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Narcissa

And Lo, the Harlot Did Rap On The Queen's Door

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[continued from As The Crow Flies ...]

 

Long hours passed in the trek through the Forest of Ellwood, the Umbral entourage creeping along slowly, as the shadows of trees extended long beyond them.  Rou even chanced to yawn, a good time or thrice, and though tire tugged ceaselessly at her eyes, she did not dare to sleep.  The soldiers of Fowler's company did the same, knowing that their captain would have some indelicate words and choice punishment for them if they'd become lax in their duty.  When the forest opened, thinning into extinction, the palpable sensation across the party was relief.

"Pennants, men," Fowler commanded as their steeds stepped through the last of the thicket, half the riders circling around to the last wagon, doled out flags by the rider, on long pole masts that they carried like lances as they returned to formation.  The graying naval captain, looking back over his shoulder, could still be heard definitively even through his mask he had yet to remove.  "Banners, up."

A great rush saw them all flap to attention in concert, deep cardinal-red fields adorned by the thorny black emblem of their master, insignia of the Carmine Emperor.  Onward they proceeded like an official procession, not soon to be reminded of their messy conduct within the forest.  Rou peered over Zenahriel's shoulder with curiosity, some resemblance of the tall towers seeming familiar.  A party what felt like eons ago, she remembered, a party in celebration of the queen and her victory in Ellwood, Rou had confronted the Black Queen about her poor taste, given the stench of dead men had not yet left the room.  Considering the conditions upon which she left, she whispered dryly to her confidante, "Of all the places I expected to be welcomed, I certainly wouldn't have thought here."  As the guards drew closer, Rou didn't shrink from their arrival, but made no spectacle of herself, either.  Best not to be turned away at the door, regardless of company.

Fowler did all the talking, as chief officer among them.  "Emissaries of the Carmine Dominion to audience with the Queen," he told them curtly, sitting up straight as he tightened the reigns on his horse, who adjusted at his master's command, "They will see her immediately.  Please notify Her Grace of their arrival."  Perhaps he'd done this often before, as Rou had no reason to think about prior, as she'd noticed that he'd ordered, rather than asked.  To some degree of surprise, one of the Orisian soldiers bowed, before quickly running off to relay his message, while the other stayed and guided them to the courtyards at a brisk, walking pace.  As they trotted beneath the first set of parapets, belaying the more intimate vision of the great Orisian palace, the men of the Umbral company relaxed with a palpable air of safety, peeling their masks from their faces and indulging in unstifled breaths.  The dreaded forest was long behind them... but for Rou, she was creeping into the Lion's Den.

Centrally placed within the pristine marble fortress, the caravan slowed to a halt, and Rou knew that they were not long from the throne room.  As chanced a glance upward, the black sky of night was starting to streak with fair purple, their pace having devoured most of the night, and the Queen's time for audience was growing short.  Time was of the essence, and no one could know that her heart was tying a vice around her throat.  Steadying herself with an uncommonly chaste and pragmatic hand on Zenahriel's thigh, she won her leg from the other side of the horse, and then disembarked his saddle with a hop.  The remainder of the party followed suit.

Unraveling the many windings of scarves from around her neck, Rou dropped the pile on one of the wagons, and brushed the clinging dust and dirt of the forest off of herself.  The spores were too few to taint in an environment of open air, however, scrubbing the forest from their skin and clothes would leave a greater satisfaction, if not peace of mind for risk of infection.  Most of their clothes were dappled in green, effects of their endured time within the forest, looking as if stained-- Rou most of all, for her slip from the horse.  But as she divested herself of unnecessary trappings-- her mask, her jacket, her belt and frog with the steel saber tucked away, it was as if she had peeled off a disguise-- she'd noticed as several eyes seemed to zero in on her.

It was to be expected, to think she would go unrecognized was folly.  Rou, with her jet black hair and olive skin now borne to the fading moonlight, eyes that shone like molten gold and deep, dusky maquillage that would make penitents blush, looked like no Orisian, nor any of the Carmine Dominion.  As diverse as they may be, Rou was foreign, the Emperor's so-called Desert Bloom, thorns and all.  Some recalled her for her brief time and spectacle in Orisia, others by reputation alone.  Regardless, she could feel the hair standing on the back of her neck, and reminded herself to remain firm, her lips pressed into a thin line.  By now, they could not remove her, as they had recognized Zenahriel, as well.

Drawing in a deep, calming breath, Rou rejoined her companion with a leading hand.  "The hour is upon us," she idled briefly in attention, though it seemed more to prepare herself, rather than him, fastening herself to the task with a projected sigh.  "I need you now the most, my friend... I am left in your capable hands."  The procession was making it's way towards the door, and with half a smile, Rou and Zenahriel would join them.

The ingress was opened wide, like the maw of a great beast, intimidating and beautiful.  Even in the dark cast of night, the bright white marble seemed nearly blinding by comparison, for the humans among them still found their eyes stressed from their travels through the forest.  Adjusting took a few fair moments, but the path to the dais took longer-- Captain Fowler leading next to the Orisian soldiers, followed by the pair of An'She and trailed by their company.  They did not look harrowed as if from battle, however disheveled and tired was an accurate depiction.  Zenahriel shone out among them, as time nor wear could not diminish him, and he stood nearly a head taller than all else.

As her eye trailed up the dais to its paramount, Rou expected to find a lion sitting atop its peak, though perched on the throne seemed arguably more a gazelle.  Regal, indeed; beauty, unquestionable; but tooth, claw, and ferocity remained to be seen.  In her natural element, surrounded by friends and peers without subterfuge, she looked positively peaceful, if not retaining that slightly forlorn cast behind her eyes.  While Rou's anger was fire and destruction, she reminded herself that it was the predator you did not see coming that was more a threat than the ones that did.  Very little reason had these two great women found to be in the same place, though they each remained a constant menace to the other-- Rou was hardly one to balk, brazen and arrogant as she was.  Diplomacy may have seemed an easy charade for Rou to slip into, though it defied the reputation of her nature.  She was determined for this to go well-- and for that, she would require rest, and privacy.  Too many onlookers were eager to discern the reason of a formal party of the Carmine Dominion.

Fowler stopped at the foot of the dais, pounding his fist at his heart in military salute, before managing a rigid bow, nearly to the waist.  He made grand introductions, though Rou had seemed deaf to his words.  With a step closer to Zenahriel, she kept her gaze ahead, not tearing from the Black Queen, but lowered her voice to a whisper.  "Do not make mention that I am to be Empress," she warned privately, for he had already accustomed himself to the habit.  Her eyes trailed warily to him, a subtle, firm plea, imploring him to heed her request, offering a plausible reasoning for his comfort, "I would not have us meet on unequal footing."

