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HE STOOD guard outside the Cororm—the house where slave girls waited to be impregnated by either Prince Trajan or the Mephas Lord Pios—and watched as Prince Trajan’s entourage waited on their knees, their heads bowed. It was drizzling and cold, and they were soaked. But they dared not move.
The prince was taking his time today. His visits usually lasted only a few minutes or so; over half an hour had already passed. Otoro stood motionless at the doorstep. The eaves gave him slight protection from the moisture.
He did occasional guard duty for the Emperor’s Cardinals. Thankfully, such duty had become increasingly rare over the years.
The door opened. Otoro kneeled and bowed his head.
“Clean up the mess,” ordered the prince as he stalked past for his carriage. He was spattered with blood.
“At once, My Lord,” Otoro said, standing and saluting.
He had never been in the Cororm before. Very few ever had. Besides the prince and Lord Pios, Imperial Healers or cleaners, no one was permitted.
He stepped inside and closed the door.
Young women, all on their knees, stared at the floor. Most were crying. They didn’t dare make a sound.
He looked around. He saw no mess anywhere. The home appeared spotless.
He glanced down at the young woman closest to him, tapped her head, and said, “Mess.”
Tears streaming down her face, she stood and bowed. She led him through the living room, then to stairs leading to the second floor. She stopped, pointed up them.
He gazed at her. She lowered her eyes, wiping her nose silently on her blouse sleeve.
He marched up the stairs.
At the landing he looked down the hallway. He heard a groan from the room at its end.
The hallway was dark, with an ornately painted ceiling, and smelled of expensive perfumes and incense. Before the Imperium conquered all, this was probably a state home for some important Vanerrincourtian official. Now it was where Prince Trajan and the Lord of the Demons came to sate their fathomless lust. The girls, impregnated, were nursed to term in the Birth House next door by the finest Healers in the Imperium. When they died giving birth, which was inevitable, their mangled and mutilated corpses were feasted on by the vile spawn that burst out of them.
They were known as “Children.” They grew up with unnatural haste half-human, half-demon, dark and horrible, Unsolvable and brutal beyond description.
He got to the door, pushed it open, paused.
He had been an Imperial executioner for six years. But even he hadn’t witnessed a massacre like this.
He heard the groan again. One of the prince’s victims was still alive. She lay on the floor near the head of the bed. Her arms and legs were missing.
He unholstered his knife and went to her, and without hesitation drove the blade into the back of her neck. She fell silent.
He stood and wiped the blade on one of the only remaining clean spots on the bed’s gore-soaked covers and looked around.
If he worked for a week, maybe he’d get this massacre cleaned up.
There were probably four or five Hadavsmoban (Gyssian for “royal receptacle”) in here when the prince lost his temper. He couldn’t tell. The one at his feet was the only recognizable one left.
He hadn’t heard them scream as he stood guard outside, hadn’t heard any sounds of violence at all. These young women hadn’t even been allowed to cry as their frustrated prince tore them apart.
He stepped out of the room and closed his eyes.
Someone touched his elbow.
He wheeled about.
The young woman who’d pointed him up here stood staring at him. She’d brought a mop and a bucket. She goggled into the room and the tears trailing down her face thickened. She seemed unable to look away.
“A barrel,” he said. “Something large enough to place their remains. Get the others to help you get it up the stairs.”
She tore her gaze away and looked up at him. She shook her head.
That’s right. They weren’t allowed out of the Cororm.
He swore under his breath.
He thought of the cleaners—those slaves who were tasked with cleaning the Cororm and the Birth House. He could fetch them, and thought he should, but stopped. The prince had ordered him to clean up the mess.
If he fetched the cleaners against Trajan’s wishes, the prince would kill him without a single moment’s hesitation.
He made up his mind.
“I’ll get the barrel,” he growled. “But you’re going to help me clean this up.”
She shook her head again, this time emphatically.
He turned full-on to her. He was more than a head taller than her, and as his shadow loomed over her, she fell to her knees and lowered her chin, waiting for her punishment.
She sniffled. A full sniffle, audible.
She no longer cared if she lived or died. She sniffled again, even louder.
He bent and with one arm grabbed her by her armpit and hauled her up. She wriggled fruitlessly to get free but did not open her eyes. She sniffled again.
“Open your eyes.”
She did. She stared at him defiantly. Another sniffle.
“Look,” he said. “I can’t do this by myself. If I don’t get this mess cleaned up, not only will I die, but you and probably everyone else in this house will too. So the question is: Do you want to live, or do you want to die?”
