Worlds Apart – 02

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


Continued from Worlds Apart – 01

To hear that the journey was such a great distance brought about a mulish kind of resistance in her, the same unwillingness she felt when first presented with the idea of visiting Ronah. Parting with her home in its fragile acceptance of new rule made her fearful of what might come of it in her absence. Without their cruel monarch at the helm to guide his powerful forces, it was a prime opportunity for rebellion or some other play to tip the scales in the favor of the people. But, not for one second did she believe that the Conqueror would leave his seat so woefully vacant that defenses would be compromised. There was no way to know what devices compensated for his leave, and for that reason she was wary and uneasy. At the same time, the promise of intervention made her hopeful. Alora only wished she understood what was in store for her, whether salvation would come in the form of a well-planned rescue or more active involvement. Waiting was a small torture she was forced to endure . . .

“Well, we won’t argue with measures for safety.” Natalia chimed, a broad, beaming smile fixed to her lips when the King concluded his explanation of their traveling arrangements. It seemed that she was content to be close, even if she would not be cozy at his side. The events of the evening had fueled her with a palpable confidence, so much that it rivaled the very sun. By design it obscured the Princess, casting a shadow over her while she contentedly went about eating her meal, refusing to allow her to become a threat to her obvious favor. 

The King excused himself not long after finishing his breakfast, and Lady Leone rose courteously to bow. Alora did the same, albeit more slowly. She had grown accustomed to flagrantly disregarding formalities and etiquette to spite him, but the charade for Lady Leone’s sake had to be upheld. The more distance from the Conqueror the better, making Leviatha’s offering the perfect distraction to avoid his attention. Still, it was not a completely orchestrated arrangement. When Natalia was not vying for affection, she was surprisingly decent company. As they sipped tea, conversation flowed naturally and laughter was frequent. If it weren’t for punctual servants ushering them off to prepare to depart, they would have remained comfortable in their seats until lunch was being served. 

The yard was bustling, full of dutiful soldiers and attendants rushing about with crates, trunks, and barrels to load into strange carriages. She recognized them. They were not the horse drawn wagons she knew, but the indestructible, metallic beasts that forced their way into the kingdom. Apprehension nearly seized her entire being, rendering her still and motionless. Instead she slowed, anxiousness filling green hues as her stride lessened. Flanked by escorts, she was aware of how they adjusted their steps as well, careful not to make the mistake of walking ahead of her. 

“A marvel, isn’t it?” Natalia whispered low, but her enthusiasm was loud. 

How could she know what awful things the contraptions before them were capable of? She had not seen them violently spit deadly projectiles that shredded through stone and brick, or heard their deafening blasts. The mere thought made her heart pound so intensely that she could feel the pulsations in her neck and in her fingertips. Despite how she paled, Alora managed to nod in feigned agreement while she proceeded to spiral further. It was like a serpent had coiled around her chest, squeezing and constricting. Every breath felt too shallow to fill her lungs, the air too thin. By the time they reached the thrumming machine, she felt as though she were outside of her own body, a phantom of herself as she climbed the steps and moved down the narrow aisle. Alora was grateful for whatever defense mechanism directed her, steering her one foot in front of the other to find the inside of a private cabin. 

There, after the door slid shut behind her, she felt her own weight. A heaviness brought her down to the chair in the corner. As soon as she was seated the room began to spin. Alora became acutely aware of the sound of her own breath, the confines of the walls around her, and the gradual movement that carried them forth on their path. The urge to escape was all-consuming, an imperative she had to pursue. The Princess pushed herself up quickly, a faintness making her sway on her feet as she reached for the handle of the door– which wasn’t at all intuitive at first. After a series of wrong moves with trembling hands, tugging and pushing, she finally opened it.

There was no one in the elongated hall, no attendant at the ready to be at her beck and call. In her panic, she turned to the nearest door, knocking incessantly until a voice responded. Alora pushed her way inside, eyes falling on the King. Of all the doors . . . 

“We have to stop– I . . . I need to get out.” She announced around the lump in her throat, making her voice slight and wavering. “I can’t be in here– I need air.” Frantic and fearful eyes darted about, searching for a way out. The slightest movement caused her stomach to lurch. “ . . . Gods, I’m going to be ill.” She muttered as a fusion of dizziness and nausea overcame her. Leaning against the frame of the door she pressed a hand to her clammy head.

Xårełlęi at first lifted an eyebrow in response to Alora’s insistence through his chamber door, but her pale cheeks lit a spark of recognition and prompted him to action. Guiding her by the waist with his strength at the ready, the Princess was situated on the edge of his bed before she could possibly fall limp. He then knelt on his haunches in front of her, meeting her with level eyes as his height compensated for his bed’s elevated perch.

“Deep breaths, my dear,” Xårełlęi said as he demonstrated with his own, while his hands gestured the appropriate rhythm. “In… … and out. In… … and out.”

While Alora continued to collect herself, Xårełlęi tended to the air… condenser? Conditioner? Correcter?He couldn’t exactly recall what his engineers had labeled the device, but he knew his way around its dials and levers. Almost immediately, following the sound of a rumbling click, the heavy air of his chamber began to thin and cool.

The soundproof walls did well enough to muffle the sound of the engine’s pistons, but a lurch was felt below the king’s feet, indicating the departure of the flagship Steambreather.

Poor thing, the king thought as he prepared himself for potential requests from the Princess. His own experiences varied… from that bizarre, awful sensation of slipping forward, to his sense of balance being grotesquely tilted, to the overwhelming belief that the world was near its end…

“My physician calls them panic attacks,” Xårełlęi said aloud, as if to address an unasked question. “I suppose that rolls off the tongue a bit more elegantly than what my mother used to call them… terror tantrums.” Xårełlęi smirked softly as he recalled some distant memory from his childhood.

“She said that they ran within my bloodline, though her own episodes began after my father died, when I was just a little boy. My first ‘attack’ occurred as a young man, when a maiden placed her hand on my leg. We were alone in my quarters and… well… thinking back, I wasn’t ready.”

A thin film of condensation had coated the helmet of his armor, which stood like a watchful guardian upon a full-bodied mannequin. Absentmindedly, Xårełlęi drew his official signature, a glyph-like Xa with swift strokes of his finger, before allowing himself a brief sigh.

“I am the worst with women, I suppose.” He tried a smile towards Alora, expecting none in return.

“At any rate,” Xårełlęi said after clearing his throat, “I realize now that this voyage may be rather difficult for you. I’ll schedule a few stops with my captain so that you may have opportunities for air outside. I will also pull the platoon’s medic from horseback and station him in the empty cabin beside yours, so that he may assist you when necessary.”

The king then motioned towards the ceiling, where a wide, round skylight streamed a cylindrical beam of light onto his bed. “I’ve found that looking up to the sky helps as well. Should you decide to give that a try, don’t hesitate to pay me another visit. I’ll happily excuse myself and leave you in peace to steady yourself.”

The King waited on Alora for as long as she needed, then saw her out when she was ready. “You’ll make it,” he said encouragingly, and floated one last smile towards the Princess before gently shutting his door behind her.

“Remember, dear Alora… in… … and out,” Xårełlęi called through his chamber walls.

The evening came and went within the confines of the Steambreather, and Xårełlęi arranged to retire early. His candlelit reading was surprisingly interrupted by another knock at his door. A cloudless night peered through the skylight as he lifted himself from his armchair with a crack of his knees to answer his caller.

“My apologies, sir,” came the hesitant explanation of Colonel Blankenship, a slender, sturdy-looking man with a thin beard, gray eyes and spectacles. “But she insisted.”

“She?” Xårełlęi asked, expecting another frantic visit from Alora, but was instead greeted with the presence of Lady Natalia, revealed to him after the Colonel stepped aside.

“Ah yes,” Xårełlęi acknowledged. “She is certainly welcome to spend a night with me. Against the recommendation of Rolander, perhaps, but I certainly don’t see the harm with a night beside trusted company.”

Colonel Blankenship saluted his confirmation before allowing Natalia forward with extended arms. “Thank you,” she said with a slight nod before stepping inside the king’s cabin. Xårełlęi dismissed his colonel with a salute of his own before pulling himself away for the night.

Xårełlęi ‘s eyes settled upon Natalia, now making herself at home. She was wearing négligée that clung around her waist, with visible undergarments teasing their succulent wares. Without saying a word, Natalia spun around slowly, as if to showcase herself to a potential bidder. She then halted in place with a sultry smile and basked within her king’s longing gaze.

“My dear Natalia,” Xårełlęi mused with airy recollection, “you once offered yourself to me with a promise that I could enjoy you any way I pleased.”

Any way you please,” Natalia nodded intently, her voice an irresistible purr.

Xårełlęi pulled a welcome smile. “Good. I will hold you to that.” He then invited her with a gesture towards his bed. “Please undress and lay on your back,” he instructed. Natalia did as she was told without delay, and her thighs parted slightly in anticipation.

Xårełlęi moved to lay beside her, still wearing his nightly attire. His hand found their way to the nub between her legs and began to caress it with fluttery strokes. Squeaks and moans accompanied Natalia’s squirming legs, lifting and twisting as she rode the surf of sensation. Once the tide of ecstasy began its approach, Xårełlęi’s hand abruptly halted in place. Natalia’s ragged breath caught within her throat as her eyes opened in surprise, turning towards her king for explanation.

“You mustn’t,” Xårełlęi demanded, his voice firm, though still a whisper.

I mustn’t..?” The question was lifted above a desperate, fevered haze.

The smile on Xårełlęi’s face seemed to carry with it a stern warning. Natalia’s lips parted for further inquiry, but they were stilled with the placement of Xårełlęi’s index finger.

“Not with me. Not by yourself. Not ever.” His voice was still a coo, but there was a strange iciness to it… a tinge of seriousness that couldn’t be ignored.

“Fight against it with all your might,” Xårełlęi continued. “For if you succumb… if you ever succumb… you and your kingdom shall be severely punished.”

There was enough emphasis in his words to convey the intended gravity. Natalia’s eyes widened with a grim recognition, and a tremor quaked across her thighs.

Xårełlęi continued to roam and play, his mischievous fingertips slick with purpose, tickling and teasing. Natalia teetered on the agonizing edge of ecstasy for an hour or more, biting her lip, panting her pleas. Her moans rose and fell like aching waves denied their foamy crest.

Finally, inevitably, Xårełlęi surrendered to his pulsing urges. He withdrew his hand to yank his pants to his knees and rolled onto Natalia, sliding himself inside her with a fervent thrust. He lasted but a few moments before groaning his spasmic delight against her ear.

Not ever, he reminded Natalia once his blissful fog had lifted, wet lips against her earlobe. The finality was as potent as the threads of seed now deep within her.

That night, as Natalia shuddered and whimpered beside him, Xårełlęi enjoyed his best sleep in years.

The journey to Ronah proved itself uneventful. There were the scheduled stops in which Xårełlęi partook, indulging in brief excursions towards the nearby Shanthora river to fish and bathe. Daily meals were had in a rather cramped dining room towards the head of the, though the food was exquisitely prepared by a master chef who gathered exotic ingredients from the flanking forest.

Lady Natalia was as chatty and affable as always, but a closer examination might have revealed her flirtations to be a bit more… subdued. She still visited the king in his quarters on a nightly basis, but the soft reluctance was certainly noticeable to prying eyes. One particular evening was punctuated by her frenzied cries, possibly heard through the reinforced chamber walls.

Please, my king… I swear it… I swear to the Gods I didn’t!..”


Scattered remnants of loggers within the woodland’s edge offered the first hints of Ronah’s approach. The sight of a distant moat pushed the horseback solders ahead to secure the drawbridge and ready it for the arrival of the rumbling Steambreather. In the end it proved an adequate platform, though the creaks and moans of weathered planks caused a bit of sweat-trickled uncertainty upon watchful brows.

From there, the Steambreather made its grand entrance through the main road of Ronah’s broad municipality. Townsfolk, mostly fisherman, gathered at the road’s edge to watch the mechanical beast rumble past, made of what looked to be wood but most certainly wasn’t… its chassis was made of something beyond wood. Beyond anything they had seen in their lives, quite honestly. The chatter was prevalent, with points of fingers and stares of disbelieving eyes. Occasionally, an unwitting spectator stepped too close and would be yanked back by a roaming horseback soldier yelling a stern warning.

Onyx road led past the town and carved through a grassy plain like a part of hair. The sight of Ronah castle pulled over the horizon, with another residential crest built around its edge, presumable housing for dignitaries and soldiers. Finally, they would approach a smaller moat, bridged by a thin piece of land, where the first contact with Ronah’s kingsguard was made. A platoon’s worth had assembled to greet them, directing instructions towards the horses that weaved and trotted around their giant, wheeled host. The Steambreather grumbled to a stop, and its silence announced a journey’s end.


Chancellor Onyx had obviously been anticipating the arrival of his guests. His revelation came not long after Xårełlęi and his escorts had disembarked and savored the almost forgotten feeling of soft earth below their feet. He was a bald, pale man of average height with a noticeable belly peeking through his dragging, jet black robe… a stark sight against the green of a nearby tree, whose leaves had grown warm with the evening’s arrival.

An escort of four female servants stood silently behind him, hands clasped just below their waists. They too wore black attire that resembled bell-shaped voids against the light of day, with exotic hairstyles and thick, vibrant colors of eyeliner being the only distinguishing features between them.

“Welcome… welcome, dear king!” The Chancellor’s arms were opened wide as he approached Xårełlęi. Their embrace was brief before the king stepped back and offered a salute, prompting the enthusiastic Chancellor to do the same.

The Chancellor’s gaze wandered briefly and settled on the pair of Alora and Natalia, pulling an even broader smile on his face before turning his attention once again to the king.

“Come inside, come… ! Let us chat! We have much to discuss!” Onyx’s gregarious wave beckoned Xårełlęi’s party through the series of archways that led into the castle.

The exterior appearance of Ronah castle was not unlike the castle of Ŝhanthah, with its block foundation and selective greenery. Inside Ronah’s royal hall, however, the differences were almost appalling. On either side of the grand foyer were tall statues of mythical beasts, perched upon ribbed columns with scathing, downward glares. There were stained glass windows with muted colors, illustrating scenes of slaughter and mayhem with the occasional Ronah emblem situated above.

A statue of a lunging huntress, or perhaps a demoness floated overhead, suspended by thick wires… casting harsh, angular shadows over Ronah’s throne. Both her muscular arms were extended with daggers in hand, and fangs jutted from the bottom of her mouth, clasping a tree branch with batches of leaves on either side. Her skin was the texture of leather, and thin plates of armor protected her core and thighs.

Onyx sat himself upon the throne with a graceless plop before resting his hands upon his knees, looking like an attentive uncle to the guests that stood before him. Looking closely upon Onyx’s robe, one could see a skull pattern that glittered like mica against the orange glow of the wall lanterns. There was also the peculiar realization that the Chancellor wasn’t exactly pale… he was simply wearing makeup.

Between the pair of rulers, even with Onyx upon his royal seat, Xårełlęi seemed the more imposing, standing broad and tall in his suit of armor with his hands tucked behind his back. Their eyesights were level despite the shallow staircase upon which the throne was situated. A cursory glance of the strange statues preceded Xårełlęi’s first words within Ronah’s striking hallway.

“Well, it looks like you’ve made yourself quite at home,” he remarked with a brisk laugh. “I wasn’t expecting such… interesting decor when you were ordained to preside over Ronah’s territories.”

“Oh dear,” Chancellor Onyx said through a genuine look of concern. “Does my particular choice of aesthetic disturb you, my king?”

“No, no,” Xårełlęi said reassuringly. “Just a surprise, is all. I’m sure its charm will win me over in time.” A polite smile followed.

Onyx returned the smile. “Very good. I do realize my tastes may be… jarring to some.” He seemed to settle upon his throne, and crossed his legs casually.

“You’re of course welcome to stay in Ronah for as long as you please. I received word that your visit carries with it a purpose towards some sort of… public awareness campaign?”

“As a matter of fact,” Xårełlęi confirmed, “I was hoping that you could help me to arrange something along those lines.”

“Oh? And what might that be?” Onyx leaned forward in his throne with interest.

“Well, I haven’t ironed out the particulars in my mind, but… a Grand Council,” Xårełlęi explained as he thought aloud. “Open to anyone with can attend. Ronah has clearly seen major benefits with its quality of life since my arrival. Those with testimonies can come forward and detail just how their lives has improved to an audience ready and willing to scrutinize.”

Onyx mulled on the idea for a long moment. “There will very likely be dissenting opinions as well…” he remarked with an air of caution.

“Oh, I anticipate those, most certainly. But I am rigidly certain that they will be drowned out by those who would speak otherwise.”

Onyx continued to dwell on the proposal as Xårełlęi plucked at the ideas swimming in his mind.

“Questions can be asked without fear of consequence. Concerns can be put to rest. Transition is often difficult and unsettling, but a chorus of confidence and positivity will help to solidify Ronah under my rule, and place my conquest within the proper perspective.

“And also,” Xårełlęi concluded, “their testimonies can be transcribed and transmitted across a variety of mediums, and possibly put at ease the kingdoms yet to be graced underneath my benevolent umbrella.”

“Yes… yes, of course…” Onyx’s enthusiasm seemed to blossom the more he heard from Xårełlęi, and before long he gleefully clapped his hands together.

“Food and festivities would add to its appeal,” Onyx offered for consideration. “Merchants selling their wares, perhaps with discounts, made whole by Ronah’s treasury. Musicians and other forms of entertainment could be available as well–“

“In moderation,” Xårełlęi advised with a lift of his finger. “We wouldn’t want to undermine the primary purpose of the gathering.”

“Certainly, without question. Will you be attending?” Onyx asked with curiosity.

“Center stage,” Xårełlęi answered with a smile.

“Very good,” Onyx declared with satisfaction. “We will schedule the Grand Council for the upcoming day of rest, and begin arrangements immediately. Does that suit you, my king?”

“Yes indeed,” Xårełlęi said with a childlike whimsy.

“Excellent. In the meantime, make yourselves at home in Ronah. You are invited to join my dignitaries for dinner at the royal dining hall if you wish. If you’d rather rest this evening, my loyal servants will tend to any and all of your needs.”

“Your generosity is greatly appreciated,” Xårełlęi said with a slight bow. “I believe my escorts and I will see ourselves to our rooms, and determine from there what our evening plans will be.”

With that, Onyx stood to bow his dismissal, and the king returned the favor.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Ronah’s township, two cloaked figures met against the trunk of a large rooska tree, lit only by slivers of moonlight through the curtains of leafy shadows above.

There was a brief exchange of acknowledgment before the taller of the pair would speak.

“Xårełlęi is a problem,” a male voice stated, rich and baritone.

“Indeed he is.” The other voice was distinctly feminine but exuded leadership. “Shall we kill him?”

There was a moment of consideration. “No… we’ll postpone that particular solution. His entourage is immensely loyal, so there is not much to gain politically.”

The cloaked woman nodded, and reached into a pocket to pull out a sealed letter.

“Very well. In the meantime, hand this to the appropriate parties to move forward with our original plan. And please… for the sake of the Gods, have them burn it in your presence once they’ve memorized their instructions.”

“Of course.” The tall, deep-voiced man pocketed the letter securely within his cloak. With that brief exchange, the pair parted as quickly as they had gathered.

On the envelope, pressed into the wax seal, was the stamp of the Onyx.

