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Heavy Is the Head

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My love,

Something has happened to the Emperor.

While I will never claim to know him any more than a guard should know their lord, my position as a guard of the royal wing has allotted me a far higher number of interactions with him than the average knight. Though it is but my second year in service to him, I am comfortable in saying I’ve learned a great deal about his mannerisms. The man that left Orisia to retrieve the Black Queen not a day before is not the man that has returned with her.

I know that you lack any notable experiences with the vampyres, but they are masters of deception. Imagine for me a porcelain statue, as seamless, motionless, and perfect as you know them to be. This is the vampyre’s default state of being, which is what makes discourse with them so tedious. It’s impossible to know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, or if what they’re telling you is the truth. As a creature of considerable age and experience, the Emperor’s “false face” was perfect even amongst his own kind. And yet, now it isn’t.

I saw the pain in his eyes, my love. Real pain. Which I find to be rather strange, as it has been confirmed the Black Queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The Emperor’s affection for the child is no secret, as we all remember how fiercely protective he was over her pregnant cousin, but I stand by what I tell you. Something has broken inside him, darling, and I worry that it might be his heart. Be sure to offer a prayer for him when next you settle the boys to bed.

With all my love,

Samuel

 

It had been seven hours, twenty minutes, and thirty-three seconds since they returned to Orisia, and Rafael had yet to taste the sweetness of the briefest rest. There was far too much to do, he told himself, and there was only so much he could trust to his beloved cousin-- his wife; a fact that had still not escaped him, even amidst the self-imposed chaos --and even less to her baby’s father, evanescent as he was known to be. Never again, the Elder reminded himself as his thoughts returned the recent past. He’d been unable to scrub the shame of Gabriela’s kidnapping, and the utterly deplorable nature of her child’s birth, from his pride. His wounded ego lay dying inside him, only visible when his mask faltered, cracking further, and the truth flickered out.

“Samuel.”

The door to Rafael’s chamber, the room directly opposite to Gabriela’s, opened sharply. The knight presented himself with a firm salute, gauntleted fist thrust over his chest, where his heart would be, his head held high. However, the cleanliness of his garb and the superb condition of his steel spoke volumes to how little combat he’d seen. For the briefest moment, Rafael paused, pondering just how qualified such a man could be to protect his precious family if the sword he commanded had not once been raised in their defense. He’d likely been on duty when Gabriela was first taken, and the thought-- “Yes, my lord?”

The Elder dismissed the topic with a shake of the head, his irritation-- at the castle’s poor state of affairs; at the odd dynamic of his family; at himself --manifesting in the way his lineless brow furrowed, and how he pinched the bridge of his nose. But it was also in the set of his jaw, the deep frown that had sunk his lips, and the disorderly shuffle of his usually seamless attire. You can’t keep blaming everyone else, he chastised himself in the privacy of his thoughts. You know what happens when you trust her safety to others, and yet to appease her, you do so anyway. You have no one to blame but yourself, fool. “Indeed.”

“My Lord?” Samuel asked again.

The knight stood at the side, watching curiously. It would not be wise to allow the man witness anything further of his mental and emotional descent. If there was one thing humans did better than any other, it was gossip. Rafael had debased himself enough for their pitiful, ungrateful species.

“I want the patrols of the castle grounds doubled-- no, tripled, day and night,” the Elder ordered, pouring over the map on his desk. It was a detailed schematic of the castle grounds, with the areas considered exploitable circled in bright red ink. “And I want sentinels placed here, here, and here,” he said, pointing. “The throne’s utterly lax approach to security and the incompetence of those that serve her will no longer be tolerated. Should the queen ever face danger in her home again, I will see to it that every single one of you will be held accountable. Do I make myself clear?”

The knight nodded, stiff with fear. “And the flowers, my lord?”

Rafael had almost forgotten about those hideous, silver flowers with bright, bloody centers. They’d sprouted up here and there, though the lion’s share seemed embedded ‘round Gabriela’s chamber, and he could have sworn he’d seen Lucia with one tucked behind her ear, running through the castle halls. He’d need to question his little drop of moonlight when next he saw her. “Leave it to me,” he sighed.

“As you wish.”

“Now, get out.”

The knight saluted once again before exiting the room, sweeping the door closed behind him.

Alone with his cacophony of thoughts once again, Rafael slumped into the pillowed embrace of his chair, the only comfort he’d known in quite some time. “How did I get here?” he asked, almost hopeful, that the shadows might answer him back. But he had pushed aside the Dark Father one too many times on this path he now walked, and in the depths of his peril, he now stood forsaken by his creator. Tenebre had eyes for only one of his ilk, and she was not here to bring about his attention. “Is this the great destiny that fate has weaved for me? Husband to a wife that will never love him; father to the child of a creature I despise more than anything in this world.”

