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Hubris: Chapter Three
Hubris: Chapter Three
Hubris by Lu Stanton-Greenwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
“You would do well to realise that love and marriage are two sides of the same coin; you are destined to hurt in either, though one does not equal the other.” – Mereavus Vorserkeine, six years prior to present events
Aingarth, Tanperi, 2429
Cradled in the embrace of the northern mountain ranges that extended directly to the walls of Zeth Ridge, there was Aingarth. Its functionality contrasted sharply with the twisting spires and pale decadence of Ende. It squatted in an uneven crater between two of the taller Tanperian peaks and looked like little more than a formidable, simple structure in grey stone.
Despite its imposing but architecturally unimpressive exterior, the few inhabitants of what had once been a small town had done their best to ensure that the interior was at least pleasant. The military presence barely seemed to acknowledge that ‘aesthetically pleasing’ might perhaps be a concern of the residents they’d plucked from regular life.
As a result, the long corridors that extended on either side of the ‘Peoples’ Sector’ were flooded with bright light from extensive windows that had been painted at the tops with dark lead and deep blue. It was in one of these corridors that William Vorserkeine could be found. He was a man in his mid-twenties of imposing stature and his mother’s dark eyes. Unlike her, however, he’d picked up the black hair of his father. He kept his beard cropped close to his face, which was dominated by the hereditary Vorserkeine jaw. He was, nevertheless, a very handsome man whose smile was reputed to lift the skirt of any woman who passed him.
Between his thick fingered hands he held a silver amulet. He didn’t look at the thing, but the calloused pads of his fingertips repeatedly brushed over its polished surface.
He heard the approach of heels over the stone floors. The wisp of a gown followed it, and within a moment his nostrils were greeted with a familiar fragrance. A hand, gloved in burgundy felt and clearly a woman’s, reached for the jewellery between his.
He didn’t let her have it. Her drew it towards the other side of his chest, and turned his head away from the woman he called Mother.
“Don’t touch it,” he told her sharply.
Mereavus withdrew her hand. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw her move to lean her lower back against the stone lip of the window.
He didn’t say anything further to her. Once she was out of reach, he brought his hands back together and let himself look at the locket.
“I heard she married,” the Empress’ Advisor supplied. Her hands moved, and he could only suppose she was toying with her own wedding ring. She always wore it over her glove, and in some things she never changed.
“Yes,” he answered. He left a long pause and then lifted his eyes to look at her. She looked tired. Exhausted, even. There was something in the sharp, square quality of her face that spoke of an abiding weariness. “I heard she died.” A different ‘she’. A ‘she’ they both knew of.
Another pause. “Yes.” She looked down at her own hands. “So they believe.”
“Do you not?” he enquired. He focused on her face. It was a face he knew so well. It was a face that, ten years ago, he had associated so much comfort with. Now, his eyes were on her throat. They watched her pulse flicker underneath that proud, defined jaw. Now, he was comforted only by the prospect of getting his hands around her throat.
“I do not wish to believe it,” she clarified.
“I’m not sure that changes the reality, Eave,” he pointed out as he opened the pouch on his belt and slotted the amulet into it. “If she’s dead, she’s dead. You’ll just make it worse for yourself by denying the truth.”
She gave him a level gaze. “As always, your sympathy is daunting,” she commented wryly. “Perhaps I’ll adopt the same tone with you when we discuss you losing your battle to a woman.”
He shot her a dark glare and folded his arms across his chest. “I didn’t know she was a woman,” he stated defensively.
“I’m not sure that changes the reality, William,” she mimicked. He looked surly and turned his face away from her. She gave it a long moment of consideration and eventually moved over to touch her gloves down on his arm, one on his shoulder and the other on his bicep. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “That was cold.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “It was. You haven’t changed.”
“Likely not,” she agreed.
He shrugged his shoulder to get her off him and turned to head down the corridor. “We have dinner tonight,” he informed her on his way out. “His Grace has ordered it in your honour. Do try to warm up a little by then.”
Mereavus slept little. By morning, her exhaustion was threatening to dominate her senses, but she had business to attend to. The questioning of questionables had begun. They would find what had happened to the Empress.
