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Chapter 7-1

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 5 years, 8 months ago

Dawn broke over the Celruelian Fields and bathed the phoenix city of Perrsolis in radiance. Its ivory towers, in arrangement not unlike a crown, glistened and scattered the twilight fog. Bells from the grand cathedral rang to greet the rising sun and retreat of the twin moons. Birds flew and sung from the canopy of the trees populating the cities many parks; the chorus celebrated the new day and stirred the people.

 

Innumerable mornings of this nature had occurred countless times over the millennia, but today it shone in advance of Perrsolis' most favored sons. The streets began to teem with life as merchants jockeyed for their places at her market squares. All roads led to the capital of The Empire. Magic powered trains rumbled into the city carrying goods from all four corners of the world. Immeasurable wealth gathered and so too did the people follow in pursuit of it.

 

The populace had swollen greatly over the centuries since the defeat of the last Demon Lord and the proclamation of The Empire which followed in that war's wake. The inner core the city, defined by its seven hills, was surrounded by an outer ring which made up the old town. This was enclosed by a mighty wall and beyond that a third rung had developed over time. The further one found himself from the seven hills, the lower his station in life. Yet opportunity abound. Barring access to the innermost echelons of power resting atop its hills and among its ivory towers.

 

Between the rows of wattle and daub buildings that rose out from the ancient foundations, came a clacking of oaken wheels against the cobblestone avenue. A thunderous rumbling of hooves made with it a duet that stilled the energetic hubbub of the market preparing for the day. A horse drawn carriage, unlike any other. Drawn by two brilliant white stallions barreled down the boulevard. The state coach was trimmed with gold and blackened wood from faraway lands. No one present could mistake the carriage's royal emblem. That alone would have been sufficient for the peasants and merchants to make way, but its entourage was present for good measure.

 

Six hussars escorted the coach as it worked its way up toward the city center. Six black maned destriers carried the heavily armed host. Each stallion was adorned with the finest leather bridles, silver bits and crowns of peacock feathers. The hussar's lances menaced with the glare of the sun off their perfectly polished surfaces. The peasants and merchants forgot their daily melee with one another to clear the way for them. Failing to do so would most certainly be their demise, because the carriage belonged to that of the Imperial family itself. There would be a zero tolerance policy for anything, or anyone, who threatened to delay it. For that is when an assassin would strike and anyone so much as tripping before it would be treated as such.

 

Yet as the carriage leisurely rumbled by the peasants waved cheerfully despite an errant few feet forward would mean certain death.

 

     “Was that a prince?” a tardy merchant asked.

 

     “It was Prince Damien, I am sure of it,” an older woman carrying buckets of well water by her shoulders replied. “I saw a glint of green I did!”

 

Gossip spread faster than the convoy clacking down the cobblestone. Crowds stirred from their slumber to watch the procession go by from the streets and from the windows. Stowed away in the coach a man sat with a cocky smile on his face. With a flick of his wrist he brushed loose lock of sage colored hair which had fallen in place over one deep blue eye.

 

     “Sir, please don't,” A fellow traveler seated across from him begged.

 

His frame was massive, exaggerated by the shoulder tassels. Garbed in a military uniform with many medals of valor. They were both sharp contrasts to one another. The prince's skin is smooth, unblemished and like porcelain. Meanwhile, the officer had been burnt reddish by the sun and scarred by numerous military campaigns. Black hair and brown eyes were dull by comparison. While he had more than decade yet to reach middle age, and his VIP was no younger than him, the prince somehow managed to retain his boyish good looks. Time and experience had worn away at one man while preserving the other.

 

Prince Damien turned his aquiline nose up at the officer and unlatched the lock on the window beside him and flung it open. The officer could never have hoped to react in time. Despite their soft and gruff appearances, the officer was there as a liaison, not as a bodyguard. All the officer could do was reach out in a futile effort and then slump back down in his seat with a sigh. The prince would address the growing crowds and nothing would stop him.

 

     “Good morning Perrsolis!” the prince sang as he stuck half his body out of the window and perched his bottom on the window.

 

The throngs of the people went from quiet and curious murmurs to fully fledged cheers. Young girls, and older women, wailed, cried and cheered the loudest of all. In another time, in another place, the prince would have been elevated to celebrity and world famous teen-aged heartthrob. His mop of sage colored hair tussled in the wind and the light of the sun glistened off his ivory dyed princely uniform.

 

One young girl dared to venture forward with a bouquet clutched in her arms. Those around her did not notice how close she came dancing with death, so she quickly darted forth out of the crowd. It did not go unnoticed, by Damien first who had made eye contact. Second was one of the hussars who looked poised to trample or run her through. No quarter would be given to anyone who placed themselves in a position to levy harm on a member of the Imperial family. Yet a quick sideways glare from the prince at the hussar was enough to have the seasoned warrior flinch and stand down. The prince received the flowers which were tossed forth before the girl retreated into the squealing of her friends and family.

 

Soon the crowds began to thin as the residential gave way into inner-city parkland. A buffer zone between the peasantry and the more noble district. Not far beyond were villa covered foothills was the Imperial palace complex built upon the summit of Perrsolis' most central hill. With no more crowds to thrill Prince Damien retreated back into the carriage to face the exasperated military man within.

 

     “If so much as a single hair on your head is hurt my neck is forfeit at the gallows,” the officer snarled.

 

     “Relax, old friend,” Prince Damien replied while taking in a lung full of the bouquet's sweet fragrance. “It is far too early in the morning for anyone else but decent folk.”

