Bitva unbuckled her gauntlets, letting the weight of them fall into her open palm before she placed them aside. Her nimble fingers picked at the wires exposed beneath them – her weapon of choice – and she unwound them swiftly, handing their coiled, razor-sharp mass to the waiting highguard sentry. She was left with the unyielding leather beneath, grooves warn into their coarse surfaces.
“Please remove your boots, sage,” the sentry instructed softly, and she complied, allowing them to be inspected before they were returned to her possession. The Stahlborn slid them back on and followed her guide down the steps into the Ether palace’s prison, feeling exceptionally bare without her wires.
Bitva was left alone at the centre of a locked prison cell, staring across the bare table at the empty seat that mirrored her own, arms and legs crossed. She was not defensive, but she felt the first hints of impatience start to nestle in her stomach before the cell door was pulled back to allow its captive through.
Konnen didn’t meet her gaze until he was seated, marching across the distance with militaristic pace in his escorts’ grasps. He was the picture of a commander, spine straight and gaze steady, face ever-impassive. Bitva didn’t think she’d ever seen a single emotion cross her older brother’s face short of anxiety.
They both waited in comfortable silence until the escorts had retreated to the edges of the room, almost far enough that they could be forgotten.
“How are you?” he asked softly, gently, politely. He had always had a quiet tone, a temperate timbre to his voice; it had soothed her in her younger years. But she had grown to see it for what it was; a defence mechanism.
“I’m well, thank you,” Bitva responded sincerely, uncrossing her limbs and correcting her posture in his presence. “How are you?”
“I’m well.” It was short, brusque, not offhanded but still lacking mindful thought.
Bitva supressed a sigh. “Konnen, if you’re not alright, you can tell me.”
“Konig’s not here to tell you off,” she reminded him gently. “You don’t have to hide around me.”
He met her gaze then – not that he hadn’t had eyes on her the entire time. He just, awoke at her words, life coming into his eyes. “I know, Bitya. I’m fine.”
Bitva softened at her nickname, setting the matter aside as she leaned forward and placed her intertwined hands on the counter before them. He trusted her enough, and she him, not to keep secrets from one another.
“What did you want to talk about?” Konnen asked, shifting his wrists and setting them atop the table, a mirror of her own posture. It was a habit of his, she had noticed long ago, to reflect those around him. It had become a personality for him; restricting emotion and allowing himself to become a polished surface for everyone – their father, their brother Korol, their sister Heike – t bounce their ambitions off.
Bitva’s gaze flickered to the manacles, and she was reminded of the prowess of their heritage, reminded that he could kill every person in their room just as readily as she could. They were Stahlborn; tactics were their code of ethics, restraint their moral compass. They possessed the ability to fell armies, and they restrained themselves for the social decency others asked of them.
These shackles bound Konnen no more than string would.
“I wanted to know what Heike told you about mom.”
He didn’t look taken aback; but then, she hadn’t expected him to. He was as emotionless as ever. “She told me she was dead. And so was father.”
Such formal words to create safe distance between them – the power-mad king and the biddable four-year-old. When Bitva looked at her elder brother, she didn’t see the twenty-nine-year-old man; she saw a boy trapped in emotional starvation, deprived of expression and individuality until he no longer recognised the tools.
Bitva held no connections to the man beyond blood.
Their father had been a great man, and a Great Mage, that none of them could readily deny. He had curbed crime within their Realm, brought them from the brink of a second famine with a harsh but just hand. For all that he had failed them, he had not failed his realm.
But a man of importance demands a worthy legacy, and Konig Stahldritten was not a man to be surpassed or overthrown by unworthy kin. He had sculpted his children in swathes and strokes, like a fine moulder of the psyche, defining each child by their worth in the adamant determination to produce a worthy heir.
Konnen had been his first child, and his first son – his first attempt at a legacy. He had confined him, stamped out emotional outbursts and conducted him in the finest details of how he should act and who he should be until Konnen no longer knew how to move without a puppeteer’s strings. And when the puppet had proven unable to stand on unguided feet, Konig had cast him aside just as readily as he had leapt to improve him.
Korol had been Konnen’s polar; bred in violence and sharp calculation, indulgent of his superiority and rawer emotions. With no curb to his reckless and consuming behaviour, Korol had proved himself to have an aptitude for viciousness and a propensity for the cadaverous. Konig had seen early that he was a loose cannon, and had hoped to curb his passion in enlisting him as a commander of the Stahl army, just as Konnen had before him.
Four years had produced Konig’s first daughter, and the crowning jewel to his legacy. Politically adept, socially intriguing and militaristically calculated, Heike had proven to be all that their father had craved in a child. Bitva never ceased to find irony in the knowledge that she had been the one to catalyse his death, in the end.
“Did she tell you how they died?”
Konnen answered almost mechanically, relaying information as a messenger would, without inflection or regret. “They retired to the mountains. Mother stabbed him, and then killed herself.”