“Has he said anything?”
The hulking form of the High Executioner van Gatt turned from the manacles he’d been affixing, the demon and dragon inked onto his back seemingly aflame in the ruddy light. He turned around to look at the Advisor who so nonchalantly leaned against the doorframe, and his mammoth torso bent to offer her a creaky, muscle-bound bow.
“Your Excellence,” he greeted in his Hellish voice. “Not a word.” Underneath the hood, the slow spread of a malignant smile stretched across his lips. “But we’ll soon remedy that.” He gestured with one of his meaty hands to one of his dungeon lurkers. “Have a seat.”
Mereavus pushed back the wolf’s fur hood and seated herself in a simple wooden chair. The torches lit her mahogany hair into a striking red, mimicking the nature of those bloody surroundings in an oddly suitable fashion. Even in the bowels of the castle, her movements remained delicate, providing a stark contrast to the monster of a man before her.
Van Gatt turned back to his ‘subject’, who presently had his mouth stuffed with a filth ridden rag and sported a single wound to the forehead. He remained otherwise unharmed and slouched against his steel bonds. The Executioner’s face bore an almost feral snarl above his braided black goatee when he dealt the dangling fellow a hefty smack to the side of the knee with a wooden panel. “You will stand properly in the presence of a lady, s***forbrains,” he rumbled, hauling him up by the front of his ripped purple doublet and looking him over. “He won’t tell us his name yet, but he has a ring.”
“Give it to me.”
The Advisor’s elbow leaned against the table, middle finger propped against her temple. This was no time for tiredness.
He took hold of a curved knife from the table, and his trunk-like torso obscured the much smaller man from view a moment. Squelch, trickle, crack; and she had her ring. He tossed the knife down, ignoring the stumbling and howling man behind him, and worked it loose from the dismembered finger. She held out her palm, and he deposited the bloody item in her palm. She turned it upwards to examine it.
“Make him eat it,” she commanded. She laid the ring down against the parchment and quill-pot that were always on this table when she came to ‘visit’.
Van Gatt bowed once to her and turned with the digit in hand. It twitched once, and the prisoner’s eyes widened. The Executioner plucked the rag out of his mouth, and grasped either side of his jaw. “Sorry, mate,” he thundered, lowering the bloodstained fingertip to the captive’s tongue. “Lady’s orders.”
The Advisor very slowly looked back up whilst the process was undertaken, unflinching. Her expression remained characteristically neutral, any disgust or remorse suppressed into ice. One of the lesser minions of the torture chamber brought her a cup of tea, slinking back into the darkness once she’d taken it with a quiet murmur of thanks.
“Any particular reason for that, Lady?” van Gatt enquired, turning to pick up his nutcracker.
“According to this,” she answered, turning her attention from blowing gingerly on the surface of her tea. She looped the tip of her forefinger through her acquired piece of jewellery. “He’s part of an anti-Imperial syndicate that developed few years ago. I’m sure you understand my rancour.”
“Entirely, your Excellence,” he agreed, flexing the nutcracker and turning back to the prisoner on hand. “You are here,” he boomed, “Because you are known to have committed crimes against the Crown, more specifically of conspiring against her Majesty, Empress Aithne Endarion. This good lady here,” he turned, nodding once in Mereavus’ direction. “Is her Majesty’s personal Advisor. Any mercy you receive will be on her terms. Beg pretty enough, she might be nice to you.”
The man with the missing finger trembled, his good hand balled into a fist. His lips receded a moment and then he promptly spat on the floor close to the Advisor.
Van Gatt’s reaction was one of predictable brutality. Within the space of an hour (or three cups of tea, whichever time marker proved more accurate), the clinking prisoner had been reduced to a bloody pulp. A combination of gauntlet-backs, the nutcracker, several blades and a small, pointed rendered him conscious and suffering. The Advisor had remained wordless, neither protesting nor offering up pleas for mercy. She sipped her tea, occasionally taking down a piece of information on her parchment.
