■ My submissions
■ Partner’s submissions
This one was one of my favorites… with a very talented partner who elevated my style and effort. Sadly, all things must come to an end.
Kingdom Xårełl, and stalwart King with power craved.
Forbidden explorations through blackened magic’s aid;
Weapons stolen throughout the streams of place and time;
Helpless Gods against their own ancient blessing of mind.
The proud and enduring kingdom of Ŝhanthah was overrun in less than a day. King Xårełlęi’s forces charged forward towards its stronghold from perilous terrain serving as beds of bones for ancient conquests that fell woefully short. Castle walls were scaled with the ease of gravitational instruments; metallic birds rained fire with hellish shrieks to neutralize turrets; impenetrable tanks rapidly dispersed soldiers towards towns and villages. The brazen colors of Xårełl’s flag quickly claimed the winds once belonged to its displaced predecessor, reflecting the dominance of the invasion.
Despite the frightful domination by Xårełl’s military, there had been surprisingly little bloodshed. Ŝhanthah’s subjugation had been so swift that its defenses had desperate little time to grasp their dire predicament, much less alert and mobilize their armies. The sole exception to this mercy was the military. Ŝhanthah generals and other high-ranking officials were promptly executed, albeit in accordance with Ŝhanthah’s own humane policies.
Diplomatic tactics by Xårełl’s king were quickly implemented to best maintain order during the turbulent period of transition. Many of these were based around the emphasis on seamless integration of economy and culture between the two kingdoms. Amidst the shock of their kingdom’s hapless surrender, merchants were allowed to resume business upon submitting an oath of consonance to their district’s representative. Women and children were, for the most part, spared any maliciousness or exploitation.
Ŝhanthah’s stronghold, however, was handled with much more forceful discretion and tactical secrecy. There were many influential noble and political families who were quickly captured and escorted to unknown locations, meant to douse the flame of rebellion. Labour camps were presumed to be involved in their fates, or worse. The quarters of Ŝhanthah’s King and Queen were claimed and cordoned, with quiet rumors grieving a pair of hooded figures hastily marched towards the gallows.
Princess Alora de Anadan was one of the few nobles whose fate was privy to the kingdom’s general populace. She was well looked after, though rarely seen beyond the interior walls of her fallen castle. Escorts of soldiers always accompanied the Princess when her appearance in public was required. Her prepared speeches were always stiffly recited with seething resentment. Yet she served her purpose as an incumbent figurehead meant to express Xårełlęi’s intentions towards peaceful integration. Though King Xårełlęi arrived as a conqueror, his role now shifted inexorably towards peacemaker.
Indeed, as the dust of conquest settled, Princess Alora de Anadan proved to be an unlikely thorn in Xårełlęi’s side. Somehow, despite the strict regulation of publicized reports on the happenings within the occupied stronghold of Ŝhanthah, the Princess’ defiance kindled periodic rebellions and served to fuel an undercurrent of insurgency. This lingering nuisance prompted efforts by Xårełlęi to somehow bridge the chasm between them.
Mandatory evening dinners paired the Princess with Ŝhanthah’s new king in dining halls. Forced conversations soured far beyond their initial awkwardness, to the point of hopelessness. In silent desperation, King Xårełlęi decided he would alter his approach as his elite guard escorted her grudging demeanor to their evening banquet.
The dishes were exquisite as always, prepared by King Xårełlęi’s personal chefs. As the setting sun carved yellow lines through the castle’s barred windows onto the large, oblong table reserved for dining nobility, the Princess sat on the opposite end from Xårełlęi, shielding her eyes from his. She had refused to eat in stubborn protest, and now the delicate drape of skin across her neck distinguishing well-nourished royalty was gone, though her alluring figure remained.
King Xårełlęi, on the other hand, seemed to look more robust by the hour. Perhaps it was the glow of conquest and satisfaction. His resonating voice bellowed commands from afar to his storming armies; to those near and close, now that the war was done, his discourse rolled like distant thunder.
He was tall with a soldier’s physique, though many edges were softened with the spoils of victory and indulgence. Dark wavy hair trailed down to a thin beard that framed a square, chiseled jawline. There was a curious scar visible across his left cheek, trailing up to his left eye. His skin tone was a soft olive, reddened a bit from the sun’s summertime assault as lands were conquered and terrain was traversed. His indigo eyes matched the dark blue uniform adorned with buttons, cuffs and collars of maroon and gold.
King Xårełlęi, in an unconventional gesture, dismissed his dignitaries so that he and the Princess could be left alone in the dining hall. He then turned his attention to the matter at hand and with a sigh, began to speak.
“Alas, I believe these dinners weren’t the opportunities for civil discussion I hoped they would be.” His words offered concession and magnanimity.
The Princess remained still, staring blankly at her empty plate. “Civil? You?” she said with a scoff.
“I can be as such, yes.” The twitch of a smile emerged on his face. “As can my people. As can conquest be instead a blessing, coinciding with God’s plan.” Alora de Anadan said nothing. Xårełlęi continued.
“Your people are thriving once more. Only now, with the stability of my abundant empire backing them.” He gestured towards the window with his hand, palm open. “Famines and droughts will never again befall this land. Our efforts…”
“We were doing well enough without you.” The Princess looked up briefly after her curt interruption, her eyes ablaze with accusation.
“Were you? My agents informed me otherwise.” Xårełlęi shifted as he sat up in his seat, his eagerness to pursue the topic brimming to the surface.
“Agents?” The Princess hated the twinge of interest in her own voice.
“Quite a few, actually. All returned similar reports.” Xårełlęi leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Hunger was becoming more and more prevalent amongst your people. Diseases came and went, only to come again.”
“Don’t you see the dire necessity of our integration?” Xårełlęi implored with the briefest crack in his voice. “If you can somehow look past…”
“Look past?” The Princess lifted from her seat with a shudder of anger. “Look past the atrocities your army inflicted upon my kingdom? Your facade as some kind of peacemaker is beyond embarrassing. Peacemakers do not impose themselves, do not displace families, do not execute Kings…” A tear welled with the last emphasis, her eyes meeting Xårełlęi with key ferocity.
Xårełlęi’s gaze flickered a realization, or perhaps a confirmation of suspicions. “Ah yes. Your father. I did suspect that I would never secure forgiveness for my necessary maneuvers to ensure the stability of our entwined kingdoms. But towards the latter point…”
He reached into his coat and retrieved what looked to be a small, sealed envelope. Alora de Anadan’s name was addressed in unmistakably fresh ink. That, and a familiar script… the unmistakable writing of her mother.
“Yes, she’s alive. Your mother and father both.” Xårełlęi reached towards the Princess with the envelope, offering it with the hesitation of conditionality. “Though far from here for the time being. You’ll see them again in time… if henceforth you cooperate with my kingdom’s goals.”
Her temper flared, anger simmering just beneath the surface of the veneer of her composure. The hair thin fissures threatened to fracture, to become torn faults to reveal the true depth of her feelings. Upon feeling the prickly sensation behind her eyes, the one that made her brilliant green hues briefly become glassy with sorrow, she quickly reined her emotions before they got the better of her. Alora released him of her pointed gaze, returning her attention back to the untouched meal before her. Her appetite had been lacking. With a stomach that was in knots constantly hunger pangs were lost anxiety and despair, outrage and helplessness. Though appealing to the senses, the food on her plate was treated with disinterest as her fork simply shuffled potatoes from one side to the other. Still, her beauty and allure remained. New handmaidens insisted on maintaining her appearance, no doubt by some directive to keep her well-kempt should she need to be in the public eye suddenly.
Across from him she was a vision in red, her off-the-shoulder dress as vibrant as rose petals. The neckline flattered her abundant assets and the color was a compliment to her eyes, which were especially prominent since her platinum blonde locks were swept away from her face by an understated gold tiara. Lustrous, wavy tendrils cascaded down her back. The radiant gown fit her like a glove, accentuating a figure that was notably thinner. Her waist had always been petite, but the boning of the corset that cinched her was almost unnecessary. The fabric of the skirt that flowed to the ground was delicately voluminous, leaving no other indicators of her diminishing mass as it concealed the rest of her body.
The Princess longed for the silence prior to their heated discussion, preferred it to the forced and often shallow conversation that she unwillingly endured. It seemed that silence would not return so soon.
A soft sigh passed parted lips at the sound of his voice traveling over the dinner table. Once again, Alora lifted her eyes to him. Rather than the glare of contempt or indifference, curiosity graced her countenance upon seeing the letter. Her heart stilled at the sight of the penmanship, the familiar strokes of ink that resembled her mother’s writing. She wanted to believe that it was some underhanded trick, a foul ploy to fill her with hope. But, the distinct curls at the end of the letters . . . It would have been a hard personalization to falsify. Alora set her fork down, her full and undivided attention on Xarellei as he spoke. His words hit her like a punch to the gut, and almost as though she couldn’t quite hold herself upright the Princess leaned back against her seat. She was overwhelmed with emotion, battling relief, confusion, excitement, and wariness all at once.
Both her parents were alive . . . And she could see them again . . . It was almost like a dream– like being awakened from a terrible nightmare where she was all alone in the world, only to find out that her loved ones were still among the living. Immediately she became aware that there were details that she needed. More than that, expectations to manage.
“My cooperation hinges on your agenda. I care deeply for my mother and father. I know them both well enough to know that they would be displeased if I used my sway and influence to further your ambitions for Shanthah and its people. I must consider what I know they would want me to do in their absence. Among those expectations, I believe they would not want me to allow myself to be used as a pawn for your objectives. So, surely you see my predicament?” Alora explained, leaning forward a bit now that her wits were about her. “Do not think me so sentimental that I would jump headlong into betraying the people of Shanthah just so I could see my family again. At the same time, I would be cruel if I did not consider your offer if it means sparing them pain or consequence.” She said, eyeing the letter again.
The day they were taken from her haunted her. It all happened so quickly, and yet every detail was seared in her mind. While her father commanded the army alongside the General, she and her mother were locked away with startled soldiers to guard them. She recalled the explosions, how loud they were and how the ground quaked beneath her feet. She had never felt so . . . powerless. Alora could do nothing as her mother was ripped away from her, presumably to be slain alongside her father. No amount of mourning seemed to lessen the hole left by their absence.
“Are they well? Unharmed and healthy?” It would be a lie for her to say that she was unconcerned over their well-being, something she did her best convey. She wanted nothing more than to see them again, and the distant look in her eyes was indicative of her hope.
The large, barred windows of the dining hall offered an exquisite view of a lush courtyard as Princess Alora de Anadan inquired about the welfare of her parents. Streaks of amber light from the setting sun were now painting textured strokes across the coarse stonework, their fading vibrance solemnly declaring the imminent arrival of dusk. A bright sliver of light caught the cupid’s bow of King Xårełlęi’s pursed lips… lips that twitched alongside narrowed eyes in what seemed like a taken moment of offense. King Xårełlęi’s placid features quickly resettled themselves, however, before leaning forward in his seat to address the Princess’ questions.
“My intention was to arrive here as a conqueror… and not as a savage. Your parents surrendered amicably despite the turmoil infiltrating their kingdom… an admirable concession indeed amidst the wake of overwhelming uncertainty.” The subtle implication of the King and Queen’s prompt submission being the deciding factor in keeping their lives could not be ignored.
He then stood from his chair with a locked gaze upon the Princess, allowing his height and frame to impose an unspoken word of absolute authority before walking a short distance away from the dining table, his arms folded behind his back.
“Your parents have not been harmed. They are closely guarded and receive adequate care, with one of my trusted physicians assigned to their wellbeing.” Xårełlęi allowed his revelation a pause of silence before continuing.
“I will refrain from threatening their lives. To stoop that low would compromise my position of magnanimity. There are, however, certain agreements that could be arranged to allow for your visitation… perhaps even tonight, if you are so eager.”
A provision followed shortly after Xårełlęi’s proposal. “You’ll understand the formality of being accompanied by myself and my kingsguard I’m sure, but I’ll politely stay my distance as you reacquaint yourself with those you love.” He then turned to face again the visage of Alora de Anadan, with indigo eyes affixing themselves firmly upon his captive.
“Believe it or not, I understand completely your resistance and your reluctance. Honor runs strong in Ŝhanthah, proven with her people’s fierce dissent. Conquerors are almost never welcomed and seldom entertain mutual interests. But I say this to you now, Princess… Ŝhanthah will remain conquered and secured under my rule. How arduous that transition will be largely rests within your lap.”
King Xårełlęi then reached into his jacket to retrieve the envelope he previously unveiled, tossing it softly towards the dining table. It slid to a stop within arm’s reach of the Princess, with its warm reminder beckoning her eyes further. He nodded towards it as if to grant permission before taking his place at the table once more.
“It would please me greatly if you had just a bite of your meal,” the King casually remarked while studying Alora de Anada intently.
There was a hint of something, a twinge of rampant reaction subdued by pursed lips. Alora took pride in that miniscule triumph, satisfied that her unyielding response landed somewhere on the spectrum of displeasure. It was not her aim to be uncooperative where her family was concerned, but she hoped that she made her point clear: he could not use heartstrings to puppeteer her like some spineless marionette to campaign in his favor. Not so easily, and not without pushback. The moment was swift, however. The King regained his composure within mere seconds it seemed. As he spoke, she continued to nudge the food on her plate that was growing colder with each passing minute. Unphased and aloof as she appeared, the Princess was not without her opinions. He spoke of amicable and admirable concessions, but she recalled it quite differently. Whether their quick surrender was the primary reason for being spared the painful death she imagined, she was still of mind to believe that he was, indeed, a savage.
He likely didn’t feel as such. With his forces armed with magical devices that defied all comprehension, he probably thought he was superior to them all– that he, a man of great power, couldn’t possibly be a brute. Even now he resorted to threatening tactics to bend her to his will, rising out of his seat and traversing the short distance from his seat to hers to tower above her. Xarellei was an intimidating man, his form solid and imposing. Even from a distance one could tell that he was of considerable stature. Up close he was far more formidable, inspiring the slightest bit of dread in her.
Alora set her fork down, turning in her seat to face him. It was clear that he was attempting to assert himself over her, but she did not shrink like a wilting rose. She allowed him her full attention, eager to hear of her parent’s health and well-being. She was relieved, a layer of the rigidity in her posture falling away. It looked as though an immense weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The Princess was still processing the fact that they were alive, and to now know that they were well was yet another reality to accept– one that would have been made easier if she could see them.
Just as she opened her mouth to demand that she be able to confirm with her own eyes, the King went on to explain that she could visit that evening . . . As long as she was monitored like a hawk by the Kingsguard. It was a small price to pay, but she knew there were other costs to consider. Alora reached out her hand, taking the envelope gently yet begrudgingly. Her green eyes examined it, and unlike other letters of correspondence she received the seal was unbroken. It had not been screened for intel or conspiracy, for word of grand schemes to overturn the King’s foothold in Shanthah.