 

That logic didn't fly far with the officer. He sighed yet again. Major William Telgart was his name. His claim to rank and fame was a glorified chaperone to royalty within the capital's walls. A reward to his stalwart service almost two decades ago as a squire, likewise a curse, because his dreams of adventure were cut short. No more gallivanting about the world carrying the colors of The Empire came to an abrupt end with his promotion. While military failure and incompetence could be forgiven and atoned for, the failure to protect an Imperial family member would never be. The stress over the years had aged him prematurely. A man not so far into his forties should not have as many gray hairs, yet there he sat. Now he counted the days till his tremendous pension awaiting him.

 

He watched the prince with sharp and seasoned eyes and envied him immensely. Prince Damien was a common sight in the capital, so he had been privy to watch Damien age with him. Yet it would be more precise to witness him not age at all. Behind close doors they called him the 'playboy prince'. While his brothers labored to keep the Empire together by waging military campaigns across the globe, the prince before him was more at home at functions and conferences. The major could not respect his methods, as they were polar opposite to his profession, but he could not deny his results. With a silver tongue he had mediated the end of many disputes. With a flick of the silver rapier at his side he had deftly ended no less than two dozen duels to the death in his favor. Many more than that had been to first blood and few of those he had lost.

 

     “The mood is much more tense in the capital than when I was last here,” Damien said to break the awkward silence.

 

     “It has only been ten months, your majesty,” William replied.

 

     “Regardless, the number of northern refugees has increased.”

 

     “There is a great deal of instability in the North. It is no longer safe for common folk. The wiser among them have sensed what is inevitable and taken flight before they are no longer able.”

 

That appeared to be all that the Prince wished to hear, because he turned his attention back toward the window. William was left to ponder exactly how and why this debutant looking playboy had become so popular. Although he looked to be deep in thought, he looked anything but a capable statesman in profile. Yet the major had to way of his envy afflicting his thoughts. While he had never had luck with women, despite the uniform, the man before him had women squealing his name upon sight. They draped themselves over him in public wherever he went.

 

The major had of course also heard rumors of all types that it was all an act. Damien is also a couple seasons older than forty now, yet never married. Childless too, if you ignore the claims of many a trollop who dared claim their bastards were the result of a fling with the prince. Over the years the prince had sneaked out for nights of rowdy drinking with the commoners, so it was not implausible, but none of those children had inherited the distinctive arcane kissed green hair.

 

Rumors had for a long time speculated he was secretly a homosexual. Anyone who would dare say such a thing would most certainly be thrown away with the key by the Imperial family, so the major kept biting his tongue.

 

At long last the carriage had reached an impressive gatehouse separating the noble district and the Imperial palace. Guards at attention were easily distinguishable from the other capital troops. They were adorned with more ceremonial trinkets on their armor and weapons, but also carried an air of being far more deadly. They each likely carried enchanted gear that put them on a physical level far greater than that of their fellow man. And for the major this was as far as he could go. The capital guard were of an entirely different jurisdiction. Even he had to tread carefully here.

 

Prince Damien didn't wait for the carriage to come to a complete halt before flinging the door open. William wondered where all the man's patience had gone. He floundered to follow suit and escort the prince to the troop of Imperial guardsman waiting at the gate. He joined the hussars who formed a shield of man and horse around him for the no further than fifty yard distance. There's a tension in the air which is palatable. The imperial guards were on edge for the slightest wrong muscle twitch. Their enchanted swords could likely tear through their full-plate like a hot knife through butter. Each side exchanged salutes and the baton was passed.

 

     Damien gave William a polite bow, “May your morning be fruitful. Take a walk through the market some time. That widow who runs the bakery at thirty-three and seven always had an eye on you.”

 

     “W-what?” William flustered.

 

With a dramatic flourish of his cloak the Prince gave a wink and carried on his journey to the palace with his new entourage. That left a very confused William with his fellow hussars throwing him sympathetic sidelong glances underneath their helmets.

 

This ancient gatehouse had been erected at the very bottom of the hill, so it was still necessary for an additional carriage to ferry the prince up the winding paths and tunnels cutting through the earth to the summit. Along the way, further guard posts added to the utter impregnability of it all. It was a whole separate fortress in and of itself.

 

It took another ten minutes of winding and narrow paths in an open single horse carriage till Prince Damien passed the final gatehouse and entered the Imperial Palace proper. A complex composed of three separate structures. The center being the largest and the home of the Imperial family. Beside it to the right a guest villa and opposite that, on the left, the mansion for the servants. Yet none of those servants were present to greet Damien. He vaulted over the side of the carriage and let the chauffeur be on his merry way. With hurried strides the prince made for the central palace. He ignored the gardens with his hedgerow statues, fountains, ponds and flower beds. His eyes were leveled at the great mighty doors at the top of a long and wide flight of stairs.

 

Damien flung them open with wild abandon. Greeting him were tiles and pillars of polished marble. Centuries of art were arrayed on the walls, priceless rugs decorated the floor and a museum's worth of vases and other pieces of art sat peacefully on their pedestals. Each footstep echoed far and wide, but they were only his that were carried in the still and lonely air. At least until the click and clack of heels grew louder within. He stopped dead in his tracks and allowed the echo to grow closer until its source came gracefully around the corner.

 

From deeper within the palace came a solitary figure. She possessed perfect poise and impeccable posture. A long flowing skirt and apron adorned her which made her profession blatant for all to see. It was one of the Imperial palace's maids which had come to greet the prince.