There came the point of begging for reprieve, and it was that point, that the Advisor rose from her chair, and moved forwards to place one hand lightly on the much taller man’s bicep. “Enough,” she murmured, eyes sweeping over the battered mess in front of her. He’d crumpled to the floor, hands stretched upwards, forced into a foppish bend by the shackles. Her hands lowered to gather her skirts and she descended into a crouch. She scooped that mahogany mane back behind one ear. Her earring, a symbol of the Empire, dangled, glinting against the glower of a brazier.
Her palm turned in against the miscreant’s cheek, directing it to look at her. “Have you had enough, darling?” she enquired, ignoring the warm sensation of wet leaking through her glove. A bath would be entirely necessary.
He nodded dumbly and she looked up towards his hands. “He’s left you one good hand, how nice,” she commented. “Now, you’re going to be a wonderfully co-operative fellow, aren’t you?” she continued.
He nodded again.
She reached one hand behind her, and Van Gatt lowered a wooden board, parchment and a propped inkpot down to her, the quill slotted into a curled holder. He leaned forwards to unpin the shackle holding his hand to the wall, watching it flop with some satisfaction.
The Advisor pressed the quill into the prisoner’s hand, working his fingers carefully around it. “I don’t want him to kill you,” she confessed, turning the wood and parchment in his direction. “Give me six names, and I assure you, I will be merciful.”
He clenched his hand around the feather pen, dunking it ungraciously into the ink and beginning to scratch out names. She straightened, turning aside to the Executioner, and lifted her teacup.
“Define ‘merciful’,” he grunted in a hushed tone, arms folding over his chest.
“Make it swift,” she answered, glancing up from her teacup. “Examples have to be made.”
He nodded once, glancing back as the man outstretched his trembling hand and offered them the parchment. The Advisor took it, scanned over it, and then offered it back.
He stared at her, and promptly shook his head. That hadn’t been part of the deal. A light, regal shrug touched her shoulders, and she turned back to the table, quill in hand. She gave Morcant a single nod almost as an afterthought and continued to write.
She ignored the shrieks that came thereafter. Her part in such things was so often kept quiet. She wrote out a separate piece of parchment, signed both, and then turned back to offer quill and paper to the working Executioner. He signed both with an X, and she glanced down contemptuously at the now all-but-dead prisoner.
“Cut out his tongue, and send his head to the address I’ve left you on the table,” she commanded. “Do not, under any circumstances, burn his body. Find a convenient river, or dump him with the next cartload of hangings.” She picked up the ring, slotting the rolled parchment she’d taken from the man into it, and turned to head for the door. She stopped, and looked over her shoulder. “Your help in this matter is, as ever, appreciated.”
The gargantuan man creaked another bow and nodded once. “She’s my Empress, too, your Excellence,” he answered. “We understand each other.”
Mereavus left. She bathed, changed into clothes that didn’t reek of smoke, delivered her signed document to the Informants’ Office and attended a light lunch with the rather tiresome group of ladies who insisted on seeing her. The only benefit of that particular lunch was an invitation to a garden party that evening that promised to be one of those more clandestine affairs. She was pointedly asked not to bring her son.
She found herself in need of more and more rest as the day wore on, but never managed it. She attended the mandatory Temple rites that were expected of her, supposedly to pray for her Empress’ soul. Instead, she spent a good hour surrounded by incense and priests knelt on a blue mat. The rhythmic chanting put her to dozing numerous times, but by the time she was granted the blessing of the Church, she felt no more animated than she had previously.
The party was held in a lesser known corner of the citadel atop a flat, broad ledge that had been designed as simple gardens. As it happened, there were only a few politicians in attendance. And it wasn’t a political party.
Men draped from the arms of men, and women occupied one another’s laps. The moment she arrived she was brought a slender flute glass filled with red wine, and a group of women squealed from the corner of the garden and beckoned her over.
“Eave!” a dark haired girl she vaguely remembered as being Finola greeted as she waved her into a seat. “Look! Bryher brought some hemp from Pers!”
The over-excitable nature of the woman almost instantly gave Mereavus a headache, but the promise of hemp drew an excited flush to her chest. Perhaps it’d numb some of her cataclysmic pains, perhaps she’d find a moment of reprieve.
