The highborn woman sat at a small desk, her attention drifting away from the stack of papers that ought to have been receiving her full attention. She laid her pen down and leaned back in her chair.
The plan had gone off just as intended, and she felt no small pride that she'd been able to make it happen on such short notice. It was a useful trial for the challenges ahead.
Her father's death had been inconvenient, but she'd relished her brother's. If he was remembered at all by history, it would be a footnote to her own reign, or perhaps a joke. The Three Day Emperor, perhaps? Her own position in the textbooks was all but assured. She'd either be remembered as the Princess who became the first Empress Regnant of Cladinelm, or...
There was a knock at the door.
VOICE: Knight Marshall Pestram, your majesty. I've brought your guest, as requested.
She gestured to her handmaiden, who stepped quickly across the luxuriously appointed room and slid the door latch to the open position. With a bit of effort, she pulled the heavy brass and wood door inward.
Ser Pestram was an aging lion, a well decorated soldier from her father's time. He had been ever present in her youth, and he was one of the few men she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt she could trust. She had a mind to make him her General in time, but at the moment she needed a trustworthy sword commanding her royal guard. He escorted a girl in her middle teens into the room.
PESTRAM: By your leave, your majesty.
AGATHA: Thank you, Ser Pestram. As you were.
He exited, and Agatha's handmaiden pushed the door closed behind him.
The girl knelt. Her clothes were plain and clean, but they looked shabby against the vibrant colors of the rug beneath her.
AGATHA: You may rise.
She spoke without standing, instead swiveling the desk chair around to face the middle of the room. The girl stood, meeting her Empress' gaze. Her eyes were fierce, and they didn't look like they belonged to her otherwise soft face. They stood out from her pale skin and blonde hair like black opals, cut through with violet flecks.
AGATHA: How long has it been since we last spoke?
GIRL: A year, your majesty.
Agatha waved her hand.
AGATHA: Enough of that. Are we not friends?
GIRL: We're allies, not friends. Despite your newfound power, we are not peers.
Agatha sighed. She'd forgotten over the last year how temperamental these exchanges could be. She would endure them, though, they were well worth the trouble.
AGATHA: Sedra, open a window for Veia, would you? I know she hates to be closed in.
The handmaiden moved towards the window, but the girl put her hand up, and she slowed her stride.
VEIA: Not necessary. I won't be staying long. I have unfortunate news.
The girl named Veia sighed.
VEIA: The waning period will end much sooner than I expected. The astra seethes. It's unmistakable now.
The empress' face grew grim.
AGATHA: Damn it, Veia. I've not even been crowned.
VEIA: It is what it is.
AGATHA: I need time to marshall my forces and gain support. As it is, half of the empire probably doesn't even know my father is dead, let alone my brother. The dukes and counts will be in an uproar, scrambling to undermine my claim to the throne. If they're not busy hiring assassins.
VEIA: Oh, the hypocrisy. You could just kill them and appoint those loyal to you. Couldn't weigh any heavier on your conscience that fratricide.
AGATHA: An effort takes time, time you're telling me I don't have.
AGATHA: You've got to give me something. Tell me where to start. I'll handle the rest. Who's the biggest threat?
Veia's eyes pulsed with ripples of purple light.
VEIA: You know the price of the invocation.
Agatha nodded, and looked to Sedra, who had paused near the balcony window.
SEDRA: Yes, m'lady.
Sedra clasped her hands together. Thin wisps of mist curled around them, condensing slowly into astra, heavy with power.
SEDRA: Veia, Heritor of Athmaub, Ardor of Four-fold Wing, the dragon empress. For your gifts, we offer our prayer.
The ribbons of astra curled towards Veia, who let them flow into her.
Sedra's poise wavered, and her knees buckled. She fell to the ground and hacked, her body wracked with wet coughs. Agatha looked on, concern naked on her face.
After a moment Sedra stood.
SEDRA: May I...
AGATHA: Yes, of course. Take your rest. You've done well. Thank you.
Sedra hurried into a smaller side room, leaving watery footprints. The spot where she'd been standing glistened with moisture, water slowly dispersing into the space between the marble tiles.
VEIA: I see him. He who already plots against us...
Veia fixed her stare on the young Empress.
VEIA: I see on his breast the sigil of a white bird, against a tincture of murrey. Know you this house?
Agatha's eyes narrowed.
Endless_Serpents wrote: »
Hi, you should probably write a book or a show script after this, just saying.
