The Gods of Vice (Book 2 Vengeance Trilogy)
Two emperors. One empire.
The war for the Crimson Throne has split Kisia. In the north Otako supporters rally around their champion, but Katashi Otako wants only vengeance. Caught in the middle, Hana must decide between her family and her heart. Is the true emperor the man the people want? Or the one they need?
As the true heir to the throne, Endymion remains hidden in plain sight, but the Vices know his secret. Malice, scheming to restore the empire to the rule of gods, plans a coup that will tear Kisia apart if Endymion does not find a way to escape. But he is running out of time. His Empathy is consuming him. It grows stronger with every use, spreading him so thin there will soon be nothing left – nothing except the monster he fears to become. When gods fight, empires fall.
The storm is coming.
Chapter 1 Endymion
It had been two days. Darius lay upon the divan, unmoving, unspeaking, his expression frozen in an infinitesimal frown. The rise and fall of his silk-clad chest was the only sign he lived at all, but sometimes even his breath seemed to abandon him. So I watched, afraid his death would go unnoticed.
Malice was restless. He had come only once since Katashi’s avowal, bringing Hope with him. For a long time the young Vice had sat with a hand upon Darius’s cheek.
‘He is like you, Master,’ Hope had said at last. ‘I cannot get in.’
Malice had taken to his opium; the role of nurse didn’t suit him.
Avarice slid the door, a bowl of warm water in one hand and a bunch of fresh incense caught between two fingers of the other. I had come to rely on his ugly scowl; he and I alone in our anxiety. Beyond this room the world was changing, but here, there was just Darius. Avarice had given up ordering me out; the loyalty I showed his precious charge helping temper his dislike.
He put the bowl down, water slopping over the edge. ‘Anything?’
‘Nothing,’ I said.
It had become our little ritual.
Avarice wrung out a cloth, and with an old carer’s practicality, he opened Darius’s robe, exposing fair skin to the sunlight. A scar marred his chest; a raised line, shiny and puckered. There, the knife had been thrust into his body, the pain such that I would not soon forget. Darius hadn’t meant to share it with me, or the memory that came with it, but in dropping his guard he had let me in.
The linen cloth sailed across Darius’s skin before being returned to the bowl. Avarice squeezed it out, water dripping from his sturdy fingers.
‘You looked after him, didn’t you?’ I said. ‘When Malice did that.’
For a moment the cloth paused in its passage across the scar. ‘Malice wouldn’t do that. He loves Master Darius.’
‘But not as much as you do?’
Avarice went on with his task. Birds sang out in the garden. A laundry maid laughed. Tongues of hot sunlight cut across the matting, bringing in the endless summer.
‘Yes.’ Avarice dropped the cloth into the water. ‘I looked after him. I’ve known Lord Laroth since he was a boy. I worked for his father, and when the late lord passed, I stayed with Master Darius.’
‘And now you serve Malice.’
He grunted as he rose, and I watched him stride across the room to change the incense. He lit fresh sticks before returning to flip the cushions beneath Darius’s head, fussing about him as though he were a little boy laid up ill. Avarice – friend, carer, father. Nyraek had not been there. He had been in Mei’lian fathering me.
The smell of sandalwood freshened the air, and still that porcelain face did not move.
‘Malice needs me,’ Avarice said. ‘Send a message if anything changes.’
I nodded and the man went out, leaving me with the half-brother I had never known I had. Many silent hours spent alone had given me the opportunity to stare at him from every angle, absorbing myself in his features as I tried to divine some similarity between us. I could see Malice in the way his brows arched and in the fine line of his nose, but while Malice looked more like the spider Katashi called him, Darius was a broken bird, his wings clipped to keep him from flying.
Darius’s chest rose and fell, and satisfied that he still lived, I went to the window. Avarice would never open it, but I had been sitting too long in the close air waiting for a groan or a flutter, or anything that might herald my brother’s return. I needed to taste life.
With a grunt of effort, I forced the small window open. Humid air brushed my face, thick with the scent of dying flowers, and I breathed deeply. A storm was brewing to the east. Heavy clouds hung in the sky, flickering with summer lightning.
The castle had changed; its mood, its smell. Now it was Emperor Katashi’s men who patrolled the wall, their black sashes flying proudly. Beyond the gate a returning scout party was barely visible in the haze.
But out there another emperor still lived.
I turned, heart jolting. The door was closed and the room empty but for Darius, blinking at me from the divan.
‘Darius.’ Three quick steps took me to his side and I sank to my knees. ‘You’re awake.’
‘Obviously.’ His voice crackled from disuse, the syllables running together. ‘Kin? Hana?’