Fowler's introductions concluded with a gruff cough, stealing Rou's attention back.  As he sidled out of the way, there was nothing standing between Rou and Gabriela Du'Grace, now.  In those few moments, Rou's gaze hardened, as even now she felt her blood start to boil.  For all that she'd suffered, the Black Queen had earned her place in blame, and upon such close proximity in any other circumstance, Rou might've closed the distance between them with her hands wringing about Gabriela's iridescent neck.  Burying the hatchet was notably difficult... particularly when it wasn't buried in the back of her skull.

 

@The Hummingbird @Pasion Pasiva

Edited by Narcissa

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It had been a quiet night for Gabriela. 

 

Roen had taken Philippe for a walk in the woods. She suspected that the devil was showing their young son around that secret garden she had found so many years ago, a project that had never saw a beginning and therefore had never been ended. But it was just as well, for there was a savage beauty in the overgrowth that had taken hold of the wrought iron benches, the stone statues, and the many broken fountains -- it was life and memory intertwined, and all things considered, it seemed a damnable shame to mess with something so organically beautiful. Best to leave the wilds of Orisia to reclaim the carved stone, the bent metal, and the polished wood in its own time and by its own design. Still, she was glad that the devil was taking the time to bond with their little prince. Things were still rough considering how much time had been stolen from father and son, the precious mouths when the child grew in her stomach, and those few moments after his birth when he began to awaken to the world. Those things had been lost, and she saw how the devil struggled with it. However, little Philippe could win just about anyone over with his big, round, green eyes and his sweet, cherub mouth -- always wet with drool these days. 

 

Left to her own devices, and with many of the constraints of her position removed -- for she was nothing more than a figurehead for the Orisian Monarchy, until such a time as Philippe could take the throne, or so the devil had said -- Gabriela was left to pursue an old interest of hers. Poetry. She enjoyed writing it, though she did not think highly of her work, and would rather perish than allow any other eyes, but her own, ever regard her scribbled, innermost thoughts. And it had been utterly cathartic to write much about what she had lived through and how she had managed it, within the tight restrictions of rhyme and meter. Oddly enough, after her imprisonment under the heavy thumb of Raphael, it was not freedom that she desired but rather the quell that came from one who was simply more masterful at domination. Rather than feeling scared with the devil, she felt secure, and rather than opposing him, she found sweet surrender to be far more palatable. 

 

Raphael had nearly broken her, but Roen was slowly building her back up -- whether it was simply for the pleasure of tearing her apart himself remained to be seen. 

 

So it was neither lion nor gazelle that sat atop the crimson throne of the DuGrace Castle, but rather a somewhat distracted woman, of unparalleled beauty, and more importantly, calm. 

 

When she had been informed that Zenahriel was here to see her, along with Rou, Gabriela had looked comically perplexed. The two names had never occupied the same space within her mind, much less her heart, and so it not only sounded wrong to hear them together, it sounded like a mistake. She asked for clarification, and then it was given, and she was left with a difficult choice to make -- one that she wished Roen was around to for. While Gabriela may have become the antagonist of Rou’s life, the opposite could not be farther from the truth. Gabriela did not have many thoughts on Rou, especially not now that Roen had laid claim not only to her and her kingdom, but also her legacy, by fulfilling a promise he had never tired of making.

 

A child.

 

A child of their own. 

 

In fact, the last real feelings she remembered having for Rou was worried, and beyond that, nothing since Zenahriel himself had done away with a good many of her memories. There was the villainous Rou, who lived in what remained of Gabriela’s journals, which she did often go back to read over, and then there was the woman that Gabriela had some experience with. Both seemed starkly different from one another, for one was described as cold, calculating, and cruel, while the woman that Gabriela remembered from Umbra had been undeniably wounded in both spirit, mind, and body -- and by the same hand that tormented her at the time. Still, she wanted to heed the warnings of her previous incarnation, to avoid the bandit at all costs. But Roen commanded her even now, and after some deliberation, she imagined that he would be pleased to see his friend, and if nothing else, Zenhariel might finally meet her son.

 

And so they were brought before the queen, who had not intended to meet them in the throne room. This is simply where they had caught her, for she had come in here where it was quiet and still for the sake of inspiration. It provided some of the best views of the capital city, and she was stuck on her latest attempt at verse. When they entered, she looked up examining the small party over with a frown -- they looked exhausted, and she couldn’t begin to understand why.

 

“Did you go through the Ellwood Forest?” she asked suddenly, and without much decorum. There may be a scramble, but Zenahriel would know right away that she only spoke with such familiarity with him, for beyond friends, they had once been lovers as well. Her frown deepened, worry, breaking the spell of perfection that often lingered on her face. She looked concerned, terribly concerned. She could not begin to understand why the High Lord would allow for such a treacherous journey. She had nearly lost her life upon that path, and Zenahriel had been there, surely he knew how treacherous that journey was. “Surely you could have come by ship, or flown...a safer option…” 

 

She sounded like a mother, and with a touch of embarrassment she realized she had no right to tell a grown group of people how to best travel. The horrors of the Ellwood Forest were just near and dear to her heart, regardless of what others may have thought. 

 

The small black book upon her lap closed, trapping the small mechanical pen within its pages. She stood, her modest height causing her to stand above all their heads while she was upon the dias of her throne, but then stepped down to draw near to them. For the most part, she avoided looking directly at Rou, though she did steal a glance here and there. When she was near enough, she reached out and took Zenahriel by the hands, smiling warmly and genuinely. There were few people alive who could derive such a reaction from her, though it was weary… 

 

Why was he with her? 

 

Why had he brought her here? 

 

“You look tired,” she said to him, almost a whisper, before regarding the rest, and in particular Rou, “--all of you. Surely you could do with some rest? Some breakfast? It will be dawn soon, and I am afraid I won’t be a proper hostess then. Perhaps we can aim to meet again tonight, for dinner? I am sure, after all, that there is a reason for this pleasant surprise beyond just pleasantries.”

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Plainly speaking, Orisia was a small country, a mere blot on the map next to the Genesaris continent. But in many ways this small Island of Summer outshone its motherland in beauty and artistic flair. Raised far away from the civil wars and strife that often plagued the mainland, the citizens of Orisia had developed their own unique style that seeped into every stone of every building. The castle was no exception, and what magnificent artistry Zenahriel glimpsed in Veelos now shone brightly in the throne room. He could not help but glance out one of the clear crystal windows, catching sight of the city beyond these sculpted palace walls. There were already a few people outside, setting up shop for the early morning.

At Fowler’s harsh cough, Zenahriel’s eyes, which so scarcely wandered, snapped back to the dais. Framed by the night sky in glowing outside the windows arranged behind the throne, there sat the queen. Dress solemnly but elegantly, she was as always the epitome of beauty, the sort any man would die to have. And it was she, not her castle nor any ancient treasure, that was the prized jewel of Orisia.

Zenahriel bowed, and his wings seemed to grow from his back, stretching out their magnificent length before folding around him in a sort of feathered cloak. “My Queen,” he said softly, respectfully, lovingly. “Do we find you well? Do not worry, the Ellwood Forest was no danger.”

