings for seventy-two years; no other god-blessed like me exists. I should be the ruler of the whole land like I was in the olden days before the world crumbled. But I can barely hold on to the small empire I have.”
“You’re gradually gaining ground.”
“And every time I do, I lose it again. First a god-blessed will-dominated me and used me as a human club to win him an empire. Then the Band of Seven opposed me for the crimes I committed when I was will-dominated. Now I’m being plagued by the Rose and this zealot named Kel who can create rock-men by binding men’s lives to stones. All I desire is peace.”
“Eventually you will achieve it.”
“At what cost?” Clare looked Nilde in the eyes. “Do you know how it feels to have the lives of a city resting in your hands?”
“Of course not.”
“I pray you never will.” Clare rubbed her eyes. “Follow me. We have a festival to protect.”
Sounds of laughter and piping musicians wafted up from the streets below her. The joyous festival to celebrate the beginning of planting season wouldn’t last long.
Clare’s throat tightened as she soared over the city, ignoring the happy exclamations from those who spotted her. They wouldn’t be cheering when the Rose unleashed whatever terror they had schemed. Her guards had found nothing—even after scouring the entire crime district. Not a single man with stone-skin or a flaming touch. The Rose was keeping themselves well concealed.
Except for the girl they’d ambushed and branded that morning.
Clare had been surprised when the guards reported the incident. Why would the Rose be foolish enough to risk spilling the cover? But then she perceived their unspoken message.
They could act with impunity against her subjects and she couldn’t stop them.
Clare swallowed as she scanned the city. With all her strength, she still couldn’t thwart a god-blessed whose only power was to bind people and objects together.
What kind of a god-blessed was she?
She was almost compelled to pray. But the gods were too unpredictable to trust.
A horn blew five districts away. Clare blinked. It was one of the guards’ horns. Could it be—
Clare zoomed toward the noise.
Fifteen seconds later, she hit the cobblestone ground. Stones cracked under the impact, but she didn’t care. Time was too short for her to worry about keeping the surroundings intact. She’d landed in an alley far enough from the festivities that it was practically empty. Riccardo and another guard stood in front of a battered door. She could hear crashing and scuffling inside.
“The Rose is in—” Riccardo began. But Clare lunged into the building before he finished. Two guards fought a man with rocky skin in the middle of a narrow hallway. Kel relished making those men.
But they weren’t equipped to defeat a god-blessed like her.
“Back off,” Clare barked and charged forward. The guards sidestepped just in time for her to collide with the armed rock-man. She jabbed upward with her fist and his rocky head exploded. As she shoved his body aside, two Rose members dove around the corners at the end of the hall.
Two crossbows twanged. The arrow tips bounced harmlessly off her skin. She unsheathed her sword and spun it in her hand once before slashing through both men’s torsos. They collapsed. She’d let them bleed to death. Compared to how they treated their victims, she was being merciful.
Clare ventured further into the storage room filled with dusty boxes and cobwebbed barrels. In the center, a rickety staircase spiraled down into the basement. She contemplated taking the stairs, but that would be too slow. She leapt up, then smashed down into the floor. The boards crumbled beneath her and she plunged into the cellar beneath, wood shrapnel raining all around her.
Dusty wine barrels littered the forgotten chamber below. At the opposite end, three men surrounded an open pipe of flowing water with a pile of empty bottles nearby.
Instantly, Clare flew toward them and locked her arms around one of the men’s throats. She squeezed enough to illicit a scream, but not to cause damage.
“Start explaining now.” Clare dragged her writhing hostage backwards, bumping into the bottles and sending them rolling. “What—”
Light from the nearby torches revealed the poison markings on the bottles.
“Thanax,” Clare swore. “How long ago did you taint the water?” She gestured toward the open pipe—one of the few sources of running water they could afford in the city.
“Three hours ago, Queen,” one of the men replied mockingly, a smile spreading across his face. “You—”
Clare jerked her arms, snapping her hostage’s neck. The man’s body crumpled. Clare moved forward and snatched the collar of the man who had spoken. She threw him against the wall. He slammed into it and would have fallen if she hadn’t caught and pinned him.
“I don’t have time for your insolence. Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you.”
“If you kill us, you won’t be able to save your people.” The voice came from the other man, who wore a shaggy beard. His eyes glinted cunningly. Clare hated him already.
“Talk,” she spat. In the distance, Riccardo descended the stairs and approached.
“This pipe runs directly to the main fountain. Hundreds of people will have drank the water by now and have the poison in their veins. You’re too late.”
“Well then—” Clare tightened her grip around the other man’s neck.
“But,” the cunning-eyed man continued, “you can still save them.”
Clare breathed heavily. “How?”
He lifted a bowl of green liquid. “We used thanasium. It takes hours to have effect.”
“You poured it in hours ago.”
“Which is why you must work fast.” He grinned. “People will start dying any moment.”
Clare tried to suppress the angry, murderous rages that threatened to erupt from inside her. “Tell me how to save my people, or I’ll rip out your friend’s arm.”
“The remedy is simple.” He held the bowl out to her. “Kel bound the poison to someone’s life.”
A basic image of a red rose hovered over the liquid. Clare stared at it, then back at the cunning-eyed man. Kel had never bound someone to a liquid before. “If this will save my people, why are you revealing this?”
