Xian

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Chapter 3.5: The Crown’s Gambit.

“There is no greater sin than to think that the exceptional few must serve the mediocre masses. And there is nothing more stupid than believing that the masses must serve the exceptional few. Why you might ask? Because if the exceptions serve the masses, then the prolls shall not have any reason to grow themselves. Likewise, the masses cannot be allowed to serve the exceptions, for the exceptions will then grow to depend on the masses, and then become like them.

Leo’s ruling family, Caspianus, has mastered these truths. They know the taint of mediocrity can spread from the purest of nobility, and that the fire of the exceptional may rise from the filthiest slum. Each family member is charged with searching every stratum of society for only the most clever, capable, and loyal of spouses. One cheeky bastard even managed to seduce a draconic maiden. They had three children, the middle of whom now reigns as Queen…

********

Babs’ scout had given the defenders plenty of time to ready themselves. So as soon as Atma pointed out the incoming spectral legions wearing her brother’s distinctive work, the Fulcrum barrage had begun. Yet from her perch atop the battlements, Atma could see that their barrage was of little use.

As Babs stood next to her, the Death Knight had other observations on the matter. “They haven’t laid into us with their cannons yet, and there weren’t any sign of siege engines...Huh.”

Atma turned around to look at her. “Huh, what?”

“Where’s the rest of the Imperial Army if Abram’s Knights are there?”

It didn’t take long for Young Demon to find the answer. “A flanking maneuver?”

Babs’ approval could be guessed at from her posture, if not her concealed smile. “Probably. But don’t take my word for it.”

The Death Knight took out a letter with the Royal Seal, which had been broken earlier, and handed it to Atma. The young demon read it.

“The Dragon’s Fangs close in from both sides. And it’s son leads from the flank. The Flame has spoken as much. Hold the walls and wait for it to burn all around them.”

Atma thought the letter was somewhat childish for a coded message but was very interested in the third sentence. “Is Abram betraying Taiyang?”

Babs tapped her on the shoulder. Let’s go over to the other side of the wall. We’ll see if we can put those eyes to use again.”

They went along the battlements. Absalom was on the ground coordinating with some of the other divisions and even waved at Atma as she crossed his way. She responded in kind, with a happy smile that surprised even herself. But Absalom was not the sole reason for this change in mood.

Any fear that Atma had of being stopped at a checkpoint or asked for identification was unfounded. Soldier, officer, and knight alike took one look at Babs and promptly got out of the way. Since this was the Death Knight’s home chapter, Atma realized that she oughtn’t to be surprised by this. But the rage of arcane fire and the inevitable battle had put her back on edge. Then there were further, darker thoughts. She had run so far, been pursued so furiously...only to be found not only by Abram but by war as well.

Atma was no adherent to destiny and had often heard that demons, in their rejection of Paradise, had broken free of such things. Destiny had no hold on demons, or so the legends said. But even with that knowledge in mind, Atma could not help but wonder if she was cursed. Cursed to suffering both within and without. Taiyang would have come to Ulq without her certainly. But Abram would have been somewhere far away.

“More friends dead, more violence in the name of justice. This isn’t the way people are supposed to live. I know it.”

Babs’ voice cut into Atma’s thoughts. “You should save the philosophizing for later when you can make use of it.”

“Can I ask you a question? We can still move while we talk.”

The Death Knight’s stride was unbroken “Long as it’s quick.”

“What was Miranda like? When she was on her feet and fighting I mean?”

Babs kept walking, but let out an annoyed groan as she did. “That’s the complete opposite of a quick question. You know that right?”

“Please? This might be the last chance we get to-”

Still walking, Babs made a cutting motion with her hand that shut the young demon up and prepared her for Babs’ incoming words. “Statements like that? Miranda hated those. And you know why? Because you cannot consider failure. Not when you’re in the action. You think about it when you plan and when you move, but never when you act. That was the way she thought. I’m not her though...”

