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Buried 'Neath The Ashes

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'Twas a curious thing-- a single, lone black feather, lying abandoned in the hallway like a child's forgotten toy.  The shaft was thick, but hollow, not quite stable enough for a quill; the vane a luxurious inky black, barbs interlocking into a single flank, and had a sheen reminiscent of sunlight on the face of a blade.  Rou was careful not to disrupt the seamless strands as she twisted it gently between her fingers, rotating it with a gentle flit as it parted the air, and her puzzled expression was muddled by peculiar familiarity... and the rather unsightly bruise that mottled her right cheek.  This was the eighth feather she'd found, all scattered throughout the Umbral palace, marooned like this one, on the runner in a desolate hallway of the East Wing.  They were large, too large for a token bird to have stumbled in through a window, and while the An'She hadn't been any type of expert on birds, she hadn't known of any fowl with plumage this big, particularly not in Umbra.  The feathers were unstained by ink, seemingly not the discarded quills from Rafael's and Raveena's many letters to each other, nor had he seemed the type for so gentle an instrument in play.  Each one was perfect, nearly pristine, like a giant red rose flawless for it's color and unbroken, healthy stem.  Rou had contemplated asking Rafael about the continued appearance of seldom feathers scattered about the palace halls, but given his restlessness of late (as proof by the bruise that sored her cheekbone), she had decided against it-- honestly, she was silently thankful for the time that he'd managed to leave her to her own devices, albeit brief.  Thus, the source remained a mystery.

Tucking the pointed end of the sturdy shaft into the tightened culmination of her ponytail, she added it to her lustrous mane, both looking like it belonged amongst the gently curling sable strands, and stood out like a foreign gem.  Tucking her book back under her arm, she proceeded on down the hallway, off to the library.

It had been empty at first glance, and with a turn of her head, she was assured some solace.  Briefly, she missed Raveena's presence, a small consolation at one point when she wasn't in such affectionate favor-- having found some direction in her harsh words.  However, if she weren't so charged with Hyperion across the sea in Terrenus, Rou might not have fared as relatively well in her recusal.  After the terrible fire at Calera Manor, she surmised Hyperion's new queen was even responsible for putting Athyon's suspicions to rest, though she doubted even the council had the gall to revisit it now, considering Rafael's recent intentions that brought her back to limelight.  Perhaps she had ought to write a letter to Raveena, as well, once she'd gathered enough time to write... and once she'd had more to tell than the new colors she'd accumulated on her skin.

With gentle footsteps across the marble floor of the library, it echoed softly as she passed row by row.  They were all kept and neatly dusted as she progressed, through history, language, biology-- but the long rows of the Hall of Records remained untouched as they had for many months, quartered off by a velvet rope and stanchions.  Still out of commission, the Hall of Records had been razed by a peculiar accident, a fatal tipping of a candle by a scribe that sent the rows up half in flames, the moth-eaten pages of documents, contracts, and censuses catching like it had been doused with gasoline.  Wrinkling her nose, Rou was certain the place still smelled of moth and rotting wood.  Three whole rows were naught but piles of ash and towering, decaying shelves, the window closed and blinds drawn so not to disturb the cinders that made the department look like an unkempt fireplace.  Umbra's best magicians hadn't yet the spell to undo the damage, and thus it was left alone, just as it had been made.

Rou proceeded quickly past the mess she'd most certainly had a hand in making, following the calculated numbers carved into placards on the bookcases that gathered books by like subject-- Magic was what she was looking for.  As she rounded the case just past the ruinous ashes, she stopped in her tracks, stunned to find the shelf grossly depleted.  Her shoulders sunk with a dejected sigh, her oft-fair lips parted in a disconsolate frown.  Pausing to leave her one tome on the table, she hurried to the few books that remained, hastily reading through the spines as she fingered the binding.  Every other type of magic remained, but all the Blood Magic grimoires were gone-- Rafael's work, undoubtedly.  Rou knew she'd seen an easy healing spell early in her tutelage, one she thought might have spared her the aching pain of the bruise upon her cheekbone, though he'd already taken the initiative to confiscate them.  'To make sure you learn your lesson', she could hear him say.  She hissed through her nose, only because the silent scowl that messed up her face was too taken to do otherwise.

With no avail other than to go and request more ice from the kitchen staff, Rou made to gather her one lonely book --as useless as it was to her, now-- until she heard a subtle shuffling from 'round the other side of the row.  Peering keenly with her amber-golden eyes between the spines of the few books in her way, a huge, monstrous thing shuffled through the ash in the next row, so tall it's black mass scaled even the upper shelves.  It's body swept by the spines of books, if almost clumsily only due to it's size, though had neglected to knock any over, not a single tome out of place.  If anything, it appeared to be returning the few books that remained undamaged to their proper place, as she saw the bony fingers of a pale, black-nailed hand briefly arcing around the covers as it slid them back onto the woodbare planes.

Stricken by perplexity, and maybe even a little bit of trespassing, her feet made quick work of nimbly rounding the row, peering out just beyond the side.  Her long ponytail slipped gently off her shoulder, yet the feather remained firm in place, only just jetting to the side at a brief, but stylish, angle.  It was not a thing, but a man, she realized, with wings as dark as the night and as large as the dusk it crept in on.  He seemed serene, committed to the task of putting the books to their proper home, almost unaware of the literal foot-depth of ash he was wading in, as if it were simply sand at the beach and no more abnormal.  She would have interrupted him, for now she had the culprit of the abandoned feathers strewn throughout the palace, but Rou paused only to take a better look at his face-- she'd seen the bust of him painted in Rafael's gallery, not so intimately drawn as his more artistically nude candidates (though the intrinsically-jealous An'She was, in that way, grateful to have only seen a portion of his work), left without a placard to describe a name.  But the face was certain, doubled by his familiarity in the Umbral palace.  Another black feather lay at her feet, haplessly a new, forgotten resident of the library, until Rou had swept it up to claim it.

"Well," she interrupted the silence, taking a clearer step out between the path between bookcases, arching the back of her wrist loftily on her hip.  Rou grinned, in that tilted way of hers; though it had made her cheekbone ache, it hadn't deterred it's sly purse.  She keenly held up the feather with her other hand, giving it a keen twirl back and forth.  "Best not let these bookmarks get away from you.  You'll lose your place."


@The Hummingbird

Edited by Narcissa

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Conceived by a brilliant mind and great ambition, Umbra stood amidst the lands of the Arcane East. Ingenious architects had brought their most prized ideas to life here, breathing and building life and beauty into the city with obsessive effort and scrupulous care.  Constructed of shining marble, alabaster stone reinforced with the occasional brick foundations and high-quality wooden beams, the buildings of this massive seat of power were protected well from most natural disasters. Even the worst of the Magestorms hailing from the Cold Mountains failed to topple the most tremulous of the gleaming white towers. Fires and floods were things one did not worry about here. Umbra was made to be stable, and so it was.

Having spent time enough at the Isle of Summer, Zenahriel had returned to Umbra for a prolonged and possibly permanent visit, and took up his neglected duties as the King’s most favored An’She once again. Only recently had he flown over the city, taking in the undisturbed terrain of the city, its sophisticated landscape and its local farmlands. All seemed well enough in hand, and he had glided back to the castle, checking in with the civilians and speaking with other councilors, nobles and even commoners for recent news. What he discovered surprised him.

Rafael had been greatly silent of late, and Zenahriel had left him largely alone, presuming the silence was mourning over his loss of Gabriela. There was no true love lost between the two, but still it was in one’s nature to grieve over a lost possession. Apparently, Zenahriel had assumed wrong – a new Empress was to be made, it was more than rumored. Another of the An’She, in fact. Though they were his fellow councilors, Zenahriel had associated with them very little, and he wondered who had managed to wriggle so far into the King’s affections.

Perhaps it was better not to ask. Rafael’s recent moods were strange and unpredictable. He might not take well to questioning.

With nothing else to do, Zenahriel found himself in his favorite location of the castle – the library. Books had always fascinated him, and the endless shelves of innumerable tomes and scrolls drew him in as they always did. Though he had read almost all the texts, he still enjoyed reading them, over and over, indulging in the bits of knowledge and lore they possessed, memorizing timeless quotes and engaging in dialogue of the best of tales.

Some of those were, undoubtedly, in the Hall of Records, which to his dismay had suffered a great tragedy – one which Zenahriel found rather dubious. Suspicious, even.

Scribes were not careless people but that missed the facts; fires were not common here, due to the flammable surroundings. Most scribes and visitors to the library carried sunglobes, or smokeless lights of magic that did not burn whatever they might touch. As Zenahriel roamed among the old ash, burnt shelves and scorched books, he wondered if the accident had truly been an accident at all. Only someone allowed here and knew the value of the records kept would burn it at all… but why?

