"Captain Ronae’Serrar. You heard that which was spoken over the stone. You hear that which is, even now, spoken over the guild stone. Tinox knew we were coming. The General speaks with the one who is sought primarily by the military, without regard to the Military’s directive.” Her eyes blazed at the woman’s words, but she held her tongue. “The General is obviously not thinking clearly regarding this situation. As such, and so as to prevent further…mistakes…I ask that you remove the guild stone from Katelle.”
“What?! You-“ Her words cut off abruptly.
“For she does that which only two nights previous Rednaxela and Julianaz did.” Zakarnas, dumbstruck and horrified, turned slowly to look at her as he comprehended his Empress’s orders. Katelle refused to look at him until a few agonizing seconds had passed with no movement or sound; finally, she turned and snapped at him.
“I know that which I ask, Captain,” Aerana added quietly. “Yet I do it so that nothing else need be done.” She paused, looking between Zakarnas Ronae’Serrar and Myaka Winterborne. “Or do I err in my assessment?”
“You swore your vows to her,” Katelle told the elf, unable to hide the bitterness on her tongue. He had been a Guardian before, not once but twice, and even in their dealings with the military he had leaned towards Aerana’s wishes. “Now you had damn well better uphold them.” She offered her blue-haired elf her guild and Guardian stone.
Please do this.
Please don’t ruin your position for me. She needs to trust you implicitly…
“…No, Empress,” was the Captain’s dull reply, taking the guild stone from his lover’s small hand. She ignored his words and looked squarely back at Aerana as Zakarnas stepped away to hand her the small opaque stone with a frozen face and rigid movements.
“When all of this is over,” Katelle said quietly, “you will see that I remain your friend. And you,” she murmured, gaze turning on sweet, silent Myaka, “will see that I did what I felt I had to do.”
But what had she done?
Katelle awoke as the sun lifted itself into the sky, dully turning her head to the side. Zakarnas’s half of the bed was cold and empty, but she had not expected him to sleep in their bed that night. Her head ached after the stress of the night before and yet she could not bring herself to move.
What had she done last night? She had violated her oaths to Aerana Dantay, but she felt she had kept those she took in service to the Empire.
I swore to defend the Empire and those under its banner at all costs. What was I to do when the opportunity presented itself?
I did the right thing. There is something wrong. I’ve known it for years. But to admit as much to Tinox Smartgear, her own military’s most wanted man…
She had panicked when she saw him, in full Smartgear Regalia, knocking as calmly as could be on her front door. The door was opened only by virtue of incredulous adrenaline, and words left her mouth a stuttered mess.
”Senator—what—what the Fel are you—“ The aged gnome brought his hands up in a peaceful gesture, getting right to the point.
“General. I’m concerned about the Empress and I want to ask you some questions.” Sharp eyes frantically scanned the horizon. Had anybody seen him arrive? Did anybody know? Were there soldiers already on the way to apprehend him?
“Get in,” she snapped finally, stepping back from the door to allow him entrance. Even to her own ears, the words had less heat than they should have had.
“General, is all well?” Aerana Dantay’s voice, filtering in from the Guardian stone in her pocket, went unheard by Tinox as he stepped inside—but it echoed around in Katelle’s mind like a clarion call heralding her demise. They’d been speaking, mage and rogue, Empress and General, before the innocuous knock at her door. She’d said she’d be right back, but she couldn’t risk replying that everything was alright—or that it wasn’t—without alerting the erstwhile Senator of her efforts at communication.
The General, dressed in soft blue robes that did nothing to hide her pregnancy, shut the door and stepped back against its reassuring solidity. She stared down at the gnome with all the heat that should have gone into her words.
“I am calling the military. You have that long to talk and leave.”
“I’m sorry to pull you out of your bed, General, but this will only take five minutes. Can you give me that long?” Her hand was halfway to her guild stone when he took off his well-known hat and passed a hand through the matted clump of hair underneath.
She stared at him incredulously for what seemed like an eternity. The simple act seemed so achingly mortal as compared to the formidable force of will that was Tinox Smargear. He’s genuinely concerned, she realized. He’s desperate.