Her bright, golden eyes gazed at them quizzically, seeming somewhat distracted as she closed a book she had been writing in. Zenahriel wondered what sort of diary a queen might have, what thoughts she only ever shared with a blank page, what feelings she poured loose through a pen. Suddenly he realized the only book he was longing to read just then had only one copy, and lay securely in her hands.

The Black Queen stepped off the dais, drawing close, and took up his hands. He smiled, squeezing her petite fingers gently, as if to reassure her he had brought no harm. She spoke, and he nodded, glancing toward Rou Ji whose simple presence alone garnered special notice from the Queen’s molten eyes. It was true, the Queen was a nocturnal being, and was probably already tired from her duties as Queen to Orisia and, now, a mother. He glanced back at Fowler and the rest of his company, all of whom looked somewhat bedraggled. A very few had straightened, however, at the mention of breakfast.

He let his wings stretch out again, the tip of one primary brushed firmly against Rou’s shoulder, a plea for attention. He spoke to the queen, but looked at Rou for approval. “Your Highness must be tired as well. Surely we can wait…? I’m sure a refreshed mind would be more tolerate of us too, hm?” he said, in the manner of a jest that yet held some amount of truth.

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Hawkish eyes followed the Black Queen as she softly closed the book in her palms, and descended the dais with worry; Rou had expected at least some bit of rebuke, though it was purely borne of self-importance.  The porcelain doll of a woman made no mention, no words uttered in present company, but -- there.  In that infrequent glance, Rou could see it behind Gabriela's eyes, an unmistakable glimpse at her secret disapproval.  Gabriela was far better at hiding her sentiments behind the mask of a tempered face, as Rou was positively bristling.

When she descended the dais in a flutter of worry, Zenahriel dipped low in a sweeping, elegant bow, stretching his wings with beautiful plumage.  The soldiers had taken cue to do the same, a formal and polite military bow, as Fowler had done.  Rou, however, remained motionless-- fists clenched at her sides, face hard, and jaw as if wired shut.  The tension bred off of her like an aura, a black taint on the Queen's otherwise pristine white palace; a small, festering spot within the vast space but was no less noticeable, her hostility so thick it could've been cut with a knife.  It seemed as if muscle memory, unsure whether to be more angry that she found her insignificant enough to ignore, or that the Queen did not indulge in her ego by making plain her apprehension.  It fanned old flames, keen to finding the tinder and bringing down all around her in a wildfire.

A well-meaning nudge from Zenahriel's wing was aptly timed, and the black-haired bandit jostled in resistant recoil, scathing him down with a rather direct glare, albeit brief.  It was more than sorely needed, as it seemed to break the spell of Rou's smoldering temper.  It left her with greater exhaustion, for the toil of the night's ride in the forest was seeping deep into her skin, tugging at weary bones and wearier eyes.  She'd had little cause to be so outraged of late, her obligations as An'She keeping her busy... or Rafael making quick work of his intolerance for her fury.  For all his rough-handed discipline, at least some seemed to have taken root.

She was not without spark, but rather honed.  It directed her fiery passion into being authoritative and commanding, asserting herself as she cleared her throat and resumed a straight-backed posture.  Her yellow eyes were no softer, but appeared far less cruel,  her scrutiny concentrated, determined and watchful.  Her gaze had remained focused on Gabriela for a good time as she paused, before a brief glance back at her company took account of their most prevalent need.  Inhaling audibly, she turned back to Black Queen, her ponytail sweeping to follow in a flush of black, Zenahriel's two feathers she had placed in her hair sticking out fashionably from within the thrush, and sighed.  Finding it too demure to cross her hands in front of her, Rou poised her hands behind her back, widening the stance of her legs slightly into a thoughtful military rest position.  Privately, Fowler secreted away a proud grin.

"The matter we attend with is indeed urgent," she said collectedly, her chin high with a noble air, an attempt made not to look down her nose at the woman she long considered her enemy, "...but I concede it will be best considered after some much-needed respite."  Rou had still come off a little stiff, but the intent was apparent, as she was trying her best to be polite-- despite the obvious struggle it was.  Another pause caused her glance to shift to Zenahriel, who met back with an encouraging expression to go on, a flicker of gold bringing her crown to swivel again to the Queen.  In an uncommon showing of respect, Rou bowed her head -- for the sake of diplomacy, of course.  "We would be most grateful for your hospitality," she said sternly, but no less obliged.  She stood, spine erect and confident, seeming far less like the vicious or salacious woman the Queen might've remembered, taking on her duty of An'She with all due grace and refinement, if not with a bit of intimidation.  Rou was the only human who served in the Carmine Dominion's council, and standing before her mortal enemy in proper zeal to seek audience, she might have even deserved it.

Edited by Narcissa

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Gabriela searched her memory. She recalled the precious glimpses of her past, which she still maintained, and the endless pages of handwritten notes, which were a remaining recollection of her past life. There was little left of the Black Queen’s previous self -- the woman whom Zenahriel himself had chosen to destroy. He had found her weeping, over some cruel atrocity done to her by Roen, or Raphael, or any other of the endless line of powerful men who refused to accept her rejection. He had found her heartbroken and nearly dead of spirit, and had thought to do her a kindness by stealing away her memories and stripping her of the person she used to be. He couldn’t have known the consequences, though perhaps he should have imagined them. There was a duality to her now, especially after the Magestorm which had ‘restored’ her memories. It was akin to being a foreign spirit, housed in a body that was still haunted by its previous residents. She recalled being that previous Black Queen, she so vividly recalled the feelings, and the few, clear memories that remained did very much feel like they belonged to her -- but she was a completely different person, like one looking back on a distant childhood. And in the end, Zenahriel’s gift had done nothing to dissuade the advances of those who would lay claim to her. 

 

A great many things had been lost in this monumental shift of perception. Among those things that were lost were her feelings regarding this woman. It was all there in writing -- what Rou had done to earn Gabriela’s hate, the downright cruel way in which she attempted to dispatch Raspberry. And the implications of said attempt, had it been successful! La’Ruta was fickle and could be just as terrible as it was wonderful. Had the undead gotten their hands upon Raspberry, and if they had tasted her blood -- the Black Queen’s blood -- what kind of horrendous creatures would have been born that night? Raspberry had been beyond blessed that her guardian and companion had intervened and kept the silly child from wandering into the forest on her own. 

 

And yet, standing there -- the center of attention of at least half a dozen set of eyes -- she could not shake the feeling that she was the loathsome one, and not the bandit who had attempted to send a child to her death with pretenses of adventure. There was a weight and discomfort to Rou’s gaze, and not merely her presence. The woman’s hatred was nearly palpable, and Gabriela found it difficult to breathe the air in her vicinity. Luckily, she did not need but a few small sips of oxygen here and there in order to survive. 