Or perhaps I am simply being paranoid, Zenahriel admitted to himself. He picked up a book, dusting it off. A small pile had been left mostly undamaged, so he set himself to putting them back where the belonged, stopping here and there to leaf through a few thin pages.

The sounds of footsteps sounded clearly to Zenahriel’s keen hearing, well above that of a normal mortal.  He looked up as the intruder rounded the corner – a woman. A familiar woman, though just then Zenahriel failed to place name or station.

He smiled just slightly, humorlessly though, as she twirled a feather. Recent hardships on his body and mind had triggered a partial molt, and when Rafael commented that the fall of feathers was rather dramatic, hadn’t bothered stopping to pick up every fallen shaft.

“Indeed,” he said dryly as he moved forward, sliding one last book into place as he approached the woman. “Thank you for returning one to me.” He reached out and deftly plucked the feather form her hand and gestured towards the quill in the hair. “You can keep that one though. I don’t need it anymore.”

He tilted his head to one side, his black eyes falling on the dark bruise on her cheek.

It wasn’t that it stank, but he recognized the scent, and had worn such a mark himself, long ago. And he had seen them before, on the body of the Black Queen.

Old habits… what do they say? Die hard?

One wingtip flicked irritably, slapping against the base of a bookshelf and knocking a small mound of ash into the air. He already knew the answer, but spoke anyway, careful to keep his voice soft and neutral. “My pardons. May I ask who are you to warrant Rafael’s wrath, my lady?”

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Rou flinched slightly for the sudden sound, seized by her own spine for the surprise of it.  The dust in the air made a foul itch in her lungs, as she out a raspy cough, her hand clumsily raised to her mouth.  Even through squinting eyes, lashes batting often as a shield from the dust, she was ceaselessly absorbed in the sight of his massive wings.  Not that she had ever thought they were at all for show, she had inherently noticed how animated they were, rising and falling with the fill of his chest, flexing like an extra pair of limbs that were for more than to just take up the space in a room.  'Like the whipping of an idle horse's tail,' she thought, feeling herself rather silly for having been spooked.  With another cough, she then smoothed out the length of her ponytail between her palms, and gave an uplifting flounce to the feather in her hair-- more peacock than he, with less feathers.

With her vanity recovered for only the briefest of moments, her eyes followed his path.  She could not see it, even with the golden iris of her eye magnetized to the bottom corner, but she knew he was looking at the unsightly blemish of inky blues, blacks, and purples that stained her cheek.  The rest of the cortege among the Umbral castle had shared the same hollowness akin in his eyes, stared at her with the same silence that made Rou feel like a spectacle, and not the type she'd liked.  It hadn't been the first, and it wouldn't be the last, but the pain and the judging looks had hardly compared to the quiet.  They hardly spoke to her, only did what she asked and politely left, as was a servant's job to do, leaving her only to seek out Rafael when she was dying for conversation.  While the Emperor had a gift for conversation, with that gilded tongue, it was hard to find him in the mood for only words.  Thus, the whole cycle started again, leaving Rou with sore muscles and even sorer pride.

She sighed, though the smile broken from it had harbored relief, albeit conflicted.  It seemed that it was a welcome consolation just to have someone talk to her.  Given by the inclination, as Rou remembered his portrait in the hallway, she figured he would indulge her in the tragic humor of the Emperor's temper.  "I stood between him and something he wanted," she answered, the more than subtle hint of satire in her voice leaving just enough said and unsaid.  The colloquial proverbs 'you are your own worst enemy' and 'heavy is the hand' rang quite true to form, for the modesty of clothing was the only thing that spared her the judgmental eye to the other bruises-- Rou didn't like to be manhandled, and Rafael didn't tolerate defiance.  She smirked a coy smile at him, only because it was somehow less taxing than giving in to the ache.  Humans were not as fragile as all would seem.

Thinking this the appropriate time to make introduction, Rou bent at the knees to sink into a quick semblance of a curtsy.  It couldn't have been called such, for she had no skirt to speak of and made no grandeur of it, nor had she bowed more than a gentle tipping of her head, but it was polite nonetheless.  It bounced the length of her ponytail when she rose, as if rejuvenating the gentle spiral curl at the ends, the black-plume feather remained a rather stylish addition to her coiffure.  "I am--" Rou had started, opening her mouth to speak, though was caught by an awkward pause.  Her title had become an enigma, uncertain and ambiguous.  She used to answer so easily by An'She, but had abandoned it to recusal, nor was she simply a blacksmith, simply the Buxom Bandit, or simply anything.  She hesitated to call herself the future Empress, for that had sounded bitterly presumptuous in her mind, and to say the Emperor's lover had made her sound like a whore.  For the first in a long while, a name was all she had; it would suffice.  "Rou Ji," she answered, quickly filling in the pause, "I am Rou Ji."

She eyed him a moment, considering his face and his long, black hair.  His nose was slender, perfectly poised to level two eyes, both thin not by scrutiny, but by elegant design.  Rou had often heard talk in court of how vampires were supposedly perfect beings, particularly Elder vampires such as Rafael and Gabriela to be the most ethereal among them.  Rou found her lover handsome, 'twas true, but she never would've described him as beautiful-- for winged man in front of her, however, she found it wasn't severe enough a word.  The pale complexion of his skin was like that of a pristine pearl, but the texture was more like he'd been simply poured out of fresh milk.  Blissfully straight black hair seemed like it had never encountered a single tangle, his brow unwrinkled by ever having to endure the cringe from a brush pulled too roughly.  The breadth of his breast was ideal, for no better word could she find to describe it, for he was not so large to be muscled and burly, nor was he skinny or emasculate.  Even without the truly magnificent wings at his back, he was stunning.

"I'm afraid our lack of familiarity leaves me at a disadvantage," Rou said as she struggled for no given name to greet him with, as the social protocols called for.  She may have been a bandit and spent a fair few months away from the court, but she wasn't a rube.  She spoke with a honeyed tongue, a subtle swivel to her hips whenever she'd changed her weight from one foot to the other, accentuating the curve of her hip with the cursory placing of her hand.  "I'd say you have more than a fair knowledge of our liege--" she said, with no further mention of his attention to the bruise of her cheek or the portrait in the west wing, as she made a rather shameless flicker of her eyes down, and then back up, "--if only by the likeness of your vendetta against shoes."  By now his ankles had been caked in ash, gray but seemingly undisturbed by the coating, though the earlier twitch of his wing had disguised his tracks.  Her lips curled into a tilted, coy smirk, as if playing a game of words.  She hummed with a satisfied, nasal laugh.

To save him the trouble of asking the silly question as to why she was purveying the library (and hoping that he would volunteer his intrusion upon the decimated Hall of Records), Rou flipped open the book in her hands, and passed her index finger by her tongue to more easily leaf through the pages.  "I was hoping to find a healing spell that could rid me of my newest accoutrement," she said, hinting at Rafael's handiwork upon her face, though hadn't looked up from the methodical searching through chapters, "but it seems that the subject is popular, as of late."  Rou briefly looked up from her search to gesture with a nod of her head towards the row of Magic tomes, which had been picked over like the meat off of a skeleton's ribs.  Returning to the old leather book, she ruminated over the dense pages, more familiar spells that she recalled learning under Rafael's tutelage (though she was more than a fair bit out of practice), with a centered focus that seemed to pinch both her brow and her voice.  "One such book was left in my old chambers, however..." she explained much more dryly, before holding the book by the top of the spine and displaying it with a turn to her winged acquaintance, along the binding showing the remnants of a page ripped from the seam, "...his Majesty has seen it apt to remove it from my repertoire."  Rou wasn't smiling, now.

Edited by Narcissa

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Though the dust and ash rose around them in scant clouds, Zenahriel appeared thoroughly untroubled by it. He breathed as easily as if he stood in fresh air, his voice smooth and light. The moments in which he had found it a labor to breathe were few and far between – indeed, he didn’t even need to breathe. However, while other immortals rolled their eyes and scoffed at the needs of lesser creatures, he didn’t seem to hold an of this against this fair lady.

Yes, despite the bruise on her cheek, still fresh, she was – perhaps not beautiful – still very comely. She seemed very fit, with dark hair tied up with a gold band in an unobtrusive ponytail, slender eyes, and otherwise smooth and unblemished skin neither too pale nor too dark. Zenahriel studied her as she recovered her breath, waiting patiently. SHe held herself in a sterner way that no servant would even attempt, and he did not know her from the scribes he would often see down here. The way she dressed, too, was flattering. A noble, then? Zenahriel frowned in thought as he tried to remember where he had seen her. Usually his memory was pristine, but things of late had caused a few… blank spots to appear in his mind.