 

Upon laying his eyes on her, the prince was almost lunging toward her now. Now it is she who stops in her tracks and curtsies to greet the recent arrival. She does not get more than a couple words in till the Prince runs into the woman, wrapping his arms around her waist, hoisting her into the air and twirling about in jubilation.

 

     “D-Damien please!” came the panic melodic voice from the maid, pleading for calm. “Not so close to the entrance.”

 

She kicked her legs backward with futility as she tried to squirm out of the man's tight and sudden embrace. There any observer would have spied the first glimpse of something amiss. Her legs, the feet at the end of the slender limbs, were like that of a bird's, but molded into high heeled boots. Other than the skirt fluttering from the centrifugal force, another appendage became plain to see: a long tail from her backside made of feathers. Her maid's headdress came flying off to reveal a pair of droopy and fuzzy dog ears crowning the sides of her head. Beyond that, the last inhuman feature were the feathers erupting from her wrists like a pair of flowing bracelets.

 

Damien finally relented and lowered the beautiful maid back onto the ground, but only so that he did not have to reach far to steal a long and passionate kiss. The maid was overwhelmed at first, yet she soon closed her eyes, wrapped her dainty hands around his neck and reciprocated his affection. Their kiss lasted nearly a minute before either felt it necessary to part. As they did, Damien brought out the flowers from behind her back and presented them.

 

     “For you, Svetlana,” he said with a warm smile.

 

Her eyes widened with surprise, the bouquet from earlier was a collection of wild flowers painstakingly and professionally arranged by a florist from the markets below. Cogs churned in the maids mind, however, and she soon furrowed her brow and glared up at the prince with her aquamarine eyes.

 

     “You didn't pull these fresh from the garden, did you?”

 

     “No, of course not!” the prince chuckled nervously.

 

Svetlana brought them up to her nose and took a few quick sniffs. Now her mood soured further.

 

     “Who gave these to you?”

 

     “They are from the market, I swear!”

 

     “Hmph,” she pouted through an upturned nose.

 

     “Oh, come on now Svet, don't tease me so. It's hurt me so much the last year just remembering your face. Don't show me such a cross expression now!” Damien begged.

 

They were both only half serious, but enjoyed putting on the show for one another regardless. They had known one another for decades, since they were both but children running through the halls of the Imperial palace. Their relationship was a taboo, but that was an afterthought to the burning passion which had burned for the better part of three decades.

 

     “They are absolutely wonderful,” she said with a smile as she spun back around clutching the flowers to her chest.

 

In reply he reached out and ruffled her short, chin length, brown-grayish hair. His patting of her head like this was also a tradition. Long before they matured from children and had grown into more adult rituals they conducted in private. Damien's hand wandered down to fluffy her ears before moving down to her cheek to caress the soft white and flushed pink skin. She closed her eyes and shuddered mirthfully at the skinship. He lastly moved down to her stomach. Upon realizing her waspish waist was flat a glint flashed in his eyes.

 

     “Hey, in your letter you said—”

 

     “Daddy!” came the shrill cry of excited children.

 

Their reunion was abruptly ended as two children came skidding around the corner and running toward them. Two girls, aged nine and five came as fast as their legs could carry them. Legs which tapered into birds' feet that looked similar to that of hens. They looked very much like their mother, creatures of the fae, kikimoras, a member of the seelie court. Their being maids were not a random occurrence, because in ancient times these fae served as house guardians. These children had yet to reach maturity, so their legs had not yet underwent metamorphosis into the distinctive heeled boot shape. Only the densest of men would likewise miss why called out for father. Their sage and olive colored hair, along with the resemblance in the nose, made the question of lineage not at all in question.

 

Damien knelt down and the two girls leaped into his arms. He hoisted them up by their bottoms as they sat on his arms and wrapped their hands and feathered wrists around his head. They brushed their cheeks against his and giggled incessantly. A warmth radiated from the scene which cause melt the heart and cause the most blackened to pause.

 

     “You said you'd be back last full moon,” the older girl pouted.

 

     “Girls, your father is a very busy man,” Svetlana scolded her.

 

     “What did you bring us?” asked the younger.

 

     “I came as fast as I could when your mother sent her letter. The railroads are all tied up though. It took forever to get back here,” Damien said. He watched their expectant gazes before confessing, “I didn't have time to get you anything—”

 

Both girls booed and grumbled with disappointment. Damien tried to chuckle and laugh it off, but couldn't quite keep his composure as tears started to build up in their eyes.

 

     “Regina. Marigold,” Svetlana said sternly which caused the dog-like ears on each girl to perk up in alarm. “Your father is home. Is that not good enough?”

 

     “Y-yes Mom,” the two girls said apologetically in duet.

 

Damien lowered the two girls back down onto the ground and gently took back the flowers from Svetlana's hands. He then presented them to the two girls.

 

     “Please find a good vase with water for your mother's new flowers.”

 

At the chance to be of help their maidenly instincts kicked in as the older one took them into her arms as if the flowers were a faberge egg.

 

     “Go now, quickly!”

 

The youngest took off first with her tail struggling to keep pace behind her. The oldest soon followed and both giggled and squealed with delight as they vanished back behind the corner. Damien turned back toward the maid with a tired smile.

 

     “So, about that letter?” He asked.

 

Svetlana motioned for the prince to follow her. They walked side by side as they both turned left, opposite the children's right, and proceeded further into the palace.

 

     “Right this way. But be quiet. She was sleeping.”