She used the dinner knife to release the navy, wax stamped seal. Beyond the address on the exterior of the envelope, the letter within contained more of that familiar handwriting. The warmth of her mother’s words leapt through the parchment, embracing her in the comfort of knowing that she was, in fact, alive and well alongside her father. A lump in her throat formed as she read loving sentiments and well wishes. Continually she had to swallow it down to prevent herself from unleashing the floodgate of tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. It was a feat made much easier upon reading her mother’s last words before her signature.
The Princess laid the letter on the table, gathering her thoughts for a moment before addressing the King again.
“Thank you.” She said, turning back to her plate to take a small bite of her lukewarm food to appease him, begrudgingly. Alora was a bit regretful that she did. The deliciousness on her tongue jump-started her appetite when she would have much rather refrained from eating when discussing terms.
“I appreciate that you’ve spared my mother and father. While I know that it was not a gesture born from a bone of decency, but rather a manipulative one, I still believe that you are a barbarian. How can I think otherwise when only a shameless savage would allow a woman to believe that her loved ones are dead, reveal that they are alive, and then dangle them before her eyes to prey on her desperation?” Unable to resist she took another bite of her food, chewing thoughtfully before continuing.
“I’m no stranger to negotiation. I have something you want, and you have something I want so I am willing to hear you out. Are you looking for my cooperation in perpetuity in exchange for sparing the lives of my mother and father, allowing me visitation, and ensuring their well-being, or is this ‘gracious’ invitation a singular event? I’ll not blindly accept your request.”
The dwindling evening light caught King Xårełlęi’s lips once again, only this time they fought hard against spreading a smile across his otherwise placid face. His chin did raise slightly to indicate a trace of satisfaction, but that would fade as quickly as his prior displeasure.
“War is a messy business,” Xårełlęi remarked with a strange, cordial tone. “A mandate stands amongst my armies to conscientiously relay directives for surrender once an appropriate advantage has been established. However, an opportunity to overtake this stronghold materialized much more quickly than expected, and we seized it forthright. Our actions were hasty and brash to ensure victory… at the unfortunate expense of instilling fear and despair within the highest Ŝhanthah ranks.”
A soft sight pulled itself from Xårełlęi’s lips in response to his own confession, one that may or may not have been genuine. He then squared his shoulders for what came next, his tone and demeanor pivoting to the topic at hand.
“I will not attempt to pry any more speeches from you. Your cold recitals are hopeless enough for me to abandon that method of persuading submission amongst your peoples.” A brief, stern gaze almost implied an abandonment of compromise before he continued.
“Notwithstanding, I don’t see any reason why the visitations with your parents cannot be an ongoing affair… always duly escorted, of course. But I’ll need you to commit to an ongoing arrangement as well.” The King’s eyes feigned a lengthy drift of thought, but the proposal was ready and waiting at the tip of his tongue.
“You may see your parents whenever you please if you henceforth sleep beside me every night.”
The heavy implications of his words were promptly followed by a clarification to dissolve any escalating presumptions. “The arrangement stops at simply being a warm body in my bed. You have my word that I will not impose myself upon you. Exactly how barbaric you believe me to be will weigh into your decision I’m sure.” His elbows were on the table now, with both palms pressed flat in an almost prayer-like gesture, his fingertips rested underneath the rib of his nostrils.
“But keep this in mind… I expect and enforce my armies to be a reflection of my own ethical code. Despite the necessity of your fallen soldiers, no Ŝhanthahan women have been raped, no children have been abused… the Xårełlęian code of honor runs strong, even as we entrench ourselves in conquered lands.” A sense of pride ran along the last of his words as he demonstrated the control he possessed over his soldiers, strong enough to temper even their urges for indulgence.
“Take all the time you need to decide. Perhaps some further observations of my behavior will sway your assumptions.” Xårełlęi then sat back into his chair with the sound of his uniform’s crumpled cotton.
War was a messy business, indeed. Her father instilled that irrefutable fact in her mind early on. While it had been many years since Shanthah had been challenged or compelled to battle, it was not the first time the land had been an arena for conflict. It was, however, the first time that they had been blindsided by war. Unlike the times before that she had learned about in their history, there was no tension– no smoke or fire to indicate that they would be the victim of unprovoked callousness. There was no threat, no formal declaration, no grave trespass to warrant the abrupt siege that inevitably saw to their conquer. The King spoke of honor, but her appreciation for the measures he had taken to ensure the safety of Shanthah’s women and children was muted by feelings of distrust. He was a devious man. Even his acts of decency were duplicitous in nature. The Princess could not allow herself to be swayed by them.
“That is a pity.” Her lips curled into a faint smile as he remarked on her lackluster speeches, the many unenthusiastic and half-hearted orations she was forced to recite. The people of Shanthah clearly did not believe her lazy performance, and as such were no more inclined to accept the new rule as she was. The Princess was slightly wary despite being released from her pesky duties. She had done as she was asked, but failed to inspire the hearts and minds of the citizens. Adored as she was, it would have been easy for her to persuade the people over time, dispel their trepidations and ease their worries. She simply didn’t want to. Thus, their loyalty did not shift much in favor of their new King. Now, the King had another ask.
Alora reached for her cup, taking a small sip of the sweet wine within it when the King stated what he was after. Her throat tightened suddenly and she was overtaken by a brief bout of coughing. She took a deeper pull from the contents, letting it soothe her. The Princess’ hand shook as she set the cup down, anger boiling inside her. Before she could tell him just how despicable she believed he was, he offered clarity; that he was simply seeking a bed companion in the most innocent sense. Even when specified, she was resistant.
“Further observations of your behavior . . . “ She nodded, still trying to combat the outrage. His boldness truly knew no bounds. There was a stretch of silence, a length of time where she leveraged to focus on dousing the flames of fury so that she could think more clearly. When finally reduced to irritation, she began to contemplate how to address his request.
“King Xarellei,” she said after some time. “You may believe that your request is a . . . frivolous one, that the act of allowing myself to sleep beside you is simple and without harm, but it is not. Even if it were an easy act to perform, it does not change my circumstances.” Alora let her hands rest in her lap, her once revived appetite going dormant once again. “I understand now that prior to invading Shanthah that agents of yours fed you information. Perhaps their goals were simply to assess our strengths and weaknesses, our defenses and our militaristic capabilities. I don’t suppose they mentioned that I am engaged to be wed? I believe my fiance, Duke Warren Vanguard, is being held in one of your wonderful camps. I would hate to further upset him with whispers that I am being inappropriate or unfaithful in his absence. Surely, you can think of something else that I can provide that would be beneficial to you other than my company? It seems that you are attempting to make me chose between my family and my reputation. If that is the case, I need no ‘further observations of your behavior.'”
The look in Xårełlęi’s eyes must have seemed patronizing as his smile flitted rhythmically alongside the points expressed in Alora de Anadan’s confutation, surely betraying the air of generosity he was trying to convey.
Fiancé. Engaged. Reputation. Choose. His lips twitched upon those words the most.
With the Princess finished, a delay in response stalled the conversation with uncertain implications as the King shifted in his seat. He then stood from his chair, abruptly but calmly, and sauntered with heavy steps towards the ebbing glow of a nearby window. The last of the evening light painted Xårełlęi’s silhouette with strokes of deep violet across his indigo uniform, his arms folded behind his back. Some time passed before a sharp inhale of air offered the only warning to the weight of his reply.
“Your life as it has been is over. The sooner you accept and understand this, the better… for both our sakes.”
The flash of an eye grimly emphasized his following point. “If your situation would be better realized with an official decree nullifying all standing engagements, do let me know and it will be enacted without delay.”
Xårełlęi stood silent then, basking in the faint remnants of dusk while his words settled as they may. His shadow lengthened slowly along the stone floor below his boots, blending in with shores of night that crept forth from each crack and crevice. With a shrug and the pull of a breath, he withdrew from the sharpness of his stance, if only temporarily.
“Far be it from me to stop you from steering our negotiations. Perhaps you have some mysterious, vital asset in your proverbial back pocket to dangle as your trump card?” The skepticism in his voice was evident, teetering on the edge of mockery, before he pressed forward with addressing Alora de Anadan’s request for another offer.
“You could always bear me a successor to the throne,” Xårełlęi entertained with a voice that acknowledged the absurdity of the proposition from the onset. “That would earn your parents freedom outright. The act of copulation could be as dispassionate as you see fit. No exchanges or embraces beyond the necessary. Once you’re confirmed pregnant we could then…” The King trailed off with a dissatisfied grunt, seemingly discarding his own suggestion with a dismissive wave of his hand. His demeanor then seemed to shift again, towards some contemplative acceptance of the cross he himself had to bear.
“You may think me a monster. That’s to be expected, and quite understandable. Just know that I intend to be the last monster, the last necessary evil, before the dawn of a new golden age. One that unites allkingdoms under enduring, everlasting peace. One that does not intend to abandon the old traditions, but to reshape and perfect them, for the benefit of commoners and noblemen alike.” Xårełlęi allowed himself a pause to collect his words before continuing.
“Clinging to life as it once was, with the hope of assumed arrangements and habits persisting beyond necessary change… only serves to delay life as it could be… should be. But old habits die hard, as my father used to say… even with the promises of enhanced life so clearly evident and available. As cold as it sounds, now is not the time for hope. Now is the time for trust… and obedience. And that obedience begins with you.”
“Who knows,” Xårełlęi remarked with the tone of an impartial observer. “Perhaps wishing death upon my still, sleeping body at night might prove therapeutic for you. I care not about claiming or controlling the thoughts that float in your mind, but to enjoy your body’s warmth and presence, even if only on a superficial level.”
With the sun fully set, castle attendants lighted the candles and torches inside the dining room before tending to those throughout the adjacent hallways. Xårełlęi’s shadow now reemerged to dance and play alongside the flickering flames as he awaited what the Princess might say next.
Alora watched as the Conqueror rose from his seat for the second time, gravitating toward the window as though the response to her explanation was somewhere out there. He seemed to be searching for it in the last vestiges of a setting sun, in the breathtaking gradient colors of a magnificent twilight. The Princess waited patiently, hope swelling within her with each beat of silence. She wanted him to concede, relinquish the absurd desire for her to sleep beside him and replace it was a request that was palatable. Another speech, another appearance, another endorsement of proposals that washed away the old ways and ushered in the new. But, the words that finally came granted her no measure of ease, carrying with them barbs that punctured her inflated hopes. The air seemed thinner. The breaths that filled her lungs became shallow, so slight that she forgot the rhythm of inhales and exhales that sustained her. Her long lashes fluttered as a faint feeling overwhelmed her momentarily.
It was the implication of his words that carried the immense weight that affected her so deeply. The gravity of her situation was far more grave than she believed. Rarely did she feel the sting of unfairness. From her position of royalty, affluence and privilege, she was nearly immune to the kind of hardships that could conjure the word where it applied to her. She found herself envious of the simplicity of civilian life. The impacts of Shanthah’s defeat were minimal to them. They could, and would, go about their lives once they accepted the new rule. For her . . .
The Princess finally took a breath, beginning the slow process of composing herself when he spoke of bearing him a successor. Though she could sense the jest in his musings and the tone of his voice, it was still a thought that sickened her– just as much as the thought of trusting him and granting him the honor of her respect and obedience.
The doors opened and dutiful attendants entered to allow the light now that darkness was further settling into the room. She wished they left it as it was, thinking it was an appropriate ambiance for the kind of doom and gloom that hung in the dining hall like heavy storm clouds. Although Alora felt the cruel impulse to deny him a second time with an audience, vehemently and bluntly, she decided against it knowing it would only be a poor reflection on herself. Instead, she pushed herself up and traversed the short distance from the table to the window where he stood. Her stride was as elegant as she appeared, possessing all the grace and allure of what one would expect of a well-groomed lady. Green eyes searched, like his, for the words to respond.
“I do think you are a monster. An entitled one.” She admitted, her voice quiet and mindful of the eager ears of curious servants. “If you think that by performing the barest acts of decency will earn you my trust and my obedience, then you are sorely mistaken. And, if you think that simply nullifying my engagement to the man I love will get me into your bed, then you are mistaken again. I have had men, of all walks of life, do more to deserve my presence. I would more willingly lay beside a humble farmer than I would a self-righteous Conqueror who attempts to manipulate me at every turn to further his own agenda and desires.” The Princess turned her cold gaze upon him.
It was true that men admired her, showered her with compliments and set their hearts on her hand. They performed grand gestures, gifted her with exotic presents, and swore their lives to her– the Duke among them. But, her usage of the word “love” where he was concerned was somewhat of a stretch, a means of making herself unattainable to the King.
“I wish to retire for the evening. I’d like to send my regards to my parents since I won’t be seeing them, since I’ll not be sleeping in your bed. Please excuse me,” she said curtly, giving him a slight bow before she began to move toward the door.
The brief glance from King Xårełlęi suggested he was quite taken with Alora de Anadan’s approach to his side at the window; to an observer, it must have seemed that terms were reaching a point of amicability. It wasn’t long before the Princess pertly excused herself, however, eliciting Xårełlęi to arch his stance upon his heels while he hurriedly delivered remarks towards her turned back.
“It’s that fire in you which I admire most,” the King stated as a point of revelation before a sudden pivot. “Why send your regards when you can speak them yourself?”
With a sudden snap of the King’s fingers, two attendants emerged on cue from the shadowed seclusion of a hall’s archway, rolling a cart towards the King and Princess. On the cart could be seen a strange, small device; squarish with a metallic sheen that reflected the flirtatious dance of the orange candlelight. Protruding wires and various indentations added to the mystery.
Xårełlęi’s nod prompted the attendants to tend to the machine in a curious way, seemingly preparing it for use. A startling, crackling sound gave way to silence, and then a familiar voice found its way through the magic box, as familiar as the writing on the letter which had brought a watery glaze across the Princess’ eyes.
“Alora? Alora, are you there?”
The offering of the King’s open palm invited the Princess to partake in speaking with the ones she loved. He allowed their exchanges for around thirty seconds before a motion of his hand cut their conversation to a sharp, abrupt end. Silence filled the dining hall once more, interrupted only by the squeaks of the cart wheels as the attendants removed themselves in accordance with Xårełlęi’s unspoken command.
“My apologies for the rude conclusion,” Xårełlęi stated with a hint of genuine remorse. “I did not want to interject my horrid voice and press you towards a hurried goodbye. I find that sometimes, a swift end is the best end.”
“Believe it or not,” the King continued while collecting his thoughts, “I had hoped to arrange a device that would have allowed you to see your parents. Right here, in this very hall. I believe my engineers called it a… telescreen?” The King drew a rectangle in the air with his fingers, an almost child-like whimsy overtaking his typical stern countenance, before he gathered himself with a straightening of his shoulders.