She didn’t respond for a long time. When she finally nodded, her head barely moved.
“I need your help. Get more mops and buckets. Fill the buckets with hot water and very strong detergent. I’ll fetch the barrel.”
He marched angrily by her. At the landing to the stairs he heard:
“Lord Pios …”
He went back to her. She did not fall to her knees, did not bow her head at his approach. She stared at him impudently.
“What about him?”
“He may visit today,” she answered very quietly. “If he sees us working, he’ll kill us.”
Otoro shook his head. “He is away until next week. He will not visit. Has the prince lost his temper before?”
She sniffled and nodded.
“Did the cleaners clean up the mess?”
She shook her head. “We did. But …”
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Ash …” she whispered. “They were … ash. Easy … easy … to clean. Quick. I have never seen the cleaners before.”
It struck him then. He gazed up at the wood and stone of the house. There was a reason this structure had been picked to be the Cororm. He knew why now.
He gave a grim smile. He couldn’t help it.
She watched him.
“Does the prince ever return the same day he’s lost his temper?” he demanded.
She shook her head.
“Ashes, you said. Did the bed or anything else catch fire?”
She shook her head.
“How long have you been here?”
“How many times has he lost his temper since you’ve been here?”
“Including this time?”
She shook her head again.
“You’re sure there was no fire when he turned them into ash?”
“Which of them do you service?”
He knew the girls had been marked and were specific to either Prince Trajan or Lord Pios.
She pulled the neck of her nightdress down slightly. A small black brand with an inscription bearing the symbol of Lord Pios was over her left breast.
“Why aren’t you pregnant?” he asked.
“I …” She stopped, composed herself. “He’s … saving me. I … do … other things … for him … when he visits.”
He stared at her. She was still in adolescence, or just out of it. Somehow there was still innocence in her eyes. He had no idea how.
“Mops. Hot water. Detergent. Brooms,” he ordered. “I’ll bring clothes you may discard when you’re finished.”
He marched away from her, went down the stairs, and left the house.
He had two Tracluse haul a large barrel up from the docks, and another bring men’s pants and shirts from the barracks. He got the barrel in through the Cororm’s back kitchen door. With the help of the women, who had padded their arms and chests against scratching, he got it up the stairs, and then down the hall leading to the room. The young woman ducked into another room to change when he handed the clothes to her. Mops and buckets waited at the door. The others wanted to help, but the young woman, marching into the hall in the off-duty clothes of a low-ranking Tracluse, warned them off. “I’ll do it. Go away. If you get bruised or scratched and the Cardinals see it, you’ll die. Go! Now!”
They did as told, alarmed that she was speaking without permission, and alarmed by her attire.
She helped him mop up the remains. Prince Trajan’s temper had left little of his victims behind. Bones had been shattered, then reshattered, then reshattered again. Flesh had become liquid. The sight was beyond gruesome. She cried the entire time; several times she gagged.
As he did at the blocks, he worked relentlessly, dispassionately. Hours passed. The bedding and mattress had to be completely replaced, which took more time, as he had to direct more Tracluse to haul new ones to the door, and then only ones made specifically for this place. (As it turned out, there was a small, hidden warehouse of such furnishings marked only for the Cororm.) When the room was clean, he motioned to the barrel, now heavily smeared with blood, and said, “I need help getting this out of the house. Get the women back up here.”
She nodded and left.
Much sooner than he expected, they stood waiting at the door, still in padding. Some had dressed in the extra clothes he had brought along. Several carried lit sticks of incense, which they put in the room. Several more entered and began praying.
They helped get the barrel back outside, where he directed Tracluse to dispose of it. He went back to the house to make one last inspection. The room had to be spotless. He knew the prince would take the time to make sure it was.
The young woman helped him look it over.
As far as they both could tell, it was.
She escorted him to the door, the others looking on.
He didn’t want to leave them. He didn’t want to leave her. She was probably going to die soon, just like those women did; or she’d get pregnant, which itself was a death sentence. They were all condemned, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Something deep inside him snapped, and at that moment he made a decision. He extracted the knife he’d used to put the limbless woman out of her misery, and handed it to her. She stared at him in astonishment.
“Use it when one of you is suffering and can find no relief,” he said.
She stared at it. “We’re all suffering, all the time.”
He studied her face. She was very pretty: long black hair, fair features, blue eyes, full, beautiful lips.
He couldn’t save her. Gritting his teeth, he growled, “Hide it.”
He opened the door to leave.
“Tzani,” she said.
He glanced at her.
“Otoro,” he said, and closed the door behind him.