‘Alive. Hana is here.’
‘And Kin?’ he asked, his fear no longer hidden.
‘Kimi– One of the Vices got him out before Katashi could have his head. I know nothing else.’
He closed his eyes, a sigh brushing dry lips. ‘It is enough for now.’
A long silence followed, and I thought him asleep until he gathered enough strength to open his eyes again. ‘He’s here, isn’t he?’ he said. ‘I can smell him.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were my brother?’
His gaze did not waver. ‘When would you have liked me to tell you? When I found you locked up in Shimai? Or when you came here to kill me?’
‘I didn’t come to kill you.’
‘Just to teach me the meaning of pain.’
I had been so full of vengeance that night, so tainted by the fire that leaked from Katashi’s pores I could almost believe he had poisoned my mind. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Are you?’ His lip curled. ‘Sorry for me or for you?’
‘For getting you into this. It’s my fault you’re stuck here.’ I swallowed hard. ‘You’re afraid of him, aren’t you? Of Malice?’
‘Of course I’m afraid of him.’ Darius struggled to sit, his brows caught close. ‘If you had one iota of sense you would be petrified out of your wits, but no, there you sit, calmly bearing his mark upon your heart. Do you know what happens to Empaths who lose themselves?’
‘No. Who should have told me? I never met an Empath before Malice. I never knew I was a Laroth.’
A horse whinnied loudly outside the window, and turning my head I caught the sounds of shouts and marching steps. One hundred and thirty-four soldiers in the courtyard, and forty-one on the walls; a scout party of six at the gate; two peasant boys collecting wood in the forest. And stretching the miles toward Koi City, one hundred and fifty-two thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one souls waking to a new world. The numbers were in my head just as the light of each stood like a flame before my eyes.
I shook away the haze. Darius was waiting for an answer, and with difficulty I brought my mind back to the room.
‘What? Where did you just go?’
‘I was thinking,’ I said. ‘Did you even know I existed?’
Darius took a moment to reply, his shrewd gaze peering through half-closed eyes. ‘I knew Takehiko existed, but I neither knew for sure you were alive or that you were my half-brother. You know that makes you Hana’s half-brother, too.’ He laughed weakly. ‘What fools our parents were to make such a mess. A Laroth-Otako bastard. I’d keep my mouth shut if I were you.’
‘Of course he knows. I told him. And now you’re his, he will find a way to put you to good use. You idiot. Did you really think he would give you something for nothing? Or that revenge against me was worth your sacrifice?’
‘You told him?’
‘Don’t worry, I didn’t want to. I’m not that much your enemy.’
‘Why are you different? I can feel you now.’
Darius didn’t answer, nor did his expression change – his mastery over it as strong as his mastery over his Empathy had been. With the strength of steel, he had buried it so deep even I could not find it. Not for him, the intrusion into the minds of others; not for him, the weight of every thought and emotion like the fleeting touch of a thousand hands. Freedom. It had been his and it could be mine.
‘It seems that we’re in this together,’ I said. ‘If you help me, maybe I can help you.’
‘You can’t help me,’ he said. ‘You can’t help yourself.’ Darius pressed a hand to his forehead, fingers trembling. ‘Go away,’ he said. ‘Go make yourself useful. I’m parched and starving.’
‘You think I’m weak, but I’m not, I–’
‘I don’t think you’re weak, I think you’re stupid and arrogant,’ he said. ‘You have no idea how dangerous you are. The true heir to the throne is an Empath, and you’ve given yourself to Malice. Kisia is already lost.’
The mark upon my heart seemed to writhe at the sound of its name, like a snake buried beneath my ribs.
‘I think we are both beyond help,’ Darius said, lying back upon the divan. ‘Go fetch food and water. I don’t think Katashi wants his prisoner to starve.’
‘Yes, of course. You’ll feel better after some food.’ I got to my feet, the skirt of my simple robe crumpled, my stomach hollow. I couldn’t remember when I had last eaten.
Outside, the passage was empty and I took a moment to breathe the silence. Despite the number of people who lived within its walls, the Keep was often quiet, its worn floors and faded screens encouraging whispers. It was a warren of dead-end corners and narrow halls, of dark beams and blackened posts. It was a symbol of old power, of Otako power, every sign of Ts’ai occupation already scrubbed from its innards. The pile of Ts’ai banners had burned slowly, sending billows of black smoke into the air. Papers and books had gone the same way, saddle cloths, tea sets and bone-handled knives, anything bearing the dragon Katashi had come to hate so much. Scrolls had been torn down, murals repainted, even carvings hacked to oblivion.
Avarice came around the corner hunched like a bear, his hooded tunic fraying around the edges.
