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Hubris: Chapter Two
Hubris: Chapter Two
Hubris by Lu Stanton-Greenwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
“Even heavy armour can’t defend us from rotting inside.” – Mereavus Vorserkeine, ten years prior to present events.
Mainland Ende, Tanperi, 2429 – Mid-Country
Six bodies lay in their beds in a simple, unadorned country inn off the cobblestone road that led to the Crossing. Each appeared to have died in their sleep, their mouths still open. Their arms were tucked underneath pillows and splayed out of rough blankets. Nothing moved in the room itself. The curtains were open and left the windows to cast dim patterns on the dusty floor.
Outside, the a horse could be heard clattering away over the splashing of a fountain and past the fragrant summer wildflowers.
The rider was leaving post-haste. The dark bay, light-set animal was built for speed, and dawn was chasing it. His rider was draped in a rough, deep brown cloak with the hood thrown over her face. There was nothing particularly remarkable about either the rider or the horse itself. They were simply in a hurry, and headed directly for the Crossing. The four bridges that stretched across the channel between the coast and the island city of Ende reached out ahead, stretching from the fortified beach that was visible even from this distance.
The animal’s hooves took risks. They carelessly scrambled down ravines and neglected small bridges, instead crashing through shallow waters. The cloak billowed behind the rider, exposing further plain clothing with a leather cuirass strapped to it, an empty quiver buckled into place and a bow tied to the saddle’s rear.
A severe halt sent dirt clouds billowing upwards as they stopped by a decrepit hut. The morning stars were fading, and the deep indigo of the sky began pinkening at the horizon. The rider flung herself from the saddle and yanked open the door to the rickety building. She vanished into it.
Ten minutes later, the hood was gone, the cuirass was off and a very different figure emerged from the hut. Swathed in burgundy and gold quatrefold brocade, a mahogany haired woman with striking, square-jawed features had made a sudden transformation from swift-riding ranger to poised lady.
She removed the saddle and replaced it with one designed for ladies. Once the cinch was done tight, she disappeared back into the hut for a brief moment. A clacking sound ensued, and then she sped out of it, mounted, and continued her hasty journey with the smoke of burning wood behind her.
Seated side-saddle, she thundered through otherwise tranquil summer fields. Long, lush grass whispered at the shoulders of her animal, hissing across the hem of her skirts and swaying back into silence after her passing. Morning was undeniably on the edge of the moment, and it hounded her with rose hues and cheerful, keen voiced birds.
Finally, the satisfying, solid sound of hooves on stone sounded as she made her way into the ports of Ende. The gateway to the Crossing loomed ahead of her with its weary eyed, grumpy guards and their smoking meat breakfasts poking at their fading fires.
She reined in at the appropriate distance, the strong, reversed ‘v’ of her horse’s neck bending into its typical proud carriage.
“Papers,” one of the disgruntled, no doubt recently roused guards muttered around a bite of bacon and wedged bread.
“Don’t be an idiot,” a second snapped as he rose to see to opening the colossal wooden gate. “You know who the lady is.”
The first guard squinted up at her, and a moment later he tossed his breakfast down onto the grease smeared plate it had come from and stood sharply to attention. “Your Excellence, Marm!” he corrected himself. “Forgive me, s’early.”
“Forgiven,” she answered, in a particularly rich, mature voice that rang with an aristocratic edge.
Several men pushed the gate open. It creaked in complaint as though it, too, couldn’t stand morning light.
“Good fortune t’your day, Excellency,” the second guard murmured, accepting a silver coin from her gloved hand with a respectful bow of his steel encased head.
“And to you, boys,” she answered, nudging her horse into a canter as she made her way up and onto the smooth stone pathway atop the bridge itself. The sea remained grey beneath her, never managing the romantic sapphire so admired in more northern climes.
Ahead of her, the island city seemed to leak upwards into the sky in turrets that defied the horizon. The aesthetics of the castle and its surrounds lent it a fairytale, luminous beauty in the early hours of another tedious day.
The gates at the other end of the bridge were already open in anticipation of her; she came through here every morning from her manor on the mainland, the island guards knew the routine by now.
