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Pasion Pasiva

The Art of the Deal

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Gabriela had become accustomed to getting her way on this strange adventure she had undertaken. The end goal of it all was still unclear, but there was a shape taking form in the mist of her mind -- a strange outline of something that at long last gave her a direction toward which she could orient herself. For too long she teetered on the tides of the wills of others, drifting back and forth without a will of her own, without so much as the old familiar hurt or anger that use to command her previous existence. But now there was something of consequence shaping itself from the experiences she thought she had left behind. And it was more than just a sense of curiosity that drew her closer and closer to this sense of purpose growing in the midst of the great and vast emptiness that had been left where her heart had once been, for there was nothing left that could be considered good, not as as wonder and inquisitiveness could be considered good and wholesome. There was only an impulse, and it was not recognized as either positive or negative. But she was fortunate that all of the stars had alined themselves in such a way as to allow her a beneficiary who tolerated her requests and could afford to fulfil the thread of this singular impulse, which today brought her here. 

 

She stood before a great tree and felt herself steep in the near divine-like silence that settled after the heavy clattering sound of marching boots died away. A small retinue of guards had met her near the entrance of the building -- a palace, a fortress, a castle -- she wasn’t particularly sure. When she had first set foot here, back when she had come to say her goodbyes to the Emperor, she had been delivered via airship and had never seen the structure from the outside. There had never been an opportunity to walk up to it like one of the common folk. This time around there was much walking, but nothing had been impeded which simply fed into her already inflated sense of destiny. This was all supposed to happen. The guards were waiting for her, as if they had been expecting her, and when she requested to pay her respects to the late Emperor, they gave a short nod and bow and escorted her forward. 

 

Now she was left alone, and she stood taking it in with her newly created human eyes, human ears, and human skin -- the speckled sun shining down through the dense tree canopy above, the cool breeze, nearly cold, which caused her skin to turn ugly with thousands of goosebumps. The cold was uncomfortable, and she never seemed to plan for it properly -- a sad, residual weakness from her previous life, when the elements had meant nothing to her. 

 

She shifted in her position and crossed her arms under her breasts to keep warm. Her benefactor kept her well dressed, a think that still meant a lot to Gabriela. Gone was her favor the color black, since it would fall a little too close to home with her appearance. She was already the spitting image of the Black Queen of Orisia, no need to drive the home point by dressing like her as well. Now she favored the color blue, which complimented her newly tanned flesh. Dressed in a high waisted maxi skirt of a dense, navy blue material, and a neatly tucked in white blouse with short cuffed sleeves, Gabriela appeared as a sophisticated lady but not quite the elegant creatures of the Orisia Isles. 

 

“I had my unborn child turned into a seed,” she spoke, quiet and soft, a confession perhaps. A small hand reached out and touched the rough surface of Titus’ tree -- her fingers, slender and long, spread and pressed against it. She seemed to be leaning there, resting a great and terrible weight against the massive, and unmoving trunk of the tree. “I had my unborn child turned into a seed so that...so that they could pull her out of me, so that she could wait and live at some other time, in some other place, away from me. I didn’t want to have her. I didn’t want her father to have her. I tell myself that I could have just aborted her -- it would have been my right. I tell myself many things these days. But the truth is…” 

 

Silence.

 

Gabriela fell silent. 

 

The truth would never leave her lips. The truth was sealed in a tomb inside of her, along with the remains of the two children she would never see again. The truth belonged to no one but her.

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She had changed, but it was her, and unmistakably so.

Pallas watched the queen through a dozen pairs of eyes. They were his own now: ink-black birds perched atop Lunaris' rooftops, lizards on the trellis, jewel-bright dragonflies flitting about the courtyard. He felt the clover that bent under her every footfall, the thrum of her breath on the tree that served as his father’s gravestone.

What is she doing here?

Under different circumstances, he would’ve simply assumed it was a courtesy call, as odd as it would’ve been. Perhaps the monarch of an island across the world had a habit of visiting her allies’ graves. Perhaps she’d rather liked Titus, when he was alive. Perhaps she’d wanted to see him again -- a thought Pallas immediately dismissed, feeling a prick of irritation at himself. Being self-centered today, aren’t we?

But there were enough irregularities here for him to worry. Gabriela was alone. Gabriela was mortal. The vampire queen was human, and had come unescorted, to Taen, and made a beeline to Cair Loeren. That was worrying. Worries from within Taen were bad enough -- body-snatching aliens, an deluge-apocalypse cult, a mountain from the land of nightmares. Worries from outside Taen, from beyond the borders his sight reached, were worse.

Pallas’ fingers found his right shoulder, that scarred stump that had once been a wing. The scars never softened, never smoothened, never changed. It was becoming a habit of his, tracing the whorls and spirals on the scar tissue whenever he was worried. Which, with him being the regent of Taen, was often. Whatever little precognition he was capable of now didn’t help things, and so Pallas seesawed between passive resignation and frantic action. 

In the end, the best course of action was often the direct one. The prince threw a cloak on over his clothes, clasping it lopsidedly on his neck so that the cloth concealed his right shoulder, and left the safety of his quarters.