Bitva nodded, setting her shoulders as she transfixed his gaze. “Did she tell you why?” The eldest Stahldritten nodded. “Why, Konnen?”
“Heike told Korol and I that it was to pave the path for Heike to become heir, to become Great Mage.”
“To become Great Mage or to become Empress?”
“Both. Mother knew about the Devonians; she told me she had studied their habituations when she was younger, had discovered their hundred-year cycle. She knew that she couldn’t take command of the Stahl army to force Zauberin’s hand, and neither could father, with his shattered warsword.”
Bitva had seen the artefact on display in Konig’s chambers on the few brief occasions she had spent in there. It was a colossal thing, smithed from black steel, as all warswords were, including her own. And etched into every spare surface of the sword had been names, titles of victims felled by Konig Stahldritten’s hands.
The Stahl Father called for documentation, recitation of their kills, to keep them ever-vigilant of the blood they had shed, the burden of the dead that they carried with them. Konig’s sword had rested in dichotomous brutality upon its perch in his war chambers, shattered in the midst of carving one name too many into its brittle surface. It was a demand of the Stahl Father for Konig to cease war matters, and he had willingly obliged.
As Fieke Stahldritten, his wife and their mother, had foreseen, when conflict inevitably arose between the Stahl Realm as the Devonian Army, Konig as Great Mage would be exempted by their laws from commanding their legions to battle. The Realms would have been defenceless without its primary military force.
“Mother knew Heike was the only one capable of leading the Realm,” Konnen continued solemnly.
“But she couldn’t maintain her position as acting Great Mage,” Bitva theorised, maintaining eye-contact with Konnen, looking for a flinch. “She was already a Great Lady married to the Wasser Realm’s Great Mage; she couldn’t assume the full title.”
“Which was why she needed to become Empress,” Konnen explained, as if reciting facts. “Asche Zauberin’s death was unfortunate, but collateral and necessary. Heike needed the laws granted to an Empress to amass the Six Realms’ armies into a united force against the Devonians; annexation was our only salvation.”
“So what was Klauen to her?”
Konnen glanced down at his bound hands then, silent for a moment before his gaze flickered back up. “She needed someone as the seat of the Stahl Realm’s power, a Great Mage who would legally command her armies–”
“But not undermine her authority,” Bitva concluded, settling back into her seat, crossing her arms over her chest. Konnen’s stare followed her.
“Yes, Bitya,” he responded gently. “She needed someone who would obey her. Korol and I were barred from assuming the role, as commanders, so he was the next logical choice.”
“And she could make him jump exactly how she wanted him to.”
“Yes. He was…convenient.”
“Convenient as her puppet or convenient as her scapegoat?”
“Both,” Konnen answered truthfully. “He wasn’t military; he was merely her executioner, so he wasn’t immune to penalties – she knew this. Heike wanted to keep him under control, to direct his anger and aggression into more useful channels.”
“Like Konig did.”
If Konnen had been Konig’s voiceless puppet, and Korol had been his renegade, then Klauen had been his psychopath. He had been the one their father had brutalised into aggression and regret and anger, praying on his proclivity for violence and marrying it with an artificial bloodlust. For all Klauen’s hatred of him, he had still been desperate to please the man, and every incident of death and tragedy had been an opportunity for Konig to beat a lesson into the boy, until he had grown into a jaded, distrustful and all-too-easily-trusting teenager.
Konnen’s eyes faltered, receding back into that emotionless husk they always did whenever she mentioned his name. “Yes. Like father did.”
“Do you know where he is now?”
Konnen hesitated. “He’s been in solitary confinement for the past week.”
“Do you know what he did?” Konnen shook his head slowly, and Bitva drew in a deep breath, glancing down at her knees. “He assaulted the prosecutor at his trial, after the man implied that he had authorised Blair’s death.”
There was a sharp steel knot in her chest that tightened with those words, a hollow ghost of what Klauen must have felt in that moment. She had been in the gallery, had heard the visceral pain in his screams, had known his fury and his guilt.
Bitva placed her palms on the table, pushing back her chair as she rose to her feet. Konnen’s head tilted to follow her ascension. “Heike painted his hands Blair’s blood –Blair’s blood. She knew what he meant to Klauen. It was inexcusable.”
“Why are you here, Bitya?” Konnen asked her.
“I’m giving you a warning, now,” she said, a hint of ice lining her tone. It was a quality both she and Heike were capable of; instilling steel and chill into their voice to leave their victims shivering. “If you try to defend her in any way – if you try to pin any of her crimes on Klauen – I will personally hold you responsible for whatever happens to him, Konnen. Do you understand me?”
He nodded slowly but with surety, and Bitva turned on her heel, stepping out through the barred door the escorts held open for her. She felt Konnen’s gaze follow her far beyond sight and out of the confines of the prison with her.