Babs turned and stopped, forcing a surprised Atma to quickly halt as well. “What’s-”

Babs spoke quickly, obviously hoping to settle this matter as fast as possible. “I’ve learned the hard way that regret follows you. Angels, most of them anyway, don’t have to feel regret. Unfortunately for us, we’re not angels, we’re people.”

Babs put a hand on Atma’s shoulder. “I thought about what you said, and that got me thinking about some things that Miranda said. About that mistakes I’m carrying, and probably will for a long time, but can hopefully keep you away from.”

There was a pause before Babs physically shook off whatever was holding her back and spoke on. “I know what you’re going through. Believe me, I do. Thinking that you’re the one responsible for all the crap that’s happened in the world, or at least your corner of it. And let me tell you, and thank Anubis for this: No one is that important. Every King has his subjects and every mother...every mother has their children. Everyone works with and depends on each other. You might think that you were too weak to do something about all the wrong you’ve suffered and seen. Well then better yourself so you can. But never forget, you weren’t the cause of it. There was some asshole who made their own decision to hurt you for whatever reason, and if putting them in the ground is a consequence of that: Than that’s part of their choice too. Hurting people thinking they won’t bite back isn’t just cowardly, or wrong, it’s plain stupid.”

Babs looked at Atma as straight in the eyes as her mask allowed. “That’s what Miranda taught me when I was blaming myself for my families’ murder. Their blood was on my hand but someone else had put it there. That’s how she put it. I’m not over it, you figured that out earlier. But as for you…Francesca might have died in your arms, but someone else put the arrow in her chest. You see what I’m getting at here?”

Atma nodded. “I think so.”

“I know you do. You’re smart like that.”

Bab’s squeezed Atma’s shoulder and then let go. She then took a look towards the path they’d been treading and motioned for Atma to follow. “We’re almost there, come on.”

They advanced and climbed to the top of one of the lookout towers. Once Atma was ready, Babs gave a few words of encouragement, and the Young Demon scanned the surrounding area with her eyes. It took her only a few moments to see thousands of imperial legionaries and horsemen preparing for an assault.

Wondering how they had got there, Atma saw several disassembled pontoon boats whose hulls were still damp. It seemed the engineers were working on making them into portable arrow shields and the mages among them were even weaving sigils to protect them from low-level magic.

Atma, keeping her eye on the enemy, spoke to Babs. “We were right, they’re going for the flank, and they brought mages across the river. Not only that but...I’m sensing something. Something very powerful.”

Babs called out at some of the mages operating the nearest Fulcrum battery.

They responded with: “We need exact coordinates.”

Atma obliged. As she listed off the numbers, and the Western Fulcrums began to power up and turn towards her coordinates, Atma noticed that while the western batteries were powering up, the eastern guns were still operational. Which they shouldn’t have been.

“The power network shouldn’t be able to support the entire defense. I can even see the barrier generators running.”

Once she had delivered her coordinates, and the Fulcrum began their final check, Atma voice her concerns to Babs. “Was the network upgraded recently? The arcane network I mean.”

The Death Knight confirmed this but voiced her own doubts as well. “I asked about that too. The upgrades started before we even came into Ulq. I don’t know much about the details, but It’s almost like...It’s almost like someone found the best and quickest way to fix it up after just one look.”

Atma’s eyes widened, and a strange amalgamation of horror and surprise took hold of her. “Abram.”

As the realization came to her, Atma saw an armored individual wearing the Crown’s sigil upon his tabard. He was an older but lean man with blonde hair and a full beard who walked with a dignified bearing. This was tempered by a cautious edge to his steps, which spoke to some experience with battle, or at perhaps danger in general.

Babs saluted him. “Well, Lord Richard. It’s been what? Seven years?”

“At the battle of Opal, yes. How are you, Babs?”

Lord Richard’s voice was strange in that it wasn’t of the higher classes. Though experienced, and pleasant enough to the ears, the voice certainly belonged to a career soldier more than a born aristocrat.

But Atma had no time, or patience to review such things. She tried her best to be respectful, but her desperation for answers shone through. “My Lord, who designed the upgrades to Ulq’s network.”