She was given a slender, wooden tube, and the Advisor leaned in to the burning pile of plants to suck in its smoke. Several long inhalations later, she leaned back in her chair and absorbed the sensation of her head drifting away from herself. Her eyes were vaguely focused on the sunset, but she didn’t register it. For a very brief point in time, the chatter and giggling around her, the dim sounds of the surrounding ladies, the sadness that haunted her, became inconsequential. They melded into a world which she recognised and acknowledged, but became separate from.
It faded all too quickly, and reality crashed in on her with the sounds of laughter and jesting.
She leaned forwards to search out more.
By the time she’d loosened up with a combination of wine and hemp, she found there was a very familiar blonde woman standing behind her. She tilted her head back and smiled. The blonde bent and wrapped her arms around Mereavus’ shoulders, offering her a warm, affectionate kiss to the mouth.
“Violet,” Mereavus murmured fondly. One of her rare, genuine smiles showed her even teeth, and she touched Violet’s cheek gently with one hand. “I have missed you.”
“I hear this Cioskar is a Deviant,” Finola was saying. “They say she’s had a wife for ten years now.”
“Impossible!” Violet suddenly laughed, her arms still about Mereavus’ shoulders. She pressed her cheek affectionately into hers. “They’d not let them get married.”
“It’s legal in Valkyre,” Mereavus informed them. “Their marriages are based on role fulfilment rather than gender. Provided one plays the part of a husband and another wife, the physical sex is unimportant.”
“I vote we all move!” Finola declared. “They’re clearly far less stuffy up there!”
“And far more xenophobic,” Violet pointed out. “You’d get killed the minute you crossed the border. Have you ever seen Cioskar, Eave? If anyone would have, it’d be you.”
“Once, from a distance,” Mereavus answered. “Tall thing. Kyrian.”
“Properly Kyrian?” Finola asked suspiciously as she leaned forward to suck in hemp smoke. “With the eyes and everything?”
“Properly Kyrian,” Mereavus assured her. “She’s over six feet tall and built like a gladiator. She’d ruin you all if you got within a mile of her.”
“She could ruin me anytime she likes, by the sounds of her,” Finola giggled. “You don’t see enough dominant women around these days.”
Mereavus took the tube from her, and decided she’d need a great deal more hemp to get through the rest of this evening.
As it happened, the evening was short-lived. Mereavus had drifted off into her world of blurry, dim sounds, and the night had drawn in with purple-grey clouds on an indigo backdrop.
She didn’t notice it at first. It happened so slowly that it simply seemed to be part of the night. The horizon turned black. The distant mountains were blotted out in a starless blanket of ink. The weaving roads that led up to the fortress flooded with a thick gloom, the shadows of the rocks invisible as all else became darker. Violet was the one to notice it.
“Eave, what is that?”
It was followed by silent paws. A beast the size of a horse that looked far more like a wolf slunk along with the bleak stretch of darkness. Atop it, something clinked occasionally, though the sound was impossible to place.
There was another. Distinctly less imposing, and entirely unseen. They stopped before the long stretch of clear road to Aingarth, and waited.
“Orders?” a male, guttural voice hissed.
“Master said to take no prisoners,” a woman’s voice, younger and clearer, answered.
“What of the Mistress’ sister?” the man questioned further.
“We are to kill her, should we find her.”
“The Mistress will not like that.”
“She likes little he does, and by then it’ll be too late for her to do anything about.”
“It’ll be unpleasant, either way.”
“It was always going to be unpleasant. Master says we’ll know her when we see her.”
“What is her name?”
It was a hot night on the flamboyant, gauze draped balcony of the Hessian Ambassador’s quarters.
His name was Argo. He was tall and built like bamboo. His skin was coloured and covered in obscure pigmented markings, a trait he shared with all of his people. His shade was that of a pale turquoise, more blue than green, and his markings were in a deep sea blue. They rippled over his neck and cheeks to follow across his forehead and vanish into the tightly tied back masses of his bluish-black, wavy hair. His pupils shone with a crystalline light that had fragmented across the otherwise black circles of his irises.