 

     “Is that why you weren't there to greet me at the door?”

 

     “I had just put her to bed. Please don't wake her.”

 

     “In the main palace?”

 

     “At your mother's request,”

 

It was not far of a walk at all. They were still on the first floor, but tucked away at the end of a hallway seldom seen by guests and even fellow servants. What amounted to not much more than a converted storage room, but bigger than what most people would call their house, was a nursery. Against the wall, where a small window to the outside lay, was a crib. A marionette with brooms, dusters and other stereotypical cleaning instruments dangled and spun in the air.

 

Sleeping soundly within lay a child no more than a month old. Dressed in pink swaddling blanket. With sage colored hair growing in. A pair of bird's feet twitched as the baby slept. Damien peered over the edge and looked down upon the child with a face which appeared ready to break into tears. His hands were poised to reach down and scoop her up, but Svetlana grabbed hold and stopped him. When he looked over and appeared ready to question why, the maid held a finger to her lips.

 

Damien took a deep breath, closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He opened his eyes and quietly asked.

 

     “What's her name?”

 

     “Alice,” Svetlana replied.

 

     “Alice? After mother?”

 

     “It was her idea.”

 

     “Was it now?” he eyed her skeptically.

 

     Svetlana motioned with her chin for Damien to follow her back out of the room, “Speaking of your mother, the Empress penned the second half of our letter.”

 

It was only with great fortitude and power of will that the prince could peel himself way from his new born daughter's crib and follow her mother back out of the room.

 

     “Yes, I read it.”

 

     “Your father is doing worse,” the maid savid severely.

 

     “He's been doing worse for ten years now.”

 

     “Damien,” Svetlana chastised heavily with but one word.

 

The prince squirmed and hesitated.

 

     “I know it hurts. I know you were close, but your mother needs you. He needs you. Go to them. By then Alice will be awake so she can finally meet her father.”

 

Tears were nearly in the prince's eyes as a thousand different thoughts clashed inside his mind. Through them he was seeing a lot of memories and juggling many feelings that made his heart a maelstrom. It was Svetalan's turn to reach up and stretch to rub her tiny hand through the prince's mop of long sage colored hair. To watch her balance on the tips of her feet to do so made him laugh despite everything. He nodded once then bent down to kiss her on the forehead. She held his cold hands in her own briefly before pushing him gently forward. With a flip of his cape, the prince bravely marched forth. He looked back only once to get one final look at the newborn.

 

Now had come the time he had dreaded the whole way back to the capital. Uselessly it was the grinding of the wheels against the Imperial railway when you tried to sleep. Not even the luxury carriage could drown out the sound. What he feared most of all about going home was the unknown future symbolized in the painful sight he had yet to fully brace himself for.

 

Through the empty halls of the palace he ascended the stairs to its highest point. Up the spiral stairwells to the top of its highest spire. Hidden far away was the bedroom of the Emperor. Shielded by the most expensive enchantments and barriers money could buy. Defended by hundreds of the finest soldiers down below. With royal blood flowing through his veins, the man walked past all the hidden barriers, traps and curses laying in wait. At the final hallway before the last set of double doors he could hear a queer beeping noise and other sounds he had never heard before. Rather than it giving him pause, the prince quickened his gait and pushed his way through the final barrier.

 

A room with three walls of clear glass greeted him. A panoramic view of Perrsolis. From the outside it would appear as simple castle stone of a keep, but within it gave a few an artist would trade his eyes to paint from. Their curtains were thrown wide open to let the early morning sun through. It illuminated a room with one canvas bed near its center. Surrounding it were instruments the like of which Damien had never seen before. They beeped, whirled and chugged along with clanking gears and huffing pneumatic bellows. Wires, cables, tubes and everything in between crisscrossed the floor at random, or a madman's design.

 

Seated beside the bed is an elderly lady watching the man resting upon it with intensity. He immediately recognized his mother, Empress Alice Tylous von Celruel. At least informally. She was still officially Princess consort, the Emperor's second wife, Alice of Zimvetgrad. And he, Damien, was her third of five children, second of three sons, the only remaining son. His sisters he never knew. The two of them had been married off many years ago. His brothers he had been closer with... One died two decades ago on the field of battle, in his prime, in vain. The other more tragic still had illness claim him at a very young age. Now he is all his mother had left. There wasn't much left of his father.

 

There the Emperor lay. Nearly a hundred years old. A husk of a man, withered and dying. Damien had yet to get close enough, so he might actually be dead. His face become gaunt, his limbs atrophied. As a man well into middle age when he was but a boy, the Emperor had been a strapping, handsome and barrel-chested man. Now it's pitiful to look upon him. This is the pain Damien so desperately wished to avoid.

 

His mother rose from her seat and gracefully navigated the obstacle course at her feet toward him. She herself had seen just over sixty winters herself, but looked a good decade younger than that. Her waist long hair had yet to fully gray, so there was still yet some streaks of her youthful, exotic, cyan colored hair and gray eyes. Her pale skin had wrinkled slightly, but not too much. Alice had never been too fond of gaudy clothing, so out of the public's eye, such as now, she wore a simple and plain white dress. At her age she was still a thing of beauty with strong cheek bones and angelic symmetry.

 

Both meet by the foot of his father's bed and wrapped their arms around one another in embrace. She was rather short, much shorter than Svetlana, but in her old age she had become much more frail and thin. Perhaps she is not eating as well as she should, Damien thought to himself.