 

“Your Highness must be tired as well. Surely we can wait…? I’m sure a refreshed mind would be more tolerant of us too, hm?”

 

“The matter we attend with is indeed urgent...but I concede it will be best considered after some much-needed respite.”

 

Not for the first time tonight did Gabriela wonder as to the nature of their relationship, for she could have sworn that Zenahriel looked to Rou for approval. This however, seemed like a ridiculous notion. Since when would a High Lord, Zenahriel no less, seek approval for any of his actions or deeds from the likes of Rou? And then it struck her, somewhat hard and violently -- she had seen Zenahriel take on a more docile and subordinate personality when they were in the presence of Raphael. However, Rou and Raphael could not possibly occupy that same space of terror that Gabriela had for her cousin. She could not see how the curvaceous, black haired woman could command respect, let alone fear, from anyone when she seemed nothing more than a void of hollow resentment and jealousy. But ever since Raphael had left -- abandoning her and Orisia to return to his empire across the narrow sea, she had not kept up with his endeavors. 

 

Oh Raphael, what have you done…

 

“We would be most grateful for your hospitality.”

 

The etiquette was forced, and the poise and grace seemed like nothing more than thick icing set on a badly burnt cake. For a moment, Gabriela regarded the woman with a curious sort of wonder -- how could something so beautiful manage to come off so ugly, heavy, and mean? And more importantly, did she -- Gabriela -- deserve it? 

 

“I am glad you have accepted,” she said, but this time her head inclined and her eyes were clearly set upon Rou. She had thought that Zenahriel was the one to direct herself too, but he had made it perfectly clear who the leader of this operation was. Gabriela did not intend to waste time with a middle man. Zenahriel had brought a rabid, furious beast into the heart of her home -- it did not make sense to try and reason with him.

 

“My dear lady, Lilly, will show you to your rooms and make sure you are all as comfortable as possible. If there is anything you may need during the day, please do not hesitate to ask. To the best of our ability, whatever is needed and wanted will be provided. Have a good morning and day, I will see you all come nightfall.”  

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Whereas Zenahriel was relaxed, content to remain silent and composed, Rou was a furious, hungry predator. Tension and fury rolled of her like flames, a harsh contrast to the serenity that Gabriela radiated. Worried eyes were on the An’She, both that of Zenahriel and the soldiers behind, so tangible was her tightly reined ire. Rou looked as though she might explode at any moment, a mistake that would have brought disaster down on them all. Gabriela would never forget, much less forgive, any show of violence here in her own kingdom, in her own castle.

As beautiful and serene as Gabriela was, she was still a ruler, a queen, and sovereigns were fickle beings, easy to offend. They liked to think not, but under the rule of honor and etiquette, it would be reprehensible and doubly disgraceful if Rou made the wrong move now.

Fortunately, she didn’t. The anger that roiled around her seemed to dim just a little as she assumed a proper military poise. She spoke in a tightly controlled voice – too controlled, but let that be. In return, Gabriela responded with a polite and proper offer of hospitality. Relieved, Zenahriel felt himself disregarded, but he was neither offended nor held it against the queen. It was his place. This meeting involved Rou and Gabriela, and he had merely come to watch and observe.

And protect, but that was not needed now, not yet. He murmured a quiet thank you to the queen as she called upon Lilly, who appeared shortly and, with a bow and a formal greeting, led them to their rooms.

Captain Fowler and his soldiers were led to their own temporary barracks to rest and served breakfast, a sorely needed respite. Zenahriel and Rou, in their honored status, were led to separate rooms that were already lavishly prepared for visitors. They were large, did not lack for furnishings or comforts, with washrooms and featherbeds fit for lords. Adorned with curtains and draperies in deep blacks and passionate wine-red, with porcelain ornaments set over small hearths, their chambers were the best of hotel suites. There was, of course, a touch of the Queen’s own taste within, for the rooms were not overly extravagant; there was a underlay of elegant simplicity to the rooms as well, allowing comfort and relaxation.

Breakfast was brought to them in their rooms, rolled in on a cart bearing silver dishes and platters. There were fresh chicken eggs rolled into omelets, steaming sausages, hot cakes, pastries and breads dressed with butter and honey, and fruits. To wash it down was milk, juices, and water all provided to choose from. Lilly left the laden carts in the rooms for them to serve themselves as they wanted, saying she would be back to collect the dishes in due time if they would kindly leave the leftovers outside the door.

Zenahriel took a plate and prepared it with a bit of everything. He did not necessarily need to eat, but his human body appreciated the nutrition and he enjoyed the taste as any mortal did. Quietly, he exited the room and walked to the next door where Rou was left.

He knocked on the door before opening it and letting himself in. His wing swept behind him, shutting the door as he entered.

“Do I disturb you, Rou?”

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"Not at all.  Come, please."

Zenahriel's inquisition found the meet of his gaze through a mirror of a pristine white vanity, body undisturbed as she sat oppositely faced upon a plush cushion whilst her hands mastered the laborious task of brushing out her hair, dressed in an ivory silk shift that hardly covered anything.  The locks were damp and stringy, clinging together as she forced her way through knots, as if to beat her way through the pent-up aggression that she'd tucked away for safe-keeping, earlier.  It curled in gentle waves as the air dried it in ringlets that stuck to her skin, which was notably smooth and unmarred.  Upon closer inspection, Rou guessed as she saw the reflection of Zenahriel's eyes wandering to more than just her mortal curves, that he was keen enough to see the subtle caked textures that dappled her skin.  Straight from the bath, she went to preserving her ego, banishing the sight from her eyes even before retreating to the canopied bed, which from afar seemed to be more pillows than mattress.

Discomfort caused her to straighten when she caught the wayward path of his eye, and swiveled around.  Choosing not to be ashamed, her gaze dropped to the plate in his hands.  "Is that food?" she asked rhetorically, before helping herself to a cheese pastry upon his plate, and indulged in a less-than-dainty bite.  As if she hadn't eaten in a week, Rou closed her eyes and let out a deep, growling moan through her nose, her posture shrinking with the satisfaction.  "Mmmmfffh," she said through a stuffed cheek, "You're a saint."

Polishing off her scavenged food with quick work, she pushed her hairbrush aside in favor of smaller tools, pointed brushes and puffs in cases of powder, nothing short of a mess of cosmetics splayed about the vanity.  Drawing close to the mirror, she dipped a thin bristle into a kohl ink before sweeping it slowly across her eyelid, mouth precariously poised open, as if to balance.  "Orisia's magic is fickle; even my glamour doesn't work.  Have to do it the old fashioned way," she explained curtly, as she polished off an artistic wing beside her eye, and went to coat the pen again with a few dabs.  Relieved of the intent focus of her face for a few moments, Rou chanced a glance at Zenahriel's reflection, whose pooling black eyes were still staring, as if waiting.  Heaving in a dramatic sigh, she started to sweep across the opposite eye.  "I suppose this dalliance ends in a lecture, does it?"  Someone had to, given Rafael's merciful absence.