If Lord Richard was taken aback or phased by this sudden question, he did not show it. “Oh, you heard about that? I still can’t believe how fast it worked. But it did. So I thought to treat myself and watch the first salvo. At least I can pretend I’m still a soldier.”

Atma did her best to steady herself. “Please my lord, I must know the architect behind these upgrades.”

Babs kept her gaze on Richard as well. Making no move or signal to stop Atma. Lord Richard noted the allowance given to this favored squire, his eyes analytical and intrigued. Upon turning to answer the Young Demon, his voice became serious and even intimidating. “How is it your business to know such things?”

The young demon took a deep breath, straightened her legs, and looked into the man’s eyes. “Because I am Atma Xian.”

Upon hearing this, Lord Richard kept his stoicism. He looked over at Babs, at Atma, then at the battlefield. Then he gritted his teeth and made no effort to conceal his annoyance. “Tch, Well then. Since you’ve bravery enough to declare that: I’d wager you already know the answer to your question.”

Atma’s discontent went unabated, and she continued her inquest. “How did this come to be?”

Before Richard could answer, a final crackle of arcane energy could be heard as the Fulcrum prepared their first barrage. One of the officers in the tower turned to his Lordship, with no small amount of anticipation across his features. “We await your order, sir.”

"

“You have it.”

As barrage started, His Lordship walked towards Atma until he was close enough to whisper. Which he did. “To be honest I’ve been hoping for another perspective to this. So I’ll tell you what I can. As far as her Majesty has allowed anyway.”

********

“Another day, another thousand spoiled children to feed.”

As the words leaped from her mouth, along with another exhausted breath, Her Royal Majesty: Queen Isabella Caspianus IV of the Sangua Imperia, Protector of the Realm, Supreme Marshal of Knights, Mistress of the Draconic Compact, and many other titles that she hoped never to hear again (though she knew they would come again the next day, and possibly haunt her as she slept) collapsed into a waiting chair.

“I need to get more secretaries, and maybe some sort of mystic calculation device that will just run all the important notes of the day for me to view at my leisure...but this will have to do.”

Isabella stared at her office with her blue draconic eyes, apprehending every detail and facet. The office was very different from the rest of the palace. It was more of a study or even a family living room than anything else. A warm fireplace, many bookshelves, only partial carpeting, and many chairs of mismatched design intended for comfort as opposed to the overall aesthetic.

Of course, there were other things in the office that Isabella would prefer not to look at right now, or hear...

“Your Majesty! We must go over the tax discrepancies in the northern sub-counties of-”

Isabella closed her eyes, almost hoping this would make everything go away, if only for a moment. “I know. Thank you, Liam.”

Minister of Internal Commerce, Liam O’Connell, was a taller man of average build. He had a distinctively cut head of brown hair and a voice that belonged to a much...gruffer individual. Still, he was only doing his job, no matter how tedious. Others could learn from his example. One such person was busy smoking hemp in the corner of the room.

Much to Liam’s chagrin. “Must you release such odors in the royal presence?”

The deep, smoky voice of a bored yet very assertive young woman rang out from the hemp smelling corner. “I am the royal presence.”

After that statement, the woman who made it stumbled into the light, with a slightly glazed look in her jade-colored, yet very human eyes. She wore armor of thin spell woven leather with no covering on her thick muscled arms. And had let her hair grow out with no particular style in mind.

Isabella didn’t even turn her head as she addressed this person. “Pallas, please smoke outside on the balcony. For me?”

“Oh, does big sister not like the smell?”

“No, she does not.”

Pallas groaned as she got up. “Fine, whatever. What’s the point of being half-dragon if-”

“Thank you, Pallas. I’ll hear you out later.”

The younger sister scratched her head, feeling a little foolish. “Right, sorry.”

Pallas Caspianus stumbled out to the balcony, and the smell abated...if only a little. Once that was clear, Liam walked forward and placed a large stack of documents on Isabella’s desk. “These need your signature.”

