As soon as they were out of earshot of Cherry and Trina–the second in particular–Cobalt had given the order for her remaining squad to group up with the others, and to take them all back to the clan’s base. She walked alone through the forest as rain dripped down her neck from the leaves, thick and cold. She welcomed the chill. It matched her insides tonight.
Somehow Cherry had beaten her. Soundly. She knew that by the time she met up with her warriors again, the story would have spread through them all. They would lose their confidence in her–as they should–and at least one would challenge her for the right to lead. It was how it was done. You either died in battle, or eventually you would find yourself facing a band of warriors who no longer trusted you. Cobalt wished for the former, but she would pay the price. She always had.
Her mind slipped backwards as she walked. Back to a time before she was a warrior, before she was even old enough to train, when her wings had just barely started to bud from her back. The pain of her growing wings was intense–it went that way for some–so she was bundled up in bed, floating a little from the herbs her parents had had her drink, and then placed as a poultice, bandaging around her chest and back so it stayed put. She dozed a little, mostly just glad to be free of the pain, but when she heard voices in the other room, she woke and listened.
“It’s fine, she’s so stoned she can barely remember her own name,” came her mother’s voice–Jylen.
The other voice took a moment for Cobalt to place, and then it came to her. Deserina. One of the people who often played nursemaid to her. She was a clothier–she tailor-made clothes for pixies, as they grew, as they entered their jobs, as their outfits wore out, she was one of those who made new ones.
“Good. I needed to ask you something. Our plan. It rests, once we take the chamber, on me being strong enough to force the clan to fall in line. But I’m not even a warrior–a few lessons in the forest don’t exactly count.”
“I’ve told you, you will have enough support. The crowd will cry ‘aye’ for you, and double once they see his head.”
“I must confess I am looking forward to that part.”
“Of course you are, we all are, there’s barely one of us he hasn’t made into an enemy by now; thinks he can hold us in place by sheer willpower and fear. But enough of us are not afraid, and the rest will come along one they see he’s dead.”
Deserina cleared her throat, “But this whole thing does rely on me being able to put up a fight…”
“Sure, but I’ve arranged for his evening wine to be spiked with something that will make him slow.”
“Oh… Oh!” Deserina sounded much more cheerful. “So it will look as if we fought, but actually the advantage is all mine!”
“Alright. So when do we move, has it been decided yet?”
“In a few days. Let me get Cobalt out of the winging first, my poor girl has gotten it quite hard and I can’t leave her. Once she’s recovered, I’ll send out the call.”
“And we’ll wipe him and his scuzzy friends off the face of the earth. Burn them, and scatter the ashes far and wide so their spirits can never rise.”
“Exactly!” Jylen said, a smile in her voice. “Now go, before anyone misses you. Keep your heart strong, Deserina. We’re almost there.”
“Thank you,” Deserina said, and there was the sound of material shifting as she exited their cave.
Cobalt came back to the present day. That memory…she hadn’t thought of it in a long time. Was there meaning to its return? Clearly her mother and Deserina, the current clan leader, along with others, had engaged in a plot to overturn the previous leader. That man’s name had been…not struck from the records exactly, it was simply Not Done to talk about him, even in passing, and he had been removed from the Histories, to the Hidden Histories, accessible by only a very few. But Cobalt knew his name. Oh, she did. It wasn’t the first or last time that her mother’s ‘friends’ had held whispered conversation while they thought she slept soundly in her room.
They thought she didn’t hear. But she did. And she remembered everything.
But what of Deserina now? Jylen had died of disease before Cobalt was old enough to ask her about her part in the coup. But now she thought of it, she wondered.
If the previous leader had been removed the way it seemed he had, and for the reasons given; might not the same be soon true of Deserina? She had increasingly become unmanageable, erratic, paranoid. Was this how their clan worked? A coup; a leader who rises and then falls; another coup… Cobalt had never studied the Histories closely, except for those related directly to her field. Perhaps she could find someone who had. Perhaps, if she was very lucky, she could find someone who was, or would like to be, involved in a new coup–though who would take the reins this time, she had no idea. She assumed the secret plot, if it existed, did. The trick would be to find out who to talk to safely.
As she walked out of the forest, seeing the sun just begin to rise, a robed figure fell silently into step beside her.
“Hello Onson,” Cobalt said politely.
“Cobalt,” it replied. “Your squad, they do tell such stories. What’s left of them, that is. They were so eager to tell, they even told me!” Onsons laughed, dry leaves rustling against one another in the wind.
Cobalt nodded, “And you’re here to, what? Commiserate? Tell me it’ll be fine? Kill me?”
“Well now, that’s what you think of me? Such a shame,” Onson fetched a sigh. “When I just thought we might be helpful to each other–and to certain others within the clan who make secret plans against Deserina.”
Cobalt whipped her head around to glare at him–or at the hood of his robe, anyway.