The heat was up to her elbows, but all things considered, Aldove's house guard hadn't amounted to much. Hilda's keen eyes had spotted the two heavily armored knights in the Great Hall before they'd even left the foyer. Gandry and Hilda kept back and let Tia and Atma handle it. The astra-wielding duo pooled their magic to fill the room with a swelteringly hot air, and when the party moved in to attack, the knights quickly exhausted themselves.
From the Great Hall the party had moved into the Library and were set upon by a trio of guards, albeit less well armored. Outnumbered and outmatched, they'd fled in search of allies, shouting as they went. Tia caught glimpses of maids and manservants cowering in closets and behind furniture, but she had no interest in them. The goal here was singular - get Alexei out. Wanton bloodshed was not necessary, though if she encountered Adjin and his crew, she would be... flexible.
The guards that fled knew the manor better than Tia's crew, and at some point had doubled back via another route and barred them into the banquet hall. Had Royal not sniffed out an unseen servant's passage, they might have been held there until the authorities arrived. They followed the passage towards the kitchen, where the guards' confidence, elevated by the addition of three more spear wielding allies.
Atma channeled astra while the others defended her, and after she'd gathered power enough, she ended the fight utterly by pulling the very air from the guards' lungs.
No further resistance had been encountered. They picked through a series of hallways and rooms in the entry level before descending to the basement.
TIA: Stand down, Adjin. You're outmatched.
ADJIN: Doubtful. If you want a fight, I'd urge you to consider the match here. Tyree's already proved he can take you and the strange girl down, and if you think I can't beat a dog, a one handed man, and an archer in closer quarters you're deluding yourself.
He was, perhaps, correct. She needed to stall him for a minute.
TIA: Why are you even here? Are you Aldove's retainer now? I thought your job was just to capture my brother.
ADJIN: It was to capture both of you, actually, but, well, I got a little heated. I was prepared to accept half the pay as penance for my indescretion, but you've saved me a tremendous amount of trouble by coming here.
TIA: So now you're playing jailer to a noble. That seems like a step down for you. I thought you were a mercenary, free to go where you pleased, to work for whoever you chose. Now you're just a dog of the wealthy.
HILDA: Alexei! Are you here?
From somewhere further down the row of cells, there was a groan.
Tia exploded the astra around Adjin and Tyree and pushed past them. Hilda followed her, and Royal launched towards Tyree.
He was badly beaten. His eyepatch was gone, his hair was lank and matted, and he was chained to the floor of the cell.
TIA: Brother... I'm here. I'll get you out. Just as soon as I deal with these two.
Atma warred with Tyree, trying to wrest the astra from his grasp and disrupt his spell. She was in deep, trancelike, unraveling the structure of his magic. But there was something else...
The pattern he was building. He was using the same building blocks as her own magic, but the way he assembled them...
The insight hit her all at once, and she changed her approach. She feigned weakness, letting his pattern near completion. The air sizzled, and she could see the etherial weave in the air. And then she reached out.
And turned it inside out.
Lightning arced from her hands, shooting across the room and blasting Adjin off his feet. His shield and mace went skidding along the ground near him.
TYREE: Adjin! Are you-AUGH!
Royal clamped her teeth onto the mage's calf and pulled him off balance. Before he could react Gandry tackled him, taking him to the ground. Adjin quickly regained his feet and grabbed Gandry by the tunic, pulling him off.
From down the hall, Hilda hesitated. She'd lost her clean shot - Adjin had hauled Gandry up and he was now between her and her target. It was still a shot she might be able to make, but it was threading a small needle.
She let the arrow fly, but it went wide.
Atma seized the opportunity and blasted Adjin again. The astra was growing thin - this wasn't sustainable. They had to end this quickly. Without fuel for magic, they likely couldn't stand against Adjin without paying a heavy price.
Adjin discarded his metal shield, Tyree pulled off his blindfold. His eyes sparked with energy.
Tia recognized it immediately. His curse had taken his sight, just as hers had afflicted her hands. But it looked like he was willing to burn up his own body to fuel his magic. What could motivate a person to do so?
Beams of condensed magic blasted from his uncovered eyes and connected to Royal. She yelped in pain and collapsed.
GANDRY and ATMA: Royal!
Hilda nocked another arrow, and launched it with a twang. It buried itself in Tyree's midriff, under the ribs. He grunted in pain and dropped to one knee.
Gandry flew to Royal's side, forgetting all else. Atma struggled to shut off Tyree's power at the source.