 

     “Damien,” Alice said choking back tears which she buried into her son's chest.

 

     “How is he?”

 

     “Not too well. To be perfectly honest,” came a third voice from the corner of the room.

 

Damien snapped to attention and nearly drew his rapier. His mother had to move frantically to grab hold of his wrist and keep the blade in its sheath.

 

     “Whoa-ho!” the high pitched voice cried out as its owner threw her arms up into the air. “I've been told I need to work on my bed sides, but no need to get carried away.”

 

Damien didn't know what to think at first. A petite girl, nearly a midget, sat at some sort of console in the corner of the room. A second sober look revealed the fact that all the devices, tubes and other assorted knickknacks all met together at this console like how all railroads meet at Perrsolis. Her hair was an odd forest green with eyes of amber. From the sides of her head came two cat-like ears. Nothing else other than those were any different from a human child, but she had an aura similar to that of Svetalana and not his own daughters. She also dressed far less conservatively than any of them. Completely unbecoming of a guest, or employee, of the Imperial palace. A pair of overalls with a bodysuit underneath that did not cover her thighs, midriff or collar bones. Damien wondered briefly what the point of the underwear was at all.

 

     “Damien, this is Howe.”

 

     “How do you do?” the girl joked in kind and laughed obnoxiously at her own terrible humor.

 

     “Who?” Damien asked.

 

     “No,” She said with her face as professional as could be mustered. “Howe.”

 

The girl very nearly fell out of her chair with laughter. Damien was not at all impressed. He is usually of good humor, but having all the tension from before be so quickly deflated had him at a loss. What was he to do with all that angst from before?

 

     “Howe, please, restrain yourself.”

 

     “Sorry Empress. But with the look on his face. I couldn't. You really need to lighten up a bit.”

 

Damien took a deep breath instead of tossing out a verbal right hook right back at her. He slowly let go of his rapier's hilt and let his arms fall back to his sides. Sensing it was now safe to proceed, the girl slid off her chair and approached.

 

     “As I was saying,” Alice continued. “This is Howe. I brought her in to oversee your father's health.”

 

She didn't bother to take off her work gloves when thrusting her hand out. Damien went with the flow and nearly had his arm shook loose from its socket with how much gusto she shook his hand. He had to rub his thumb into his palm to massage the blood back into it.

 

     “Been here for the better part of nine months now,” Howe said as she walked on past the mother and son to check up on another machine behind them. “Not that I had much experience in the healthcare field, but hey, gold is gold and the challenge is a bonus!”

 

     “Mother?” Damien said confused with a hint of venom on his tongue.

 

     “Your father is deathly ill. I took the initiative to do everything I could for him. No matter the cost.”

 

When Damien looked back the girl was bent over and waist deep into some panel she had flung open in the machine she had been inspecting at last glance.

 

     “He's dying,” Damien said, as a matter-of-fact.

 

     “That depends on how you define dead,” Howe chimed in. “For your father? Legally? No.”

 

     “With all... This?” Damien asked as he surveyed the room again.

 

     “That's right,” Howe replied and finally emerged from the machine's innards with a face covered in grease and a pair of goggles over her eyes. “I've managed to cheat death for the last five thousand hours,” she said while puffing her flat chest out with pride.

 

     “Mother?” Damien turned toward his mother disapprovingly.

 

     “When your father is gone there will be a succession crisis,” Alice replied as she walked back and sat down in the chair at her husband's side. “He left no clear will as to who will be the next Emperor.”

 

     “And that justifies this... this... indignity?!” Damien burst out with anger.

 

     “Damien!” Alice turned around in her chair and angrily raised her voice to match her son's outburst.

 

     “No offense taken,” Howe replied jovially, out of sight. “Don't mind me.”

 

They both decided to ignore her and Alice continued.

 

     “There will be a month of mourning from the morning after his death. Then the electors will convene in the capital to deliberate and vote for the next Emperor. If they cannot decide, they will form a reagent council and rule directly until a decision is made. With your father having no will, his votes will not matter.”

 

Damien already knew all this. His impatience grew with every passing second. He wondered why his mother was lecturing him now. The prince had learned the process as part of his education. Although he had paid it little mind, because as a young child he knew he is double digits in line for the throne. His father's first wife had given him six sons. They had their own sons and grandsons. There were a lot of people before he would ever be considered in a matter of pure succession. He also knew his reputation among the nobles was poor. No matter how the peasants cheered him they had no bearing on Imperial politics. As a young man he had rubbed shoulders with the proletariat in secret, thrown fists at one another, drank with them till they were nearly dead and sang songs the whole night. That did not put him in good light with his fellows of blue blood.

 

Beyond that, however, was something else that would disqualify him. He had never married. Worse than that, he had sired children with a monster. If the nobles didn't take his head for it, the Church would. No member of the Holy See would officiate the coronation. There's no way in hell he'd ever be Emperor. The most minute chance he could muster would be to brown nose both the nobles and the clergy till he suffocated and choked on the fumes. He'd have to marry someone for political reasons. All options, all paths to Emperor, forced him to abandon Svetlana. Damien knew in his heart that he would sooner die.

 

     All those thoughts and feeling that went with them boiled over, “What does it matter to me?!” Damien cried out with tears of frustration.

 

Alice looked on, but did not say a word. She reached over and grabbed hold of her husbands hand instead. Cold, withered, lifeless. Damien felt guilty, but did not feel compelled to apologize. He nearly gave in there and was prepared to storm out when he noticed something which would have been so easy to miss. The Emperor's hand slowly clenched and grabbed hold of his wife's hand.