One eyebrow raised as the lady sighed, not as if she were bored or contemptuous but rather like one who had finally slaked an ongoing thirst. “I stood between him and something he wanted,” she said, followed by a demure smile, as if it was all very humorous. He didn’t find it that funny – his frown deepened, and tipped his head in acknowledgement.

“I see.” He intended to speak to Rafael about his little habits. He tilted his head as she stumbled a bit over her introduction, as if unsure of how to go about it. As if she was unsure of who she was, and he knew that this was Rafael’s doing as well. At last, though, she gave her name, and he blinked, suddenly remembering. Rou Ji. Rou Ji. An’She Rou Ji, Empress Rou Ji. Perhaps not the latter quite yet, but soon enough, assuming all things went as planned. Unfortunately, most plans went awry these days.

“Aah… my apologies, my Lady,” Zenahriel murmured, giving a formal bow as she rose from her curtsy. He finally smiled as she noticed his lack of shoes. He usually wore boots of some sort, but Rafael preferred him to wear as little as possible. Today he wore a becoming cobalt blue, backless silk tunic and slacks rolled up to the knee to avoid a dip in ash. Simple but elegant. “Shoes? Silly things.” He flicked a hand with a soft laugh. “Who needs them?”

He followed her gaze at the emptied section of magic tomes as she explained her reason for being there in a section roped off for safety and security. He raised one hand and slid it across the empty shelf, fingers tapping lightly against the dusty row, making sure there were truly no books there, covered either by simple absence or concealment spells. He looked back at Rou, sighing as she indicated the missing page. “Yes… I see,” he repeated. He shook his head. “Our King is… rather fickle, I am sure you know, and I don’t mean his foot fetish,” he grinned. “But come, I am done here and this dust can’t be good for your health.”

Turning, he led the way back to the main section of the library, careful to not kick up too much as he stepped through the Hall of Records. “I thought I would investigate the Hall,” he said as he walked, “to see if I could find clues as to who… pardons, what, might have caused the fire. I have found nothing, but… oh.” He stopped, turning. “I’m sorry for my manners. Pleased to meet you, Rou Ji. I am An’She Zenahriel Zacharias.”

He turned again, and reached out to handle the rope that sealed off the Hall of Records from the general public. He lifted this out of the way and gestured for Rou to exit first. “There. Now, a healing spell? If you wish, I know a spell that would at least cover that little spot up, though healing is not exactly in my skill set,” he said idly as he set the rope back in place.

Edited by The Hummingbird

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'Well, he certainly hadn't picked this one for his discretion,' Rou thought to herself, with a mirthful two-beat chuckle hidden behind the spine of the book that she used to spare him the sight.  Rafael's face would've soured to the tune of levity at his expense, she knew, but she couldn't help but find the humor in it.  Their King was, in no exaggeration of the phrase, an insatiably sexual creature, and his preferences and perversions ran in a list a mile long, though he was viciously abhorrent of scandal.  Perhaps it was because the winged man knew he was in like company that he spoke so freely.  Even not in earshot, Rou might've thought twice about uttering it, herself; she was slightly jealous of his bravura.

Her lips pursed to a central point when he'd said his name, catching Rou briefly stricken by revelation.  The missing An'She-- often whispered of, but never seen.  Her head lolled nonchalantly to her shoulder, perfectly-arched eyebrows raised with interest.  "So you're Zenahriel.  All this time I was beginning to think you were just a ghost."  She grinned, briefly, and wiggled her fingers at him.  "Some sort of boogeyman."  For Rou's brief tenure, meetings of the An'She council were painfully never optional, having wasted countless hours listening to the geriatric prattling of Thaladred, Cole, and Mircea, covetous in those moments only of the one fortunate enough to leave his seat empty.  Until recent talk of war, Rou assumed that meetings of the council hadn't proved too much more eventful in her absence, often going on for hours of pointless accounting, pomp and circumstance.  Often, Rou felt like had been there just to be the outlet for their ire; if they were lobbying against her, they'd stop their bickering amongst each other.  It was always 'you're spending too much coin' or 'not partaking public worship is shameful' or 'you can't burn down an entire larder just because they sell Orisian wine.'  Coupled with the tension following the fiasco out in Renovatian waters, the lightning strike that gave her the rippled heart-shaped scar on her left breast, she hadn't much desire to ask to return to service, and decided to let lying beasts be.  "You didn't miss much," she assured him, with a toss of her hair over her shoulder, "though I hardly know what High Lords of Genesaris trifle themselves with."

Taking his lead and stepping past the stanchion, she paused to wait for him, generously leaving extra room for Zenahriel's large wings to skirt past the meager barricade.  She reached a hand to the bruise, pressing the breadth of a fingertip against her cheekbone as if to test the pain; it was still plenty tender.  "No?" Rou asked, slightly dispirited at the lack of an opportune solution, as evident by the hissing click of her tongue against the roof of her mouth.  That might've been all too easy, but she was of a clever sort.  "I could glamour it myself, but it would still ache with the sting of our King's hand."  Straightening her spine with a more noble posture, she deposited the damaged grimoire on a nearby table, a steady pace in the few steps she took that were tempered.  Displeasure, often a peculiarly charming look on her lovely face, hadn't lasted long, for her tenacity hadn't simply deterred her after the first try.

"The kitchens will have ice enough to relieve it, I'm sure," she surmised, as her stride took her to Zenahriel's flank, as she slithered her hand into the crook of his arm, "Come, walk with me.  Might I implore you to stay for dinner, my Lord?"  Her tilted grin was inviting from below, she significantly shorter than the winged An'She, and nearly having to reach to cordially hold his arm.  Pausing a moment, her expression shifted, one eyebrow perching upward with a twinge of curiosity.  "Do you eat?" she asked boorishly, for she had no more polite way she could phrase it, though her reasoning was obvious.  Given the large vampire population of Umbra, and even the general bias of the castle, Rou had been starting to feel like the ceremony of gathering around the dining table was a rather human tradition, and became a lonely one.  "I'm a bit starved for company-- pardon the expression," she said with a keen eye, hoping that he'd be compliant to her request, "I don't know about you, but I could positively murder a Caesar right now."

Hardly giving him the opportunity to deny her, Rou was presumptive and nudged him along by his captive arm, making their way to the door.  "And if you tell me you only eat flax seed, I swear I'll throw you on that spit, myself."

Edited by Narcissa

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Very much aware of his mysterious reputation, Zenahriel smirked. It wasn’t exactly that he enjoyed causing fear and anxiety in others – but he did find the superstitious awe accompanying his name quite entertaining. It allowed him certain privileges and freedoms he saw no shame in taking advantage of, for he felt the tedious meetings and debates of the council rather boring. No one dared challenge him when he took prolonged absences to see to matters that happened to extend beyond the normal boundaries of Umbra. Not even Rafael bothered to question him much. As much as Zenahriel enjoyed and appreciated his position within the city, he was a free spirit and trying to imprison him anywhere was useless, serving only to provoke his natural wanderlust.

As he for what he did “trifle” himself with…

Oh, everything.

“I am actually glad to be back,” he confessed. “The drama in Orisia was exciting, but tiring. And the disturbances of Whispernight… well, you need only ask anyone about that. I may not have missed anything important, but I would give much to have nothing happen everywhere else.” Power gave him freedom, but obligations to aid where he could as well.

He leaned forward slightly to inspect the bruise. A mottle of purple, blue, and black, it looked especially painful up close. Without a healing spell it would be a while before it would turn to a sickly yellow and then slowly fade away. He shook his head, disappointed with Rafael’s show of uncontrolled temper and regretting he did not know of any suitable spells himself. “Not exactly a glamour… but it is a sort of illusion spell. So you know magic? Are you a sort of mage or sorceress then?”

He smiled as she took his arm and asked him if he could even eat. It was an assumption many made that he could not, or would not if he could. But, as with breathing and exercising, Zenahriel enjoyed such a task, taking care of his body to ensure it would last as long as possible. His brother, who neither liked nor took pains to take care of his body, had already moved on to another host in less than a few years. That Zenahriel still owned the same body since he was created proved its sustaining health and strength.

“Flax seed? How rude, my lady,” he chuckled. “I would have taken you for such a picky eater. Aren’t empresses supposed to be fond of such diets?” Turning to one side he pushed open the door with one wing and with the other, nudged the future queen along, letting her hold onto his arm. The light from the hall spilled into the library, washing over them in a sudden onset of welcoming warmth and fresh air. As much as Zenahriel loved he library, it could get quite stuffy sometimes.

“I accept your invitation, Rou, but I actually feel like a steak, myself. I haven’t eaten for quite a while, and I would be absolutely famished. I'll tell the chefs to prepare you a fresh bowl of flax seed, though.”

