Chapter 14 and Epilogue
Fusestu, Central District, Teikoku
(24th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
As the midnight of the 24th of Eleint came to pass and the crowds were dispersed, she had Zolin lead her, Minamoto beside them, into the villa.
She had spared his life...but it had not been an act of dishonor. Their arrangement was simple, based in an old bylaw that had not been enacted in centuries; for the sake of his family retaining rights of lordship, and her own inexperience of office, he would serve her as her majordomo. An honored thrall of sorts. He would advise her, and when her term was ended, she would return Sasu to his family, that they might contest for the right to wield it.
But she would become Lord of the Central District. Though none had prepared for her emerging victorious, particularly not in this manner, all the prominent nobles, the Four Lords, and the Hitorigami himself would attend the villa that very next day for her coronation.
It was no easy thing. She didn’t sleep well that night, in that unfamiliar bed, even with Zolin beside her and his immunity and safety all but secured.
Because in regaining her home in Teikoku, she’d lost her home in Cormyr. She could never return to Suzail, certainly not return to her duties in Teneth’s.
By Sune...what had she done?
Before the sun peaked above the horizon, her new and visibly uncomfortable attendants had woken her, bathed her, and brought her into the fitting room.
As her outfits were sorely inappropriate for the occasion, her newly appointed majordomo had commissioned new attire.
After she’d dried off, she’d been covered in a sleeveless linen tunic and leggings in native style, then a dark leather vest. Over her leggings went greaves, and ankle plates over her tied leather sandals. Fingerless gauntlets of similar make were fitted to her wrists.
It took much longer for them to attach her breastplate and weighted Fauld, constructed of small iron scales and plates connected to each other by rivets and macrame cords made from leather and braided silk. Lacking pauldrons, the armor was nonetheless gorgeously detailed, painted and lacquered a shade of blue just a little darker than her skin and accented with gleaming brass.
How Minamoto had arranged for armor that could fit her so quickly, especially armor of such quality, Kaileena had not the slightest idea.
At her belt, Tsukuyumi, her mother’s wakizashi, was sheathed beside Minamoto’s Sasu, and if the weight of the former had set her off balance...
Gods, she felt ridiculous; Minamoto’s sword might as well have been a greatsword to her. She had to tilt it slightly to prevent its tip from scraping the floor!
Despite how bulky the arms and armor felt against her slight frame, the lightweight armor was at least tightly fitted to her, expertly so, and it moved with her effortlessly as she studied her reflection.
“And the priestess becomes a lord.” Zolin noted, clearly amused by her unease, “Gaelyse isn’t going to believe this.”
Her expression soured, “I wanted very much to return to Suzail. Now...”
As her attendants left the room, finished inspecting their work, Zolin gathered her in his arms, setting her head against his chest, “I know. I’ll miss Cormyr as well, but if this is your calling...”
“It isn’t fair. Not to you. I’ve taken your home from you as well.”
To that, he took both her hands in just one of his, “My home is you, my love. My home is wherever your feet tread, wherever your warmth is felt. Wherever your smile is in easy sight.”
“...So smile a little, will you?”
At that, she dared an amused chortle, “The warrior becomes a poet, hmm?”
“Let’s go then. I should greet my new courtiers.”
The coronation was held in the entry hall of the Villa; a long chamber lit by cubical paper lanterns and an imported chandelier, and attended by over a hundred brightly clad nobles. Some were dressed for battle, others bedecked in elegant, layered robes of statesmen. Females were clothed, not armored, with Kaileena herself as the sole exception. Kimonos and hakama were the popular choice, though some younger and single women favored a variant called furisode not unlike her old brothel uniform; suggestively cut and tied with an obi.
She passed them by, and all bowed in her wake, save the other three lords, who were also in attendance. They seemed the only ones who didn’t scowl when they thought she wasn’t looking, or gritted their teeth angrily though their tribulations. Likely, they enjoyed the “dishonor” she had dealt their rival and were enjoying the spectacle.
Still, their stares were more skeptical than respectful. Kaileena knew she would be viewed as a rival, minus the respect. So be it.
Before the ceremonies began in earnest, Kaileena knew there was one in particular she had to meet...