Her stroke finished, and her gaze found itself in her lap, her brow furrowed and lips teasing at a muddled, half-humored grin.  "I picked out something more... conservative than I am often known for," she said with mild pause, before pointing a haphazard finger towards a garment hanging above her trunk.  In bold colors and silk thick with embroidery, it was meant to wrap around the figure-- highlighting it, rather than baring it.  Rou, who was often wont to the phrase "less is more", was apparent to the change, knowing that she would make her task ahead much harder if she'd made the Black Queen uncomfortable... well, more uncomfortable.  It was clear that she was trying.

Considering it for the few minutes as she fiddled with her brush, she found solace in the mirror, as if steeling herself for what was to come.  She didn't need to voice it, for it was writ plain on her face-- the trial ahead was herculean, for the Queen didn't trust her.  Why would she?  Rou had felt wounded by the queen, but had turn to dealt her own wounds, and one could not simply ask for forgiveness in attempt on a child's life.  Expression darkening, the mirror could not show the truth, for she had masked it.  They had come all this way, and Rou could not afford to turn back, now; there was too much at stake.  "I can't help but think that this might be a monumental mistake," she confided quietly, her solemn thoughts seeking safe harbor with Zenahriel.  She had dragged him and a dozen soldiers across the sea and to the foot of the one she'd named her enemy, and had not even confessed to even one as to why.

 

Spoiler

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Edited by Narcissa

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Though he was no stranger to the human body, Zenahriel’s eyes wandered perhaps a little more than appropriate. The silk shift Rou wore left little to the imagination, and was almost completely transparent in the light due to the residual dampness left by a recent bath. He noticed the elegant curves of her body, her smooth skin, and her dark hair – even the callused hands that gripped the brush as tightly as one would grasp a sword. Any imperfections he saw seemed only to accentuate the perfections he also noticed. In all of this, she was beautiful and alluring.

Due to the mortal body he had chosen, Zenahriel was not immune to the desires and wants of a normal man. It was irritating at times and quite inconvenient. But his long life and practiced manners gave him an edge of temptation, and he managed without much struggle to avert his eyes, respectfully focusing instead on a piece of porcelain set above a blazing hearth. It was a fine vase, painted black with white doves flying below a flared rim. Unfortunately, he was allowed to admire this design only briefly before Rou approached and snatched up a pastry, returning his eyes to her. In spite of himself, he smiled as she returned to the vanity.

“La’Ruta,” he supplied for her the name of Orisia’s odd magic. “It suppresses and enhances, and for us, it suppresses. Even my powers are limited here,” he admitted softly. He observed Rou as she applied a bit of paint to accentuate the sharp points of her eyes. He didn’t think she needed any cosmetics, but kept the notion to himself.

“Not so much a lecture,” he admonished her, glancing to where she gestured. He strode towards the chosen attire, examining with appreciation the vibrant colors and exquisite embroidery. The bright reds and deep indigo blues complimented each other greatly, and the close-fitting stitch and flowing design were clearly meant to highlight the curves and sweep of the female form. Yet it was also somehow subtly modest, too, concealing skin that, if overly exposed. could easily be considered scandalous.

Pacing to the fire, he gazed pensively into the flames. It was quite a while before he finally spoke, his words careful and gentle. “You and my Black Queen have quite a history, do you not? I have not heard too much of it, but the way you look at each other, the way you, in particular, spoke and stood, tells me I have missed much. Every line of your body, my Empress, issued challenge.” He demonstrated, copying the military pose she had assumed just moments before, then relaxing. “That was not wise.”

He turned away from the fire and walked to her, his steps long and quiet. Upon reaching her he extended a hand and took the brush from her hands, gesturing for her to turn around. He began brushing her hair, far more gently then she had, starting from the curling ends and working upwards to decrease and release the tangles. “If you are not careful, more than you were, this shall be a monumental mistake and you will embarrass and disgrace yourself, your retinue, and me.” He sighed. “I have already suffered much here, Rou Ji, and I feel it is only beginning. But enough; I digress, and I think you know all this.”

“Tell me, my Lady. No more secrets. Why are you here?”

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Rou's honey-gold irises followed the reflection of Zenahriel to the hearth, and while he'd taken obvious strides not to exhort her with too strict a tone, she could see the faint displeasure in his face as the soft ember glow danced upon it.  With a heaving sigh, which relieved absolutely none of the tension that gathered in the An'She's shoulders, the black-haired vixen pinched the bridge of her nose, nursing the growing headache.  "I know that-- Don't you think I know that?" Rou snapped tersely, recalling the events in the throne room, which she'd promptly taken out on her hair.  Her anger was misdirected at Zenahriel, though she'd been too taken to offer apologies.  Before leaving from Umbra, Rou had already felt like she'd had one foot in the grave, and the other was starting to slip.  The Carmine Dominion's only human An'She had made great strides in ambassadorship, but in standing across from her mortal enemy, Rou had nearly devolved into the seething serpent of spite and fire she was of yesteryear.  This summit had been in the name of change, and Rou wasn't helping it.

"You're probably the only person in all of Genesaris who doesn't know of our feud, maybe all Valucre," she groused, as one did not obtain the reputation of enemy to the Black Queen lightly.  Irene Gabriela Du'Grace was loved and admired even far beyond her borders, championed as the porcelain queen of innocence, chivalry, and star-crossed love; hers was the love story told by romantic paramours, mothers to their children, heralds that boasted good news to incite the fealty to the crowns amidst the dreary days of the gentry.  With Rou's reputation, it was hardly an exaggeration that she had become the villain in the world's eyes.  Beyond the oversimplified public recount, Rou would claim she hadn't been every bit as vile as they'd made her out to be... nor Gabriela as happy, as judged by their recent crossings.  A happy wife wasn't what Rou witnessed at Kadia's grand wedding.  Even with strides towards coming to terms, it still came unnaturally for Rou to empathize with the Black Queen.

With a small bit of guilt weighing heavy on her, she again weighed the probability of success.  It wouldn't ride on her affection for her liege, though in truth, Rou had never intended it to be.

Her winged confidante had come to take the brush from her, wielding it with a much more delicate hand.  Frustrated, she deflected with a begrudging scoff, and sat up straight for him, complicit as he ran comfortingly through her locks.  The pressure was weighing down heavy upon her, even moreso as his eyes caught her poignantly on the vanity mirror; she could not leave him in the dark any further.  There was so much riding on this, so much bigger than herself.

Reaching her hand to her crown, she paused Zenahriel's stroke of the brush, withdrawing from her hair, and stood.  Taking it from him (reminding herself to do so gently), she placed it upon the vanity, and instead took up his hands folded in hers.  Rou was alarmingly human, in a world filled with beings that dwarfed her presence the way the moon outshone a simple lone meteor, passing and fleeting, but her resolve was that of the sun.  The situation was dire, and the fire in Rou's eyes burned with exceeding courage, for she could spare none.

