The Fall of the Builder: IX
The rumours spread quickly in a city like Valaris. Everyone had heard of the Night of the Demons, everyone had heard of the gruesome executions of the Duke of Noxborough and the Nornish nobles, and everyone had heard the sinister tales of their executioner, the Grey Warlord.
The people called him the Crimson King, and Celia knew she shouldn’t put too much meaning into the moniker—but she couldn’t resist. In a way, it was terrifying—in another, it was thrilling.
Her brother, the Emperor, still didn’t care about the disturbances in the North. It wasn’t his concern, he said. On this, however, Celia and the Empress Dowager both agreed with one another. The Grey Ones did pose a great threat and it would be unwise to ignore it.
The reward for Sebastian Arlington had been spread to every corner of the empire, as well as to every Free City of Nornest. Ten thousand sovereigns and a piece of land in the Southern Reach was a most generous price for a Nornish noble, and people everywhere wanted the riches for themselves.
During the few weeks the reward had been publicly known, Celia and her brother had been presented by more than two dozen people claiming to have captured the Arlington heir. None had yet to present the real one.
Celia had met him once, many years prior, when her father was still alive. They were only children then, but Celia would never forget those eyes, gleaming like the silver moon. She was eager to see him again—not because of their brief friendship as children, but because of his intimate knowledge of the grey beasts.
The Empress Dowager was very stern when it came to the Grey Ones. She insisted upon calling them Kas and claimed that no one truly understood the dangers they were facing in having them on the same continent, even though they were a thousand miles away. After hearing all the stories from the sell-swords that were in Noxborough on the Night of the Demons, Celia was starting to believe the Empress Dowager.
One night during supper, the Empress Dowager handed her son a narrow piece of paper. The Emperor furrowed his brows, sighed, and skimmed through the text.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Can’t you read?” the Empress Dowager drawled.
Cereo rolled his eyes. “Mother, I am eating.”
The Empress Dowager sighed deeply. “That is a message from the North. More than a hundred Kas ships have been spotted in Winter Harbour.”
“This is no longer an invasion of Noxborough only, this is much—”
“Mother!” The Emperor seldom raised his voice, but now he bellowed as he glared at the Empress Dowager.
Knowing her place, the woman silenced—as did the rest of the party.
Cereo grunted deeply and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t want to speak of war when I’m eating.” After taking a rich sip of wine, he asked, “How come you’ve received such a message, and I haven’t?”
The Empress Dowager raised her brows in an arrogant grimace. “I have eyes everywhere.”
This, Cereo did not like. “So you have your own spies? Do I need to remind you that I am the Emperor here?”
Danaia glared at her son with fierce determination. “And do I need to remind you that I served as Empress of Illyria for over thirty years?”
Cereo glared back. “I know you did, Mother, but remind me again, how many wars did you have to prepare for? That’s right, none.”
The Empress Dowager slammed her cup onto the table. “I have firsthand experience when it comes to the Kas, never forget that, and they are not to be underestimated! A hundred Kas ships, that means that they have an army that will match ours, if not outnumber us. It would be foolish of us not to prepare for a coming war.”
“A hundred ships?” Cereo huffed. “That could be hearsay for all we know. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Trust me, you do not want to see a hundred Kas ships on that horizon,” Danaia muttered.
“They are all the way up in Noxborough, Mother!” Cereo sneered. “It’s been two months since Duke Arlington was executed. Why would they wait for an attack? Why would they give the other Free Cities time to rally their armies?”
“Because they have no armies!” the Empress Dowager barked. “There is nothing but farmers and pitchforks in Nornest, and the only real army they’ve ever had has been terrified already!”
“So why wait?” Cereo shrugged. “Why not attack when they know there is no resistance? Because they aren’t marching south!”
The Empress Dowager shook her head in disbelief. “Heed my warning—the Kas will come, sooner or later. They would never sail to any shore with such a large army solely to take one puny city. No, they have something grander in mind, you just wait. You’re being blind, my son. Open your eyes, before the Darkness comes for us all.”
Cereo squared his jaw tightly as he downed the wine he had in his glass. “Enough of this. Bard! Play me something! Outshine my mother’s flair for drama.”
From behind a corner, a man with a lute came strutting. Quickly, he started playing one of Cereo’s favourite ballads, and it marked the end of the conversation.
