Kazariah Henge was a merciful man. You could ask anyone, and they would give you the same report – even-tempered, thoughtful, slow to wrath. Good qualities in a leader, anyone would agree. He was careful not to leap to a conclusion without thoroughly studying all aspects. He held the support of his vizier and the ephorate, all wise and knowledgeable men. Especially his vizier, who wasn’t as prone to polishing Kazariah’s words to make them brighter than they were.
Stepping back and looking at himself, Kazaria could understand, he supposed, why some people might not agree with him. Stars, they might not even like him very much – he was all right with that, as long as his conscience was clear. After all, doing the right thing was always met with opposition from people with dark intentions.
He just hadn’t expected the opposition to come from Linnet.
He sighed deeply and dragged his hands down his face, his fingers tracing every sharp angle, every little scar. It might not be the face of a saint, but it was the face of a good man. That, at least, he could say with confidence.
It might be the only thing he could say with confidence, now that he knew what Linnet had done. It was the sort of event that shook the very stones beneath his feet, the kind of thing that shot a tremor underneath the very fabric of the kingdom. Everyone would feel it. It would leave the entire populace unbalanced as soon as they heard about it – but Linnet was intelligent and clever, she would have known that before she did it.
Unless it was due to an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, which he thought unlikely. “If only you were an idiot,” he said aloud to the dungeon door facing him, closed and inscrutable. It was a thick, well-built door, because quality was important. Besides, hearing screams from the dungeon really rattled the servants.
Kazariah shook his head and hauled on the heavy wrought-iron ring. The door opened with a hollow, reluctant groan, and the emperor began the slow descent down the long, twisted staircase. You had to be careful on these steps – they were worn and uneven with age, and a misstep could send you hurtling to your death, or at the very least a broken limb or two.
He reached the bottom and shifted his jaw, thinking. He could go back up the stairs. He didn’t need to confront Linnet about her actions – not today, at least. He could put it off. Eat dinner, sleep, wait until he was calmer and his head was clear.
But for all his virtues, impatience was a fault he had in spades. He lifted the ring of keys from the wall and strode to the farthest cell. His movements sped up; he twisted the key in the lock and shoved the door open, his blood seething in his ears.
Linnet sat on the floor, both ankles chained to the wall, her mouth twisted to the side and her arms folded over her chest like a petulant nine-year-old. “About time you showed up.”
Kazariah frowned and snapped his fingers. The torches on the walls burst into flame, roaring zealously for a few seconds before dimming to as steadier, warmer glow.
“Thank you,” said Linnet. “I was about to go blind down here.”
Kazariah couldn’t bring himself to walk any closer, so he remained where he was. “How can you sit there,” he asked, his voice hard and quiet, “and act like you did nothing?”
“Well, I got tired of standing after the first couple days, so I decided to risk your annoyance and sit,” she snipped.
“Don’t ‘Linnet’ me! I’m not pretending like I did nothing. I’m chained up in a dungeon cell awaiting your royal verdict on my guilt, what do you expect me to do with my spare time? Draft an apology?”
“Of course not. I’m not sorry.”
He felt his shoulders sag and forced himself to straighten them. Broad. Strong. Confident. These were his attributes, and he wouldn’t let her steal them. Not even down here, where nobody could see. “You’re not sorry,” he repeated. “Why not?”
“Because.” Her eyes flashed in the firelight. “You and I disagree on certain policies. Sometimes, they can’t be reconciled.”
“So you come to me! You tell me your disagreement. You don’t—” His voice caught, and he paused to regain control of himself. Evenly, he continued, “You don’t rush off in the middle of the night and assassinate someone.”
“Of course not. I don’t assassinate just ‘someone.’ It had to be really special,” she said dryly.
“I genuinely don’t understand how you can be flippant about this.”
She opened her mouth to respond and he waited for a quip, but none came. Instead her gaze lowered to rest on her knees, and said nothing.
“Are you sorry?” he asked softly.
Then, she shook her head.
Kazariah swallowed past a cold lump in his throat. “If I had known you disagreed with me so strongly, if you had only told me, we could have talked, Lin. We could have worked something out.”
“I know what your idea of ‘working something out’ means,” she said. The spark had gone out of her, a candle blown out in a sudden gust of wind.
“It has a better outcome than you chained up in the dungeon of our castle, awaiting a trial,” he snarled, his anger flaring. He gripped his face again, with both hands, to keep himself from lashing out. His nails, pristine and filed to small points, dug into his face.
She giggled. It sounded entirely wrong in these surroundings. “Yeah. Maybe. But you know, I kind of have the feeling I might have died mysteriously in the middle of the night, too, so.”
He stared at her, horrified, and sank down to one knee so he could meet her gaze directly. “How can you say that?” he asked hoarsely, the question twisting painfully out of his throat. “Whatever you do, you’re still my sister. We have a bond. A disagreement can’t break it.”
“No,” she agreed. “It can’t. But you can.”
She could not have hurt him more if she had thrown a javelin through his stomach. He rose to his feet, numb. His chest tightened, made it hard to breathe. He shut his eyes for a long moment. “The ephorate will find you guilty. You assassinated General Thur-Azaroth, there were witnesses. You didn’t even deny it.”
“I know. It wasn’t my stealthiest moment.”
He kept his eyes shut. He couldn’t bring himself to pry them open and see her sitting there, defiant. Stubborn.
“Apologize, and I can forgive you. You know what happens if you don’t.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, in a tone that implied she had already thought about it, and given her final answer.
He nodded and turned his back to her. As he lifted his hand to extinguish the torches, her voice stopped him.
“I’ll take whatever comes my way tomorrow. I can live – or die, I guess – with my actions. But how can you?”
“Excuse me?” The question caught him off-guard, like a punch in the face from a friend. “How can I?”
“Just asking.” Her voice was cold. “I’m not the one who sent a brutal general and a warlock to make an example of an entire coastal city.”
He didn’t turn around. “They shouldn’t have committed high treason.”
“You’re the one who made it high treason.”
Her words fell on his amazed, horrified ears. She was so far gone she couldn’t discern left from right, right from wrong. “I am not looking forward to tomorrow,” he said stiffly. “But the kingdom will be the better for it.”
Nobody could insult him, call him a coward, and get away with it. If it took burning a city to ash to prove it, then it was the right thing.
He was the emperor, Kazariah Henge, and he had said so.
He snapped his fingers, and the flames blew out.