"Zenahriel, know that I do not do this lightly..." she confessed, and on they talked through the morning...

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Rou's ankle dropped up and down with impatience, bouncing her foot as one knee crossed over the other.  Poising her elbow on the arm of a white dining chair, pushed far out from the table so as to lounge in their privacy, she draped her index finger pensively beneath her lip, looking through Zenahriel as if he were a ghost.  They were to wait in the supping hall, laid out grandly in anticipation of the summit, with so many sets of cutlery that in the house of a vampyre could only be called ironic.  The sun was still setting, orange and purple hues streaking through the opaquely curtained windows, and still yet a few minutes too early for the night queen to rise in the safe bask of dusk.

When the door creaked open, Rou's head swiveled, expecting the Gabriela.  Her breath appeared to have held a brief moment, but resumed at the sight of her ward, in all due diligence and propriety, ferrying glasses and a deep green bottle of wine.  The An'She's expression wrinkled, unable to hide a distasteful sneer, still in the private company of but Zenahriel and an underling.  "Is that the house vintage?" she asked, dangling an inquisitive finger towards the bottle, to which she received an affirmative nod, "None for me.  Something stronger; scotch, if you have it."  Rou had a long-running disgust for Orisian wine, certainly tainted by its presence in unfavorable situations, and scoffed at the thought.  Sparing a glance towards Zenahriel, he was unimpressed with her candor.  "Please," Rou added sharply to the ward, hoping to assuage the High Lord's displeasure, "Thank you."  She was going to need something strong if she was to get through the trial ahead.

Rou had dressed in her exotic finery, the bright crimson tunic that was a modest comparison to her rather scandalous outfits, containing most of her bust and distracting from it with finely-embroidered hems.  A royal blue skirt was wrapped starting high above her hips, a thin line of the copper skin of her midriff bordered between the colors, and swept from the floor and over her shoulder, draping on the ground like a long cape, which was currently dressed over the arm of the chair.  She'd worn her hair half-up, collecting her hair into a small bun that sat at the back of the crown of her head, and soft curls flowed down her shoulders and spine.  Rou's face was artistically devised, edges touched up from the night prior, for she had slept in it... as well as she could, anyway, under an enemy's roof.  Two pieces of the ensemble were not her own, however: a sheer black lace glove, upon her right hand and ending at the wrist, covering up the indented twin incisor scars, and a black velvet choker, a tear-shaped diamond hanging from its center-- necessities imposed by Rafael, in lieu of tradition.

When the door opened again, Rou first glanced to the window, the sun having sunk well beneath the depths of the horizon.  As Zenahriel had pushed himself back from his chair to stand, Rou hesitated but a moment, then did the same.  She paid the queen the briefest look as she entered, before placing her gloved hand to her chest, and sinking her chin in a bow of her head.  So far, so good.

Silence followed, as Rou made no pleasantries whilst the queen took her opposite seat across the long supping table; she was not the scheming politician, come to ply her with brown-nosing flights of fancy in order to curry her favor, so she said nothing.  The matter at hand would be less impactful, should she have wasted time, allowing the queen to build further walls of suspicion; it would be hard enough to break through the ones that already stood in her way.  Instead, she let the Queen and Zenahriel begin-- closer friends, better tidings.

Edited by Narcissa

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There was no grand announcement when the queen entered. Just the sound of the doors opening, and of a few polite and proper greetings by the staff. Then there was the sound of her heels clicking on the polished floors, the shuffle of her long and full skirt, and that of chairs being pushed back and people getting up on their feet. Gabriela walked past them all without any acknowledgment, at least not until she reached her seat, which was pulled back by a servant and neatly tucked in when she sat. 

 

It all seemed like a well choreographed performance.

 

But this was not a dance she wanted to partake in. 

 

“Please, sit down,” she said, after a thoughtful pause and a glance around the table. She couldn’t help but stare at Rou, taking in the sight of her strange costume. It wasn’t that Gabriela was unaccustomed to exotic appear -- she was quite fond of it actually. But rather, it looked oddly misplaced upon the voluptuous woman who seemed just as intent on hiding her feminine curves as she did on hiding her sincere feelings. It all felt very much out of place. And that choker upon her neck -- it rang thick of Raphael’s stylistic choices and made her stomach churn with discomfort. 

 

Suddenly, dropping her gaze away from the woman and focusing for a fraction of a second upon the elegant design that was stamped on the fine china set before her, she found herself longing for the devil’s presence. He had insisted that she handle this situation, being that he was far too busy with their son and the management of a previously poorly managed country. Whether he simply did not want to deal with his old friend because of annoyance or heartache, Gabriela could not tell and she did not dare to pry any further. 

 

He was more monster than gentleman sage these days, and it seemed that any and all excuses to showcase his anger were not only acceptable but welcome. So she took this as a mission of sorts. Perhaps, if she was good to his friend, if she was good with this episode of diplomacy she could earn some of his tenderness back. 

 

Gabriela licked her lips, a surprisingly human gesture, before tucking her hands under the table and upon her crossed legs. She sat on a cloud of black silken material, and adjusted the cuffs on her sleeves nervously, but out of sight. Rou was expecting something out of this -- out of her -- she could tell by the heat and the anger in the woman’s eyes. But Gabriela had nothing to offer. She was struggling with her new life under Roen’s command, and as Philippe’s mother. There were greater challenges now than some imagined feud that she had never intended to participate in. Even so, the whole of it was important to Rou, and therefore, Gabriela would have to treat it with some level of importance for the sake of her friendship with Roen. 

 

“I hope you all rested -- you’re in for a treat,” she smiled, and nothing about it seemed forced. If anything, there was something timid about the expression as she sat there, perfectly straight with her thick, braided hair, pulled over one of her small shoulders and used almost like a shield against the world. “You’ll all be having a traditional Spanish dinner, starting with a garlic soup.”

 

No sooner had she announced the first course than the doors opened and servants poured in, each carrying  a tray that was delivered to each of the guests. Down before Rou and Zenahriel, deep, silver bowls were set with a steaming broth of garlic, ham, and vegetables, topped with a lovely poached egg and served with a thick slice of brown bread that had yet to be buttered. Of course the queen was served nothing, but she observed curiously to see if anyone would be brave enough to take the first taste -- her golden eyes were set expectantly upon Zenahriel.

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That evening, Zenahriel chose his clothing with care. He often wore a military-style uniform, attire his mortal host favored most, but tonight demanded something more. Therefore he donned a tunic of stygian black and black slacks, their dark and intimidating appearance softened by a surcoat of a soft gray background adorned in bright blue embroidery. A half cape and cowl of a lighter blue draped over his shoulders, and a red ruby pinned back his hair, which had been done in a fashionable braid. For he had come today not as a High Lord or hopeful suitor desperately courting the Black Queen, but as an An’She of Umbra, escort to Rou Ji.