In a smaller, but no less lavish chamber beside the entry hall, normally empty, she was led to a raised pedestal atop a short stairway. The lighting was sparse and not natural; in place of torches, lanterns, or windows, hovering orbs not unlike Sunrods emitted a regular yellowy glow.
There were at least twenty armored guards, all carrying both a black powder weapon across their back and an elegantly curved, immaculately honed katana at the waist. Suspended at the far end, there was a massive cubical frame, holding up layered veils which hid a single person.
She approached the frame, and bowed, low, as a person-shaped outline shifted behind the thin, filmy material. All those in the hall departed, leaving her alone.
The veils parted of their own accord, revealing a thin, pale man in richly embroidered robes. His brown, heavy-lidded eyes bore dark circles, and his expression, while pinched, betrayed his thoughts.
Not revulsion, as she expected. Not confusion; it was something else, something she had witnessed maybe once or twice in others as she had traveled the breadth of Faerûn.
It looked like wonder.
"I have wondered, for many years..." he said lightly, studying her, ”What Lenao had been up to in his solitude. I had never imagined he might..."
He chuckled, “...Sire offspring. He never struck me as the type, always focused on the present, never the future. Never caring if his line continued."
"Our priorities change." Kaileena replied sadly, ”The world does that to us."
The Hitorigami nodded, ”True. I never expected Minamoto to be bested in honorable combat either. That Lenao’s daughter becomes his successor, the first woman to attain the station, and that she be an enchanter, and a priest of a Kotoamatsukami, and a foreign ambassador in more than one sense of the term..."
"I am pleased, though."
"Then you validate my candidacy?"
"Indeed I do." The Hitorigami noted, ”Lenao was not the only one who possessed this little trinket.-"
He pointed to a small talisman at his belt; a perfect replica of the one in her father’s study, ”And I see your nature very clearly. I judge your claim as worthy, and officiate your reign as Lord of the Central District. Salutations are in order, I suspect."
"Thank you, Hitorigami."
"It’s Mikoto, actually." he added, startling her. None of the Schoolmistress’ lessons had explicitly mentioned him by name, and the Hitorigami is usually groomed at birth, sequestered until the day he assumes the throne. She doubted very much he revealed his name to many.
"How old are you, exactly?" she asked, knowing it to be improper but wanting to know anyway.
He puzzled over that, ”Why do you ask?"
"My father’s construct implied you two were of similar age. He passed years ago, and you look barely out of your dotage."
Indeed; his eyelids bore many heavy wrinkles of age, but the rest of him did not. He could have been his thirties.
He laughed, and how open, how genuine, it sounded, ”Lenao was always more generous to me than he was to himself. The enchantments sustaining me are far more...stable. I would have traded it gladly, had I known he’d made a family for himself, with one even more long-lived than I."
His smile faded, and he looked away, distant.
"Know that it saddened me very greatly when Lenao passed." Mikoto said suddenly, rising to his feet, ”He was a dear friend, and an invaluable ally. The world allots too few of either."
She bowed again, lower, as he smiled, and took her hands in his. They were firmer than she imagined.
"Seeing you here, now...I am reminded so much of him. It’s like he’s still here, almost. We will be seeing very much of each other in the coming years, of this I do not doubt."
"I would like that." Kaileena replied honestly. It would be a wonderful thing, a normal thing, to speak to her father’s closest friend.
”For now, we must part." he said, melancholy, ”My duties press, and I must return to the capital. But I will call upon you at the first opportunity, and you can tell me of the world. There is much to know if we are to ever end isolationism."
"Goodbye for now, then, Mikoto."
He nodded, and returned to his throne. By some unseen signal, his retinue returned, and carried the frame like a litter, flanked on either side by guards.
"Goodbye, Lord Kaileena."
She remained in a bow until the litter was removed from the room, leaving just a stairway in an otherwise empty chamber.
Rising, she exited to find Zolin waiting for her, offering his arm. Taking it, and nodding appreciatively at the support, Kaileena greeted her immediate underlings; her general, who oversaw the defenses of the district’s borders, several lieutenants under him, her Karyudo Kisai representative, who looked less than pleased in bowing to her, and dozens of bankers, investors, and statesmen.