The kitchen was not too far away, and before long supple scents of various foods and mulled wine floated in the air. A few servants passed by them, carrying trays of meals to those who preferred to eat in their own private quarters. Some carried bowls and cups of dark red blood to deliver to more vampiric folk who preferred indulging their natural compulsory diet, and a very, very few escorted men or women who had volunteered to be fresh donors. Blood was, of course, inspected and prepared in an entirely different room and this Zenahriel skirted.

“Contrary to those who aren’t particularly interested, I can and do enjoy eating,” he explained casually. “I don’t have to, but then I must exert extra energy to make sure my body can support itself.”

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In truth, Rou hadn't heard much of Whispernight-- after Rafael had showed up to make clear his intentions in Hyperion, Rou had stopped listening to the heralds, out of listlessness.  The mention of Orisia only briefly soured her expression, clearing her throat with the hope that the bitterness of the Island and it's Queen would remain a memory.  Rou's loathing of Irene Gabriela DuGrace was no secret to anyone, as she'd made no secret of stifling her destructive wrath upon those who'd broken her heart in pursuit of the pale, ice-hearted queen... even the Great Patian Fire, which had occurred nearly three years ago, remained scorched with the rage of Rou's untameable envy.  Even the city had been more taken with her, and other than Rafael's penchant for possession, he seemed to be the only one that wanted Rou here.  She didn't need to hear it from the citizen's mouths to know that she was not the Empress they'd hoped for.  Rou pretended not to care.

“Not exactly a glamour… but it is a sort of illusion spell. So you know magic? Are you a sort of mage or sorceress then?”

She cast a sidelong glance at Zenahriel, and lifted a hand just above her chest, with her palm up.  "A sorceress?" Rou asked, as if testing the word, foreign to the ear and tongue.  Born a firebender, the An'She's greatest affinity was with the power of internal flame, commanded by her determination and aggression.  In the palm of her hand, she birthed a tiny flicker, at first no larger than that which danced on the end of a candle's wick, before growing like an orb of blown glass that hovered in the space above her will, flame licking the sphere with a warm glow and lively crackle.  Fire magic was not all she could perform, now that she'd expanded her study, being able to cast rudimentary Black and Blood Magicks.  "Rafael has proven to be quite the strict teacher," Rou said, though in the casualness of their conversation had used his name; it might have been improper, for so high-profile a guest, though he hadn't seemed to mind.  With a bit of a flourish, the fireball zipped into a small figure-eight, dusting off a few sparks like glitter fluttering down, before evaporating into a poof of smoke.   "Certainly better than some of the other things I've been called... Yes," she agreed, "I'd suppose so."  Given the nature of her position, so close to the Emperor's will and want and with a reputation for making questionable decisions, more often she was called a witch.

Rou was fond of his banter back and forth, a game of turn-of-phrase that bought that wry, tilted grin to her face, inherently pleased.  She was on the rather fortunate side, herself, and while she wasn't paper-thin the way some of the more women preferred to be, Rou maintained a good stasis that emphasized her generous bust, tightly tapered waist, and round, strong hips.  The bumping brush of her hips against Zenahriel's as they walked in stride down the hallway was only barely a coincidence.

"Once I'm Empress..." she said, with a pleased glance that was almost foul, "... there'll be steak every night."


The Umbral castle had an impressive dining room, white marble floors and walls adorned with rich paintings, complemented by a long, lavish cherry-wood dining table that could entertain more guests than the relatively reclusive castle would ever have.  One would never have known that this room was hardly ever used by how opulent it looked, given most residents of the castle took other sustenance, but in the short notice the dangling crystal chandelier was the sacrifice of a quick job done, still caked in a thick frosting of dust and cobwebs, above.  The table had been brought back to life in an almost startling resurrection, draped in a deep indigo table runner, dyed a richer color than even the grapes that were squeezed into Rou's and Zenahriel's glasses of Muhirian wine.  Steaks were cut thick and still steaming, licked black in places from the heat of the fire, and the ambitious chef paired it with a few lightly-browned scallops seared to perfection, eager to shake the rust off and make a decent impression for King's consort and the noble An'She.  It was practically a bounty fit for a feast, with the nearly dozen plates unveiled, stacked high with green vegetables, breads, and fresh-cut fruit.   The table was fully set with china and silver for nearly thirty people and the amount between them could see them full twice-over, but only the two dined, across from each other at one head of the table.

Rou's etiquette at the table was fair, tempered for pacing though she had not eaten in small bites, and even indulged in the shucked scallops whole.  She seemed to favor her wine glass most of all, giving it an affectionate swish with a turn of her wrist whenever she'd paused from her plate.  Over the rim of her glass, it was apparent that she was looking at Zenahriel too long, more than was appropriate for polite dinner manners.

"This new vintage is quite good," she mused into her glass, the way that her thoughts echoed, before taking another sip, "Muhiran, though I hear his Majesty is soon to acquire vineyards of his own."  Rou idly returned her gaze to her wine, held fondly in her hand, as she stared at the deep maroon pool that was too opaque and inky to see through.  "I think it's quite funny, vampires owning vineyards," she said contemplatively, as Umbra was not the only city with a vampire population that was known for it's wine.  She perched high a precarious eyebrow, and took another testing sip, before tilting her head aside, the feather in her hair keenly jutting outward as the length of her ponytail slipped from her shoulder.  It traveled visibly down her throat when she swallowed, before she took to ruminating deep in her cups, her kiss pressed against the lip of the glass chalice.  "Made by those who can't even enjoy it, telling me what wine should taste like."  She chuckled nasally, to politely (albeit a bit snidely) allow Zenahriel relief not to comment, should he so choose.

She sighed through her nose after finishing a few more bites, having barely made a dent in the feast that laid before them, and struggling to clear even her own plate.  Rou clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she darted her gaze to Zenahriel, casually laying an elbow upon the side of the table and cradling her chin fondly on her knuckles.  "I hope everything is to your satisfaction, My Lord," she said, rolling back her lips to savor the last of their taste before they curled into a coy smile.  "Have you come to stay in Umbra long, this time?  Or do the needs of a High Lord beckon you elsewhere?"

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No stranger to fine dinners, Zenahriel nevertheless admired the exquisite display of the dining room. Eager to please, the servants and staff had wiped nearly everything free of dust, scouring the table and floors until they shone as if new. The paintings of somber acrylic and rich oils exhibiting ancient wars and moments of heroism had been straightened and rearranged, and fresh drapes, matching the vigorously scrubbed runners on the floor, had been hung with care. With all the anxious attention given, it was unfortunate the chamber had been used so infrequently.

Due to his frequent traveling in the past, Zenahriel had little occasion to use the dining room himself, and with no company, even less of a reason. In Umbra, he often ate alone in his room – in Orisia, the same, enjoying his meals in privacy if with a tinge of loneliness. Yet despite this practiced solitude, his manners in public were impeccable. There were forks and spoons of various sizes and uses, different plates and glasses use for different drinks and dishes – the customs and proper etiquette would have been quite distressing for the common man. For Zenahriel, it was nothing. He picked the proper fork to eat with, the proper glass to present to the servants for fresh wine or water, and ate neatly with modest bites. At this feast, prepared as if for an entourage of kings, Zenahriel ate with flawless conduct appropriate for his high station.

His only slight was the way he looked back at Rou with intense eyes, his gaze never faltering or wavering… and it wasn’t in criticism of her own dining etiquette. He cut into the steak delicately, the meat tender and medium-rare, as he liked it, bit and chewed thoughtfully as Rou made light comments of the wine and gossiped about the curious choices of their King. He grinned at her last comment – indeed, vampires fermenting wine.

“Hmm. The King making… bloodwyne, perhaps?” Zenahriel grinned as he swallowed. “Hmph. Like something out of a fairy tale, if you ask me.” He reached to take hold of the wine bottle sitting near to them – also an imported Muhirian wine, aged to rumored perfection. He turned it by its neck, examining the flowery descriptions on the bottle and the long-forgotten date emblazoned on the stained glass. It boasted of the rich, complex flavors of dark oak and ripe plums, with a slight citrus bite and a lingering sweet aftertaste.

“It is good,” he admitted. “If nothing else, Muhir does produce fine drinks.” He poured himself a fresh glass and refilled Rou’s before sampling the scallops, still warm and juicy. “Mm. Well, I have to compliment the chef. I think even his flax seed must taste good,” he mused with a smile. He cocked his head one way, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement.  My satisfaction, my Lady? Isn’t it the Empress who must be satisfied, and not anyone else? In any case,” he added, “I wouldn’t worry about me… I’ve had occasion to eat ration bars and this is far better.”