He was clad in the light silks of his much warmer homeland. He kept in line with his colours and wore watery shades specifically embroidered with patterns to mimic his skin markings. His exotically sharp canine teeth glittered when he smiled.
His companions were Vandenita, and a liver chestnut female centaur by the name of Darkhar. Her humanoid upper half was athletic and strapped into a leather brassiere that interrupted the many crude tattoos that trailed over her skin. Her russet hair reached her withers and a circlet of plaits ran around her head. She had draped herself over one of the divans that had been designed to support her size and shape, whist Vandenita leaned against the stone wall that overlooked the roads on the Valkyrian side of the mountains.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, General,” the bright skinned Hessian commented as he poured out some strawberry ale into a glass tankard. “I had a painfully brief encounter with Cheran last year, and believe me, it’s nothing to write home about. His ‘assets’ are miniscule, if you catch my meaning.”
A humourless smile touched the General’s lips at his assurance and she took the tankard from him. “It’s the principle rather than the prowess, Argo, but thank you for the assurance.”
“Maybe you should just kill him,” the willowy man suggested as he went to flamboyantly sprawl over a divan. “On the sly, obviously.”
“’On the sly’?” Darkhar remarked with a raised eyebrow. “With all due respect, I’m not sure ‘sly’ is in Vandenita’s vocabulary. She’s rather more blunt than that.”
“So pay someone,” Argo countered. “I’m sure you could ask someone in a guild to do it for you.”
“Again, it’s not so much getting rid of him that’s my concern,” the General asserted. “It’s the fact he exists in her bed at all.”
“Have you had her, since you got back?” Argo asked pointedly.
“Argo!” Darkhar half laughed around a mouthful of her drink. “You can’t just ask people if they’ve f***** someone perfectly casually!”
“I can and I have!” the Hessian retorted. “Well, General?”
“Yes,” Vandenita answered as she went over to sit in a chair, hunkered forwards over her knees with her elbows leaned against her thighs.
“Then I’d wager it’s past tense,” Argo mused. “She only seems to do it when you’re not here. At least it’s not that you don’t satisfy her, eh?”
“Shut up, Argo,” Darkhar muttered. “You’re not helping.” She turned her head to look at the General. “You said you had something more official to talk to us about.”
“I need advice,” Vandenita confirmed. “Cheran came to me and asked me to sign a document pledging my units to a rebellion. Heart apparently helped him draw it up, and the Acolyte is behind it.”
“F****** priests,” Argo spat. “They meddle where they ought not.”
“Always the way,” Darkhar pointed out. “The priesthood has an incessant habit of getting in the way of government.”
“It’s a tough one, though,” Argo supposed. “You’re sworn to the Empire and equally to the Temple. Which do you go with when something like that happens?”
“Given that the Emperor just promoted me, I refused and stuck with him. Heart wasn’t best pleased, but frankly if it comes down to her personal feelings and the Empire, I’m inclined to pick the latter.”
“Just depends on what happens now you’ve irritated the priesthood,” Argo pointed out. “They have ways of getting rid of people, and if the Emperor’s Advisor is dirty, you don’t know how many more in court have been bought or persuaded.”
“Do you think I should go to the Emperor?” the General asked of them both. “Tell him?”
“You don’t really have proof unless you can get your hands on that document,” the Hessian told her. “And he can’t go questioning people without evidence, it looks paranoid, and paranoid is weak. You’d need to get a copy of it.”
“That would mean signing it,” Vandenita replied. “Or stealing it, but I have no idea where he keeps it.”
“Perhaps if you went to the Emperor first and told him that you intended to sign it purely out of the need to get hold of said document as proof,” Darkhar suggested.
“I’m not sure he’d believe that,” Vandenita responded. “It would look like I was trying to cover up an actual involvement.”
“True,” Argo frowned. “But if you remain silent on this sort of thing then you’re essentially an accessory anyway. I think it might actually look better if you signed it and brought it to him, at least then you can hand it over honestly and just hope he takes into account that you wouldn’t sign something, show the entire thing including stratagem to him and then do what’s on the paper anyway.”