With every introduction, she was offered tribute.
She was offered silks and linens for a soon-to-be extensive wardrobe, household items and plots of land to construct her own villa. Items of magic, purchased from the overseers of Mount Renmei, and the imprisoned enchanters therein.
She accepted these gifts too, mentally calculating what she might be able to do in order to visit that mountain, and perhaps free a few of its captives. Surely, with generations passed, there were none remaining who had taken part in the wars leading to the reclamation.
As she had with her customers in Teneth’s, she memorized the nobles’ names carefully, and the names of their families, graciously and gracefully offering tributes of her own to curry favor. Knowledge of the world and its dealings. Promises of future trade agreements.
It seemed many looked forward to the days when the mists of Teikoku faded and the world became open to them again, at least on a limited scale. Perhaps its gods, too, would return, as the Sundering had wrought upon the rest of Toril.
Her final tribute was delivered by Minamoto himself, who eyed her proudly as they shared a deep, respectful bow. He was the only one of his family that hadn’t offered her a petulant scowl.
"I assure you, Lord Kaileena, that you will accustom to the pomp and ceremony.” he said, “Just you stay apart from it, as none born into nobility and knowing it could, lest your heart be muddled in politics."
Nodding, Kaileena watched as he opened a large oaken box, the inside lined with velvet. In the box was a white, short-sleeved outer coat, its back emblazoned with the Hitorigami’s Sigil, and beneath it, the symbol of Minamoto’s family line. Her breath caught.
"I argued for days to include that final seal. I hope you like it."
Nodding dumbly, Kaileena allowed him to set it upon her shoulders, slipping her arms through the sleeves.
By including that crest, Minamoto had not only fully validated her succession, but symbolically adopted her into his family. With that crest, she was owed their loyalty and protection.
"Goddess..." she gasped, ”I cannot express how honored I am. No doubt, when my service is ended, one of your line will succeed me."
"And I do not doubt that when he, or she, does, it will be to a prosperous and honorable district."
Again, she bowed, but he wasn’t finished.
Kaileena blinked, dazed. There was more?
Minamoto nodded to his retinue, and a large rectangular package wrapped in canvas was brought to her. Its ends were untied, and revealed to her was a magnificent, ornamented mirror. As they drew it away, a second, identical mirror was revealed.
"A project from Mount Renmei, based on a foreign design." he explained.
"It’s magnificent. But why two?"
"My Lord, these are specially enchanted. You have your tower in the forest; your father’s property. I thought you would prefer peace and quiet, yet still be able to attend your duties. One mirror will carry a reflection to the other; you can activate and speak to whoever stands before the other mirror, and..."
He paused, dramatically, ”...once a day, you can travel from one to its twin physically, if you are needed to defend the capital from attack."
Stunned, she ran her hand along its outer frame.
Such a powerful enchantment...it must have cost him a fortune...
She eyed him incredulously, humbled again by his humility, especially in offering this to one who’d battled him, who’d humiliated him by sparing his life.
"I will be very glad to have you as my adviser, I think." she admitted to herself, ”Teikoku needs you for it. I need you."
Again, she bowed, and he bowed lower, ”It will be my pleasure, Lord Kaileena."
"Please stop calling me that, Minamoto."
"No, Lord Kaileena. It would be a great breach in etiquette."
She sighed, hopeless, ”How can I argue in the face of such tribute?"
Taking a seat at her throne-like chair, Zolin at her left, Minamoto at her right, Kaileena gave one last, beleaguered sigh. It was a horridly uncomfortable thing, and it would please her very much when she replaced it with a comfy cushion while she lounged in her father’s tower, giving edicts through the mirror.
With the ceremony concluded, the nobles without pressing business filed out of the hall, leaving her to her thoughts and her immediate duties.
They came to her with varied issues, most of it petty; whose son had offered to wed a member of a rival house, whose trade contract properly circumvented the embargo and which did not, and so forth. With Minamoto offering guidance, Kaileena made even-handed judgments that left both parties in each matter only somewhat dissatisfied.