 

Damien stood there shocked. He had resigned himself to never seeing his father alive ever again.

 

     “See? Not legally,” Howe piped up from beside him with a grin on her face. A face covered in more grease and grime than before. Her hair nearly dyed entirely black.

 

The gremlin dared to slap the boyishly handsome man on the behind before twirling her wrench betwixt her fingers and go on to fine tune one of the many machines currently chugging away. Damien stood by so bewildered he hadn't even reacted. He looked back at the image of his mother looking longingly at her husband. The man she loved. More than anything, apparently. This gremlin, a monster, tinkering away at the heart of Perrsolis is but one part of that. He had always nursed a sneaking suspicion she's a little crazy. Ever since he was old enough to put two and two together with the Church's popular no tolerance to monsterkind and the fact she had dozens of kikimoras acting as servants and maids within the Imperial palace. They had been servants and guardians of her family since time immemorial, but now some would attempt to lay serious charges down for harboring them. A death sentence would not be out of the question if one were to found in your home.

 

The prince now dared to move forward and stand with his mother at his father's bedside. He did not look any better up close, but Damien was not mistaken because his father had clearly grabbed his wife's hand in return.

 

     “Unlike his other sons he kept you boys close. It hurt to send his daughters away, but the happiest days of his life was with Tyler, Jerold and yourself,” Alice said with her eyes locked onto the Emperor laying peaceably on the bed.

 

There were tubes up his nose and into his arms. There were patches attached to wires nearly everywhere else. A machine next to the bedside had some manner of strange device with a glass screen. A line flickered and beeped. It took a few moments before Damien correctly concluded it was monitoring his heartbeat. A sad sight to see considering it was so slow.

 

     “He was a young man when he married his first wife. He confided in me that he had dreaded it, the young man he was then. His father didn't care whether he consented. A marriage for purely political reasons. To ensure the loyalty and votes of a powerful Duchy to the North East... I forget which one...”

 

     “And when he married you—”

 

     “Of his own free will. He had many sons by then. No one cared what an old man like him would to do in his later years. His succession secured, the man could do as he wished... And wished he had such a right many years ago. His previous wife had grown to love him dearly. He had been a happy man, but her unfornature and early departure had left your father hollowed out. Left to remember all those painful emotions... And so we met at a royal function... I was so young at the time. I had just debut three months earlier. It was intimidating to say the least that the most powerful man in the world, and four times my age began to court me. A pretty little thing, from across the Eastern seas, so naive and shaking like autumn leaves in the wind.” Her face curled into a smile as she remembered the past, “He hardly had a black hair on his head, but he was so manly and broad shouldered. I couldn't but swoon as much as tremble. I still remember our first dance... My parents were absolutely delighted. They nearly fainted when the letter came that he wished for us to meet again... So I left and when I arrived he proposed almost immediately.”

 

With her free hand she wiped away the tears in her eyes. Damien leant her his handkerchief and she continued her tale.

 

     “Maybe he wanted to know what it was like for a real family. All his other children were whisked away to be educated by relatives and allies.”

 

     “Hostages,” Damien said gravely.

 

     “Not the polite society term for it,” Alice said wryly.

 

     “And since we were never expected to have a shot at the throne—”

 

     “Influencing the next potential Emperor never crossed their minds.”

 

“...Tell me again why the Emperor is considered the most powerful man in the world again.”

 

     “I'm afraid I don't have the words.”

 

His word is law, but he was still a man. He lived, he could bled, he would die. Laws needed soldiers and consent of others to be enacted and followed. The Emperor needed to live among other men with their own ambitions. Lastly, the end of all things would be his demise. From old age, or if a failed ruler, at the blade of another. Not all reigns of previous emperors had been so long or as peaceful. The only thing they had in common is that their blood was thick with the ichor of the original King Tylous.

 

     “He had his vassals running scared,” Damien said. “He was—is—a legend. Stories of his exploits are why things are calm as they are.”

 

     “But if they were to see him now...”

 

It would be civil war by the end of the week, they thought Without fear of the Emperor personally breaking down the door of their strongholds his vassals would align themselves with his heir apparent of choice and make a bid for the crown. They would take to drastic and illegal measures to bump one another off. Prince Damien had no benefactors to get behind him, so he would lie low and hope his half brothers would not see him as a potential threat and leave him be. Or so he thought.

 

     “You didn't write me to bring me home to see father one last time, didn't you?”

 

     “No. I did not,” Alice replied.

 

Damien took a deep breath and readied himself. His mother took that as the sign to continue.

 

     “Where does the wealth of the Imperial family come from?”

 

     “Excuse me?”

 

     “Where does the wealth for everything you've seen since coming home come from?” She asked again.

 

     “You can spare me the rhetorical questions, mother,” he said, waited in vain for the awkward silence to end before answering. “The Imperial rail.”

 

     “And?”

 

     “And what?”

 

     

     “The Free Port tribute,” Alice said, finally getting to the point. “I want you to gather your belongings and take your case to the Confederate Council.”

 

     “You can't be serious—”

 

     “I am,” she said tearing herself away from her husband and up at her son.

 

They glared at one another for the better part of a minute before Damien surrendered and looked away first. He then began to walk away to retreat out of the room entirely.

 

     “I'm the 'playboy prince' not a pretender,” he said dismissively.

 

     “I do not wish to speak ill of my husband's children, and it may a mother's bias, but no one else but you can carry on your father's work.”