“Your parents…” A heavy sigh spent itself through the King’s lungs upon their mention. “Their flame burns bright. As does yours, I must say. It is both admirable and alluring. Ŝhanthah’s fairest maidens have been offered to me, and I’ve rejected them all because they simply lack that… flame.” The King reached out with a brief shake of his fist towards the window before slowly expanding his fingers, as if cradling a flame within his palm.
“I’m sure my ministers would enjoy seeing my own flame doused, seeing my necessity reduced to that of a figurehead,” the King admitted through a solemn sigh. “Once my conquest has reached every conceivable shore and kingdom, my work will have been done. I dread the time when it comes, as inevitable as it seems… the day when the flame is doused by complete victory. What will there be left to do beyond politics?” Xårełlęi shook his head with disappointment. “I am not a politician, as you may have gathered by now.”
“Until then, it’s that fire that drives me… and I sense a similar fire in you. Even if its flames are kindled in resistance.”
The King then pulled himself away from the Princess, towards a large joint of shadow bracing itself against the corner of the dining hall. He swallowed himself in dark with only his lower legs and boots visible before another pivot in his tone, one distinctly more dark and calculated.
“My minsters suggested to me that your parents be executed. I immediately rejected that course of action. I did not want them to die as martyrs, to fuel generations or more of rebellions and insurgency. A fine line exists between the Ŝhanthah people distinguishing Xårełl between conquerers or barbarians, and we had already ridden that line past the castle gates… it was a line I did not want to cross.”
“An alternative was then presented to me, with the endorsement of my engineers. What if they could die not as martyrs, but as heralds? A public statement fully submitting to my kingdom’s reign before they surrender their own lives, by their own hands. A quick, painless, honorable death.”
“…and yet, they would still be spared,” the King stated with resounding emphasis, his boot tapping an echo on the stone floor beneath it. “Bloodless, fleshless images of them would sacrifice themselves. Images that look and sound just as real and you and I standing here now.”
There was a pause as the strange implication of the King’s words settled.
“I countered that the Ŝhanthah people would surely not believe it, as proud and resilient as they are. They would simply reject the reality, as convincing as it could seem!..”
A pause then preceded a recital of words that seemed derived from the observations of his closest advisors.
“In the wake of being overwhelmed by machines they could never dream exist, the Ŝhanthah people are mentally at their most vulnerable state. They will swallow any lie, provided it is large enough. The lie would simply have to be convincing enough, the semantics rooted enough within the noble framework of Ŝhanthah culture…” The King’s voice drifted, as if he was entertaining other possibilities in his mind.
Xårełlęi emerged from the shadows then, facing the Princess with his head held high, as if ready to deliver a declaration to a waiting audience.
“If you will not share my bed tonight,” the King calmly explained, “the Ŝhanthah people will witness your parent’s deaths, effective tomorrow morning. You will then be allowed to speak with them for one last time before they never hear from you again… likewise for the people of Ŝhanthah.” And with that, the King excused himself past the Princess towards his chambers.
The Princess paused at the sound of the King’s voice at her back, mustering all her restraint to mute the exasperated sigh that threatened to come from her lungs raggedly. She wanted nothing more than to continue, ignore the meaningless declaration that sought to lure her in. It was the second time the Conqueror attempted to prey on her emotions, appeal to her desire to see her loved ones again. Indeed, Alora was no stranger to negotiation. She had set into motion one of the most important lessons she had learned; knowing when to walk away. In a matter of moments she had to accept the fact that she may never see her parents again, the only assurance being that they would not be harmed for the King said himself that he would not threaten their lives. Despite forfeiting the opportunity to visit, he offered another means of sending her regards. Before she could tell him not to trouble himself, a snap of his fingers summoned more attendants.
The curiosity that appeared in her green eyes likened her to a feline as she gazed upon the device, listening to the harsh noises it generated. She was wary of it, but she approached cautiously with the uncertainty if the black box had the ability to harm her. It was so alien to her she couldn’t fathom what it was capable of until a voice projected from it. The Princess jumped a bit, so startled that the familiarity was nearly lost on her. Through the crackling cacophony was her mother’s voice, clear and expectant.
“Mother?” She said hesitantly, uncertain if she could hear her.
“Alora. Alora, my dear. Are you well? Are you hurt?” The questions kept coming, a slew of rattling curiosities that went on and on. The Princess couldn’t help but smile, hardly able to get a word in. She was overwhelmed with relief, waves of emotion stifling any one emotion from prevailing on her features.
“I’m well. I’m alright.” She assured her, though it wasn’t quite true. She was miserable, but to say such a thing while they were locked away somewhere unpleasant would have been inconsiderate and insensitive to their situation. It was then that she realized that the King was still looming over her. The brilliant smile that curled onto her lips fell away as she glanced up at him briefly. “I wish I could see you. It’s just . . . It’s just that–” The crackling returned before silence fell over the dining hall once more. Alora blinked softly as the device was abruptly wheeled away. It was a cruel morsel she was given, the little taste of the warmth and the affection she had been starved of left her wanting more. But, the swift return to manipulation saw to the light in her eyes dimming further, darkening and deepening into repulsion as he spoke of her alluring flame– the very one he seemed so determined to stamp out by bending her to his selfish desires. Her uneasiness was further worsened by the devious plans of his ministers, how they schemed to use her parents as instruments to sway the citizens of Shanthah by means she couldn’t comprehend.
And yet, she did not doubt that they were capable of that level of deceit. The magic devices and machines in their arsenal were powerful beyond her own imagination. In that moment he sounded so monstrous and so mad that she was . . . frightened. She felt powerless, and the defiance that blazed in her was doused, leaving nothing but smolders and feeble, glowing embers.
The King left her, his footfalls growing distant until they disappeared behind the double doors. She hated the prickly sensation behind her eyes, the knot that gathered in her throat so tightly that she thought she might choke. Her teeth clenched and her fists balled, she couldn’t stop the warm tear that tumbled down her cheek . . . And she was furious. A mighty swipe of her hand sent a plate to the ground, shattered shards careening across the stone floors. Cathartic as it was, shame descended upon her quickly. She emerged from the fog of her rage remorseful, and she moved to pick up the scattered pieces just as the attendants came in to take care of it.
“I apologize, I . . . I don’t know what came over me.” The Princess said regretfully, insisting that she help despite their protests.
“Princess, please. We will take care of it.” An attendant told her, boldly taking her hands to cease her actions.
The woman pressed a tiny square to her palm, and as her eyes met an urgent stare Alora finally relented. She wrapped her hand around the little object, rising to her feet with yet another quiet apology. The Princess returned to her room, her hand still clenched. She shut the door behind her, knowing that her newly appointed handmaidens would soon enter. Opening her hand she revealed the note, neatly folded into a square no bigger than Shanthah’s largest coin piece. In front of the hearth, she unfolded the parchment.
Behind the red letters was a symbol, one she didn’t recognize. It was not the insignia of any neighboring kingdom, nor did it belong to any noble house. The Princess had little time to think deeply about the meaning, not when she heard the footsteps of her handmaidens approaching. Quickly, she cast the note into the low flames, watching as the fire consumed the parchment and reduced it to cinders.
Alora let the dutiful women enter her quarters as she did every night. They helped her out of her dress, removed her jewelry and accessories. It felt almost ceremonial as they carried out their tasks listlessly, a departure from the casualness she once knew. Her former handmaidens were social, gossips who spoke candidly and openly of the goings-on within the castle. She missed the chatter, the laughter, and the companionship.
As they dressed her in her ivory nightgown and brushed the stubborn curls from her hair till they were long, luscious waves, she felt dread. With each executed preparation she was one step closer to the King’s bed, and when she was wrapped in the luxurious silk of a scarlet robe, she was literally taking steps toward the King’s quarters. Her footsteps felt heavy, as though bricks were attached to them. She could hardly bring herself to move when she was just outside his door. For a while she simply stood there, stone still. Alora tried to tell herself that it was only sleep, only laying beside him. But, so long as he held her parents captive, he had her right under his thumb. He could make her do anything . . .
She could only hope that the note meant something, that it was not simply encouragement but a promise of action.
With that in mind, she raised her fist and rapped against the door. The knock lacked commitment so it was light, faint enough to be lost in the night calls outside the windows or the crackling of a fire.
“Your majesty,” came the voice of a burgundy-robed minister seeking audience with Xårełlęi as he marched through the doors of the dining hall. “I have reports to share regarding the rising levels of insurgent activity on the Western front.”
“Leave the issue with my generals,” Xårełlęi deferred with a flick of his wrist. “I will be retiring for the evening.”
Loose gatherings of servants and dignitaries watched with quiet curiosity as their King clapped down the main hall with heavy bootsteps, steps that indicated neither satisfaction nor displeasure, but purpose.
Once the echoed seal of a gated doorway ensured solitude within his chambers, Xårełlęi presented himself before his grand mirror as he often did, not as a gesture of vanity but of personal assurance. Amidst the devices blessed upon him that offered advantages beyond his wildest imaginings, he often sought the modest visage that he was still but a man, flesh and blood and bone, a simple mortal amidst the weapons afforded to him that were timeless, ageless, relentless.
After some time, a series of loud knocks came upon his door. A moment of reluctance was followed by a stiff exhale.
“Come,” Xårełlęi finally called forth, his voice echoing to the height of his chamber’s ceiling.
The broad doors pushed open to reveal General Rolander, Xårełlęi’s closest advisor. He boasted his gaudy military attire with medals and badges representing conflicts and battles won across lands that may or may not have existed in this realm. He didn’t resemble the appearance of a soldier however, with a slender frame and skin unburdened by the rigors of duty. It seemed his purpose might not have extended past the safety of orders given far behind enemy lines.
“My apologies, your majesty,” Rolander began with a subtle hesitancy before pressing the matter. “I know you’ve retired for the evening but… the rebels are intensifying their efforts, with more tactical precision than we could have anticipated. Our garrisons are stretched thin against the unpredictability of their attacks. I recommend a meeting with the field generals to determine the best ways to regulate our troops for maximum efficiency and reassert total subjugation.”
Xårełlęi’s shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. “Schedule a meeting in the war room to take place after breakfast tomorrow.”
He then closed his eyes for a moment before summoning his next response. “Things were always going to get worse before they got better,” Xårełlęi examined aloud with an air of reflection. “That was the point of designating Ŝhanthah as our first objective… to first apply our advances towards the most challenging tasks.” His eyes seemed to swim within his own words in a meditative gaze.
A nod of acknowledgment gave way to the pull of a smile on Rolander’s face. “A perfect segue to the good news of the night,” he proclaimed with an appropriate shift in tone. “Word is spreading that the neighboring kingdom of Leviathá has witnessed Xårełl’s unrelenting expansion and is already prepared for surrender. As a matter of fact…”
A snap of Rolander’s fingers prompted a woman to emerge into Xårełlęi’s chambers on cue, with a slow, sultry elegance in her stride as she presented herself.
“From the Prime Minister of Leviathá, he sends his daughter,” Rolander explained with a smug grin. “She’s eager to satisfy your every desire, and bear your children should you find it a suitable endeavor.”
The young maiden wore a translucent silk robe which clung against her curves, her bosom ripe, with dark hair and eyes complementing the pale bronze of her flawless skin.
Their eyes met briefly and the young maiden offered a nervous smile before dropping her gaze meekly to the ground.
A pang of lust was roused in Xårełlęi’s eyes, but faded quickly and inexplicably.
“It’s quite all right,” Xårełlęi said dismissively while returning his eyes to his reflection in the mirror. “I’ll do without for tonight.”
General Rolander frowned upon hearing Xårełlęi’s dismissal. “Your majesty,” the general cautioned with a lowered voice, “it would be rude to return her to Leviathá without… partaking in the offering of a submissive kingdom.”
“I will call for her another night,” Xårełlęi reassured through an impatient smile and a twitch of his lip. “Arrange a suite for her and see that our best attendants are assigned to her care.”
With that, Rolander and the maiden bowed and removed themselves, leaving Xårełlęi once more in contemplative silence.
The chamber doors opened slowly to greet Alora de Anadan’s arrival. She would find Xårełlęi waiting with a gaze that floated somewhere between expectation and soft surprise. He was wearing a flowing robe, burgundy in color with lime green embellishments. The smell of incense floated outward, exotic spices with tantalizing aromas.
A lingering pause was interrupted by Xårełlęi clearing his throat. “After you,” he offered with an extended arm before following behind the Princess, the chamber doors closing shut behind them.
The royal wing of Ŝhanthah castle had been remodeled, with walls torn down between adjacent chambers to accommodate the spacious demands of the new King. Xårełlęi’s quarters were, as one might expect, lavishly furnished and decorated. A broad flag depicting the royal insignia of the Xårełl kingdom was suspended from the ceiling, with gold tassels flanking its edges. A large, centralized table seemed to depict the scaled model of a battle, with miniature soldiers and weapons fighting tooth and nail on rugged terrain. What seemed to be a ‘telescreen’ was showcased upon a wide pillar in one corner, its contents black and blank.
And then there were the paintings. One chamber wall seemed dedicated to the spoils of elaborate and exquisite artwork claimed through conquest. Another wall showcased paintings of Xårełlęi and his generals, many with the similar theme of a captured flag held from to end to end for exhibition. The smiles and laughter on the victorious faces seemed strangely juxtaposed against the implications of how the flag was acquired.
While the Princess was directed by the King, the placement of certain fixtures seemed strangely spacious before their context became clear. Where had resided an extravagantly wide bed was instead a bed much more modest in size, surely replaced on command to force the issue of proximity upon the King and Princess.
Xårełlęi allowed the Princess to choose her side of the bed before approaching his own, but not before draping his robe across a nearby privacy screen. She would now see him in a red nightshirt extending just below his knees, with gold buttons and other adornments. Attendants entered to tend to the torches, and soon the King’s chambers surrendered to dark, with a soft orange glow that traced along sheens and contours.
After pulling his curious eyes from the Princess, Xårełlęi climbed into bed and settled himself upon the bedsheets below the blankets. He lay on his side away from Alora, though he was not bashful with the amount of space he claimed for himself upon the bed. Once the sound of quiet had taken its place, his side rose and fell with the sound of his breathing, slowing after a time until it became the soft purr of a snore.
After some time, however, unexpected words were suddenly heard, sharply cutting through the silence of the room despite their soft-spoken delivery.
“Your response to my ultimatum disappointed me.”
There was not disappointment in the King’s voice, however, but curiosity. He would shift from his side onto his back, his chest and head hidden in shadow, but perhaps the Princess could feel his gaze upon her.