That done, she ordered the brothel in Fusestu re-purposed as an orphanage, and all the women within set free. That had rankled more than a few, to be sure, but coin was not her immediate interest. She outlawed men from owning a brothel, or at least supervising it, all throughout the Central District. It would be the proper way; a woman who’d worked in that field would train and supervise others who willingly chose it.
She briefly considered sharing Sune’s worship with her unwitting blessed. Maybe soon.
That done, she’d ordered Lenao’s notes on the Spell-Eater Strain, at least those pertaining to synthesizing it into a temporary potion, delivered to Mount Renmei. The resulting influx of gold would please those whose pockets she’d just meddled with.
When evening set in, she offered her regards to her adviser, and fell asleep in the covered wagon as it took her and Zolin out of Fusestu, back towards Kazeatari, and then her new home.
The Iron Tower, Central District, Teikoku
(25th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
With her coronation concluded and Minamoto overseeing her holdings, she’d traveled back to her father’s tower, Zolin and Golem in tow. The construct effortlessly carried the first enchanted mirror over his back, and had been silent the entire trip.
No. Her tower, she corrected herself. She’d have to get used to that sooner or later.
She studied its iron surface, pristine save for a thin column of vines which had crept up its western wall. It looked so gloomy. Maybe she’d have a balcony installed at least.
A dozen servants were camped below; she could see the tips of their tents from here. In the morning, they would set to restoring the gardens and set up more permanent living quarters. It’d be their own little village, close enough to visit Gatsuyu and Nagomi whenever she wished, the better to see the family they created. Kaileena found herself eager to call herself an aunt. Close enough for them, in turn, to visit a niece or nephew of their own, Zolin willing...
Golem went right through the double-doors, which had peeled open to admit him. He went up the stairs and out of sight.
“Ready to go in?” Zolin asked, yawning, “I could go for a meal and a warm bed.”
Nodding, thoughtful as the wind ruffled her haori, Kaileena looked over to the passage leading down, to her parent’s tomb, “I wish I could have met them. Both of them.”
“I wonder what they would have thought of me.”
“You are their daughter. You are a brilliant practitioner, and the new Lord of the Central District. They would be very proud, I’m sure.”
He grinned that mischievous, boyish grin of his that she hadn’t seen in a long time, “And if they aren’t, they might need to readjust their standards.”
Smiling tiredly, Kaileena took a step towards the tower, and paused, confused.
“What is it?”
Something was wrong.
Suddenly, the air became...dense. There was no other way she could describe it. Sound deadened, as all the creatures nearby sensed a threat and went into hiding.
The sheer gravity of this unnatural presence settled over the forest, lending an air of immediate danger to every lurking shadow. Something...big, was nearby.
"I am here..." a voice, a very familiar voice, echoed in her mind. She shivered.
"I am here, Kaileena." the voice repeated, more urgently. Fear warred with confusion.
Zolin sensed a shift in the wind, and looked beyond her, and his eyes went wide as coins. The air smelled of burning ozone, like after a storm.
What she saw, as she followed the path of his eyes, she could not understand. Perhaps a mortal mind was merely ill-equipped to handle it.
She perceived, but did not see, a massive, towering form, with great unfolded membranous wings. Blue symbols glowed about and within a glassy, opaque surface of rippling shadow the color of darkest oil, juxtaposed by twinkling crystals and shimmering constellations that shifted, disappeared, and reappeared in new and ever more complex arrangements.
Eyes, burning like blue fire, with crossed, four-pointed irises, settled on her, and narrowed.
He inclined his head, though she intuited this more than saw, for his form blurred, as if her eyes could not wholly focus upon him.
"You cannot see what you cannot comprehend." he replied, in a voice that echoed as if from a deep well, and replicated itself in that echo again and again, like an afterimage, ”Allow me to...simplify."
A rippling aura of light surrounded the manifestation, and at once, it appeared like a physical being.
Albeit no less imposing.
Guardian was a towering humanoid, heavily muscled, his oil black skin punctuated with natural plates of armor, like dragon scales but thicker, larger, and more intentionally placed. His hands, clawed things, were weighted with bracers of the same material, with intricate engravings and golden filigree. His head, roughly shaped like hers but with a thicker chin, heavier brow, and a crown-like helm of natural plates, bore the same eyes, speckled with flecks of gold. He was also possessed of long, long pointed ears, like blades of grass, and draping lengths of tendrils that twitched and curled but looked like hair and a thin beard.
