Home > The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(4)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(4)
Author: Peter V. Brett

“My daughter, Countess of the Hollow!” Elona spread her arms, face glowing with…was that what pride looked like on her? It was terrifying if so.

“Mother, Father.” Leesha allowed each a brief embrace, trying to keep from shaking.

Elona sensed it, but she had the decency to drop her voice. “You look terrible. What’s wrong?”

“I just need to get inside and rest.” Leesha gave Wonda’s arm a squeeze, and they started moving again. Others might fear to impede Elona, but Wonda was implacable as a falling tree. Elona moved to follow, but pulled up as Erny held her back. She glared at him, but like Wonda Cutter, Leesha’s father was always on her side.

“Welcome home, Countess.” Rosal dipped a practiced curtsy, her mother following suit.

“Emelia,” Leesha said, careful to use the woman’s proper name. “Mrs. Lacquer. I’m surprised to find you here at such an early hour.”

Gared swept in, the three of them following Leesha up the steps. “Count had the ladies staying here in his keep on account of propriety. We can find another place…”

“Nonsense.” Leesha winked at Rosal. “We’ve plenty of room. How would it look for an upstanding young woman like yourself to move into the baron’s household before the wedding? A scandal!”

Gared blushed. “ ’Preciate it. Got some papers for you to look at when you have time…”

“Send them over in the morning.” Leesha was almost to the steps now.

Inquisitor Hayes appeared next, bowing deeply. His acolyte Child Franq, usually inseparable from his master, was conspicuously absent. “Countess. Praise be to the Creator that you are well.”

The next carriage in line pulled up and opened its door. Hayes’ eyes widened as Tender Jona stepped out. Vika gave a cry, breaking from the receiving line to hurry down the steps to her husband.

Hayes looked at her in shock, but even shaking with pain, Leesha’s smile was genuine. “You’ll be pleased to know, Inquisitor, that your interim assignment to the Hollow has ended. Jona will resume leading services in Hollow County.”

“Preposterous,” the Inquisitor sputtered. “I’m not going to just hand my cathedral over…”

Leesha raised an eyebrow. “Your cathedral, Inquisitor? The one in my county?” She was still moving. The doors to the keep were closer, but still so far.

Hayes was forced to sacrifice dignity, lifting his robes to scuttle after her. “Only Duke Pether can relieve me…”

Leesha cut him off, producing a letter bearing the royal seal. “Your inquisition is over.”

“The inquisition was about more than one heretic Tender,” Hayes argued. “The question of Arlen Bales…”

“Is one you and the Council of Tenders can debate all you wish back in Angiers,” Leesha said. “Shepherd Jona will minister to the Hollow’s flock.”

Hayes’ gawp was greater even than Gamon’s. “Shepherd?!”

“His Grace gave up the title when he became duke,” Leesha said, “and there are more people in the Hollow than Angiers in any event. The Pact of the Free Cities gives our Tenders the right to form a new order.”

Unsure how to respond, the Inquisitor took the letter and fell back from Leesha’s determined march. The duke’s decree gave her the power to choose the spiritual leader of Hollow County, but she was testing the limits by promoting Jona to Shepherd. It was a declaration of independence that would not please the ivy throne, but there was little they could do to stop it now that Leesha was ensconced in the Hollow once more.

Darsy moved in quickly at a signal from Leesha, the woman’s bulk effectively dismissing the Inquisitor as she moved between them. “Creator be praised, it’s good to see you, mistress.”

“You have no idea.” Leesha pulled her into an embrace, dropping her voice. “Contractions are coming every two minutes. If I’m not inside soon, I’ll be giving birth on these steps. Wonda’s sent women to secure the royal chambers.”

Darsy nodded, not missing a beat. “Want me to go on ahead, or walk you?”

Leesha felt a rush of relief. “Walk me, please.”

Darsy took her other arm, she and Wonda guiding Leesha along as the next carriage pulled up and Amanvah, Sikvah, and Kendall made their solemn exit. Darsy watched them curiously.

“Mistress,” Darsy said. “Where’s Rojer?”

Leesha kept her breath a deep, steady rhythm as she pointed to the coffin a group of Cutters were pulling from the carriage.

Darsy let out a strangled cry and pulled up short. Leesha would have overbalanced and stumbled if not for Wonda.

“Bottle it, Darsy,” Wonda growled. “Ent got time right now.” Darsy nodded, recovering herself and getting them back in motion.

Amanvah glided up the steps swiftly, ignoring the glares of Wonda and Darsy. One look in her eyes was all Leesha needed.

She knows.

“Countess Leesha,” the dama’ting began.

“Not now, Amanvah,” Leesha breathed.

Amanvah ignored her, stepping in close. Wonda reached out to bar her way, but Amanvah put a knuckle into the arm and it fell away long enough for her to pass.

“I must assist the birth,” she said without preamble.

“Core you will,” Darsy growled.

“I have cast the dice, mistress,” Amanvah said quietly. “If I am not with you in the coming hours, you will die.”

“That some kinda threat?” Wonda’s voice was low and dangerous.

“Stop it, all of you,” Leesha said. “She comes.”

“I can do anything…” Darsy began.

Leesha groaned, feeling the need to bear down. “There’s no time.” She put a foot on the steps. Such a short climb, but it felt like a mountain.

Tarisa was waiting at the top. Leesha managed the climb unassisted, but still the woman needed only a glance to see what was happening.

“This way,” she said, turning on her heel and opening the doors, snapping her fingers at a group of maids. They scurried to her as she walked, and like a general, Tarisa sent them running off with instructions.

Leesha knew word would spread quickly now, but there was nothing to be done for it. She kept all her focus on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other.

The moment they left the great hall, Wonda signaled the guards. They closed ranks as the big woman swept Leesha up into her arms like a child, carrying her the rest of the way.

“Push,” Darsy said.

It was a pointless request. Leesha could feel the baby moving the moment they had her propped on the edge of the bed. It was coming whether she pushed or not. She was fully dilated, her water broken all over Wonda’s fine wooden armor. It would be over in moments.

But then the child thrashed, and Leesha cried out in pain. Darsy, too, gave a cry, seeing Leesha’s stomach distend as tiny hands and feet thrust into the lining. It felt like a demon inside her, trying to claw its way free. Fresh bruises were forming atop the faded ones all over her abdomen.

“Can you see it?” Leesha demanded.

Darsy sucked a breath and moved back in between the makeshift stirrups. “No, mistress.”

Corespawn it. She was so close.

“Help me up,” she said, gripping Wonda’s hand. “It will be easier if I squat.” She bore down, trying to squeeze the child free.

Again the child struck, hitting her like a horse’s kick. Leesha screamed and stumbled, but Wonda caught her, easing her back to the pillows.

“It is as I feared,” Amanvah said. “Mistress, I must cut the child free.”

Wonda immediately interposed herself. “Not a chance.”

Darsy rose, the large woman towering over tiny Amanvah. “Not if you were the last Gatherer in the world.”

“Leesha vah Erny am’Paper am’Hollow,” Amanvah said. “By Everam and my hope of Heaven, I swear to you, the only chance you have to survive this night is for me to cut you.”

Wonda had her knife in hand now, and Leesha knew how fast the woman could use it.

But then Amanvah did something Leesha could never in a thousand years have imagined. She dropped to her knees, putting her hands on the floor and pressing her forehead between them.

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