“Despite the helplessness of your position, I expected you to counter somehow, to guarantee your vengeance, or simply hurl a scathing insult against my back… something!” His emphasis hung against Alora’s ears, almost beckoning her to fulfill the King’s presumptions then and there.
“You gave into the demands of the man who threatened your kingdom. And I must say, the curves of your body are quite enticing,” Xårełlęi remarked with a strange mixture of warning and reminder. “If I was not a man of my word, I’d have taken advantage of this situation further and indulged myself upon you.”
The weight of his words tensed the air a bit, but the King would shift himself away from the Princess to dissolve any assumptions.
“Leviathá offered me a woman, and I passed her off for another evening,” the King confessed with a shrug, as if to seal the promise of curbing his lusts. “So quick to surrender, they are. A resounding victory before our soldiers had even set foot upon their soil. I’ll now be expected to bed this maiden and sow my seed of unity. How many children will she bear me? Seven? Eight?” There was neither anticipation nor indifference in his voice, only casual observation.
The quiet crept in again, but the promise of more revelations loomed.
“You know, as a child,” Xårełlęi reminisced, the tone of his voice losing itself to decades past. “I competed in many games and activities. Horseback riding, swimming, many others. But the game which I competed the hardest, the same game which humbled me most as a boy, was chess.”
“It was me and about twenty other boys from noble families, you see. We played in tournaments and losers were whipped to ensure the utmost effort in games. No broken skin of course, we were noble kin. But it wasn’t a pleasant punishment for sure. I practiced every day with my uncle simply to keep up with those more talented than I.” The King’s hands were moving in the air above him, as if maneuvering imaginary pieces.
“I lost more than I won… it certainly felt as such, anyway. And there was one boy who I simply couldn’t beat… Brock was his name. The worst feeling in the world was making a poor move against him, which he always capitalized on. Always, always that one error, and then I knew the inevitable was coming… he would checkmate my king and then I would be sent away to the disciplinary wing for whipping.”
“The intensity was always there, the intoxicating feeling of relief and escape with every victory and the looming sense of dread and hopelessness with every defeat. My father said that it was meant to build character towards other aspects of life.” A twinge of doubt was unmistakable in the King’s voice.
“Despite the ferocity of those feelings, however, whether you celebrated in triumph or withdrew in failure, you always knew you’d keep your life, even if it meant a sore behind.”
“Not so with conquest.” Xårełlęi drove his story to a point that weighed upon his mind, punctuating it with his own prior quote. “War is a messy business indeed.”
The sound of a distant clang was heard outside the chamber walls before it faded against the ears of the King and the Princess.
“I’m sure you grow weary of my voice,” the King acknowledged, now laying on his side to face the Princess. “But I thought I’d share some other ideas for negotiation that have come to mind. Perhaps you’d like to discuss them in the morning.”
There was a shuffle behind the Princess as the King decided upon a course of action.
“If you faithfully bring a pleasant demeanor and a healthy appetite to tomorrow’s breakfast, you may excuse yourself to your own bed,” the King offered before an addendum halted any sudden departures. “But first, before you go, tell me about your most prominent childhood memory.”
There was a hint of surprise in the stony indigo hues that greeted her on the other side of the threshold, almost as though he hadn’t expected her to be standing exactly where he wanted her. Stepping aside the King welcomed her into chambers far more spacious than she recalled. Alora didn’t know why she expected it to be in the same condition as she knew it when it belonged to her parents, why she anticipated the colorful landscape painting of Shanthah at its earliest inception, back when the town was no more than unpaved paths and the land beyond was nothing but rolling emerald fields and long stretches of might trees. As she looked around she could see the room as it once was: her mother’s vanity with precious, glittering jewels strewn across it, rich velvety drapes the color of vermilion, her father’s desk covered from end to end with maps and documents. There was no trace of them anywhere. Their existence was overshadowed by an ostentatious flag, its insignia irritatingly boastful and offensive. She wanted nothing more than to rip it down, tear everything painting with mocking smiles from the wall, break every frame into pieces, and smash the staged replica of a battle scene on the table. The Princess was practically bristling with hostility.
It was the silence that allowed her to quiet the rage within her, perhaps even the calming properties of the fragrant wisps of smoke that soothed her temper. Once she was certain that she would not resort to destruction, her hands untied the silk cinched around her petite waists. Like liquid it rolled off her shoulders, down to her forearms and into her hands so that she could drape in on the back of a seat. The material of her nightgown was as delicate a gossamer, so fine and so thin that it was nearly transparent. In the light her silhouette was visible, delectable curves and sensuous lines that had tempted the covetous hands of men who had seen far less of them. They promised softness, suppleness. In motion they were far more spell-binding, effortlessly alluring as she moved toward the bed– to the side nearest the door.
Untucking the blankets she slipped between them, bringing the warmth up to her shoulder as turned onto her side. The Princess felt as though she were balancing on the edge of the bed, body at the furthest reaches possible. Darkness slowly overtook the room before she felt the weight of the King’s body met the mattress. Alora believed that he would simply allow slumber to befall him without another word, but the rumble of his voice did breach silence. When it did, she found herself taken aback, deeply perplexed by his statement before frustration gripped her. Truly she didn’t understand, the King got exactly what he wanted and yet he was displeased with her reaction. Perhaps he wanted to be scolded for his underhanded tactics in getting her into his bed, or perhaps he wanted the satisfaction of seeing her furious and uncomposed. If it was a reaction he wanted, she was determined to starve him of it. Even when his eyes lingered lustfully on her back and he spoke of carnal desires, she remained still on her side. But, she listened. She was given no other option to. His presence, his voice, it would not allow her peace.
The only comfort, the only true comfort, she obtained was the knowledge that another woman would satisfy those cravings of his, bear his children, and be the pretty fixture on his arm he wanted so desperately. It made her giddy inside, so much that a smile began to form on her lips. Alora gently bit the inside of her cheek to contain her excitement. Though she wondered what his new gift meant for her, whether she would be banished to one of those horrid camps or kept wherever her mother and father were, she considered it a blessing to no longer be the sole object of his attention. And yet, she was still in his bed– still listening to him go on about his childhood.
It was hard to imagine him as a young boy, imposing as he was now. She couldn’t see beyond the Great, Unfeeling Conqueror, beneath the hardened exterior that might have contained anything other than the insatiable void he attempted to fill with acts of conquest in all its forms. Alora didn’t know why he was telling her about his early years, of chess games and discipline. Briefly she wondered if it was mere reflection, a message, or a lesson he tried to impart on her, but a loud metal clink disrupted her thoughts, reminding her that sooner she slept the faster morning would come.
Even that hope was tainted by more talk of negotiations.
Alora rolled onto her back staring up at the ceiling with a sigh. Her brilliant, fair hair fanned beneath her, glorious waves like satin under her head. She was deep in thought, her green eyes blinking softly while she considered yet another compromise. The Princess wanted the comfort of her own bed and the solitude of her own quarters, and yet she was hesitant to indulge the King in his seemingly benign request. There was something about it that seemed intrusive, and something about his approach that seemed presumptuous. It could have been her own distrust that made her feel as though the King would continue to engage her in these little bargains, make her submit to claim small victories and triumphs so that soon the larger requests wouldn’t seem so troublesome.
“You must think that because you shared with me an unsolicited moment from your childhood, that perhaps we would bond over distant memories together? What would be the point of revealing the fond highlights of my life? So that you can exploit them also? Use them to manipulate my family and I? Conjure false images on the black box?” Alora turned onto her side, finally facing Xarellei. The gentle maneuver made her sleeve slip from her shoulder, exposing flawless flesh. ” If it is an agreeable demeanor and a healthy Princess you’re after, then my prior statement at dinner remains. You have done very little to earn any of my trust and obedience, and even less my companionship. To be honest, I really do not know what it is you expect of me. Even less now that Leviatha has offered you a woman to cater to all that you desire, all the things I refuse to give you. Leviatha is but a small kingdom, not without its advantages, of course. An engagement would grant you loyalty and a stronger claim to rule. . . ” She mused, her finger tracing a shape into the sheets absently while her mind warred with conflict. “I cannot trust you with the simplest of things, and I’m not quite certain how we get past that.”
“I would tell you about my most prominent memory, but I wouldn’t want to disappoint you again with another lackluster response to one of your ultimatums. I know how you love to admire my defiance. I would be a fool to let you down again, my King. So, I will sleep here tonight, as agreed upon.” Alora pushed herself up, adjusting her sleeve back onto her shoulder. Her nightgown exposed the graceful and appealing line of her spine, before a cascade of lustrous gold covered it as she turned over onto her side again.
The aches of desire flared once more as Alora allowed skin to bare itself, tempting and taunting with its soft glow against the faint candlelight, its closeness offering promise of embrace. His hand had unconsciously began to reach for that first touch, but withdrew itself as his horrified eyes silently condemned his own momentary lack of control.
For Xårełlęi, Entire lands and kingdoms had been conquered and claimed through sheer grit and will, but women had always been a given… an afterthought amidst the spoils of war. Even as the exquisite pulses of rapturous release quaked across his body, there was the drive to reap, to earn, to win. That was the cruel irony seemingly staged by the Fates, that the Great Conqueror would balk at obedient beauty and crave that almost indescribable fire in concubines and lovers alike.
Thinking on Alora’s words as she turned herself away in his bed, only three seemed suitable for a prompt response.
“Well played, Princess.”
There was still that restlessness, however, that urged him not to abandon the topic quite yet. Xårełlęi would sit up in the bed and lean his back against the headboard.
“Would you consider an honorable exile with your parents?”
The question was posed calmly, yet carried with it a strange, faint desperation. “That course would reunite you with your parents and rid you of the man you despise so vehemently, all in one fell swoop.”
“There are many fertile islands on which to retire yourself,” Xårełlęi continued with a tone that attempted to dress the proposition more compellingly. “I’ve seen them for myself. A long, healthy life could be had with comfortable accommodations. I could also release your fiancé and any other family members to accompany you to make your transition more comfortable…”
“Of course, with any compromise comes sacrifice,” Xårełlęi pondered openly. “You would have to trust me to deal with your people as fairly as I have promised. Of course, as I’m sure you’ll understand, your absence forces a lack of persuasive speeches to keep your people in order.” There was more than a touch of sarcasm in Xårełlęi’s voice. “So I will be forced to deal with unruly insurgents the best… perhaps only way I know how.”
“Yes, I do believe a big-to-small approach might be effective towards earning your confidence. I believe the distant kingdom of Ronah would be a suitable example of how those have thrived under my mandates, if you wouldn’t mind a trip there to observe from afar…”
The silence of drifting words seemed to beg an alternative for the sake of choice. To Xårełlęi, his drowsy mind could think of only one.
“Or you could live the rest of your life in solitude,” Xårełlęi cynically suggested as he turned back within the sheets and away from the Princess. “Truth be told, I grow weary of our forced discussions, not to mention my own… woefully embarrassing attempts at building our rapport. The same displeasure in you is obvious. We can always leave our pieces where they lie and you can hate your conqueror with all you can muster in your corner of the castle, undisturbed by my appalling presence for the remainder of your days.”
Quiet crept in once more with the vacancy of the King’s voice, and his purr-like snore returned shortly after.
A shake of Xårełlęi’s shoulder woke him from a deep slumber, and a few blinks of irritability across bloodshot eyes gave way to a sinking realization that something must be amiss.
“My apologies for disturbing your sleep,” General Rolander submitted through urgency in his voice. “But the insurgents have made a play at the castle gates.”
Xårełlęi immediately sat up on the side of his bed at the news as sounds of commotion outside the chamber door reaffirmed the cold reality.
“A play… they’ve attacked, you mean?”
“Not very organized, but yes, those are the initial reports.”
Xårełlęi hopped to his feet as he shook off the stubborn remnants of sleep and reached for his robe. “God damn it,” he growled softly.
“Your majesty,” Rolander cautiously called as the King made his way to the door. “Remaining in your chamber would be the best course of action at the moment, given the current lack of intelligence regarding the scope of the threat.”
Ignoring his advisor, the door opened to have Xårełlęi bear witness to soldiers running down the nearby hallways with clapping boots upon the granite, taking positions and mobilizing into squads towards the castle foyer.
A nearby soldier, positioned against a nearby column caught the focus of the King’s eyes, and then his ire.
“This is no time for caution! Move your ass to the front line!” The sudden bark of Xårełlęi’s command startled the soldier into dropping his weapon with a clank on the ground. Xårełlęi reached for a nearby flagstaff and began to bang it against his chamber’s doorframe.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?! Move, move, MOVE! Reinforce the battlefront! Move now or I’ll have you hanged for cowardice!”
The soldier rushed ahead as ordered, and to a curious observer, the sight of the fiery King brandishing a flagstaff in his robe and pajamas must have seemed humorously out of place.
Rolander stepped in to the King’s line of sight as he peered down the hallway to make sense of the distant sounds of conflict. “Your majesty, if I may respectfully interject. The soldier was simply defending the royal wing from any stray threats.”
“I don’t need defending,” Xårełlęi sneered with narrowed eyes. “What I need is to whip my army into shape so that we can put an end to this stubborn nuisance.”
“Your majesty, I implore you, please remain within your chambers,” Rolander persisted with his arm acting as a barrier. “If you need comfort as this is sorted out, I can call for the maiden from Leviathá–“
“I DON’T NEED COMFORT!” Xårełlęi’s bellow seem to rise to the ceiling and back again. “I NEED THESE INSURGENTS DEALT WITH! ONCE AND FOR ALL!”
Eventually, as logic claimed a hold upon Xårełlęi’s mind, he heeded his advisor’s guidance, as frustrating as it was. Rolander stood guard at the door as Xårełlęi paced repeatedly, his furrowed brow making no secret of angered thoughts. He would finally snap his fingers after a time to direct his General.
“Leave us. You have my word I won’t leave here until your clearance is given.”
After Rolander had left, Xårełlęi took to clearing the miniatures from the central table and placed a large map upon it. Studying it closely, he used a piece of charcoal for markings and notes while immersed in thought. An idea then flashed across his eyes, seemingly related to his focus on the map, and Xårełlęi reached for a small device before pointing it towards the telescreen in the corner of his chambers.
Images began to play where the frame of blackness has once been. There were soldiers of Xårełl and their terrifying weaponry, sometimes from afar, sometimes close and intimate. After a time, one would realize the moving pictures being shown were of the advance towards Ŝhanthah castle, punctuated with the kingdom’s captured flag displayed by Xårełlęi and his advisors. Their broad smiles mirrored those depicted in exquisitely detailed paintings upon the wall.
For a brief time, Xårełlęi was fixated before his eyes turned towards his bed and then the Princess. A sudden realization gave way to a look of regret and embarrassment as he quickly returned the telescreen to blankness. He abandoned the map on the table and returned to sit upon his side of the bed.