 

     Damien stopped mid-stride, turned about face and yelled back, “And what work would that be?”

 

     “Peace.”

 

     “Peace?” he repeated after his mother skeptically.

 

     “For forty years there's been peace. The first twenty of that being absolute. That is your father's legacy. His father waged his bloody crusade against the Monster Lord your father put an end to the madness. When the nobles and the clergy were ready for revenge upon the disappearance of the Hero and the Monster Lord he called for calm. None of his sons, other than you, understand that. He's heard of all the exploits from his sons, but only you have used pen and word, not swords, to keep the peace.”

 

     “Perhaps you glossed over all the men I've had to run through with Thunderclear here?” He said whilst patting the scabbard of his enchanted rapier.

 

     “Did you march armies over fields and scorch the land with it? Did you burn villages to the ground and send the people living there fleeing into the four winds?”

 

“....No. No I did not.”

 

     “Neither did your father. He ruled with strength, but not with cruelty. When the Monster Lord's campaign ended, he maintained the ceasefire. For decades he kept the nobles pacified. They were too frightened to fight amongst themselves... For a time...

 

 

     “Now they bash heads over old blood feuds and petty land claims,” Damien lamented.

 

It had been his life's work to try bringing a bit of sanity back into the world. He had made many enemies through unraveling plots of nobles seeking to back stab one another. The prince had put a target on his back for ending wars before they started and prevented good men and women from being prematurely lynched by the church. Yet he was only one man and could only ever be in one place at a time. Alice and Damien recollected all the successes, but could not escape thinking about each failure. In hindsight, though Damien, they could have been prevented. An oppressive silence pervaded over the room. Interrupted by the incessant beeping of the machines.

 

     “Alice?” A raspy voice interrupted the conversation.

 

Damien and Alice froze on the spot. Their necks swiveled toward the bed where the voice had come from.

 

     “Oh ho, I got brainwave activity!” Howe made herself seen for the first time in many minutes. “We got a lucid moment,” she gushed and sprinted over to another console to twist and turn the dials.

 

     “A what?” Damien cried out.

 

     “Dear.” Alice said as she grabbed hold of her husband's hand with both of hers.

 

The Emperor lay motionless save for his eyebrows which twitched painfully and his lips undulating as they struggled to find the strength to part.

 

     “Where.... Where is Alice?” The Emperor spoke laboriously.

 

     “She's right here, father.” Damien said while fighting back the tears and laying his hand on top of his mother's which were on top of his father's.

 

     “No,” the Emperor said and tried to shake his head. “No... No... No.”

 

Slowly the dying man opened his eyes at last. One was completely grayed out, the other a brilliant blue which mirrored his son's. He looked straight at Damien. Although the old man weighed a fraction of his former self his gaze held the same intensity as it ever did.

 

     “She's resting, dear,” his mother replied at last.

 

A weak smile spread across his face as he rolled his eyes back to look at the ceiling above. A gesture as if he were praying. Damien was still at a loss.

 

     “Have you forgotten your own daughter's name so soon, Damien?” Alice said berating her son.

 

Thunderstuck, the prince nearly reeled backward. How did his father know? He and Svetlana had been keeping their relationship from nearly everyone since forever. His mother knew, but he had never let his father know. A fear his whole world could come crashing down nearly sent him into a flight.

 

     “Damien,” Alice said sternly to freeze her son in his tracks.

 

Damien swallowed his fear and took a couple steps forward, “Since when?”

 

     “The beginning,” Alice replied.

 

     “And yet I've never been beaten and sent away to a monastery in chains. In disgrace.”

 

     “The kikimora have been part of my family for centuries, Damien. Your father did not learn of this after our marriage. Yesfir had been with me the first time we met. Despite her being disguised your father saw right through it. It didn't faze him then. It doesn't now...”

 

     “If the nobles heard about that... They'd revolt.”

 

     “I—would have liked to see—them try,” The emperor croaked then began to cough. “Yesfir!”

 

     “Yes, your highness,” a woman materialized at the door as if from the very aether.

 

Damien knew this woman and so he did not react when seeing Howe. Yesfir had always been there. Now he had to wonder why it was only now he had seen her. She is inseparable from his mother. She gratefully strode across the room as if all the obstacles at her feet were of no concern.

 

Centuries ago the kikimora had been less pleasurable to look upon. A strange, beastial, fairy-like creature. Perhaps mistaken as a crone at first glance until one saw the beak, or saw its hunched form walk upon two bird-like legs. Yet they were benevolent sprites, so long as you kept your house in order. They hid behind stoves and under floor boards where they would guard a household against predatory spirits and less favorable fae. Otherwise they would make the most irritating of noises at the most inappropriate times. Whistling, breaking plates, inviting in pests like mice and the like. When the new Monster Lord ascended, they retained the odd mix of bird and canine, but became beautiful maids. Human enough to pass off like any other in most cases. Those who had their homes blessed by them were prosperous indeed. Not even the Church bothered to get too bent out of shape over the fae, not of the seelie court. They almost had the rank of demihuman, like elves and dwarves. Yet bedding them would most certainly nullify all good will, banish all thoughts of turning the other cheek and invite divine retribution.

 

While his mother had aged, the other kikimora had not. Her biological clock must have stopped long ago. Yesfir had to be over a hundred years old, so Damien figured from how far back stories of her service went. Yet she didn't look a day over forty. Unlike Svetlana, she had black hair to her shoulders. Her light brown eyes were also more stern and her expression more like stone. Perhaps it was the glasses which added the additional air of authority and professionalism. While Svetlana could pass as the ideal maid, Yesfir would be the original mold from which all were made. Perfect and all others were mere imitations.

