K.7: Kinslayer VII
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It was going to be a long ride to Dakheng. House Byron held dominion over the city of Amaka, a center of commerce for the kingdom, but it came with the downside of being over two hundred kilometers from Yaguan and almost that distance away from the seat of the Crown. Three or four hours away by oathmade carriage, I was pretty sure.

The driver of mine was silent, as they were always ordered to be. I had a lot of time to just observe the scenery, I supposed. That, and reflect on the events of the last few months—my entire life, really.

I didn’t know who to be attached to. House Byron had birthed and raised me, yes, but had they truly been my family? Thorn, Jasper, and I… we had been the heirs to the House. An unusual state of affairs for sure, that the line of succession was going to go straight from the House leaders to the children, but then we were an unusual House. The aunts and uncles that usually would have been next in line for leadership had never been a major factor in our life, their ambitions curiously far away from the patriarch and matriarch positions.

Uncles Arthur, Kenneth, and Joseph had all taken positions as Strike Team Leaders, and as of this year they were dead to the last. I still remembered the announcement of Kenneth’s demise to a primordial, Lord Byron’s tone when talking about the death of his own brother comparable to the one he would use to describe the weather.

Of my aunts… one of them had also gone to a Strike Team, and the other had been assassinated when I was younger and slower of mind. The Strike Team aunt was the only surviving main-family member, but Lord Byron had told us that she saw people who weren’t there. Not someone who was fit to run a House as great as ours.

Five potential heirs amongst my father’s siblings, and yet they had all retracted their claims from the House. There had to be a reason for that, right?

It almost seemed like they were running as far away from the House as they could. Was there a reason for that?

Maybe there was. I wasn’t quite sure what would constitute a “normal” childhood, but I knew that what I had gone through growing up was nothing like the experiences that the heroes in the copper-store novels had. Although I hadn’t been exposed to the details of all too many children’s lives, I was still fairly confident in saying that daily doses of mind-modifying magic and frequent physical training intense enough to regularly leave me with broken bones were not activities that most went through. Even with the other nobles, there was a quality of softness to them that I couldn’t quite quantify, but whatever that was, it gave me the idea that their training had been lesser, perhaps not quite as focused or frequent as it had been in my childhood.

I couldn’t deny that the way House Byron raised me had had an impact on my mindset. Whether that was a good or bad thing… I wasn’t quite sure yet. On the one hand, I was strong and steadily growing stronger, and I lacked the mental hangups that held so many others back. On the other, I had executed at least a dozen others not much older than me with barely a hint of remorse, and that strength didn’t mean anything in the face of an oathholder. I’d seen enough of the magic they could do to conclude that. Thorn and Jasper had both been orders of magnitude more useful than me in a no-holds-barred fight, and both of them had been drowned out and slain by oathholders more powerful than them.

It felt like I was being raised to be the biggest fish in a small pond without the opportunity to get more than a brief glance into the ocean that was the oathholder half of life. All this killing, all this mess, and yet I still had not been deemed fit to gain my oath.

At the end of the day, what did I have to show for everything? My House had turned me into a killer, and worse yet I had no qualms with that. I’d frequented the libraries enough, read my philosophies, and I knew that I wasn’t what most people would call a “good person” anymore. All that, and yet I had yet to gain a taste of true power.

Points against supporting House Byron, then.

But then again, what had the Crown done for me? They were not the villain of this story, I was fairly sure, but other than oppose the House that had created and molded me, they had never played a truly major part in my life.

I supposed that was what I was going to observe now. A trip to examine the benefits of supporting the Crown and weigh them against the murderous rage that would surely result from crossing House Byron.

The fact that the thought of swapping sides was even in my mind probably said something about my relationship with my family.

Or at least, what little family I had left. I hadn’t been close with Jasper and Thorn—they were friendlier to me than Lord Byron, but that wasn’t saying much—but they had still been of the same flesh and blood. Despite that, their lives had been tossed away like so much garbage in the pursuit of the Crown.

I was really growing to hate that phrase. All for the Crown, Lily.

How much longer until it was my life on the line, those same words uttered to me as my father abandoned me for that damned Crown?