She was certainly trying, though not altogether succeeding, in being courtly and formally polite. Her expression utterly failed at keeping at bay her distaste for the offered wine – and her displeasure, perhaps, at being here at all. Zenahriel, unfortunately, could not blame her much. The day before he had listened raptly to every word she spoke to him, and with new understanding came to know just how much an effort visiting Orisia was.  

The servant quickly brought Rou her desired scotch, while Zenahriel simply took the house wine. He did give Rou a warning glance, telling her wordlessly that drinking too much and too heavily would only make matters more difficult, not to mention it was unseemly. He took a delicate sip of the wine, enjoying the subtle nuanced taste of overripe berries, vanillas, and dark oak. Rou might not be fodno f it, but Zenahriel rather liked the exotic wines of the Island of Summer.

It was not long before the Queen entered, glorious and beautiful, looking fresh and elegant as any proper royalty should. Zenahriel stood with the rest of the company as she made her way to the table, head down as was also proper, and waited until she bade them to sit once again.

The first course they were served at the Queen’s behest smelled absolutely wondrous. The garlic and spices in the soup mingled together with a strong yet tantalizing, almost spicy scent, topped with savory vegetables, a finely done egg and a lovely slice of fresh-baked bread, still hot from the ovens. The butter served alongside was also freshly churned, and it all looked delightful, steaming on the silver platters with matching, glittering silverware.

Despite the eerie tension in the air, Zenahriel laughed. He had never had anything authentically Spanish before, tasting only a few Terrenus dishes and Genesarian fare, with Orisian to round out his experience with food. This was, as the Queen had claimed, truly a treat.

He picked up one of the spoons, choosing carefully to make sure he picked the right one, and dipped it into the soup. Leveling a modest portion to his lips, he tasted it and gave the queen a gracious and genuine smile.

“This is absolutely superb, Your Grace. I thank you for the chance to dine with you on such short notice. Even if it was only bread and water, the honor remains,” he finished.

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Skeptical, Rou stared at the bowl in front of her, pausing at the aromatic broth as the steam wafted over the surface.  She paused, watching Zenahriel out of the corner of her eye, yellow and beady like a cat, as he swallowed his first ladled spoonful.  His praise seemed assurance enough, as the second visiting An'She reached for her own tableware, leaving the lingering question if she had waited to be polite, or if she was being cautious.  They hadn't notified Gabriela of their arrival, and they arrived under the banner of her supposed ally, though Rou hadn't completely left out the possibility of being poisoned at this awkward dinner party.  Still hesitant, Rou pushed the egg around her bowl, lathering it in broth.

She envied Zenahriel's calm, his rapport and friendship with the queen giving him the ease to speak freely, even tenderly, with their gratuitous hostess.  Rou could tell, even as Gabriela put on her best face, she wasn't thrilled to see her, and yet her voice trilled with the daintiness of a demure debutante.  Normally, Rou would've been the life of the party, slithering into favor with her silver tongue, complimenting and passing innuendo as she slipped deeper into good graces; Zenahriel had seen her do it oft and again.  The Buxom Bandit could charm the pants off a priest, and yet, across the Queen's table, she sat quiet.  She did not ply Gabriela with flattery, with idol admiration, as so many others in her court were wont to do, telling the Queen only what she wanted to hear, distracting her from the weighty matters at hand.  The peons of her court, the would-be paramours that sought her hand, her capture, they could have the Queen's love-- Rou wanted her trust, a necessary commodity that she sorely lacked, if she wanted her plan to succeed.  If she'd laced her words with gold, Gabriela would raise her walls twice as high, leaving them impossible to scale.  Thus, instead, she said nothing.

With a steeling breath, she consigned herself to her first sip, but let a satisfied hum note her appreciation for the dish's taste, a pleasing blend of salt and savor.  As the silence lulled into delicate territory, Rou's silver spoon clinked back onto the table.  "Forgive my lack of pleasantries, I find it best we delve straight into business," the An'She said, fetching her tumbler quarter-filled with a caramel-brown scotch, before leaning back in her chair, one knee poised over the other.  Staring from across the table, Rou sought out the queen with determined eyes, assuming an authoritative air equal to that of the monarch who wore the crown of the Isle of Summer, from she, the ambitious An'She, who did not.

"I shall be frank," Rou stated curtly, taking a short sip of her biting drink, "I came here to ask you to return to the Carmine Dominion, to couple with Rafael and exalt as his Empress."  The confession was abrupt, and while her words were direct and poignant, her eyes were cast down; from all Gabriela knew, Rou didn't have the authority to make such an offer.  While she hadn't gained his permission, Rou was certian that Rafael had known full well why she came, and had made no move to stop her.  He knew as well as she did that this was the best thing for the Empire, even if it cut out the ambitious bandit.  Swirling the liquid around her tumbler, Rou chose to partake in the sight of the scotch moving around the glass, rather than Gabriela's undoubtedly shocked or confused expression, granting her that small measure of privacy.  With another drink, she hissed a sigh, feeling the burn as it traveled down her throat, idly toying with the spin of the glass as she held it between her fingers.  "You stand only to benefit, as a ruler.  Your island and your people would be under the protection of the Empire, as part of the greatest force within Genesaris.  Your son would be given the best tutelage, and given titles and land to befit his station, protected from those who would do him harm."  Rou paused, her eyes looking over the rim of the glass, so as to hide any wavering in her voice.  "And with any luck, you'll have more."  Rou was honest, but at the cost of being blunt, and blurring the lines of impropriety.

Rou was candid and sincere, as she looked at Gabriela across the table, now unavoiding in her gaze.  She was sure that it was a lot to take in, and with concerns of coming on too strongly, she looked to Zenahriel for a vote of confidence.  Clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth, Rou continued, a bit more gently.  "The Empire is safe, for now.  However, solidifying the line of succession with a pure vampyre to take over the throne will eventually be necessity.  I don't think I need to explain how limited those options are, Majesty."  Her fingernails dug into the arm of her dining chair, unsure whether she could inspire anger in the Queen; she came too long a way to simply be thrown out.  Her gaze traveled aside, and her tone receded with a bleak murmur, as if she hadn't wanted to utter damning words.  "You are, in that way, my only hope."

Edited by Narcissa

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“This is absolutely superb, Your Grace. I thank you for the chance to dine with you on such short notice. Even if it was only bread and water, the honor remains.”


 

Gabriela could not help but melt into the compliments paid by a man who had been a lover for a night and a beloved friend for what felt like a lifetime. But even in her desperate need to believe the sentiment of his words, there was a sharp reminder of the things he had done -- the awful games he had participated in when she had been forced to stay in Umbra as a guest to the Blood God. She relieved, over and over, the memory of that night when she ran through the halls of Raphael’s estate, he having taken the guise of a wolf, and she moved to a near animalistic type horror. She had collided into the raven’s arms, and had felt for a moment, certain of salvation until he gripped her hard and ended the game of chase. That memory always ended with the shadow of his wings enveloping her and the sound of both, Raphael and Zenahriel’s, laughter.  When it came to her beloved raven, Gabriela was in a constant state of war with her emotions, battling between the love that remained from a more innocent age and the hate that steadily grew and grew after Raphael began to corrupt everything. 

