Chapter 16: Overlords Hate Waiting
Thorn sighed under his breath as the dwarf envoy bowed so low he risked tripping over his own beard. It made sense to ally with the dwarves rather than fighting them if only because he was unlikely to be able to seal them in their underground caverns or exterminate them altogether. That didn't mean he had to enjoy it.
They were better engineers than anything the Empire had developed, and much better with metals and explosives.
After the best part of twenty years underground, they were also desperate for real meat. Thorn's initial good faith gift of half a dozen sheep had been met with the kind of eagerness dwarves were reputed to reserve for gold.
Now, the envoy his name in the dwarvish language sounded like boots on gravel sniffed, twitching. He muttered to himself in his own tongue, then asked, "Do my senses deceive me, great Lord? I would swear I smell
Gnarl sighed. "The minions are bored, Sire. They've got into the brewery again."
The dwarf's eyebrows twitched. He tugged his beard as though that would keep his errant body parts from misbehaving. "Dwarf beer, Lord of the Dark?"
Thorn gave a single nod, then thought in Gnarl's direction, Bring him a tankard.
The Minion Master bowed and backed away, vanishing into the shadows of the Great Hall.
"Perhaps you would care to sample our recipe?" Thorn suggested. "The equipment was salvaged from wreckage and rebuilt here."
The dwarf swayed forward. His eyes glistened. "Great Lord, we have had no beer in years. Hops can't grow underground, no matter what kind of light we use." He sniffed, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "Forgive me, Lord, but
It appeared he had the perfect bargaining chip, Thorn mused. A fully functioning albeit rebuilt by minions Dwarf brewery, in his possession, when the dwarves were unlikely to have the wherewithal to brew their own beer for some time yet, would certainly help cement an alliance.
Gnarl reappeared, far too quickly to have run from the throne to the hives and back Thorn was certain the old Minion Master used magic, but he'd yet to catch Gnarl at it with a tankard in one claw.
The envoy was close to melting into a puddle of blissful dwarf. Thorn hoped he didn't do it in the throne room.
When Gnarl handed him the tankard, the envoy cradled it to his chest well, his beard and inhaled deeply. He sighed with ecstasy before lifting the tankard and drinking. And draining it in a single, long gulp.
"Ah." The envoy rocked on his feet. "I could die now and count no regrets."
Thorn wasn't averse to arranging that. He reminded himself that it was necessary to be patient with allies. And that he needed allies if he was going to become the first Overlord to die of natural causes. In bed. With his Mistresses. Preferably also with a smile on his face, but Thorn wasn't going to push that option too much. He wanted to achieve that particular distinction without his father's assistance.
The envoy bowed again. "What must we offer for the brewery, Great Lord?"
Well, that was direct. "It isn't for sale," Thorn said in a flat voice. "You are, of course, welcome to purchase any materials you require, as well as the beer itself until you can produce your own supplies."
The dwarf grinned. "Ah, Lord, a proper aged kettle has its own distinctive taste. You'll be seeing our gold for years to come, in trade for your marvelous beer."
Which only goes to show that twenty years of enforced sobriety has weakened the race. Gnarl's mental voice didn't sound at all displeased. In the old days anyone but a dwarf having one of their brewery kettles was cause for war.
You think there wouldn't be war if I deprived the minions of their dwarf beer?
Gnarl's ears twitched, and he gave his Overlord a reproachful look.
Thorn paced his magic room, rarely looking away from the spell showing whatever his children saw.
The ship carrying them was perhaps two days from Everlight now, moving at a speed that indicated either the use of magic unusual for an Empire vessel or favorable winds for the entire journey. While the latter wasn't impossible at this time of year, it was rare enough for Thorn to be certain magic was involved.
Slipping traitors into his slaves and having them work undercover for months before kidnapping his children wasn't typical of Imperials, either. They'd always been simple and straightforward, with the exception of Solarius and Marius, neither of whom could lie straight on a rack. Someone or something was using the Imperials.
At least the children were cared for. The woman nursing them was no-one he recognized: Ruborian, by her dark skin, although he thought he'd seen pointy ears as well. He had seen chains, and an iron collar enough to tell him the woman was a slave the conspirators had set to tend the babies.