Letting his head loll to the side, Rafael cast his sapphire gaze out the window, deep into the dark of the night. Why didn’t she call out my name? There was nothing her captors could have done to keep them apart had she but mentioned his name, called out to him as she had before. What could have been worth the risk of losing everything they had worked so hard for over these last nine months? Was it truly so awful to be loved and cherished by him, to be held above all others, all else? Perhaps he was the beast she claimed him to be, the monster they both knew that lurked just beneath the blase demeanor that he presented the world-- but did that justify her fierce spurning of his devotion and affection?

The knocking on his door roused his attention, but his eyes, blue as the Ild Pass, remained fixated on the sea of darkness and the bright, starry islands floating on its inky tides. “Come in.”

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Gabriela was beyond numb. Whether it was due to the events that had just transpired or the ridiculous amount of blood she had consumed from her cousin, she felt as if her insides had been burned raw and then a calming and cooling balm had been spread all around. It did more than ease the pain -- it completely did away with any sort of sensation. She did not feel the small, and warm, bundle of joy in her arms, who nestled so peacefully against her breast as she lay on her side upon a bed laid out in prestine white linen. In fact, she did not feel the icy silk against her icy limbs, nor did she sense the smooth sheen of it as it slid across her nearly intact flesh. Her grevious wounds should have sent her deep into the bosom of slumber, for a hundred or more years. And yet, here she was, by virtue of Raphael's blood. The searing pain of the quickened healing was done away with, as was the muscle memory of what had transpired. When she tried to grasp at the sensation of being sliced open, the hot, white pain that she could so perfectly envision, simply did not respond with the nerve endings that had been severed. It was strange, and near maddening to known she had experienced unbelievable physical pain but to have her own body deny it -- and just a few short hours ago. 

His blood was magic. His blood was old and powerful, and of all the people in the world, he shared it freely with her. He cut his own vein and allowed his precious vita to flow out of him, and for what? To grant her life so that she might actually survive long enough to hold her child...

It was a startlingly generous thing to do, especially among their kind. Blood, to a vampyre, was everything. That's the one thing she vividly remembered from her father. He had all but beaten that small but important truth into her. It was the reason she was reluctant to create fledglings, it was why she loathed losing so much as a drop of her blood to the expanses of the whole, wide world. All of her history, all of her life, all of everything she was could be deciphered from a single black-red droplet of her blood. And the same was true for any vampyre. The same was true for Raphael. But she knew why he did it -- why he was so generous with her. Months and months had passed since she last questioned the sincerity of Raphael's feelings for her. She questioned the execution of his love, and the reasons for it, and the validity of it when it seemed only to represent such an archaic way of thinking and doing things -- she had been promised to him since before her conception, further still, to the days when Isabella (her own mother) wasn't even certain if she would or could ever be a mother. She questioned all of those things, but not him -- at least not anymore.

He was a poor, pitiful, and broken beast. He did not know any better, did not understand that love could be, and should be, freely given and not claimed or conquered. But he was thousands of years older than her. Raphael was set in his ways. He likened her to a child. He thought that she was foolish and idealistic, and the events that had brought them here -- on this very night -- would only strengthen his resolve. She knew this. 

She had been kidnapped out of her own home. She had been spirited away by a band of misfits who hardly seemed able to function on their own, much less as a group -- and yet they had succeded. And he had orchastrated it all, without even knowing it. It was his spy, Marie who had convinced Gabriela to hold the bloody coronation, it was because of her pushing and insistance that the Black Queen opened the doors of her home and welcomed everyone in. And every poorly executed step from there on out had sealed her tragic fate. She was always meant to be kidnapped. She was the damsel that Raphael needed to rescue, the treasure that simply had to be horded. 

Tonight she felt the weight of the many sterotypes she had worn, and worse of all, the truth of them. She would have never been able to free herself from the clutches of her captors. In all likely hood she would have ended up having to make a terrible deal with Agony just to escape with her life and that of her child's. 

She needed help then, and -- with some uncomfortable self reflection -- she realized she needed help now. She felt cold, and misrable, and alone. Even the child in her arms could not bring her back from that dangerous edge she was tittering upon. She had been so close to death, so close to that listless sleep, from which so many vampyres do not return. Her spirit felt torn, as if a part of her wanted to topple over and fall into the abyss. Her child was born, her work seemed at long last done. Why not die? Why not let go and sink into oblivion...

These weren't normal thoughts.

The baby in her arms coo'ed, and with some trepidation, she realized that she felt very little toward the child. There was of course that fierce sense of protectiveness, of loyalty, of devotion -- but not love. She felt incapable of love. 