She passed through the streets directly up to the castle, the flowery boulevards busy with the activity of bees. It was a city built for the upper class. The peasants and farmsteads remained on the continent.
The stables were quiet, as they were every morning without fail, and the boy came to take her horse, as per usual. There was nothing out of ordinary to her appearance that morning.
The Page boy brought her a silver tray of letters on her way to the Chamber in which she spent the majority of her day. She looked them over whilst continuing to walk through the echoing halls of the labyrinthine fortress, the paintings staring at her and the mirrors winking her own visage back at her.
“Has the Empress awoken yet?” she enquired of the Page as she replaced unimportant letters onto the tray and kept the others between her fingers.
“Not to my knowledge, your Excellence,” he answered. He kept his eyes down and his wrist up to balance the tray for her.
She made a dismissive little gesture, and he scurried away from her and into the maze of halls on the hunt for her office. She made her way up the marble, blue carpeted staircase to the upper floors, where the Royal chambers were beginning to stir with blueblooded life.
On her way through the quiet, airy corridors, she encountered a well-groomed youth with mid-length russet hair and a well trimmed, tasteful patch of facial hair on his chin.
“Good morning, your Highness,” she greeted, not considering to honour the usual curtsey most would offer the blue-eyed Crown Prince of Tanperi. She did stop, however.
“Mereavus,” he answered, coming to a halt himself. He glanced over his shoulder at the series of engraved oaken doors. “I don’t believe my mother is about just yet.”
“She takes a little encouragement these days,” she replied. “The war has been most damaging to her senses. Would you pardon me whilst I tend to her, your Highness? I’ll see you at breakfast, no doubt.”
He nodded in a particularly polite fashion, gave her a half-bow, and began to head down the hall. He didn’t get far, before the door at the opposite end of the hall banged open. A taller, bulkier man with much the same appealing features and bright eyes as the Crown Prince stood in the doorway, still in his nightclothes. His greying beard surrounded a tight-lipped, wrinkled mouth.
“My wife!” he exclaimed. “Where is she?”
The Crown Prince turned, alarmed, and walked brusquely back down the corridor and past Mereavus – who looked positively astounded.
“I’m not quite sure, your Majesty,” Mereavus answered. “I had thought she was abed.”
“She isn’t,” the ageing Emperor corrected. He looked about apprehensively as though she might simply be hiding behind a curtain or underneath a table. “I went to sleep before she came back from the Provinces, she ought to be here.”
The Crown Prince and Mereavus exchanged a brief, concerned glance, and the Emperor’s son moved forward towards his clearly concerned father.
“She may simply be delayed, father,” he assured him, moving to touch to one of his arms gently. “You know how the roads are now the war’s over.”
“Battle,” he corrected sharply. “There’s a difference, Roscaran, do you ever hope to make a good ruler if you don’t know the damn difference?” He pushed past his startled son, and headed directly to the woman who’d intended to tend to his wife. He took her firmly by the shoulders.
“You should know,” he hissed. “You’re her Advisor, she tells you everything, you should know. Where is she?”
“Your Majesty!” she answered, clearly shocked by his aggression, though she didn’t bait him by trying to disentangle herself from him. “If I knew, I’d be with her, I thought she was here. Her letters said she’d be here.”
“You liar, you have to know!” he shouted, his hands digging further into the cloth at her shoulders as she subjected her to a single shake. “She would’ve told you! Where is she, Mereavus? Is this some plot? Has she left me? Is she in some f***hole with a pretty Pleb? Where is she?”
“Father!” Roscaran objected, forcing himself between the much larger man and the woman who, though tall for her sex, was dwarfed by both the Emperor’s girth and height. “You’re not yourself, let Lady Vorserkeine go. If she knew she’d tell you, I’m sure. Just let her go.”
The Emperor reluctantly let his grasp on her shoulders slacken and he took several small, shuffling steps backwards. “What if those barbarians have got her?” he demanded miserably as he tugged at his beard and glowered at the carpet.
“Mereavus,” Roscaran said in his usual quiet, calm-as-a-cup-of-water way. “Would you kindly send out several parties to look for them, please?”
“At once, your Highness,” she answered whilst she passed him a sympathetic look.