“You’re potentially in deep trouble either way,” Darkhar mumbled. “It doesn’t matter which way around you do it, he’s either going to be suspicious or take your word for it.”
“Heart would know what to do,” Vandenita sighed. “But that’s another aspect of it. She’s involved. If I go to him then I betray her, and likely she’ll be executed.”
“That is a tad bit further than caring about her personal feelings,” Argo agreed. “But I suppose on the grand scheme of things you’d be putting the Empire before your personal life.”
“Putting it before my wife’s life is a little steep,” she confessed. “We have our troubles-“
“That’s putting it mildly,” Darkhar commented offhand.
“True, it’s a ruined marriage, but at the same time it is still a marriage. I can’t even consider betraying her with another woman never mind on this sort of scale.”
“So,” Argo mused. “We’ve established that if you get hold of the contract you’ll likely look like you’re in on it anyway and you’ll get your wife killed. In which case, it almost looks safer to just join up with it anyway and hope to God you can pull it off.”
She stared at him.
“Vandenita,” he said as he looked at her directly. “Your wife has landed herself in the shit with this. If it gets exposed they’ll kill her. The only way you can protect her properly is to sign it and go ahead with it, and take her with you. I actually think that’s your best chance of survival.”
She remained quiet for quite some time after that.
Heart was awake. Typically, by the time Vandenita came in from these gatherings at Argo’s balcony she had gone to sleep, but tonight she was seated in a chair by the open windows. She wasn’t doing anything in particular, simply watching the night as it shrouded the mountains.
The door opened and Vandenita entered. Heart looked towards it and tucked her green robe that bit tighter around her body.
“You’re back early,” she commented.
“I wanted to talk to you,” the General answered as she went to sit in the chair across from her.
“I did,” Vandenita affirmed. She paused and eventually set her hands forward in an open gesture. “Perhaps I was hasty in refusing Cheran’s proposition.”
“Yes. I’ve had some time to think about it, and I thought I’d come to you to talk through what you’d want from me, if I agreed to help.”
Heart tucked her knees up and slotted her feet down the side of the arm of the chair, her hands between her knees. “Well,” she began. “We have the political backing to do it. It’s just that having the backing of the court and having the backing of military is entirely different. We can plot all we like, we could poison him if we really wanted, but that’d set off a feud for the throne and as you’ve pointed out, we need stability not uproar. So, we’d need the military presence to keep things in check until we decided on a viable candidate to replace Ranhaikh.”
Vandenita nodded slowly as her fingers ran across her jaw in a thoughtful fashion. “So essentially it would work best if the courtiers remained out of it, for now,” she mused. “And we made it look like it was entirely my doing, some sort of military coup whilst you all work from the inside. Once that’s done we could instate martial law until a logical successor is found.”
Heart watched her whilst she spoke, something of a peculiar smile on her lips. She didn’t answer for a moment, but her eventual response was, “What made you change your mind?”
Vandenita looked up from her thinking and pursed her lips. “I was going to go to Ranhaikh and tell him,” she admitted.
Heart’s eyes narrowed.
“And then I realised that regardless of how I approached it, I’d need proof. Which would mean a copy of the document, which would mean signing it. So however I did it, I’d be implicated. I was going to risk it until it dawned on me that if I did, they’d stretch your neck.”
Her wife’s eyes went from narrow to wide in the space of a moment.
“It seemed like the best way to protect you.”
There was a long silence between them. Heart stared at her, wide eyed, and she looked right back.
“I hadn’t realised you were this committed to me,” the redhead confessed.
“You’re my wife,” Vandenita answered simply. “Adultery, arguments, bitterness aside, you are my wife. Of course I’m committed to you.”
Heart’s eyes drifted downwards in a mildly ashamed fashion, and her brows furrowed. “You had the chance to betray me today, and you didn’t.”
“There have been other chances,” the General told her.
“But you never take them,” Heart finished as she gnawed on her bottom lip. Her green eyes looked up then, looking very large and wet.
