Actors on a Stage
Alpha and I moved at the same time. She rushed to Julio’s side, a dagger drawn, and thrusted it at Elysium’s throat. I moved to match her and drew my knife, intercepting her attack and parrying her blade away. She showed no surprise, and instead immediately responded by drawing a second knife, slashing at me. I drew my own secondary weapon and parried that as well. I followed up with a series of strikes that she fended off, following which she seized an opening to take the role of attacker. She struck out at me several times, each of which I avoided or parried, waiting for an opening to seize the offensive.
Our styles of combat were similar, and our level of skill was similar. Several rounds of combat passed in this manner, with each of us trading the roles of attacker and defender, respectively. After tens of blows had passed between us, we broke apart and stared each other down, knives at the ready. Then she lunged at me.
I tried to dodge out of the way, but I could not – something was holding me in place. I quickly glanced down – tendrils of darkness were wrapped around my feet, binding me to the ground. It seemed to be similar to the physical manifestations of light I used, except that it was shadow that was being given form and substance, rather than light. I immediately understood that Alpha had activated her magic to bind me, and began preparing to cast my own magic as a shield against her incoming attack.
“Glint, stand down.”
Julio’s command interrupted Alpha’s attack, causing her to withdraw out of her battle stance into her initial demure posture. The bindings around my feet disappeared. At the same time, Elysium gave me an order, while continuing to hold Julio against the wall. I nodded and sheathed my weapons, but stayed at the ready. Julio smiled in spite of his situation and addressed Elysium.
“You’re not going to hurt me.”
Elysium glared at him, then sighed and released her grip.
“You’re right. I’m not. That would be stupid. But I would at least like an explanation.”
“Miss Elysium, in truth, I understand your concern completely. Certainly, if I were in your position, I would be similarly outraged. Unfortunately, His Imperial Majesty refused to concede this matter. He is extremely proud of his Imperial Guard, and he took offence at my suggestion that you might be more at ease with your own guards. Believe me, I argued with him at length, but in the end, I am only Chancellor. He is Emperor. His word is final. My deepest apologies.”
He bowed toward Elysium. Elysium narrowed her eyes and growled, clenching her fists. Then she scowled and walked over to the door while calling out behind her shoulder.
“C’mon, Glint. We’re leaving.”
“Please, allow Alpha to show you out.”
Elysium didn’t reply and beckoned me over with her head. I moved over to her side and joined her as we walked through the corridor and toward the gates. Alpha followed us closely the whole way, likely to ascertain that we went straight for the gate, rather than taking any unprompted detours.
Once we were outside the gates, Alpha bowed and retreated back within the mansion. Elysium sighed and scratched her head. I decided to speak up.
“What now? Do we go back and work on contingencies?”
“Unnecessary. This was one of the outcomes I foresaw, so I already have a contingency drafted. Let’s go to a tavern. I think I need a drink.”
We headed for a tavern in the middle-class section of town – more reputable than the shady places in the slums, but less expensive than those in the high street. And most importantly, less conspicuous than either.
We sat down and ordered our drinks, and I watched as Elysium downed several shots without saying a word. By the time I had finished my first glass, Elysium had worked her way through two bottles, and still she gave no indication of bring drunk – a state of affairs that displeased her, if her complaints were anything to go by. I wasn’t quite aware of the details, but it seemed that whatever force it was that granted her superhuman physical abilities also served to immunise her to toxins and poisons, a category that included alcohol.
Watching Elysium staring at the empty bottles as if they had betrayed her, I decided to seek clarification on the matter that had been troubling me for some time.
“Elysium, why’d you get so mad? I mean, sure, the new arrangement means that all our work was for nothing, but if we step back and look at it again, aren’t there only benefits to be gained? If they’re part of the Imperial Guard, then the guards will surely be of sufficient ability. Furthermore, background checks would be a part of their selection process, no doubt, so there would be no worries on that front. And if the Emperor himself is providing the security detail, we get to save money on hiring our own. I’m not seeing any cause for complaint, to be honest.”
Elysium glanced at me, watching me over the rims of the empty bottles. Then she sighed and shook her head.
“You’ve still got a lot to learn, Glint.”
Elysium shifted the bottles to the side and moved her chair over next to me, so that she could speak to me in whispers.