Tucking back a strand of inky hair, he considered for a moment before answering. “Much as I wish it wasn’t so, there is little more I can do beyond Umbra this time. Whispernight must subside, or continue, on its own without interference from the High Lords. Orisia has a queen again, and the war with Terrenus is over, at least for now, not that such a petty dispute between nations was my business anyway. No, Umbra was my rightful place from the very beginning; I think I am here for a very long stint indeed, Rou,” he smiled again. “And if I must serve such a lovely Empress, I think I will be sufficiently happy.”

With a few more bites, Zenahriel finished the steak and surveyed the rest of the meal, stacked high on porcelain dishes in seemingly endless amounts. With dessert yet to come. He intended to do his best, but there was going to be quite a bit of leftovers. “Enough about me, though. Excuse my intrusion, but is this marriage between you and my King out of love or is it more political? Because…” Against all propriety he reached over and brushed the bruise across Rou’s cheek. “… this tells me something very alarming, my dear.”

Will you be any happier than Gabriela, I wonder?

Edited by The Hummingbird

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My satisfaction, my Lady? Isn’t it the Empress who must be satisfied, and not anyone else? In any case, I wouldn’t worry about me… I’ve had occasion to eat ration bars and this is far better.”

Rou poised a cavalier eyebrow high, offsetting the tilt of her grin to one side, smug and vainglorious, as was her wont to be.  "Not to be dwarfed by a Genesarian High Lord, much less a favorite of His Majesty," she replied astutely, though the statement had imbued far more than she knew for certain.  Zenahriel's portrait in the hall of the West Wing meant a great boon of importance, as was it's placement.  True, the respect of Rafael had extended even to the history of the Tevkan rulers of past eons, those he had never even known, though the closer one drew to his --now their-- chambers, were filled with those closest to him.  For his position, to be affectionately considered each time he required, Zenahriel had to be close to the Emperor's heart.  Rou didn't have to be a genius to put two and two together.  If anything, she was only convinced that Rafael's sexual deviance was far greater than even she had imagined.

Despite the implications, and the An'She's reputation for destructive jealousy, she looked across from Zenahriel in a way that was collected, if not perhaps just a little conspiratory.  It was not that she was certain of her position, even without a crown upon her head, a babe in her belly, or a sufficient title to her name, or that Zenahriel had been so absent within her years already spent within Umbra.  Zenahriel had something that Rou did not, if only biologically, a token that if to be exploited, would see to the sating of Rafael's ferocious brand of hunger.  Their Emperor was a being of nearly endless strength and power, and though it did not reside within himself, Rou became all the more certain of his weakness.  Greater still, this demoness of manipulation secured her place, with the certainty of his feelings for Zenahriel, with another sharpened talon wrapping possessively around the Emperor's heart, preparing the vice that would see him belong to her for eternity.  She would keep Zenahriel close for her own benefit; she liked him well enough, upon first impressions, anyway.

Leaning against one of the arms of her chair, she swapped the lay of her legs, hitching one knee over the other.  "How far we have come," Rou said with an idle swirl of her wine glass, no stranger to the unsavory diets of poverty and wartime both, "Besides, my dear husband sees to my satisfaction."  As I shall see to his, she wanted to add, though she was confident the winged High Lord read it in her eyes, with all it's dark and lewd intention, and therefore did not give it voice.  Serve her, Zenahriel would, in more ways than he likely bargained for.  She dipped her head in gratitude for his promise of service, for she would be holding him to it.

“Enough about me, though. Excuse my intrusion, but is this marriage between you and my King out of love or is it more political? Because… this tells me something very alarming, my dear.”


In that instant, Rou had dropped her glass, toppling in a slosh of red liquid and shattering upon the floor, her hand gripped defensively, tightly, around his wrist.  Rou froze at the touching of her cheek, tensing at the unforeseen closeness prompted by his curiosity; since Rafael's reclaiming, none had deigned to touch her, even in such an innocent way as this.  Though there was no need to protect herself, she'd reacted instinctively.  After a few tense moments, she'd gathered enough function to release his wrist by letting it slide from her fingers, her lips still slightly parted in the pause, trying to summon up either an apology, explanation, or answer.

With the sound of the shattered glass, servants had clamored out of the kitchen doors and into the dining room, rushing to their side of the table to clean up the mess.  Their conversation was suspended so that the staff would not hear anything beyond their concern, but the respite gave Rou a moment to collect herself.  The glass had been swept and the wine seeped, plates and leftovers cleared and dessert presented: lemon bars with a thick, shiny glaze, paired with ripe red raspberries and drizzled over by a vanilla bean creme anglaise, speckled with black dots.  Shamefully, Rou was no longer hungry enough to touch it.

Her lips behind her fingers, and the cut of her eyes directed at the door to make sure the staff had left, Rou had warily returned her gaze to Zenahriel.  She sighed, seeming to dispell any notion of lying to him, in the assumption that he'd simply see through any vain attempts to brush her ego; he was simply too integral to the inner workings of the Arcane East's politics and Rafael's desires to be fooled.  Still, Rou only said what she must, knowing very well that walls often had ears.  She wouldn't have been surprised if Rafael, himself, had been watching, in that constantly prying way of his.

Moving her thumb beneath her chin, her index finger pursed her lower lip as she leaned on the elbow of the chair.  "I bring nothing with me but myself to this partnership," she confided in him, direct in the lilt of her tone, "All my lands, my titles, my wealth; they were all instated by him.  And I no longer bring with me the covetousness of his enemies."  By that she had certainly (albeit unadmittedly) meant Roen, who had made his position clear in the defining moment that had nearly ruined her.  She had initially had come to Rafael's side on the promise of revenge, but closeness had bloomed in a way she hadn't expected... but she had, only by fault of herself, destroyed her one redeeming quality: loyalty.  It was hard to believe that Rafael would forsake all of his other hopes for the future if he hadn't loved her.  There was no way Rou could be pleased with it, remembering her sore cheek, though she'd ascertained that his violence was not out of displeasure, but his desire to be superlative in her eyes.  He desired to claim she who famously belonged to no one, and knew no other way to stand out other than by the back of his hand.  Eventually, she knew, once her loyalty was again assured, his striking would subside.

Rousing herself from the rather lackadasical slump against her chair, she summoned herself to the table's edge.  Her gaze fell, as she toyed with a fork at the sweets upon her plate, though served no purpose other than to be rolled around by her contemplation.  "Umbra does not believe I am a worthy counterpart to him, either," she said, knowing well the views of the council and it's residents.  There grew a rumple in her brow, displeased with the unfortunate outcome, not simply for the raspberry that rolled off the tongs of her fork.  "But why would they?  They were promised a proper Empress, who would bring an end to their misfortune and resume the fertility of the entire culture.  There's a perfectly good one on that damned island, they've presumed, despite how trouble stalks her like a storm cloud."  Rou drummed her fingers on the table, and her chosen words were perhaps the most tempered choice she'd ever used to speak of Irene Gabriela DuGrace.  There was a tremendous following for her upon the mainland, and her departure --who's reasons were mostly unbeknownst to the general public and therefore unconcerned-- left the masses bereft, and as if Rou had taken something from them with her return.  "They dare not question their beloved Emperor, but mutter about his new consort incessantly.  However, as much as it shames me to admit..." she paused, looking pensively aside, "...in that, they are right.  I am not what was promised."

Most, especially those of court, had assumed Rou to just be a flight of fancy, having seduced the Emperor with her youthful vigor and enchanting beauty, but was only a greedy thief who was playing at a game they assumed she was unprepared to play.  Unbeknownst to them, Rou truly had been paying attention, and she knew just how high the stakes were.  And she knew, even for all the love Rafael bore for her, she would never be able to give him the things he wanted, the things that he would not say, which endlessly worried him.  "My love alone will never be enough."

"Which is why..." she said, as she pressed her palms to the table, rising from her chair slowly in a way that made it screech back across the floor to make way for her to stand, "... because I love my husband, that I must do what he cannot."  Rou had that conspiring look on her face, the kind that had her twisted up in plots and lines of the spider's web extending far past her reach.  The look she showed to Zenahriel was determined, with a fire in her eyes that went beyond ambition.  Her reasons were muddled between self-preservation, acceptance by the masses, and a gesture of loyalty, but both pointed towards the certainty of her plan.  Words she thought she'd never speak in a million years passed her lips.  "I realize you've only just returned to Umbra, and you deserve a moment to rest upon your laurels, Zenahriel, but I implore you to accompany me... to Orisia."