Her Majesty rolled her eyes. “Don’t we have ministers for this? Like you?”

“You know what happened with your grandfather. He left things in hands of his ministers and-”

“I know, I know. Mass embezzlement.”

Liam nodded and kept up a casual smile, most likely trying to lift the mood in his small way.

Isabella, on the other hand, did nothing to hide her displeasure. Her heavy frown caused her softer features to droop in a rather adorable and pitiable fashion. But even with such an expression, the young queen wrapped her fist on the arm of her chair and straightened herself. “Well, might as well get it done, and get it done right.”

Liam smiled approvingly and lifted a congratulatory fist. “That’s the spirit, Your Majesty.”

Just as Isabella took up her pen, the office doors flew open, and a knight wearing the royal colors rushed in, forgetting to salute. “Your Majesty! There’s an emergency that requires your immediate attention!”

On the inside, Isabella had one thought running through her mind. ”Thank GOD!”

Publicly though, she stood from her chair in a dignified manner, the skirts of her regal black and red-colored gown brushing against the ground, and turned her head towards the knight. “Thank you, Sir Gilbert. Have you forgotten how to bow or salute?”

Sir Gilbert bowed in western fashion and stepped to the side. “No, Your Majesty. I have no excuse.”

“Remember the next time. Also, stay here and make sure my sister completes the task on the table.”

Pallas’ surprise could be heard from the balcony, along with several choked coughing sounds. “What!?”

Liam was about to protest before Isabella lifted a commanding hand. “My sister wants to be taken seriously? This is her opportunity. Walk her through the grit and you-”

She turned and pointed at Sir Gilbert. “-make sure they don’t kill each other.”

Sir Gilbert stood up and saluted without a word, which was good enough for Isabella. So with that, and with the sounds of argument disappearing behind her, she went on her way.

The Queen passed guards, statues, indoor fountains, and even a griffin roost on her way downstairs to Royal Wizard’s Workshop. Walls of marble, inlaid with gold and carpeted with crimson red were a common and annoying sight for Isabella, who wanted to redecorate but knew that the royal coffers were better spent elsewhere, full as they were. One thing she did want to get rid of was the paintings.

“Damn generic crap.”

Paintings of grassy fields, men on horseback, and noble ladies staring into the distance dotted the walls of the royal palace. And it had gotten very repetitive. But because of the cultural significance of these pieces, it would have been highly impolitic to simply get rid of them. Thankfully the royal museum was opening soon, and all of this junk would be tossed there.

There was only one painting that Isabella enjoyed, and she had just come to it. “Now this is epic.”

Above a set of double doors was a very realistic painting depicting a black unicorn spearing a red dragon through the chest with its horn. Isabella wasn’t the artsiest person, but this was one painting she could appreciate (and yes she knew that her non-artistic personality and her love of this painting were related). But she had pressing matters at hand and so she pushed the doors open and walked into the workshop, where she was immediately assailed by all manner of alchemical scents and arcane odors.

But something else brought her ought of the daze, a grandmotherly tone. “Your Majesty! It’s good that you’re here.”

The voice was of a Cortesian accent, and its source was obscured by arcane light emanating from one of several large mirrors.

The light abated though and Isabella was able to stumble through. “I wish you had better control over that thing.”

“Please, Your Majesty. It’s not as if Magic is an entirely precise discipline.”

The Queen was not satisfied and checked her gown for particulates and any other nastiness. “And yet we have schools and degrees for it.”

The voice became dismissive. “I said entirely precise.”

Isabella walked into the room hosting the many mirrors and looked towards the man who had been talking with her, the Arch-Wizard of Leo. He was a human in his middle years, yet was surprisingly fit for an academic, he even wore sleeveless robes to show off his admittedly impressive arms. Adding to that, his golden eyes flashed with wild energy.

This was the Arch-Wizard’s usual demeanor. Yet whatever he had called Isabella for had put him in an even better mood than usual, as he was practically jumping for joy. “I think you’ll be very interested in this message Your Majesty.”