The politician’s lower lip began trembling, and she buried her face in her hands. “And I do,” she mumbled, her voice wavering. “I have betrayed you.”
“I know,” Vandenita answered, quite calmly. “I accepted a long time ago that you would.”
“Then why don’t you?” Heart asked as she flicked away spillage from her eyes with manicured fingertips.
“Because I can’t. Every time an opportunity to do so presents itself, I just can’t stomach it. I remember that at one time, I loved you.”
“But not now?”
“I don’t know,” she answered candidly. “Sometimes I think I hate you. Then when you betray me it stings. So I must still care. I just don’t trust you, so I try to keep my distance. Only, keeping my distance makes you do it more.”
Heart bit her lip. “I ended it with Cheran this morning,” she confessed. “He... He was just there when I needed someone. I get lonely when you’re gone and then I think it doesn’t matter, because you won’t care anyway. I always forget how much it hurts you.”
“Which is why I don’t trust you,” the General murmured. “I know that when I’m here you don’t do it. But the minute I turn my back you replace me. I think that’s the worst part. I’d like to believe you’re here, missing me. I suppose I like to believe that it hurts you that I’m not there. I know that’s... Unkind, but if it hurt you, if you missed me, then I’d mean something to you. Instead, you fill my place with someone else and just ignore that I’m even gone. And on my return you act like I disturbed your entire life by being in it.”
“Because you do,” Heart responded with equal honesty. “You go for long periods of time. I’m more used to life without you than I am life with you. When you come home you disrupt everything I’ve become used to in your absence.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Vandenita answered, apparently taking whatever Heart had to say in her stride. “But I’m not sure that it’s about to change.”
“I know,” Heart accepted. A wry, sad smile touched her lips. “I accepted long ago that it wouldn’t.”
There was another long silence as the General thought the discussion over.
“Should I just begin to accept that there will always be other people?” Vandenita tentatively enquired after a while.
“You shouldn’t have to,” Heart admitted. “But you might have to anyway.”
The General nodded slowly, lips pursing as she absorbed that particular piece of information. She rose slowly, suddenly feeling as bruised as she did after a long battle. She went to her closet and opened it to find one of her own robes, and began undressing out of the satin, oriental trouser suit she’d been wearing.
Heart watched her sadly.
Vandenita tied the cord of her silk robe and closed her wardrobe, her movements slow. She left her hands on the cool wood and absorbed the sensation for a time. She then turned and slipped into bed, face down, and prayed for sleep.
Tomorrow, she would begin protecting her wife, and twist the knife in deeper.
Tomorrow turned into today. Today moved faster than she’d ever have anticipated. By midday, she found herself leaning over a table with a quill in her hand, painting her signature onto a proposition she didn’t agree with in black ink. She placed it down afterwards, and balanced herself on her hands with her eyes closed for a long moment.
It was done. Vandenita Cioskar was now officially a traitor to the Emperor who had done so well by her. Not long afterwards, Darkhar and Argo came to find her, and wordlessly applied their own signatures alongside hers.
“What on earth are you doing?” she demanded of them.
“The same as you,” Argo replied. “I thought that was fairly obvious.”
“You’re both mad,” she declared.
“No more than you,” Darkhar pointed out.
They took lunch in Argo’s quarters again, seated around a circular table. Vandenita was particularly quiet and nursed her fruit water rather than eating all that much.
“What’s bothering you, General?” Darkhar eventually asked after she’d swallowed a piece of lettuce.
Vandenita lifted her muscular shoulders in a remarkably gentle shrug and took a long draught of her drink. “I’m just thinking,” she answered.
“That’s rather vague, dear,” Argo remarked.
“I’m aware of that,” the General responded quietly. She sighed and put the glass down, her fingers interlaced in her lap.
“Did you tell her that you were doing it for her?” the centaur Captain enquired as she sliced through another strip of meat.
“And she said?”
Vandenita didn’t much seem to want to answer, but enough lingering looks over the table made her feel uncomfortable. “Many things,” she murmured. “It’s over without being over.”
“Without the ugly divorce part, you mean,” Argo commented.
