The Month of Pin, 1700 A. T. V.
He carefully opened the black resin boxes and examined the precious objects closely. All three that he'd ordered were there. Exquisite in detail, painstakingly beautiful etching of arcane spells. And deadly. It was exciting to finally have these precious things, banned for so many years, in his possession. The scorpions were made of lacquered shell and copper. It had taken three years since their commission and they were made by some of the finest craftsmen in Egium. He closed each of the boxes carefully.
"Superb in every detail. The queen will be well pleased with the gift." Said Bakku. "But I must test them to see if they work. Bring me one of the creatures there." He said to a manservant standing nearby.
"Of course, sire." Said the envoy-alchemists. A rat was handed to him from a basket. He took one of the gleaming mechanical scorpions out of its box and with a candle flame he lit its metal wicker on its side so that it became red hot. He hung the rat by its tail in front of it, dangling the squirming creature. It screeched and tried to bite his hand. He slapped its head. Suddenly and without warning the scorpion's tail lashed out and impaled the rat. Bakku jumped in fear and surprised at its speed. The animal shuddered as the scorpion continued to stab until it impaled its tail deep into the rat's brain. The rat convulsed for a few moments more, blood trickling from its mouth and then eventually it became still. He was satisfied. They would be even more effective when those long, forceful stingers were filled with poison, of which the queen kept a large collection.
"Are you well pleased, sire?" Asked the envoy. He and his companion were envoys of the Black Guild and in the employ of a powerful alchemist named Erol, who it was said could create terrible things and that he had the secret knowledge of the gods. All alchemical arts were banned from Hybron but Bakku had ways of getting around this. So did others. The queen had welcomed the idea of alchemists and their works in the land, secretly, so long as they could serve her purposes and she had specifically invited a man who it was rumored had a connection with the Black Guild in Egi.
The envoy-alchemists before him were dressed in their characteristic black garb. They did not wear their cone-shaped hats or their metal symbols for fear of arrest or attack while in the land.
"I am well pleased. I have your fee and tell your master that I may have need of his services again one day. These are not only effective but quite beautiful. Impressive." The envoys both smiled slyly.
"A thing worth doing is always worth doing well, sire. Our master would do no less. We are happy to relay your message, sire." They bowed as he handed them the fee, three hundred silver ingots in three plain wooden carrying cases. He took away the flame and the scorpion died down. He then placed the scorpion carefully back in its box and poured himself a tall goblet of scorpion wine after the men left. If the queen's astrologers, spies and huntsmen could not do what could be done to find the boy, perhaps these could flush him out.
. . .
The air was cool but it would be another hot day later on. As usual the sky was blindingly clear. Not even the usual thin, wispy clouds that floated so high in the sky appeared this day. A maid servant took away the tray with the jeweled ewer and her silver goblet of the daily elixir. She savored the taste. The sweetness of the drink gone, the bitterness now settled in at the roof of her mouth. Thus it would be like this for the transformation. She now ate only from silver plates or drank from silver goblets for the metal of silver had healing properties. She desired purification at all times even in the smallest things. Silver was the element of purification. She sighed and lay back against the balcony, stroking Vala. Vala purred softly. The queen's hair, nearly to her knees now, was being combed, oiled and braided. If only she could have the precious balsam oil to scent it. The most precious of oils. Oil of the First One, it was said. She wanted it for its healing and calming properties but it was exceedingly rare and hard to come by, even for the privileged.
The queen was lounging on her bedroom balcony, a massive space with a sprawling garden now built into it. The trees planted in urns gave her shade from the sun. In front of the palace across the way, sat the temple to Nimnet, which was nearly finished. When that was complete her duty to the gods would be finished and she would be richly rewarded for all her hard work. It had been stressful but the prize more than worth all the blood in the world. And much blood had been spilled and more yet would be before the end of it. The edict she sent out before her years ago after the king died, the edict to every temple, office and every public space, that she and Khalit were to be acknowledged as divine on earth and an offering was to be made of incense or an oath given, especially in Jhis. Kahlit had died and in the minds of the people had joined the gods but she would do something different. The image to her that he wanted made had been diverted to Nimnet's temple. It helped root out anyone who might pose a problem to her plans later; execution for anyone who did not acknowledge the divine couple. She had embarked on something never done before and it was serious business. Divine business.
Yadua, finished with oiling a thick section of hair until it shined like onyx, began to braid it down. In the distance from where they were was The Forest. The executed, impaled on high stakes for their crimes; stealing, murder and other petty crimes and the worst offense of all: refusing to acknowledge her divinity - or soon to be complete divine essence, in any case. It included anyone who mentioned their belief of any prophecy of the Aishanna-La. The stench of the corpses and the blood, excrement and viscera that it produced had long been one that had receded into the background of the other scents of Jhis and became woven into the tapestry of its essence but on hotter days it was brought forward before all other smells. The fragrant imported lemon and orange trees of the palace gardens and the giant orchids and irises and other imported flowers on her balcony garden usually masked it.
"Please finish up, Yadua. I do not have all day. Or I will have another of your fingers cut off." She said, irritated. Yadua bowed and deftly quickened her braiding pace, pinning the front braids together with the jeweled pins and then affixed her silver diadem with the sapphire gems. She gathered up the combs and the other accessories on a tray and then bowed low. The queen waved her away and sat down on her divan as Yadua left. Another servant cleared her throat.