‘He just woke,’ I said. ‘He wants food and drink.’
The relief was immense, filling the pool of emotion that always lapped around me, tugging at my attention. Avarice grinned. It lasted only a moment before his grim look snapped back. ‘Go to the kitchens,’ he ordered. ‘Tea, green pear, plain rice and mild fish, very thinly sliced.’
‘Why should I go?’ I demanded. ‘I’m not a servant. I’m a lord.’
The Vice glared at me. ‘Watch yourself, Endymion,’ he growled. ‘Takehiko Otako is a dead man. Dead men take orders from everyone.’
He strode past me and I cringed as I heard the door to Darius’s room slide back, closing again on the gentle murmur of voices. It had been a stupid thing to say, and I was glad to be occupied. It kept me grounded in the world where my feet walked. If I let my Empathy wander it would pull me out onto the walls for a sullen guard change, or into the upper chambers where fear hung heavy amid whispering men. Nowhere was safe.
I entered the lower Keep in search of the kitchens and found the ghost of Katashi walking at my side, black-clad, his hair dripping moat water. I had known the outcome, yet I had helped him anyway, seeking my own revenge. Now screams filled the castle. Out in the main yard the scaffold dripped blood, glistening in the bright sunlight. I had lost count, the numbers of the dead impossible to divine amid the souls of the living.
Having fulfilled my mission, I returned to the Court Floor, pausing a moment at the landing where Katashi and I had parted that night. Here I had stood and told him how to bypass Kin’s guards, and now it was Katashi’s men moving about the Keep; guards, courtiers and servants on their new emperor’s business.
I turned in the direction of the voice. At the head of a group of guards, Captain Tan swaggered toward me, clean-shaven, neat, no longer the unkempt Pike following at his master’s heels. A general’s surcoat covered his armour, but over his smugness hung a certain malicious expectation.
‘Looking for me, Captain?’ I said.
‘I’m a general now,’ he returned, a hand resting on the purple sash he wore beneath his black. ‘You should show more respect.’
‘I respect men who deserve respect, Captain,’ I said. He had delivered Kimiko to Malice. He had made no attempt to change Katashi’s mind. He had let the madness happen. ‘Was there something you wanted?’
One of the men behind him snarled and reached for his sword, but Tan held up his hand. ‘No, leave him be. His Majesty wants to talk to him, and you can’t talk to a corpse.’
Tan grinned. ‘You think you’re clever? Wittier men than you have found their heads skewered of late. You should be careful what you say.’ He motioned in the direction of the throne room. ‘Emperor Katashi wants to talk to you.’
Knowing refusal was pointless, I fell in beside him, our steps out of time as they clacked along the passage. Tan’s guards followed close, burning their disgust into the back of my head. I knew none of them, but they all knew me.
Stinking Vices. The Usurper was too weak to get rid of them, just let them grow like weeds.
The whisper came like a hiss in my ear. My hands hung at my sides, clenched fists touching nothing but my own skin.
They’re all freaks. Even Kimiko. Damn she was good, that skin, that fire—
I sucked my Empathy in and the whisper died. Tan glowered at nothing, bottom lip caught between his teeth. Skin hadn’t been necessary. Curiosity had carried me too far and now a myriad of murmurs danced at the edge of my hearing.
The sorrow came before the scream. It sheared through me, agony rending the air. A woman. No words, but a mess of broken curses caught between sobs.
Tan pushed me on. ‘Keep moving,’ he said. ‘That will be Lady Talamir. She asked to see her husband.’
We turned into the main passage. There stood the tall throne room doors, the wood brushed with a thousand lines of Old Kisian script. A woman knelt before them, her fine robe dishevelled and her silken hair slipping from its bun. A guard was trying to pull her to her feet but she wrenched from his grip. A row of severed heads watched her crumple to the floor, burying her face in her hands.
‘Get her out of here,’ Tan snapped at the guard. ‘Minas, help him.’
One of the guards pushed past and went to the man’s aid. He gripped Lady Talamir under her arms and tried to lift her, but she twisted out of his grip.
‘Don’t you dare touch me you filthy traitors!’ she snarled, spitting in his face. ‘Kin will gut you for what you’ve done. He will hang you by your hair until your scalp rips from your skull!’
The man slapped her, knocking her back. ‘Watch what you say, woman, or you’ll be the next to guard this hallway. Right up there beside your husband.’
‘Not even Katashi Otako would dare,’ she said as Minas grabbed hold of her.
Tan waved his hand. ‘I said get her out of here. And you’re right, my lady. Emperor Katashi wouldn’t be foolish enough to throw away such a good bargaining tool.’
