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“Well this turned to shit,” she said aloud to her quiet companion.

 

Marie was standing before the Black Queen’s throne, looking at it with a narrowed gaze that was pregnant with meaning that was far too complicated to decipher. She realized, after a moment that she should be more guarded of her expression -- especially in these parts where dear friends could end up becoming bitter enemies. That narrowed gaze softened, and her blue eyes shifted to the woman who stood not very far from her. Angrily, Marie reflected that even the bonds of blood were being undone in this mockery of a court that Raphael Bartolome had created, a relic brought to life with the bits and pieces of the past that had been found strewn about the universe. It was a deformed and unhealthy thing, one that would see their entire race undone before too long. But she couldn’t complain, and she most certainly could not pretend to take the moral high ground. She was betraying her Gabriela, the promised Queen she swore to obey and protect since before her conception had ever been imagined.

 

What a silly thing this had all become.

 

She meant to take a step forward, but the sensation of water sloshing under her heel and then dripping caused her to stop midstep. Her booted foot dangled from her bent knee, listlessly as she examined the puddle that had formed before the dais of the throne.

 

“I guess in all the excitement -- they simply let the snow melt. No one thought of cleaning it up. Can you believe that?” She felt her lips unraveling from the severe, straight line they had been forced into most of her life. When she wasn’t thinking about it, her mouth naturally curved into a soft, mischievous smile of sorts. “Write that down, the the red carpets will have to be replaced. But this is a blessing in disguise. Make note that the new ones will be golden, to better highlight the DuGrace shield and also to brighten the place up a bit.”

 

Marie chewed the inside of her cheek, a nervous tick she had developed centuries ago. She had perfected it now so that no one could see what she was doing. Her face remained unmoved -- so much like stone. She was pondering this decision -- this small rebellion against Raphael. He would insist that it should have been obvious to her that his colors would be selected to adorn the throne room, especially if he decided to make this room the seat of power of his entire Empire. He would be annoyed at this lapse in judgment, but she would play it off and in her heart of hearts, she would savor whatever time was given to the DuGrace banner.

 

What a terribly silly thing this had all become.

 

“Have them clean in here -- thoroughly,” she added with a pointed gaze at her companion, who was busily jotting down notes. “They’ll need to throw the windows open and air the damn place out, it sticks of rot in here. Also, find out who was in charge of cleaning this place up last night and have them severely punished for this infraction. Something ridiculous and humiliating. Something that will get Raphael’s cock all hard and wet -- you know what a sick bastard that son of a bitch is.”

 

She paused. She looked at her companion -- had she said too much? Shown too much? They were best friends, they were family, they had always watched each others back in Atitlan. But she knew better than to believe things were still the same. If Raphael could make her bend a knee -- if he could bring Gabriela to heel, then really, there was no one safe from his influence. Still, she didn’t regret her words. It was a lovely sight to see such foul language spoken so eloquently and from such an elegant looking vampyre.

 

@jaistlyn

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“Golden carpets - to brighten up the place.” Kylie repeated as she inked the details in her notebook, the omission of her aunt’s comment about the DuGrace shield deliberate. It was a loaded reminder to Marie not to be too open about her opinions while they were within earshot of others, a note that she knew her aunt would get, and then pointedly ignore.

She loved her for it. 

Things were different now, as Marie had noted. It was as dirty as the brownish water that squished under their feet as they stepped on the waterlogged carpets. One portion of it was redder than others. Even in their hurry, the fleeing citizens had avoided stepping on the spot where Desmond had squirmed. Kylie was sure that Marie could smell the lingering scent of his blood in the air as well as she did. 

“Air the room thoroughly, decorate with fresh flowers,” she said, transcribing Marie’s crude words into politically correct sentences. “Capture the person in charge of cleaning. Administer the whip in public, ten strokes or till death-“ Kylie paused, and looked up at Marie with blue eyes that reflected her aunt’s own. She grinned, and the light touched her eyes briefly, assuring the older vampyre that she wasn’t the only one with a distaste for Rafael. Especially not when both of them knew what underhanded methods he used to get his way.

“But Aunt Marie, you know that the Queen would be opposed to such a punishment. Though I suppose she wouldn’t be here to object.” It was one thing after another, the events of the past night. After being chased out of the coronation, people hardly had time to go home before the alarms went off, and news spread that the Black Queen had been kidnapped. There were many speculations about who had done it. The Devil of Patia, who had tried to start a fight as a distraction? Some political enemy, who had taken the chance to sneak into the castle? Or even the fearsome Malice, after his fall out with the Queen? 

“Do you think.. he did it?” Kylie asked under her breath. There was no doubt which ‘he’ she was referring to. By staging a kidnap at her coronation, Rafael could prove that Gabriela was too vulnerable to take the throne, and further cement his influence over Orisia. “And after you’d planned everything too. It’s really too bad.”

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“But Aunt Marie, you know that the Queen would be opposed to such a punishment. Though I suppose she wouldn’t be here to object.”