“Thank you,” he responded. He paused. “Oh, and if you see my wife, would you explain to her my absence at the breakfast table?”
She nodded, and turned to leave the Crown Prince with his distressed and hostile father.
It proved to be a very long, worrisome day for Lady Mereavus Vorserkeine. There were no messages sent back from the scattered cavalry who hunted up and down the mainland roads for any sign of the Royal Guard and their escorted Empress.
The Emperor had locked himself in his chambers and refused to come out until he knew where his wife was. Roscaran had paced the cherrywood floor for the majority of the last few hours. The Advisor herself had attempted to console him and assure him of his mother’s safety, but he seemed as rooted in his concern as his paternal parent, simply in a quieter fashion.
The morning that had hunted her seemed to give up and fade into midday without a fight. It capitulated to the day, which in turn darkened to the night’s dominance. The windows lost their light. The blue interiors dwindled deeper, the silver stitching turned grey. Servants lit candles. Mereavus’ half-curls slicked to amber and coiled into dim recesses at her throat. Firelight lapped at the edges of her irises, which in the quiet dusk of evening seemed utterly, unchangeably black.
Backwards. Forwards. Soft boots against stone tiles and fur throws. The Crown Prince simply couldn’t become the seated, tea sipping statue that the Advisor had so effortlessly solidified into.
The door opened. Roscaran turned sharply. Mereavus’ eyes slid sideways, her long nailed and elegant hand propping her square jaw up.
The Prince looked to be a combination of disappointed and relieved. The entrant was no messenger, but Laudine, the vaguely pretty, doe-eyed, bronze haired Princess who had become his wife not a year before.
She closed the door quietly behind herself and wordlessly placed her hands on the back of her husband’s shoulders to direct him to a chair. Once she’d got him seated, she stood behind him and worked her fingers over the velvet of his collar. There was nothing she could possibly say to relax him.
“Lady Vorserkeine,” the Princess began, almost timidly, as she lifted her green gaze from her Prince’s shoulders towards the expressionless woman in the nearby chair. “A missive has arrived from your son.”
The Advisor seemed remarkably unconcerned. “Oh?” she answered, one brow quirking, but little other expression made it onto her features.
“He has retreated to Aingarth,” the Princess elaborated, briefly subjecting her lower lip to a bite. “His army is gone. They had elephants. He’s going to come home.”
There was a long pause, and then Mereavus rose out of her chair to cross the bearskin rug to collect the teapot standing on a hexagonal table. “Thank you, your Highness,” she murmured. She still didn’t appear to be either excited or upset. She poured herself another cup, and then returned to her chair as though nothing had been said.
“Nothing of the Empress?” she enquired after a light sip of her beverage, lifting her face expectantly towards the other woman. Roscaran bent his neck back to look up at her in the same fashion.
She hesitated. “No.”
And further silence.
There was no news, by the time the Princess and Mereavus decided that Roscaran really ought to eat something and ushered him out into the dining room. He sat in front of a full plate and poked it unenthusiastically with his fork, occasionally chewing on a mouthful for far too long.
Midnight came, and finally Laudine took him away to their chambers. Mereavus had some form of peace. Once she’d bidden them both a peaceful night and finished her elaborate curtsey, she turned and walked through the quiet, carpeted halls towards her office. The two guards who stood imposing themselves outside the polished door stepped to one side, the one on the left opening it for her entry.
She closed it behind herself and leaned her back against it with some relief. Her hands gripped to the carved insignia of the horse on her door, and her eyes closed very slowly. Today had been one very long, tedious day.
Her office consisted of extensive amounts of filing space. A colossal case of slender drawers covered the majority of one wall, each handle marked with a letter that ensured her documents were kept in alphabetical order. Her desk was similarly imposing, and between either side of the room ran a glass door that led to her balcony. It was closed, and the flickering lights of the city sprawled out to the coast, where they stopped so suddenly that one might have suspected they were at the end of the world.
She all but collapsed into her immense leather chair with a long exhalation. She didn’t notice the missive on her silver letter tray until she’d taken a very long moment to simply do nothing. She picked it up once it caught her attention, and cracked the burgundy seal.