Chewing on her bottom lip as she peered at the little sleeping child -- perfection incarnate -- Gabriela decided to reach out. The halls of her castle had never felt more empty. Even the silver lilies growing like weeds at every corner of her private chambers, proof of Xintylin's return, did little to ward away the creeping sense of despair. She cared for nothing. Something or someone had to pull her back.

So Gabriela got up. She pulled on her robe and made sure she appeared presentable and modest. From the bed, she plucked her sleeping child, who protested in reply but quickly resettled within his mother's arms. And then she walked across the hall to his bedroom and knocked on the door. 

While Raphael decided, on the other side of the doors, whether or not to come to her rescue -- yet again -- Gabriela stood there in the hall, glancing in both directions. Roen had been told to follow, but had he? She had taken her son from his arms, and she had seen the look of hurt and betrayal. She imagined she would be getting many dirty looks from the devil from now on. She imagiend that he would never again look at her with that dangerous, but exciting, fondness that reminded her of that singular but infinatly true statment -- they could not be left alone. Now, the statment was probably just as true, but only because Roen would surely end her life the first chance he got.

She had taken his son.

Gabriela didn't want to think about that. She didn't want to think about all the damage she had caused -- all the hurt she had brought upon him

She knocked again, a little more desperatly now. 
 

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Rafael’s expression soured at the incessant knocking, this latest rapping of a more desperate kind. Not bothering to repeat himself, he swiveled his gaze from the depths of the window to the wooden door, all ire and vexation. Who could that be? It may have come as a surprise that, for the first time, his thoughts did not immediately turn to Gabriela. Busy with the newborn babe on her teat and the harsh shadow of the child’s father, skulking about the palace, a visit to her cousin was likely the last thing on her weary mind. Instead, he thought of Elisha, and the somewhat important task she’d been charged with. Maria briefly entered his thoughts after that, perhaps coming to offer some bargain in exchange for an additional meeting with her mother, which he would deny.

Heavy with self-loathing and the resignation of his reality, sinking deep into that black, bottomless pit, the Elder knew it would take the pain of someone else, someone he controlled, to elevate his spirits. But his influence stretched far and wide, and there was no shortage of those that had fallen prey to his absolute authority. Rafael rose from his chair with all the pain, aches, and lethargy of his thousand years, and decided that it didn’t matter who it was standing on the other side of his door, for he would punish them all the same. He would do so severely, for the sport of it, for want of it; because he could, and not even Gabriela, herself, could stop him.

Opening the door, Rafael posed himself in the aperture, the curiosity bleeding from his expression as he looked at the softer likeness of himself. Gabriela had always been the fairer of the two, with those scorching, summerset eyes, those full, pouty lips, and the slight roundness to her chin and cheeks that perpetuated her youth even amongst their own kind. And yet, Rafael saw more of himself in her this night. He was in the tight purse of her lips, the tired lines sketching themselves across her brow, the dark circles just beginning to form beneath her eyes, and the sad, defeated slouch of her usually proud shoulders. But even trouble as she was, Gabriela was no more exempt to his unspoken edict than any other in service to his house. Were it not for the small babe she coddled in her arms, he would have dragged her into his chamber and exacted his vengeance upon her.

None were more deserving of it than she was.

“Gabriela.” Even with the sternness in his tone, it was impossible not to purr her name, the sound more inviting than he’d intended it to be. “You shouldn’t be up.” Glancing beyond her for a moment, he studied the hall, eyes narrowing at the flowers wreathing her doorway. Then he studied what distance of the hallway he could see, half-expecting to see the devil, or some glimpse of him, dancing between the flicker of candlelight and shadow. “You need your rest. My blood will only do so much.” And yet, in spite of his protest, Rafael pushed his doors further apart and allowed her in.

The dull thud of the dense wood closing and the soft, mechanical song of the locks engaging sounded behind her, while Rafael remained, unsure, but unwilling to follow. “You must forgive me of the mess,” he said. “It’s been an unusually stressful month for me, what with all that has transpired. I haven’t had much time to tidy up, and strangely, I’ve found it’s easier to find things in a rush when they’re all scattered about.”

The mess he spoke of consisted of numerous papers scattered about his desk, the floor, and some even in the two guest chairs near the window. Some were locator spells of varying degrees, none of which had proven useful in his search for her. Others were schematics of the castle, its secret chambers, and its surrounding areas; others were blueprints for additions he intended to implement in the near future: rooms, armories, and spell circles. Then there were the dozens of letters to lords both foreign and domestic. A small collection was entries from the Elder’s private journal, with the names of enemies and dates of critical events underscored or circled.