“Donovan, are magic mirrors really the best way to communicate?”

The wizard looked insulted. “Of course! Name one method that’s more thematic or aesthetically pleasing.”

“I was going more for efficiency-”

The Arch-Wizard pointed at the activated mirror. “Here it is your Majesty: A priority real-time message from Helena, your spymaster in the east.”

“I remember Helena. You don’t need to tell me what I already...never mind.”

Isabella bit her bottom lip, wondering what Helena could be contacting her about. Whatever it was must have been important. A change in Taiyang’s movements perhaps? They wouldn’t have called off their invasion this late in the process would they? Regardless, the mirror flashed a final time, before an image came into view, and a deeper cultured voice rang from it.

“Greetings Your Majesty, I am Abram Xian of the Imperial Flame.”

A large man in gleaming silver plate, his face obscured by a hoplite’s helm, stared unflinchingly into Isabella’s eyes. His gaze might have intimidated lesser people, but had no such effect on the royal presence. However, what did impress Isabella was his overall posture and the palpable air of command that was present. But one thing was missing, arrogance.

Despite his clear preference for domination-based interactions, he kept his voice at a respectful tone and lessened the intensity of his gaze into a more deferential one. “I come bearing news of Taiyang. And of the regrettable treason of many members of my own order.”

Isabella’s response and its tone were perfectly neutral. “You’ve made a dangerous admission. Confessing your association with traitors. If what you say is true anyway.”

“You will hear it then?”

Isabella couldn’t help but be taken aback by this strange combination of defference and confidence in front of her. This man who could assert himself as a definitive presence while still acknowledging her own. It was enough to earn her curiosity. So she gave an affirmative gesture of her hand. “Yes, I will.”

Abram regaled her with stories of the slave camps set up by the Imperial Flame, of the documents he procured, of his defeat of the Fasces to counter a horde of demons, and the culpability of Marshall Kiernan.

Isabella listened to all of this intently. But had a few questions of her own. “Kiernan’s absence from Adder’s Fall may correlate with your story. But why were you on the road?”

“I was hunting another traitor. Though this individual is unrelated to our current conflict. Consequently, that hunt has been abandoned.”

Isabella nodded but kept her exact thoughts to herself. “He was careful not to mention the traitor’s sex...perhaps I can cajole a little more out of him. But first...”

Isabella’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve met before you know. At my brother’s farewell tourney, when he became a priest of Anubis.”

“I remember.”

The Queen made a show of coyness, lifting her chin as if to challenge the man before her. “You were representing your order in the lists, and lost to my brother on purpose.”

“I had been paid to kill him.”

Isabella smiled, once more impressed with the cool directness of The Silvered Fiend. “Yes, you had. You then outed your employers, and a larger conspiracy, but asked for no reward. I was puzzled at first but after so many years I know the reason.”

“Which was?”

“Your honesty and noble conduct made an impression on the agent who brought the conspiracy down: Helena Seymour.”

Abram made a show of contemplating his reasons. “She had come quite far in the investigation on her own. And I thought befriending a talent like that would be beneficial to an up and coming knight such as myself.”

“I’d say it has.”

Abram raised an obliging hand, accepting Isabella’s praise as if it were a tangible object. “Indeed. So, I guess at the point of this reminiscence, but I’d like you to say it. If you’ll oblige me of course, Majesty.”

A playfulness had crept into the way he said “Majesty.” As if he knew that he could request or say anything so long as he peppered it with the right amount of royal deference.

Of course, there was one problem, which caused Isabella to bite her lip. He’s right.”

Despite knowing this, Isabella’s poise and confidence remained unchanged. If anything, she was enjoying this conversation far more than she ought to. It was as if she finally had an equal to talk with.

So she took advantage of the situation, in every fashion. “The point is that I know your Modus Operandi. Even in your noble moments you always seek to gain something, especially in the long term. So, tell me what it is and we’ll see if you’re worthy of it.”