Compliant as he took her arm, she allowed him to lead her away from the frame of the door that caught her while she battled lightheadedness. A swift rescue migrated her to the bed where she was safe from the danger of a nasty fall. Though the world spun like a topsy-turvy carousel her focus was trained on the Conqueror, still in her sights while all else was blurred and amorphous. Her dilated gaze met his intently while she struggled to mimic the rhythm of the deep, slow breaths he drew. A tight chest made her lungs feel small, full before they could expand to their potential and empty too soon, but persistent efforts gradually granted her some relief. Rapid and shallow breaths became more even, without the tremors of a strangled throat. With every inhale and exhale she felt herself calm, relief from the constriction of fear and dread bringing clarity to irrational thoughts. Her life was not in danger, nor was she at risk of harm within the confines of the metal beast. With that realization her body relaxed, hands and heart steadying little by little. 

As Xarellei rose to tinker with the strange devices within the cabin, she began to feel silly, like a child who had conjured a monster the image of a monster beneath their bed. Embarrassment brought some color to a once pallid complexion, a soft rose hue tinting her cheeks while she began to wonder what came over her. Light was shed on her sudden ailment when he spoke next, referring to the abrupt sickness as a “panic attack.” It was, indeed, a fitting name. While he filled in the silence with talk of his history with the condition, she was eased by the cool circulation that finally reached her, soothing her skin with cold caresses. 

Despite his hopeless assumption, she found her lips curling into a soft smile. Its natural brilliance was suppressed by fatigue, making it appear somewhat half-hearted but it was more genuine than she intended. Appreciation for his care and consideration made it easier to accept his gestures, preventing her from mischaracterizing sincerity for attempts at manipulation. Rather than a wall of cold indifference, there was some warmth as he offered her generous accommodation for the journey. Alora ignored the urge to reject comfort and protest to thoughtful measures, deciding to take advantage of them for her own sake throughout the journey. 

“Thank you . . .” She said, a ring of honest gratefulness in her tone as he allowed her the room. Further collecting herself, she reflected on his kindness– not solely isolated to the sudden onset of her panic. He had been insistent on her compliance, forcing her to be company at painfully quiet meals and into his bed in hopes of her affection, she supposed. Alora always colored his motivations with dark intent, but as reluctant as she was to admit, there was some decency in him. While she wouldn’t go as far as to applaud him for possessing basic morals, the belief that he was completely without them was becoming more and more difficult to hold onto. 

The Princess took a few moments to compose herself before she stood, testing her balance and stability with cautious steps forward. Upon reaching the door, she peered out into the hall, the Conqueror waiting there as promised.

“My gratitude once again, Your Highness.” Alora offered him her best bow in the narrow space. “I did not mean to intrude and burden you with my condition, but I am glad for your assistance . . . I’ll take more rest in my chambers.” The hard edges of her demeanor that were often so prickly were softer now as she addressed him. She excused herself, traveling the short distance from his door to her own to seek the comfort of her own bed. 

The coming days were easier. She was used to the cadence of hooves, hearing their footfalls thudding and clacking against the earth to pull along carriages and caravans. Uneven paths jostled even the sturdiest of cars made by the finest craftsmen, but the armored vehicle they traveled in was a steadier ride. The hum of its mechanics faded into the background eventually, and the smooth, continuous roll was less noticeable. A spacious interior granted more comfort and mobility, affording its occupants the luxury of small amenities. Even she had to acknowledge the benefits of conveniences that allowed them to enjoy hot meals and a restful night’s sleep, warmth and protection from the elements. Still, she was wary of it, an unhealthy caution occasionally fueling smaller episodes of panic she did well to contain. It helped to keep her mind off of weapons and the immense bloodshed they could cause. 

The Princess found escape and distraction in books, and kept her hands busy with the finer details of embroidery projects. On stops to maintain their metal monstrosities, she explored the lush, green forests under the careful watch of soldiers, gathering flowers to press or simply to brighten her room. When not off on her own in silent alcoves, she enjoyed tea and conversation with Lady Natalia, who was lackluster at times. Her usual vibrance seemed to depend on the day, as did her patience. Like a string wound too tight, even the slightest inconvenience made her liable to snap. Alora assumed that the trip was taking its toll on her, the wonderment of the marvels she admired no longer sparkling as they once did. Her interest was fleeting and fickle when it came to their activities, poetry, stories, and puzzles unable to stimulate her mind or hold her attention. Even her pursuit of the King had less enthusiasm, though she attributed that to security. With no competition, there was little reason to flaunt her affection or favor . . . Or, so she thought. 

Alora was awake, her back resting against the headboard of her bed with a book in her lap while she waited for the pull of slumber. The nights were often quiet save for the persistent purr of their mechanical carriage, but muffled sounds disturbed the silence. It was not the casual carry of voices in conversation, the distress too prominent to dismiss. She pushed herself up, undoing the latch of her lock to slide the door open. Her ears were greeted not by distress, though it was easy to mistake the cries of pleasure for torment. Had Lady Natalia not been so eager to please, she might have suspected something more nefarious, perhaps intervened in feigned curiosity and concern to spare her whatever cruel torture she endured. Instead, she stepped back into her room, away from the impassioned pleas so that her door could reduce them to faint, indiscernible noise. 

At breakfast the Lady of Leviatha appeared tired, despite a pleasant smile concealing tension so taut it was thin as a web.

Stepping off the metal beast and onto Ronah’s land, she took in the kingdom. It wasn’t unlike any other thriving territory at first glance. Alora expected something otherworldly, more unknown materials and gadgetry indicative of King Xarellei’s mark. Of course, she was not disappointed. In fact, it was somewhat of a relief that he did not see fit to transform it into something completely unfamiliar. She hoped it would make all that she came to know more digestible, just as it had with the dark, robed individuals that welcomed them enthusiastically– none more eager than the Chancellor to express just how pleased he was to host their visit. If the rulers and people of Ronah had ever been opposed to their new leadership, there were no traces of hidden animosity that she could tell as he waved them along, leading them into the castle.

The exterior was well-maintained but unfussy, while the interior was nothing short of gaudy. Alora did well to mask her repulsion for awe as they passed garish works of art– if one could call them that– and tasteless sculptures. Depictions of battle were a prominent theme in the halls of the castle, one more bloody and disturbing than the next. It was a wonder how anyone could consider it a home when surrounded with such unsettling imagery. Though she realized culture varied from kingdom to kingdom, it was difficult to tell how much of the decor was peacockery and intimidation, the ostentatious appearance of fearsomeness for the sake of theater. As she stood alongside Lady Natalia in the grand hall, staring upon perhaps the most curious of displays. While the men spoke, she wondered if there was a story behind the suspended demon warrior, or if there was any symbolism in her pose or the tree she was fixed to. 

Alora only managed to tear her gaze away from the peculiar fixture upon hearing that there would be a Grand Council, a meeting of inquiry with festivities intertwined. She did not miss the twinkle in the Chancellor’s eyes as he seemed to dream up more hideous decor to horrify his guests with. He was clearly a man who knew nothing of the moderation Xarellei spoke of, but it was decided; an event for testimony to validate claims of prosperity. 

“It is, quite possibly, the most awful thing I have ever seen,” Lady Natalia whispered. The door to The Princess’ temporary quarters were closed, but they were both careful to mind their voices as there was always the possibility that prying ears might catch their words floating on the air. 

“Indeed, it is.” Alora nodded, staring at a small but unsightly statue by the hearth. In the dark, but opulent room, it was not out of place. Among the thick, black bedding with silver embellishment woven into overly intricate patterns, and ornate furniture painstakingly carved to elaborate perfection, the gargoyle perched by the mantle was an appropriate touch. It matched the abstract paintings of a smoky abyss, where faces in anguish could be made out upon closer inspection.
“If it is any consolation, my chambers are no better.” She offered, suppressing an amused smile while she stroked the ends of her rich, brown hair. 

“Well, you need not worry about your own chambers. I’m sure you’ll spend very little time there.” The Princess quipped, a subdued smile of her own hanging on her lips before she caught a flicker of something flit across her features. “My apologies. That was in poor taste. I didn’t mean to imply–”

“It’s not that. It’s . . .” Apprehension or caution made her pause, an internal struggle causing her to think better of divulging the intimate details of her time with the King. “It’s nothing. I should be getting to bed. My own bed, I’ll have you know.” Lady Natalia gave her a playful swat. “I have been overwhelmed by all of this.” Her hands gave a vague gesture to their surroundings as the warmth of her smile returned. 

“I am as well.” Alora laughed softly, conceding if only to spare her trouble. “Good night.” She bid her farewell for the evening, watching as she traversed the broad hall to room across from her own. Hopeful that she was not ignoring anything cruel, she closed the door after a lingering stare of concern. The Princess tugged at the sash about her petite waist, letting the tie come undone so that she could shrug the evergreen velvet from her form. Though she thought to hang it over the ghastly gargoyle, she decided against it. If ash should leap from the crackling fire it could see to it that her room went up in flames. As she slipped between the blankets and rested her crown of blonde tresses on the pillow, she smiled at the idea that it might not be so bad if the ugly chambers burned. 

The hour was late. All the candlelight had dwindled and the scent of their burn had dissipated. Even the fire was nothing but glowing embers and coals, their hot radiance the only source of light that remained. Alora had gotten used to sleeping with the whitenoise of an engine, and every sound seemed to pluck at the strings of her consciousness; footsteps outside her door from patrolling guards, the shuffle of servants, and the breaths of an old castle settling. She was able to ease into the embrace of sleep easily enough, but a more deliberate noise made her open her eyes. 

“Princess . . .”

She thought she dreamed it at first. As she pushed herself up, bright orbs scanning the darkness that clung to the deep recesses of the room, she waited. Minutes passed before she nearly convinced herself that a wild imagination had invented false whispers that called to her. But, another breath beckoned her, sending a chill rippling down her spine. 

“Princess . . .”

It was her first instinct to hurry to the door, summon the guards to come to her defense. As soon as her foot came down upon the floor, she hesitated. 

”Do not fear. We are here to help you.” The words were so faint she did trust that she heard it right. Though all her good sense urged her to dismiss the disembodied voice, she stilled. In the silence she tried to pinpoint its origin, and when it spoke to her again she was certain . . . It was coming from the statue. 

”Do not fear. We are here to help you.” It repeated, the even inflection of its tone unchanging from the first utterance to the last. 

Alora left the warmth of her bed, slowly gravitating toward the mantle where it rested. She felt foolish contemplating her response to an inanimate object, but from what she gathered it was, indeed, designed for communication. It’s open mouth, between rows of sharpened fangs, was a small opening at the back of its throat; tiny perforations that allowed sound to travel through it. 

“ . . . How?” She asked finally, her voice so low she wasn’t certain if her message managed to flow through. The long stretch of silence made her wonder if she should repeat herself. 

”Burn it, behind the frame.” It said, cryptically. 

For a moment she waited, so confused that she was sure there had to be more. “I don’t understand.” She muttered, more to herself than to the talking gargoyle. Alora repeated the mysterious message over again in her head, puzzling together its meaning as she moved toward one of the paintings that hung on the walls. Lifting their corner to peek behind them, there was nothing until she came upon a picture sitting on a side table near an armchair. She took it apart quietly, finding a note within it. Putting it back together, she rested it on the table, trying to recall its placement. 

In the darkness of her room she couldn’t quite make out the red letters. Alora had to stoke the fire back to life as best she could before she could read it. 

When we strike on the day of rest, you will come with us. Know us by the color of the letter, and fear not.

As the voice instructed, she let the low flames eat away at the parchment, watching it burn to cinders . . .

The last night aboard the Steambreather, Xårełlęi was tending to a naked Natalia with his tongue as she writhed and squirmed, gulping back moans that rose like bubbles within her throat. Perhaps inevitably, her self-imposed discipline broke with a muffled whine and an arched back, nudged over the edge by a cruelly aware flick. She quickly realized her grave lapse with a lift of her neck from her pillow, and found her king’s stern, accusatory eyes below her waist.

“Oh no… oh no no no…NO!

Natalia’s head plopped back onto Xårełlęi’s bed with hopeless disgust and awaited his inevitable declaration.

“We shall discuss your punishment after we’ve returned to Ŝhanthah castle,” Xårełlęi decided aloud, as a dispassionate judge might deliver a verdict.

The whimpers of disappointment and exhaustion petered away after a time, freeing Natalia to pluck a final appeal from her lips.

“I beg of you… grant mercy upon me…”

Xårełlęi said nothing to Natalia’s plea. Instead he would lift and maneuver himself upward until their gazes were coiled and his bulge nestled perfectly between her parted thighs. The king’s weight pinned his muse in place as his mouth descended, and they kissed…

…kissed desperately, with muzzled breaths and tethered tongues…

Eventually and regretfully, Xårełlęi withdrew with an emphasized tug of her bottom lip, his locked arms propping a downward gaze. The mixture of lust and despair he would see spread across Natalia’s face was delicious.

There is delight in absolute control, he thought to himself, an enlightened note to a splendid evening.

A segregated portion of Ronah castle provided an amount of privacy to Xårełlęi and his companions, with ease of entry and exit through a bordering garden reserved for their own enjoyment. A lone soldier was stationed at a checkpoint that led into town, typically the trusted Colonel Blankenship or one of his lieutenants, and their attention towards dampening the bustle around the King’s arrival was duly appreciated.

Nothing aloud was said about the King’s tasteless accommodations. The chamber was spacious, the bed wide and blankets soft, but its appearance was loathsome. Black was everywhere, with occasional tints and silvery embellishments providing their pathetic attempts at consolation. A bust of what could only be described as a screaming soul was promptly removed by Colonel Blankenship upon request.


The King was studying his reflection upon a dresser mirror as his armor provided its silent opinion upon a nearby display stand. Dabs of gold dye methodically weaved their way through Xårełlęi’s damp hair, eventually lifting it to an amber shade. His stained glove was then discarded, freeing his hand to claim a pair of chocolate-tinted contact lenses. With some careful application and cooperative eyelids, he would find they did a fair enough job of disguising his recognizable indigo irises.

“I suppose this will do,” he said to himself with a consolatory shrug.

Under normal circumstances, the king would be too preoccupied for the stunt he once attempted regularly as a young man. The Grand Council was three days away with preparations in motion, and his participation required a number of recitals and rehearsals. Princess Alora tended to her own due diligence, with the occasional intersection offering casual conversations and lighthearted complaints. She seemed in a better mood since their departure from Ŝhanthah castle, but the King could never be quite sure.

And then there was Lady Natalia, once presented to him as a delectable dish might be presented without utensils. He initially was at a loss towards how to enjoy the alluring woman who dedicated herself to his pleasure, but experimentation wasn’t a foreign agent in his mind… it had aided him in war, and was now expanding the thresholds of his lust. It didn’t go unnoticed that there were slight circles under Natalia’s eyes, indicating a lack of sleep to the King. The sympathetic remorse was always there in his mind, as a riverbed of rocks might be seen despite the murky waters, but his cravings for domination simply drowned them out.

In fact, the King simply couldn’t help himself… the perpetual desperation he wrought upon the Lady from Leviatha was quickly becoming his favorite diversion. It had revitalized him in ways he couldn’t have expected, and initiated his current desire to revisit past habits.

The King donned his dark cloak and briskly departed from his room to push through the blooming garden. Colonel Blankenship had been forewarned at the checkpoint and offered no salute as Xårełlęi slipped out into the dusk-filled night.

Ronah’s town square was alive with lanterns burning bright upon streams of passersby. Xårełlęi ignored the invitations of lively bars and roadside musicians and kept moving towards the water’s horizon in the distance. Onyx road presented numerous opportunities to hone his skills towards a variety of greetings, including nods, hand waves and grumbled hello theres.

The King eventually found himself at a large pier. He would see living shadows minding their boats and nets along creaking wooden planks. There was moonlight, but it wasn’t sharp, perhaps a sliver’s worth offering little more than dim contours. The smell of salt and seafoam was prevalent, flaring the king’s nostrils several times with snorts of disdain.

A nearby tavern was built against a shallow cliff’s edge, soliciting onlookers with its lively murmur and bright-orange windows. A wooden sign lit by a pair of adjacent torches read: The Inn and Din. After a moment’s reluctance, Xårełlęi pushed his inhibitions aside and made his entrance through the swinging doors.

The rambunctious saloon seemed to shove its pestering energy as a drunk piano player pounded out clumsy tunes while a crowd danced and cheered around him. The crescendo verse of a limerick greeted Xårełlęi’s arrival with unabashed blatancy as his cloak was pulled back to reveal his unassuming face.

“In between a harlot’s legs lies the sweetest succor, but a look upon her morning face and you’ll wish you hadn’t fucked’er!”

Claps and laughter followed suit before the piano player fielded another round of requests.

From the looks of things across the tavern, fishermen were plenty and maidens were few. A wide-hipped, large-bosomed woman flirtatiously twirled her red hair as she roamed the crowds with an apparent hunger for attention. Her curious glance fell upon the King’s eyes, and he was quick to rip his gaze away before the exchange escalated further.

The mouthwatering smell of fish frying wafted through the air as he took a random seat at the bar. I suppose this will do as my adventure for the night, the King silently mused.

It wasn’t long until his presence was acknowledged. “What’ll have yuh?” came the question of a broad-shouldered, sun-speckled bartender wearing a server’s cap and a sleeveless shirt.

“Whiskey, neat.” Xårełlęi set a small silver coin on the table, which was clenched into a chafed palm before the apparent bartender sauntered off with a grunt.

The King allowed himself to soak the atmosphere for a few silent moments, until he was suddenly surprised by a voice beside him. “Hullo, gawjus,” the red-haired, well-endowed woman said, obviously drunk with the smell of her breath and slur of her words. Her lean across the bar table exposed a portion of her breast that delved near her nipple, with the loose drape of a dress strap speaking freely of its intentions.

“Hello there,” Xårełlęi returned with a polite smile. His drink arrived and was promptly lifted in a toast-like greeting.

“Ah saw yuh when yuh came en,” the woman said through a wink. “Tawl fellas lak you dun cum round hur much. Ef yah wanted t’guh upstairs…”

The smirk that sifted upon his face expressed its clear disbelief. Memories of past entanglements and experiments flooded his mind. After a moment’s consideration, his decision was made.

“Well, I won’t fuck you,” Xårełlęi stoutly expressed, evidently enjoying his participation in the colorful language flowing through the tavern. “But you can do what you wish with my neck.” With a maneuver of his arm, he draped his cloak across his shoulder, exposing his profile as an invitation.

The woman narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow while drifting back slightly. “The hell yeh pullin’? Wah would ah want atcher neck?”

The king then planted a pair of gold coins the table before the woman. “I’ll sweeten the deal. Enjoy my neck and whatever you wish afterwards.”

There was a moment of hesitation before a broad grin spread across the woman’s face. “Wellum yes, I do beluv eh’ll take yeh up on that.” She wasted no time planting bites and spongy licks along his ropey tendons. The occasional twitch of the king’s cheek was evident when the red-haired flirt nibbled at his ear, an apparent weakness of his. There was an attempt at his lips, which was resisted and eventually abandoned.

Through the occasional slurping sound, Xårełlęi focused his attention on the chatter around him, and a nearby conversation between the patrons of several dining tables piqued his interest.

“What was with that giant, rolling dong, aye?” A tanned, burly fisherman floated the question as a starter.

“Xårełlęi was in it,” someone explained. “He and two Princesses, aye.”

“Who? Spaghetti, you say?”

Xå-rełl-ęi,” a gaunt, tattooed sailor enunciated as example.

“The hell kind of name is that?”

“Same fella’s supposed to be our king,” called someone within a sheet of shadow against the back wall. “D’jor dumbass think it was really Onyx who ran the show here?”

The portly fisherman shrugged. “Onyx road, Onyx auditorium, Onyx toilet seats…”

“This Onyx fuck is something else,” chortled a younger man with a stained apron, perhaps a server on his break.