 

“It’s just as well, Kylie. Better that the Orisian’s start coming to terms with the reality of the man usurping as their ruler. They’ve been deaf, dumb, and blind for too long.”

 

Marie knew that Raphael was working heavily under the radar when it came to the delivery of Orisia’s new law and order. Along with his rule came punishments that far exceeded the scope of the initial offense -- but people didn’t notice. Instead, those deemed responsible for crimes against the crown were spirited away in the dead of night. Some were lucky enough to be returned to their families, but they were far too shellshocked to speak about what had happened to them and all evidence of their terror lay written across their skin in the form of welts, bruises, and sometimes, festering wounds that required amputation of limbs. Some poor fools would make their way home only to die surrounded by those they loved. And all of those were the fortunate ones for there was still a greater number of individuals who had yet to be accounted for. But no one seemed to question the occurrences, and that was probably because Raphael had brought more stability to the island than it had had in a long time.

 

It was a frightening thing when people traded liberty for a sense of safety -- but it revealed humanities cowardliness, and Marie could not much be troubled for them. It was her loyalty for the DuGrace name that pushed her toward these subtle but dangerous acts of defiance against the Emperor. Perhaps, Marie reasoned, if the people saw what a monster Raphael was they might once more rally behind the Black Queen.

 

But she doubted it.

 

“Do you think.. he did it?”

 

For the first time in a long time, Marie did not turn to give Kylie a meaningful look. Instead, she kept the weight of her heavy thoughts settled on the black throne set before her. Her blue eyes, crystal-like in hue and clarity, had a way of hiding the depth of her consideration behind a sort of airyness that most confused as vapidness. There was a reason that old saying existed -- blonds have more fun. It was those wide, blue, clear eyes that became the perfect mask for genius, for beauty and intelligence did not often go hand in hand, except to those with a particular gifted sense of perception. But it had been many centuries now since that had bothered Marie. It didn’t take her long to fully realize the potential of her appearance. Still, it amused her to no end how the slightest tilt of her head -- and inclination away from the light -- could cast the shadow of her brows over her eyes and darken them significantly. How such a small thing added weight to her gaze, and turned her from a pretty thoughtless thing to a creature of dangerous depth.

 

Appearances were always deceiving.

 

More than anything, in that moment, Marie wanted to answer her niece with sincerity. She wanted to convey the suspicions that had been forming in her mind for some time now. Raphael was beyond obsessed with the DuGrace heiress. It had become more than just a political move to ensure his union to the runaway princess from so long ago. He called it love -- and as with any extreme within the vampyre realm, love was a dangerous thing. Too many tragedies had befallen Gabriela in too short a time, from disappearance shortly after the Tethering Ceremony back in Umbra, to the recent assassination attempt against her that nearly killed her child when it was still in the womb, to this -- a kidnapping plot that unfolded under the nose of the Emperor himself.

 

Did Marie think Raphael was involved?

 

Without a doubt.

 

But did she trust Kylie enough to admit to this? Unfortunately, she did not. Besides, even if the young vampyre was totally innocent, even her loyalty to Marie and to the old ruling family was the worst of her crimes -- she knew Raphael could and most certainly would use the girl against her.

 

“Of course not. Our beloved Emperor is committed with all of his heart and soul to his wife and his child.”

 

Now she regarded Kylie, her pale and thin lips a straight line that spoke volumes more than her words.

 

“Let’s leave the punishment at ten strokes and avoid adopting command over life or death, or we may well end up sharing the person’s fate out in the public square.”

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There was a pause. Usually, Marie’s knowing glance would tell Kylie the truth, regardless of the words that she would speak. However, this time, there was a bleakness in the pause. It made Kylie nervous.

“Of course not. Our beloved Emperor is committed with all of his heart and soul to his wife and his child.”

Marie had delivered it flatly. It was the kind of tone that elders used when they wanted to warn their juniors not to push things too far. Kylie was hardly a child; in human terms, she was already of child-bearing age. It stung a little that her aunt would treat her like so, as if she wasn’t mature enough to handle the truth. The young vampyre pursed her lips into a strict line, but didn’t pursue the issue.

“Let’s leave the punishment at ten strokes and avoid adopting command over life or death, or we may well end up sharing the person’s fate out in the public square.”

“Yes, alright.” Neat corrections were made in the notebook. Kylie’s mind replayed the events of the last night, looking for a lighter conversation topic. She had been present throughout the celebration, taking in all of the proceedings while keeping out of the way. “I noticed a few surprising visitors last night - I’m sure I saw Prince MorceLa’Kai. And the handsome man with the red hair - he’s related to Corvinus, isn’t he? And.. who was the other big guy you were talking to? The one who got thrown out of the window?” Kylie looked in the direction where the action had taken place. The shards of glass had been removed, but the gaping window was still conspicuously missing its pane. Her pen appeared in her hand again. “Repair the third window on the left.”