“You’re correct on all those points. But just because the soldiers are part of the Imperial Guard doesn’t mean that they’re trustworthy. In fact, I’d be more willing to put my trust in our hired freelancers.”
“Hm? Why? Isn’t protecting the Emperor literally the job of the Guard?”
“Ostensibly, yes. But tell me this. While the function of the Guard is indeed the protection of the Emperor, who is it that actually commands the Imperial Guard? Who handles their salary and training? Who interacts with them on a daily basis? Not the Emperor, for certain.”
“Well, if memory serves, the Guard is under the command of the Vernia House, led by Duke Joseph Vernia, cousin to the Emperor and 15th in line to the throne.”
“That is correct. Are you beginning to see the problem now?”
Indeed, the fact that the Imperial Guard wasn’t under the sole command of the Emperor was a major problem – and one that had surprisingly gone unaddressed. But…
“Isn’t the Duke Vernia on good terms with the current Emperor? Besides, he would gain nothing from threatening the Emperor, given that he is far too down the line of succession to dream of having the throne for himself.”
“Wrong on two accounts. Being on good terms with the Emperor means nothing – he could be currying favour, or faking approval to have the Emperor let his guard down. And you’re wrong when you say that he has nothing to gain. Sure, he has no way of ascending the throne on his own, but he might be in the good graces of someone else – for example, the person second in line to the throne. Such an individual who would be in a position to gain the throne might have promised the Duke a better position or more benefits, which would then incentivise an assassination. Do you now see why there might be a problem?”
I bit my lip and thought about it. Indeed, when she put it that way, I could begin to see why Elysium might be worried. If we went with our original plan of hiring freelancers, we would at least be able to count on them to keep an eye on each other. However, in these circumstances, it was possible that the entire Guard would be involved, as they all served the same employer. That was… troubling, to say the least. The more external elements were involved, the less control we had over the situation – even if that external element was something as seemingly reliable as the Imperial Guard, it still led to unpredictability, and we wanted to avoid unpredictability if at all possible.
“So what are we going to do, Elysium? Station our own guards alongside the Imperial Guard?”
“No. We can’t do that. If we do, it might be regarded as a sign of aggression or defiance, and we want to avoid that. There’s nothing we can do to change this arrangement, now that the Emperor himself has made this decision. All we can do is to assume the worst, and to plan for it.”
She downed another shot, and I followed suit. As I felt the burning alcohol in the back of my mouth, I decided to confirm my suspicions with Elysium.
“Earlier you mentioned that Duke Vernia might be enticed to commit treason by someone who was in the position to take the throne. But of the next five people in line to the throne, four of them are still children, and not of the right age to inherit the throne. Meaning that the only person left who could take over is the fitfh in line, and that’s…”
“…Julio Kronschild, yes. That man is a snake. I could probably throw him a lot further than I trust him.”
That was the impression I had, as well. Julio was a man who had a lot to hide – I was certain that his friendly demeanor was just a performance. He was dangerous, an experienced negotiator and likely a well-practiced manipulator. I would not be surprised if he indeed intended to knock the Emperor off the throne and install himself as Emperor. I recalled the rumours coming in from the rest of the country, that there were public agitators being left unsupressed in parts of the country – if Julio was the one instigating these agitators, then it made perfect sense as to why they were allowed to go free. Julio was clearly up to something, and we had no choice but to dance upon the stage he had prepared.
And then there was Alpha, the strange maid. The one who displayed such unnatural docility while disguising martial ability beyond the norm. We used the same weapons. We used the same fighting style. We both favoured speed over power. We both served as attendants and bodyguards for our respective employers. We were equally matched in combat. I had only caught a glimpse of her magic, but she seemed to have an Affinity for Darkness – an Affinity that was as rare as my own Affinity for Light. The two of us were shared so many similarities it was laughable, and yet our Magical Affinities were entirely at odds with the other. It was enough to convince me that she and I were somehow fated to meet, that our fates were entwined. How that connection might manifest was something beyond my knowledge. But I felt a deep conviction that either we were destined to be the greatest of friends, or otherwise the worst of enemies.
As I mused on this, Elysium worked her way through two more bottles, then stood up. Downing the contents of my glass, I followed suit, and the two of us returned to the Ezov in silence, to work out contingencies in preparation for the worst.