“Full of oxshit, if you ask me,” Xårełlęi chimed, blending seamlessly with the chatter while earning a few laughs.

“Oh come off it,” came the opinion of a relatively well-dressed traveler. “Things’re shit before Oxshit and Spaghetti, and things’re shit today. At least now we have decent business.”

“Cheaper taxes, crikey,” someone declared in relief.

“And they leave us the fuck alone,” arrived another remark, reinforcing the sentiment.

Xårełlęi couldn’t help but smile. Alone you might think to be, though there’s eyes about that you can’t see. A fitting limerick to sing alongside the obnoxious piano, he thought.

At some point, Xårełlęi felt the dead weight of the rambling chatter. His neck withdrew from the red-haired woman’s attentions with a wet smack, and he turned to coil his gaze upon hers.

“We’re finished here. But, thank you,” he said with a strange sincerity, and planted a peck upon her forehead while cupping her soft cheeks.

The fiery-haired damsel with enticing breasts pulled a pouted look. “Well ah see you agun, stranger?”

“No,” Xårełlęi said definitively, “but be sure to attend the Grand Council. Mayhap you’ll recognize someone there.”

The redhead titled her head as Xårełlęi left the tavern, but not before leaving a gold coin as a tip.


His return on Onyx road was interrupted by the sight of a sign that was legible even through the persistent dark. Scrawled with bold yellow letters upon a wooden display read: SOOTHSAYER. Below it in smaller words read, 2 PENCE.

Ahead of the sign was a short path up a grassy mound leading to a brightly lit shanty. The soothsayer was obviously open for business.

Why the hell not, Xårełlęi smiled to himself. Two pence for a bit of fun to round things off.

He walked the slight incline towards the shanty, where the smell of incense became prominent. A pair of curtains constituted a doorway, which were parted for his entry.

Inside he would see an older woman at a table with mahogany eyes and thin facial features. Her golden brown hair was done up in a bun, with the occasional spider’s leg of gray coursing this way or that. A modest dress presented its pastel pattern of flowers, hung upon bony shoulders flaked with sunburn. Numerous jars of powders and liquids held steady around the shanty’s walls with shoddy shelfwork. Xårełlęi would accidentally kick a metallic can full of incense sticks, alerting the soothsayer to attention.

“Well hello there!” came her enthusiastic greeting as she shuffled a deck of cards. “Mayhap a reading for your troubles?”

Xårełlęi eyes roamed briefly before his response. “Most certainly,” he said while laying three pence on the table before the soothsayer. She nodded at the offering, but remained focused on the cards between her active hands.

Welllllll then! Let’s see what we have here before me! Gods bestow truth upon my still ears!” The woman plucked a card and planted it on the table, revealing an illustration of a jackrabbit.

“Huh! Interesting!” The soothsayer looked to ponder as Xårełlęi took a seat, thinking all while that he had already wasted his time.

“Well, well, well…” the woman seemed to settle on something, and then she spoke.

“I wasn’t expecting a visit from youmy king.”

Xårełlęi’s back stiffened. “What did you say?”

A cackling laugh left the soothsayer’s lips as her head cocked. “Believe in my powers now, do yeh? Dun worry, I won’t tell a soul.” A wrinkled finger pressed against her lips as she shushed a sound.

The wide-eyed King stood from his seat and shifted towards the door. “I should be off…

“Oh, enough of that,” the soothsayer quacked. “You were generous with your fee, now allow me the honor to assist a king. I promise to be quick…” she added with a wink.

Xårełlęi held in place as the soothsayer hummed to herself while deciding upon another card. The contoured drawing of a bear finally made itself known.

“Trying times ahead, though not necessarily dark,” the soothsayer reported after a focused furrow of her brow. “Conflict and resolution. All the while, a choice.”

“A choice?” Xårełlęi’s curiosity pulled ahead of his shock.

“Between the flames of passion within you, it seems.” Another card was presented depicting a pair of entwined snakes.

There was a weighted hesitation before he spoke. “I choose Alora,” he said to the woman, almost unconsciously.

“Do yeh now?” the woman cackled. “Well, I don’t know who this Alora is, but if she is to be yours in the way you’d care to have her, sacrifices must be made.”

Another pause. “What sacrifices?”

The soothsayer pulled a perceptive smile. “You know. Now off ye be, my king.”

With that, Xårełlęi’s thoughts held heavy as he exited the strongly-scented shanty.

Xårełlęi approached his quarters with his cloak pulled taut and his head hung low, attempting his very best at discretion. The King had just graced the shadow of his doorframe before he was ruthlessly yanked from his introspections.

“Evening, King Xårełlęi,” came a chorused greeting from behind him, startling his body’s hairs to attention. His eyes turned to find the Chancellor’s four servants standing side-by-side, dressed exactly alike with flowing black robes, save for their variety of eyeliners. Red, blue, yellow, and green. Each face was heavy with white makeup alongside negligible differences in their shades and styles of hair.

Before Xårełlęi could lift his voice to intervene, the introductions came in a wave.

“My name is Nah,” said the first.

“I’m Nana,” the second declared.

“You can call me Nih,” perked the third.

“Nini is me!” squealed the fourth.

Xårełlęi’s jaw was agape before he responded to the madness before him. “Very good,” he mustered out wearily. “How may I help you this evening?”

“We were sent here to help you,” one of the four said.

“Any help at all,” said another, alongside a suggestive a wink.

Something within Xårełlęi seemed to boil over. “Why do women keep throwing themselves as me!” he nearly yelled with rising exasperation.

The four attendants looked at each other with concern before humbly bowing their heads. “We apologize,” they said in unison.

“It’s fine,” Xårełlęi said hurriedly to deaden his outburst. “I was just… trying to keep my little excursion a secret. Stealth doesn’t seem to be my strongest—”

“We can help with stealth,” interrupted the blue attendant.

“Oh really?” Xårełlęi scoffed impatiently. “You can help me move about Ronah’s gods-forsaken town without being recognized?”

“We most certainly can,” came a voice from inside his chambers, twirling Xårełlęi on the hinge of his waist with wide-eyed shock.

“How in god’s name did you get behind me?!”

“We have our ways,” the green attendant said with a devilish curl of her lips. A pull of her cloak revealed a belted dagger not as a threat, but as a proposition.

The King’s whirlwind of thoughts began to settle, sifting an idea to the surface of his mind.

“I have a better task for you,” Xårełlęi announced to the four pests. “Each of you are to keep a close eye on Alora and Natalia. Report to me anything that seems out of place, anything suspicious. Keep yourselves far from sight, and refrain from informing the Chancellor as well. I will be the one to relay anynews of interest to him.”

“Understood, my King,” came the concert of acknowledgment. “Will there be anything else?”

“You’ll likewise be assigned duties during the Grand Council ahead.” The King folded his arms and shifted his weight onto his hip, appearing to relax. “Prove yourselves well, and you’ll be rewarded. Now allow me to be free of you, for I am exhausted.”

The four spies departed without another word, and Xårełlęi savored the feeling of shutting his door from the world, if only for a night.

The weather was fair, a cloudless azure sky unobstructing the gentle rays of a kind sun. The beams that it cast down did not generate a harsh heat, making the conditions of the outdoors a pleasant escape from the dark and hideous interior of the castle. Beautiful as the garden was, it was still not without touches of horrid decoration. Among radiant blooms and lush greenery were stone figures with claws and wings, fangs and tails. It was a more palatable juxtaposition than the carvings inside, which were surrounded by more violent and gloomy depictions of battle and calamity. While they had not completely escaped the reaches of grim, depressing decor, the well-groomed grounds proved to be a much needed respite as it uplifted their mood and offered the privacy to speak more freely. 

“You have been our company for quite a while now, Lady Natalia. Do you not miss your home?” The Princess was admiring bright, yellow florals, their scent carrying a subtle sweetness that she quite enjoyed. 

“Why do you ask? Are you trying to get rid of me?” She quipped, glancing over her shoulder toward the pale haired Princess with a teasing grin. 

“Not at all. If I’m being honest, I enjoy your company. It has been nice having someone to talk to.” At first, she considered the Lady of Leviatha a distraction, a shiny diversion to avoid unwanted attention. Though she was wary of her aggressive pursuit of the King, how her eagerness to please might cause her to act unkindly or duplicitously, she found her to be a wonderful companion. Like the flowers that obscured the garish sculptures, she knew that her claws and teeth were still there, but unprovoked she was harmless– and she didn’t plan to give her any reason to bare them. “I consider you a friend.” Alora admitted, meeting Natalia’s soft expression with a warm smile. 

“I’m truly touched. Since we are being honest with one another,” the brunette reached for the Princess’ arm, linking it with her own to continue their stroll through the garden. “I thought that I wouldn’t get along as well as we do. As you know, I was brought to Shantha as an offering to King Xarellei as a show of peace and goodwill primarily. I was under the assumption that I would have to contend with the renowned beauty of Princess de Anadan, the Jewel of the Kingdom. Surely you can imagine how intimidated I was?” Laughter rang from them both in a lovely harmony of amusement. “You have been nothing short of generous, and if I have been . . . audacious in my endeavor to please the King, you have my sincere apology. It has not been easy . . .” Her words trailed.

“No apology is necessary. I understand the pressures of expectation well. It can make anyone act uncharacteristically.” As she looked up at her she could see the relief in her dark eyes, though it was accompanied by some other unspoken weight. It reminded her of the evening they first arrived in Ronah. “In the spirit of our newfound honesty, I hope you would tell me if there was something wrong. I might not be capable of doing much, but I am willing to listen if there is anything wearing on you.”

Hesitance brought a swell of silence so palpable she thought the air had become heavy, like the atmosphere before rainfall. 

“I fear I have done something wrong, and have displeased the King. I have the worst feeling in my stomach– I know it is the dread of my inevitable punishment.” She admitted finally, her voice low but her tone every bit indicative of the fear she spoke of. “I cannot fail my country or bring shame to my name.”

Sympathy allowed her to overlook the absence of details and specifics. She didn’t need them to validate genuine emotion, but she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t curious. The King had done awful things to her in the past. Aside from invading her kingdom and overtaking the throne, her birthright, he had manipulated her by using her family as pawns and placed her in the difficult position of deciding the fate of the insurgents, her people. Alora could only imagine what kind of underhanded tactics he resorted to make Lady Natalia so fearful. Her advice, what she might have done herself, was unsound and potentially dangerous. Defiance had always served her well, but she realized she might have been a special case– that the pool of the King’s patience might be shallower where the Lady of Leviatha was concerned. 

“The King can be reasonable, I think. Perhaps you should express your remorse sincerely and help him understand how this has affected you. I’m sure if you try to appeal to his good-nature he might be more lenient, or show mercy. It could turn out better than you think?” A reassuring hand laid on Natalia’s arm. “At least you will have tried.” 

“You’re right. I think I’ve been too content to accept my fate.” A weak smile appeared on her lips. “Thank you.” 

The pair made their way through the garden, the path leading them back toward the strange robed woman who had led them there. She didn’t expect her to be waiting, looking all too pleasant as she welcomed them back to the castle. 

The sound of preparation could be heard on the levels below; the high traffic of footsteps clacking and thudding against the floors, carrying faintly to the guest wing where she was headed. Alora thought she had seen all the horrible works of art on their tour days ago, the exhausting activity of feigning interest and awe ensuring she slept well that evening, but as she ascended the stairs a piece on the wall caught her eye. 

It was not on the grandiose scale as the other fixtures, but its likeness to a reference stood out. She recognized the dilapidated towers in the bloody scene, the mighty weapon battle ax wielded by a humanoid boar with jutting tusks and bulging eyes. Its fur was covered in crimson spatter, hooves using the backs of fallen enemies as leverage for a fatal blow to the sword-swinging rat. 

“A magnificent painting, is it not?”

The Princess felt her heart leap and then sink to her stomach upon hearing the sudden voice. She pressed a hand to her chest as she turned, letting out the breath that plugged her throat. Behind her was the unnaturally pale face of the Chancellor, chuckling apologetically as he approached with his hands behind his back. 

“Apologies, Princess. I should have made my presence known more thoughtfully.” 

“It’s alright . . .” A dismissive wave of her hand rushed away his apology. “This . . . This is the Battle of Vilardi, is it not?” 

“Indeed, it is. How well-read and cultured you must be to recognize it?” The inflection of his tone was that of surprise as he moved closer to look upon it alongside her. 

“I’ve never seen this version of it before, but the towers and the weapons are famed references . . . I have to ask, why are the soldiers represented as animals rather than humans as they are in other works?” It was a theme that she hadn’t realized until now, that most of the art in the castle was bestial with sparse depictions of mortal forms. 

“I commissioned this piece as I imagined the warriors. Sir Rafael Dagon, the clever and resourceful disgraced Knight of Ollin, leading his horde of defectors. General Carlisle Bowden of Vilardi, the fearless and brave, leading his loyal horde to victory. I enjoy it more than the original, as I do most of my precious collection of interpretations. You see, we all try so very hard to separate ourselves from the animal kingdom, from the monsters and critters we deem ourselves superior to. But, we are all animals by nature.” He looked up at her. “Even the fairest among us can be vicious as a viper or docile as a doe, I believe.”

“That is more insightful than I thought it would be.” Alora admitted, her first genuine display of amusement hanging on her lips as she examined the painting with renewed appreciation. Inwardly she was nervous. Ever since she was contacted by the voice of the Resistance she often feared that everyone could see right through her. She knew that the less she appeared to suspect suspicion, the more unlikely it would be for others to see it. 

“I’m glad to hear that. My taste is not everyone’s cup of tea, I know.” Laughter rumbled in his chest, abruptly stifled when the distinct sound of plates breaking on the floor caused him to stiffen. “If you’ll excuse me, Princess. It seems I have some incompetence to handle,” rigid with irritation he turned on his heels. “I look forward to seeing you this evening.” Hurried steps carried him down the stairs. 

With one last look at the painting, she wondered what kind of animal she would be in one of the Chancellors works of art . . .

As she walked down the hall, she could hear the muffled rhythm of music behind the double doors she approached. When she was close enough, they parted to reveal a grand soiree– the very kind of “modest” celebration she would expect of someone with such extravagant inclinations. A black and white marble floor gleamed with proud polish, the pattern lending itself to showcasing the larger-than-life candelabras and dazzling, crystal chandeliers. Scantily clad women were painted as though they were statues themselves, gold and silver coating making their bodies shine while they balanced platters of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. To the tune of beautifully whining string instruments and fluttering wind instruments, masked performers danced bewitchingly; expertly twirling fire or breathing it like stunning dragons. The Grand Council was more like an elevated carnival than a moderate gathering. 

Even with all the spectacle, the arrival of the Princess attracted some attention away from the overwhelming displays, conversations lulling as she entered. The deep, rich evergreen she wore a bold statement against her pale skin, and the glittering sheen of the fabric was a compliment to it– much like the flattering neckline that bared her shoulders and presented a tasteful view of an ample chest. Her pale, golden tresses were tamed into a low gather where a thick stream of soft waves flowed down her back. Strands were thoughtfully placed to frame her remarkable countenance, all while displaying simple adornments that did not so much compete for the spotlight as they did cooperate with her ensemble. 

Alora plucked a glass of wine from one of the balancing silver trays to still her nerves. Tonight was the night she would be free, and while there was some belief that it was too good to be true, she was hopeful. 

Lady Natalia greeted her, wearing a marvelous plum colored gown with his high neck and a low back. Her hair was up so as not to obstruct the view of her flawless flesh. The pair mingled with the guests, going about the formality exchanging pleasantries and formal introductions before superficial small talk ensued. Alora found herself more interested in the dancing rather than the conversation. Shantha had the most wonderful events, less grandeur but an equal jovial ambiance. The thought almost brought about a homesick feeling, but before it could settle into her expression a man entered their circle. 

“Lord Ezra, so good to see you emerge from your high mountain to grace us all with your presence.” Lady Whitlock– wife of Baron Thomas Whitlock, who she had met earlier– purred over her fan, a taunting gleam bringing out the fine lines around her eyes. 

“How could I refuse a Grand Council?” His smile was broad as he took the jab in stride. With brassy hair and greenish-brown orbs, a tall stature and broad shoulders, he was an attractive man. Judging by the charm of his grin, he was very much aware of it. “Or, pass up the opportunity to dance with the Princess of Shantha?” 

There was an invisible flinch among the group, felt more than seen as he extended a hand to her. Alora knew that there was some preconceived notion that she belonged to the King, that people inside and outside of the kingdom likely made assumptions regarding the nature of their relationship. The possibility that it was true had deterred men from showing even the slightest interest in her. Most men. She couldn’t help but be impressed by the boldness of his offer. 

“I’m flattered, Lord Ezra.” A smile curled onto her lips as she delicately placed her hand in his, watching as he gave a confident bow of appreciation. He led her onto the dancefloor, and began to lead them again in a graceful waltz to the floating harmony. 

“You looked so very bored, Princess. Ronah’s elite can be dull company.” He smirked. 

“Does that include yourself, then?” Alora quipped. She knew men like Lord Ezra from Shantha’s own court and nobility; the ones who ensnared women with ease, but enjoyed the hunt. She missed being difficult prey. 

“I’d like to think not.” As he answered he added flourish to their elegant steps, spinning her beautifully. He relished the glow of her smile and he brought her back into his embrace. “I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“It’s impressive,” Xårełlęi admitted as he stood at the edge of the tediously-named Onyx Wharf. Before him, settled on the still waters, was a large, wedge-shaped boat the color of scuffed silver, stretching to the sky while casting a broad, early-evening shadow upon the concrete port pressing against its bow.

Director Renthall was at the King’s side, the designated Communications Administrator accompanying him throughout his rehearsals. He stood taller than Xårełlęi by half a head, with thin limbs and a square belly underneath his pleated uniform of gray, marked by deep blue insignias across his chest and shoulders. His balding scalp caught the sun’s beams with crescents of white light, occasionally reflected by the rims of his glasses.

The snout of the boat looked to be unfinished with a skeletal frame peeking out from a peel of its hull. A group of soldiers and sailors could be seen making rounds throughout the deck’s cabins. Across the front of its bow and near a series of roped cleats read its name in stenciled letters, the Revelation.

“It’s operational, you say?” Xårełlęi’s eyes roamed the Revelation with quiet examination.

“Indeed,” the Director affirmed. “Onyx River is some distance away from the Grand Hall, but the crowds will see it, aye. And hear it, as well.”

“Everyone shall bear their witness. Very good.” Xårełlęi paused for a moment of consideration. “Will Ronah’s former King and dignitaries make an appearance?”

“Yes, but only briefly,” Renthall explained. “To show our graciousness towards their former lives, but our emphasis must be towards pushing forward.”

“Arrange to have them executed afterwards,” Xårełlęi remarked flatly. The Director’s widened eyes were met with a heavy laugh.

“A tasteless jest on my part. See to it they are treated courteously.”

“Yes, of course,” Renthall said after clearing his throat nervously. “Were there any other questions or concerns you had regarding the Council’s agenda?”

Xårełlęi mulled back on the prior night’s briefing with Renthall and Chancellor Onyx. There would be three public micro-phones at the base of the grand stage, with a designated moderator between them to ensure an orderly distribution of questions and comments. The primary micro-phone at the head of the stage would be graced with his initial speech after his entrance, with speak-easys… speakers?.. being the tool to broadcast all voices clearly and crisply across the crowds. Behind him would be a hanging telescreen, ready to showcase moving images that complemented his opening address.