 

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Whether or not Marie took notice of Kylie’s hurt feelings did not reflect in the elder’s tightly controlled posture, nor her suddenly stoic features. She seemed to have regained some sense of herself, and was back to keeping her thoughts tucked away in her sleeve, along with her emotions, and her bleak predictions of the future. It was best to keep these things close to her own breast. The risk was simply too great in whatever direction the coin of loyalty happened to land on.

 

“Yes, alright.”

 

Marie gathered one slender wrist inside a cage of slender fingers behind her back, just above the swell of her bottom. When she wanted to, she could add an astounding amount of length to her height just by straightening. She did this now, wanting to convey some sense of stability to the younger vampyre, even if she could provide nothing else -- nothing solid. It was a wound to her ego, and beyond that, to her very sense of self to not be able to provide more, but there was one thing no one could take away from them… Whether it was Bartolome or DuGrace… and that was the steadfast nature of the House Orleans.

 

“I noticed a few surprising visitors last night -- I’m sure I saw Prince MorceLa’Kai. And the handsome man with the red hair -- he’s related to Corvinus, isn’t he? And.. who was the other big guy you were talking to? The one who got thrown out of a window?”

 

Hearing this bizarre but totally accurate description of the previous night put a lot of things into perspective for Marie. Beyond just being a complete and total failure, the coronation had almost immediately fallen into the realm of the utterly nonsensical. From the appearance of one of the random adopted family members that Gabriela had taken in, which she seemed to collect like impulsive animal hoarder who picked up every stray dog that crossed its path, to the perversion of nature that was Corvinus’ offspring. But those two utterly unconsequential creatures fellaway as Kalie, bright and resilient as ever, reminded Marie of a strange interaction that she had not deemed memorable enough to even mention upon her questioning just a few hours ago. It seemed that the whole of the castle household was being investigated for clues as to the disappearance of the queen. It certainly wouldn’t look right to be found out now as having forgotten some random massive stranger.

 

“A knight of the Black Heart,” she replied. “He is one of the queen’s men. I wonder what he could have done to persuade the Warlord into action, beyond the rather impolite delivery of Desmond before the queen’s throne. He seems to have become something of a relic, too old or perhaps too interested to participate in anything other than causing mischief.”

 

Mischief -- what a harmless way to put it.

 

“Repair the third window on the left.”

 

“Yes,” Marie said with a nod, turning her head and her lovely profile in the direction from which a cool breeze blew. “That should about do it for repairs, although I’ll leave any other minimal nuisance in your capable hands. Once all of this is set to order, we should discuss your return to Morgana. I dislike having you spend so much time in Raphael’s court. As you can see, it’s nothing but trouble here in the capital.”

 

She turned, for the first time her blue eyes shone with something other than political intrigue. Genuine affection softened the ice-azure as she reached out to stroke the younger vampyre’s cheek. Marie smiled, cupping Kylie’s supple flesh in her long, claw like fingers. “You must see to the running of our home, until I can return.”

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“The Queen’s own man?” Kylie mused. “Perhaps he has other loyalties now. He was with that foreign lady. Maybe that was what enraged the Warlord so.” She remembered the passioned speech given by the petite woman by the knight’s side. It was interesting to the young vampyre to witness all these interconnected relationships , even if the court seemed a bit dangerous.

Back to the matter at hand, Kylie looked down at the list she had written in her notebook. 

I’ll leave any other minimal nuisance in your capable ha nd s. ”

A radiant smile spread across Kylie’s face when Marie called her capable. She admired her aunt - someone who could stand at the side by side with both the Carmine emperor and the Orisian queen. She wondered if she would be able to reach the same heights as Marie someday: mingle in parties, talk to people of importance. Her aunt’s next words, however, caused Kylie’s head to snap up.

Once all of this is set to order, we should discuss your return to Morgana. I dislike having you spend so much time in Raphael’s court. As you can see, it’s nothing but trouble here in the capital.”

“But- but I haven’t been here for long at all!” Kylie protested. She had been allowed to travel to Orisia a month ago to help her aunt with the planning of the coronation. Perhaps she even had naïve dreams of meeting her Prince Charming here, though she was very much aware that the notion was silly. She had missed her aunt so, and the short time they had spent together was not nearly enough. The disappointment on her face was probably what prompted Marie to caress her cheek with affection.

“You must see to the running of our home , until I can return.”

Home, in the city of Morgana. The Orleans were the governors of the wealthiest city of Orisia, and the hustle and bustle of the trading hub meant that there were always things to take care of, such as approving land re-zoning applications, increasing security, settling disputes and the like. Kylie was still learning the ropes of management of the city, but she was doing a good job of it, and it was true that the longer she was away, the harder others had to work to cover for her duties. She wouldn’t want the rest to think that she was shirking her responsibilities either.

Kylie placed her own hand upon Marie’s. “Alright. But you must promise to come back more often, even for short visits!” She implored. “It gets lonely sometimes without you around.” It was not that she was alone in Morgana, but that she missed having someone to have heart to heart talks with. Her aunt was wise and funny and smart, and always had such good advice for her.

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