"Your Greatness, the huntsman is here."
"Bring him to me."
"The queen will see you now." She heard the woman say, farther inside the bedroom. She heard his soft footfalls approaching. She sighed in exasperation. Why did things happen so slowly? When her father was alive if something needed to be done it seemed it was done instantly. Vala continued to purr and did not stir but Taliat knew the cat was attentive to everything. But this was not work for a palace pet. The man dropped to one knee and bowed before her. She was impatient.
"And what have you found?"
"I sent men to Rhuctium on information I have, to find boys of fifteen years who have your likeness. Surely though, this is difficult work Your Greatness. This could be any boy in the land and there is no proof the boy may be your relation."
"My priestess has given me incontrovertible proof of the boy's looks. He looks like myself I am told. He is my very image and he has eyes like mine and my father's."
"It may very well be that we will have to haul in half the boys in the kingdom to the palace."
"You will, if it comes to that. This prophecy of Ilim's assures me that the boy is alive and well."
"You really do believe him?" The man questioned.
"If only to crush it because it competes with another prophecy, one that is blessed by the gods of Hybron and Egi: "The serpent is rising". Prophecies compete just like men do in a ring. Which will get the mastery? It is up to me to choose which one will prevail. So, you heard rumors near Rhuctium? What of Rhuctium?"
"The men I sent there said they may have found one who fits the high-priestess's description exactly. The description as you say, she saw in her visions. Last I heard from them, they were moving in to take him and bring him here. Then a few days ago I got a letter by falcon from one of your sources there saying they had found dead Hatchet Men in the city and gave a description of the bodies. Those men were working for me, whom I sent to bring back the boy they'd found. They had been killed in what looked like a street brawl." The queen frowned.
"These were Hatchet Men, you say?'" She asked. The huntsman nodded.
"I wonder who but seasoned warriors could kill a Hatchet Man, much less a group of them. In any case, this discovery leads me to believe that the boy may very well be in Rhuctium."
"I suspect this as well."
"Good. Pull your resources towards that city for a more concentrated search."
"Your Greatness, if I may. The boy is of the age to attend one of the great schools down there. Perhaps sending your honored guest that just arrived from Egium there would be a good idea. Perhaps he may turn something up if my men do not." He countered. The queen's eyes lit up with cold, bright flame.
"Ah! What an excellent idea! I will have you speak with him on the matter of the boy. Inform him that I shall send him on to Rhuctium at once!" He bowed again.
"Oh, and huntsman, my dreams and the visions of the high-priestess have the face of Ilim the false prophet, along with this boy. The false prophet is connected with this treasonous outrage against me. While in Rhuctium, search for him as well."
"We have not heard word about him for a few years."
"I know and that is well. It would be even more well if you found him and brought him here. I have not forgotten him. He is a man with great powers. In my last hours as I am now I will need such a man. His powers, anyway. Increase the reward for the boy. Any man who can find him will be paid the boy's weight in silver."
"Certainly, Your Greatness."
"I do realize these things take time and I am patient huntsman, but do not tarry too much. The great day of the sun god has passed. It is late spring. My ascension is nearing." He bowed again and left quickly. She saw another manservant coming.
"The royal barge is ready." He said. She turned to Setimet.
"Take care of my serpent. It seems he grows larger every month."
"Is it time for him to feed again, Your Greatness?" She asked eagerly. The queen laughed lightly.
"It is. If any of the new serving girls displeases you Setimet, feed her to him. You have my blessing." Setimet's eyes brightened. She picked up the cat left the room.
Things were moving along. More slowly than she liked, but moving. Her spies were nearly everywhere. Even within the Ainash's Hatchet Men she had infiltrated them. Her chosen serving women followed her in a train behind as she left her personal apartments and descended the steps. She was on her way the tomb of kings to do two very controversial things which had forced her to imprison a few people for daring to dispute her. She was dedicating a school in Egium for noblewomen, the first college if its kind for teaching religious training and intellectual pursuits. That had been difficult enough, but she'd push it through even with the sly machinations and sneaky obstructions against it from her uncle. Secondly, she would dig up Khalit's bones. Many thought it sacrilege, those who did not worship as Egians did. However, he had been deified and now she needed them. She would need all the holy things she could find. Those outside of the palace thought it evil and did not understand. They did not understand that prophecy drove her to do this, impelled her, like their own prophecies drove them to believe this or that. But only one web of prophecies could be allowed to survive.
When she finally reached the palace gate her chariot was waiting. The sun seemed blinding and overbearing even though it was still early morning and the air slightly cool. A maidservant covered her head with a thin silver veil and she climbed in, clutching her sacred flail and staff to her breast. How she wished for the night and its coolness. All eyes as always were on her and for these last few years it tired her, made her suspicious. She felt exposed and violated, outside and under the sun. She had not counted on her feelings and emotions over being exposed and seen by so many people when she became queen. She was raised in hidden rooms, luxuriant, hidden chambers, a daughter of secret rites. She worshiped goddesses of the night. It tired her and sometimes angered her. She would be glad of night again. And when she finally ascended, night would last forever. She would make it so.