Outside, the sun was setting, a splash of pinks and oranges illuminating the cloudy sky, but I barely processed it, too wrapped up in my own thoughts. There was still quite a ways to go, I was pretty sure, and nothing had changed in the carriage setup, so I stared out the window and sank back into my mind.

My upbringing had instilled certain ideas in me, I knew, ones that may not have been the best for my character but felt unshakably true.

Knowledge is power, and power is everything. I was gaining knowledge, right now, but gods above I didn’t feel powerful. I hadn’t been able to do anything about the deaths of the majority of my immediate family whether or not I had cared to do so. Every time I watched an oathholder bend the laws of nature to their will, I was reminded once again that while knowledge was power, it was not alone in comprising that power.

Prioritize yourself. Not a lesson I’d learned directly, but one I’d come to understand over the years. While there were rare exceptions, my mother and father had always followed paths that sought to achieve the maximum benefits for themselves, no matter the cost to the people around them.

I needed power, and I needed to ensure I didn’t wind up on the losing side of this battle. On some level, I knew that that was wrong, that I should have been evaluating this situation primarily based on the amount of harm to others that either side had committed, but old lessons died hard. I felt as if I could almost feel Lord Byron whispering in my ear, explaining that so long as I came out ahead, I could disregard how poorly those beneath me had fared.

This visit was going to serve multiple purposes, I could already tell, and I started listing them out in my head. I didn’t want to show up and not understand what I wanted to do.

First, I had to appease Lord Byron. That meant gathering information, understanding the current state of the Crown, determining their strengths and their weaknesses. Not easy to quantify, especially if these weren’t higher-level Crown officials, but I could listen in. The important part of this whole maneuver was that I would be able to bypass the stringent security that they usually had by virtue of being a member of the Crown’s esteemed temporary guards, ever so graciously provided by Lord Byron. I could get into one of the Crown’s many manors, and if I was lucky these nobles would discuss something of importance at some point. I had to be fully prepared for this objective to take more than a single day, since there was no guarantee that I would be able to gain a complete picture of the Crown’s current state from just a few meetings’ worth of intelligence.

Second, I had to determine what side I wanted to take. If I could find out key information while completing my first objective, then this second one might be influenced as well. The relative power level when comparing the Byrons and the Crown along with the progress of their investigation into the string of assassinations recently—assuming there was one, though that was probably safe to assume—everything would be important in deciding my response. As a concession to that one small part of me that still possessed a conscience, I would maybe also examine if they were as willing to cross lines as House Byron was.

Third… well, that would depend on the result of the second.

Alright, that was that sorted. I would figure out the details of how to carry out those objectives during the rest of the trip.

I plotted and planned, preparing my infiltration of the Crown, and in the blink of an eye we were arriving in Dakheng.

———————————

Dakheng wasn’t that big, I quickly realized. I’d been here a time or two before, but back then we hadn’t done any observation of the city, my mother too busy on ensuring I was presentable for the events we attended here.

Now, I had plenty of time to take a look around the capital city of all of Tayan. To be honest, it was a little disappointing. The commoner section of the city was filled with slums and shoddy construction, and it was not nearly as expansive as Amaka was. Less money put into this city than there was into ours, I could tell, though from time to time we passed construction projects that seemed to hold some promise.

Then we passed through a set of arches, making our way into the noble sector, and I understood.

Where the city proper looked dirty and poorly planned, the space allotted to nobles and the Crown was sparkling clean, the buildings constructed by master architects. And that was just the nobles, too, not even approaching the Crown.

It was a dichotomy that I knew held true everywhere, but it somehow felt more stark in this city. Was that the Crown’s fault? Were they, despite Crowned King Edward’s image, less apt at dealing with their peasants than we were?

Was House Byron actually better than the Crown at something?

The carriage ride was smoother now, the bump-bump-bump of the dirt roads before fading to a nice flat drive across paved paths. Ahead of us, I could see the other carriages starting to slow down, the royal castle coming into sight.

It was a great sight, and one that I had always known was going to stick with me. I felt as if the royal castle on its own might rival the size of the peasant portion of Dakheng, especially given the way it seemed to stretch into the horizon. It could’ve practically been its own gilded city.