Knowing Chancellor Onyx , the dress and decorations would be ostentatious, but he hoped they would be tame enough to avoid undermining his overall message. The King himself would be wearing his traditional armor, with an additional layer underneath that would supply its own reinforced protection… a black, textured, heavy material that felt stiff yet delightfully malleable upon his fingertips. He couldn’t quite place the name of it, but he was almost sure his engineers had titled it something that began with a k.

“I believe all my concerns have been accounted for,” Xårełlęi finally answered. His and Renthall’s attentions were suddenly directed towards the Revelation as a soldier’s shout was heard before a loud, grumbling purr, perhaps a test of the boat’s engines.

“They’ll be impressed,” Xårełlęi mused aloud between he and the Director. “I look forward to finally flexing our proverbial might.”

“Before you awe them technologically, win them over politically,” Renthall declared as some sort of impromptu, eye-rolling life advice. “We have taken the proper course, my King. This I assure you.”

Xårełlęi nodded his agreement before excusing himself towards another obligation in his already busy day.

King Xårełlęi didn’t believe the extra steps towards discretion were necessary, but he would embrace another opportunity to don his cloak and escape his chambers. The four spies he had somehow enlisted were waiting ahead of him as expected, wearing their tenaciously identical attire, each with a name beginning with N... The King would title them the NO sisters in his mind. Their punctuality was a silently appreciated gesture as dusk pulled into night across an alleyway somewhere in Ronah’s town square.

“Do you have anything to report?” Xårełlęi couldn’t hide the hint of impatience in his voice.

“Not specifically on Princess Alora or Lady Natalia,” the blue attendant said… Nih was her name, if the King remembered correctly. “But we have reason to believe that something… amiss is otherwise in motion.”

“And why would you think that?” Xårełlęi asked while crossing his arms.

“A chance investigation in an abandoned tavern was almost overlooked until Nana’s clumsiness brought something to light…” The blue-eyed servant’s smirk was ignored as Nah lifted her hand to reveal a blotch of red outlining the delicate lines of her index finger’s print.

Red ink,” she explained with a nod. “A faint remnant found on the edge of a lone table, confirmed by one of your scientists. We’re certain it was once occupied for discreet operations not recorded on any Onyx registry.”

“And why is red ink of consequence?” Xårełlęi said, his curiosity rising.

“Its use is explicitly forbidden, save for thoroughly regulated and archived government documents.”

There was a moment of weighted, weary contemplation. “Is Chancellor Onyx behind this?” Xårełlęi asked with some hesitancy.

“We doubt it. He insists on black ink for his correspondence, and despises anything but.” The four servants smiled collectively.

“Hmmm…” Xårełlęi thought on the revelation, then drew the fidget of a smile on his face. “Secret communications. How charming. Two days away from the Council as well… yet another point to recognize.”

The four spies stood contemplatively until the green-eyed Nini broke the silence. “Shall we consider postponing the…”

“It could still end up as nothing,” Xårełlęi interrupted. “But we shall move forward as if we are expecting otherwise. Investigate all government officials and see if any clues can be unearthed to the potential identity of our secret red-ink enthusiast.”

Nah nodded her acknowledgment. “Will there be anything else, my liege?”

“The Grand Council will proceed as planned. You four shall remain close to my flanks on the grand stage. Reinforce my soldier’s positions and promptly mobilize yourselves at the sight of anything amiss. You have my authorization to use deadly force, if necessary.”

The four spies bowed their understandings, with the red-eyed Nah unable to help her smile.

“If something is to happen on the day of the Grand Council,” Xårełlęi said with a stout confidence, “we shall be ready for it.”

Xårełlęi answered the rap at this door to reveal Natalia wearing a socially prudent dress. Dusk had fallen before the day of the Grand Council, and the robed King had taken to his personal diversions for the evening.

“Come in,” Xårełlęi invited with his arm extended. The Lady from Leviathá would meekly walk inside his chambers with her arms folded across her chest, saying nothing.

“Now, then,” Xårełlęi exhaled as he moved to settle into his leathered reading chair. “You’ve asked to see me?”

“Yes, my King,” Natalia said softly as she took her own seat. “I wanted to…” Her voice trailed off into unspoken doubt.

“Mmm…?” The sound of curiosity purred from the King’s lips beside the slight narrowing of his left eye.

Natalia appeared to collect herself before starting again. “Yes, I wanted to… discuss my punishment,” she pulled aloud with some effort.

The King mulled on Natalia’s request for a short time. “Ahead of Ŝhanthah castle?” he’d inquire while crossing his arms. “Very well,” he decided with a nod. “How do you believe we should handle it?”

“Well, I…” Natalia looked down upon the palms resting in her lap, appearing uncertain. “I’m not sure, but I just didn’t realize I had upset you so…”

“Upset…” The King said the word aloud as if to process its legitimacy between them, until a slight smile appeared on his face. “You haven’t upset me, dear Natalia… quite the contrary. You’ve satisfied my needs and cravings beyond how I could have ever imagined.”

“Truly, my liege…?” Natalia’s eyes lifted with renewed hope.

“However,” he continued through a sigh. “The fact remains that you disobeyed a direct order from me. Your King.” His voice shifted with a stern, cold touch. “My satisfaction bears no stake upon this. You mustand will be punished.”

The Lady’s eyes flooded with desperation. “Xårełlęi, please,” she begged. The King was quietly shocked to hear her use his name without a title, and for the briefest moment it almost felt as disrespect.

“Now, this of course extends beyond anything you must personally endure,” Xårełlęi explained calmly. “Leviathá will be sanctioned as well, and—”

“NEVER AGAIN!” Natalia cried out in interruption. Perhaps surprisingly, the King took the disruption in stride.

“I promise, never again! Please, forgive me!” Natalia continued through her sobs. “Allow me the peace of mind! Allow me to sleep!”

A visible sympathy would wash over Xårełlęi. After some consideration, he stood from his chair and approached Natalia to kneel before her, locking his gaze upon her teary eyes.

“You will endure your punishment,” he cooed assuringly, “but perhaps I’ll allow its severity to stay in question.” He then kissed Natalia’s forehead affectionately while his hand softly cupped a breast beneath her dress.

“Continue the fight,” he said with a soft emphasis. “For your sake, as well as mine.”

That night, there would be whimpers and pleas, but eventually Natalia fell into a deep sleep, nestled against the chest of her King.

Delightfully, there was a late breakfast planned for the day of the Grand Council. The King awoke with the rise of the early sun, and as was typically the case, his cravings pulsed strongly as well. With a gentle series of nudges, he managed to rise Natalia into a half-sleep before rolling himself on top of her, his gaze perched with sturdy arms.

“You must remain still and quiet,” Xårełlęi demanded with a low voice, “or Leviathá will bear the brunt of your failings. Not a flinch, nor a squeak. Understood?”

Her eyes would not widen, her body refusing any twitches of fear. Instead, Natalia would steel herself and part her thighs on command as Xårełlęi maneuvered himself below her waist.

Her breath did occasionally catch as flowery folds pulsed around his tongue, but she remained hushed, remained diligent. The King sensed every shuddery ripple of gooseflesh, but he would forgive them, for they were but the flutters of a bird’s wings across a still pond.

After a time, the King found himself satisfied. He pulled back his lips and tongue and lifted his head to meet his gaze upon the rise and fall of Natalia’s luscious chest.

“You’ve done well,” Xårełlęi congratulated with a smile. “Though your personal punishment remains, your kingdom shall be spared its own penalties.”

Upon hearing the King’s absolution, Natalia couldn’t help the series of shuddery sobs that escaped her lips. Sobs of sheer joy and indescribable relief.

“Gods Almighty,” Xårełlęi said to himself as he rode with Director Renthall in a small, military-issued transport vehicle, accompanied by a pair of high-ranking kingsguard. The sight of Onyx Hall from afar had already exhibited all the indications of garishness, and the rising volume of band music further exhausted his patience as they approached the bustling throngs and egregious decortations.

The vehicle pulled to a stop on the paved inlet road, with curious onlookers gathering to point their fingers at its arrival. A contingent of troops rushed quickly toward King Xårełlęi’s door to take their posts before it was opened for him to step out. He was wearing his ceremonial armor, its contours glistening with the sun’s touch, and would join Director Renthall on a measured walk towards the grand hall’s entrance.

Upon its sight, the King would quietly concede to the Chancellor’s credit that the hall was indeed grand. He supposed it had to be, since it was intended to accommodate a rather large amount of Ronah’s residents. Its impressive expanse reminded him briefly of the hangars he invaded long ago, when he had first laid his eyes upon the stationed, metallic birds that delivered death from the skies…

Inside Onyx Hall, there was the sporadic mingling of commoners and dignitaries, but the divide was clear, with the well-to-dos collected near the base of the main stage and the less-to-dos pooling themselves back towards the hall’s entrance. Lines of watchful soldiers were stationed near the sills of windowed arches, nearly all of them curtained, as the late afternoon sun glowed through the draping fabrics with an orange warmth. A pair of broad archways flanked the hall’s entrance, offering a gorgeous vista that stretched towards the distant shoreline.

The sight of King Xårełlęi’s arrival prompted a rise of applause that seemed hesitant at first, but would satisfyingly round itself off. The crowds parted along the edges of the royal carpet leading towards the shallow staircase of the main stage as Xårełlęi walked with his director and a nearby perimeter of soldiers.

Xårełlęi’s curious eyes would shift from left to right as he approached the stage’s ledge. He took note of a fishermen’s hungry, distracted eyes upon a nude woman painted with gold. Towards the right of the stage, his eyes also caught Princess Alora with her brassy-haired companion, but there would be no time for jealousy. At least, not yet.

After walking past the angular shadow of the overhead telescreen and onto the broad, brightly lit stage, the King and Director would take their places near their designated micro-phones. The crowd’s murmur eventually hushed to silence, and Xårełlęi would permit himself a deep breath before he prepared his lips.

“Greetings to you all,” Xårełlęi began as his name boomed across the broad audience. “My name is Spaghetti… or rather, Xårełlęi,” he stated with a grin that almost seemed uncertain of itself.

A raucous roar of laughter and cheers started across the crowds, and he would wait patiently until it subsided.

“People of Ronah, hear me well,” he continued. “Though I am technically your King, the truth is I don’t feel much as one. I rather think myself more as an administrator, fair and personable, who wishes to share the wonders of a new age across this great land.”

“We have all gathered here today to enjoy ourselves, but more importantly, to understand.” Xårełlęi’s firm, steady voice carried with it a resonating bass. “Understand the immense blessing of our now conjoined kingdoms. Xårełl and Ronah, together.”

Moving images would appear on the large telescreen behind him, coinciding and attesting his declarations on timed cues.

“Doctors who can cure illnesses once thought terminal. Engineers providing the means for stores of frozen meat through the long summer months. Houses providing heat and cold on demand despite the merciless elements. We offer all of these wonders to each and every one of Ronah’s residents, near and far and in between.”

The King then pulled back to peer into the distance before once again engaging his micro-phone.

“You haven’t seen much yet of our advertised technological wonders in your personal lives, I’ll admit. But if you all would have a look behind you…” The King’s arm would motion towards the hall’s entrance, where the Revelation could be seen pulling past a forest’s edge on the water, announcing its arrival with the blare of its horn.

“Behold! A means to traverse the weary distance between kingdoms with speed and ease!” There was a murmur of awe and appreciation amongst the crowds, which lifted into a robust wave of claps.

“What a sight to see!” Director Renthall’s voice through his micro-phone would take command of the stage, which Xårełlęi relinquished with silent relief.

“We have much more to share, but don’t blindly take our words for truth. There are many from Ronah who have their own testimonies, are they are here with us today. But first…” Renthall motioned to the three micro-phones at the base of the stage. “Let’s entertain a question from the audience, shall we? By all means, don’t be shy.”

After a time, a well-dressed commoner weaved himself through the droves until he reached the public platform. He looked very similar to the man Xårełlęi eavesdropped at the Inn and Din a few days earlier.

“King Xårełlęi,” he began with a pull of breath. “There were preliminary talks towards Ronah’s sovereignty before Xårełl… insisted upon its integration. With respect, may I ask what happened to the initial prospects of a coinciding rule between kingdoms?”

“A very good question,” Xårełlęi answered agreeably. “It was Xårełl’s concern that an unhealthy discord would inevitably sprout from…”

Through the corners of the King’s eyes, dashes of black would rush past the stage’s flanks towards some sort of… disturbance, somewhere in the crowds. His gaze widened when he realized it was the NO sisters engaging a threat…

To the beat of uplifting melodies, her light movements were just as stunning as the smile she wore. Lost in the moment, Alora was just as entertained as the guests who looked on or marveled at the walking spectacles decorated in elaborate costumes. She couldn’t help but enjoy the unexpected, the syncopations that gave their rhythmic footfalls grace and flare. It was as though they were confined to their own atemporal bubble, where all the faces and decorations faded into the background as the world blurred at its edges, becoming more insignificant the more enthralled she was. She was too busy hanging on his word, engaging in lighthearted banter and flirtation while they swayed. As the orchestra’s music faded, strings ceasing their pleasant vibrations, the floor cleared to make way for the approaching King. 

Alora followed Lord Ezra’s guiding hand, leading them into the migrating crowd. Everyone, her dance partner included, seemed to want to get the best view. Eagerly they shifted among one another, fitting themselves into clearer sightlines with relatively polite regards. The Princess was more concerned with what she might hear than see. After all, their presence in Ronah was meant to offer her new perspective in Xarellei’s aim, his vision for Shantha and likely other unconquered lands. Though she was certain that she would not hear anything that might extinguish her distaste, she listened with an open mind– or as open as she could manage. All that he spoke of was good. She could argue with medicinal advancements or domestic improvements that resulted in less starvation and death. But, she was well aware of the cost. It was difficult for her not to feel bitter . . . 

She would have liked to think that such progress would have appealed to the reasonable minds of displaced monarchs, that power did not always have to shift into the hands of another to receive necessities. Instead, it came with conditions and not everyone could appreciate those essentials without tasting the same sour acid of loss. She could not be awed by blaring, futuristic wonders when they evoked fear and conjured harrowing memories. While all others chattered clamorously and applauded at the sight of the colossal ship, she forced a smile onto her lips. It fell away quickly enough as the floor opened for questions from the citizens. 

A response never came . . .

Onyx Hall began to flood with red robed figures, storming guards and soldiers suddenly from nearly every entrance and opening. The first weapon discharged, a loud bang cutting through the confusion. Collectively the crowd reacted, abandoning their places to flee with screams of terror while others ran for cover as more shots were fired. Though she knew they were coming, she was stunned all the same. Chaos was all around her, erupting in a matter of long seconds that seemed to take place in slow motion. Bodies soon hit the floor, pools of blood beneath their punctured, lifeless forms. Throats were opened with blades, familiar faces bludgeoned till they were unrecognizable. Alora was paralyzed, gripped so tightly by horror that she couldn’t even begin to will her feet to move. 

Until now, she believed that only the King and his men possessed such weapons, but the rebels wielded them as well– fighting fire with fire with all the same brutality.

“Princess–” A hand wrapped around her arm, pulling her along forcefully. Lord Ezra’s strength compensated for her stumbling, hoisting her up each time her balance betrayed her or some bloodied obstacle ruined her stride. 

She could hear projectiles whizzing past her, and though every instinct implored her to throw herself to the ground she remained as upright as she could while he led her through a pair of double doors. So disoriented from thundering weapons and screams she wasn’t sure where she was until she was out of the hall. They were in another, a long, arching corridor with shattered mosaic windows and more corpses. Alora ignored the contorted expressions of pain on their faces, the vacant looks of the slain. There were just as many red robes littering the ground as there were soldiers of Ronah. 

“Stop!” A voice barked before them, feminine but commanding. “Another move and I’ll blast you both to pieces.” Her threat was followed by the approach of two men, their weapons leveled between their eyes. 

Lord Ezra brought them to a swift halt, tucking Alora behind him. “What is it that you want? Money? Jewels? Whatever it is–” Silence came after a harsh blow was dealt to his temple, the blunt end of the weapon crashing against his head. He dropped to the ground with a pained grunt, but he was not rendered unconscious. Weakly he attempted to push himself up, just barely able to get his chest off the floor when the vicious weapon tore a hole through his back. 

“No!” Alora cried, moving to go to his side. She was intercepted quickly, thrown over the shoulder of a brute where she kicked and screamed. Through eyes glassy with tears she watched as Lord Ezra sputtered, clutching his shoulder with a bloody hand. The sight was short lived, gone as they carried her through one of the shattered windows toward horses that awaited them. “Unhand me! Let me go at once!” 

“We can’t do that.” The woman said calmly, climbing upon her mount. She made room for the thrashing Princess as both men made light work of getting her into the saddle in front of her. “We said we’d come and we did.” The robed woman whispered into her ear, taking the reins swiftly to urge her horse on. While her accomplices covered her, she steered them toward the woods. Towering trees soon enveloped them as they carved a jagged path, weaving between thick trunks and jutting roots. All the while Alora made her displeasure known, calling out for help while squirming incessantly. 

The woman was surprisingly strong, unsurprising since her statuesque physique was apparent even in her crimson robes. Her frustration came slowly, but when it did it was frightening.

“Is this not what you wanted?” Her arms squeezed her tightly, muscles overpowering her own. “Have we been wrong about you all this time?” She questioned through clenched teeth. 

“I didn’t . . . Not like this . . .” Alora believed that she would do anything to be free, to be out from beneath Xarellei’s thumb but so many innocent lives had been taken unjustly and callously. If she had known the price for her freedom would be blood she wouldn’t have entertained the offer. “There had to have been another way.” 

“Those people back there are Xarellei’s lackeys and sympathizers, sycophants without backbones of their own.” She said with a tone so cold it made her shiver. “They would rather bow down than stand up for what’s theirs. While I believe you have some fight in you, I now question your alignment. We risked life and limb back there.”

“I can still help–”

“How? You scare at the first sight of blood, passively go along with his every demand, and empathize with his converted flock of sheep.” Her hands tugged on the reins, bringing the horse to a halt. “I don’t think we can trust you to join our cause, which is a shame because you have been a beacon for so many. How disappointed they’ll be when they learn of your spinelessness.”

“I can help.” Alora insisted, glancing over her shoulder. From the dark depths of the red hood, she could make out some of the woman’s features; black curls and blue eyes like steel. “I saw no use in getting close to Xarellei before, but I believe I can get close enough to get you the information you need to gain the upperhand and overthrow him.”

“. . . It’ll be harder to reach you after all this. Risky for both of us.” She glanced over her shoulder. It would only be a matter of time before soldiers caught up. 

“Then, we’ll be more careful. Besides, Xarellei has too much leverage on me to turn on him now.” Her parents were still in his custody, held somewhere since Shantha was overtaken. 

“ . . . Three months. If you do not produce valuable information that leads to our advantage, I will personally come for you myself and make an example of you for all your disillusioned followers to see.”

The Princess’ throat went dry, the threat so serious she could only imagine what kind of gruesome public display she might make of her. 

“Now to send you back,” she sighed deeply. “Let’s see how real we can make this, shall we?” With a powerful push she threw the Princess from the horse, wearing a pleased smirk beneath her hood as she tumbled down a steep slope. She didn’t wait to see what came of her, not when the distant sound of hooves pounding at the brush alerted her. 

Alora rolled with a momentum she couldn’t quite control, slippery leaves and damp earth hastening her descent even as she tried to reach for branches and roots. They did nothing but slide through delicate palms, cutting and burning them. Rougher patches were not forgiving on her body, bumps and bruises forming the instant of impact. She only stopped when she reached the bottom, an unfortunate collision rendering her dizzy. It felt as though she might break apart if she moved, but she lifted a hand to her forehead. Her fingertips barely grazed the wound and a lance of pain radiated through her entire being. Before her struggle to keep her eyes open, she saw the bright red liquid trickle down the pad of her finger, and felt another as warmth slid down her brow.