“If it’s pretty much over, why on earth did you sign this morning?” Darkhar asked curiously.
“I’m still trying to work that out,” she answered.
“It certainly sounds like you’re a glutton for punishment,” Darkhar said.
“Maybe you love her,” Argo suggested. “Or, if you believe that no-love-without-trust nonsense, are still a little obsessed.”
“I think I’m just still hoping that’s repairable,” the General decided. “It’s the war campaigns ruining it.”
“And afterwards?” Darkhar pointed out. “What happens afterwards when someone suitable is on the throne and the war with Tanperi continues? You’ll likely be in an even higher position then, and you’ll get more campaigns.”
“I’ll work that part out when I get there,” she answered.
“Vandenita,” the centaur addressed with an oddly firm tone. “You are far too good at what you do now to consider dropping it for the sake of a woman who should really have the self-control to keep her legs shut if she really wants this marriage to work. I don’t see her divorcing you, so she has to be holding on for some reason. Let’s not get apocalyptic about the entire thing. Let her stew on it. You never know, she might cave first and try to change.”
“Can we talk about something remotely productive?” Argo whined as he leaned back in his chair and pushed his plate forwards. “This conversation just goes in circles every time we have it.”
Vandenita nodded and poked at a piece of broccoli. She eventually skewered with an unenthusiastic poke.
“When do we actually start this business of being anarchists?” Argo murmured.
“When Heart has spoken with Acolyte on what she’d like the process to be,” Vandenita answered. “So far, it looks like it’ll be about a week before the politics are ready, and then I’ll need to be angry with him for some conjured reason in public and denounce his rule.”
“With luck he’ll actually do something stupid before then,” Darkhar mused. “I’d feel much better about this if we were doing it for any other reason than it being the safest option.”
“He’s an inefficient ruler,” Argo responded. “He’s done nothing but start this war on Tanperi and ignore the rest of his duties. He sits on his pillows swilling wine all day. Valkyre is still half in ruins, he’s spent all of the treasury on acquiring Kyria for the Empire to use the citizens to fuel the army. The war on Tanperi needs to be over one way or another, and he just seems to enjoy using it as an excuse to not pay any attention to the boring parts of being Emperor. He wants glory, and to be able to rule by constantly warring.”
Darkhar nodded slowly and finished her slab of meat. “Those are all true,” she agreed. “Will we have enough between us to handle a siege on the Ridge?”
“I have the entire Kyrian force outside,” Vandenita answered as she rose to go and find a piece of paper from Argo’s extensive desk. She took a large piece and a stick of charcoal and returned to the table to sweep it down onto the surface once the Hessian had tugged her plate out of the way. She began sketching as she talked them through capabilities.
“The Kyrian army is about five thousand strong,” she told them. “And Darkhar’s cohort is eight hundred, as I recall. Including your alchemists that gives us just under six thousand. As I understand it, Heart, Cheran and the Acolyte will have the Emperor trapped from inside when all of the attention is on our assault. It’ll be at that point that we’ll have to break the gate.”
“So really,” Argo pursed his lips. “We’re not going to do much actual fighting at all. We just have to look prepared for it and be a decoy whilst the Emperior’s pincered, and take the blame for his death.”
“Essentially so,” the General agreed. “I think provided that we make it convincing we could be done within a few days. We’ll instate martial law on entering the Ridge, and I assume that the Temple will dictate who Ranhaikh’s replacement will be.”
Darkhar went to go and collect a bulbous decanter of fruit water and refilled everyone’s glasses as she looked over the very simple diagram being drawn by Vandenita. “It does leave us the problem of the other Generals,” the centaur mentioned. “They’re all candidates to replace Ranhaikh. The man has no wife, no sons, and during wartime they’re usually the best to deal with things.”
“The Field Marshall will likely be the frontrunner,” Vandenita responded. “He’s Ranhaikh’s favourite and the people respect him. He’d be a logical choice. I would wager that once he realises he could potentially be Emperor, we won’t face any resistance from the other Generals. If the Marshall becomes Emperor then one of them stands to be Marshall themselves. It’s a victory for everyone concerned, they just don’t know it yet.”