The man laughed. “Would we have let your guards locate us if we didn’t have something we wanted to tell you?”
Clare raised an eyebrow at Riccardo.
Worry lines etched Riccardo’s forehead. “We found one of their men trying to abduct a kid. I didn’t think it was a facade… But when we pursued him, he did flee to this hideout.”
Clare turned back to the man. “Your men fought us. What kind of betrayal to the Rose is this?”
“I never said I was betraying the Rose. Just like you never asked who we bound the poison to.”
Clare strove to keep herself from gasping. “By the gods. You wouldn’t—”
“She’s playing with the other musicians in the center of town right now,” he said smugly as he folded his arms across his chest. “Pretty young lass with blond hair and a green dress. One of the up-and-coming lutists. Except now she has a rose branded into her right arm.”
Clare felt the color draining from her face. The girl from that morning. “Tell me she’s one of yours.”
He smiled. “Originally we were just going to poison your celebration. But when you broke our compatriot and started asking around about us, we realized what we wanted.”
“You’re a monster.”
“But who will be the monster in the eyes of the public?” He glanced at the man Clare still had pinned against the wall. “A pleasure working with you. We’ll die for a better world.”
Smart enough to know death was imminent. Wicked enough to concoct this plot. Clare knocked her captive’s head against the wall—but not hard enough to kill.
“You’re going to wish I’d slain you right here.” Clare stalked toward the cunning-eyed man and seized him by the neck. She clouted his ear; he hit the floor.
Clare’s hand itched, longing to inflict further injury. But now was not the time. She spun around toward Riccardo and suddenly realized how vulnerable she felt.
She hadn’t used that word to describe herself for a while.
“What … what have they done?” Riccardo asked.
Clare avoided his gaze. “Connected an innocent girl’s life to this poison, apparently.”
“But … what powers could she acquire from poison? When Kel uses rocks, he makes men like the one upstairs, but—”
“That’s not the point.” Clare pounded a fist against the wall. The wall shook and cracked under the force. “Now the poison’s existence is linked to the girl’s life.”
“You mean we can instantly cure all the poison already ingested if…”
“Thanax.” Riccardo began to pace violently around the open pipe. “But … but that’s so…” He shook his head. “Are … are you—”
“Do I have any choice?”
Riccardo’s silence signaled that he’d read her thoughts.
Clare had foolishly assumed that the Rose’s next tactic would be to increase the death rate. But no. The Rose weren’t demons. Only fanatics.
They wanted to force her to commit an unforgivable action.
“We agreed to torture criminals,” Riccardo whispered. “But the innocent? I thought we were good people.”
Clare shook her head. “We’re all flawed people living in a corrupted world. Some of us just try to lessen the turmoil.”
“How will you justify this to the people?”
“I don’t know,” Clare said as she trudged toward the stairs. “But hundreds of lives need saving.”
Four pipers and a lutist played near the poisoned fountain where people had gathered with their communal cups. On the stage, the blond-haired girl plucked at the delicate strings of the lute. She was so young. Surely she wasn’t the girl the men had branded.
Clare braced herself and flew down next to the stage.
Immediately, the crowd’s attention shifted from the musicians to her. Clare waved them off as she climbed onto the stage. The musicians gaped. Two stopped playing. Clare ignored them as she knelt by the seated lutist and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
The girl dropped her lute. “Queen,” she gasped. “I didn’t expect you to—”
“Hush.” Clare grasped the edge of the girl’s right sleeve. She began to pull the fabric upward. She had to see for herself. “Did you encounter anyone today who—”
The girl clutched the sleeve of her dress, a stricken expression flashing over her face. “Please, Queen,” she whispered. “Don’t uncover the brand in front of this crowd.”
“So they did brand you.” Clare’s blood chilled.
“I don’t know who they were.” Tears formed in the girl’s eyes. “They shoved me to the ground. I thought they were going to…” She swallowed. “I had no idea they would brand me with a rose. Do … do you know who—”
Clare closed her eyes. “I…” Her mouth felt dry.
It was unfair to refuse to look on a girl she intended to kill.
Clare forced herself to open her eyes. Now everyone was watching them.
“I … I need you to make a brave decision,” Clare whispered.
The girl wrinkled her eyebrows. “What … what kind of decision?”
“I’m being choked!” A man screamed. The crowd separated as an older man collapsed, hands on his throat. He began to writhe. The thanasium.
Clare locked gazes with the girl and straightened. “We need to go.” She would do this in a more secluded place.
The girl slowly stood. “Go? Where?”
More cries rang out. People began falling to the ground. Clare’s throat tightened. By the time they moved to an isolated spot, multiple people would be dead.
Tears pooled in Clare’s eyes as she hugged the blond-haired girl. She didn’t even know her name. What kind of a ruler was she? She put a hand on the back of the girl’s neck as if to steady her.
“Would you die to save hundreds of lives?” Clare whispered.
The girl’s tear-filled eyes mirrored Clare’s. “I … I’d hope so.”
Clare swallowed. It was the answer she needed. “Then I’m sorry,” she choked through parched lips. “I … I wish…”
But wishes were futile in a broken world.
Clare touched the girl’s damp cheek as she tightened her grip on her neck.
She moved so fast that the girl never knew what happened.
[This story is a part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection. Click the button below to download the whole collection.]