Celia’s heart thudded in her throat. She had not expected there to be over a hundred ships; if they were filled with soldiers, chances were they could indeed match the twenty thousand strong Golden Army. While glancing over at the Empress Dowager, she wondered what horrors she had experienced in her youth, what nightmares she had brought with her from Tallis. Perhaps, she thought, there was more to the old woman than met the eye.
After supper, Celia withdrew to her room. Her mind was far too occupied with thoughts of war to be a good conversationalist, and she found herself on her balcony in the chilly autumn night. Gazing out over the bay, she imagined the wall of ships that would cover the horizon and a knot formed in her belly.
With a huff, she fetched her sword. It was a lithe one, but very sharp. Gifted to her by her father shortly before his passing, it was the most treasured belonging she had. If it ever came to it, a Princess of Illyria should know how to defend herself, her father had said. Celia couldn’t agree more. She had practised swordsmanship from childhood and she would not run from a battle. If it ever came to it, she would defend herself and her country.
Standing on the balcony, she repeated the movements she had learnt from her swordmaster. She breathed deeply, calmly, as she transitioned from one movement to another, letting the sword follow her body and letting her body follow the sword. It was calming, entrancing, and she disappeared for a moment into another word.
“I remember that sword.”
Celia gasped and nearly fell onto her bottom at the voice. She opened her eyes and swallowed hard when she met the Empress Dowager’s gaze in the faint firelight.
She curtsied. “Your Highness.”
“I told him that was no gift for a little girl, but Aurelius insisted,” said Danaia. “You’re a Princess of Illyria, and as such, you should know how to swing a sword. Perhaps my husband knew things others didn’t.”
Celia swallowed. She was not used to being visited by the Empress Dowager.
Sighing, Danaia walked to the bannisters. “Perhaps we’ve been at peace for too long. The only wars we’ve fought have been against Nature itself. The safety of the Golden Army has cradled us for too long.”
Carefully, Celia joined the former Empress by the bannisters. “Have you truly seen the demons with your own eyes?”
“I have,” muttered Danaia.
“When you were a child?”
The Empress Dowager sighed deeply. “I had just become a woman when my village was attacked. They spared no one. My brothers and I survived only because we hid from the beasts as they tore through the city. They killed the men and took the women.”
Celia swallowed. “Took the women where?”
“Back to their island as slaves, I presume. To quench their unholy desires.”
“Is it true what they say? Are they giants?”
Danaia nodded. “Those I’ve seen stood close to eight feet tall, built like mountains. Their skin was grey as ash, their eyes were yellow and wolfish, their teeth were sharp, and their hair was long and black as the night.” Her jaw twitched some before the said, “True monsters.”
“Yes,” murmured Celia and bit her lip. “They do sound terrifying.”
“I see them in my nightmares still,” said the Empress Dowager. “They might not be the beasts the brave souls fight to enter the Void, but they are not creatures of the Builder.”
She turned to Celia with low set brows and the Princess was surprised by the sincerity, the urgency, in them.
“These aren’t just any savages—they are intelligent, cunning. If they are biding their time in Noxborough, we have to do the same here. It may be more than three hundred leagues between us and them, but Grey Ones travel fast. Speak with the Emperor. Convince him to strengthen the army, and to make alliances. We will need more fighting men, and we will need a fleet to protect the bay. I hear Aranthe has a sizable one. Your marriage with the Prince could be a start.”
“But we have the Dragon Gate,” said Celia, ignoring the Empress Dowager’s comment. “If we raise the chains, the ships won’t get into the bay.”
“The bay might be spared,” sighed the Empress Dowager, “but we will be besieged.”
Celia swallowed and nodded. “I will speak to him.”
“Good, he listens to you,” Danaia nodded. She then straightened and gathered her hands. “And it’s good you can handle a sword. You should teach your brother the same.” The Empress Dowager gave Celia a small nod before the left.
Celia fiddled with the hilt of her sword as she watched the woman exit through the door, and her heart hammered inside her chest. She knew the Empress Dowager had been made an orphan in her younger days, but she never knew her noble parents met such a gruesome end.
Clenching her jaw tightly, she took a deep breath and resumed her stance with her sword firmly in hand. She was a Princess of Illyria, and she would protect herself and her country, no matter the cost.