He wore his veined, velvety wings draped about him like a cloak, their barbed talons intersecting and clamped shut, but beneath it he was shirtless, wearing only a golden torc, a layered hip cloth, and plated anklets.
He was the most regal, most alien, and most imposing creature she had ever seen. Even Malakas would have seemed docile in comparison.
Guardian smiled, though his fang-filled jowls displayed something akin to haughtiness, as if he knew the disquiet he inflicted and enjoyed it.
“We meet again, Little Fox.”
“Are you a demon?” Kaileena asked immediately. Certainly, he was no being native to Toril. She could still sense that vast, alien otherworldliness, as if reality itself rejected him. It had been present when she’d first summoned him, when she’d communed with him in the lamp...but now the feeling seemed so much more immediate and threatening.
She better understood that she’d meddled with something far beyond her understanding, even now.
But Guardian, if it was guardian, shook his head, “I am a being ancient to have seen the fall of the Obyrith, to which I knew some measure of equivalence, even kinship. I am like them; these lost beings, adrift in the sea of time, though I more alike in nature to an Altraloth than to a Demons. I was broken, but you, Little Fox, have made me whole again.”
Again, he inclined his head, ever so slightly, this gesture somehow deprecating, as if he needn’t bother with what, to him, was such a grand display of humility, “And now that I have regained what I once was, those that behold me will name me Arteth, Firstborn of Surthath. The Fiend of Stars, Lord of Cosmos. Twice slain, thrice reborn.”
“But.” he added, his gaze softening, “I would very much like that you still call me Guardian.”
“I am glad to see you are whole.” Kaileena replied, calming herself. If nothing else, he’d proven her ally before, “When Malakas destroyed your lamp...”
Arteth grimaced, “He destroyed my binding to Toril. But my connection to you saved me from the blind, endless voyage of oblivion. Wearing your flesh for even a short amount of time allowed a convergence between us, a union of life energies. I shared my ability to draw magic, and you shared your ability to absorb it. A mutual benefit, our symbiosis.”
He chortled, “I never would have guessed the extent of Lenao’s work without you, Little Fox. What a fascinating tool this Spell-Eater Strain will offer against those that shattered me, those that, if they endure to this day, will learn fear anew.”
He bared his teeth, flexing his claws, before settling, “It is not merely gratitude, and the pondering of my enemies’ downfall, that has drawn me to this secluded grove, however. I have come for you, Little Fox. I have come to offer more than mere gratitude...far more...”
Suddenly, she could no longer feel Zolin against her. She startled, looking to the empty space he had inhabited, as suddenly she stood opposite to Guardian in a field of wildflowers. He reached down, and caressed one, smiling, before plucking it, and rising again to his full height.
Goddess, how he towered over her! It took every ounce of her willpower not to back away.
“I would that we spoke alone.” he explained, gesturing to the land about them, “I thought you would like this place. Does it look familiar?”
Looking about for a few moments, perplexed, Kaileena did eventually notice a particular feature; a dead, mostly hollowed tree, most of its branches long lost. She had hidden an intact bird’s nest in its trunk when she was seven, in the hopes that a mother dove might decide to roost in it.
“We are near my family’s home.” she realized, to which he nodded.
“But, how did you-”
“I was not always “asleep” when I returned to my lamp.” Guardian explained, “Sometimes, I was still privy to your thoughts. Possessed of an Eidetic memory, I knew every detail of this place, and many others.”
Suddenly he was much closer, and she shivered when he reached down, and set the wildflower upon one of her horn nubs, twisting its stalk around to tie it in place. She could feel his body heat, his breath a slow bellows, his heart a forge.
“You have good taste, Little Fox, if subtle and difficult for me to understand. But the challenge you promise is much of what intrigues me.”
His hand passed along the ridge of her jawbone, down the side of her neck, like Zolin’s sometimes did when they were in the throes of passion, and her shivering grew worse. Again, Guardian smiled, “Mired in my dreams, I still desired, never imagining I might be whole again to pursue those desires.”