Lost in the spiraling astra, she failed to notice Adjin bearing down on her, and he kicked her with brutal intent. She spun and went down. Adjin turned towards Tia and Hilda.
This was it, then.
Tia looked to Alexei.
TIA: There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, brother.
ALEXEI: Tia, no!
Producing a explosion took a lot of astra, sure. But what she was after was an order of magnitude more difficult. To shape the spell around her companions, to do it with the environmental astra nearly depleted, and to do it quickly... it would probably be the end of her.
She did it anyway. The heat raced up both of her arms, and she felt as if her lungs were burning. Pain streaked up her neck and down her back.
The chamber became a vortex of flame. Tyree mouthed a silent scream as he was turned to ash, and Adjin---
Tia blacked out.
Alexei swore as the hoe hit another stone. He picked it up and hurled it towards the stream.
ALEXEI: No wonder the last owner didn't have a garden.
He began to run his hands through his hair out of habit, and stopped when he remembered that he'd cut it short. He wiped his brow and looked up towards the house on the hill. There was no one up there at the moment, but there was a hint of movement through the curtained window.
A figure was coming up the road. Alexei waved back, though his impaired depth perception made it difficult to tell how close they were.
ALEXEI: Hello, Stafford!
Stafford made the rest of the distance to where the would-be garden met the path. Alexei leaned on the hoe.
ALEXEI: You look well. From what Hilda and Atma told me, I'd feared the worst. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter saying you were coming to visit.
STAFFORD: I wasn't about to die and miss out on all of Helmuth's cooking. But even now that I've recovered, I've actually decided to make my home at the camp. There's always someone that needs mending or medicine. There's something to be said for a simple life. The price of adventure was too high for me.
ALEXEI: I wish I'd learned that lesson sooner.
STAFFORD: I'm sorry, I didn't mean... ah, well.
They stood together awkwardly for a moment. It was Stafford who broke the silence.
STAFFORD: What are you planting?
ALEXEI: Beans, on Ophelia's recommendation. She said the soil was depleted of some substance and that beans would fortify it for the next planting season.
Stafford nodded, then looked up to the house.
STAFFORD: Is she here?
ALEXEI: Oh, that's right, you've never met.
STAFFORD: Actually I meant-
Atma stood on the porch of the house, waving with both arms over her head.
ALEXEI: Go ahead. I'm sure you two have a lot to catch up on. I'll be up for supper. I want to finish these last few rows.
STAFFORD: Alright. We can talk more this evening. ...It's good to see you again.
Royal trotted along ahead of Hilda and Gandry and came to a stop near Alexei, who sat on a tree stump overlooking the garden. She sniffed at his hands and he scratched behind her ears vigorously.
GANDRY: How are you now, Alexei?
ALEXEI: I'm tired from clearing the soil, but I must say compared to getting beaten half to death, it's not so bad.
HILDA: I imagine.
Alexei noticed a ring on Hilda's finger, but didn't mention it.
ALEXEI: What are you two up to these days?
HILDA: I've gone back to teaching, if you can believe it.
ALEXEI: I absolutely can.
GANDRY: I'm still doing rescue work when it comes up, but mainly I've been working as a porter. Delivering packages and such.
Alexei nodded approvingly.
ALEXEI: You know, when it's all said and done, maybe the best work I accomplished was delivering all that mail.
HILDA: Is Stafford here yet?
ALEXEI: He arrived earlier. He should be up at the house. Why don't you go on ahead? I need to rinse the mud off my boots first or Ophelia will give me absolute hell.
The dining room was alive with the clatter of plates and the smells of roasting pork and vegetables. Ophelia managed the kitchen like a master, handing crockery to Hilda and Stafford, stepping nimbly around Royal, and checking multiple steaming pots for taste. Alexei had gone upstairs to change clothes, and when he returned, he did so with his sister.
Tia leaned heavily on his shoulder. She'd been changed quite a bit by her exertion all those months ago.
STAFFORD: Tia! Your hair!
HILDA: Your arms!
GANDRY: Your eyes!
TIA: Being the Heritor of Hollos has its perks.
Both her hair and the scars on her arms faintly glowed with a nearly white iridescence, and her eyes had turned a reddish-amber hue.
TIA: But come on, you didn't all come here just for me. We figured this was as good a date as any, so where's the guest of honor?
Tia and Alexei sat at the table. Ophelia sat next to Tia and planted a quick kiss on her cheek.
OPHELIA: You can come in now!
Atma stepped into the dining room, beaming.
ALL: Happy 201st birthday, Atma!