With such a vista, his descent into madness was so very apparent. Feeling suddenly insecure, and hoping to limit his view of what an embarrassment she had made of him, Rafael stepped away from the door. He stalked his way back to his desk where he half-sat, half-collapsed into the comfort of his chair. Did she relish in the torture she inflicted upon him? Looking upon the insanity she bequeathed unto him with her recklessness, with her need for “freedom,” did she feel a sense of accomplishment? Was this how she intended to repay him for those many rough nights he’d taken her, bled her, carved his name into her flesh and paraded her about the public like the glorious, exotic trophy she was?

 “I was worried.” There was shame in his voice, so thick that not even the lilt of his accent could hide it. “I have lived for over a thousand years, Gabriela, and never once have I been so worried.” Rafael ran a broad hand over his face, as if he could wipe away the embarrassment. “Call me overbearing, a tyrant, a murdering bastard, but do not dismiss the fact that I all I want-- all I have ever done --is to try and protect you. But you never listen to me,” he sighed. “You would sooner die than listen to me, Gabriela, and look at where we are.” He should have been angry. There should have been wrath and hellfire in his voice, the greatest storm the world had seen in his eyes... and yet he was calm, utterly resigned. “Look at what we have become.”

“Why are you here, Gabriela? What is it that you want from me?” There was only one thing he could think of, and for some strange reason, it made him ache to think of it. “The annulment?” Rafael tilted his head, studying her, his sad, defeated cousin as she stood cradling the center of three separate universes in her arms. “Even after everything that I’ve done, you think that I won’t keep my word? Is that what this is about-- is that what’s troubling you so?”

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"Gabriela...You shouldn't be up."

Bewildered eyes regarded the Orisian Emperor, wide and full of unasked questions and wonder. She couldn't put her finger on it, but the sight of his disheveled appearance did a world of good for her badly battered confidence. If he was looking this bad, then she might have some smidgen of a right to feel as badly as she did. But beyond that, she was just oddly amused at his implication regarding where she should or shouldn't be. Up or down, walking or resting, nothing could bring peace to the endless grinding of the gears in her mind and the terrible exhaustion that came with overthinking just about every last little thing. 

"You need your rest. My blood will only do so much."

Even though he attempted to sound concern, and maybe even looked the part, he gave away the reality of the situation the moment he made space for her to squeeze by him through the door -- and she did. She quickly pressed forward, even before he had fully moved to the side. Her small, nearly bare shoulder, brushed past his own, leaving him to marvel at the fact that she had grown terribly cold -- so cold that the frost in her wake seeped through the layers of his shirt and coat from just a touch that lasted less than a second. 

"You must forgive me the mess. It's been an unusually stressful month for me, what with all that has transpired. I haven't had much time to tidy up, and strangely, I've found it's easier to find things in a rush when they're all scattered about."

Gabriela only took a moment to look around. Her golden eyes swept from left to right and then back across the wide, open room and the many adjacent spaces that were all accessible from here. She saw the bedroom, the bathroom, and the wide doors that lead to a private dressing room, and beyond that another dark space where fine coats, shirts, and trousers hung neatly from an impossibly long rack. All of this, she examined in great detail but just for a short amount of time. It was almost as if she were looking for something -- perhaps the same devil that Raphael had been certain to spy dancing between shadow and flickering candle-light. Or maybe it was someone else -- or something else. Maybe it was Tenebre that Gabriela was looking for, and maybe it was only after she was certain he was not here, hiding among the darkest corners, that she felt comfortable enough to continue forward with the same sort of mindless courage that had brought her to his door and caused her to knock and knock until he got up to answer. Truth of the matter was she hadn't heard him tell her to come in, just like she wasn't hearing much of what he was saying now. She was aware of him, of his words, of his tension and of the lingering despair that wafted through the air, thick as smoke. Yes -- she was aware of all of this, but none of it really mattered.

When her eyes laid upon him again, it was only to see a man reflecting on the great expanse of a very difficult life. It was as if he were on the precipice of true hopelessness, and he was considering his ability to cope. She did not feel much in the way of sympathy for him, even as he sat there wondering if her foolishness, her recklessness, were ways to pay him back for being so heavy handed with her. Her mind was so far from the life they had shared previous to this moment.

"I was worried. I have lived for over a thousand years, Gabriela, and never once have i been so worried. Call me overbearing, a tyrant, a murdering bastard..."

He went on, singing a song of self proclaimed heroics and seeming to beg for pity from one so heartless as her. She didn't understand him, or why he was wasting his breath. Everything he was saying had already been said, a hundred, or a thousand times before. She wasn't interested in trying to figure it out, trying to talk about their problems. She was exhausted, and her nerves were burnt out. She did not feel safe, even though he had done everything to ensure her safety -- and that of her child's. 