She spat at him, but her fury was spent and the guards led her away, sobs fading along the passage.
One of Tan’s men stepped toward the grand doors, hands splayed over old prayers. The hinges groaned, the sound cutting through the babble of voices beyond as crimson light spilled through the widening aperture. A sea of silk met my eyes, every smiling face steeped in suspicion. The lords stood together in strategic groups, many with daughters to parade before Kisia’s newest emperor. They were dressed like exquisite birds in silks of every colour, with dozens of ivory pins holding elaborate hairstyles, and painted faces owning painted smiles.
At the far end of the room, Katashi sat upon the Crimson Throne, the broad skirt of his robe reaching to the floor. His new chancellor hovered, awaiting orders, but Katashi waved him away and got to his feet, Hatsukoi only adding to his height.
‘Endymion,’ he said. ‘Welcome to my court.’
He smiled and held his arms wide, his aura filling the room as completely as the stained light. These men and women breathed tainted air.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘Sit by me.’
The weight of eyes sat upon my skin, curiosity amassing around me. There was lust and hunger and fear, too, all so tangled I couldn’t begin to unravel their threads.
Katashi’s smile did not waver.
You would not smile if you knew my name, I thought. You would not ask me to sit at your side if you knew the truth.
With my hesitation his smile slipped and he scowled upon the assembled court. ‘Out,’ he ordered, clapping his hands. ‘Endymion and I need to talk.’
Dismissed, the court moved as one murmuring mass. The rustle of stiff silks and the click of sandals on wood rose like a storm, only to fade as the court moved beyond the doors. Hana lingered as though hoping to be called back, but though Katashi’s eyes never left her, he did not speak. She was a strange creature, pretty in a dusty pink robe, but beneath the tumble of short golden curls her expression was sombre.
Katashi beckoned as the doors closed behind the court, only guards left to follow my progress up the room. He patted the divan at his side and I sat, perched upon its edge. One day it would belong to his empress.
‘Is the seat hot?’ He lifted his brows. ‘Or perhaps you think I am going to bite you? I haven’t forgotten what help you were the night I took Koi.’
I said nothing. In the vast space the sucking silence was oppressive. Crimson light cut across the stone floor, each blade speckled with dust.
Katashi scowled at his hands. ‘I have another favour to ask you,’ he said.
‘And what might that be, Your Majesty?’
He looked up, still frowning. ‘It’s Hana. Lady Hana. I’m worried about her. She hasn’t been her usual… difficult self since we took Koi. I know some of my Pikes have given her grief, but I’ve put a stop to that. She’s an Otako and they will treat her with the respect her name deserves, whatever she might have been.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know Lady Hana very well, Your Majesty.’
‘No, but you don’t need to, do you? You can tell me how she feels and what she’s thinking and she wouldn’t even know you had done it.’
A request that he should listen to himself died on my tongue. My head would depart my body with the same ease as any other. ‘It is not quite as simple as you make it sound,’ I said. ‘I can sense her emotions, yes, but with thoughts I need touch, and I need to know what I’m looking for. And she would know. Most people are self-aware enough to be able to feel my intrusion.’
‘It’s Kin. You were at the meeting. He said she would marry him and it seemed ridiculous at the time, but to see her now… I cannot be easy in my mind.’
‘You want to know if she considered accepting him?’
‘I need to know, because if Hana marries Kin, everything I have fought for, everything I have sacrificed will be for nothing! If he is in her mind, I would take steps to prevent it.’
‘Don’t you plan to kill him anyway?’
Katashi scowled at me. ‘The Usurper will suffer for what he did to my father, yes, but I would not have him deceive Hana into betraying her family.’
‘And if she did?’
‘If you imply that I would harm my own blood–’
‘You sold your sister to Malice.’
His fingers clenched tightly on his crimson-clad knees. ‘I did what I had to do.’
‘Does believing that help you sleep at night, Your Majesty?’
‘Be careful what you say, Empath,’ he snapped. ‘If you are not my ally you are my enemy.’
I rose from my place. ‘I will not spy on Lady Hana. If that makes me your enemy then I am your enemy.’
Tension snapped in the air. The guards watched, hands edging toward swords, but I would not sell my Empathy again. Brother Jian had taught me the difference between right and wrong, and that knowledge was all I had left to cling to.
‘Out,’ Katashi said. ‘Go and tell your master that he must take the Oath. And Endymion? If you betray me, I will make sure you are burned for the freak you are, do you understand?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ I said. ‘And I do not doubt you mean it.’
He did not answer, but I did not need his words. His anger and his obsession choked everything it touched, while the mantra of his inner thoughts echoed through his soul.
I will have my vengeance.