“Very impressive,” Ebony murmured as they walked through the palace courtyard. Night had fallen and the air was fragrant with nightflowers. The red and silver flowers were in full bloom this time of year and the garden was full of them.
“Thank you, my lady,” Traveler murmured. “It is only what I learned from the masters, and not even everything I saw.”
“I look forward to watching more.”
And I look forward to turning it on you, the traveler thought as he smiled into the dark, grateful for the hat’s wide brim and the moonless night.
“I can teach you a great deal so you may continue it when I leave.”
“Where will you go next?” Ebony asked curiously.
“I am a traveler, my lady. I go wherever my feet take me.”
“You are a very aloof man,” she remarked.
“I am a very private man, madam. My life is my own and no one else’s business. You, on the other hand, as the Black Widow of Arachnia must have a very public life.”
“That is true,” she murmured.
“Tell me, how many husbands have you had?”
“One thousand and sixty-three within the past four years, when my reign began.”
“You certainly are the Black Widow. And your sister, the Princess Kali?”
Ebony waved her free black gloved hand dismissively, her other still latched onto Traveler’s arm. “My sister has little interest in men, though she is betrothed to the Lord of Galida Gate, far to the north.”
“Have you ever met him?” Traveler asked carefully.
“No. She came back from a trip to the north betrothed and never spoke more on the matter.”
“Tell me of your first husband.”
“Christian. He had some tie to Galida Gate, I believe, but that was four years ago. I hardly remember. We had been betrothed since we were small children and, as a second son, he would not rule wherever it was he came from and instead came to rule beside me. I grew tired of him after a few months, though, and killed him.”
Traveler’s mouth tightened as he listened to her describe his brother in such a way. His free hand curled into a fist. He carefully kept the arm she was latched onto as relaxed as he could. He needed to seem at ease around the black widow and show no signs of distress at the thought of death. He was, after all, her new torture-master.
“I would think your reputation would precede you, but you have not been at a loss for a husband.”
Ebony looked at him and smiled. “I am a seductress by birth, Traveler. Any man I’ve set my eyes on is a lost cause. He is mine and then I kill him when he bores me.”
“And your sister?”
She shook her head, her curls bouncing with the movement. “We are half-sisters. My mother was a seductress. She died in childbirth and my father married Kali’s mother. She was a simple sorceress, I believe. Both died in an explosion some ways from here four years ago.”
Traveler turned his head to look at her. “And would you try to seduce me, my lady?”
She shook her head slowly. “I cannot. A seductress may only seduce a man of lower status or lower sorcery power than herself. You, sir, are by far the most powerful sorcerer I have ever encountered. That itself protects you from me.”
“How fortunate for me,” he murmured in reply. “Tell me, what was it about Christian that bored you?”
He saw her frown and she released the grip on his arm. “That’s enough questions, I think. My life may be a public one, but I assure you it is not that public. Until tomorrow, Traveler.”
He bowed to her and she swept off and disappeared into the palace. He remained in the courtyard and moved into the darkest shadows beneath a heavily flowered tree branch.
The traveler glanced through the leaves and flowers to make sure he was alone. Once assured there was no one else in the courtyard, he drew a finger down in a vertical line in the air and a silver spirit stepped out.
The spirit was that of a man some years older than the traveler. Alive, he’d had thick wavy hair and laughing blue-gray eyes. His features were delicate, but there was some strength lurking beneath the surface.
The spirit looked around. “Never thought I’d be back here.” He shook his head. “There’s talk in the after world that some of the spirits were involved in some torture, and you were the torturer.”
“That is the truth, Christian.”
“Exactly how did you come to be a torturer in Arachnia?”
The traveler leaned against the tree trunk and regarded his older brother’s spirit with tired eyes. “I am the torturer here. I came to find Ebony and take my revenge for your death and just happened to arrive the night she was leading a procession. She spotted me and recognized my necromancer ring. She immediately employed me as her new torture-master since she had just killed her previous one after two days of marriage.”
“Ebony will never change,” Christian said, his eyes flashing.
“Why didn’t you let me come four years ago when she killed you?” the traveler asked softly.
Christian sighed and began to pace beneath the heavy branches. “You were too young and too weak to counter her seductive wiles, Seth. You would have married her and been killed by her. With Damian dead, you’re the only one left. The de’Colling family must survive, and you’re the only one who can ensure that.”