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Her grip was strong. Unyieldingly strong, calloused, the kind of hold that blacksmiths and soldiers had. It was this that proved how different this chosen Empress would be from Gabriela. The Black Queen of Orisia was serene, gentle, quiet. Some might say broken. She had been through much, and with every abduction, every assassination attempt, every rape and thievery and loss of life, the bit of light in her eyes faded little by little. Zenahriel guessed that Rou might have been through a great deal herself, but whereas Gabriela grew weaker, Rou grew stronger. All men, all women, were broken is some way, but break the same they did not.

Accepting he had made a mistake, he did not move as the glass shattered against the floor. In fact, he let himself relax completely, his arm held up only by her strength alone. He expected a violent retaliation – a slap at best, or perhaps a blade or blast of magic at worst. Whatever was to come, he had learned to bend, not break… and bending was easier when one was pliant. He stared at her calmly, apologetically as the wine was sopped up and the glass cleared away by rushing servants who all remained oblivious to the spectacle.

As it was, no strike came. He caught himself before his arm dropped to the table. He withdrew his hand and laid it gently on his lap, straight and composed silence settled over them, interrupted only by the slight clink of dessert plates and a new glass of wine for Rou. The bottle imported from Muhir had been taken and replaced by a specialty wine from Terrenus, boasting proudly of rare orchards, vanilla, black currants, and intense flavors. Zenahriel waved away the fluttering servants and took the bottle, pouring Rou a glass himself.

“My apologies,” he said softly. “That was rude of me.”

He let her speak uninterrupted, head tilted to one side as he took in her words. A slight frown passed over his face. He wanted to deny what she said, the words that she heard spoken in Umbra, about the broken promises of a more suited Empress. He wanted to assure her that these were not so, that she was accepted and would be even more so once she took the crown Raphael had one forced upon Gabriela’s unwilling head. But as he played with his own food, slicing the tart cakes into tiny squares with his fork, he knew such assurances would be lies, while her claims remained true.

It was all very dire, but Rou claimed one thing that kept the whole situation from utter disaster. That one word that Gabriela never uttered – that one tired word that only now rang sincere, in one strong phrase.

“I love my husband.”

“Do you?”

At last Zenahriel looked up into her face, so finely crafted and suddenly, he thought, very much like that of a fox or crow. Conniving? Not quite… but not far from it. He looked into her eyes, bright with ambition, and he smiled. “I do not rest for long, it seems, my Lady.”

Setting his fork down and then resting his hands on the table, he too stood. He turned his back to her, his dark wings spreading in a wide stretch. Their length was tremendous, their tips stroking either side of the dining chamber. The light washing across the feathers brought out the streaks and highlights of midnight blue and royal purple among the glossy black. Tiny rainbows flashed amid the colors as muscles rippled beneath, flexing before relaxing, the great lengths folding once more.

“One has a difficult time denying one such as you, Empress Rou Ji,” he said, looking over his shoulder at her and still smiling. “Alas, as it is, I feel compelled to not only accompany you, but bring you. I am not easily bought, however. I require a story first. Your story… and what draws you to Orisia.” He turned, careful so as to not upset anything with his wings. “Be wary, Rou, for I do not look kindly upon lies, or anything that brings harm to my Black Queen. Come, and let me judge whether you are a worthy Empress.”

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“Do you?”

"I do," Rou answered --nearly instantly-- with a palpable weight of intensity in her voice.  She refused to leave the sight of him, a smolder in the deep yellow forge of her eyes, and her face betrayed nothing of insincerity.  It was no crime nor treason to ask so bold a question, but it was beyond propriety of most to consider it.  Perhaps in another time, another place, another person might've been offended, though Rou appeared to have not.  Rou answered with a quick certainty... or perhaps was an even more practiced liar.  "Unconditionally," she added, with a fair, lopsided smile, muddling the gray area between.

She regarded the extent of his wings with some curiosity, by the curled purse of her lips and the raise of her brow.  With some foresight in mind, Rou made to cautiously move her new glass of wine, so as to avoid the flutter of his wingspan.  She did not believe this to be an effort to intimidate her, for she had felt that had become such fast friends, but his impressive size with wings abreast was no less daunting.  A move to simply readjust himself, she gathered as he made to reclaim his seat, and she hid a humored chuckle behind her hand.  He was a curious creature, but she'd found herself easily fond of Zenahriel, and it was not simply because she'd been starved for company.  There was a truth to him, beyond the common platitudes and ignorance she faced daily, that she appreciated, even when his words challenged her.  The temerity of politics never slept within Umbra, even within Rou's own schemes, but she was quite struck like seeing a horse of a different color to meet the only creature who could fathom being unbiased.  Rou saw, almost too easily, why Zenahriel was her King's favorite.

"Well!" Rou said, her brow lifting to impose him with exaggeration, as she leaned forward to fetch her glass.  "If I'm going to tell that story... I'm going to need a lot more wine."  The glass was gone with a notable effort, before she'd extended it to Zenahriel for yet another.  Her tolerance would be that of a champion, this night.

Rou started in Gaia, for that seemed the only place to start.  Her father, a swordsmith; her mother, a jeweler.  She told of a brother, older, with a despondent rumple in her brow and a thin cast of her eye, but nostalgia prompted a slight admiration.  He'd wanted so desperately to honor his family, and by all accounts, the duty of his father's apprenticeship should have fallen to him.  However, he lacked the control of fire that was innate to the craft-- one that his sister had.  So Rou had been chosen, following in their father's footsteps, the smith that would carry on their artistry and their name.  He had told he hadn't been upset, Rou recalled (though she paused for a long moment and considered the liquid in her hand pensively) but that was the last time he had trusted her with the truth.

An opportunity had come, for a skilled swordsman to become part of an elite guard to a prestigious noble, a rank of 20 talented soldiers.   But therein lied a caveat-- with bias to the powers that be, her brother had to display control over fire.  A quick-witted Rou (a trait she not-so-humbly made mention to brag about, for a brief time) recalled a book telling of an old folktale-- a woman who had made a device worn on her wrists that created flame from friction; a device that tricked the dragons into giving her the power of fire of her own, since it was no new magic she expressed.  Rou knew not how to make the fabled bracelets, but if her brother wore an incendiary, Rou could light it for him with her own powers-- that one express of powers could see her brother through the tests and on to an honorable profession.  For if he could simply make fire once, he would not need to draw upon it again, for the elite guard were of greater vanity and less for the battles the nobleman was quick to avoid.

Rou paused and took a drink.  She sighed into her glass, and then drank again.

"Unfortunately for Wei... once was too much."

She was grave, thumbed the glass while she told of the event.  She told how he'd gathered himself into his finest clothes, kissed their mother on the cheek, bowed to their father, and ruffled her hair before clutching his best sword and making off.  Rou waited but a few minutes before following, shrouded in black, before stalking her way to the noble's compound.  A child was ignored, even as she climbed her way to the roof, in the shadows.  Clutching to the shingles and peering through a vent in the thatched roof, a young sister watched her brother display his martial sword to perfection, a credit to his father's teaching.  When it came time, Rou was primed, ready, and charged the cuffs around his wrists.

Rou stopped for a moment, staring blankly, vacantly ahead.  She opened her mouth, then promptly closed it again.  She rolled the wine in her glass by the wrist, her gaze buried beneath the weight of shame, the sound of liquid more audible than her breathing.

"It set the whole place on fire.  They'd worked perfectly when we tested them-- I don't know if I was too far away, or I used too much of my ability... I remember this loud bang from the incendiary, it pushed me with such force that it knocked me off the roof.  When I came to, I was outside the compound, and the great hall my brother had been in looked like the depths of hell."  She swallowed, her stomach visibly turning over as she grimaced.  "That was so long ago... but I still remember what the burning corpses smelled like."

It took Rou a few moments to compose herself, a few slides of her finger beneath her nose and carefully past her eyes.  No tears were shed, though she walked the line like a tightrope.  She told Zenahriel, meticulously, how the death of her brother and the other elites were mourned; the Nobleman had been the only one that survived, though his face was burned beyond recognition.  When he'd recovered, he'd tracked the Ji name through the mud, for their incompetence-- branded them traitors, an assassination attempt.  Rou had been furious, and her parents had died from the shame.  With no one to hold her fury back, Rou decided she had nothing to lose.

"That didn't end well.  I was young, outraged," she explained, with a conflicted remorse guiding her tone.  "It wasn't his fault, but no one believed me.  I did the only thing that I thought would earn justice for Wei's memory."

She'd gone after him, failed in the assassination attempt, and was hauled off to prison.  Tethered by long chains bolted to the floor, for how many times she'd bitten the guards.  It'd been a long time since she'd been that breed of animal, she admitted, but in a way it had never truly left her, that anger.  Rou's hands rubbed her wrists as she spoke, while one cradled the glass, thick white marks of healed scars feeling like they were freshly earned again, sore.  Through her sheer temerity, she pulled at the bolts endlessly, before she'd rooted them up straight out of the concrete, and when that chamber door opened again, she broke for it.