It took only a brief scan. She’d long since recognised that any letters from the eldest of her offspring would be short and, at best, polite. A combination of lack of familial enthusiasm and a brutish nature (which she insisted he got from his father) made for a simple missive.
She tossed it back into the tray and leaned her head back to close her eyes. Sleep wasn’t going to come. She could feel it resisting her, drifting somewhere at the edge of fresh memories.
Six men. A long road. The exhaustion of the public mask. Repeatedly twisting the knife in deeper with the ever-repeated question of, ‘Any news of the Empress?’. It was a knife she’d slotted between her own ribs, a knife she might as well have forged herself, wrapped the handle with leather and brought it to rest in her breast.
The Royal contingent passing down the road. Blue tunics over grey chain mail. The rhythmic repetition of hooves over dirt tracks turns to one single thrumming sound that never seemed to end. The ripple of fabric draped from horses’ quarters, the clank of armour’s struggle with gravity. In the middle of it all, the Imperial carriage. The Empress’ bower. Her protected comfort that ensured her security from Evendale to Ende.
Security broken. The safe wrapping of a leather glove around the haft of a bow, the punctuated creak of bent yew limbs and complaining cow hide. Seven archers on a hill. The strained pinch of a hand at the feathered tip of an arrow shaft.
Weak at the throat. Aim for the throat.
She started out of her half-dream with a tiny gasp and the sudden straightening of her spine. Her hands shifted along the arms of her chair and gripped at the tips, nails digging into the plumped upholstery. The memory seemed to only take the slightest of moments, but when she turned her head to her window, she could once again see the dawn spreading across the distant beaches and flooding the marble boulevards with encroaching, peach tinged light. The shadows crawled back into the alleyways.
Morning again. And today, the soreness from so much exertion in the last two days had taken its toll on her muscles. She pushed herself out of her chair slowly, much like she’d aged twenty years in a single night.
She bathed in the women’s bath in the underbelly of the castle, changed into a similar gown and made her way to the breakfast chamber. She was positive she’d simply fall away if she didn’t find some sleep soon.
But she had to go to Aingarth. The thought filled her with a slow dread. The sooner the better. She had to escape the scrutiny of this place, the hunt for the lost Empress.
She opened the door to the breakfast chamber to find Roscaran and Laudine already present. They both turned to look at her, and the Prince rose from his chair.
“We didn’t want to wake you,” he murmured. “There is news.”
Mereavus sat down purely out of the desire to find some form of rest. She settled her eyes onto the young Prince, anticipatory and wordless.
“They found the carriage half submerged in a pond eight leagues into the mainland,” he informed her, his tone distinctly sad and, at points, close to cracking. “Blood on the road.”
Laudine placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder to encourage him to sit. “There weren’t any signs of survivors,” the Princess continued, whilst Roscaran sat and rubbed his face with one hand. “All of the tracks led into the water. Like they’d been dragged.”
Mereavus stared at her for a long moment.
The grief wasn’t false. It came from a genuine well of emotion she’d been suppressing purely out of the need to carry on with the facade. But now she’d heard that the Empress, her very oldest and closest companion, had been dragged into some brownwater pond in the middle of nowhere. She felt the cracks in her public mask start leaking with the very same muddy pondwater. She covered her mouth with one hand and lifted the other to excuse herself whilst her eyes turned glossy with held tears.
It took a long moment, and a shakily drawn in breath before she was able to speak. “If your Highnesses would excuse me,” she began, her voice full of the threat of sobs. “I need my son.”
“Of course, Mereavus,” Roscaran answered quickly as he folded his arms across the table surface and passed her a mournful look. “You must do as you need, as must we all.”
Mereavus rose, trembling, and left the room after only a few minutes in there. She didn’t need to take anything with her. She had money on her person and she didn’t intend to stop until she got to Aingarth. Until she’d left this suffocating and damnable island behind, and had the opportunity to grieve.
What right have you to grieve?
Her horse was soon clattering back across the bridge. No longer at a canter. No longer the dignified movement into the city. But the hurried, desperate, dead run of one woman finally escaping the claws of her prison. She had to go north. To Aingarth.
To Zeth Ridge, if necessary.