 

Yesfir carried something with her: A sheet of paper on a clipboard. The writing was too small for Damien to read despite how close they were. She presented it to the invalid Emperor and laid it to rest on his stomach while Alice helped prop the dying man up against the bed's headrest.

 

     “What's this all about?” Damien asked, visibly confused.

 

     “A small token of your father's faith in you, my son,” Alice responded.

 

The Emperor struggled to raise his hand to his mouth. He kissed a signet on this right index finger and then pressed it against the bottom of the paper presented to him. It singed an official seal at its bottom. No ink required from the magic ring.

 

     “A transfer of ownership. The Dreadnought officially becoming property of Price Damien Lucius Tylous von Celruel.

 

     “The Dreadnought? That monster?” Damien shouted in disbelief.

 

No other machine on rails could match the armored train known only as Dreadnought. An armored behemoth which had been built many centuries ago to protect the most vital Imperial dignitaries as they traversed the Imperial Rail Network. Covered in two inches of steel and armed with magifire turrets, the behemoth could plow through all obstacles. Damien had to wonder what his father was thinking. If it got out he had given such a relic to him, the other princes and nobles would go mad. It would be a scandal.

 

     “What is this all about?” Damien demanded to know.

 

     “I told you already. You are to make haste for the Free Ports,” Alice said.

 

     “What? Why?”

 

     “It is no longer safe here,” Yesfir said. Her disposition did not change, but the urgency in her voice was dire when she said, “Your father's condition is no longer confidential. Your arrival was imminent and these last minute measures have been arranged.”

 

     “Who?”

 

     “Ol'een,” Alice replied.

 

     “Ol'een?” Damien said as the color drained from his face. “When?”

 

     “One week ago,” Yesfir continued the debriefing. “Svetlana discovered a spy monitoring the Palace. She confronted the one known as Red.”

 

     “You let Svetlana chase after the tail of a bloody Arc Assassin when she had just given birth not even a month earlier!?” Damien exploded.

 

     “It would not be beyond her capabilities,” Yesfir said with confidence.

 

     “None of that matters now,” Alice said. “Ol'een most likely believes your father is already dead.”

 

Everyone looked over at the Emperor who hadn't said another word in quite some time. He looked ready to pass out with his head nodding away already. He had done nothing more than say a few words, sit up in bed and move his arms a bit. That had been enough to put him back into his coma. Yesfir and Howe moved in to lay him back down to rest and pull the covers back up and tuck him in.

 

     “I do not expect him to act immediately. He will take this information and advance his own plans in an attempt to outmaneuver his rivals.”

 

     “And he'll know about Svetlana!”

 

     “That is why you need to leave. Now. And take her with you.”

 

Damien was once again at a loss for words. He began to try wrapping his head around what his mother, and by extension his father, were asking him to do. Take Svetlana and his three daughters and escape south along the Imperial rail. No doubt using the Dreadnaught as a battering ram if things got dire enough.

 

     “What about all of you?”

 

     “Howe will go with you. Someone will be required to keep the Dreadnought operational as its conductor,” Alice declared.

 

     “Dreadnought? And little old me?” Howe's head perked up with sparkles in her eyes. “Are you serious? Absolutely serious? Oh, be still my beating heart. I gotta pack. I gotta—wait, what about Empy here?”

 

     “You have bought all the time we needed, Howe.”

 

     “Are you sure? On auto pilot all this could buy you maybe a couple more weeks. That's it.” Howe held a finger up to her temple as she did a few quick calculations. “Three if I got till this evening.”

 

     “We'll have Damien and Svetlana out soon and you can rendezvous at the central station after sundown. Ol'een as his lapdogs will not be in a position to stop a night time departure of the Dreadnought,” Alice commanded. “If he even cares.”

 

     “You figure he is watching?” Damien asked.

 

     “I would never be so naive to think otherwise,” Alice sighed as she pressed the Emperor writ into his hands. “And if we only had to worry about Ol'een, our troubles would be manageable.

 

     “And what about you?” Damien asked and surveyed his mother's eyes.

 

He did not like what he saw.

 

     “No. No no no no. No you wont,” Damien broke down and about grabbed his mother by the arm.

 

She shook him loose and leveled her eyes at him like only a mother could, “Till death do we part.”

 

She pulled her son in for one last embrace. Too tight for comfort, but Damien could not complain. This warmth is a familiar one. It did not last long though, she turned her back on her sole remaining son and took her seat back at her husband's side. Yesfir stood behind her like a statue. A position which they had all likely kept up for quite some time. Damien remained there, motionless, for quite some time. Reality slowly dawned upon him. This would be the last time he would see the three of them. Definitely not his father. His mother would be at the mercy of the electors and the Church. Yesfir would never leave his mother's side... Countless memories as a boy with all three of them passed him by. He very much wanted to take another step forward and drag them away.

 

His hand wandered to the hilt of his rapier. A rogue though crossed his mind that he could throw himself headlong into his family's vultures. Damien knew better than that. Had he not been a father himself, the youthful impulsiveness may have taken hold of him for long enough and he'd find himself at the gates of the Grand Cathedral. Yet Damien only looked the part of a young, dashingly handsome fool. If his mother and father were united in purpose and were brave enough to face their fate, so too would he. The prince turned about face with a flip of his cloak and marched out of his father's room.

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