Abram didn’t miss a beat. “You already suspect that Ulq will be Taiyang’s focus I’m sure. I will provide you with a means to promptly upgrade the cities defenses, rob Kiernan of his demonic horde, and bring you a list of those traitors in the peerage.”

Donovan’s skull nearly burst from its skin as he spoke. “You dare to bring such charges against your betters!”

Abram’s retort was as deadpan as possible. “Not my betters. Merely those of a higher rank.”

Before the wizard could talk again, Isabella held up a hand to silence him. “He’s not talking out of turn Donovan. The only reason those slave camps could operate as they did would be if the nobles tolerated their existence. And while taking a cut of the proceeds is horrible enough, if a knightly order was willing to take up Taiyang’s banner, then the snakes in the peerage would leap at the chance as well.”

Donovan grumbled a little and muttered curses under his breath.

Ignoring this, Isabella continued her inquest. “You have proof of these upgrades?”

“Right here, and ready for your appraisal.”

From the mirror emerged a set of scrolls that Donovan dexterously caught before they landed on the floor. This did not stop the Arch-Wizard from conveying his shock though. “How were you able to convey solid matter through this mirror?”

“I modified the mirror on my end. And the connection between it and your own allowed me some room to tinker.”

Donovan trembled slightly. “There’s only one sort of creature that could manage such a feat...”

Abram nodded toward the scrolls in his hand. “And only one that could give you what you now hold.”

Mirabelle unfolded the scrolls and read through them. Isabella could see they were diagrams. Extremely detailed diagrams depicting the arcane power network of Ulq, and several ways that it could be modified using arcane rituals barely taking a minute.

Isabella, not wanting to expose her own abilities, shifted her gaze toward Donovan. “Well?”

The Arch-Wizard laughed with unhinged glee. “These designs are genuine, Your Majesty. And utterly brilliant. Sir Abram, have you seen the Ulq power network.”

“I’ve seen an architectural depiction of it.”

“You surmised all of this from a picture? Truly?”

Abram bowed as if accepting applause. And the Arch-Wizard turned toward Isabella with so much excitement that he looked ready to burst. “We must get these upgrades to Ulq immediately. I’ll just be in the other room transcribing this. If Your Majesty approves of course?”

“Give me another moment Donovan.”

The Arch-Wizard nodded vigorously. It was obvious that for now at least, Donovan had been won over.

With that annoyance temporarily dealt with, Isabella gestured towards Abram with an upraised hand. “And what do you want for these? And the other two items you’ve promised?”

Abram’s gaze was steady, and his voice precise. “A pardon for those members of the Imperial Flame who had nothing to do with Taiyang’s plans. A seat on the Marshal’s table for the head of the Imperial Flame for the next two hundred years...and the creation of a licensing exam for the study and use of the demonic arts.”

Donovan’s jaw may very well have unhinged, for it had dropped so low. But he kept silent out of respect for Isabella.

The Queen wasted no time discerning Abram’s intent. “The Marshal’s seat and the pardon are obvious enough. You keep a host of loyal and indebted followers, and you have the means to use them. The exam and consequent endorsement of demonic arts are far more subtle, I’m impressed.”

Donovan was confused, so Isabella turned to him, addressing the apolitical creature in the tone of a professor instructing a classroom. “Those who have been struggling to develop such magics suddenly have a patron, and may even enter public with their works...Maybe not the most powerful practitioners, but certainly the middle and lower tier magicians. With royal backing and funding, they can live far better lives than they ever could on their own, which will make them amenable to betraying the motives and possible secrets of those Warlocks who stay independent, and could rival our Silvered Fiend.”

Abram put his hand to his chin, seeming to enjoy that he had been found out. “Go on, if it pleases Your Majesty.”

Isabella never missed an opportunity to indulge her love of intrigue, least of all with someone who could appreciate it. “With the more powerful practitioners weeded out: Abram here, being a demon, and a Marshall of the crown no less will be the dominant and lead figure in this new movement of study. He’ll have agents and therefore a say in the operation of every mage academy, every wizard’s entourage, and most noble courts in the entire kingdom. And he’ll be able to keep them. Because he’s the only person who can guarantee their continued protection under royal law.”