There were the fond memories of Molly Anne, the noble maiden who was taken with the soon-to-be-King Xårełlęi many years before his worldwide conquest. There had been a joint rule between brothers for years, yet jealousy and distrust between the three princes had become more and more… pervasive, and ultimately obstructive. Through the challenges and uncertainty, she had been supportive of his standing, even as his blessing from Yamesha had fueled claims of undue predication and conspiracy.

Xårełlęi’s military trainings had instilled in him a certain discipline that spilled into his approach with the fairer sex. Timid as he once was, Molly would more than compensate with her persistence and insistence, with brazen flashes and seductive winks from afar as he conducted his business throughout his dead father’s castle. Her ripe chest and birth-giving hips, typically accentuated with a green Celtic-style dress, would ensnare Xårełlęi’s wandering eye, despite himself.

The night eventually came when Molly sneaked into his quarters, much to his ogling surprise. She was wearing a thin brown dress that complemented her hair and eyes, and her gaze was wanting. The expected panic would boil in the waters of his mind, but instead of Molly’s ardent hand at his knee, he would instead see…


A pair of shoves at the King’s shoulders would snap him back to the horror that was taking place before him. An invasion of red-robed insurgents had surged the Hall with indiscriminate rifle rounds directed at horrified guests. Screams and pleas saturated the air as two kingsguards rushed at his sides to scramble him to safety.

“No, you idiots! I’m fine, I’m FINE!” Xårełlęi wrestled himself free and assumed a stance upon the stage once again, blood gushing down his right shin. The fresh wound just above his knee had yet to register its pain, and he stood tall with his arms frantically motioning towards the fray. Surreal, ear-piercing screeches were heard through the speakers as the King’s dropped micro-phone translated the sounds of rifle fire.

“Move, move! Engage the intruders! Now, damn you!” An instinctive reach to the King’s side would conjure a bitter disappointment.

A pistol, a pistol… Ronah’s freedom for a pistol.

There was a glancing blow of fire against Xårełlęi’s helmet, then once again upon his shoulder as he retreated with a pair of steps. A momentary madness then overtook the King as his back arched and his arms reached forward and upward, towards the heavens.

“Kill me if you dare! My legacy remains forever! You’ve already failed!”

The rolling turrets of the kingsguard eventually brought Ronah’s forces the upper hand. The red-robed invaders were driven back with devastating rounds that shattered against marble columns with bursts of shrapnel. Many who fell back were hurled upwards with shrieking globes of fiery orange before landing with sickening thuds, each with less a limb, oblique, or head.

The King would tumble onto all-fours with the loud clank of his armor as the fracas slowly abated, with Ronah and Xårełl soldiers reinforcing positions across the Grand Hall. The bloodied bodies of the fallen were numerous, and sporadic groans of pain or sputters of death were heard alongside the marchings of boots.

Eventually, the King was addressed by a young lieutenant kneeling at his side with a rigid salute.

“My liege… are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Xårełlęi choked through a thickened throat. “Report?”

“Lady Natalia and Director Renthall are safe,” the lieutenant hurriedly explained. “But Princess Alora has been…”

The King’s eyes quickly darted to the fresh-faced soldier. “Been… what?”

Abducted,” The lieutenant forced through a swallow. “She was taken away on horseback. Our forces are following close behind—”

“Find her! FIND HER!” The King climbed to his feet with a wobble before grabbing at his neck to throw his helmet to the floor. His blood-shot eyes and bloodied nose perfectly emphasized the rage on his face, and for a brief moment, he resembled some sort of demonic horror.

“SAVE ALORA! GO! GO!” The lieutenant rushed to join a group of soldiers marching towards the rear of the hall.

After a few clumsy steps forward, his metallic boots would trip over a naked woman painted gold, her deadened gaze focused on a journey towards the beyond. He was once again on all-fours, and the King’s vision would haze…

Xårełlęi would wake in his quarters with a pair of kingsguard flanking his bed. His back was leaning against the headboard, with legs outstretched out and a thick bandage taped around his right knee. The platoon medic was at his side, administering a bag of intravenous fluid into his arm while a bustling furor was heard outside his chamber door, with stomping boots and terse orders.

“King Xårełlęi, you’re back,” a doctor’s voice said near his wardrobe. “You’ve been in and out for the last few hours.”

“Alora… the Princess,” Xårełlęi slurred through his lips. “Has she been found?”

“Yes, my liege,” the doctor affirmed with a nod. “She’s currently being treated at the castle ward. Quite a few gashes and bruises, perhaps a broken bone. But she will recover.”

“Whuh… what happened?” The King’s torso wavered before it was steadied by the nearby medic’s hands.

“She somehow escaped the clutches of her abductors and fell down the side of a ravine. All things considered, my King, she could have come away with much worse.”

The King stayed silent. May I see her? was the question waiting behind his lips, but he already knew the answer.

“There’s more, your Highness.” The doctor pushed through a moment of hesitation. “Chancellor Onyx is dead.”

King’s Xårełlęi’s eyes would blink at the news before pulling towards his knees. “Is that so?” he said with a low voice.

“Shot through the heart,” the doctor explained regretfully. “His death was immediate.”

“Hummm.” A wind of thoughts visibly coursed through his mind.

“Bring me Director Renthall,” Xårełlęi finally said.


Renthall would arrive shortly after his request. Upon sight of the King, his mouth opened towards pleasantries that were waved away by Xårełlęi’s hand.

“Director Renthall,” Xårełlęi began. “In light of Onyx’s death, I am designating you the new Chancellor of Ronah.”

There was a brief look of surprise before Renthall clapped his boots and saluted. “Understood, my liege. I will begin to delegate responsibilities towards cleaning up this unfortunate mess. Is there anything else?”

“Colonel Blankenship shall be your second. See to it that this is handled,” Xårełlęi said stoutly. “Utilize the violence of the red-robed intruders to your benefit. Their ruthlessness during a peaceful and receptive council should be spun to Xårełl’s advantage.”

“Absolutely. And what of you, my liege?”

“I suppose it would be wise to return to Ŝhanthah,” Xårełlęi thought aloud. “Once Princess Alora has recovered, of course. Directing a brigade’s worth of troops to reinforce this stronghold shall be my foremost task once I return.”

“Of course, my King,” Renthall said. “With respect, may I suggest the Princess remain here for treatment while you depart at your earliest convenience?”

“She always remains with me,” Xårełlęi said with a tone to close the matter. “Besides, I have plans that involve her presence in the castle she once presided.”

“Very good, my liege. Shall I begin preparations for the Steambreather, or…”

“The Revelation would seem our safest means of transport, yes? A day and a half by boat, another half-day by land, you’d say?”

Renthall nodded in agreement. “As a matter of fact, its isolation on the water is likely the most secure option. I’ll send appropriate communications for soldiers to wait for you at Ŝhanthah’s port.”

Xårełlęi took a moment to think before speaking on another weight in his mind.

“Also,” he’d say in conclusion, “see to it that those horrid decorations in the Grand Hall are appropriately discarded.”

The commotion had settled a bit into the wee hours of the morning, with Xårełlęi left alone in his quarters while soldiers were posted outside his door. He would be tinkering absentmindedly with something in his hands when Colonel Blankenship announced his arrival outside of Xårełlęi’s chamber door.

“My apologies, sir,” called the familiar, wavery voice. “But she once again insisted. I made sure to frisk her before bringing her here.”

“She didn’t need to be frisked,” Xårełlęi remarked with some impatience. He then inhaled slowly to steady his temper. “Allow her in.”

The Lady from Leviathá entered the King’s chambers wearing a modest, eggshell-colored gown. She moved to stand at the side of the King’s bed and waited for Xårełlęi’s greeting.

“Dearest Natalia,” the King would say gratefully. “Thank goodness you’re safe.”

“I was… whisked away,” Natalia recalled with her eyes widened. “By a robed woman with a white face. But I could still hear the… shots and the… screams.” A shudder trembled across her body. “All that death…

“They will have not died in vain.” Xårełlęi patted the bed beside him as an invitation for Natalia to sit. “I have plans to ensure all kingdoms come together in everlasting peace. I promise you shall never have to endure anything like that again, by your own eyes or secondhand account.”

The Lady nodded before she took notice of the strange item in the King’s hands… it looked to be a crescent shaped thing made of wood or tin with a sphere jutting from its center.

“May I ask what that is in your hands, my King?”

Xårełlęi took a breath before answering Natalia’s question. “In many ways, this little trinket has served as the key to my conquest. I keep it close to me at all times as a reminder of how far I’ve come… and how far I’ve yet to go.” He then took Natalia’s hand and placed it upon her palm.

“How does it feel, my dear?” the King would ask with eyes full of curiosity.

“It feels… strange,” Natalia said alongside a slight frown. She handled it tentatively, turning it over a number of times before the King gently plucked it from her grasp. Her hands immediately brushed the remnants of its touch against the skirt of her gown while her face puckered with a sour look.

“The key to the door,” Xårełlęi declared softly. “It weilds a certain power… thankfully, one that I alone am designated to control.” He then opened a nightstand drawer and tucked it away from their sights.

After a moment, Natalia drew closer to Xårełlęi with a scoot on the bed, and her eyes lifted to meet his gaze.

“Shall I be… still for you this morning, my King?”

The King would dwell on the proposal for a moment, before leaning towards Natalia to kiss her… a passionate kiss that smacked loudly upon the parting of his lips.

“I will regretfully postpone,” he’d finally say with a grin and a pat at his bandaged knee. “I’m not sure how satisfied we’d be together with this wretched thing in the way.”

“Your satisfaction is my satisfaction,” Natalia said, almost as an afterthought, before leaning her head upon the King’s shoulder. After a moment, the side of his face tucked against the earthy smell of her raven hair, and the pair would spend a time together in silence.

“Has he talked?”

“Not yet,” Director Renthall answered to the stocky man with clipped red hair and black overalls. He’d watch as a calloused palm waved itself across the eyes of their naked prisoner, hanging from the ceiling with shackled wrists that trickled beads of blood to scraped elbows. A sprawled red robe was beneath his feet as he dangled in a cell deep within Ronah’s castle dungeon, lit only with a pair of wall torches lighting the small group with curls of flickering orange.

“Hello, friend,” a friendly, masculine voice said in greeting. “My name is Morant. And you are… ?”

The sound of silence was cut with a phlegmy spit of blood that fell just short of the interrogator’s boots.

“Ha!” Morant laughed while planting his knuckles upon his hips. “I love when I get the tough ones! This should be fun.”

“Be quick with it,” Renthall said with some impatience. Morant turned towards him with a pouty look before engaging his mark once again.

“You know, friend, I have the distinct privilege of being designated as Xårełl’s official interrogator,” Morant stated happily. “I must say it’s been an interesting, enlightening adventure learning the most effective techniques to obtain what we need from… the stubborn types, y’see.”

“One of the things I’m proudest of,” he continued with a step to his voice, “is that we’ve moved past the shedding of blood and breaking of bones to extract information. There are far, far better ways to achieve that goal.” Morant’s smile persisted towards an ominous grin.

“My friend, have you ever heard of the tsetse fly?”

The nude prisoner said nothing to his question, and Morant continued with a glint in his eye.

“Hell of a nuisance, native to the deserts of the western lands. They attack and bite in swarms, and those unfortunate enough to be bitten always report an excruciating itch. One that settles itself beneath their skin, away from the relief of scratching fingers.”

Morant then reached to the floor and revealed a large jar of what appeared to be a beige-colored paste.

“Xårełl’s scientists are really something. I proposed the idea almost offhandedly, yet they managed to develop a paste that very closely simulates this itch upon contact with human skin.”

The jar was opened to reveal a brush attached to its cap, and Morant snickered before applying a dab of paste to the prisoner’s nose.

“You are absolutely going to loathe your life after a few minutes, friend,” Morant said while moving to his backside. “Even if you wanted to talk, I doubt we’d manage to settle you down long enough for coherent answers.”

The paste was generously applied across the entirety of the prisoner’s torso, limbs, and genitals. After a minute, there were sporadic wiggles. Another minute, and the true struggle began with desperate yanks against the shackles.


“You’ll need to scream a bit louder than that, friend,” Morant smirked with a cross of his arms.

Consciousness came slowly, weak intervals of awareness granting fuzzy glimpses of rushing shadows and incoherent voices before claiming her again. She couldn’t feel herself as she was lifted from the steep ravine, as she was transported from the rough bed of brush and branches to the comfort of a new one. Embraced by softness and warmth she finally relented, letting exhaustion prevail. Having succumbed to fatigue, she missed the helping hands of skilled physicians and nurses tending to her. When the veil of weariness wore away, and the cocktail of medicine subsided, she began to feel herself lift from her deep slumber. Lashes parted and her vision gradually sharpened to see the familiar, decorative ceiling molding of her guest chamber. A grateful sigh passed her lips, but as she stirred her body ached. Alora let out a soft groan, and despite the protest of her muscles and bones she lifted an arm to peer beneath the blanket that laid over her form. 

Beneath the plain, delicate nightgown she had been placed in, she could see the bandages wrapped around her torso snug on her petite frame. There were a slew of others, smaller white coverings that protected tender cuts and careful stitches. Where there weren’t dressings there was battered flesh, deep purple and blue marks. As she laid her eyes on each of them her body became aware of how they throbbed, but none compared to the soreness of her head. She wanted to see, and as she made an attempt to push herself up a lancing pain in her side made suck a breath through her teeth. 

The hard wince alerted the nurse at her bedside who had been dozing off, head bobbing again and again as she struggled to remain awake. She was alert and on her feet in an instant, springing forth to halt the Princess.

“My Lady, please be still. You are in no condition to move just yet.” With gentle hands she urged her back down onto the pillow. Satisfied with her position, she tugged the blankets back up. “You suffered a great fall. By the Grace of the Gods, you survived with minimal injury.”

“ . . . Minimal injury.” Alora parroted. “I feel like every bone in my body has been rattled.”

“Aye, only a rib was fractured. With rest, you will heal in time. The physician was here not long ago. You should be good as new in a months’ time with proper care.”

“A month?” She only had three to provide the rebel leader with information enough to deal a damaging blow to Xarellei’s forces. 

“At the very least, My Lady. I can summon the physician to explain–” 

The apologetic tone the nurse held in her voice made her realize that her frustration was misdirected. Had the woman who threw her from the horse been more careful, she wouldn’t have needed a month of recovery. “No, it’s alright. My apologies. It has been a frightening day . . .”

“I understand, Princess . . . The authorities have been eager to obtain a report of your account of the events of today. If you are too tired, I will happily send them away. The hour is late, and I would not fault you for prioritizing your rest.” She explained, ready to jump at her word. 

“I will speak to them, get it over with so that they can begin their investigation.” Alora nodded, knowing that she could lean on her trauma to respond to the unexpected. 

“You must have been so scared.” 

Natalia’s hand squeezed hers softly, with more care than she embraced her upon entering her chambers. She hung on her every word as she recounted the terrifying incident. Alora had repeated it so many times that she knew it by heart because, for the most part, it was true. Even as officials questioned her, she realized that she didn’t have to deviate from the narrative much at all. She and Lord Ezra fled to find somewhere safe to wait out the storm when they were intercepted. Lord Ezra was shot, and she was taken against her will. Alora was content to let everyone speculate as to why, but the general consensus was that the intention was to use her as leverage against the King. 

“I was, indeed. Who knows what they might have done to me if the soldiers hadn’t been so close behind . . .” It was another undifficult imagining. She knew exactly what would have happened if she had successfully escaped. With no real information to benefit their cause, she would have ended up like so many others who lost their lives in the brutal attack. The fearful expression on her visage was authentic, not a performance she had to put on. 

“You should have let them catch up to you instead of taking matters into your own hands. Now look at you,” the Lady of Leviatha tsked with concern as she looked her over. “Throwing yourself off a horse. You could have killed yourself.”

“Better at my own hands than some maniac.” 

“I don’t like to think about it either way, Alora. I’m just glad you’re alright.” She patted her hand gently. “I will visit you every day. You will be absolutely sick of me, I promise.” 

A soft melody was stifled. “Oh, don’t make me laugh.” She smiled through the pain that leapt up her side. 

“They say it is the best medicine, so there will be plenty more where that came from.” Natalia promised. “They also say that flowers are good for lifting the spirit. You’ve received plenty, but there are some glorious red roses I can’t help but be so curious about.” 

Her room was filled with them, all with well wishes for a speedy recovery and sympathies for her frightening encounter. Most were modest in color, light yellows and bright whites with dashes of lavender and pinks woven into the collection. The full red roses were in stark contrast to the bunch. The Lady of Leviatha pushed herself up from her bedside seat, moving to inspect them. 

“From Lord Tristan Ezra, I assume?”

“They are. I was so worried that he was dead.” The memory played out again in her mind, a vivid recollection that was paired with the same emotions that occurred in the moment. He had risked his life for her, and the act alone should have been enough to make her fall head over heels but she couldn’t entertain her feelings. She had to focus on the King, and with that came the realization that her relationship with Natalia would soon be in jeopardy. “How is the King? I heard that he sustained significant injury during the ordeal.” 

“He is well. If he was more mobile I’m sure he would have visited by now.” She mentioned in his defense. “He is strong so I suspect he will be much better soon, and he is in the best of hands. The physicians that care for him are so knowledgeable.” Natalia sounded like a hopeful and proud wife, boasting of his greatness in his absence. 

“That’s a relief to hear.” Not everyone was so lucky. Chancellor Onyx had not been. When she heard of his death she was more devastated than she thought she would be. As eccentric and strange as he was, with bizzare taste and an odd, but grand demeanor, he did not deserve such a violent end. “Give the King my regards when you see him next. I’m pleased he is well.” 

“Apparently, they are a collective of all the opposition of all the conquered lands. They call themselves the Red Dissent.” Lady Natalia whispered.

Normally she came with books or games, something to keep them entertained while they chatted about the goings on in the castle. The Lady of Leviatha came empty handed this day, and earlier than her usual arrival. Alora had to excuse the nurses that had barely just finished changing the dressings on her wounds after her bath. 

“And, they’re everywhere. They could be anyone, operating in secret to overthrow the King. Until now they’ve been biding their time, amassing a following and obtaining weapons to contend with his forces which is–”

Mad. There is no way that any group could rival the King’s arsenal. How do you know all this?” Alora asked, inwardly as surprised as she was nervous about her source. 

“One of the remaining red robes was captured and interrogated. He didn’t offer much, I assume because he was a nobody in their ranks, but at least we now have a name for this awful movement. Their motivations might be insane, but they will not succeed. Still, they’re not exactly harmless as we all know. We’ll all have to be more careful.” 

“We will.” Alora gave a solemn nod, hopeful that no more was said.

Xårełlęi entered Princess Alora’s ward leaning against a crutch, visibly hobbling through the doorframe. He presented a smile that felt genuine yet uncertain, flitting with the promise of a short visit.

“Good afternoon, Princess Alora. It pleases me that you seem to be well on your way to a full recovery.”

His attention then turned to the wide array of flowers in the room, their fragrant smell permeating across the air. His fingertips ran lightly across a particular bouquet of orchids with soft green gradients that reminded him of the uniforms he wore as a young man.

“It looks as though you have quite the admirer, Princess.” The brassy-haired gentleman, is it? the King ached to ask. His gaze lifted to Alora’s own before he forced an obvious cough from his throat.