“No, no, I can’t read your mind–really, Cobalt, you should know better. Reading your face and predicting your thoughts, however, well now, that’s much easier.”
“Fine, then. What do you want to say about the thoughts you think I was having?”
“Why, that I have uncovered a plot against Deserina. I sent some…minions to do some listening, and they brought back some very interesting conversations.”
“So you’re not part of the plot yourself?”
“Goodness, no! I cannot be seen to take sides–a necromancer lives under enough suspicion as it is. However, I am not blind. I can see that our current leader has gone the way of most of our clan leaders. Some manage a good death before the Breaking takes them, but those that don’t are inevitably killed by their clan. Sometimes in a coup, sometimes a civil war, sometimes just a riot. But it seems that few study the Histories, much less the Hidden Histories, enough to connect these dots. Each leader is viewed separately, as an anomaly, but this is incorrect.”
“How do you know all this? Just from the histories?”
“A number of very apparent clues exist in both sets of the Histories,” Onson said slowly. “Enough to guide me to the few remaining spirits of clan leaders past. The ones that died before the Breaking hit. And each one confirmed that the leader before then had Broken. Just like Deserina. Just like the leader that she replaced.”
Cobalt considered this as they continued to walk. For once, Onson’s presence wasn’t causing her nerve endings to tingle. Normally, she’d be on full alert, her hand holding a dagger down by her side. Just in case. Right now, his presence felt warmer. Perhaps because he was exuding less of his usual cold menace. Perhaps because he spoke like they were equals.
Onson continued when she remained silent, “There is a new plot, to replace Deserina. I couldn’t quite get hold of who the replacement is, because they’re using code words, but they’re getting close to moving. If you wish, I am willing to run one message to them. After that I must be seen to be uninvolved.”
Cobalt stopped walking.
Onson continued a few more paces, then stopped and turned back.
“Take your hood off for me,” Cobalt asked. “Let me see your face.”
Onson shrugged, and brushed the deep hood from his head, letting it fall back between his shoulder blades. He was pale, his cheekbones high, cheeks slightly sunken but not gaunt. His eyes glittered a piercing blue as the first rays of sunlight caught them. He went bald-headed, but the slight fuzz the sunrise showed told her he could have a full head if he wanted one. The same could be said for his lack of beard; he shaved close, but faint stubble still appeared. His mouth was a slit, tempered only a little by the smile he wore. He was undoubtedly handsome, Cobalt decided, but there was an uneasiness around it, as if it hid great, dark secrets; which, Cobalt realised, it did.
“Here I am,” he spread his arms. “Do you wish me to remove the rest?”
Cobalt snorted, “Definitely not.”
Onson laughed, “Good, good. I would not cheapen this with anything so carnal. Although…” he tapped his lips with a long, slender, perfectly manicured, index finger. “Another time, and perhaps we could both do the asking.”
Cobalt examined him for a long moment.
“I know you enjoy all genders, Cobalt, it’s no secret. And I promise no harm, my powers can be tamped down to almost nothing, when I wish. And I would enjoy you immensely, as I think you would me.”
Cobalt shook her head, a grin coming to her face despite her attempts to hide it, “Onson, you are utterly shameless about all things.”
Onson nodded, smiling a much more genuine smile–one that actually reached his eyes.
“Perhaps, then. On a better day for it.”
“Excellent, I shall look forward to it. But in the meantime, think on your one message. I will go to your troops and try to keep them from revolting, for a while at least.”
Cobalt nodded, “Thank you. I will be there when I have walked off some more of my shame.”
Onson tilted his head, hood already back up, “Shame is such a dreadful thing, isn’t it? Losing to Cherry must have been…humiliating. I hope to hear the full and proper story from you sometime.”
Onson’s wings unfolded from inside his robe, exiting out of two well-placed slits, and he was high in the air before Cobalt could form a reply.
The man was infuriating, she grumbled to herself as she walked on. First he shows up out of nowhere; then he talks about the Hidden Histories, and this ‘Breaking’, whatever it is; then tells me he wants to help the current plans to remove Deserina. But he stops long enough to proposition me–and for some damned reason I actually want to, the fucking asshole. And now he’s going to get a message to the rebels, and try to keep my warriors from tearing me to pieces? And then he flew! I’ve never seen that man fly anywhere. He just appears in places–so he must fly–but for some reason he takes care for nobody to ever see it. Except me, apparently. Is it for show–to pour more fuel on the fire of his legend? Probably. Arrogant fuck. But, Cobalt realised, she’d made more progress towards liking him than ever before. The whole frustrating, weird, combo had made her like him. And also to want him, she now knew that for sure–some of the nerve tingles had returned, but they were not the unpleasant livewire type at all. And they were very specifically located.
Cobalt growled and sunk back into her shame and humiliation until the tingles left her alone.
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