“I apologize, most sincerely,” Xårełlęi offered with a low voice, faced away from the Princess. “That was truly a cruel and insensitive gesture.”
“I now can see how my utmost passion can be misconstrued for outright arrogance.” The King then meekly climbed into the covers, perhaps the first time the Princess had witnessed such a sight.
She should have known better than to expect to have the final word. The King always seemed to foil her attempts at ending a discussion, of thwarting his efforts and gestures in order to convey her distaste for his presence. His persistence was inexhaustible, and while she was irritated that he continued to negotiate the carrot he dangled before her eyes was a tempting one. The desire to be reunited with her family grew more and more with each passing day. Festering in isolation, even in the presence of obedient attendants and watchful guards, she was alone; a bone deep sensation that often threatened to submerge her into a black chasm of despair and depression. His offer granted her a glimmer of light in her darkness, and she found her heart reaching for it, yearning for it. Convinced that she didn’t need the dresses and the jewels, to be surrounded by finery and beauty, Alora was nearly compelled to accept until the consequences of her absence dawned on her.
The Princess shifted gently as visions of a quiet and vibrant paradise, somewhere far away, turned grey. Birdsong turned to the clang of metal, swords crossing and cannon fire. Cries of pain and anguish tugged at her heart. The sound of her people suffering.It was obvious, even from her limited participation in the transition of power, she knew that there was considerable opposition to the Conqueror’s rule. The ominous implication of his words did not bode well for those who refused to accept him as their King. Though she was not so foolish to believe that her presence in Shantha was what was keeping him from brutally slaughtering her people, she hoped it had some sway on his approach. Uncertain as she was as to the loyalty of the citizens, whether they resented her for her cooperation or pitied her, Shantha was her home. Her hand clenched at the blanket, her fist tight.
Shantha was hers, and she didn’t plan on leaving.
She felt his movement against the bed, his body turning to relax into slumber. Alora was wide awake for hours, seething for the better part of her consciousness, but reiterating her ambitions with great intent for the other. But, the Princess soon succumbed to her fatigue. It felt as though she had only closed her eyes when she was awakened by urgent whispers. Her vision was muzzy as she turned onto her side, barely able to make out the figure standing over the King for a moment before her gaze sharpened. It was the General informing him of an attack. The mention of another play at the castle sent her heart racing as visions of the last filled her mind. In addition to the King’s barking her anxieties only heightened. She reached for the pillow behind her as she sat up, clutching it to her chest as she moved to the foot of the bed. On the mattress, sitting on her heels, she watched the scene play out.
Alora was an afterthought, perhaps because she was in no real danger. Or, so she assumed. Her concerns about perceptions of her predicament made her worry. She feared that her people would have preferred bolder acts of defiance. Thus far her involvement had been in the form of speeches and appearances, and while it was easy to tell that she was displeased she went along with every step. They could have felt betrayed and let down by her spinelessness, no longer seen as the precious “Jewel of the Crown” and instead a traitor. Unlikely as it was that they would breach the gates, she couldn’t help but fear what might come of her if they did. A chill rippled down her spine, but she gathered every ounce of bravery in her body to remain calm– at least on the exterior, just as she did last time. It was harder now with the black box replaying the very instance her life was turned upside down in vivid detail, only it was a perspective she had never seen before.
She hugged the pillow tighter against her as she watched, and the images played out in her mind even after the screen when dark. As though she had come out of her state of invisibility, the King could see her again. Suddenly he became apologetic and embarrassed, something she had never seen of him before. Genuine sincerity.
“It’s . . . alright.” Alora said softly, still uneasy as the sounds outside the door persisted; the rush of footfalls and the beat of armor. Her green eyes fixated on the door, concern invading her troubled expression. Despite the unsettled feeling that gripped her, she crawled up to the head of the bed with her pillow. Resting on her stomach she let her mind wander.
“My birthday is in the Spring, and every year between the ages of six and eleven, my father would take me to the mountains. Not without escorts, of course. Six of his most trusted knights would accompany us.” She began, doing her best not to think about the fact that the strong, loyal men she had known all her life likely lost their lives in order to protect the royal family while under attack. “Shantha has the most glorious mountains, and naturally they are home to bears and wolves, moose– which I was very surprised to learn how very dangerous they can be.” A soft smile formed on her lips, her guard falling away as she retrieved the memory. “We would travel through the lower passes, in between the larger elevations. I always marveled at how green everything is that time of year, but more than that I enjoyed the valleys. When the wildflowers are in full bloom it looks like Eden, the colors are so radiant and lovely. We would stop there because I was compelled to make everyone flower crowns.” Distracted by joyful recollections the movements beyond the door went unnoticed.
“All six of them would wear my little floral creations while we rode the rest of the way through the pass.” A mellifluous bout of laughter escaped her as she imagined how silly they must have felt. “Of course, they would take them off straight away on the way back before we reached town. If I were a cruel Princess I would demand otherwise.” Alora mused. “We never went very high. Any further than the lower reaches and it would be much too cold, but we always stopped to see Shantha from afar. It looks so small . . .” It was how she imagined the King saw the kingdom, just a small stop on his journey of domination. Not with the kind of love and adoration she looked upon it with.
“After all the excitement I’d be exhausted. I would fall asleep on my father’s horse, or whoever had the patience carry me. When I woke up I would be somewhere between the castle gates and my room. My mother would be going on and on about the beautiful flower crowns I made for her and the handmaidens, but always something about them being too large and in need of adjustments. It was all tea parties and balls after that, but I wish I could have gone one last time.” The Princess could no longer hear the hurried shuffling beyond the door, though she knew the threat of danger still remained. She held the pillow a bit closer. “Would you like me to tell you about another?” Alora asked, prepared to give them both another distraction for as long as it was needed.
here was a lingering moment of annoyance that presided itself in Xårełlęi’s mind as he settled back into his bed, one that regretted his own allowance of softer emotions. The embarrassment was genuine, but it was also weak. Surely there was a better way to convey his own acknowledgment of error without being embarrassed. There was no time for a noble conqueror’s embarrassment, not when there were so many kingdoms left to win.
Then, with his back turned to the Princess, a miracle happened. She began to reminisce of days long past.
The melody in Alora’s voice felt sweet against the King’s ears, and he lay as still as he could while listening, afraid that the slightest disturbance would derail her travels down the roads of memory. The details of her mother reminded the King of his own, a maiden born mute but not lacking in affection, always found with a floral dress and a warm grin. He would often confide in her tenderness after the rigors of his daily trainings that often left him tired, sore, and discouraged.
Once the Princess had finished, the King turned to face her, his gaze silent with curious admiration.
“I’d very much enjoy another memory from your lips, yes.”
The Princess would not have an opportunity to partake in his request, however, before a knock was heard through the arch of shadows. The King puffed his cheeks in disappointment before reluctantly climbing himself out of bed.
“Good news, your majesty,” came the now-familiar voice of General Rolander to greet the King through the chamber door’s gap. “I’m pleased to report that the castle gate has been secured with few internal casualties.”
As Rolander spoke, a group of armed soldiers briskly jogged a short distance behind him and towards the castle foyer with focused intensity.
“Hmm. Are you sure about where we stand?” Xårełlęi asked with an air of doubt, peeking over Rolander’s shoulder towards the heavy rhythm of bootsteps as they faded with distance.
“Yes, absolutely. Of course, the castle is now on high alert as a perimeter probe is conducted. Ingresses are also being fortified to ensure absolute containment. You may rest knowing the threat has been fully neutralized.”
A soft sigh floated from Xårełlęi’s lungs. “Very well. Good work, Rolander.”
The King’s advisor presented a dutiful salute before being reminded of a paper in his hand. “Ah yes, there’s one last matter to address… the captive list. Shall we immediately process these insurgent prisoners for interrogation?”
A blank look on Xårełlęi’s face seemed to indicate his lack of concern before he turned his face to catch Alora in the corner of his eye. “The Princess will decide what is to be done with them in the morning,” he said loud enough for her to hear. “Until then, be sure that they are respectfully accommodated.”
A mild look of surprise on Rolander’s face gave way to another salute. “Understood. Until morning, your majesty.”
Once Rolander was excused, the chamber door was closed again, leaving both the King and Princess alone in the soft glow of candlelight. Xårełlęi gazed upon the enticing woman in his bed and his aches returned again… aches that pulsed beyond obligation or politics. Through his haze of lust, a dawn of realization reflected upon his appetite to bed Alora for his own pleasure. The purity of this desire reminded him of simpler times long gone and brought a strange curl of smile to his face.
“Well then. I believe we’ve both endured quite a night.” The King climbed back into bed beside the Princess, claiming his usual ample amount of space.
“I hope I’ll have the privilege in the future to hear more tales from your childhood. They really are quite lovely.” A few moments passed as the King settled underneath the blankets before his voice was heard one last time.
“You know, you never did tell me your thoughts on taking a trip to Ronah.” A pause of consideration led to the King lifting his forefinger above the covers. He waved it back and forth as if to correct himself.
“Ah-ah-ah. Tomorrow, tomorrow.”
And with that, the slow rise and fall of the King’s ribcage accompanied his soft snore as he drifted to slumber.
“I’m game,” she offered back with a smile. “Besides, if anyone knows where to get the best take out around here, I am sure it is the FBI.” She flipped the notebook closed, stepping back into the kitchen.
The Princess propped herself up on her elbows as the King agreed to another story. Where there was apprehension before, there was a genuine willingness now to offer him a glimpse into the halcyon days of her childhood. There were many fond memories to choose from, perfect vehicles into the past where everything was right in the world. Gone was the march of purposeful footfalls outside the door, the scrape and scratching of metal that clinked discordantly. In her mind’s eye she was imagining the morning after the first snow, how the hills and plains were transformed into a glittering dreamscape. Never was she alone in her excitement. Her mother, the handmaidens, faithful guards, and groundskeepers all looked forward to the first dive she took into the deep drifts, thoroughly entertained while she made snow angels and snowmen. At the sound of a rap at the door, the picture faded. Alora pushed herself up so that she was sitting, an anxious gaze on the King as he conversed with the General.
There was a small sense of relief that came over her, a fleeting sensation of relaxation. It was soon replaced with a subtle sorrow. The castle’s victory over the insurgents– her people— meant that their lives were claimed by those harsh sounds, soldiers defending their greedy Conqueror.
But, there were prisoners.
Surprise claimed her features. The Princess did not expect that they would spare a single life for the foolishly bold act of storming the gates. She assumed that it was tactical, a means of extracting information or making an example of those who would dare oppose the new rule. Alora just didn’t expect to be the one to do it. Brows furrowed, she wondered what the King’s motivations were for granting her such a responsibility. The only logical reason, she suspected, was to vilify her in the eyes of Shanthians, ruin what little good standing she had left to erode the hope that one day the de Anadan family would return to the throne. A distrustful glare returned to her visage once again as the King returned to the bed, tucking himself into the sheets whilst expressing hopes of soon listening to more of her stories and travels to Ronah.
She had so much say. And yet, exhaustion persuaded her to save the battle for another day.
The Princess settled into bed once more, nestling into its comfort so that sleep could visit her.
Green eyes fluttered open, her hazy vision sharpening as full consciousness returned to her. While there was still sleep between her long lashes she could see that the bed was empty, the blankets mussed where the King once laid. Alora would have celebrated the triumph of a night left untouched, a night that could have ended far worse than it had. But, the burden of doling punishment made the light that shone through the open curtains seem lackluster . . . Wrong. She would have preferred grey skies, dark and foreboding clouds, the pitter-patter of rainfall. As she pushed herself up, running her fingers through bed-tousled locks, she began to mentally prepare herself to make a decision regarding the lives of the imprisoned rebels.
The Princess’ thoughts were occupied as she returned to her room, while she sat in her seat to be readied for the day by her dull, but skilled attendants. Just like them, she was going through the motions until she saw the opportunity in her predicament, a means of beginning to tipping the scales in her favor once more. It changed her demeanor, the gloomy and black shroud of impending doom began to lift, a glimmer of light winking through the darkness. She knew what needed to be done.
Confidence and hopes restored, she moved through the halls of her home with a bounce and sureness in her step. The regal air about her commanded the respectful bows of guards and servants alike, acknowledging the passing presence of the elegant royal. Most graciously she returned their gestures with kind smiles and soft greetings, wearing her charm better than the shimmering jewels around her neck or the airy and flowy, faint pink dress she wore. Sheer, billowing sleeves draped off her shoulders, a heart-shaped neckline flattering a graceful and alluring décolleté. With each stride her loose, platinum curls swayed, brushing against her back as she made her way to the conservatory.
Alora pushed the doors open to the glass structure that overlooked the garden, surprised to see a woman as groomed as she was rather than the imposing sight of the King. She was already standing, ready to present herself but she could see the realization in her dark eyes, the traces of disappointment she tried to hide. The Princess was caught off guard herself, obviously not expecting the company of the Lady of Leviatha to be joining them for breakfast . . . Occupying her seat at the end of the table, though it was no matter.
“Oh . . . Good morning.” The Princess said, shutting the door behind her to approach the foreign beauty. Unlike the muted color of her own attire, the Lady of Leviatha was bold in her presence though not garishly so; layers of fine citron material were wrapped around her tastefully, and against her rich, brown locks it was a lovely contrast.
“Good morning,” she replied, offering up a half-hearted bow, seemingly saving up all her efforts for the King’s arrival. “You must be Princess de Anadan. I am Lady Natalia Leone of Leviatha. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you don’t mind if I join you. General Rolander assured me that it would be alright.”
“It is.” Alora gestured to Lady Natalia’s seat, releasing her from the formalities so that they could sit. As Alora chose another seat, one that put her between the King and what would be the new object of his eye.
It occurred to her that the General was not as charmed with her, clearly not under the same spell of her magnetism as so many were. In fact, she believed he thought very little of her as he often ignored her presence entirely. The evening before he practically looked right through her, offering the King the company of another as though she was not already occupying his bed. Even now he was determined to replace the King’s affection for her with another shiny temptation. A willing one. The thought brought a soft curl of a smile to her lips.
“Welcome. I hope the journey here was not too strenuous, and that your stay– for however long–is a pleasant one. I’m sure it must have been very hard to have to leave your home.” Reaching for a delicate teapot, she poured herself a cup before one of the attendants could come from the camouflage of greenery that sprawled throughout the conservatory.
“Not at all. I am happy to represent Leviatha’s promise of peace and loyalty to the new King as his ally in conquest. Is that not your role here? To represent peace and loyalty under his rule as a result of Shanthah’s defeat?” Natalia wore a shadow of a smirk, a mocking little taunt that plucked the strings of her anger.