“We shall depart on the Revelation when you’re ready,” Xårełlęi said with a bit of dryness to his voice. “Take as much time as you need. Once we have some time again together, I’d like to offer a proposal that will hopefully garner your utmost enthusiasm.” He would turn to leave Alora’s room afterward, the weight of his mysterious words lingering.

“Now that Chancellor is Onyx is gone,” the King explained, “you four shall now be assigned covert tasks under the appointment of my kingsguard.”

The four identical assistants nodded their agreements as they stood near the foot of the King’s bed. Xårełlęi was seated with his back against the headboard, his wounded knee clearly visible as brief bouts of discomfort lifted to his face while he settled upon the bedsheets.

“We graciously accept your royal assignment, King Xårełlęi.” The four bowed their unanimous thanks with eyes that locked themselves on the King’s own gaze. “But before we fully submit to you orders, there was a matter on our minds we’d like to address.”

“Very well,” the King responded, almost hesitantly.

“With respect, my King,” Nah said, “we’d ask you to partake in a candid conversation between us. A few questions to further strengthen the trust and understanding of our relationship.”

Xårełlęi’s eyes roamed curiously across the four spies before settling upon an answer. “You may proceed.”

“Firstly, my King…” Nah asked while crossing her arms. “Why is Princess Alora always under the constant shadow of your presence?”

“Is it because you seek relations with her?” Nana added as a supplement.

“What do you mean?” Xårełlęi asked, his eyes widening slightly.

“She means sexual relations, King Xå—”

“I know what you meant!” the King barked. Xårełlęi then backtracked the point in his mind. “My pointwas, whose to say I haven’t already?”

“With respect, it’s fairly evident the way you act around her, my liege.”

Xårełlęi looked as though he was physically slapped before his eyes pulled to his legs in embarrassment.

“And yet, you enjoy the Lady from Leviathá regularly,” Nini continued, a nearly transparent attempt to save the King’s face. “Why pine after the Princess when you have Natalia’s beauty at your disposal?”

“You obviously have no idea how the male mind works, Nini,” Nah said in response. Xårełlęi would silently thank the red-eyed servant for speaking on his behalf.

Nah then directed her attention to the King. “I suppose the question we’re trying to ask is, what exactlyis Alora’s significance?”

Xårełlęi thought for a moment as the blush in his cheeks receded. “It’s difficult to translate into words. I suppose I am determined to master her, like a seasoned breaker seeks to tame a mustang.” His eyes shot up to the four servants. “And no, not simply for relations.”

The four servants allowed a collective smirk before addressing the next obvious matter.

“Well, it must be disappointing to you that Alora has won the attention of Lord Ezra,” Nah posited. “He seems to harbor no inhibitions towards your assumed involvement with the Princess.”

Xårełlęi’s eyes flared with a brief, brilliant envy. “Yes, he has stones, that one does.”

“We could always kill him,” Nana posed suddenly. “Discreetly, of course. Perhaps a little poison in his tea…”

“We’ve seen enough death as of late,” Xårełlęi said, skirting past the horrific nature of the proposition. “At any rate, his presence might force my hand towards a full and healthy appreciation of Natalia’s affections.” His shoulders then shrugged with a visible defeat. “I suppose no King is without his failures.”

The spy sisters looked at one another before Nah spoke. “You obviously care about the Princess in ways we may not be able to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean we shan’t aid you towards your goals, in all the ways we are able.”

The King’s demeanor shifted upon hearing the words, and a grateful smile lifted to his face.

“What do we know about this Lord Ezra?” Xårełlęi asked, his tone more relaxed and receptive.

“Typical, good-looking, spoiled nobleman,” Nah said with a smirk. “He does seem to be a bit mechanically inclined, however.”

Mechanically-inclined, you say?” Xårełlęi briefly mulled on the revelation. “So he isn’t an absolute waste of flesh?”

“Apparently not,” Nah affirmed. “You might even be able to assign him duties on the Steambreather.”

“Truly?” The King was now lost in thought, taking a few moments of consideration before he spoke again.

“We shall invite Lord Ezra along on the Revelation. Be sure Princess Alora is alerted as well, through an indirect channel.” Xårełlęi leaned his head back onto his hands as he peered towards the ceiling. “I might be dooming myself, but what is life without an interesting amount of uncertainty?”

The four spy sisters smiled in collective admiration. It seemed the King had won them over on some unspoken level.

“If you ever needed a challenge that isn’t Alora,” Nana suddenly proposed, “you could enjoy one or all of us. We’d be more than happy to oblige.”

“I could hold a dagger to your neck as we made love,” Nah suggested with a slight lean to better expose her chest. “Or you could hold one to mine.”

Xårełlęi would empty his lungs with perhaps the deepest exhale of his life. “I’ll keep that option in mind,” he’d finally say, a bit more enthusiastically than he intended.

“Go now, loyal sisters of the King. You have your orders.” Their grins were pulled taut upon their faces as the four spies departed.


Xårełlęi found his quarters on the Revelation more comfortable than his experience under Onyx’s care, despite the smaller size and comparative lack of amenities. The decorations were modestly militaristic, a welcome diversion from the layers of black that seemed to beg for wails of sadness and woe. The bed offered coarse, olive-green blankets upon his specific request, and a large, circular window presented a horizon of water beneath the rippled glow of the sun’s gradual descent.

The King was laying above his bed’s covers and lost in his own thoughts before they were interrupted by a knock upon his door.

“Good afternoon, sir,” came the greeting of the fresh-faced Lieutenant Moon. “Princess Alora and Lady Natalia have boarded and are currently being assisted with accommodations. The company of kingsguard have taken their stations as well. We shall depart upon your order.”

Shall Lord Ezra be joining us? was the question left unasked at the King’s lips.

“Let us depart,” the King finally said with a breath. “We shall enjoy a dinner together in the dining hall, once Natalia and Alora are comfortable.”

Her mind was uneasy, often racing in her forced stillness. Each day that passed her by brought about feelings of frustration and impatience. Time was wasted waiting for tender wounds to mend, and the familiar emotion of powerlessness visited her as often as Lady Natalia. While she wove a yellow thread through a taut, white cloth stretched across a circular wooden frame, there was some relief, concentration offering her an organized thought process to distract her from things she could not change. But, if there was any benefit to resting it was the ability to plan, to focus on how best to deal with the potential obstacles she might encounter. There were many, and she was but one person. Alora could trust no one, most of all the one person who she would inevitably hurt the most. Try as she might to justify what she might have to do, her stomach still writhed with guilt and shame.

The Lady of Leviatha came to Shantha with the sole purpose of pleasing the King. She never asked, but she suspected that some of her overt affection for him was performative– not all entirely fake, but not all genuine either. It couldn’t possibly be when she was so fearful of the consequences of disappointment and failure; pressure from her family, expectation from the King, and the internal weight of that responsibility on her shoulders. Alora felt for her, and yet she knew that their friendship was similarly insincere. It was not unconditional, intact only under the circumstance that she was not also vying for the King’s favor. As she recalled their tense first encounter, there was no doubt in her mind that Natalia would go to great lengths to ensure she came out on top. She had to be prepared for the worst . . .

Her head lifted at the odd cadence in the hall. She looked to the door, brows raised with genuine surprise as the King appeared on the threshold of her room. Laying down her decorative project, she looked him over, more sympathy than she anticipated forming on her visage. Perhaps it was the memory of how attentive and thoughtfully accommodating he was in her moment of panic, or the knowledge that he was so determined to find her when she was taken that made her soften at the sight of him. Her more vengeful feelings surfaced quickly enough, snuffing out the little embers of concern with a douse of bitter ash. 

“Thank you, Your Highness. It is good to see you well, too.” She said, doing her best to smile. The brilliance of it was subdued, not how she would have liked for it to appear. It was going to be more difficult than she thought to feign interest when his better qualities were constantly overridden by her resentment. Now, with his eyes wandering to the bouquet of roses sent by Lord Ezra, she sensed his deflation. Before she could stop him from planting the seed in his own mind, he quickly changed the subject with an awkward clearing of his throat.

“ . . . Thank you, Your Highness. I look forward to it.” She hated the suspense, but she was glad to be returning home to familiar territory, where she would feel more comfortable. Still, she would be just as wary of the King. His surprises were often double edged swords, requiring her to sacrifice one thing for another. 


“You’re moving around quite well, Princess Alora.” Lady Natalia mentioned at her back while they moved down the Revelation’s narrow hall. 

The ship was so large that she could barely feel them move as they disembarked, shoving off from Ronah’s port. Alora had been on a ship before in her youth while traveling with her father to distant kingdoms. The vessel had been crafted well, but the rolling waves made her ill the first few days at sea. But, she expected as much from one of Xarellei’s modern marvels. Like the Steambreather, the Revelation boasted astonishing functionality and comfort, offering them much of the same luxuries they were afforded on land. Her room was spacious and comfortable, not far from common areas for her own ease. At first she worried about all the stairs and ladders, the heavy metal doors that required two hands to open, but it seemed her convenience was taken under consideration. 

“The nurses insisted that I move a little each day. It hurts every now and then, but I’m getting a sense of when to expect it.” Twisting or turning naturally always resulted in sharp aches. Even deep breaths elicited a painful response at times. “The only good that has come of my condition is being free of a corset for a while.” The Princess wore lighter dresses, made from material that did not hang so heavily on her frame. Breathing was easier without boning and tightly laced ribbons cinching an already petite form. The layers of flowing, pale blue chiffon was significantly less restrictive as it highlighted the allure of her natural silhouette. “I wince at the sight of one, and–”

Her words were cut short as the entrance of the dining hall came into view. A tall man ceased his pacing, pausing as the women approached. Alora had heard that Lord Ezra had been invited aboard the ship, but she dismissed it as a rumor; something inferred from their interaction at the Grand Council and the flowers he sent to wish her well. Pleased as she was to see him well, though his arm rested in a sling, his presence was both unexpected and problematic. But, the smile that he wore warmed her heart all the same. 

“Lord Ezra, what a pleasure it is to see you. I didn’t know you would be joining us for our journey.” Alora offered him her hand when she reached him. As he took it into his own he held it firmly, letting his earthy gaze meet her own. For a moment she thought he might bring it to his lips but he hesitated, most likely afraid to appear too eager or presumptuous. A dance was just a dance, but a kiss was an unmistakable gesture of affection– one that might have been disrespectful of his gracious host. 

“Princess, it is such a relief to see you. When you were taken I was so distraught, mostly with myself. I wish I could have defended you more fiercely.” He bowed, lowering his eyes as regret filled his voice. 

“Please, that is nonsense. You defended me with your life. How could you have done any more?” She shook her head, eyes soft as he straightened. “I planned to write to you to express how grateful I am to you, but since you’re here . . . Thank you. Thank you for your bravery and selflessness.”

“Of course . . .” There was a long pause where he simply held her hand, staring into her bright green pools as if bewitched by her. “And, Lady Natalia, it is also good to see that you are well. My apologies for not acknowledging you sooner.” Lord Ezra offered her a bow when he finally pulled himself from his daze, releasing Alora’s hand.  

“It’s quite alright, Lord Ezra. You have the gratitude of the King and I. We would have both been devastated had we lost the Princess.” Natalia was quick to draw lines even in Xarellei’s absence; she and the King on one side, and Alora on the other. The ecstatic grin she wore rivaled that of a Cheshire cat, pleased with the turn of events in her favor. Though some of it might have been real excitement over a blossoming new romance, it was likely also excitement for her own security– a sign that she was closer to success than before. 

She might have been right . . .

“Come, let us wait for the King. I’m sure he won’t be long.” Lady Natalia moved ahead of them, into the dining hall where a table had been set for them. She took her usual place to the King’s right, letting Alora claim her own seat to his left. “His Highness will more than likely thank you himself. He is quite fond of Princess Alora.” 

Her gaze flicked up to the Lady of Leviatha, wondering if she heard her correctly. 

“I believe he thinks of her as a little sister or something similar. He’s always fussing over her, fretting over whether she’s had enough to eat or looking after her if she’s too far behind. He’s very considerate of her.” 

“Indeed, he is.” Alora smiled into her cup, concealing her amusement. She almost barked with laughter at the assumption regarding their relationship. She wondered how she would react to knowing that the King manipulated her into his bed, that he turned her away to rest beside her.

It was a great story. Kelyn couldn’t help but smile, her eyes fixed on the road as she imagined him as a

The King found himself peering over the railing of the Revelation’s deck for hours at at a time. He quite enjoyed the when the river bled into the distant ocean’s horizon, especially when the sun floated near dusk with washes and ribbons of vibrant color. The sight invoked strange, ethereal sensations… something like fleeting glimpses from a past life. Xårełlęi might have once been a simple fisherman, free from the heavy weight of a powerful King’s ambitions.

A sort of mental malaise descended upon the King shortly after he took to his room on the Revelation. The brunt of it stemmed from the weight of disaster which abruptly ended the Grand Council… his Grand Appeal to occupied Ronah, and eventually the world. His forces ultimately prevailed over the Red Threat, but they were nevertheless caught by surprise, implying a crippling lack of foresight. Perhaps his kingdom’s unchecked arrogance was not quite the asset he had proposed to his generals. Perhaps he was misguided about other things as well…

There was also an exhaustion that coalesced from his practiced facades, and it had possibly contaminated his recent decisions. The King had invited Lord Ezra onboard the Revelation, but why? Some subconscious desire for penance? His weary mind likely saw Alora slipping away alongside the Grand Council, and sought to boldly test the creeping hand of fate. She and Lord Ezra shared glances along the lines of fledgling lovers, and had certainly graced each other’s minds at night. In a way, their embrace would be a relief from his own delusional pretense that Alora was somehow reserved for the King’s pursuit. But there would be repercussions, should Lord Ezra be the one to claim the Princess into his arms.

Rob me of Alora, Xårełlęi quietly dared, and my passion for her shall channel itself appropriately. My conquest will sweep across this world with a dominance that will last an eternity.

The King’s newfound spies were the welcome addition to his arsenal that kept his spirits afloat. They floated like ghosts on the landscape of a ship’s deck, prone to startle those who rounded corners or pushed through the shadows of hallways. Their dedication to Xårełlęi was evident, and they were refreshingly forthright through their discussion and consultation.

Xårełlęi couldn’t remember much from the dinner he spent with Natalia and Alora. Soon after the King took his place at the table, he felt his mind float to a corner of the dining room, as if to objectively witness himself detail his proposal. Ŝhanthah’s sovereignty was the first point, inspired by the well-dressed man’s question at the public podium of the Grand Council, moments before a sea of red robes drowned the King’s answer. Following this would be the reinstatement of Alora’s parents upon their thrones, with a transitory period involving his troops and dignitaries assisting with political and economical affairs.

I will leave Ŝhanthah better than I found it, the King vigorously emphasized… but there was a disappointing hollowness in his words. They somehow resembled the vacant promises of a politician.

The King was at a loss to recall Alora’s reaction, whether she was excited, thankful, concerned, indifferent… most likely she despised the idea of Xårełlęi’s residual influence upon her kingdom in anyshape or form. At this he would silently concede that there would be those whose hearts and minds he simply could not reach.

Of course, behind the veil of diplomacy was the truth which dare not leave his lips, yet another facade to perpetuate. Behold, Princess Alora, my attempt to win your favor towards spending another night in my bed.

He had previously dangled Alora’s parents to force her hand towards obedience. But her lack of willingness ultimately made her warmth upon his bed unsatisfying. He supposed Natalia had the near perfect blend of obedience and willingness that he quite enjoyed, once his experimentations bore the fruit of lust.

At this reflection, the King would visibly wince. Even with Natalia’s beauty, he had to experiment. As a young man, just the thought of her would have driven him mad with lust. His life was so complicatednow, and Xårełlęi supposed his tastes had evolved accordingly…

Perhaps in some parallel life, his spreading conquest was instead the bloodless crusade of enlightenment which he had conceived from the start. Perhaps in this life, he and Alora got along swimmingly and were on the way to their fourth child.


“Sir?” Lieutenant Moon interrupted his fog of thought with a look of hesitancy. “You’ve been standing here for a while… is there anything I can do for you?”

The King turned to him with eyes yet to return from some far-off place. Through the distance there was a glimmer of recognition… his officer looked so young, almost resembling a boy trying on his father’s uniform.

“How did I look to you, Lieutenant?” the King suddenly asked.

“Ah… sir?” Moon would tilt his head with slight confusion.

“My eyes just now, the way they looked. How would you describe them?”

“Ah… wellum sir, I guess you looked a bit…well… lost,” the Lieutenant said after carefully deciding upon the right word in his mind.

The King snorted a laugh as his eyes returned to the water. “Huh. Lost.” A peculiar smile lifted to his face, while Lieutenant Moon looked all the more mystified. Their conversation would hold in place as the King considered his officer’s choice of word.

“I’ve never been lost, Lieutenant,” the King finally remarked in such a way to close an argument. “I’m just charting a new course.”

A knock at the King’s door was eventually answered with Xårełlęi in pajamas and his face half-shaven. He would be greeted by Natalia in a flowing night gown, flanked on either side by Nah and Nana, or Nih and Nini… gods, he couldn’t keep them straight in his head.

“She persisted,” the pair said in unison before parting their separate ways. Natalia deliberately brushed past the King’s chest as she entered his quarters before finding his eyes.

“My King, you’ve seemed so… distant, lately,” Natalia said with some concern. “I thought the warmth between my legs might help ease your mind into place.”

The casual frankness of Natalia’s words lit a spark within Xårełlęi, but it would quickly fade. “You’re right, I have been distant,” the King agreed. “I doubt my ability to rouse myself tonight, but your presence is always welcome.”

Natalia looked disappointed as she sat herself on the King’s bed. “Your… fire was clearly evident when punishment was dangled over my own pleasure,” Natalia observed quietly. “Perhaps now I… wholeheartedly accept this dynamic between us.”

“Perhaps you do, Alora,” the King said with a smile.

There was a moment of silence before a series of blinks fluttered across Natalia’s eyes. “My King, did you just call me…

A flood of embarrassment would swiftly rise before it was rejected outright by the King’s brusque state of mind. A wave of sleepy relief would instead take its place.

“I did. I called you Alora.”

Natalia blinked once again, her ears pulled and eyes narrowed towards some semblance of accusation. “Why would you…

“I suppose I crave her company,” he explained with a shrug that rose from the deepest bowels of callousness. “Alora is beautiful, and I seek to bed her.” The truth felt magnificent upon the King’s lips, no matter the impending consequences.

Natalia’s mouth fell open as tears welled in her eyes. “But… I thought that…”

The King couldn’t help himself now. “Thought what? That you alone satisfied me? That the Princess somehow escaped my eye?” He’d shift on the bed while considering his next words carefully… ensuring his truth was accurately expressed.

“You do satisfy me, Natalia. This I’ve said, and now reassure. And yet, my cup runneth over with the desire of those beyond my reach.”

The pair sat silently on the King’s bed for quite some time. Natalia, her face flushed and her cheeks wet, would be the one to break the heavy air with a raspy declaration.

“You may, my King.”

“I may… ?” The King seemed to stir from the depths of a daydream.

Natalia steadied herself with a shuddery breath before speaking again. “You may call me Alora.” Her hand then reached for the King’s palm and guided it slowly to her breast.

“My heart aches…” A sniffle would catch her throat and start her words again. “It aches, but it will mend with time. For now, I am obliged to your satisfaction.” Natalia then leaned close to Xårełlęi and whispered near his ear.

Fuck me. I am your Princess Alora.

A white-hot lust swallowed Xårełlęi from head to toe upon hearing the words. He wasted no time tearing off the clothes between them before pinning Natalia below his weight. The King’s eruption quaked across his body after a mere moment’s thrust, looking down through his mind’s mask of emerald eyes and fair skin as he moaned the Princess’ name, soaked in absolute ecstasy.