“You pompous son of a bitch,” she hissed in reply, eyes blazing but voice fearful. “You come here out of the blue and expect me to—don’t you know what’s going to happen if I get caught?!”
“General?” There was Aerana’s voice again. “I grow concerned with your absence. Is all well?”
“I wouldn’t have come if I knew anybody else who could answer my question, General.” Tinox Smartgear, desperate and in need. She had no choice. It was for the good of the Empire.
“Fine. Five minutes.”
“Thank you very much. I was out of options,” Tinox replied, sighing. “I think there’s something wrong with the Empress. But we don’t know what it is, and we don’t know what we can do.”
There had been a tight knot of dread unfurling in her gut at his words, and it hadn’t left twelve hours later. Katelle shifted to her side, curling inwards as much as her child-swollen stomach would allow. They all knew she was with child now, and those who didn’t would know soon enough—not that it mattered. Not anymore.
Something was not right with Aerana. Something hadn’t been right with Aerana for years. The Senate, as Tinox revealed, thought it had begun within the last year, but she knew it had been longer than that. Myaka, sweet, loyal Myaka, had told her in March that the Empress was slipping in and out of past memories, but it was years ago—two, three now?—that she’d asked Donnelly if Aerana was truly alright. Their empress had disappeared to assist refugees in the Twilight Highlands, as rumor had it, but to the rogue it stank of lies and cover-ups. The aged paladin she held so much esteem for had merely looked at her and said the Empress was fine and it was none of her concern…
Was I simply being paranoid? Was I right then, as it seems that we are right now? Was she more than simply overworked?
“Have you noticed anything? Something we’ve missed?” She looked nervously to the side, weighing her words.
“I’ve harbored suspicions of something being amiss since my days as Lieutenant,” she confessed with a breaking heart. There was no going back now. “These actions of hers recently were not rational. These past years have seen her…increasingly paranoid, I guess is the phrasing I’d use.”
Insisting on acting behind the Senate’s back, on more than one occasion…how many lies had she told to her superiors in the interest of attempting to soothe her friend’s frazzled nerves? How many stories had she weaved trying to protect her?
”Has she acted…erratic in your presence?”
“Not…specifically, no. But—“
“Senator Catori told me she talked to her like she had just left the Empire for the Keepers of the Glade.” That shut the rogue up. She’d never heard of the Keepers of the Glade before, but Myaka had told her Aerana was speaking as though living in a present several years gone by. She wasn’t about to share that with anybody—let alone Tinox—as it would only serve to undermine the Empress’s trust in her closest Guardian.
“The Keepers of the Glade have not existed for at least five years, General.”
If Aerana was still experiencing these living flashbacks, what else could she be suffering from? She’d been obsessed with the Vision for as long as Katelle had known her, but her paranoia seemed to skyrocket with every perceived threat to that Vision she encountered. What was going on?
“I won’t impose on you much longer, General. But I have no other leads.”
“I might be able to speak with her,” Katelle stated, staring hard at the gnome. “She still trusts me, Senator.” If she hadn’t heard this discussion already. “But I can’t do anything to compromise that trust, or my position on her council.” Empty promises, because she had already failed. But if not, perhaps there was still a chance…
“Nobody else knows the Empress. Nobody who would talk to me, at any rate. I was already taking a risk tonight, and bringing you one too.”
“You’re damn right you were!” One hand moved to clutch at her abdomen protectively. Her anger left her as quickly as it had resurfaced. “…but it was an understandable one. I know you care for the Vision. I know she’s done some things, like you and Donnelly, to possibly compromise it.”
Her thoughts were racing. She didn’t remember telling Tinox to leave, or making a desperate dash for her guild stone to call her military. It was all she could do to sit there, shaking like a leaf, and attempting to sort out the puzzle pieces before her.
The Senate had a right to be angry when they discovered that Aerana had reinstated the Royal Guard behind their back and without their permission. Every right.
From an outsider’s view, she’d always put such faith in her Senate and in the balance they brought to the Empire.