"It took the GPD nearly five years to find me.  But find me, they did.  I guess you could've called it a blessing in disguise, because they gave me a second chance."  She talked about meeting Vintrict Viase, the GPD detective who'd tracked her down, and introduced her to Tenkai Matsumoto, the stalwart samurai.  They were a bit of a rambunctious team, the detective offering to commute her sentence to time served if she helped them unlock the devious mysteries afoot behind the scenes of the Heaven or Hell Tournament.  The battles were as furious as the politics, corruption beneath the surface took all three of them to uncover.  She'd made lasting bonds, friendships, enemies, ones that she would hold onto for ages... and those she would lose.

Her eyes regained that vacant look when she thought of Reiko.  He was gone from this world, now, her one memento of him with it.  Noticing that she'd stopped silently, Rou jerked herself back to Zenahriel's attention with a swift shake of her head and an eager apology.

Heaven or Hell had earned her a lot of attention-- and not all the type she'd cared for.  It had come to the Nobleman's attention that Rou had been released, beyond his order, to which he took exception.  Seeing that the Detective was on her side, he took matters into his own hands; beat and abducted Rou, dragged her into Sigil: The City of Doors when a chaotic cataclysm known as Hard Times shook the city-- portals inoperable, frought with natural disasters, a plague, and rampant looting that drove all the tensions high.  He demanded that she make two swords of her craft, and if she did not, he would simply cut her down where she stood.  When Hard Times ended he would return, and they would duel to the death, to settle the matter once and for all.  Not even her friendships with Detective Viase or Tenkai Matsumoto could help her, for they had their own battles to fight, within.  They were searching for a god, the Lady of Pain, to right the city back to normal, or else they would be left them to weather the storm until it had worn it's course.  The Lady never came, but other gods were afoot... particularly Jack, mischievous god of Halloween, whom the Nobleman had something he'd wanted.  Begrudgingly getting Rou to agree as champion, she made a pact.

Rou toiled, looted through the wreckage of Hard Times to build a makeshift forge, and made the two blades as instructed.  They were masterpieces, despite her hand that was sorely out of practice, perhaps for the necessity of it.  The last swords of Ji that would ever be made, she said, the last homage to the craft that would die with her.  When at last the Nobleman returned, Rou was ready to die for the balance to be righted, Jack had given her the power to go toe-to-toe.

"But when he took the blade from me, he ran the blade between his fingers-- it is a custom that we Ji do, to verify our craft is straight-edged to perfection, and that we have a respect for the steel as we do our own bodies, flirting along the sharp edge."  Rou's face darkened, before she leaned her elbow on the arm of her chair, and obscured her eyes within the palm of her hand, fingertips poised on her temple.  "How was I to know, with the Nobleman burned beyond recognition?  Even his voice had changed, his hair gone.  How was I to know it was Wei?"  She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, still visibly frustrated by the thought.

She was brief about the telling of the fight, almost clinically so.  Her eyes traveled to the age-old scars that she hadn't bothered to glamour: the thin, long line running down the length of her bicep, pressing her back against the chair where another lay, casting her hand over her stomach where yet another two were obscured.  But she told it true, how she'd turned the tides, and looked at him down the blade she'd held to his throat.

"I had to... I knew that," Rou said, her brow rumpled by guilt that was still eating away at her, burning that dark spot in her heart.  "I knew he wasn't the same, and my brother was never coming back."  He'd been tempted by the darkness, a foul goddess called The Sentinel, who'd bestowed a gift of power that wasn't hers to give.  He'd loved her, wanted to win her favor so that she would grant him more power, for once he'd had a taste of it, he hungered.  It was no longer her brother, but a ravenous beast, and it was Rou's duty to put him down.  Thus, the blade pierced his heart.

Rou was quiet again, a cast of shade not unlike her despair when she'd done the deed.  She hadn't told this story in what felt like eons, maybe ever; Rafael had simply glimpsed into her past without her permission, and therefore consumed all of it.  She disliked that part of him, where she never was able to tell him anything, for he simply took her memories, the way he'd simply taken everything he wanted.  It was cathartic, in it's way, to share it with Zenahriel, a weight that both seemed to burden and lift a weight from her chest.

"And I came to Valucre, at Jack's prompting.  A new beginning," she said, her gaze dropping from him as she fiddled with her fingers down the pane of the glass, streaking it and muddling the many imprints of her lips around the mouth.  "The rest, since arriving, I'm sure you've heard," Rou alleged with a sardonic raise of her brow, inferring not-so-subtly to the Devil, the Great Patian Fire, and her aggressive spats with the Queen of Orisia, "The court's many gossipers pray know that story better than I do."

She sighed, tempering her breath.  By that time, she was curled in the chair, legs pulled in and with a blanket cast over, wine glass in her lap, and the fire in the nearby hearth down to a malnourished smolder.  With a seeming end to her story, Rou ventured a look past the dining hall's doors, seeing that the sun had fallen well below the horizon, deep into the night.

"Seven hells, is that the time?" Rou exclaimed, slapping an exasperated palm to her forehead.  "I've talked for nearly four hours!"  She cringed, in a way that made the bruise on her cheek sore, but it had already become a few shades lighter over the course of their exchange.  More than a little embarrassed, she offered a shrug of her shoulders and a casually apologetic smile, realizing that Zenahriel had hardly uttered a word nor question, and allowed her to tell the tale in it's entirety.  For that, she couldn't have been more thankful-- it was the most she'd heard her own voice in what felt like ages... Rafael was a much more physical creature, these days.  "I hope I haven't bored you to death.  I'm practically mortified, you must forgive me."

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For all the four hours that passed, Zenahriel’s eyes never left her, this new rising Empress of Umbra. They remained focused, thinking, pondering over each and every word she spoke, absorbing her story in careful silence. Not once did his attention ever waver; he was an avid and respectful listener to a passionate tale of sorrow and loss. The only time he diverted a portion of his attention was when he bent forward to refill her glass of wine, though even this he stopped when he deemed she’d had enough. Even the hardiest of drinkers could fall ill to too much.

When she finished, Zenahriel said nothing at first, one set of fingers unweaving themselves from the other hand to tap pensively against the table. Rou Ji’s life had been hard, and would have broken or at the very least killed any other woman, whatever powers she held… fire or other abilities notwithstanding. Yet here she was, whole. Scarred, but unbroken.

At last he nodded. He did not offer any of the useless words a normal man might procure, words of being sorry for her, words of pity – things she didn’t need. He merely smiled in gratitude. “Never in my life had I heard such a story. You have been through many hardships, Rou Ji,” he said softly, “truly I see why my King has chosen you.” He waved a hand. “Bored? Nay, anything but that.” He looked over his shoulder, out the window to a waxing crescent moon that just begun its long nightly journey into the deep blue sky. What time had passed!

He turned back to her and tilted his head. “My turn, is it not?” he finally said. “Well, Rou, my tale is not so fascinating as yours, I’m afraid.” Bracing his arms against the table he stood, wandering over to the window, staring out at the night, listening for a moment to the quiet sounds of the evening – an owl’s call, crickets chirping, the sounds of low conversation held in other buildings, other rooms in a city risen by stalwart ambition.

“My name, they say, is Zenahriel Zacharias Darkness. But it is more than just a name. It is what I am. I was not born. I was created by gods even I am not privy to know.” Zenahriel was no spirit, no soul, not an object given sentience. He was a force, a source of energy drawn up from the night and shadows and all things that drew power from what the sun had abandoned long ago. That force had been cast down to the material plane, and it was then animalistic instinct told him he could not live there, not without a body that world was meant to sustain.

“I found him, lying in the mud, in a lonely wood. A father had built a house for his wife and daughter, so they might live in peace, away from the corruption of great cities and the squalor of village ghettos.” Zenahriel’s eyes glowed dimly in the moonlight shining through the window.

The peace had not lasted. Marauders, men without conscience, men of greed and killer instinct, had hunted them, and sought to destroy the house and its three inhabitants. The father had taken up his only spear, and sought to defend his family. But the men were too much and too many.

“They took him out back, stabbed him ten times, and left him there.  He was going to die, he was meant to die.” Zenahriel took in a sharp breath. “So strong…! He refused to die. Even with his body bleeding out, he meant to crawl to his house, to somehow defend his family. I decided, then, to speak to him, to show him not all was lost.”

The man’s name was Zacharias.

The deal the force offered was simple. Zacharias would dwell silent in his own mind, his soul resting in the depths of sleep, and give his body over to the force to do was he wished. In return, the force would save his family, watch over his descendants, and see that his blood would spread across the world.

“He agreed. What else could he do? So I took his body, merged what I am with what he was. I killed the marauders, saw his family safe, and left.”