I still remembered clearly the process that usually came with entering the castle. A thorough search of the people entering, a rather complicated process involving an oathholder who spoke the oathtongue, and a number of other security measures that would really hinder an espionage act like the one I intended to pull off right now.

With the Crown nobles, however, the security would be lessened. Surely the guards here wouldn’t dare spend time searching the people that they worked for, especially when said employers were coming home from a tiring day spent at a funeral, right?

That was the chain of logic that Lord Byron had explained to me when we’d been evaluating possibilities to spy on the Crown. There were any number of ways that us few remaining Byrons would be able to infiltrate the Crown. Of those, entering with a coterie of guards wasn’t the best choice, but I wasn’t going to complain about an opportunity when it presented itself.

If there was one thing that I could agree on with my parents, it was that revealing myself here could spell doom for the Byron efforts. We still hadn’t been discovered by the Crown, somehow, even though we’d killed and been killed by the masses in the last few months.

That meant that the fate of House Byron could ride on my shoulders. Discovery of a daughter of the House, trying to spy on the Crown itself? That was sure to incriminate the Byrons. The thought was… it was more comforting than I thought it’d be. For once, I was the one with the power. It had always been Lord and Lady Byron taking my reins, dictating my life, but now it was I who held theirs. It wasn’t an experience I’d had before, the heady, floaty feeling of actually having control over my life and others’ not one that I was familiar with.

I was starting to toy with the idea of turning to the Crown for real. If I leveraged this, revealed myself, then maybe I could capture this feeling. All I had to do was betray House Byron, and—

A sudden, intense shock of pain hit my head, my vision flashing white for an instant. A migraine was forming, I could tell, though this wasn’t the type I normally had. Ow.

It spiked in intensity, the feeling comparable to being beaten over the head by a metal club—at least, that was the experience I’d had with the closest type of pain—and I let a soft groan of pain escape my lips.

Weak. I could practically hear Lord Byron’s voice, admonishing me for bending in the face of a little pain.

Pain is temporary, I reminded myself. All in the mind.

I sat there silently for a minute or two, and the feeling subsided.

What had I been thinking about?

The Crown, power, desire… the thought I’d been having before the migraine had come on was at the tip of my tongue—tip of my mind?—but I couldn’t quite grasp it.

The carriages rumbled, slowing down even more, and then we stopped.

We weren’t inside the castle walls yet.

The driver spoke up for the first time this trip. “Lady Byron, we appear to have been stopped by the royal guards.”

Gods have mercy, I thought. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We’d discussed it before. My father had assured me that we would get in no questions asked.

Someone was talking outside, the words not loud enough to carry over into the inside of our carriage.

“Status,” my driver said, talking into his Caethus stone.

Someone talked back, the vocalizations through the stone just a little too quiet for me to catch them from my position in the back.

“Our carriages are being searched, my lady,” the driver told me. “Apparently, there was an explosive device hidden in one of these recently. The guards state that this is sufficient reason to bar us from further entry, and the Crown nobles are no exception.”

This was bad. They wouldn’t find anything, I was pretty sure, but if the guards looked into our carriage they would find one very out-of-place girl.

“The Crown nobles are waiting as well?” I asked, carefully lilting my voice as my mother had instructed, establishing my social superiority over the driver.

“They… one second, my lady,” the driver said, bringing up his Caethus stone.

He spoke into it, and whatever the response was, he didn’t seem to like it.

“Updates?” I asked impatiently. I didn’t dare poke my head into a window and risk being seen, but I needed to know what was happening. The next five to ten minutes could potentially spell the end for our family.

…for some reason, I didn’t feel very strongly about that. Part of that might’ve been because I was pretty sure that I could talk my way out of this, sell myself as a girl as stupid as those peasant children lining the streets, but that couldn’t have accounted for my total lack of concern for the far-reaching repercussions that might occur. My immediate concern was that I was going to have to get out of here or hide exceptionally well, and I couldn’t find myself caring for much beyond that.

Whatever. I could sort out my feelings later. For now, I was going to have to improvise.

“The Crown nobles are leaving on foot,” the driver announced. “The guards are still insisting on a search of these carriages.”

Well, that sucked. Alright. I had my constraints.