Aerana had summarily dismissed them, even the innocent ones like Pralea, from their post with claims that they had ceased to serve the Empire.
Had they really ceased serving the Empire and its Vision, or had they ceased serving her?
Donnelly was a fool if he thought Aerana would let him lead the military again, and Tinox was even more a fool for publically stating that he had the ability to listen to the happenings around a guild stone. They were only trying to serve as best they knew, however.
Donnelly crushed his guild stone. Tinox fled with his, rather than relinquish it.
Was Aerana Dantay trying to consolidate power? Had she come to think of herself as the physical manifestation of the Vision? Were these dismissals her way of consolidating power?
Why else would she react so violently to perceived personal betrayal?
”Where was your Guardian stone, Katelle?” The question was asked after all other soldiers had left her residence, though the Empress’s voice was still quiet. Katelle met the woman’s gaze squarely.
“In my pockets. But don’t you think he’d recognize someone trying to communicate mentally over such an item? I sure as Fel can tell with some people, and Fel knows I’ve been out of practice long enough that I knew it’d show. I wanted to keep him talking so I could maybe maneuver to my guild stone. I wasn’t about to become a plaring signal of the existence of another method of communication.”
“I see,” was Aerana’s quiet reply. Cold sapphire eyes watched her General with a mist of distance.
“Are you quite alright, Empress?” Zakarnas hadn’t yet understood the ramifications of Aerana’s demeanor, but Katelle was expecting it, could taste it in the air.
“You think I’ve betrayed you, don’t you.” Her words were flat and simple, a statement more than a question. The Captain looked from Empress to General with a faintly sick expression, and as the former’s pale face colored slightly before vanishing under her cool control, the latter’s fears were confirmed.
I did it for the good of the Vision, she reminded herself. There is something wrong here, and I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner.
“I think you are no fool, General, for a fool would not have lead the military for as long as you have. I will not ascribe to you lesser intelligence than you possess.” Aerana paused before continuing, perhaps to gather her thoughts; Katelle rather thought it was for effect. “Had you wished to contact the Military or myself—or Zakarnas or Myaka—you would have.” As Zakarnas began to look physically ill, the mage continued with a raised hand. “Before you seek to defend yourself: Know this.”
Here it comes. I was right. I knew it.
I did it for the good of the Empire.
“I possess the ability to open up the Guardian stones so that all might hear what the stone hears. I would not have you seek to make a fool of yourself by weaving more words.” Katelle’s response was immediate. She showed no signs of backing down.
“I never harbored the idea that you couldn’t,” she shot back. “You’re right, I am no fool. But am I supposed to truly bank on Tinox Smartgear’s pity for a pregnant woman to ensure my safety, or that of my child, should I get caught trying to reach out to someone before I was certain I could do so safely? You know me better than that, Aerana. Do you think—do ANY of you think—I would truly try to subvert you?”
Nobody responded to her. Not her sister, not her lover. Silence reigned in the room until Aerana spoke again, sadness lacing her voice.
“Yet I was the one that opened up the stone. To do such would not have distracted you such that Tinox would have noticed. We would have noted such earlier, had you done so, rather than waiting on my concern to prompt me to do such.”
“You put too much faith in my ability to utilize the mental functions of either stone in such a way after being so long out of practice.” Her gaze flattened. “I did not say anything to Tinox Smartgear that I would not have said straight to your face, Aerana.”
If she’d been given enough time before everything came to a head, she would have done so by now…
Aerana took a slow breath, the sound breaking the heavy silence of the room. Katelle raised her chin slightly, eyes locked yet again on her Empress without an ounce of weakness in her gaze.
“Yet does the fact that you would say such to my face authorize you to speak to one who seeks out my weaknesses? Who said only a few nights ago that he seeks those who know me? Betrayal requires not only the betrayal of an Empress by a General, Katelle,” she concluded softly.
Something snapped in the rogue’s mind, and her thoughts filled with dawning horror. Aerana was not one prone to self-absorption, and yet everything that had happened until that point had been a direct result of individuals opposing her.