He didn’t bother to muffle his footsteps or weave light around him to conceal his form. She would hear his approach as he crossed the marble walkway leading to the garden.

“Hello, Queen Gabriela. What brings you to Taen?”

It was altogether different seeing her with his own eyes. Well, eye, now. A flicker of self-consciousness soured his determination. How different he must look to her now, an eye and an arm less. She had changed too, yes, but mortality was a far cry from mutilation. Gone was the paleness of vampirism, the coldness, the alabaster beauty. The transformation was curious enough in itself, but it wouldn't be polite to ask about it right away.

Let’s just get this over with.

Pallas gave a short bow, the customary greeting. He cocked his head, studying her for a moment. “It’s a long way from Orisia. And you’ve come alone.” These were statements, spoken matter-of-factly, though not without politeness. The prince gestured back towards the coutyard’s entrance, towards the wing that led into the castle’s inner rooms. After a moment’s hesitation, he extended his hand - to beckon, for her to take, if she wished. 

“Come, you must be tired. There’s food and drink, and a place to sit.”

Their destination was not too far: a drawing room with comfortable seats and a few tables, and some food. Taen delicacies, all of them - golden cornbread with fruit jams and jellies, coconut and mango pies, slices of ham from that one wild boar invasion.

Edited by Csl

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Under different circumstances, he would have been exactly right -- this would have been a courtesy call to visit upon the grave of a fallen would-be allie, perhaps ordered at the behest of the devil himself, but delivered with all the gentle and genuine sentiment felt by the woman that she used to be. Under much different circumstances, she would have been here, standing in this very place, with ice in her veins rather than a chill upon her skin, and she would be contemplating the potential of life rather than it’s hopelessness. The circumstances of her life had changed, with what seemed a rather careless flip of a coin, everything was different -- and in some, undeniable ways, the same. 

 

“Hello, Queen Gabriela. What brings you to Taen?”

 

“Haven’t you heard? Was the news tossed and turned at sea, lost in a tempest and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, never to make it to the shores of this paradise? Perhaps…” she frowned, her back still turned to the prince, her mortal eyes narrowing as she examined the distant horizon, “...perhaps he has maintained it a secret.” 

 

What are you doing? Don’t talk in riddles, don’t mutter like a mad woman…

 

Her lips closed carefully, slowly, and then thoughtfully. Her frown deepened and she accepted the words of her subconscious, though they stung as much as they stunned. At long last, she removed her hand from the tree that she had been supporting herself against and turned to regard the good prince who had come to greet her, the young prince who did not deserve the venom of her words. 

 

Gone was the ice in her veins, the cold that allowed her to maintain a relatively composed facade. Her face was lively now, warmed with human blood and a throbbing heart quickened at the sight of him and the brutal changes he had undergone. It was difficult to take it all in -- to drink it all down at once -- so her eyes danced across his face, down his torso, to his missing arm, then down, down in shame, for a split second as her cheeks burned, before pride forced her to look back up to his face and into his one remaining eye. He did not deserve pity or embarrassment, he deserved to be regarded in the same capacity as anyone in his rank and position. 

 

“I am no longer a queen, and as for what has brought me to Taen -- distant memories of a fleeting moment of kindness between us, and the hope that it was not imagined.” 

 

Her jaw set, she could not overplay her hands, she could not overextend what little value had been created, if any, during that brief moment they had shared in the course of his father's funeral celebration. While she had been an ethereal beauty as a vampyre, in her new human guise she was astonishingly young. Gone with the grace and elegance of her native race, she was left only with the inexperience and warmth of humanity. Her aging had significantly slowed when her appearance reached that of twenty-two, though she wouldn’t stop aging until closer to middle age. As a human that would come much quicker, a reality she could almost swear she could feel happening to her from the moment she was changed. But here and now, she felt the inexperience of these human years in her body. Her blood felt young, her mind, everything…

 

She had come with intent, and a plan, and a certainty that her goals would be met.

 

But now as she felt the weight of Pallas’ eye upon her that uncertainty was melting away.

 

“Come, you must be tired. There’s food and drink, and a place to sit.”

 

“Thank you,” she replied, and she meant it -- at his suggestion, she realized that she was very tired, and thirsty. And although she was far from giving up, she set her hand in his, after noting his hesitation, and followed with an already sinking heart. “It is very kind of you to take the time to see me personally, Prince Pallas. I did not expect such a gesture.”

 

He walked her through the gardens and back toward the courtyard’s entrance. Arm in arm, at this point, they strolled together into a comfortable drawing room. She was glad for the spread, and more so for the seats besides a warm hearth. 

 

“And your family? How are they… May responsibilities have fallen upon your shoulders since the death of your father. Does that mean that your mother is not well? And, you...” Gabriela sat down, but her topaz-colored eyes peered up now, apologetic and sad, but concerned as well as she stole a glance at his shoulder, from which his arm had been taken. “You seem to have suffered greatly since I last saw you.”

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She stared.

Pallas accepted the scrutiny as he did much of everything these days - with a patient, inscrutable quiet, unflinching as she averted her eyes. He didn’t blame her. It’d taken him a month to gather the courage to look in the mirror. Then it had been easier than expected -- the face that looked back was his, and that was that. The ever-changing nature of things was a constant for immortal creatures such as he, and a few scars were of little consequence. He’d simply accepted it, as easily as a star adjusted its course through the heavens, and continued onwards, undeterred.