General Rolander was a sight for Xårełlęi’s sore eyes. He was easy to pick out amongst the company of soldiers waiting for the Revelation’s arrival at Shanthah’s riverside port. The Revelation was waved in, docked and boarded, with escorts quickly assigning them to the King’s side, as well as Natalia’s and Alora’s. The King’s four spies were introduced to a curious Rolander, who eyed them with brief suspicion before allowing their presence alongside the kingsguard.

From the port, a smaller brother of the Steambreather would transport the King and his party to Ŝhanthah castle in a half-day’s time, where weary legs and minds could find their rest. An exhausted Xårełlęi had arranged for his night’s departure before Rolander intervened with his presence. A deep, measured breath would steady the King’s patience at his chamber door before allowing his general to speak.

“My apologies for interrupting you at such a late hour, my King. But I sought to confirm your Lieutenant’s report… you had begun talks towards Ŝhanthah’s sovereignty?”

“Yes, general, I had.” The look on Rolander’s face desperately wanted to ask why.

“I am formulating a plan, Rolander.” The King’s smile reflected a cryptic certainty. “One that will render these political games obsolete. One that ensures the world’s obedience, alongside its willingness.

Rolander’s gaze widened slightly at the King’s words before an unspoken understanding swept over his mind. He then excused himself with a slow, rigid salute and a clip-clap of his boots.

As the doors opened the casual conversation between dinner guests silenced. They rose as the King entered, waiting for him to take his seat at the head of the table. To Alora’s surprise there was none of the boastful pomp from the Grand Council, where he touted his success in conquest and innovation. She thought it might have been due to his injury, a limited mobility wearing on his spirit and stamina. Not even the likes of Natalia’s wiles seemed to tempt his engagement for long, a brush of his hand or an inviting smile only gaining his focus for a time before he appeared distant once again. Pleasant talk carried on without him, though it made for an awkward atmosphere. When Xarellei finally did break free of whatever fog clouded his mind, he revealed a most unexpected intention.

The Princess was stunned, so shocked that she was without words to express herself. There were too many emotions attempting to prevail, too many rapid thoughts to wrangle. At face value, it was exactly what she wanted; to be free of Xarellei, to take back Shantha, and restore power to her family. There was even the promise of all the betterment of his resources, the revolutionary marvels he deployed to offer solutions to the long-time gripes and troubles of the common folk. His modern wonders had improved quality of life by leaps and bounds, and despite the price that was paid for them she could never quite bring herself to scoff at their value. Depriving the people of things that would make their life easier would have been a selfish trade for independence and power. The hard decision was taken from her hands, and the relief that came in the absence of that weight was so immense that she couldn’t hide the gratefulness that appeared on her countenance. 

She wanted to ask why

The only possible reason she could think of was that he was, indeed, letting her go– releasing the idea that she would forget the hostile nature of their takeover, forget the manipulation and coercion, and the hope that she might fall into his arms. After all, he had invited Lord Ezra aboard the ship and seemed to acknowledge his admiration of her. If he truly believed that there was a chance he would not have placed himself in a position to compete with another, unless he had no intention to do so. Alora couldn’t be certain . . . In fact, she never could be sure of the King’s motivations, which made her question just how genuine the offer was; if there were strings attached to his gracious offer. 

“Thank you, Your Highness.” She managed despite her confusion. Her gratitude seemed to dispel any tension that had accumulated with her silence and his obvious disappointment. “I’m sure we’ll discuss the matter more when we arrive in Shantha, but your gesture is most kind, as is your thoughtful accommodation for the citizens of the kingdom.” Alora wore her best smile, ensuring that its warmth was absent of any quality that could be misconstrued as gloating or delight. As she went back to her plate, her food looked less appetizing. Even its taste has lost its bold flavors as suspicion began to set in. 

“I would have loved to see the engine and boiler room. I hear it’s an amazingly complex structure.” Alora admitted as she and Lord Ezra reached the main deck. The sky and the sea were just as vast, seemingly endless with deep blue, rolling waves meeting the azure hue of a bright horizon. Clouds were sparse, and the air was filled with a faint, pleasant brine. She enjoyed the ocean view from the nearest ledge, her hands resting on the rail for stability out of habit. The way the Revelation glided on the water made for a smooth journey even when met with rougher currents. Not once did she feel her stomach sink with nausea or her head become heavy with dizziness. 

“It is, but hardly worth straining yourself going up and down stairs and ladders, Princess.” Lord Ezra said, joining her. He leaned his back against the sturdy rail, his arms folding across his chest as he took in a view of his own. 

She could sense his lingering gaze, playfully insistent on her attention. He would look away the moment she turned to meet it, she knew. Alora had tried to catch him many times before; admiring her while she inspected strange wonders on the ship, or simply in passing as she went about her day. She got the sense that he received some satisfaction in drawing her eye, and as much as she wished to deny him the pleasure her competitiveness wouldn’t allow her to. Emerald orbs flicked up quickly, meeting his earthy, hazel stare. It was nothing short of smoldering, brimming with an unspoken desire that caught her off guard. Completely ensnared, she felt her cheeks bloom with color, a rosy tint becoming on her fair complexion. 

“Did you know the King and I were not involved?” She asked to cut the tension which was thick and palpable, like the air before rain. Alora found herself mirroring the charming smirk that favored one side of his lips. 

“No, not at first.” He moved closer, his gaze unrelenting. “I just wanted to dance with a radiant woman.” Briefly his eyes fixated on her golden locks, how her strands caught in the wind and ghosted around her lovely visage. “I thought to myself, ‘if I were in possession of such a beautiful woman, I would wear her on my arm so that everyone would know she is mine.’” 

The possessive nature of the word sent a ripple down her spine that left goosebumps in its wake. 

“His Majesty arrived on his own, not even the Lady of Leviatha on his arm. But, I am no fool. He covets the both of you, despite Lady Natalia’s belief to the contrary. I am more sure of it now with Shantha’s impending sovereignty. It is . . . unprecedented, and so I am left to assume that you are not as attainable as I’d hoped when I received the invitation aboard this ship.” 

The Princess lowered her eyes, his point resonating with the thoughts that kept her up at night. 

“I could be wrong,” his lifted a hand, delicately raising her chin to capture her bright green pools once more. The pad of his thumb gently ran over her lips, appreciating their softness, how lush and plump they were. “I hope I’m wrong because I have never been more enamored with anyone in my life.” 

In that moment, he began to lean in and close the gap between them. Alora wanted him to claim her lips with all the passion in the promise of his words, consequences be damned. She pushed herself onto her toes, her eyes beginning to shut in anticipation of the taste of his lips when a movement in her periphery made her pause. She pulled back a bit, able to see the material of a black robe pull around the corner. 

Those damn Weird Sisters.

“S-sorry,” she apologized, her voice faint with regret when she realized that she couldn’t risk his life or jeopardize her own mission with reckless, fleeting thrills. As she stepped away the warmth of his body dissipated, fading faster than she would have liked. “You’re right, it’s a complicated matter best unburdened by . . . more complicated emotions. If things were different–”

“There’s no need to explain, Princess Alora.” The young Lord didn’t appear too dejected, though traces of regret coalesced with the longing as he let the Princess have her distance. He turned, elbows resting on the rail to stare out to the expanse of the ocean. “But, if things were different, indeed.” A cheeky grin was all it took to salvage the moment, return them to contentment despite the remnants of passionate urges fueling forbidden tension.

*** ​
“I thought you would be joining us as a guest in Shantha’s capital.” Lady Natalia’s tone was oddly accusatory. Her displeasure upon seeing Lord Ezra pass off his belongings to his own staff was one of many off behaviors. Where there was once a vibrant and enthusiastic demeanor, there was now standoffishness. Her recent detachment wasn’t cause for alarm at first. Alora assumed that she was allowing her to spend time with Lord Ezra without the hindrance of her company, in hopes that they would grow close enough to blossom into lovers right before the King’s eyes so that she could become his one and only flame. The frustration that drew her brows down and wrinkled her nose seemed misplaced.

“Apologies, Lady Natalia. I would have loved to join you all, but I can’t leave my estate for too long. I have business to attend to, but I plan to visit soon.” His brow rose as the Lady of Leviatha conceded, bitterness still evident upon her features. 

“Of course. It’s just a shame. You were getting along so well . . . Safe travels, Lord Ezra.” She turned, not so much as a respectful bow to punctuate the empty farewell. 

“Well, Princess, this is where we part ways.” He smiled, taking her hand. His thumb brushed over the back of her palm. He had hesitated before, but he lifted her knuckles to his lips. He closed his eyes, pressing a lingering kiss to her hand. “I do hope we can see each other again soon.”

“You could very well be banished for a time if you don’t behave yourself in this moment.” Alora playfully admonished. The port was busy, bustling with merchants and sailors along with the King’s detail rushing to ready them for another short journey. Eyes and ears were attracted to more astonishing things, the spectacle that was the colossal vessel and the vehicles that hummed with life, but they would not be entirely overlooked. 

“As you wish, Princess. I will take my leave now.” He rose, releasing her hand finally. 

“Safe travels, Lord Ezra.” She turned, a lingering look over her shoulder as she was escorted to their vehicle. Sitting down, she felt a tug of loneliness. Lady Natalia had claimed a seat so far away, the iciness of her aura repelling her. Alora expected that she would want details, to hear of all the things they spoke about and shared with one another. The disinterest was tangible, aggressive even– so much that she didn’t dare look her way. If it was exhaustion that wore on her tolerance, the Princess was happy to allow her space. 

Her excitement to see the spires of Shantha’s castle made the short journey feel long. Alora was anxious to walk the familiar halls, take in the scents of home, and feel the softness of her own bed. She thought she might immediately feel the embrace of fatigue when they finally arrived. Instead, she was wide awake, an internal clock haywire from lack of routine. As she walked behind Lady Natalia, she wondered if a bit of rest had helped her mood. 

“Would you like to have a cup of tea before bed? I could get one of the servants to brew a relaxing chamomile . . .” Alora trailed as Lady Natalia continued to move ahead, blatantly ignoring her. “Are you . . . Are you upset with me? If I’ve done something wrong, I would –”

Nothing is wrong, Princess Alora.” She said firmly, turning on her quickly forcing her to pause. “I have been with you morning, noon, and night for weeks. Must we be joined at the hip always? Are we not allowed to be individuals?”

Alora flinched at the harshness of his words, but also at their validity. They had been spending quite some time together, and she had grown accustomed to her company– to a tiring degree, it seemed. “I’m sorry– of course. I didn’t realize I was not giving you sufficient space, and taking up all of your time. It’s just . . .” She never got the sense that she was a burden before. “Please, forgive me. And, have a good night.”

Xarellei. He had to be up to something. There could be no other explanation for Natalia’s sudden sour mood, just as he had done before when he threatened punishment. The Princess marched to his room, a fire burning beneath her heels as she passed guards and eventually came upon the pale-faced sisters. They flanked his doors, glancing between one another at the sight of her approach. 

“Princess of Shantha, do you wish to see the King?” One asked eagerly, excitement barely contained. “He is not here at the moment, but will be soon.”

“Yes. Soon. Please enter, make yourself comfortable.” Another chimed, opening the door to his chambers. 

She hesitated for a moment before stepping forward, crossing the threshold into his room. His space was prepared for him, candles lit and a fire crackling pleasantly in the hearth. Alora took a seat in a chair nearby, trying not to lose the fuel of her anger as she waited.

“We’d have to push farther,” Stafford said.

“Swim deeper,” Leonard added.

Xårełlęi sat at a table with his pair of senior scientists as he reclined leisurely upon his chair. A lone torch on the wall provided the only beacon against the absolute blackness of a windowless room. In his hands was the crescent-shaped toy he shared with Natalia a few nights before, traveling to and fro between fingertips that were intent on the strange texture that felt like wood but wasn’t… it was somehow beyond wood, as was the shell of the Steambreather.

They had approached him shortly after Rolander was relieved for the night… There was Dr. Stafford, with his bushy red hair and beard atop a lanky frame, with freckled skin and stone blue eyes that expressed a keen intelligence. Dr. Leonard accompanied him, a shorter, heavier man with a thick neck braced by a mason’s shoulders. His dark, yarn-like tufts and beady gaze were loud contrasts against his partner. They both wore off-duty uniforms hidden mostly away by white coats.

Despite the King’s exhaustion, the arrival of his scientists was a signal he could not ignore. Somehow, they had sensed his mental workings through some ghostly channel he wasn’t able to comprehend.

“You seek the Door again,” Leonard said with a low, confessing voice.

The King nodded at his doctor’s observation. And here they now were, an impromptu meeting that could not wait until the following day, with Rolander and a pair of his white-faced kingsguard stranding watch outside a locked doorway. In certain ways, the King knew the men in this room more intimately than any woman from his bed.

“We’ll push as far, and swim as deep through the Door as we need,” Xårełlęi said. “And we shall prepare appropriately.”

The Door imposed sensations that seemed unique to each individual. The King entered its hallowed gate with his scientists and felt an immediate excitement on the other side… an immense feeling of connectivity, as if the barrier of minds had been dropped. Coordinates were set beforehand to direct them to time periods most useful to their objectives… How they were set was another mystery, known only to Stafford’s and Leonard’s meticulous calculations.

It seemed to reduce its entrants to a vibration… an undetectable hum of existence that traversed mountainsides with a simple thought, climbed the sides of buildings with the ease of will… Obstructions such as walls became laughing matters, and their secrets were easily exposed. And thus the King’s scientists could watch engineers from other times with the intent to learn, tapping into their adjacent hum as one would place their ear upon a wall and listen to a conversation from an adjacent room… touching upon the focus of minds working collectively towards a single purpose.

The sensation as a whole was strangely, deeply, delightfully intimate… the King often wondered what his experience would be with Natalia or Alora at his side as willing escorts through the Door.

Occasionally, a physical specimen was obtained and brought with them through the Door, but their acquisitions were typically the sole knowledge and expertise to build and create… which was always more than enough.

“So then,” Stafford began. “My first suggestion is introducing an agent into a kingdom’s water supply that would ensure its compliance towards our goals.”

There was a moment to process Stafford’s thought. “So essentially, we’d be poisoning a kingdom into obedience?” Xårełlęi posited.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Leonard remarked with grim subtlety.

The look on the King’s face resembled a thoughtful grimace. “I’m not sure if I’m taking well to thatparticular approach. What other options are there… could be there?”

Leonard shifted in his seat as Stafford spoke. “There might be a way we can… broadcast the mandate of docility through the collective apparatus of unassuming towers.”

Broadcast. Xårełlęi considered himself a perceptive enough individual, but he did occasionally have trouble following the points of his scientists. The technical jargon they often used wore itself to exhaustion rather quickly. His mind conjured the image of a boat casting outward with broad waves upon the water…

Leonard could visibly see the King’s mental gnawing of the concept and explained it further. “Think of it as wind,” he continued. “A wind that caresses the mind with a silent, persistent command of obedience. Stretching as far and wide as our towers can carry the message.”

“And this wind wouldn’t… hurt anyone?”

Leonard smiled. “No more than a glass of whiskey hurts you by forcing your drowsiness.” Xårełlęi gave a slow, satisfied nod.

“Will Ŝhanthah be our initial observatory?” Stafford asked.

The King feigned a moment of consideration. “Out of my respect and admiration for the Princess, we shall designate her kingdom as exempt,” was the answer already waiting at his lips. “Ronah shall be our testing ground for the time being.”

“A week’s time?” Leonard asked for clarification. There were a pair of nods, from both the King and Stafford.

“I’m sure Director Renthall will be delighted to participate in such a project,” Stafford said.

“I’m sure he would,” Xårełlęi said with a curl of a smile.

And thus his scientists excused themselves the room… Dr. Stafford, with his technical terms describing sexual release as orgasm while he maintained his asexuality, and Dr. Leonard, with his fondness for chess and childhood toys… They both of course were acutely aware of the King’s weakness for the Princess, but dared not to speak of it.

The sight of Alora invoked feelings of warmth, curiosity, and uneasiness in equal amounts. Xårełlęi wasn’t sure why the Princess had come to visit him, but if she had questions to ask, the King doubted his ability to be tactful with his responses… especially after his enlightening experience with Natalia the prior night. The truth upon his lips, it seemed, had set his mind free, for better or worse.

And for better or worse, the urge towards a brazen proposal was more intense than it should have been…

I’ll happily entertain your presence this evening, Princess, if you share my bed once again.

“I’m glad to see you looking so well,” Xårełlęi finally said while changing into his robe and nightly attire behind a dressing screen. It seemed another consequence of his newfound enlightenment was an impatience that bordered on shamelessness.

“Now then, dear Princess. How may I help you this evening?” The King couldn’t help the eagerness in his eyes as he moved towards his bed, leaning upon its headboard with a steady arm as he engaged Alora’s audience.

Just like the flames that lapped and bit at the burning wood in the hearth, her irritation was sufficiently fed. She thought her temper might wane with time, feared that it would dwindle as the seconds ticked away. An irrational impatience only fortified her annoyance, and every moment that passed contributed to a sense of false urgency. Her inquiry could have waited till morning. Hours between now and then would have done little to deter her, even if it would allow her to organize her thoughts and suppress emotions that might detract from valid concerns. As the Princess sat fireside, tapping a restless finger against the carved, mahogany arm, she attempted to sort through a mess of implications and suspicions caused by a series of uncharacteristic gestures– particularly with regard to the offer of Shantha’s sovereignty. 

She wanted to believe that it was genuine, that he’d tapped into a tiny vein of decency; the same one that he used to calm her when her chest tightened frightfully, or when he visited her ward to wish well. Those moments were free of imposing pressure, thoughtful deeds done without expectation. While the King’s proposal was seemingly absent of devious intent, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it simply hadn’t been presented to her yet. It wouldn’t have been the first time he withheld information, revealing it when it suited him in order to tip scales in his favor. 

A twist of the door knob pulled her from her thoughts swiftly. 

The King crossed to conceal himself behind a partition. Alora could hear the rustle of fabric as it left his body one article at a time. She allowed him the benefit of the doubt, hopeful that he would not misconstrue the nature of her visit. Though he could have waited to hear out before readying himself to turn in for the evening, it was late and the day had been long. 

The Princess rose when he emerged from behind the partition, releasing a mildly exasperated sigh as his path led him toward the bed. She stepped forward but maintained her distance, wary of what ideas her proximity to his bed might conjure for him. 

“I’m concerned,” she admitted, a slight tilt of her head making a cascade of blonde locks sway. “And, I feel as though I have so many reasons to be concerned, Your Highness. I’d like to start with the fact that the Lady of Leviatha is now ignoring me, out of the blue it would seem. She is usually high strung after evenings spent in your bed, but as of late she has been particularly set on avoiding me. It is unfortunate because I’ve done well to ensure I am no obstacle in her pursuits for your affection. So well, that she believed that you cared for me just as one would care for a sibling.” Alora moved closer, her measured steps carrying her toward the foot of the bed. “I don’t suppose you would have some . . . insight as to why she is suddenly so irritated by my presence?”

The Princess’ inquiry somehow pulled a portion of brashness from the King’s demeanor. His ghost of a grin fell away while his hand rescinded its grip from the bed’s headboard and retreated into his pocket. In a way he looked liked a guilty youngster ready to confess some misdeed that would surely result in punishment.

Alora’s question had an obvious answer, but should the King dance around the particulars? Would he dress his reply to better suit some unseen audience?