Thorn couldn't fault the woman's care. She paced her prison with whichever baby she held, singing lullabies and talking softly. Most of that came through the spell blurred and distorted, but he'd made out enough to know that the woman had no idea why she and her charges were on a ship, much less where that ship was going.
He'd have to make sure the minions at least tried to do her no harm.
He sighed softly. Curse it, this waiting was
torture. The traitor, Cassus, had revealed nothing more the last few times Thorn had interrogated him, despite both the man's desperate desire to avoid more pain and Thorn's digging into the man's memories. Much as Thorn disliked the fact, the man had told all he knew.
Ordinarily, Thorn would have ended his life at that point. Cassus himself admitted he was expendable, that he wouldn't be ransomed by his co-conspirators.
The man still had his uses. By adding a small tracer spell to the messages Cassus sent out, Thorn could identify and tag as many of the traitors as the messages reached, in addition to feeding them the information he wished them to have. With that, once he had his children safely in the Tower, he could clean up the nest of traitors at his leisure: Thorn planned to enjoy that part.
Cassus would also be useful until the Centurion and the woman had been apprehended or killed: he knew both well enough to predict their responses. In addition, seeing their agent serving the Overlord should disturb both.
It was small consolation, but better than none.
He turned to soft footsteps behind him, and smiled, extending his hands. All three of his Mistresses were, if not friendly, then at least supporting each other. Kelda and Juno walked on either side of Fay, allowing her to use their strength to remain standing. Shared loss had brought them closer.
Juno was, of course, her usual immaculate self, but her eyes were red-rimmed and her face paler and thinner than it should have been. Kelda had a fierce anger about her, and she'd taken to carrying that seal sticker of hers everywhere. Drawing it too, and slicing open anyone who pushed too hard.
Thorn had blues on permanent duty in the private quarters to heal any minions or slaves who upset Mistress Kelda, in addition to Mortis and Storm keeping watch on Fay and restoring her magic and strength as it drained from her.
Much as Thorn would have liked to take over that duty, he couldn't. Even though he had effectively unlimited magical reserves while he was in the Netherworld, magic simply didn't work for him the way it worked for minions. The most powerful blues at the moment Mortis and Storm were the only minions strong enough although one of the newborns showed promise if he survived could channel magic from one person to another with no ill effects, but for Thorn to attempt the same thing would require a complex spell-casting with far too many ways to go wrong. If it worked at all, which was far from certain.
Despite the best that Mortis could do, Fay was slowly fading away, growing more ethereal with each passing day.
More like the elf queen she had once been, too, only without the assurance he'd once taken such delight in corrupting when he drained her to recharge the Tower Heart. Instead, Fay possessed a quiet serenity draped with sorrow, as though she had accepted death as inevitable.
Perhaps she had: though she was grateful for the energy Mortis and Storm supplied, she seemed to savor every moment as the rarest of treasures. The other two didn't just let her, they encouraged it, perhaps also convinced that Fay would die.
Thorn wasn't about to let that happen. Not while there was anything he could do to prevent it.
He took all three women in his arms.
"You must keep that girl as a nurse, beloved," Kelda murmured.
"I plan to." Serving in the Netherworld with all its comforts had to be an improvement and once he and Gnarl had ensured the woman's loyalty wouldn't stray elsewhere, she would be a better choice for the task than anyone currently in the Tower.
"Not everyone will look after another woman's child as though it was hers," Juno agreed. She sniffed and blinked a few times. "She's always holding one of them." A little jealousy leaked through Juno resented that someone else could hold her child when she couldn't.
Not that Thorn blamed her: he felt no different on that score.
Fay spoke in little more than a whisper. "You should take the girl to Evernight, dearest Lord. She is half elven, and in the midst of the Awakening."
Thorn frowned a little. "You've never mentioned Awakening as something elves do and that doesn't sound like you mean waking up in the morning."
The feeble joke earned him a faint smile. "Ah, my Lord, when elves are born we may or may not show active magic." Fay leaned against him, resting her head on his chest. "There is always enough to encourage the growth of plants around us, of course, but often little more than that. At the time of maturity, the Awakening, our full powers bloom." Her eyelids closed. "For those of mixed blood, it is often not until Awakening that any magic displays. A half-blood child could well pass the tests of those accursed Sentinels, but once the Awakening begins, they can never do so again." She sighed. "There are
few of mixed blood, and fewer now than there were before the Empire. Some could pass for human, but possessed magic enough to be exterminated by Imperials. Others fell with Everlight."