But she had not, he could see it-- Gabriela was still adjusting to the change that had come over her. There was an uncertainty to her motions, a new vulnerability. Mortality couldn’t be an easy burden to take. His own mother had struggled when she’d cut her ties with her makers, casting away her power for the agency, the freedom that the mutilation afforded.

She thanked him for seeing her personally. Pallas shrugged.

“I keep a close eye on everything that happens within this land. And of course,” said with a touch of amusement, as if she’d suggested he spin silver from smoke. “I should. You’re a guest.”

Pallas placed two mugs before them, one by one. They were delicately-carved things sculpted from a rich, fine-grained wood, with a solid weight unexpected of the material. As he poured coffee into both, the etchings on its sides grew dark with the heat. Tiny glyphs drew a scene of a mountain range, a sprawling forest, an endless sea.

“No cream or sugar, same as before?” He added milk to his with careful, deliberate motions - it was getting easier, but having a hand less drew out his daily tasks lengthier. Finally, he settled more comfortably in his seat, drink in hand, blowing lightly over the top of his mug, wings half-unfurled, draped across the arms of his seat.

Have you heard?

He hadn’t.

Pallas took a sip of his coffee. 

So, she wasn’t queen anymore. Interesting news, even if it only was interesting to him at the moment, because the person the news concerned was having tea and biscuits at his home.

“I don’t normally concern myself with matters outside Taen. Much less news from half a world away.” He said simply. “No offense meant. This land is quite… isolated from the rest of the world. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“But I’m sorry to hear that.” He cocked his head, a crease lining his brow. “Though I think I’m correct to assume you made that choice to step down, and it wasn’t forced on you?” He studied her with a solemn eye, with a gaze that had pierced space and time, but now only held mild interest.

“I’d imagine it was a difficult choice to make. I won’t congratulate you, but…” He raised his cup with a wry smile. “Perhaps a toast for a better future is in order?” 

Oh, how things change. He knew little about her, even less about her personal life. But she had been kind when they had spoken over half a year ago, and if she was in a better place, he was pleased for her. And yet that was one thing-- a favor was another. Pallas considered her words. A fleeting moment of kindness. He kept his face an image of quiet curiosity, his posture one of a prince at ease in his own castle.

It was a reason to be guarded. Among others.

It was true, he wasn’t fond of keeping up with politics, but he knew who she was -- who she had been. Queen of Orisia. Empress of the Carmine Dominion. Flighty, darting from place to place, accompanied with an ever-rotating cast of characters. Six months ago, she had come here accompanied by a man who’d held a city hostage from the Terran Empire. Now, she was alone. He didn’t need to know the details of her personal life -- he valued privacy, both of his own and of others. But if her relationships held weight in the ever-shifting web of political relations across the planet...

Pallas ran his thumb over the grain of his mug, tracing the figures carved in the wood. The empire valued its neutrality. He would be careful dealing with her, as he always was, but that did not mean being unkind.

“And your family?”

His gaze flickered up to meet hers again. Her concern was unexpected, if not unwelcome.

”Many responsibilities have fallen upon your shoulders since the death of your father.”

“Well. Shoulder.” Pallas said dryly. He chased the comment with a chuckle. Rein in that dark humor. “My family is well, as is the Empress. She rules the Empire still, but I’ve taken up the mantle of overseeing Taen a few months ago. The cities rule themselves well enough, but they need my guidance every so often. My rule extends beyond the settlements as well.” His gaze drifted past her, beyond the windows that looked out into Cair Loeren’s gardens. “It’s a strange land.”

He followed her gaze to his shoulder. “It’s fine. I lost it from… a misunderstanding of sorts, with my older brother. Not my twin- my mother’s first son. We’ve moved past it. He lives with us now. It’s good to have him be part of our family again.” It was the truth, albeit a rather short version of it. The workings of their family were complex enough. Gabriela didn’t need to know more than that.

Pallas set his mug on the table with a soft thud. “You still haven’t answered my question. You’ve come to request something, then?” He said it coolly, as a statement; without accusation, but mere curiosity.

Edited by Csl

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She enjoyed Pallas. She couldn’t quite decipher the reason why -- he was inconsequential if he could not be made to lend her aid, and even their short history together seemed to provide nothing but flimsy possibilities -- and yet, she found pleasure in watching him move and listening to him talk. It was the sound of his voice, masculine, deep, but measured and careful, with a hint of boyishness. It made her want to smile, it almost stirred that ancient feeling in the pit of her stomach, that sense of simple enjoyment, but even that feeling was nothing more than a memory now, and hardly the sort of thing that could produce any real sensation in her. 

 

Joy, like a man with a missing arm, was a phantom limb to Gabriela. 

 

“No cream or sugar, same as before?”

 

“Actually, in my humanity, I have come to discover I have quite the sweet tooth.”