Cattiness among nobles and royals was not unusual, especially for the fairer sex. A perceived threat was dealt with using passive aggressive tactics, petty jabs and backhanded compliments to name a few weapons of choice. It was her specialty. She could have paired thoughtful and deceptively barbed words to elude to the spinelessness of surrender, but for the first time in a long while she had to resort to another means of defense.
It would do her no good to perpetuate the idea that she would stand in her way.
“I have yet to understand my role here, but I admire your commitment. The King will be very pleased, I’m certain.” She explained as she lifted her cup to her lips.
“I know he will be. I will do everything in my power to ensure that he is very pleased. I assume he has a voracious . . . appetite?” The brunette leaned in, the volume of her voice lowering to a whisper.
The bold inquiry provoked a more genuine expression from the Princess; her brows raising as confusion flitted across her features briefly before the innuendo dawned on her. “I . . . I would not know.” She responded honestly, not daring to mention that she had visited his room the night before and had witnessed the longing gazes of indigo eyes.
“Really?” Her brown eyes grew large with shock and amusement, a bit of laughter escaping her lung before she fully realized the inappropriateness of her reaction. “I’m sorry. I simply assumed . . . I’m just surprised. You are just as lovely as all the rumors say.” Even then she couldn’t quite seem to fully extinguish the patronizing quality of her voice. “Well, I suppose I will find out for myself.” Lady Natalia mused to herself, seemingly no longer inclined to treat the Princess as competition in the game for the King’s heart.
They strode out of Whole Life / Whole Health, Kelyn pulling out a pair of sleek sunglasses and sliding them on. “I doubt we will get much at the house. Great instinct with the hobby. I wonder if it it is a YouTube stalker thing. I’ve heard of weirder.”
Boy had she, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.
They piled back in his car and she pulled out of the spot and hopped onto the main roads, driving further from the highway. Commercialized strips of tiny stores and massive malls gave way to suburban mazes. The houses here were nothing to write home about, but they weren’t run down either. More solid than the pre-mods, build of actual brick and mortar with slightly sagging wooden porches and overgrown lawns. But there were children playing outside, dogs barking as they ran tracks through the thin grass and the occasional man or woman or both sitting on the front porch drinking coffee or tea or lemonade or something harder.
They found Jill Diaz’s home, a small single family with a well trimmed lawn, a few plants in pots, and a bright yellow paint job. Kelyn pulled the call into the driveway, killing the radio as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang about Californication.
Kelyn slid from the car and strode up to the home, knocking confidently on the front door.
Xårełlęi slept, and there were dreams.
In a misty glade somewhere in existence, a pale sun’s warmth glinted across a stoic warrior’s helmet. The nameless soldier stood proud alongside many others, each seemingly plucked from the ends and in-betweens of the great Æarth, boasting their own distinct emblems, armors, scars and complexions. They were ranked in single file with shoulders squared, still and silent as Xårełlęi found himself pacing slowly beside them. They were all… familiar to him somehow, despite the mysteries of their origins. He had not faced any of their nations in battle. And yet, as the mist danced and played between each of them, Xårełlęi understood that he knew each and every one of them very well.
Xårełlęi eventually reached the end of the file and looked into the green, unblinking eyes of a decorated general, stout and stern in stature. The uniform’s colors were not altogether dissimilar to those of Xårełl’s own, and various emblems tugged upon the strings of recognition within his mind…
The flood of understand came all at once. The soldiers before him spanned well beyond the farthest lands and into ancient generations… and prior lives. A staggering sense of purpose, as well as culmination, then gripped him. Xårełlęi solemnly looked down into his hands with before an airy voice caught his attention with a sharp turn of his head.
Xårełlęi. Son of Xårao. Something was calling to him from the forest’s edge.
Yes? Who’s there? His thoughts spoke on behalf of his still lips.
Dark fibrous trails pulled from the trees in response and began to coalesce with twisting tendrils, until a pair of recognizable eyes emerged through black hair that curtained back to frame an elegant face. It was the visage of Lady Natalia Leone of Leviathá, floating ethereally through the mist.
Rightful King, the maiden hypnotically beckoned. Will you not fill me with seed and child? Shall not a quake of ecstasy spill generously from your loins as I lay panting beneath you?
A moment’s pause gripped itself upon Xårełlęi’s thoughts. The pleasures of flesh are fleeting, he declared as an answer.
Natalia scoffed her reply. And yet, you seek desperately to mate with the Princess of gold.
The King’s eyes widened despite himself, and then narrowed to meet the accusation. I crave, but do not seek. I have forfeited my will to accommodate Fate’s own course between us. Surely that is evident.
A mocking laugh lifted from Natalia’s plump lips. Such arrogance. You feel as though your will or its absence has any influence on Fate’s direction?
Perhaps not, the King conceded, but I will continue to act as such, even if invisible strings guide my actions. My conquest has been sustained by such a creed thus far. And your kingdom is the latest to succumb to my whims.
Lady Natalia’s eyes flared their displeasure before her face receded behind the curtains of dark hair that flanked it. The presence then twisted and morphed until Alora’s features manifested where Natalia’s had been, with her long golden hair tied behind her crested crown. She seemed to immediately recognize the King’s surprise and pounced upon her advantage.
Oh, lustful King. Won’t your seed douse my flame? Alora taunted, her hair waving as if wagging a finger. The quality you admire most in me is quite delicate, you see.Climb upon me with carnal appetites and you likewise smother the fire that enticed you in the first place. Such a delicious conundrum.
Xårełlęi hung his head slightly before turning his gaze up once more. We’ll see about that, he managed with a lack of resolution that quietly disappointed him.
Foolish ruler. There is but one suitable outcome between us, Alora haughtily explained. A compromise you have contemplated deep within your own heart.
The King knew indeed with eyes that glistened their awareness. He kept his mind as still as he could manage. Nonetheless, the undeniable truth pushed through and made itself known.
Bear my successor, Princess, and I will release your kingdom.
Alora’s face smiled widely as if a resounding victory had been won.
NO! The King bellowed as his head shook furiously. My destiny will not be forfeited. Not under any circumstance. Not for any compromise. The King took his place ahead of the stout general to emphasize his unwavering determination… and yet, the faintest hint of reluctance could somehow be sensed in the swirl of mist around him.
Then, oh King, come to terms with your own dissatisfaction, Alora advised with a smirk, before dissipating towards the forest’s edge behind them.
Xårełlęi awoke with a gasp caught in his throat as he lifted with a start from the mattress. As his mind lifted from the fog of sleep, he turned to see Alora asleep beside him, her ribcage delicately rising and falling. A portion of her shoulder was exposed above the covers, and the now pervasive feeling of lustful heat returned as a wave of goosebumps crawled across his skin. His urges were often strongest in the morning, and the King ripped his eyes from the Princess before they overwhelmed his sense of restraint. After wiping the last bit of drowsiness from his eyes, he lifted himself carefully from the bed so as to not disturb Alora and pulled himself to his feet.
A quick shower and shave was followed by a selection from his wardrobe before the King opened his chamber door. Two guards flanking the door stamped their boots and offered coinciding salutes as Xårełlęi emerged into the crisp light of dawn’s arrival. The bustle of the previous night’s events still remained with soldiers moving and maneuvering. And, of course, Rolander was waiting to greet him.
“Do you ever sleep?” the King remarked towards his general with a mild hint of exasperation.
“As your most trusted advisor, I approach my duties with the utmost urgency,” he responded with a salute before tending to the business at hand. “I wanted to brief you on the latest developments since our thwarting of the insurgent’s attack. I was also hoping to confirm your desire of entertaining the maiden’s presence in your bed this evening.”
“Spare me until after breakfast when I meet with my generals,” Xårełlęi instructed with his opened hand walling off further discussion. “And despite the constant strains and hardships of battle, am I to be pressured into making love on demand with an offering of peace as well?”
Seeing the concern in Rolander’s eyes, he added, “She will be pinned underneath my weight soon enough. Do not concern yourself about my intentions.” The King planted his palm upon his advisor’s shoulder as a gesture of reassurance.
“In the meantime, Alora is still asleep in my chambers,” Xårełlęi noted as he pulled his way towards his royal office. “See to it that she and the maiden from Leviathá are waiting for me in the dining hall.”
“Natalia is her name,” Rolander called after the sound of the King’s departing footsteps.
“Natalia. Of course. Now leave me be. I have a task to complete before breakfast.”
The King entered the dining hall wearing a buttoned shirt, eggshell in color with thin vertical stripes of maroon and gold tucked into his navy trousers, with golden seams traveling down to his low-cut boots. The broad slope of his shoulders was emphasized despite the casual attire, complementing the slight curve of his belly no longer hidden by his uniform. His reading glasses were a curious sight, giving the King an almost scholarly look alongside the slick of his hair, and his long sideburns faded to a clean-shaven chin.
Upon seeing the two women seated at the dining table, the King nodded courteously to them both. “Alora and Natalia. The best of mornings to each of you.” He then approached Alora with something in his hand.
“And I hope this further brightens your day, Princess. I proactively assumed your desire for a full pardon of the insurgent prisoners,” Xårełlęi explained while handing the Princess a pen and piece of parchment with the official Xårełl seal. “The order has been drafted, all it needs is your signature.”
Attendants began to enter the hall with dishes, and the intoxicating smell of freshly cooked food followed close behind.
“Now then,” Xårełlęi continued as he moved past a busy cook to sit himself at his seat. “I will keep business brief while my eyes are captivated by the indescribable beauty you both possess. But I felt it necessary to discuss my inclinations for a trip to Ronah.”
The attendants prepared a plate for the King and placed it before him, prompting a tuck of a handkerchief into his shirt’s neckline before he continued.
“I’ve admitted my lack of expertise as a politician, but I believe my empire’s relations can be improved with an observation of how Ronah has improved… or better yet, thrived… under its current occupation. My forces have helped to reestablish trade routes and a robust infrastructure has been implemented to ensure a lack of poverty.”
Xårełlęi then directed his thoughts towards the fair maiden to his left. “Natalia, once you see Ronah’s success with your own eyes, you can relay my promises of prosperity with confidence to the kingdom of Leviathá and help further facilitate a peaceful transition towards surrender. Of course we have… otherbusiness to address before you eventually leave my castle.” The King shot an eye of lustful promise towards her before turning his attending to the Princess.
“And Alora,” the King continued with a turn of his head, “perhaps some trust between can be established once you realize firsthand the fairness I implement across my conquered lands. We can then delve into the possibilities we’ve discussed regarding your parents, as well as the future of your role here in this castle… or elsewhere, should you desire it.”
The King then enjoyed a bite of his breakfast, savoring a chew with focused eyes upon the pair of ravishing ladies seated with him.
The conversation turned cordial between the two women, with talks of castle tours, leisurely garden strolls, and afternoon tea. An onlooker might have believed that the pair was getting along splendidly, that they were well on their way to friendship with the seemingly genuine laughter and smiles they shared in. But, Alora knew it would be foolish to trust the Lady of Leviatha, whose duty to please the Conqueror superseded all else. To the Princess, it made her more of an obstacle to avoid rather than an ally in her own efforts, a fact that was further emphasized by the wiggle of the door knob that silenced her. Lady Natalia rose to her feet before the King even set foot in the conservatory, abruptly ending their friendly chat to welcome him with all the subservient intent she conveyed in the low curtsy she greeted him with. “Good morning, your Majesty.” She said, her voice warm and sincere.
Though Alora did not usually greet the King with empty formalities and kind regards, she did bring herself to rise from her seat as well– if only to downplay the strife between them. She uttered a salutation, pairing it with a nod of acknowledgement. Truth be told she was quite surprised by the King’s appearance. While her serene visage did not relent to express the shock brought on by a handsome face and his undecorated form, her green eyes did linger for longer than she would have liked as he approached her. She reached for the parchment and pen, curiosity and wariness surfaces on her features as they all seated. It was a pardon, a full dismissal of the charges and punishments that would befall the captured insurgents.
The Princess tried not to look displeased by the admittedly thoughtful gesture. After all, it was what she truly desired deep down. The rebels that attacked the castle were her people, the adoring citizens who praised her name with admiration and loyalty. But, she could no longer protect them passively. Alora flipped the parchment over face down on the table, laying the pen atop of it as the attendants began serving breakfast. As knotted and tangled as her stomach was, rejecting even the thought of tasting food, she prepared to be on her best behavior for Lady Natalia.
“Ronah . . .” Alora repeated as she gently and rhythmically tapped her finger against the parchment, a subtle irritation driving it down again and again as she thought. She recalled the King’s offer from the evening before. She hadn’t given it much thought, her mind too preoccupied with the matter of the insurgents to contemplate whether or not it would be beneficial to see the conquered land. Certain that it would not change her mind, she could have answered him then and there, but she was learning not to act on her first inclinations; the ones that had, up until now, robbed her of opportunities to turn tables.
“Thank you, King Xarellei. I’d . . . like to visit Ronah.” The words on her tongue felt like sand, grainy and gritty, hard to speak. “We can discuss arrangements for my parents and my role here at a later time. I’m sure you and Lady Natalia have much to learn about one another.”
“Indeed,” the brunette chimed, pleased to be given the opportunity to shine as she so wished. “Although Leviatha resides on the coast not far from Shanthah, we have heard of your successes in Ronah. I would love to see it for myself. I have the utmost faith that it is as prosperous as you say. We look forward to becoming a part of your great empire.” Lady Natalia continued to engage the King, a skill she was quite adept in with the way her deep eyes captured his. She hung on his every word, thriving beautifully on his attention, which earned him seductive smiles and flirtatious gestures; a ginger touch of his hand or a flick of her dark hair.
Alora was quiet, though it was not unusual for her to be. On the other side of the King she silently nibbled at her food, not paying much attention to the conversation until Lady Natalia unexpectedly brought her into it.
“The Princess was informing me before you arrived that the gardens are quite beautiful at sunset. Perhaps you and I might go for a walk before dinner this evening?” Lady Natalia glanced up at Alora, seemingly for her permission.
“Oh, that’s quite alright.” It occurred to her that it was her invitation to take her through the garden at sunset that Lady Natalia was declining. “I wouldn’t mind in the least. I imagine I’ll be resting, anyhow. I hoped to see General Rolander about the attack last evening. While I appreciate your gracious offer, and the initiative you took in anticipating my desires, I’ve actually decided on a different course of action.”
“I heard all the commotion. It was quite frightening.” Lady Natalia said, a hand to her chest as though her heart was still racing from the fear. “I nearly insisted on visiting you, but I was assured that the castle was well guarded.” Brown hues flicked up to the King, the brief look a promise of carnal pleasures.
“It was frightening. It is why I believe a pardon is not a fitting solution. With your permission, I’d like to arrange a meeting with the General. I want to know more about the nature of the attack.” Alora explained, hopeful that the King would allow her the courtesy since it was he who granted her the responsibility.