"Look at what we have become."

Foolishly, she wanted to look at herself. She wondered what he meant and took it as some commentary on her physical appearance. She had a long way to go before she was fully healed, regardless of the endless supply of blood he could provide her with. Her wounds went far deeper than just flesh and bone. She had lived through something traumatic, but she hadn't bothered to really explain that in any great amount of detail to him or anyone else. Why bother trying to explain that when she closed her eyes she could still see in her mind the white-hot scalpel cutting through her skin, through the flesh, across the muscle? Was there any point in explaining that she could still feel the metal hooks that had been pressed into her open incision, which kept trying to close and heal and therefore had to be continuously torn open, in order to pull her open? What could she ever hope to gain in sharing with him that she had felt how Marigold's hands had disappeared inside of her and had pulled, twisted, and dragged her child out of her -- while she felt everything.

What had she become?

She didn't want to know.

"Why are you here, Gabriela? What is it that you want from me? The annulment? Even after everything that I've done, you think I won't keep my word? Is that what this is about -- is that what's troubling you so?"

"I am tired," she said at long last, after an uncomfortable pause and silence. He had stopped and waited for her to reply, and after some time, when she did not yet move to answer it had appeared that he might continue to speak -- but Gabriela stopped him. Stirred to life by the mewing of the child in her arms, and his small stretching form, Gabriela hurried forward to her cousin and deposited her most precious possession into his arms in a nearly carelss manner.

"I can't sleep...I can't close my eyes without...I..."

She looked at the small child in Raphael's arms, and marveled at how comfortable this giant of a man appeared holding such a small and helpless child. There was an immediate relief in her, something that was visibly notable as she stepped back.

"I am scared they'll take him -- or take me..."

Already she had turned her back to him. Without a word she was moving through the disarray of his private rooms, weaving her way in that lovely nightgown of hers, looking so very much like a walking and breathing dream. She passed the threshold of his bedroom and went to his bed, which was surprisingly enough still made. It was large, but inviting with it's dark colored sheets and sea of pillows. Like child, she pulled her nightgown up over her knees and climbed onto the bed and across to the center of it. Without looking at her cousin again, without ensuring that he could manage the baby, she settled herself down on her side -- with her back turned to them -- and closed her eyes to sleep.
 

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It was not unlike Gabriela to fail seeing or hearing Rafael, especially when he such proximity. In spite of their species’ extraordinarily heightened senses, the Black Queen was well-known to become both blind and deaf wherever he was concerned. The symptoms had become so frequent that she didn’t even bother trying to mask them anymore. Rafael noticed the way her molten gold eyes, bright with recognition, and more often than not, accusation, became dull and distant, dimly aware of his animation. And her mouth, the sharpest tongue he knew framed by those two full, pouty lips, pressed into a thin line of silence. Much like their game of cat and mouse had become all but routine over the years, so too had the plummeting temperatures of their encounters.

“I am tired,” she finally answered him.

Sleep? It seemed a ludicrous thing to expect in his company. Of the many things that transpired between the two cousins, sleep was rarely one of them. It had been in the interest of her rest that Rafael kept his distance since their return to Orisia, regardless of how brief it had been thus far. There was far too much that needed tending to, and as Duke-- no, as king, it was his burden to shoulder. More than that, it was an opportunity to set into place measures that should have been exacted long ago without Gabriela’s opinion, which often proved little more than contrarian in nature. No matter the consequences, of course. But before he could fix his mouth to reply, the baby cooed, stretching his tiny limbs, nuzzling deeper into his mother’s breast, but fell silent once again.

Gabriela’s approach caught the Elder off guard, as did the discarding manner with which she handed him the child. Visibly shocked, Rafael’s brow furrowed as his lips twisted into a snarl. On the verge of giving in to the instinct rooted deep in his bones, a large, violent hand nearly reached out and struck his panicked cousin. But at that moment, their awful encounter in Last Chance flashed through his mind-- he could still feel the crunch and crack of her jaw against his knuckles as it dislocated, feel the blood splattering across his hand as her lip split. You promised her never again, he chastised himself. And of the many vows and promises he’d made to his darling cousin, this one, Rafael intended to keep. Never again, he said once more, sworn to finality.

“Explain yourself!” Rafael demanded, still not having looked at the child.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t close my eyes without... I...”

Gabriela’s words fell away as she seemed to inspect Rafael, studying him as if it were the first time she’d ever seen him—truly seen him. And what she saw pleased her, if the relief written clear across her gorgeous face was any indication. Was it the way his strong arms visibly softened around the child’s body, tenderly cradling him, and yet nevertheless protective. Was it the way his body turned, ever so slightly, away from her-- still wary of her unexpected behavior, and strangely unsure whether or not he could trust Gabriela to tend for the child as she ought to? Or was it the way the bond between them, the three of them, flare in unique completion now that he’d finally held the babe?