 

Pallas was settled, and she did not mean to disturb him again. She added two cubes of sugar to her coffee and a generous splash of cream. As a vampyre, the smell of coffee had been heavenly, but as a human, the taste was not entirely as pleasant. Sugar and cream made the entire affaire bearable. Careful of the heat, she took a sip of coffee and let the liquid warm her as it settled in her stomach, searing on its path down her throat. 

 

“I don’t normally concern myself with matters outside of Taen. Much less news from half a world away. No offense meant. This land is quiet… Isolated from the rest of the world. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

 

She took another sip of coffee and kept her eyes set on the pleasantly colored liquid within. 

 

“But I’m sorry to hear that. Though I think I’m correct to assume you made that choice to step down, and it wasn’t forced on you?”

 

Honey colored eyes, sweet and warm as her expression was severe and serious, regarded his one. Behind her neatly set teeth, for she found herself keenly aware of the fact that she should not clench her jaw, there was a tempest of words rising and falling upon her tongue. Things she wanted to say. Things that maybe she should say -- like a fair warning regarding the insatiable hunger of the Carmine Empire, and the man who headed the Dominion. But she kept quiet, and decided to listen rather than speak. 

 

“I’d imagine it was a difficult choice to make. I won’t congratulate you, but...perhaps a toast for a better future is in order?”

 

“Yes,” she replied, a smile on her lips. She felt cold and dead inside, as if numbness was spreading from her heart and outward, stilling everything. Something about all of this felt like death. Toasting to a better future, when all that she had wanted, all that she had hoped for, and the lives of her children had been choices that had been ripped from her clutching hands. But she smiled, and positioned her coffee mug. “To a better future. A better future for me, and a better future for all -- I hope to be of more use on a global platform rather than isolating myself to the affairs of my small country, especially now that Orisia has joined the Carmine Empire. Do humans usually toast with coffee? I imagine it’s too early for champagne.” 

 

She would drink champagne. 

 

She would drink bottles of it right about now. 

 

The conversation carried on in a strange sort of way, moving at the peace that dreams often do -- slow when you’re in them, quickly when you realize you’ve only just been dreaming. He spoke of his responsibilities, and there was a distance in his gaze as he ventured an almost longing look beyond a window, and then he was with her again. She wondered, with a dull throb in her chest, how many times she had worn that dreamy expression when talking about or thinking about Orisia. 

 

“You still haven’t answered my question. You’ve come to request something, then?”

 

“Yes,” she said with a nod, setting her coffee down and gathering her hands on her lap. “As I am sure you know, or could guess to know, walking away from the responsibilities of a country is not easy. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. I didn’t walk away so much as I… I simply disappeared, thus my change. What better way to hide my identity but to change it completely. Therefore, I am not surprised you haven’t heard about my stepping down. I don’t suppose that is something the Carmine Empire will want to reveal, at least not until they can put a proper spin on it.”

 

She shrugged and it was a small thing, careless almost. How much could she say without giving away the utter heartache of her fate? She needed to make her presence here believable, and that meant sticking to the truth for as long as the path allowed.

 

“As for me -- there were certain projects I was working on, things that remain upon my mind even now that I attempt to find out who I am with this new identity and where I will fit in the world. I was somewhat involved in the production and distribution of aid to Yh’mi, a task I took upon myself, in no small part, thanks to your father.”

 

Gabriela smiled then, a genuine smile, a small and somewhat sad smile.

 

“I never spoke two words to the man, and he managed to pull me out of myself and made me see the good that I was capable of doing as the Queen of Orisia, beyond the Orisian shores. It is something that I wish to continue to do, but now I lack many of the resources. I have come to ask for your support, and that of the Veluriyam Empire, both financially and militistic, in the completion of my mission to deliver and oversee support to Inns’th, and of course, Yh’mi as a whole. I go by a new name now, Isabella Morcia Marquez, and while I still hold some sway over the shipments of produce that are being delivered from Orisia to Inns’th, I lack the personal resources to create the proper persona to direct these dealings. I had assets here in Terrenus,” Gabriela frowned, looking away as a bit of color painted her cheeks, “--accounts, but everything was frozen or lost due to my being a forgein monarch and the connections I had with both Raphael Bartolome and Roen. Essentially, I cannot count on anything from my past life.”

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Pallas watched, mildly amused, as Gabriella added sugar and cream to her drink. A sweet tooth, discovered in humanity. He regarded her with an expression almost approaching fondness. Adorable.

Reluctant as he was to admit it, but he was glad for her company. He left Cair Loeren rarely these days, and ventured outside Taen even less. The great, sprawling corridors of the castle, grand as they were, were a dizzying, inescapable maze. His responsibilities in overseeing Taen were ever-present and suffocating. And yet he clung to the worry with work, speaking with secretaries and governors, poring over policy drafts, spying over the cities with a thousand and one eyes.

Gabriela answered his first questions with one word. Yes. Succinct. Simple.

But answers, Pallas knew, rarely were simple. There was more of her story left unspoken. He’d seen her jaw tighten, her shoulders tense ever-so-slightly, her fingers stiffen, near-unnoticeable, where they clutched the cup.

Perhaps his mother would’ve subtly shifted the discussion to get the answers. Perhaps his brother would’ve put her at ease, loosening her lips, and let her trust him enough to tell the whole truth.