As his hands explored her body, his bulk brushing against her, a feeling like electricity passed through her skin, followed by ripples of heatless purple fire. She could taste his musk, thickly suffocating, like the throne room filled with Yuan-ti, but worse.
Her pulse quickened, and she gasped, breathless.
“What are you-”
“I swore to protect you from the burdens of the world, Little Fox. I failed, unfortunately, but now that I am whole again, I plan to resume that duty, and more. Much more.”
He leaned down, and brushed noses with her, then lips.
“No.” Guardian replied, simply, as if that were that, “I’ve kept myself from falling apart for you, Little Fox, longing for you. I did not succumb to the dreamless sleep of death or the endless voyage of the Fugue Plane. I did not succumb to the resistance that Toril places against me from entering, and I will not be held at bay by this. I am here for you. I always was, and I always will be. Your loyal Guardian.”
This wasn’t happening. Was it?
“Come with me.”
She flinched, and he held her face up to his.
“Come with me.” he repeated, “That I might show you my desires. I will keep you safe. I will wrap you in my power, that no...lesser beings, might intrude. I will take you to the astral plane and together we will see the infinite realms, from the clockwork cities of Mechanus to the endless oceans of Aquallor in Arborea. I will take you to the gleaming palaces of the Seelie Court, where we will gorge and revel until we are full and weary and can do so no longer. The world, and many others, will be at my fingertips...and I will be at yours. And when you grow weary of our revelry, we will retire in my reclaimed citadel in Othrys. I doubt you would favor the swamps below, but the mountain reaches would be a fine place to make a garden...with the proper nourishment. The irony of beauty in Tarterus would amuse me greatly.”
"Or if that place displeases you too greatly, I will scour a region of Limbo and shape it into whatever form would satisfy you. My will is irresistible, and that land takes the form of whatever its beholder desires..."
“If you desire passion...” he mused, “I will be your lover, and far more. You will know what it means to taste fire; to feel it burning from within, till your body erupts at its intensity. I will take you, and all others will pale in comparison. You will never know greater ecstasy.”
“Stop it. Let me go!”
“No.” he replied coolly, “I have seen your heart; your unfettered, wild, kind, and beautiful heart, and I will have it! My very nature demands it.”
“My heart is not yours to lay claim to.” she snapped, pushing away, “You clearly aren’t what I remember of you. Please...just go away.”
He held her very still, grinning, “How you wound me, Little Fox. We are not creatures of subtlety. There is no time for cajoling and bartering with meek words and half-measures...only truth. If my truth was hidden from you, it is because you didn’t want to see it.”
“As I’ve said.” Kaileena repeated, “I’m not yours to claim.”
“Ahh yes...” he replied, disdainfully, releasing her of his own volition, just to prove she couldn’t get away without his consent, “The Paladin. Your new guardian.”
She hissed, readied a cutting sphere.
“Worry not, My Little Fox...” he interrupted, grinning at the new possessiveness of his affectation, and not at all troubled by the turbulent energies gathering in her palm, “For I know more of your people than Lenao did. More, even, than you might. I know that, even with your unique origins, you will know the passing of millennia, if not more. I have an eternity. And poor Zolin has only decades; the doom of humanity. Even with your father's magic, he can have a century, perhaps two. No more. I am content to bide my time.”
His smile darkened, became something wild and threatening.
“But mark me, Kaileena; while I am patient, I am determined to have you as my own. You can deny me as you wish, but you are under my power already. Those millennia will pass, do not doubt, and you will accustom to me. Perhaps I will make you eternal, the better to please me...”
“...Hmm...perhaps...so, enjoy your reign in Teikoku.” he added, his eyes hungry and his grin wide, “Lord Kaileena. You will know no threat to your station, of this I assure you. But none rule forever, and when all else had failed you, for the mortal realms bring nothing but loneliness and regret to those long-lived, I will be waiting. I will be there, as I always have been, and always will be, for you.”
His form again clouded, beyond comprehension, and began to dissipate.
“I will be waiting, My Little Fox...”
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