“You aren’t making sense,” Rafael proposed.

“I am scared they’ll take him,” she confessed. “Or take me.”

Rafael wanted to ask her who it was she spoke of. He tried to tell her that those pitiful kidnappers would be dealt with in short order, and that the child’s father would sooner find the end of a blade before making off with him, but Gabriela was walking away. When a mystery is too compelling, one dare not disobey it, let alone let it wander too far. Driven by a newly born, insatiable curiosity, and perpetual concern, the Elder followed Gabriela as she crossed his study and passed into the sleeping chamber fixed at its far end. Like the first, this was large and commodious, minimally furnished, with the most substantial piece being the enormous bed that occupied the majority of the space. Gabriela was already crawling atop it by the time he reached the threshold, and without a word, she sank into the depths of exhaustion.

As she’d done to him just moments before, Rafael quietly deliberated his cousin’s being, listening, and watching. When her breathing was rhythmic and heavy, and he was certain she was fast asleep, Rafael cracked the door and left her to either dreams or nightmares.

It wasn’t until Rafael was well into his return that he noticed the child had awakened, sitting quietly in his arms, gazing up at him with strange, curious emerald eyes. He was as one might think a child born of a vampyre might be, perfect in every way, despite the inferiority of his father’s genes. The Elder could not banish from his thoughts that which he’d seen of the devil in Kadia, his monstrous, disgusting “true self” that lurked beneath the papery-thin façade he often presented. That such a beautiful child was wrought from such putrid seed was, in no small way, a miracle beyond reckoning. That the child appeared to show no immediate signs of his father’s genes-- neither tail, petulant pout, nor insectoid limbs --was positively divine.

It was the first time they’d been allowed the pleasuring of meeting, and as they sat there, man watching infant, infant watching man, Rafael could not help the smile that curved his lips. He resented the babe’s mother for this embarrassing debacle, of course – that would never change. But he could not fault him-- he could never fault him. “You know who I am, don’t you?” the Elder asked softly. “You can feel it, just as I do.” While the child gave no manner of acknowledgment, Rafael was certain. He’d been there from the start, the two firm hands that coddled his mother’s swollen belly when she still carried him. The presence he’d acknowledged with excited kicks and shifts. “I am your uncle by blood, but your father by law.” Rafael frowned at hearing the words. The baby cooed. “Yes, I suppose our family is a bit dysfunctional, isn’t it?”

Averting his attention from the child, Rafael canvased his study, spurred by a desire to be seen as more than a lunatic in the child’s eyes (though he very much doubted the infant would retain such early memories). Rafael set to the long, tedious task of collecting the swath of papers scattered about the floor, his desk, and stacked high in places they shouldn’t be. “A lot, isn’t it?” He chuckled self-depreciatingly, glancing to see if the child was still watching him. Those emerald eyes refused to waver. “Well, your lovely mother has a way of bringing out the worst in me. I’ve no doubt you’ll find that out sooner rather than later.” There was no pride in the statement, but rather a hint of shame, embarrassment even, that he could be provoked to such extremes by the woman.

“You see this here?” Rafael waved a piece of parchment before the infant, though he did not look at it. “Warding spells for your mother’s chamber. And this here,” he continued, collecting another piece of paper, “These are inhibitors located throughout the castle. I intend to have them altered to a certain degree. They will be more prejudice against certain individuals and their abilities. There are a select few individuals that have a known history of violence and betrayal toward the throne. We can’t have them running amuck in our home, now can we? I can trust you, yes? You’ll not repeat what we’ve discussed here?” The Elder looked at the child with a purposefully suspicious expression, his brow knit tight, his lips pursed, his eyes narrow and accusing. The child blinked. “Mm, yes, I thought so. You’d never betray me, little one.”

The remainder of their night was spent tidying the study, with Rafael often breaking into fits of rambling about this or that document and its relevance. They checked on Gabriela several times, still deep in her slumber, and returned to their activities posthaste. It was closer to sunrise when the infant began to fuss, struggling in Rafael’s arms, and twisting his beautiful little face into a heartbreakingly pained expression. “What is it, love?” The child continued to fuss, growing louder, and Rafael raked his brain for answers. It dawned on him not a moment later. “Ah, I know what you need. Haven’t been on your mother’s teat much yet, have you? No worries, little one. Another benefit of our species and our particular diet.”

While dhamphirs may have been able to enjoy the delicacy of mortal food as well, blood was suitable sustenance enough.