Since Thorn hadn't known that elves and humans could interbreed without magical intervention and what he had done to Fay certainly counted as that, not that he was precisely 'human' the whole concept was startling. "How often do elves and humans
Fay chuckled softly, but not with any kind of amusement. "Oh, whenever enough human males can overpower an elf woman," she said bitterly. "We do not end innocent lives, even lives begun so cruelly." She shook her head. "Most often, the child is adopted by couples unable to have children of their own, where it can be raised by those who will love and want it."
That, Thorn understood.
"It was thought Florian was one such, with his lack of magic. It does happen occasionally, with those of mixed blood." Fay sighed. "I knew otherwise, of course, but my father forbade me to speak of it to him or any other." She shook her head. "My poor, lost brother. It must have driven him to madness, to have no magic, and then to know no Quickening."
Thorn knew about Quickening: not all elves were fertile the estimates he'd seen were that between half and three quarters of elves weren't. The ones who were fertile didn't discover it until they were somewhere in their fifties, when previously inactive organs filled out and the elf in question endured something not unlike going into heat. Or rut. After that, they might Quicken again, or not.
Females could be forced into fertility, but males couldn't.
The amazing thing was that the race hadn't died out already, with so many impediments to their breeding. The women were actually more fertile with other races than with their own although Thorn had no intention of disclosing the source of that little tidbit to Fay. She wouldn't appreciate the breeding experiments of long-dead Overlords.
"Could he have been mixed blood?" he asked instead, hoping to distract Fay from her melancholy with an intellectual puzzle. "I understand you don't trace it past the first generation."
She quirked an eyebrow. "The possibility exists." After a moment, Fay raised a finger to her lips and nibbled delicately at the nail. "The parents of an adopted child are those who adopt, and thus after that generation no record remains. There are spells to determine the purity of the blood." She frowned in thought. "I daresay our father performed such spells before he wed our mother." A small shrug. "Magic is a delicate thing, Lord. Elves have lost their magic from as little a thing as a blow to the head that left no other mark." Another frown. "Florian's birthing was
difficult. It was thought that neither he nor our mother would survive. Perhaps that did him some injury none of us could detect."
It made as much sense as any other speculation, not that Thorn cared much. The entire discussion was a way to distract Fay, to induce her to think of something other than the death she believed inevitable. Florian Greenheart had made his choices in the full knowledge that he betrayed his people, and deserved everything he suffered.
Thorn didn't doubt the elf traitor suffered a great deal and would continue to do so long after his short reign as Emperor Solarius had been forgotten.
He sensed Gnarl's presence a moment before the old minion said, "Ah, Sire. We have word from Everlight: that ship has been sighted by the scouts on the reefs."
"Ah." Fay's eyes brightened. "Do they move to land?"
"No, Mistress. They seem to be trying not to come too close. Human eyes wouldn't have seen them."
Fay smiled, a predator's smile. "Then we must not allow them to know that they have been sighted until it is too late."
Thorn grinned down at her. "That is the plan." He nodded to Gnarl. "Inform Everlight we will be sailing shortly, and keep that ship in sight. Track its course." To Fay, he said, "Make yourself ready, beloved. As soon as you are done, we go to Everlight, then we sail."
"The full horde, Sire?"
"Yes. No mounts, but have them ready to come through any gates Grubby deploys." Thorn had spent more than enough time thinking through the question of mounts and his horde. Any long sail journey had problems, particularly with way all but the blues were so spectacularly gifted at drowning. "Have the reserve horde ready as well."
"Of course, Sire." Gnarl bowed and departed.
Kelda and Juno hugged him tight.
"You be careful out there," Kelda warned. "If you get yourself killed, I swear I'll skin you for it."
He kissed both women before handing Fay to them. "I trust you to manage the Tower while I'm gone," he told them. "Don't let Gnarl get away with anything."
"Ha!" Kelda snorted. "He thinks he runs this place."
Which, in all honesty, was probably true. Thorn was going to change that, once he had his children safely home.