“She is likely jealous,” the King sighed with a hint of regret. “Natalia grudgingly tolerated my preference of your name during our lovemaking. As a matter of fact, all my cravings of late have been rather… challenging for her.”

“And if you doubted my intentions in regards to your kingdom’s sovereignty,” Xårełlęi continued in an effort to immediately address all potential concerns, “I can reassure you they come with no strings attached. Your kingdom shall be free, and hopefully bettered with the legacy of my influence. I can only pray it becomes evident to you after the fact.”

The King then shifted his weight to his opposite hip, a sort of restlessness rising to his limbs. “Stay patient, Princess Alora. You’ll finally be rid of me, sooner than later. Now, was there anything else? Perhaps about Lord Ezra?” The last question seemed to almost slip out of the King’s mouth, accompanied by a fierce envy in his eyes.

Color blossomed across her cheeks, heat bringing about a pink hue that burned in tandem with the shock that froze her through and through. The King’s shameless reveal stole all thought from her brain momentarily, the gears grinding to an abrupt halt. The steam generated by her temper cooled, doused with a sudden gust. Alora couldn’t find the words to recover from the unexpected and despicable admission. It was no wonder the Lady of Leviatha shunned her so abruptly, that she could hardly look at her without bitterness singing her taste buds. Though she had been preparing herself to disappoint Natalia, she planned to be as tactful as possible– to try to salvage amicable feelings and avoid ill will. Single-handedly her hopes were toppled. 

The King easily predicted her next concern, attempting to lay her worries for Shantha to rest. Her green eyes searched him, honing in on every feature to try to detect the slightest hint of deceit. Despite no trace that he was intentionally being duplicitous, she couldn’t allow herself to relinquish that unsettling feeling that something was amiss. It was, perhaps, that she didn’t understand why he suddenly wished to release her from his hold. When she took his unusual appetites and obvious envy into account she knew she was right to suspect some sort of backlash for thwarting his previous advances. 

A smile tugged at her lips, a small curl that held an almost devious quality to it.

“Should I be concerned about Lord Ezra?” Alora had been content to keep her distance before but she moved toward him, slow steps carrying her to the side of the bed where he stood. “Or, should you be concerned about Lord Ezra? I don’t really think you are . . . Just like I don’t think you want me to be rid of you.” The Princess paused when she was toe-to-toe with the King, staring up at him with a provocative kind of curiosity that made emerald orbs glint alluringly. She lifted a hand, placing a palm against his chest where she could feel the thrum of his heart. 

“I think . . . You want to believe that you can just walk away, leave this kingdom without feeling the sting of loss or leave me.” Slowly her hand trailed downward, fingertips dragging along a trail that led lower and lower. “You are a conqueror through and through, so greedy for the world and everything in it. How could you spare me?” The hand that tempted his body halted at the sash tied about his waist. She let her slender digits wiggle into the knot, using it to pull him in closer so that he could feel the plushness of her chest. 

“You can reassure me all you’d like but I simply can’t believe you . . . So, what is it that you’re trying to do?”

The King folded his arms behind his back, his watch never wavering from the intoxicating green gaze of the Princess. Amidst her tantalizing touch, Xårełlęi steadied his thoughts as a focused, impassive sentry, despite the boiling hot excitement below his waist.

“As far as Lord Ezra,” Xårełlęi began after an awkward swallow, “I was the one who invited him on the Revelation. Partly as a gesture to ease your potential discomfort during the trip, but also as…” He paused to collect his words, and the expression on his face grudgingly allowed a type of humility.

“I suppose I recognized the opportunity to study him from afar. You seemed quite charmed with the fellow, and through my haze of jealousy I saw a way to learn and observe… my social prowess is admittedly limited, Princess. I know how to lead an army, how to command a soldier, how to direct an order…

The King’s hand reached for Alora’s enticing fingers and clasped them firmly but gently, lifting them to his heartbeat once more.

“I’ve previously manipulated you into my bed, and I’m resisting the ridiculous urge to order you there now. I am just…” The King closed his eyes and winced softly. “I fear my failure with my Grand Council has affected me in ways I couldn’t predict. I couldn’t focus on a damned thing with that weight on my mind.”

“And then there’s your kingdom…” The King’s hand gave Alora’s palm a sensuous squeeze. “Yet another frivolous attempt to somehow earn your favor in spite of myself. But that’s not the whole of it, of course…”

Xårełlęi steadied his indigo gaze and closed whatever gap between he and Alora. In his heart and mind, the King knew that the words assembling on his lips were folly… for they could jeopardize his goals in ways yet foreseen. And yet, due to fate or arrogance or both, he brazenly spoke against his better judgment. Alora’s warmth and touch had its way of loosening his guard.

“My scientists and I are developing a way to render my weapons of war obsolete… a bloodless method to bend a kingdom and its people towards their best interests. Politics will soon be a thing of the past, and my presence needn’t persuade a stubborn King, be it from his own castle or across the span of an ocean.”

The King then stepped back and straightened his shoulders, lifting his chin while maintaining the lock of his vision.

“Alora, you have my word that I shall honor my evacuation of your castle. Of course, I would seriously entertain any notions of remaining here as a guest, along with my kingsguard and perhaps a small garrison of troops…” The smirk on Xårełlęi’s face readily accepted the unlikelihood of that outcome.

“And now that I’ve bore my heart and soul to you, Princess, I suppose you’d be on your way for the evening.” Alora’s palm remained nevertheless clasped, and the King’s gaze held fast. And then, the inevitable proposition.

“If you spend another night in my bed,” the King said with a keen glance, “I would tell you more of this instrument of mine.” He smiled while releasing Alora’s hand. “The choice is yours.”

The King exhibited more composure and restraint than she expected, but he was not entirely without indication of struggle. While his demeanor was collected, cool and controlled despite an inciting hand, his speech informed her that he was a little more affected than he let on. Small pauses seemed to allow him to fend off temptation, awkward silences letting him gather his thoughts. But, her gentle provoking was overcome soon enough. As he reached for her hand and returned it to his chest, she could feel how steady his heart was– powerful still as it rapped in its confines, but absent of the erratic fluttering of dishonesty. His motivations were not betrayed by any disingenuous gesture; not defensiveness or avoidance. There was more sincerity in his expression than she anticipated, candor and vulnerability slowly extinguishing her doubts. Flawed as his reasoning was, she didn’t sense devious intent . . . Until the mention of his work with scientists.

Curiosity flared in her eyes once more as she tried to understand his cryptic plot to end war and conflict. It sounded like a utopian concept, one that she might have scoffed at if it came from anyone else. The contraptions and devices in his arsenal were frightening at times, but she recognized their usefulness and how effective they were for their purpose. There was little question of whether he would be successful at creating such a thing, but there was a question of how dangerous it was. 

The Princess believed that moment for honesty and openness had come and gone as Xarellei stepped back. Though he maintained a gentle hold on her hand, she anticipated that he would close the door now that her immediate concerns had been addressed. After expressing all the measures he’d taken to act on her wishes to be rid of him, she was caught off guard by his offer. Alora forgot herself for a moment, her features dulling at the shameless request. Without the pressure of a difficult task, she would have swiftly turned the offer down and retired to her own chambers for the evening. Her own self-preservation prevailed, and gradually an unamused visage turned to reflective thought. 

“. . . I will stay with you . . .” She agreed, far less disinclined than even she thought she would be. Alora knew more about the King now. He was far from a gentleman, but he had never forced himself on her– not even when the opportunity presented itself before. With that in mind, she felt confident that he would not overstep his bounds. More so now with his display of restraint. 

Alora moved over to the partition, concealing herself behind it so that she could reach behind her and tug at the bow behind her back. The material loosened around her petite waist, giving her enough room to lift her skirt over her head. With the delicate layers gone, she was left in nothing but a silk white undergarment, so fine that it was almost sheer. The thin and airy barrier just barely grazed her sensual silhouette, following her every sultry curve. A healthier appetite ensured that supple assets appeared fuller, volume in her hips and chest making delectable assets more prominent. When she emerged from behind the partition she seemed to realize just how bare she felt. Her nightgown before, while just as light, at least provided more coverage. Still, she was confident as she moved to the opposite side of the bed, removing the pins from her hair to let more of her glorious, golden waves free. 

“I’ve always been curious about your . . . attraction.” She started, striking conversation in hopes of distracting herself from her inner discomfort. “Surely it is not my defiance that causes you to want to earn my favor, or resort to using my name in your intimate activities. You know nothing about me,” Alora laid her pins down on the small table beside the bed before sitting down to remove her earrings. “And, there are plenty of beautiful women who would willingly satisfy your desires. Is this a common occurence of yours, fleeting infatuation?” For all she knew there could have been more unattainable Princesses and Ladies before her, conquered or unconquered beauties that managed to drive him to grand acts and great lengths. She pulled the blankets back, placing herself beneath their warmth.

The King scoffed playfully at Alora’s comment. “Curious, you say? I believe you’d sooner extinguish my pursuit by veiling yourself as a gargoyle than invest any sort of curiosity to my… attraction.” His glances towards the Princess seemed cautious, as if indulging upon her voluptuousness might abruptly forfeit his discipline.

Xårełlęi then joined the Princess under the covers, bringing with him a scent of sandalwood as he shifted and settled underneath the soft drape of silk. His dark hair was tousled and frayed, draping over his forehead and just above the deep blue of his eyes. An accidental brush of the King’s foot against Alora’s shin sent a shudder up his leg that he hoped went unnoticed. His arms eventually folded at his sides with hands underneath his head as he looked up to the ceiling.

“Why do you believe my infatuation with you to be fleeting? I’ve imposed myself upon you for months, and here I am enjoying your presence beside me, despite my awkward manipulations. I’ve previously posed the notion of you birthing my successor… much to your horror, I’m sure, but that would surely suggest my interest is far from fleeting.”

A deep pull of breath seemed to dismiss the expectation of Alora’s rebuttal, shifting to the matter at hand.

“Before anything else,” the King explained with a glance, “I must tell you of the Door.”

A pickaxe punched its way through a wall of bedrock, allowing a beam of light to pierce an ancient darkness left unperturbed for centuries. The hole was widened to allow the peek of a curious eye with the help of a lighted match, and an excited voice followed suit.

“Stafford! Leonard! I’ve found something!”

Prince Xårełlęi was quickly joined by his colleagues from either direction. A series of forceful shoves further widened the hole, revealing an ancient room with carved walls and a tented ceiling. Once they climbed inside, Stafford was quick to post a lantern into the floor and light it ablaze, and what they saw took their breaths away…

There were a pair of rectangular posts, some three yards apart and five yards tall, resembling polished rock with innumerable glyphs written upon them from some lost or unearthly language. The encompassing awe eventually allowed coherence to trickle into the trio of minds.

“Do you have it?” Stafford asked, turning his head to the Prince.

Xårełlęi nodded before reaching into his pocket to reveal a crescent-shaped object with a sphere affixed at its center.

“Very good,” Leonard said. “Now all we need to do is figure out what’s next.

The three slowly circled the structure, their eyes taking in more of its mystery while adjusting to the dark. The grooves of the glyphs reflected the lantern’s scant light like angular waves of water reflecting an orange moon. Chatter between the observers fell away against a commanding fascination that absorbed all questions into silence.

Finally, Xårełlęi’s tired legs would sit upon the cold rock floor with a crack of his knees. “How cruel that even an enigma such as this can grow tiresome,” he sighed.

“Your crescent is the key, I’m sure of it,” Stafford said softly.

“Yes, well… I’m not able to… ” The Prince’s words drifted into thought. Absentmindedly, his crescent toy was nestled with some effort upon a groove that jutted from the floor.

A sudden burst of light lit the room with startling intensity. A sheet of shimmering, translucent cyan materialized between the posts, bringing with it an unearthly hum that echoed upon itself and drowned the air with sound.

Gods!” Leonard cried as his arm lifted defensively. Stafford had backed himself against a wall of rock, his mouth agape and his eyes tearing from fear.

The Prince, meanwhile, was transfixed. He lifted to his feet and studied the ripples of shimmering blue before him. His mind was consumed by curiosity.

“No… wait!” Leonard’s warning was the last thing Xårełlęi heard before he slipped through the sheet of light…

He could hear the cries of terror from his colleagues, yet their mouths were still. A sudden excitement swept across the Prince’s skin, followed by a strange feeling of violation, as if his sense of being was now exposed. He rounded past the pair of rectangular posts and focused on the hole which led into the strange room from the wall of bedrock. Leonard and Stafford were no longer there, but the Prince felt no fear or concern. 

What should have been nearly an hour’s march to daylight took a fraction of the time. The mouth of the cave peered from a mountainside ledge towards a dusk that cradled the approaching night with layers of orange and violet. The sun appeared still, yet felt in motion. The Prince would chew on the sensation and try to decipher its relevance to no avail.

A glance to the right revealed the village of Xara, hazed by dust and distance between folds of hills. There was a thought, and the Prince suddenly found himself in the main square, draped by the saloon’s shadow. To his left was a blacksmith’s shop, and then he was inside to discover a short, curly-haired man with bulging, branching veins along his heavy arms. He was tending to his anvil with hammering blows upon a sheet of red-hot iron. Each blow offered a wealth of knowledge…

A moment of lucid objectivity offered the realization that the Prince couldn’t be seen or sensed, or was simply being ignored. He approached the blacksmith’s hum of focus and dedication to his craft with an outstretched arm, tapping into its vibration along forked fingertips. Decades of his profession were translated into a mind’s breath, absorbed like beads of sweat against a dry sun. The Prince could now smelt a broadsword as well as any man.

The blacksmith’s wife entered his shop with a glass of tea, and the love for her husband swirled like an aura, coalesced with the undying affections towards her past suitors. A spiraling, aggregate, eternal force, love seemed to be…

The ceiling of the shop offered no resistance of reality and presented the Prince with the view of a soaring falcon. A thought, and the Prince joined it in the sky. It was functioning on a hunter’s instinct brought on by an empty stomach, but there were also the foundations of complexity as well. Love and lust, fear and wonder, anger and compassion, they were all there, indiscernible to the shallow, arrogant eyes of man.

The clouds then parted before the Prince, offering the briefest glimpse of a world towered by glass buildings and millions of wheeled carriages without the burden of horses… and oh, the ferocity of weapons…

That’s enough for now
, the Prince heard through the wind that carried his mind’s wings. Those weren’t the exact words, but it was the exact understanding. A pull of incomprehensible force transported him before the Door’s watery sheet of cyan as it beckoned him back to the world from which he came…

His return through the Door swallowed him within the deepest silence and the darkest black. Leonard and Stafford were nowhere to be heard, and the Prince staggered about until he tripped his way to the cave’s primary tunnel through the trial and error of his mind’s map. Its ascent was an uncomplicated slope, but exhausting just the same.

Somehow, the Prince managed his way with heavy boots through Xara as onlookers gawked at him under the crisp light of the noon’s sun. He eventually trudged himself to the castle gate and collapsed at the feet of sentries whose eyes were widened with sheer disbelief.

Xårełlęi awoke sometime later in his bed, tended to by a lovely nurse by the name of Autumn. His crusty eyes pried open to find his colleagues at his side once again.

Prince Xårełlęi,” Leonard said with resounding relief. “Thank the Gods. We were certain to never see you again.”

Why… would you think…” Xårełlęi’s voice croaked through a torn, dry throat.

Stafford and Leoanard looked wearily at one another before they collected their answer. “You disappeared for three weeks,” Stafford explained through a swallow. “We had lost all hope for your return.”

“That was my first experience with the Door,” Xårełlęi said to Alora. “A story fit for a novel, I suppose. An adequate first chapter.” The King smiled weakly at his own jest.

“From there my scientists and I experimented. Simple tests at first, you see… but our knowledge expanded, and the Door’s accuracy was perfected. We found that not only could we explore our currentworld, but others as well.” The King sat on his words for a moment, as if to absorb their magnitude. “Some with varying degrees of similarity to our world, and some that are almost indescribably different.”

“Knowledge of weapons and tactics were acquired towards my goals of conquest, which I now recognize as folly. There must be a better way… my failure with the Grand Council has blessed me with a great awakening, Princess.”

“Which brings me to my great instrument.” Xårełlęi closed his eyes and exhaled while preparing his words. “An apparatus that coaxes all minds into collective acceptance and docility, thus allowing the freedom of clarity… its influence felt instantly across the span of all kingdoms.” The King’s hands spread apart to illustrate his point, then clapped together to punctuate it.

“The Red Dissent has taught me to push for more. A world rid of strife, focused without fear or prejudice towards its own betterment, its own perfection. All kingdoms as brothers across all lands. This needn’t be a fearsome transition, for I have witnessed the potential of this world and the accomplishment of others. That is what I strive for, Princess.”

The King then turned to his side and faced the Princess directly. Now more than ever, he wanted Alora to be still for him as he ran his tongue along the fork of her thighs.

“There’s something else from the Door, as difficult to explain as everything else…” The King sighed through his words as he considered each that passed his lips. “But I’ve felt… echoes that I’m certain represent the essence of you. Our entanglements from past lives, perhaps, or hints of our future, but…”

Without warning, he pulled towards the Princess and pressed a kiss upon her, awkward but affectionate, his tongue mostly sheathed. A moment’s astonishment would pass before the King relinquished himself with a look of regret and apology, grimacing as he turned his back to the Alora underneath the covers.

“I somehow feel that our fates are entwined, and yet there seems to be more evidence that this notion is untrue, that my predications are unfounded. Perhaps that is the delusion that I am cursed to bear.” The King’s limbs settled into harmlessness upon the mattress, and his breathing fell into a slow rhythm.

“If only you could experience the Door for yourself, Alora.” The King breathed his wish through a shudder of disappointment.

Did she part her legs for you?

Xårełlęi abruptly sat up in his bed in a bout of confusion. He couldn’t recall the pull of sleep before it took him, which rose a brief sense of panic. Looking to his right would reveal that Alora was not beside him. All throughout his chamber was a hazy, black mist that seemed to tug from the void.

“Hello, who’s there?” he called through the dark.

His four spies would suddenly materialize at the foot of his bed, side-by-side and hand-in-hand.

“Holy gracious…” The King drew back like a startled cat as his hairs stood on end.

Hello, your Highness, they greeted in unison.

A dawning realization quickly overtook his alarm. “Have you four somehow invaded my dreams?” he’d ask with a sneer upon his lip.

We have our ways, they chorused. Just as you have your own way of carelessness and arrogance.

Xårełlęi narrowed his eyes. “How do you mean?”

Your brazen divulgence to Alora of the door and its key, the sisters said with a seething impatience. You’d jeopardize your goals of conquest for the faintest chance of sexual succor with the Princess? 

“You truly believe that Alora would somehow use my secret against me?” The King asked, allowing a slight wash of concern across his eyes.

Nah folded her arms. Perhaps not deliberately, but she would almost certainly share it with someone out of her disregard or spite.

that person might share it with someone else, Nih added, to drive the point home.

Xårełlęi considered the prospect with a finger to his chin. Before long, his thoughts settled upon a satisfactory solution.

“There is nothing I can’t turn to my advantage,” Xårełlęi declared with a clear confidence. “The Door can be used as a trap, should I deem it necessary.” He smiled contently. “No one knows of its workings more than I.”

The sisters sat on his words with an exchange of glances before speaking again.

Perhaps you should be a little more careless with your key. To see who might have the inclination to steal it.

The King’s smile spread wider. “A facsimile of my key,” he’d add with a nod.

The four sisters appeared to be pleased at this notion. Very well, King Xårełlęi. Our loyalty remains with you, and you alone. The sisters then faded into the black mist, and the King fell back upon his bed to clear his thoughts before the onset of sleep.

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