Abram paused, he was waiting for something. He had planned this out, and from the look in his eyes, he had even accounted for Isabella’s deduction of his farther-reaching plans. But Isabella needed the information he had. She may have had the upgrades already in her possession. But she still had a horde of demons, led by an Animus no less, to worry about. And traitors in her own borders who would spring into action the moment Taiyang invaded, which would divide Leo’s forces.

But could she really agree to Abram’s terms?

The possibility of betraying him after he had delivered them victory crossed her mind. But Abram was no stranger to treachery and might be counting on that. There was no guarantee of success against Abram. And should he survive any attempted betrayal on Isabella’s part, everyone would know how the crown repaid those who served it. The incident would be all too easy for Abram to use as a rallying cry for the other noble houses to rebel yet again.

Still though, Isabella needed him. So she played a gamble. “No.”

Abram kept his relaxed and contemplative pose. Betraying no weakness, though his tone had taken a more considerate air. “Why?”

“I won’t save Leo from Taiyang just to deliver it into your hands. Not just because I alone wear the crown, but also because I know very little about you, Sir Abram. I’ve only seen ambition with no limits.”

Abram remained silent for a long while. Then his arms came down to his sides, and he looked into Isabella’s eyes. No more pride, no elation. He was completely serious now. “May I give you the context for such ambition?”

“You can try.”

Abram gave a respectful bow, before raising himself back up and preparing a more sincere tone. “Thank you, Your Majesty. Now, where to begin...well, it should come as no surprise to you that I have encountered betrayal throughout my entire life. But that is not what defines me. No, I cling to those moments, to those individuals who have shown loyalty. Not just to any crown or flag, but to themselves, and to those ideals which bound them to a virtuous life. Even when it cost them dearly. One of my retainers, a dwarf named Echo, was ostracized by his fellows for not fitting their cultural standards. Yet he possessed a kind soul and prodigious talent. I do it for the sake of Markus Boleyn. Judged evil on account of parents he had never met. He might have been lost, if not for the friendship we made together, just as I would have been lost without him. And then...there is my partner Evangeline, shunned for the look of her eyes, but lacking nothing in her fiery intelligence and steadfast conscience.”

He stood more firmly at this point, and passion emboldened his words. “I seek nothing more than the acceptance of those people who only wish to have a place in a world of people who won’t even take the time to know them. God knows I have failed and stumbled in such a purpose. The woman who set me on this path...would probably be ashamed by some of the things I’ve done...I will not say I have changed for the better, for that has yet to be tested. So what I ask for, is the opportunity to make good on the oaths I have made, to all those people labeled as outsiders and exceptions to an order which rewards complacency. I can see in your eyes that you work towards the same, with no less passion then I do.”

Abram’s voice then cooled some. And he brought an outstretched hand to his heart and stood to his full height. “So I promise you this: Should you accept me into your service, I will give you what you do not have in your court. A man who is unafraid of you.”

Isabella smiled. “Interesting.”

She was certainly enticed by this notion and the courage of this comparatively no name Knight. But she would not be undone by mere promises and possibilities. So she motioned for him to continue with a regal wave. “Explain.”

Abram did so, gaining some momentum in his speech. “You will not be a ladder for my ambition. You will not be an ideal of courtly affection. And you shall not be a distant figure, seen only at functions of the state. You will be a person. A person I shall respect for the office you uphold, for promises you have made by occupying it, and the methods you use to keep those promises. Tell me truthfully: among your ministers, cronies, and all the rest, don’t you want at least one person who you can simply talk to?”

Isabella kept silent and tapped her finger against her elbow. After a few moments, she lifted her chin and looked Abram dead in his eyes. “You will deliver everything you have promised.”

“Of course.”

“And if you do enter my service, I demand complete transparency.”

“You shall have it.”

The Queen’s tone then lowered, and a wave of cool anger came into it. “And if I hear one whisper of treason, with your name connected: there will be no trial. There will be no investigation. Your heart will be torn from your chest and offered up to the Angels of War.”