But he was neither of them. He wouldn’t pry.

If even a fraction of the stories what she’d suffered at the hands of her consorts were true… he simply be glad for her, that she’d chosen to leave.

He clinked his cup against hers. It made a less-than-satisfying sound, being wood and all.

“I hope to be of more use on a global platform rather than isolating myself to the affairs of my small country”

A wise decision, Pallas thought, very aware that he was isolating himself to the affairs of his own country. Gabriela did seem to be the altruistic sort, and perhaps helping others was her way of coping.

Champagne? His brow furrowed. For a moment, his perfectly-composed demeanor gave way to a lopsided, sheepish grin. “Oh, probably, yes.” He moved to set his drink down, stopped halfway through the motion, then placed it decisively on the table. “Too late for that, but the sentiment’s there.”

He listened attentively as she continued talking, his single amber eye fixed on her. She spoke of walking away from her responsibilities, of the Carmine Empire spinning the truth. Of distributing aid to Yh’mi. Of his father.

Pallas’ expression was unreadable once more, his mouth pressed in a thin line.

Ah, Titus.

Funny, really, how he wouldn’t be here if not for his father. Sometimes, days would pass without the man crossing Pallas’ mind. It was nice to know his father had had such an impact, going out and inspiring people, whilst he, Pallas, moped in his castle doing paperwork and worrying about the future. Mildly surprising, even-- what counted as his childhood, he and his brother had spent with Rozharon. Titus was a distant figure in their minds, barely spoken to, known to them only by his accomplishments. And then, all too sudden, he was gone, and only those accomplishments remained.

“That’s a noble cause.” Pallas said. He took note of the name she gave, mentally filing it away. He’d ask Lenore about it later, see what his twin knew. “The Order of the White Hand are our allies, and I support any initiative that assists them in their duty. I can’t speak for the empire as a whole, but I may be able to give you support through Taen. Though I can’t promise it -- not yet.”

He was silent for a few moments, composing his next words. Pallas met his gaze. “Forgive me if I sound rude -- you’ve given me little reason to distrust you, and I don’t want to intrude on your privacy. But it’s no secret your past associates are… let’s say… risky, to be involved with. If there are any risks involved if I decide to help you, I believe I should know. I prefer to keep out of the more messy affairs of world politics.”

There was certainly a risk -- Orisia had joined the Carmine Dominion, and the loudest whisper of news spoke of Gabriela crowned as empress. What was that Hyperion’s empress had said about Raphael, during the Alliance’s first gathering? ...”he does not meddle in their affairs unless it affects the Empire directly”

Having Carmine’s escaped empress over for coffee was, Pallas was almost certain, something that affected the empire directly.

It couldn’t be easy being in her situation.

His expression grew sympathetic. “If there’s a risk to you, personally, I’d like to know as well. However, I do promise your safety from as long as you’re here within Taen.” He spoke it not as assurance, but as a fact. There was that quality to his speech now, one that hadn’t been present when they’d first met. Of some things, he spoke with utmost certainty, with offhand confidence borne not of arrogance but of knowledge.

The land was his, after all.

“Perhaps you can begin by telling me how you found your way to Terrenus, and by whose assistance you've come here to Taen” his gaze swept across her, pensive, “and if you don't mind -- how you became human.”

Edited by Csl

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“Forgive me if I sound rude -- you’ve given me little reason to distrust you, and I don’t want to intrude on your privacy. But it’s no secret your past associates are… let’s say… risky, to be involved with. If there are any risks involved if I decide to help you, I believe I should know. I prefer to keep out of the more messy affairs of world politics.”

 

Gabriela’s shoulders sank, it seemed perhaps that it was in defeat until her form rolled back and relaxed into the chair. Up until now her posture had been upright, rigid, and somewhat tight. There was something in the pleasantries that came before honest and genuine political discourse that made her uncomfortable, especially now that she was human. Before, when she was a vampyre, she simply relied on the ice in her veins, and the comforting numbness that swept her away whenever the pretenses of courtesy were meant to be kept.  

 

But this -- this was her bread and butter. 

 

She saw the look on his face -- that gentle, almost endearing touch of sympathy. As if he cared, truly cared. It threatened to shake her heart and, perhaps even to thaw it. Gone was the cold from her blood, but her heart had never been more completely encased in ice than now. It had to be for the things to come. But seeing that look, not of pity and not faked commiseration, no -- it was a look of yearning, a timid desire to understand, masked perhaps by the purporting of politics. It made her want to get up and run away, go away, leave before he reached out and touched a part of her that was atrophied, and certainly, almost dead. But did she, in return, glimpse in him a distant cry of lonesomeness? Or was it just a reflection of her own, ever-growing isolation…

 

“Perhaps you can begin by telling me how you found your way to Terrenus, and by whose assistance you’ve come here to Taen, and if you don’t mind -- how you became human.”

 

“There is a reason, Prince Pallas, that I have taken a new name along with my new existence as a human. The mere fact that I sit here, before you, partaking of coffee -- quite embarrassed that I cannot control blushes from rising in my cheeks, or sweat from breaking on my brow -- that very fact should speak to the severity of the situation I was in and my desperation to escape it. You know exactly who my past associates are -- all of Terrenus, all of Valucre -- knows who they are, for they have made it their life's mission to ensure that their reputations precede them. They are not good men. If you have any doubt on the matter, if you are uncertain for any reason, allow me to educate you. They are evil men.”