Assess. Four carriages, and given that the guards were speaking to the drivers of the other carriages, ours would presumably not be first. Because of a prior assassination, they had insisted on searching us.

Belatedly, I realized that this was our own fault. It had been last week, I was pretty sure, when Mother had strapped on enough explosive devices and poisonous concotions to a carriage to kill a village and set it loose upon a manor owned by House Rayes. One of our drivers had perished in that attack and with him a number of other nobles. That must’ve been what had prompted this.

Okay. Idle speculation wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

Plan. With the constraints, there wasn’t much I could do. I chanced a quick peek over a window, and I noted that the massive gates were still open—it was just that guards were protecting them, ensuring we couldn’t get through.

Thinking back on the act that Mother had done a week ago and detailed over the dinner table, an inkling of an idea formed in my mind.

“On my command, exit the carriage with your hands up,” I ordered.

“Yes, my lady,” the driver said after a beat, a hint of doubt in his voice.

“I am as much of a Byron as my father is,” I said, realizing a moment later that the doubt in my own voice dwarfed the amount in his. “Listen to my orders.”

“Of course, my lady,” the driver said, smoothing over his hesitation.

That explosive device that Lord Byron had insisted we carry at all times was on me. It was rather easy to activate—even the slightest nudge from our magic signature would detonate it. I’d spent much time learning magic shaping theory, and even though an oath was necessary to do anything of actual significance, I could muster up enough to at least press a metaphysical button.

“When you exit, claim that there are hostiles holding you hostage,” I ordered. “Tell them this next act was remote. Sell the act.”

Not my best idea, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

“Yes, my lady.”

I drew the fist-sized explosive from my coat pocket, eyeing the steel device that had claimed Thorn’s life balefully. According to Lord Byron, activating it with magic would give a fifteen second window before it blew, but I wasn’t sure how much I trusted that.

“My lady, the guards are approaching our carriage. Please advise.”

There wasn’t anything else I could do at this point. Nothing better I could think of.

I drew on the exercises my tutors had taught me, breathing in deep and reaching within and without to grasp the ambient magic in the air. There wasn’t much, wisps of it barely grazing my mind, but it would have to be enough.

pushed, and the explosive in my hand started glowing bright blue, a high whining noise radiating out from it.

Now,” I hissed. “Get away from the carriage.”

He looked back at the bomb I held in my hands “What the fuck is—“

“Go!”

The driver opened his door, and I opened mine at the same time, tossing the explosive back into the seats.

Thank the gods, the driver got the idea. Maybe his scream of fear was genuine. It wasn’t like these explosive devices were totally unknown amongst the Byron staff.

Whatever the case, he started screaming his head off, drawing the guards’ attention. I dove out of the carriage and hit the ground running.

It was already dark out, and the lighting was concentrated on the gates. The guards wouldn’t be able to see my small figure sprinting through the night, especially when their attention was focused on the screaming driver and the steadily increasing whine of the device in the carriage.

I sprinted away from the carriage, my heading at an angle away from the gate so that I could stay out of the field of view of the guards.

None of them were guarding the gate anymore, their attentions focused on the alleged hostiles that were sure to be coming soon. A number of them were gathering around the carriage that I was already gaining distance from. There were so many of them. A dozen? Two dozen? And yet they hadn’t left a single person behind at the gate.

Amateurs. Though then again, they might have all believed they were simply responding to the most prevalent threat.

I kept running, not looking back. I was past the bulk of them soon enough, running through a field of bushes as quietly as I could. Spiky twigs caught on my legs, scratching me up to the point where I was pretty sure some of them had drawn blood, but I kept going. I returned to my trajectory towards the gate once I was sure there was nobody else ahead of me, still sprinting as fast as I could.

As I cleared the bushes, I heard the carriage explode behind me.

I didn’t look back. I didn’t need to. Thorn’s death would be forever etched into my mind, and my explosive was the same. Blue, bright light combined with heat and pressure and an esoteric effect that I still didn’t understand—

I kept sprinting, heedless of the shouting voices behind me. I wouldn’t have been able to tell if any of them had noticed me amongst the commotion, and I didn’t care.

Within a minute, I was inside the walls of the royal castle.

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