The force then chose a name for himself. Zenahriel.

 Zenahriel looked down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Of course, there are consequences, and there was a consequence for me for taking a body that still lived.”

Had the body been dead, there would have been nothing to be concerned about. As it was, all the emotions, the feelings, the memories and desires and sensations Zacharias had been enjoyed (and sometimes mourned), now belonged to Zenahriel, the being who claimed his body.

Anger. Joy. Sadness. Love.

“This ability to feel has given me such misery and gladness over the time I have been alive.” Zenahriel’s gaze grew distant. “At one time… misery outweighed all else. The Black Queen of Orisia, she is good at unrequited love, you know? I intended to sleep, for eons perhaps, when she wouldn’t return what I unwittingly felt. But your King woke me. I drank of his blood, and now, as his mate, I am given purpose I have never known before.” He turned back to Rou, grinning. “I love life, Rou. This body has lasted me… for so long. Zacharias was not only strong in spirit, but in body too. He is able to contain the force that I am and still live. Someday, this body will finally decay and die, and I will have to find another, but so far this body has shown no signs of wear. And…” he laughed, “he Is rather handsome, don’t you agree?”

He returned to the table, sat down, and picked up a blood orange, peeling its skin back. “I don’t have to eat,” he said. “Or drink, or sleep. But it is enjoyable, and I like to take care of this body so it may last me even longer. Some may call me a parasite, Rou, but… it is pact we have, Zacharias and I.”

“There is just one thing,” he added as he discarded the skin of the orange to an empty saucer. “In other lands, my power wanes. Only in Genesaris, here especially, is my power at its absolute potential. In Orisia and other lands – Terrenus, Tellus Mater… La’Ruta and their respective magic rules supreme, not I, though I still have some power. So I do not yet know what you have to ask of me, but I am not sure what use I would be.”

He bit into the orange, chewed and swallowed. It was well ripe, tart-sweet. “But I have decided, Rou Ji. You are most worthy of being Empress.”

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"And…he Is rather handsome, don’t you agree?”

Rou shared in his laughter, a myriad of lighthearted chuckles that came deep within her belly.  It had been long since someone had made Rou genuinely laugh, untainted by teasing, malice, or madness.  She wasn't even attractive when she did so, doubling over in her chair, eyes closed and shoulders bumping with the vibrating rhythm, inhaling air so quickly that she nearly snorted.  It was an unusual color on her, the casual shade she chose, when she'd built up such a reputation for being so snide, conniving, and... prickly.

"That he is," she agreed, brushing a humored tear from her eye, and laughed pleasantly again.  "You admire this Zacharias, I think," Rou said, making a frame for her chin and cheek in the palm of her hand, leaning her elbow comfortably on the arm of the chair.  She paid him a lazy smile, considering all he'd said.  As her gaze entered her lap, it slipped from amused to slightly pensive, sobered from the chance to let her mind move faster than her tongue.  "He traded his life for his family.  He knew what the price of their safety was worth, even if he didn't get to enjoy it.  So few things are worth that," she thought, privately, but perhaps her ruminations were a little plain on her face as she caught Zenahriel watching her in the quiet.  Rou placated him with a half-smile, pulling at the slight creases of her eyes, for how much effort it took to summon it.  She licked her lips, and changed her posture to the other arm of her chair.

Rou knew, deep down, she wasn't as good as this Zacharias.  In the root of her being, she was a selfish, greedy thing, a monster of her own choices that had learned that life was brutal, and full of hard choices.  So many stories of yore painted women -- these princesses, those privileged -- that they would be saved and absolved and have all of their dreams come true.  It had been a painful dose of reality that Rou realized, no one was going to make her survival for her... and happiness seemed like a thing unachievable.  Others found it, sometimes prioritized it above their survival, in a way that made Rou feel only bitterness.  She had to place herself first because no one else would; to do else was unimaginable.

"For what it's worth," she said, a bit of whimsy in her voice as she stared vacantly off, toying with one of the many desserts on the table, a thin, square of white cake with chocolate frosting, which she cut into fours with the side of her fork, "I like living, too."  She wedged the prongs beneath the sponge, and lifted it to her mouth.  It was bittersweet, chewed politely in the corner of her mouth, before she gulped it down and aimed for another fourth.  "For all the pain life seems fit to deal me, I wouldn't trade it for what joys I've earned... or taken."  Her brow became heavy, a burden upon her eyes as they wrinkled the smooth patch of skin above the bridge of her nose, thinking of how the latter often outweighed the former.   "Like this divine cake!" she said mirthfully, nearly moaning against the fork as she cupped her cheek, "Let the princesses and queens diet, dine on birdseed, if they must; I will enjoy this cake even if it costs me the fit of every single one of my dresses when I wake up on the morrow.  Mmmph!"

“So I do not yet know what you have to ask of me, but I am not sure what use I would be.  But I have decided, Rou Ji. You are most worthy of being Empress.”

The An'She paused, bereft of cake, but felt a greater penchant for drink; something strong, something that would will her into a stupor.  Unfortunately, the progress of hours had seen the bottles empty-- she could have asked for more, but she deigned it too wearisome to have to burden herself with the pomp and circumstance of another serving.  Instead, she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, her brow lofty and a bit sardonic.  "If only the rest of the Arcane East shared your opinion," she mused with a single mordant chuckle, making light of the situation, but there was one other she was primarily more concerned with.  Was it Rafael... or herself?

"I hope I'm not asking too much of you," Rou said, unusually apologetic, with a shrug of her shoulders, "By Rafael's and the An'She Council's word, I was under the impression that you were in considerable favor with the Queen of Orisia.  I need not your powers, but your acquaintance.  I simply require entry to gain audience with Gabriela."  Rou spoke the queen's name like a taboo, as she had neither title nor familiarity enough to call her by her name... and in quite the understated opposite.  She'd made a point of foregoing the titles appropriate to Irene Gabriela DuGrace's rank, a symbol of her defiance and disdain for the vampyre, and even her public displeasure towards the beloved queen soured her reputation among the folk and nobles.  She did not mean to cause him any undue pain by souring his mood with lost love, but she would not have asked her fast friend if she hadn't deemed it necessary; Rou was often the sort who declined to ask for help, at all.  "I hope I can count on you," Rou said determinedly, in dire need of his aid.

Knowing he would likely press for more, Rou scratched absently at her cheek, gaze adrift as she held the thought in the lower corner of her mouth.  "I realize I don't instill much faith for asking you to trust me, given my rather belligerent history with her," she hesitated, struggling to seem refined and sophisticated as she ground tepidly at her molars, "but I cannot divulge my plans to you."  "In fear that you would likely stop me," she thought, unsure whether Zenahriel would agree or dissent, and then it would all be for naught.  Playing it off with a mild grin, she pointed a finger upward, and in a circle.  "The walls have ears, you know.  But, I give you my solemn oath, I intend no harm to come to the Queen.  This, I promise you."

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Whatever he was, Zenahriel was not a stranger to humor, and his lips curved as Rou doubled over in laughter to his minor joke. What she said next did not diminish the smile and only made it grow; it was true – he did admire the human Zacharias for his strength of body and mind, for his will that made him fight the losing battle against the marauders as well as seeing him surrender his life to Zenahriel.

He finished the blood orange and, spurred on by the sight of Rou’s “divine cake,” proceeded on to a fine fruit tart decorated with slices of peaches, kiwis, and a mélange of various fresh berries atop a layer of rich cream. It was delightful to say the least, and Zenahriel could not recall when last he had such a meal. Recent transpiring events had wiped away his appetite, which he now found was returning with a vengeance.

Was that a result of the taste of this dessert, or his new company?

Zenahriel’s dark eyes steadied on Rou as she returned to the subject of the Black Queen. A brief nod of acknowledgement coupled with a nonchalant shrug assured that Rou would not spoil his mood talking of Gabriela. While the Black Queen had been the cause of much pain and the catalyst of a great change in his view of life, he still harbored a strong love for her. One that was, fortunately, no longer mere infatuation, but a passion tempered with respect.

Now here rose the predicament. To which did he owe the most service – the Black Queen of Orisia or Empress of Umbra? Zenahriel munched a bite of the fruit tart thoughtfully. He didn’t like making hasty decisions.

He studied Rou carefully, weighing her words and promises. They all rang with an honesty he appreciated, and at last decided to repay her in kind.

“I will see to it that no harm touches my Queen of Orisia,” he said dutifully, “as well as to see that no reckless action reaches you, my Empress of Umbra. Send me the details to my private quarters, and… I look forward to our departure, my Lady.”

There was no more to be said. Politely finished the fruit tart, he excused himself, bidding Rou a good evening. There was much to be done, after all.

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