“He fears for your safety, Aerana. Anything I told him could have been found out by anyone else if they’d paid enough attention.” Such was fact. She’d been intentionally vague in her words to Tinox, fearing stepping over the line a touch too far, but anybody who had been with the Empire as long as she had would have been sure to remember the differences between Aerana Dantay then and now.
And to let a common soldier overhear her calling Myaka “Guardian?” To dismiss the Senate in its entirety? She was slipping, hard and fast.
“He was worried for you! For the Vision!” Katelle stood abruptly, robes swirling about her legs. Zak stood with her, slow and silent, and she couldn’t determine—and couldn’t bring herself to care—if he was doing so to help her should she need it, or to protect his Empress should she attack. “I am worried! Terrified!”
“No. I have spoken to you as more than simply anyone. You are not just another within the Empire, who knows nothing of me! He says such and you believe him? Have you learned so little that you will believe whatever anyone says, no matter what?”
“And have you been so blinded by your own fear that you refuse to?! Open your eyes, Aerana! The Empire is being torn apart by BOTH sides!”
“Such does not give you the right, Katelle! I trusted you! I called you friend, once! And yet, as soon as one admits his intention of seeking out my friends, you seek to talk to him about me?!”
“He sought ME!” Katelle shouted back. “It is as your friend that I tried to listen to him, to gain some insight as to whatever has been haunting you for—for—for YEARS, Aerana! And it is as your GENERAL that I listened to what the other side had to say, for I took my vows—“
“As soon as Tinox states explicitly that he’s going to deign to find out more about me, you talk to him? You don’t inform anyone that he’s here? Is that what friend sdo? Light forbid! Then I am thankful I have so few to call me such!”” Aerana interrupted, visibly angry. Katelle continued to talk over her.
“- I took my VOWS to defend the Empire to heart! That includes you, that includes them, that includes the entirety of those who stand under the Vision, and these actions by all of you are destroying them! Are you so unaware of your own self?! People have been worried about you for YEARS!”
“You have the strangest way of showing it.” Both women remained silent for a moment, Katelle trying to keep herself from panting with exertion. After a moment, Aerana swallowed and spoke with a tightly controlled voice.
“I see. You were not acting as my friend,” she says, emphasizing the word. “You were acting as the General. Know then that I act as the Empress.”
“I…” Katelle paused, wincing slightly and resting a hand on her abdomen as if attempting to calm her child. “The two are not mutually exclusive, Empress.” Aerana ignored her, turning to her Captain instead and ordering him to do his duty…
Their mockery of a shouting match had been the most emotion she’d seen Aerana show in years, and each word further confirmed what the rogue was beginning to expect. Aerana Dantay, her Empress—but more importantly, her friend—was not well, and it was tearing their Empire apart.
I needed to hear what Tinox had to say. He’s not a threat, not truly. I did it for the good of the Empire. For the Vision. For my friends. It was my duty…
Where had duty gotten her this time? She was a prisoner in her own home, cut off from all communication except her lover-turned-guard and her healer, with a handful of ideas about what may be plaguing her friend but incapable of doing anything about it. Aerana had left Zakarnas in place as her keeper; she would not do anything to jeopardize his position alongside her now. So too had Myaka had forsaken her, returning the key to her personal home—the home built brick by brick with Zakarnas’s own hands¬--before she left with the Empress, hurt and angry betrayal clouding her eyes.
She didn’t understand, but she will. Sweet, loyal Myaka. Stay true to Aerana, because before this is done she will need you more than ever. She will need both of you, as will the Empire. I just wish this were an act I could share with you.
Katelle sighed softly, caressing her stomach lightly as she’d taken to doing since the baby had begun to stir. “It’s just you and me now, little one,” the rogue murmured. She drew breath and began to sing a quiet tune, some loving lullaby she vaguely remembered Ketani singing her as a child.
I will bear this imprisonment with dignity. I will cloak myself in the safety of duty. I will continue to do right by my station, by my Empire, by my family. I will…I will…
The song shook as Katelle’s voice quavered, and tears salted their path down her cheeks.