 

Gabriela gave a small shrug, and dropped her gaze down to the coffee mug that sat atop her knees. A frown creased her brows, and her pretty face seemed all the lovelier for her thoughtfulness as she allowed the silence to stretch on for a moment past uncomfortable. 

 

“I can tell you how I found my way to Terrenus, I can tell you how I made my way to Taen -- I can even tell you the tale of my transformation from vampyre to human. I can tell you of the first pure-blooded child, conceived since my own birth more than three hundred years ago, that was pulled from my womb. Raphael’s heir -- aborted in the filthy confines of a loud, and crowded nightclub in Biazo because I chose to end it’s life rather than have any part in the continued existence of my kind -- the continued existence of vampyres,” she looked at him, her eyes clear, devoid of tears though her voice trembled and nearly broke, “-- and not because I hate my kind, Prince Pallas, but because under the rule of my cousin, my people are monsters creatures. Under my cousin, people are treated as cattle. He perverted the vision I had for Orisia, and turned my paradise into a nightmare. As a royal pair, the fruit of our union would set off a chain reaction that would have allowed the dwindling population of Orisian vampyres to become fertile, to procreate. I could not allow it. Leaving, ending the life of our child, and turning human was the only way I could hope to fight and win against impossible odds. I have consigned my people to extinction.”

 

He couldn’t promise her assistance, not before he knew the truth -- not before he understood the risk. 

 

There was only one secret worth keeping now.

 

There was only one lie that she had to protect. 

 

The greatest risk to Tean did not sit upon a dying throne a thousand miles away, over oceans and mountains. The greatest risk to Tean was not rotting away in some utterly inconsequential pit, desperately pretending not to care but failing miserably as it died of heartache. 

 

The greatest risk to Tean sat there, across from the Prince, holding a cup of coffee, telling a tale of sorrow and determination. She sat there, a petite woman, a lovely woman -- a beautiful woman, hardly more than that to anyone, hardly more than that to the most powerful men in the world, a tragic mistake they would live to regret. 

 

“The truth is, Prince Pallas, I cannot say with certainty what my importance is to these past associates anymore,” she tilted her head from side to side as if weighing options she did not dare speak, or perhaps could not properly articulate. And then, after a pause, she shifted her amber-colored gaze back to him. “For the sake of prudence, I am taking precautions -- but from what I’ve heard, neither Raphael nor Roen, care about the disappearance of the Black Queen of Orisia. As for myself, I traded my mostly immortal life for this -- this human existence, this short, precious existence. I don’t know how many more years I have left. Perhaps a full life? Sixty years? Perhaps I’ll trip on a rug on my way out of your beautiful palace and break my skull against a stone. Who knows… But I refuse to live this life of mine in fear and without purpose.”

 

She smiled, a tired and somewhat sad smile -- but genuine, relieved. 

 

“No one knows who I am anymore, but I am still myself. And there is so much good I can do, Prince Pallas. So much I was prevented from doing because I was constantly bound to the whims and desires of others. So much I could not do because a crown weighed me down. I am here now, of my own volition, seeking assistance for a cause that is, I believe, monumentally important. I feel like I am finally doing what I was always meant to do.”

 

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If he’d had the digits for it, Pallas would’ve steepled his fingers, would’ve leaned forward, brow furrowed in concern, as a tragic tale spilled from the lips of the former queen.

As it was, he let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding; a slow hiss of an exhale.

There was a lot to unpack here. He’d just upend the briefcase.

Pallas took a moment to compose his thoughts. Once he put his mind to it, it wasn’t all that hard to be like his mother. He was born from a fragment of her, after all. Where they differed, the place his being split from her, was this: he sought nothing from the woman before him. She wasn’t a stepping stone, wasn’t an opportunity to be taken, wasn’t a connection to be forged.

“You’ve... been through a lot.” Sympathetic. ”A difficult choice to make, indeed. I’m happy for you, truly—” and he was, “—that you’ve left all that behind you.”

Oh, to cut all ties, slip on a new skin, and leave everything behind.

“But let’s be honest, Isabela.” A new identity entailed a new name; he spoke the one she’d chosen casually, as nothing more than an afterthought. It fit too well; a mere coat of paint over an old sign.

He fixed her with a flat stare. “I find it hard to believe neither of your ‘past associates’ are looking for you.” Was the upturned corner of his mouth from amusement, at the absurdity of what she’d said? Was it a shadow of a mocking grin? Was it a pitying smile of one watching a child’s poor attempts to lie? Was it a gentle smile that prompted honesty? It was ambiguous; what Isabela would make of it, Pallas knew not.

“You’ve said it so yourself. Their reputations precede them. They are not good men. They are evil men. Narcissists—to give their kind a name—rarely react well to their playthings running away.”

Pallas paused to let his words linger, the weight of his gaze heavy on his guest. “Let me be blunt. Everyone knows the story by now.”