Deciding on the index finger of his right hand, Rafael crunched the nail’s tapered end between his teeth, crudely filing it down to a blunted instrument (and spitting out the debris). “We can’t have you cutting yourself,” he murmured. “The world knows your mother would swear I’d tried to kill you or something equally ridiculous.” Then he pricked the bed of his fingertip against his thumb, drawing a single bead of blood to the skin. The infant continued to fuss, was at the precipice of crying when Rafael pressed his finger to his lips. The child, still upset, muffled his sounds of angst as he latched onto the slow-bleeding digit. He pulled greedily on the finger, demanding a steady supply, which Rafael was happy to oblige.

“There you are,” Rafael whispered, taking a seat on the corner of his desk. “There you are, little one.”

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For someone who claimed to love her so much, Raphael certainly lacked empathy when it came to his cousin. He knew better than anyone what had transpired on the night she was spirited away -- he knew exactly what happened, at least from her perspective. The fact that he still laid the blame at her feet spoke volumes. Perhaps they were simply beyond any sort of sympathy, regardless of the strength of their bond. He felt wronged, and he blamed her solely for all that he had suffered without any thought as to what she endured and why. He did not value her unique perspective of life, and instead, sought to crush her will against his own. It wasn't enough to force her submission, he needed to ensure that she loathed her old ideals -- a thing that was simply impossible, and thus the reason for their unhappy union. They would never see eye to eye, and it was in his nature to force his way while it was in hers to simply runaway from the conflict. They were a terrible match, and yet for all of his pursuing and all of his hard work, Raphael had been awarded the prize that he most sought. 

Gabriela lay in his bed sleeping soundly. Of her own free will, she had come to him, and of her own free will she had deposited her child into his care. He may have been upset about her carelessness, and he may have demanded answers from her -- of which he got none. But surely, with the strength of their bond and the link of their blood, surely he -- if no one else -- felt the sheer exhaustion of her soul. 

For the first time since they had come back into each others lives, Gabriela appeared what she was -- a young, confused, and very frightened girl. There was no pretending now. She had crossed the threshold of his private chambers seeking out the comfort and protectiveness that he had violently conditioned her to accept. Now there was simply nothing else. But still he loathed her, and still he looked upon her with the same contempt every Bartolome felt for every DuGrace. 

Her dreams were nothing but nightmares. She saw the deformation of her limbs, and recalled with near perfect recollection how she had been turned from vampyre to swan. And although there was no pain, for the Mutator had been certain to spare her the physical agony of twisting bones and transforming flesh, he could not have hoped to save her from the psychological distress that came from the sheer worry of what might happen to her child. That was what ruined her dreams now. Even in sleep, she could not escape the suffocating anxiety of fearing for Philippe's life. But she didn't just dream about the kidnappers. In her mind, the devil stalked her every move. He had what he wanted from her -- a royal child to place upon his throne, to mold into his liking, to love and cherish where he had failed to love and cherish her. There was also Tenebre, a long and twisted shadow that stretched razor sharp talons toward her sleeping boy with the threat of snatching him away from her and into the deep, dark abyss. 

She awoke trembling and whimpering to the smell of his blood. She'd become so accustomed to it now that even the slightest whiff of it produced a reaction in her -- not strictly hunger, something more akin to panic and a sense of danger. The smell of his blood was the smoke of a burning building, and it only added to the dread of the nightmares she had just woken from. 

He would take her child, she knew it -- he would take her child and torture her with his captivity. 

Badly shaken, Gabriela appeared in the door way and saw Raphael sitting with Philippe in his arms, his finger within the infants perfect suckling mouth. Her blood ran cold for a moment, until she saw -- truly saw -- the expression upon her cousin's face. His lips were moving, uttering sweet nonsensical things to the child as it busily fed. This was a level of affection that could not be feigned.

Slowly, Gabriela approached the scene, feeling very much like an unwelcome outsider. She sat on the sofa opposite to them and watched quietly. Gone was the Black Queen, with her proud posture, her ethereal beauty, and her perfect, emotionless face. She was replaced by a wide-eyed creature of equal beauty, who lacked confidence and was filled with legitimate fear. Somehow, she managed to look smaller as she clutched her hands in her lap and pulled herself inward as if she were cold. 

"I am sorry," she said as softly as she could, her golden eyes -- still quite radiant -- shifting to stare down at the lace hem of her nightgown. "I haven't been able to sleep. I didn't know where else to go."

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I am sorry.”

When did you get here? Rafael’s eyes snapped up from the child, settling an easy blue gaze on his cousin. He studied her for a contemplative moment, looking her over as if he were appraising some precious artifact or jewel. Though she had her flaws (as they all did), they were nothing short of invisible in the shadow of her grandeur. Indeed, there was scarcely a moment when his cousin was not ethereal and enchanting. Even now, tormented by nightmares and exhausted in spite having slept nearly ‘till sunrise, she was undeniably beautiful and stirred deep within the Elder a need and longing built by the hands of tradition, fate, and genealogy.