The sporadic clink and clank of stacked dishes interjected itself across the conversation being had by the three nobles at the grand dining table. Cooks and attendants wordlessly busied themselves between adjacent halls and the cafeteria as dignitaries took their places at other tables, filling the air with lively murmur and occasional laughter. Soldiers were now stationed at their typical posts, seemingly indicating that the commotion of the early morning’s attack had mostly dissipated. The sun’s peering light had begun to warm the castle’s stone walls with strokes and bands through barred windows, signaling the onset of another ambitious day.
King Xårełlęi placidly enjoyed a bite of his breakfast as the Princess unveiled her odd refusal of the executive pardon. He then shifted in his chair as he wiped his lips with a napkin, as if to collect a response.
“That is certainly an unexpected dismissal of the order I prepared, Princess.” The King then returned to his plate and enjoyed another bite, chewing slowly as if to gather questions in his mind. After a swallow, however, the curiosity in his eyes seemed to elect against the pursuit of further inquiry.
“Of course you may discuss the attack with Rolander. He will provide you with any details you need.”
“As for our journey to Ronah, arrangements will begin today and we shall embark as soon as tomorrow. I anticipate a three day journey but our accommodations will be more than adequate… dare I say, comfortable.” Xårełlęi’s smile hinted at both anticipation and weariness staking equal claims upon his thoughts.
The breakfast continued without incident until the distant chatter of dignitaries began to fade with their departure, signaling other forthcoming priorities.
“I must excuse myself, fair maidens. An important meeting with my generals awaits.” The King lifted from his seat and turned a pair of steps from the dining table before a voice called after him.
“Shall I see you later this evening in your quarters?” Natalia’s question dangled loosely in the air, but her eyes were purposed and expectant.
Xårełlęi took a moment before turning his head towards the bronze-skinned maiden. “But of course. Rolander will inform you when I have settled for the evening. Until then, make yourselves at home.”
With that, the King left the table and disappeared beyond a pillar in the main hall.
Xårełlęi was the last to arrive at the strategy room as uniformed officials were already gibbering on various items regarding the night’s events. Numerous pairs of eyes shifted towards the King’s entrance as the conversation persisted without interruption. He casually took his seat at the large wooden table just as a general gathered a point.
“A prompt and vicious assault is the only appropriate retaliation,” General Swanson emphatically proposed, touching his eyes upon each and every officer around him. “We must crush any hope that lingers in those that oppose us. The rebellion’s robust spirit is what drives the insurgency. We must reassert our air of invincibility and instill once more the fear and awe amongst the insurgents. Only then will they fall in line.”
“And where would we find these insurgents?” chimed Field Martial Brock in rebuttal. “They wander undetected through roads and villages like ghosts. Not to mention that your… reckless approach risks eroding the progress we’ve made towards the kingdom’s assimilation.” A stern finger tapped upon the table beside every subsequent word. “Might I remind you all that any mistake we make will be punctuated and channeled into propaganda for further conscription throughout the villages.”
“Ah yes. That suggests the people of Ŝhanthah have yet to subscribe to our own pervasive propaganda,” sneered back Swanson with narrowed eyes. “Perhaps you, as an assigned minister of communication, could muster a better effort in expressing what benefits our kingdom could offer a subservient populace.”
“And perhaps your soldiers could manage to do their jobs and conduct proper investigations,” Brock shot back with a raised voice. “They’re much too comfortable, trying to woo the women and settle themselves into households instead of uncovering the whereabouts of those who…”
“Enough,” came Xårełlęi’s voice to curb the escalating tensions. All eyes from the bickering generals then focused on him. A moment passed as he drew in a breath before speaking.
“Loyal officers,” Xårełlęi declared with his arm extended towards the center of the table. “My kingdom is by far the mightiest that has ever existed. So it seems to me that only two adequate solutions exist towards dealing with this threat.”
“We either ruthlessly crush the insurgents without playing this silly game of politics and make an example of Ŝhanthah to instill fear and terror into our forthcoming foes…”
The King let his words deliver their impact before presenting his own counterpoint.
“Or we dip into a bottomless pool of patience and kill them with kindness.”
The generals looked at one another with uncertainty before Xårełlęi snapped his fingers to draw their collective gaze back to him.
“Nuisances aside,” Xårełlęi explained with utmost conviction, “we are ultimately impervious. They can poke and prod all they want, but be it months, years or decades, we will ultimately be victorious. So let’s begin to act as such. Arrogance in this instance is advantageous and may be the ultimate message we can send to those who oppose us.” A grin sifted to the surface of the King’s lips. “Sooner or later, we will win hearts and minds as other kingdoms fall and surrender. And perhaps that will make our triumph over Ŝhanthah all the sweeter.”
A series of rebuttals were shushed with a raised finger, signifying Xårełlęi’s insistence on the matter.
“We shall withdraw our field soldiers and muddle our intentions… if only for a time, and observe how they react. In the meantime, we can lay a few carefully prepared traps and see if arrogance begets arrogance.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” Xårełlęi stated while turning to leave, “I have other matters on which to attend. See to it that Rolander continues our preparations for Ronah. My goal is to leave as soon as possible.”
The generals stood wordlessly as their King removed himself from their presence before enacting his orders down the chain of command.
The day passed quickly, with King Xårełlęi attending several personal meetings and small ceremonies with his closest dignitaries. He managed to float throughout the castle grounds, occasionally causing a mild commotion with his disappearance before emerging again to dispel any concerns. Quietly, the King savored being alone but those moments were always sparse and fleeting.
As the sun began its descent behind the distant mountains, Xårełlęi eventually found himself back at his chamber to retire for the evening. It wasn’t long after he had donned his nightly attire until he heard a rap at his door.
“Come,” called the King’s voice in invitation as he stood from his bed to greet his guest.
His chamber doors opened to reveal Lady Natalia wearing a pearlescent gown that clung desperately to her curves, with skin that glowed enticingly through the translucent fabric.
“Good evening, my King,” she cooed through butterflied lips as she made her approach. “I pray that your day was productive and satisfying.”
Xårełlęi slowly pulled a smile alongside a curious, almost sheepish expression. “It was, very much so.”
A pause was followed by Natalia’s nervous eyes fluttering across the room before settling again upon Xårełlęi’s watchful gaze.
“I’ve been anxious,” she mustered after some hesitancy. “Eager for us to be… alone. I know I have been rather… zealous in arranging this encounter. I… apologize if I’ve proven to be a nuisance or overstepped my bounds.”
Xårełlęi’s hand lifted to cup the side of Natalia’s cheek and jawline. “You’re fine,” he stated softly with warm reassurance.
The gesture lingered as if Xårełlęi might pull in for a passionate embrace, but his lips settled upon her forehead with a peck of a kiss. Once again, Natalia found herself searching for a response until she was reminded of something else.
“I brought this,” Natalia said as her eyes shifted downward. She presented her hand with a clenched fist concealing what seemed to be an offering. Slowly her fingers unclasped to reveal what looked to be a cluster of small, grayish-green nuts.
“Seeds,” she explained while collecting her voice. “Yanshe seeds. In my kingdom they are commonly used as potent aphrodisiacs. They are quite popular and reported to immensely enhance sensations…”
The King’s eyes studied them through a moment of cautious curiosity. He then exhaled apologetically as his hand slowly clamped Natalia’s fingers back into a fist.
“How intriguing. Perhaps another time.”
A wash of emotion glistened across Natalia’s eyes. “My King, if I may be so frank…” Her voice cracked as if to choke back tears. “Why are you so hesitant with me?”
Xårełlęi’s eyes flashed concern before yielding into an understanding. A handful of seconds passed before his mind settled upon a response.
“My dear Natalia.” The King’s fingertips gently pried the seeds from her palm and guided them to her mouth, with an upward tap upon her chin as an instruction to chew. After Natalia had swallowed her eyes affixed themselves upon her King, surrendering fully to his lead.
“Very good. Now undress and join me in bed.”
Natalia’s dress fell to her feet before she followed the commands of her King.
The pair maneuvered and settled upon the royal mattress before Xårełlęi pressed himself firmly against Natalia, causing her to plant a sudden gasp against his shoulder. His hand meandered teasingly towards the valley between Natalia’s thighs until a sharp shudder indicated he had found what he was looking for.
His fingertips were rhythmic and methodical, closely tuned to the soft pants and whimpers that floated and flitted from Natalia’s mouth. Her own fevered palm grasped the King’s loins reflexively; the King’s breath conceded a groan, but he refrained from mounting the gorgeous maiden that beckoned him with succulent caresses.
For Natalia, the pleasure built slowly and exquisitely until a moan at last caught itself within her throat. Goosebumps blanketed every square inch of her skin as her limbs quaked and clenched.
“Enjoy your morsel of ecstasy,” the King whispered against Natalia’s ear. “There will be plenty more to come.”
Under the intoxicating influence of the seeds, her quivering body quickly fell asleep beside her King, and morning wasted no time with its arrival.
Natalia found herself alone in Xårełlęi’s bed as the sun colored the stone walls with the promise of another day. Her servants were quick to tend to her needs until she found herself at the breakfast table again, with the King and Alora awaiting her arrival.
“Good morning,” Xårełlęi offered with a nod and a smile. “Rolader has informed me that we are almost ready for departure to Ronah. Until then, enjoy yourself to a hearty meal.”
The hopefulness in her gaze began to diminish as the Conqueror pondered on her request. His expressions were generally difficult to decipher. Unless it was the outrage or the shadows of desire, it was near impossible to determine whether he would acquiesce or deny her in favor of his own terms. Alora half expected that he would question her further, perhaps seize the opportunity to place conditions around her request. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised when his consent came so easily. With a gracious nod of her head, she went back to nibbling at her breakfast so that the King could return to his talks of Ronah; the success story of his many conquests. As reluctant as she was to accompany him, she couldn’t help but be curious as to what made it so different from Shanthah– what made it so much better than the heights of its glory days, when the kingdom prospered and its citizens were thriving. True, Shanthah had fallen on hard times and had difficulty recovering when the lands were overtaken. It was hard not to dread that the entire trip was meant to underscore the failings of her family, and highlight the superiority of his strange ways.
The King departed after their meal, leaving the two ladies to their own devices. Alora played the part of hostess, taking the Lady of Leviatha through the castle to show her all its amenities and grand spaces. Though the palace no longer belonged to her family, it was easy to find the same natural enthusiasm for the opulent ballroom with its stunning crystal chandeliers; the same pride in the spacious banquet hall and the immaculate stone paths of the well-manicured courtyard. From the extensive library with towers of books from floor-to-ceiling, to the small, cozy sitting room where they rested and enjoyed tea, she spared no details about the history or fond memories. Especially when it came to her favorite location on the grounds: the garden.
Lady Natalia was enjoying herself, it appeared, seemingly glad to be preoccupied while the object of her affection was away. They both admired the colorful petals in full bloom while they spoke of common acquaintances and silly whispers that brought about the first genuine laughter Alora had in a long while. Wary as she was of Natalia Leone, her presence brought a sense of normalcy. While they conversed and laughed, she almost forgot about their conflicting objectives and the decision she would soon have to make. That was until she spotted the familiar sight of the General passing between the stone columns of the veranda. The Princess excused herself as she was reminded of her task, leaving the Lady of Leviatha to explore as she pleased now that she was thoroughly familiar with the lay of the land.
“General Rolander!” She called softly, delicately lifting the length of her flowing skirt to hasten her stride. The man paused, his expression unchanging as she approached; as disenchanted as ever.
“Princess Alora. To what do I owe the honor of your presence?” He asked dryly, but not without a flare of curiosity in his dark eyes.
She would have been intimidated had it not been for her determination to see an end to the awful decision. “I have been tasked with deciding how to deal with the insurgents from last evening’s attack.”
“The King informed me that you might see me. Was the King’s proposal of a full dismissal of all charges not to your liking? I assumed you would be eager to see the hostages free.” His brow did raise slightly, though his visage was mostly neutral.
“Well, I believe a more lawful approach would be best if I am honest.” She admitted, clasping her hands in front of her lap.
“Is that so?” Genuine surprise flickered across his features as he turned to face her completely, watching as she nodded to confirm.
“If anyone attacked the royal castle under my father’s rule, it would be considered an act of treason– high treason if the aim was to harm a member of the monarchy. While the King’s gesture was made in thoughtful consideration of my sensitivities, I cannot help but feel as though outright forgiveness for such a trespass would only embolden the resistance. I feel terribly that my desire to protect a people that are no longer mine to rule has endangered us all.” Alora hid the half truth behind good reason and false remorse. Her motives were less pure than she let on while she dimmed her eyes to gather the heaviness of regret.
“I couldn’t agree more, Princess.” The General moved closer, gravitating toward her vulnerability to seize her position before her conviction could waver. “The attack last night was much too aggressive to allow the insurgents to be released without consequence. I understand that it must have been difficult to come to that decision, but know that you are doing the right thing.” His dark eyes narrowed, softening subtly into an expression that she could only guess was meant to reassure her. Much like the King, the General appeared to struggle with conveying emotions. “I’d like to hear what you have in mind for punishment.” He gestured to the stony path before them that led to double doors ahead. “We’ve interrogated the captives thoroughly, offered them leniency in exchange for information. Of course, none of them revealed what their true objective was. I don’t believe there was one. I believe there was no expectation of survival.”
“I suspect the same, although I do wonder . . .” She walked alongside him, lowering her voice to a whisper as she spoke her next words. “If there was an objective, what could it possibly be? My initial thought was possibly a distraction, and if not that perhaps there was some expectation that they might survive. If their plan hinged upon their capture, the only way to deal with the insurgents is to . . . eliminate them.” Alora did not have to rely on acting. The words were just as unpalatable on her tongue.
“That was a theory of ours, yes. But, we believe if there was some attempt at a diversion it was thwarted in our retaliation. Either way, your command is sound. I will ensure that they are taken care of, Princess.”
“I was hoping that I might accompany you.” She asked quickly, before he could begin to bow and excuse himself. “ . . . Speak with them . . .”
The General was stunned by the request, perplexed even as he stopped by the doors. “I do not think that would be best. I can see how your decision weighs on you. To be present for such a sight would only further burden your heart. If you look those men in the eyes, you’re bound to change your mind. I don’t mean to imply that I do not have faith in your resolve, but . . . ”
He’s not wrong. She knew that if she looked the men in the eyes that her heart might not withstand the distress or the sorrow. “It’s alright. You may speak freely.”
“You do not strike me as the type to have made a decision like this before. Have you seen a man die before?”
“I have not. I simply wanted to see my orders through, to see if I could . . . live with myself.” Another half truth, though it was not far from the true reason. Alora hoped that she could speak with them, understand their aim . . . If it was their intention to reach her somehow.