 

“It is good to see you as well, Zenahriel…” she replied, but there was something distant in her voice -- something that seemed borderline cold and far different than her previous demeanor toward the High Lord. 

 

“Forgive my lack of pleasantries, I find it best we delve straight into business.”

 

By the time that Gabriela’s golden eyes rose to meet the vision that was Rou, leaning back in her chair, legs crossed, and holding her crystal glass of richly colored scotch, her stomach had settled into knots. The obvious question was about to be answered, and while she had been curious now that it was all to be revealed, she found herself wanting nothing more than to stand and excuse herself. Zenahriel was no friend of hers, and that fact was more so true now that he had brought this wretched creature into her home. 

 

Gabriela intended then to gently remind the woman that they couldn’t possibly have any business together -- she had made it a point to maintain a respectable and manageable distance. It hadn’t always been easy, given the circles they frequented, but in her own mind, Gabriela felt that she had been successful. And so, her expression was puzzled.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I shall be frank.”

 

Those molten, gold eyes shifted toward the High Lord who was still quite busy with his soup. It almost seemed that he was intentionally trying to avoid making eye contact, at least until Rou had said her peace -- or war. And for Gabriela the anxiety only grew and grew as she began to feel herself more and more cornered. 

 

“I came here to ask you to return to the Carmine Dominion, to couple with Rafael and exalt as his Empress.”

 

The pinch in her brows smoothed, the strain in her pursed lips disappeared, the tension in her shoulders, her arms, and her hands -- it melted away. Gabriela sat there watching Rou, studying the way the woman in turn studied her drink and did not deem to look up from it. But for her own part, Gabriela felt that the plunge had been taken and the fall was done and over with. She had broken the surface of dark waters and was now sinking down, down, down into the familiar. The chill of politics was a welcome comfort. Gabriela remained still, hands upon her lap, and her eyes steady upon Rou.

 

“You stand only to benefit, as a ruler. Your island and your people would be under the protection of the Empire, as part of the greatest force within Genesaris. Your son would be given the best tutelage, and given titles and land to benefit his station, protected from those who would do him harm… And with any luck, you’ll have more.”

 

Everything in Rou’s body language seemed over the top to Gabriela. She was trying to appear too -- something. Rather than making this out to be some kind of diplomatic agreement, the woman appeared slippery, like a bad salesman trying to sell a bad product. Or maybe she was doing a fine job of it and Gabriela just so happened to know that the product was no good. Whatever the reason, Gabriela only then looked away, down to regard her neatly folded hands. 

 

“The Empire is safe, for now. However, solidifying the line of succession with a pure vampyre to take over the throne will eventually be a necessity. I don’t think I need to explain how limited those options are, Majesty.”

 

She blinked slowly and thoughtfully as she heard fingernails dig into the leather upholstery of the chair’s armrest, it made her glance back up at Rou. The sound was unpleasant. 

 

“You are, in that way, my only hope.”

 

Your only hope?” Gabriela echoed, arching a brow -- she seemed curious, but then it faltered and died. She suddenly stood up and the sound of her chair’s feet scratching across the floor nearly made her toes curl in her shoes -- so very unpleasant. She cleared her throat, wanting to make sure Zenahriel could be pulled from his meal. “I cannot begin to understand what that means, nor -- do I think I care. If this was your reason for coming to seek me out, then I am very sorry to tell you that your journey has been in vain. If it is within my power, and my power alone, to ensure the continuation of my species, I would like you to know, and I would like you to convey -- both of you -- to your beloved lord, that I would sooner die than see our cursed line carry on. How either of you could want to see more wretched vampyre’s in this world is beyond me, but if that mission requires my assistance in order to be successful, then consider it all a failure already.”

 

Glass-like fingernails upon ice-cold fingertips touched the edge of the table. She stood there for a moment, she lingered in silence as she swept her gaze between High Lord and An’She. 

 

“I am happy. I have my family. I could not ask for more, and I do not want for more. Please understand that. Now, begging your pardon...if that was all, I am afraid I must depart and leave you to enjoy the rest of your dinner in peace.” 

 

She didn’t know if it was a lie or if it was the truth. She didn’t know if she was happy -- finally happy. Roen could make her quite sad, and she felt sadness quite often, but she also knew that when she wasn’t with him, she ached for him. Whatever this was, it was new and it was hard, and perhaps it just required time. Or, perhaps, it was broken beyond repair, in which case she would find a way out for herself and for her son when the time was right. But for now, she felt a real sense of worry for her visitors. Should anyone overhear, should the devil overhear…

 

She couldn’t imagine it would go over well.

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With impeccable manners, Zenahriel dined quietly on the soup, taking care not to make a sound. No slurping, no loud swallowing, not even the click of spoon against bowl disturbed Rou’s speech. It was actually quite impressive, especially since his eyes did not once glance at the soup to guide his movements; his gaze remained focused solely on Rou Ji.

She said she would be frank, and she was. The explanation and offer was short and guileless, unadorned with pretty words or any needless complexity. Unfortunately, the simplicity did not make any of it more pleasant or endearing, especially not to the Black Queen herself. For all that Rou insisted that Gabriela could only benefit from her position as a ruler of Umbra – a generous offer indeed – the words still seemed to carry within it a veiled threat.

This was not what Rou meant, to be sure. Zenahriel could see that, could feel Rou’s sincerity and effort to remain calm and proper. But what was meant and what was heard were two entirely different stories, and he barely covered a pained grimace as Rou finally finished. To say the Black Queen was not receptive was a slight understatement, and every word she returned carried the message that they were to leave without further ado. That they, whoever they were, whatever their station, whatever their message or meaning or past relations, were unwelcome.

High Lords did not blush easily, if at all. Nevertheless, Zenahriel felt himself grow uncomfortably hot when the Black Queen voiced the greatest lie he had ever heard. It was then he could not help himself. He had restrained himself thus far, meandering away the time with the soup, now almost gone. He could do no more, and a great deal less… which he did not care for. He stood. The spoon clattered back onto the sides of the bowl.

“Your Grace.” Stern, mirthless, horribly respectful and angry at once.

“Yes, you have your family. Your son will benefit from your parentage and as such receive the finest of education wherever he is, whatever the place. With blessings given from all who know, he is safe from harm.” His eyes narrowed. “It is improper to leave…your guests… to themselves… but you are welcome to leave. You are Queen, after all.”

His voice lowered, almost a growl. “But do not lie to me that you are happy and want for nothing.”

He spun around to face Rou. “We are dismissed, Rou Ji.”

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