There was a brief flash in Abram’s eyes. Most likely an instinctual reaction to being threatened. But whatever instinct it was, it was clearly a lethal one. It was enough that Isabella became worried that she might have pushed too far. She had to say what she said, but this man was clearly familiar with, and very tired of being threatened.

But whatever his grievances, Abram quickly suppressed them. And he restored his calm visage. “You will do what you must, of course.”

Isabella brandished a haughty expression. Not wanting to betray her enjoyment of the whole experience, and remaining steadfast in her role as Ruler of Leo. “You have your prize in sight then. Go take it.”

Abram bowed, and his image disappeared. Isabella’s mind wandered a bit, and she chuckled at things she hadn’t paid much heed to since she was a teenager. Which in retrospect hadn’t been all that long ago...especially by the standards of those with draconic blood.

Before she could lose herself too much though, Donovan invaded Isabella’s fantasies with undisguised fear. “Your Majesty-”

Isabella sighed, not bothering to disguise her annoyance, and waved the Arch-Wizard away. “You can nag me later. For now, get Lord Richard and tell him to prepare his griffon. He’s going on a trip.”

*********

“And that is all her Majesty told me before sending me on my mission to Ulq.”

The wind atop Ulq’s walls had picked up, but Babs’ surprise was still evident. “Why did she tell you about her office troubles?”

“Her Majesty is a stickler for details.”

The Death Knight weighed the answer, before conceding the point with a mumbled “Mmmk”.

Somewhere in Lord Richard’s retelling, Atma had wandered to the edge of the wall. She remained in earshot but looked toward the Imperial forces being barraged with massive arcane blasts. The city’s mystic shield had been activated as well, protecting Leo’s troops from reprisal.

Lord Richard recognized the familiar face of a young person lost in thought. Yet the battle would wait for no one, and bade her speak, albeit in a more respectful tone. “What is your interest or involvement in this, as his sibling I mean?”

Atma snapped out of her thoughts but remained neutral in voice and posture. “None. Just sisterly concern. I haven’t seen him in some time so...I just was curious.”

Lord Richard was skeptical, yet the battle around him demanded more of his attention. So he turned towards Babs with a raised eyebrow. “I trust you have this sector in hand?”

Babs gestured towards herself with a steady hand. “You need to ask?”

Lord Richard smiled and shook his head. But the Death Knight’s bravado was sufficient reassurance, and he left for other parts of the wall.

Once he was gone, Babs walked over to Atma. She even leaned against the wall and made sure to meet her apprentice at eye level, just to make certain the young woman understood her concern. “It’s not my place to tell him your business, especially since The Queen seems to have everything in hand, but why didn’t you tell him the truth?”

Atma herself didn’t know. This was all so much to take in at once...Finally, she cast her gaze to the ground but talked as much as she was able. “If he wants to make trouble, I’ll be ready. But I won’t be the one to start anything. This is...this is the first time I’ve heard about him calling off his vendetta. I wouldn’t call it peace, but as long as he leaves me alone, I’ll do the same.”

Babs considered this, shaking her head and letting an uneasy growl escape from her mask. “I don’t like this. He might come after you as soon as he gets the Marshal’s chair. Plus, I’m not keen on the idea of someone like him so close to the throne. Maybe if I get to him before-”

Atma whirled back on her teacher, more tired than distressed or angry. “Please don’t. Unless he starts a fight on his own or tries to kill innocents just...just please leave him alone.”

Babs took in everything about the young demon in front of her. After some time, and probably no small effort, Babs massaged the temples of her mask. “Alright.”

Atma felt some relief and noted the tension that was leaving her body.

But she was brought back to the world when Babs gently punched her shoulder. “But if something does happen, you’ve always got the Magis Eques on your side. You’re one of us now. Okay?”

The Young Demon heard the truth of those words and smiled happily. “Okay.”

So Atma stood there alongside her teacher, waiting for whatever might come for them next.

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