“Perhaps that is a test for another time, Princess.” The General said, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips. She would have found it charming had it not been so unsettling, like he found amusement in her newfound cruelty. “I assure you, this attack will not be the last, but with continued commitment to dealing with these criminal attempts consistently we should expect to stabilize the Kingdom under the King’s rule.”
“Of course. I will do my best to support future decisions.” Alora nodded as he bowed and began to take his leave.
“. . . I hope you don’t consider this an unmannerly of me to admit, but I was beginning to think you would never come around.” He said, stopping to turn and face her before he could disappear beyond the doors. “Your compliance may even quash further attempts to upend our foothold here.”
Alora knew that he hadn’t intended to sound ominous, but the cold chill from his words went bone deep.
Nightfall came quickly. The Princess returned to her quarters, allowing the dutiful handmaidens to remove the precious jewels that hung around her neck and rid her of the lovely pink dress she wore. It was replaced with a simple nightgown, plain and uninteresting in comparison to the delicate silk that adorned her the evening before. Without all the pressure of forced interactions and hard decisions, she could feel exhaustion in every fiber of being. Alora gave in to the longing for the comfort of her bed once the handmaidens dismissed themselves. She flopped down on her bed, letting her body relax into the softness of plush blankets and pillows as she released a weary sigh.
Hugging the pillow against her, her hand grazed against a small object. She curled her fingers around it, the small shape familiar against her palm. Alora pushed herself up, opening her hand slowly to see a folded piece of parchment. Though she knew that she was alone, she looked over her shoulder toward the door, listening for a moment to for movement outside. Briefly she attempted to replay the movements of the handmaidens who tended to her, wondering if one of them or even a maid planted it beneath her pillow.
She unfolded the parchment, eyes falling on red letters: “We await you in Ronah.”
For a while she stared down at the note, her hand impossibly still as she tried to discern its tone. Alora didn’t know whether it was a threat or a declaration of a rescue effort, especially after her decision to sentence the insurgents to death. After some time she pushed herself up, moving to the low burning fire in the hearth. She let the parchment flutter to the flame, watching as it was consumed by heat and reduced to cinders.
Rest did not come easy for the Princess. Till the early hours of the morning she lay awake in her bed, her mind unable to let go of the potential danger that might await her in Ronah or the possibility of freedom. Eventually fatigue got the better of her, slumber claiming her without her knowledge until the light of day trickled in through her window. Not long after her eyes opened her room was filled with attendants and handmaidens, swiftly gathering her things for the journey. Alora was suspicious of them all, green hues watching their movements behind her in the mirror while handmaidens tended to her hair. They all moved so expertly through her quarters that if one of them planted another note, she wouldn’t have noticed.
The Princess arrived at the breakfast table, surprised to see the King already sitting in his place. Before she seated herself, she greeted him with a bow– less half-hearted than she normally would have. She flicked her pale tresses from her shoulders and sat down, busying herself with tea when Lady Leone arrived. Judging by the bright smile she wore, and the bounce in her step, she and the King got along well in bed.
“Thank you, King Xarelli.” Natalia said as she lowered herself in the chair across from Alora. “Everything looks lovely.” She was content to eat in silence, but the Lady of Leviatha was much too pleased with herself to let a moment to boast pass. “Princess, did you have a good evening? I would have liked to spend more time with you, but I was preoccupied.”
“My evening was quite uneventful, and I was thankful for it.” Alora responded, a bit surprised at the bold innuendo as she sipped at her warm drink. “I would not have been very good company. Between the castle tour and my conversation with General Rolander I found myself very tired.”
“What a shame.” Lady Leone remarked, though her expression said otherwise. “At least you’ll be rested for the trip. Is it a long journey from here, Your Highness?”
The shaman sat cross-legged in the center of his thatched hut, his bony wrists resting upon knees with thumbs and forefingers pressed together at the tips, grinding ceremonial seeds into dust onto the dirt floor beneath his feet. He hummed and chanted with the occasional sway of his torso towards the heavy leaves and branches acting as a door into his less-than-modest residence. A semicircle of candles glowed ahead of him, their lively flickers rejecting the sticky dampness that lingered from the torrent of rain from the previous night. The gray skies above still threatened a downpour with swollen clouds, but the hut stood with stoic defiance despite the elements that could so easily remove it from existence.
Through the haze of his trance, the shaman sensed the arrival of a carriage drawing to a stop in the thick mud outside. The rain had indeed insisted, and glistening crosshatches traced the contours of the wheeled cabin with its silhouetted occupants. The horses huffed and tramped restlessly as a maiden climbed carefully onto the ground with three boys close behind. A pair of armored soldiers assisted with umbrellas and steady arms to help guide their escorts towards the hut before them. Branches were discarded until the glow of candlelight revealed an old man, naked save for the animal skin around his loins, sitting amidst his ceremonial candles. He looked almost emaciated, with leathered skin and pronounced joints. His gray beard drew to a point and complemented his smoky eyes, with widened pupils having mastered the task of enlightenment long ago, offering a greeting beyond words.
The maiden revealed herself into the hut, drawing back the hood of her cloak to reveal a flawless, fair-skinned face, ocean blue eyes and a crown that signified the highest nobility. The three dark-haired, well-dressed boys flanked her closely, with the youngest toddler clinging to her side, a look of fright balanced against quiet curiosity. The oldest did his best to look uninterested but his arched back and wide eyes suggested otherwise.
“Yamesha,” the maiden declared as punctuation to a completed journey.
“My queen,” the shaman responded after a moment’s observation. His hands drew outward from his knees as a gesture to welcome the guests into his abode. “I must say that this is quite the strange reversal. Typically I am the caller as you sit comfortably upon your throne.”
“Believe me, I would have much rather that been the arrangement,” the queen remarked with an impatient glare that teetered towards resentment. The annoyance in her voice would then quickly recede and accommodate a sobered objective. “However, time is of the essence and your presence is needed.”
Yamesha mulled upon the queen’s words with quiet calculation as he swayed on the hinge of his waist. “Time, yes, yes, of course…” Then, what seemed to be a sudden moment of clarity spurred the shaman into speaking. “Ah yes. The king is dying and I am to bless his successor.”
The queen’s eyes widened in horror before narrowing into accusatory slits. “He is not dying,” she managed in retort. “This is simply a formality with an… urgency that I cannot understand. Frankly, I find it ridiculous. The royal physicians have full confidence in—“
“My queen,” the shaman interrupted with calm insistence. “In all my years alive I’ve spoken only truth to you, our king, and the late king before him. He’ll be dead by the end of the week.”
“Enough!” The soldier nearest the queen drew his sword and focused its point near the shaman’s neck. “Such a proclamation is treachery… a capital offense! You should be dragged out of this wretched hut towards the hangman’s gallows!”
The patter of rain upon the hut dispelled the tense moment almost immediately after the soldier’s threat, with the orange candlelight dancing against the shaman’s impassive eyes.
“It’s all right,” the queen proclaimed with a touch of her hand upon the soldier’s extended arm. With reluctance, the soldier resheathed his weapon and snorted his displeasure.
“Well then. Come forth, successor,” the shaman beckoned with a motion of his hand. “Be not afraid.”
The eldest boy was nudged forward by the small of his back, and he stepped towards the old man hesitantly. Reaching behind him, Yamesha revealed a bowl of ground powder and stirred it with his finger. He then raised to draw a crude depiction of the X’aran insignia upon the boy’s forehead, chanting all the while. “Yasha menta algura teno yan.”
A handful of powder was then claimed from the bowl and placed into the boy’s open palm, with the shaman guiding the little fingers closed around the clump.
“Yasha menta algura teno yan.” The smoky eyes closed and the eldest boy stood as still as he could, wondering about the old man that somehow held an all-important influence in his father’s kingdom.
Moments passed as the chanting continued, fading after each verse until a whisper, and then lingering silence.
“I cannot and shall not continue the blessing,” the shaman announced with finality, snapping his eyes open. “This boy will undoubtedly lead your kingdom towards generations of ruin.”
The queen’s mouth was agape as both soldiers reached for their weapons. Acting quickly, she swiftly stepped between them and the shaman.
“What is this game you’re playing?” she asked with exasperation after the tension had abated.
“No game at all,” the shaman stoutly replied with a shake of his head. “The Fates mostly offer hints and vagaries, but today they speak to me quite clearly.”
The queen searched for words but was halted with a raise of the shaman’s forefinger. The pair of gray ideas scanned past the middle child and settled upon the toddler, still clenched against his mother’s leg.
“What is this one’s name?”
The queen hesitated before plucking the name from her lips. “Xårełlęi,” she relented.
“Xårełlęi.” The shaman tasted the name slowly through a breath. He then took to his feet which revealed an imposing height and tightened the clench of the soldier’s hands upon the hilts of their swords.
“Xårełlęi, my boy” the shaman continued with renewed purpose, “You shall lead your kingdom towards riches beyond imagination. All lands will proclaim you as their ruler, through submission or subjugation.”
A bony finger carefully drew the X’aran symbol upon the toddler’s forehead as he stared with horrified fascination.
“Yasha menta algura teno yan A RAGARA teman.”
The chant seemed to echo and rise itself above time and place, overlooking the queen’s distrusting gaze and her eldest son’s disbelief.
“And yet, even the master of the world will have his weakness.” The shaman directed his warning towards the queen and her soldiers, still wide-eyed and speechless at the old man’s machinations.
Yamesha then squatted before little Xårełlęi with a grunt and a crack of his bones. “Beware the Princess of golden hair,” he warned with a swaying finger that guided the boy’s eyes. “She will stir a raging fire within you with her own hands of ice. It may serve to drive you farther than even the Fates could have foreseen, or it may drive you mad.”
The little boy stayed silent as armored hands pulled the shaman away, doing nothing to discourage the jagged yellow grin on his face.
“Quite the interesting life you’ll live, Xårełlęi” the shaman stated with arms bound behind his back. “Do well to enjoy it.”
The smile offered to Lady Leone seemed almost to patronize her, but Xårełlęi’s visage weighed heavy with thought. There existed for years a strange sense of guilt following a night graced with a woman’s pleasure, as if precious time was forfeited against the planning table, or sharpening his mind in his library with literature on war tactics. The King’s chancellors were always proponents of strategically reinforced conquest with the weaving of royal bloodlines, advocating a plan of action easily deduced and thoroughly enjoyed. A necessary burden, they encouraged with solemnity.
“Burden, you say?” his younger, lascivous self would scoff with a tilt of his head.
Indeed, a burden, his mind now conceded. Though his carnal appetites were outwardly indistinguishable, the ecstasy of flesh was now relenting its importance to the satisfaction of his life’s goal, one etched into his being at an indelible age by triumphs and prophesies and alike.
The King snapped back to reality, his eyes widened slightly with embarrassment, not knowing how long he left Lady Leone’s question unanswered.
“Four, five days at the most, I’d say. The distance is considerable but the terrain is forgiving.”
A bite of salt and egg in his mouth did well to settle his roaming concerns, and Xårełlęi wiped the side of his mouth with a napkin before continuing his thought.
“Despite this, my generals have unfortunately insisted that I ride alone in my cabin throughout our journey. A tactical maneuver, you see, to mitigate any potential… encounters along the way, though rest assured we shall be thoroughly fortified with my finest soldiers and sentries.” A soft smile curled itself upon the King’s cheek. “If either of you wanted to push the issue with Rolander, I wouldn’t be adverse to it. As it stands, your cabins will be in close proximity to mine and my trusted kingsguard.”
The ham on the King’s plate was exquisitely prepared, and Xårełlęi savored every chew while entertaining any further comments or inquiries. Time passed quickly with the rising sun, and before long the bustle and chatter from nearby tables floated away as soldiers and dignitaries departed to their day’s duties.
“Feel free to tend to any business in the next few hours… we are scheduled to depart at noon.” With a slight bow and nod of his head, Xårełlęi excused himself from the table.
Morning shadows tucked themselves away as the sun pulled overhead to complement a crisp blanket of cyan, promising at least a day’s worth of steady travel.
Towards the end of the Ŝhanthah castle yard was a sight to behold, where the trees collected against the forest’s edge and the path into wilderness. The transport assigned for the King and his entourage resembled a large, elongated wagon, supported by three large pairs of treaded wheels on either side, with a driver’s station at the head. Four smaller vehicles manned by specially-trained gunners guarded the flanks, and formations of equestrian troops roamed between the front and rear. The strange contrast of conventional forces and technological advancement seemed almost incomprehensible to unfamiliar eyes, a storybook’s fancy somehow brought alive.
A short distance away, the castle gate was brimming with activity. There stood King Xårełlęi in a suit of armor, well-fitted but ostentatious, much to his quiet chagrin. Rolander floated nearby, relaying orders and communications, while soldiers took to their horses and secured the perimeter before taking stations beside their escort. Final preparations were almost complete, signaled by the sound of a distant engine roaring to life, startling a few Ŝhanthah dignitaries.
“Remind me again why it is necessary for me to endure this ridiculous precaution before boarding Xårełl’s mobile fortress?”
“Adherence to protocol, your Highness. Our most important asset must be protected throughout all vulnerable positions, especially in response to the strikes of emboldened resistance.” A glance from Rolander tried its hand at consolation. “Feel free to retire into something more comfortable once you are situated in your cabin.”
“I’ll have a chat with our stategists when we return,” Xårełlęi remarked to himself as much as Rolander. “It seems to me we are exhibiting the incorrect message with those who oppose us. I am not some… delicate artifact to be cradled.”
“Of course not, your majesty.” The tone in Rolander’s voice discarded the matter amidst the process of closing inspections. “It’s time,” Rolander announced as the arrival of Princess Alora’s and Lady Leone’s convoys signaled departure proceedings towards the royal command vessel. Its presence seemed to grow more visually imposing with their approach, rumbling with mechanical life.
A customary knock on the metallic hull by both Rolander and Xårełlęi preceded an exchange of salutes before the King boarded through the unlatched entryway, followed by the Princess and the maiden from Leviatha. High-ranking soldiers flanked the king before relieving themselves after he was safely secured within his chambers.
Within the King’s cabin was a compact rendition of the royal quarters, offering a spacious bed, wardrobe, restroom, and other essentials. Reinforced glass windows drew in plenty of light through parted curtains. Xårełlęi sighed before taking to the task of methodically unfastening his armor and assembling it piecemeal upon a sturdy mannequin. A more casual attire was welcomed upon chafed joints and induced a drowsiness he didn’t expect. A pull of force beneath the King’s feet overtook his balance, prompting a lazy collapse upon his bed.
The softness of silk blankets teetered the king on the edge of sleep before a knock at his door sat him upright with blinking eyes. “Yes?” he called after a moment’s hesitation, carefully masking the irritation in his voice.
Continued in Worlds Apart – 02