His brother shook his head and sighed heavily. “I don’t like torture. I don’t like hurting people. I don’t like playing games with Kali. I feel like I’m losing myself when I inflict pain.”
“That was the choice you made, Seth,” Christian said sharply. “You chose to take your revenge and took the first chance you got to get close to Ebony. If you really want to go through with it, you have to earn her trust as her torture-master. I’m sorry you have to hurt Kali, but you made your choice. Now you have to live with it. Either leave Arachnia or carry out your revenge. I didn’t ask you to come. I didn’t want you to come. Don’t call to me again, Seth.”
Seth’s hands curled into fists and he thrust himself away from the trunk. “I have to do this, Christian. Damian died protecting Galida Gate not long before you died. All I had was you after his death, and then you were gone, too. After Damian died, I was the one who pushed back Lyrna and protected Galida Gate. Now it’s time for me to avenge you, just as I avenged our brother’s death. I will be Ebony’s torture-master, I will earn her trust, and I will destroy her.”
Christian sighed. “That was always your problem, Seth, strong passions and the desire to right what you perceive to be wrongs.”
“Your death was a great wrong, Christian.”
Christian shook his head. “Good bye, Seth, and good luck.”
With that, the spirit vanished, leaving the traveler alone in the night.
* * *
The traveler walked past the little table in his sitting room, tossing his cloak onto the back of the chair and his hat onto the table. The room was lit with black wax candles in golden sconces along the walls and the flames flickered in the gentle breeze coming in through the open balcony doors. He stared at the black and silver furnishings in distaste. Everything in Arachnia was predominantly black and he missed his home of Galida Gate, the Orchard of the World.
He glided past an oval mirror and took a quick look at himself. His brown hair was flat and in disarray after being kept under a hat for days. His blue-gray eyes were tired and shadowed. His face looked weary and drawn.
He shook his head at his reflection and continued out to the balcony. He stood at the rail, resting his arms on it and leaning heavily. He had a view of the town and could see the eight curving main streets lit by the streetlamps. The streets were as empty as the night before, when he had entered Arachnia for the first time.
“Why are you doing this?” a soft feminine voice said.
The traveler closed his eyes and felt Kali join him at the rail.
“How did you get here?” he asked, looking at her.
She shrugged. “That’s my business. Answer my question, Seth.”
“I have a score to settle, Kali. I have to do this.”
“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with. I’m sorry I have to hurt your agents, but I have to do this.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” she said coldly.
He turned to fully face her. “You’re wrong, Kali. You never knew me well enough to know that there are certain things I have to do.”
She reached out to grab his arm as he turned away. “Seth, listen to me. If one of those men lets slip that I’m the one who hired them, my sister could have me killed for treason.”
He jerked his arm from her grip and stared at her with hard eyes. “You’re the one who took that risk when you asked the first man to kill Ebony. My advice is to stop your little game and forget about Arachnia’s throne.”
She narrowed her black eyes at him. “And my advice is for you to leave Arachnia, for good.”
He gripped her chin tightly and held her eyes with his. “Advise as you will, do as you will, you are not getting out of our engagement, Kali. Not even if you somehow win Ebony’s throne.”
She glared up at him. “You don’t know my sister, Seth. She should never have ascended to the throne. Her reign is dooming Arachnia to the darkness. Heed my words, Seth. Leave Arachnia if you want to live to see our wedding.”
With that said, she spun away and disappeared into the night. He clenched one hand into a fist as she vanished and whirled away from the balcony. He stalked into his bedroom and his eyes fell onto a silver envelope with his name written in a spidery scrawl on it.
Cautiously, he picked it up and drew out a heavy piece of parchment. He read through it carefully and then crushed the paper in his fist.
Ebony was demanding he whip a man senseless with his invisible sword the following day, all day.
He hurled the paper across the room, and the envelope followed. He folded his arms and stared out the window to the yellow stars.
The traveler hated torture, but it was the only way he could wear down Ebony enough to be vulnerable to him. It would be that much more humiliating to her to break her and then reveal himself as the brother of her first husband. And to do that efficiently, he needed practice.
Furious with himself, he spun away from the window and blew out the few lit candles.