The pressure of his scrutiny lifted as he turned. He wrapped his fingers around his cup, then brought it to his lips.

When he spoke, it was with the light, casual cadence of one relaying an anecdote to an acquaintance. 

“Everyone knows the cat-and-mouse game the Black Queen of Orisia’s played with her two lovers, swinging back and forth between them like a metronome.” The choice of words here was deliberate. Her, not you. The Black Queen, not Isabela. Deliberate names to distance two persons, to draw lines between rumor and reality. “Countless times she’s run away from her empire, they say. Countless times she’s returned — whether by her own will or by the will of others, the stories differ.”

Pallas shrugged. “I’m young, I know. I’ve ruled Taen for less than a year, been cognizant little more than that. But by no means am I naive. I know patterns. I know how nature iterates, turning over itself, again and again. I know the births and death of civilizations, the turning wheel of eons. I know the comfort of familiarity, the yearning to return to what should have been left behind. I know old lives do not die, but must have their throats slit.”

I’ve watched my mother slit hers. I’ve slit mine myself, not too long ago.

Once again, his gaze turned to her. A single sun-pale eye, at once intensely attentive and indifferent as a dead sky. The half-smile remained, frozen on his lips.

“Perhaps the story is too quick to pin the blame on the Queen, who is, after all, the victim. Cycles are spirals, are mazes, are traps. Abuse is a cycle. Perhaps the wheel has turned too many times that she believes the pain is deserved, that the pattern is unbreakable, that this is all there is. Perhaps she finds comfort in the familiarity.”

He cradled the cup in his palm. “Some say the queen is a mere puppet, a much-coveted pawn trapped on a board between two kings, captured and recaptured, tossed from one captor to another. But—”

The cup returned to its place on the table.

“—but, But contrary to what the stories say, I’d like to believe the queen is more than a puppet.”

The smile disappeared, replaced by a somber expression. There was something curious in his eyes; something not unlike a raven eyeing a gleaming ring discarded on a street.

“I’d like to believe that, perhaps, she breaks the wheel for good, this time. That she buries that old life six feet deep. That perhaps, she would realize she is not a pawn, but a queen.”

Pallas gave a dry laugh. The sound rippled through the stillness of the room. “Perhaps, in this situation, someone else would have decided to intervene on the queen’s behalf. Take her under their wing. make better life choices. Perhaps it would even be in one’s best interest to accept a former queen as part of their court.”

He shrugged. “But my family values choice, above all. Agency. The freedom to decide the paths of one’s life. You cared for your people. You’d like to help others, to the best of your ability.”

How selfless. There it was again, the bitterness rising in his throat. The best of your ability. Oh, for things to be that simple. For aid to be as straightforward as sending soldiers to fight against a rising tide of evil. To look upon a problem and see only the surface, to be blind to the dangers underneath.

“I can empathize with that. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Lenore wouldn’t, not in his place. There was nothing to gain here; he owed her nothing, she had nothing to offer. Maybe Asterion’s right, maybe I’m a good person after all. An amusing thought.

Why was he doing this? Ever-spiralling patterns. Cycles spinning inwards and downwards.

“Anyway,” Pallas sighed. “I’m not concerned about Roen kicking down Cair Loeren’s doors and demanding I share your whereabouts. He’s part of the Alliance, and as far as I’m aware, not an idiot. Raphael’s a god of some sort, but not on this continent.” A pause, a strange intensity flaring in his eye. “Not in this land.”

“I may have a proposition, something that help you in your goal, and benefits my own ends. But look me in the eye first, and tell me—”

The prince met her gaze. 

“—are you set on this path you’ve taken?

 

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“You’ve… been through a lot. A difficult choice to make, indeed. I’m happy for you, truly -- that you’ve left all that behind you.”

 

Gabriela couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t stomach it. The inevitable pity was coming, and how could it not? There was only one way to tell her story, and no matter how straightforward, or matter-of-fact she was, the results were always the same. He had asked for the truth -- the truth in exchange for the possibility of his aid, but now came the blanket of victimhood. The very shawl she was desperately trying to cast off. And she couldn’t blame him for it. It was the indication of a moral heart to feel sorrow for injustice and lamentation for the hardships of others. Pallas was not out of line for his sympathies, the fault lies in her own shriveled and impacted heart, which was incapable of accepting any such sentiments. 

 

“But let’s be honest, Isabella… I find it hard to believe neither of your ‘past associates’ are looking for you.”

 

The weight of his stare drew her eyes back to him. She saw that curl flirting along the edge of his lips -- a smirk, a grin, a smile. Whether mocking or pitying, the sentiment was the same. He found her foolish, either for trying to lie to him or to herself. 

 

“You’ve said it so yourself. Their reputations precede them. They are not good men. They are evil men. Narcissists--to give their kind a name--rarely react well to their playthings running away.”

 

It was not the first time that Gabriela had been referred to as a plaything. A pensive frown touched her brows, which he would be free to interpret as he wished. The problem was, as it seemed to constantly be with individuals who tried to perceive the terrible complexities of her past relationships with both her cousin as well as the devil, that he underestimated her value to these men in one breath while admitting her supposed importance in another. She knew she had never been a plaything to Raphael or Roen. To the the Emperor of the Carmine Empire, she was the key to the continual procreation of his entire species and his intended centuries before her birth, and as for the devil -- in whatever capacity he was capable of loving, he loved her. But surely that only served to prove Pallas’ point. 