I haven’t been able to sleep,” Gabriela continued. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Rafael adjusted the young child in his arms, though remained seated on the edge of his desk. Time had stretched long and thin since he last saw his cousin so desperate and vulnerable, in such explicit need of his attention. Not since that awful storm in Veelos, he remembered, when the devil’s involvement in the botched attempt on her life came to light. All her life, Gabriela had built a fortress around herself and filled it those she believed trustworthy, whether they be pawns, knights, bishops, queens, or kings. But the doors had opened, the walls were crumbling, and a once invulnerable queen found herself beset on all sides by violence and treachery. For the first time in her life, Rafael was all she had.

“Because there is nowhere else to go, my love.” Rafael’s voice lacked the condescending timbre it would have held just hours earlier. Instead, it was replaced with the sympathy one might believe had been pushed to extinction between their two ancient houses; a genuine understanding wrought from the pain and agony rippling through their bond, so palpable it could scarcely be said to belong solely to her. “After all that we’ve been through together, all that I’ve done, surely, you must know that no one will ever love you as I do. That no one will ever seek to protect you as I do.” The Elder let his words hang in the air for a poignant moment, then added: “The both of you.”

At the mention of the child, Rafael lowered his gaze back to him, still busily feeding on the wounded finger in his mouth. The Elder pushed himself from his desk, considerably neater than it had been when Gabriela had first entered his study and paced about a room now devoid of mess and clutter. “Besides, I could hardly afford to refuse such an auspicious opportunity.” He lifted the child higher against his chest in emphasis. “I’ve quite enjoyed his company, and it seems as though he’s been able to tolerate mine.” Rafael sighed, a full smile behind his thick, downy beard. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve held a child, Gabriela? A child of vampyric blood?” That the little one was a dhampir detracted nothing from the intimacy of the moment. “Not since you were born.”

A swath of memories ebbed to the forefront of his mind, changing his study to the delivering chamber in the heart of the old castle. He was dressed differently then, adorned in the lavish trappings typical of vampyric highborne, much younger than he was today. He’d been there when Gabriela was born, and as her esteemed fiancé, been privileged as one of the first to hold her. Three hundred years ago, he’d cradled Gabriela in this exact same manner, and fed her as he did the little one now. It had been at Isabella’s urging, of course, to give her a strong taste for his life force, to lay the foundation of the unity and loyalty that was to bloom between them. They were the future of their species, you see, and one could not afford to have errant feelings of love, or choice, interfere.

But things didn’t work out as they had planned.

Now, Rafael stood holding the very result of her chosen love, of her free will, just as she sat across from him shouldering the weight of it all. Several lifetimes of free-will and the questionable decisions that came with it pressed down on Gabriela’s narrow shoulders mightily, shrinking her, making her seem so much smaller than she truly was. It was impossible not to see the young, impressionable princess that once looked up at him wide-eyed and eager to change the world; the child he’d fallen so desperately in love with. But now, she was a woman grown, and like all adults, she’d come to learn the harsh truth all parents keep far away from their children’s dreams: that the world is a cruel and unforgiving place.

It wasn’t until the little one’s eyes were closed, and the seal of his lips around the finger slackened, that Rafael made his way over to Gabriela. He took his seat beside her, and pulling his hand from the child’s face, set a heavy palm over both her hands, squeezing them. “Look at me,” he whispered, fearful he might wake the child. “Irene, look at me.” It was not often that her first name left his lips, reserved for his most maddening of furies or desperate of pleas. “I failed you,” he confessed. “I should have been there, and I wasn’t. They took you because I believed someone else might protect you when that duty is mine alone. On the eyes of our ancestors and our children, that will never happen again.”

The hand cradling both of hers in its grip relented, and he stroked his way up her cold, pale arm. At her shoulder, Rafael wrapped his strong arm around her and pulled her into him, nuzzling her into his side, setting her face on the unoccupied end of his broad chest, opposite the sleeping babe in his arm. “Here in my arms, you have nothing to fear. I will protect my family,” he whispered. Long fingers weaved into the thickness of her hair, gently raking at her scalp as he combed through the silken tresses. “And those who have wronged us will be punished. They will be brought to justice.” My justice, he added privately. With a half-hearted smile, Rafael lowered his chin, pressing a tender kiss to the center of her handsome brow. He buried his nose in her hair, taking deep of the rich scent of orange blossoms and her more natural aromas. “Here in my arms, no harm will ever come to you or our son, beloved. You have my word.”

Edited by King

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