 

“Let me be blunt. Everyone knows the story by now. Everyone knows the cat-and-mouse game the Black Queen of Orisia’s played with her two lovers, swinging back and forth between them like a metronome. COuntless times she’s run away from her empire, they say. Countless times she’s returned -- whether by her own will or by the will of others, the stories differ.”

 

This was to be expected, but it didn’t make it any less difficult to listen to. It wasn’t the first time, and she knew that on this long path, it wouldn’t be the last time she would have to sit under the scrutiny of someone who demanded answers before lending her support. Of course it made sense -- but it did not make any of it less painful. And to think, that somehow she had believed herself immune to the humiliation of her past life. It was worse now, as a human, when blood came up and colored her cheeks and warmed her throat, and dried her mouth. 

 

“I’m young, I know. I’ve ruled Taen for less than a year, been cognizant little more than that. But by no means am I naive. I know patterns. I know how nature iterates, turning over itself, again and again. I know the births and death of civilizations, the turning of the wheel of eons. I know the comfort of familiarity, the yearning to return to what should have been left behind. I know old lives do not die, but must have their throats slit.”

 

They were looking at each other -- him with his pale, golden eyes, and she with her two topaz-sun-kissed ones. Though she could not do much about the warmth that rose in her cheeks and the glow that dusted her lashes, as if tears were gathering, the steel in her gaze and the ice behind it, the intent in her own heart, that was her own and not subject to her new human body. She met and kept his gaze, passive and clam as he told her what he knew, as so many men had before him. But it was the smile upon his face, his sweet and charming face, which she had considered boyishly handsome just moments ago, which now made her uncomfortable. 

 

“Perhaps the story is too quick to pin the blame on the Queen, who is, after all, the victim. Cycles are spirals, are mazes, are traps. Abuse is a cycle. Perhaps the wheel has turned too many times that she believes the pain is deserved, that the pattern is unbreakable, that this is all there is. Perhaps she finds comfort in the familiarity.”

 

That frown of hers grew deeper.

 

“Some say the queen is a mere puppet, a much coveted pawn trapped on a board between two kings, captured and recaptured...but contrary to what the stories say, I’d like to believe the queen is more than a puppet.”

 

Gabriela arched a brow.

 

His smile faded, and he looked at her -- truly looked at her. And for a moment, while she held her breath, she wondered if he might actually see her. If he could see her intentions, the hatred she held in what was left of her heart, or if he had realized the very thing Roen had known all along -- she was a monster. 

 

“I’d like to believe that, perhaps, she breaks the wheel for good, this time. That she buries that old life six feet deep. That perhaps, she would realize she is not a pawn, but a queen.”

 

But the Queen is gone, and I am all that is left. 

 

He laughed, and she deflated internally, withdrawing back into those deepest and darkest parts of herself.

 

He didn’t see her.

 

No one saw her.

 

“Anyway, I’m not concerned about Roen kicking down Cair Loeren’s door and demanding I share your whereabouts. He’s part of the Alliance, and as far as I’m aware, not an idiot. Raphael’s a god of some sort, but not on this continent. Not in this land. I may have a proposition, something that may help you in your goal, and benefits my own ends. But look me in the eye first, and tell me, are you set on this path you’ve taken?”

 

Should she correct his misconstructions? Should she defend the mistakes of character, of history, of events… She thought of the Black Queen of Orisia, of who she had been, of what she had tried to do. Isabella smiled softly and sadly. It was a small and private smile, but heartfelt. She smiled for that woman because she had striven for so much. The Orisian Queen had been the absolute pinnacle of benevolence, now that she could look back upon it. She had lived a life of impossible standards and that had left her handicapped and vulnerable to the worst kind of evil and malice. She was that foolish, foolish creature who could not bear to sacrifice a single soul even for the greater good, not without questioning what it would do to the moral good of the whole that was left. And in the end that was her downfall. It wasn’t Roen or Raphael, it was her own set of morals that she could not break from, not even to escape the worst of atrocities. But unfortunately for Gabriela, she did not die a hero -- she simply lived long enough to see herself become the villain

 

This pause, it might seem to Pallas as if she had been taking some careful consideration of his question, and now that she met his gaze she was ready to give him her answer. Her intention was not to belittle the words the young prince had said, or the knowledge he meant to share. But she found it hard to find traces of herself or her past life in the story he tried to weave, or rather the story others wove for him, the story he chose to believe. 

 

“The thing about the kind of creature I used to be… the first time I ran away from Raphael, I was a thirteen year old girl, it took him three hundred years to find me. You are most certainly right that he will be looking for me -- whether out of love or revenge, I couldn’t tell you. It is hard to lose a beloved plaything, I suppose. But he will be searching for a vampyre, and so he will be searching within a very different time frame. This short, human lifespan is a gift. This change is irreversible. So there is only one path left for me -- to finish the work of the Black Queen, the work she could never finish as the Black Queen. I am set upon this path.”

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