114 ~ Anala

The absence of a warm body beside her woke Bellica Anala from her after-party slumber. Stretching and rolling over, she blearily rubbed the sleep from her eyes and checked her water-clock. Ten ante-meridian. Not too bad, she thought to herself. Almost seven hours. Really good, actually, considering they’d been at the party until far past midnight, and then had continued said party when they’d reached her quarters.

She smiled, listening to the sound of the shower running. Last night had probably been the most fun she’d had at a party — even considering the party’s occasion and what was scheduled for later on today, just after the noon hour. For once, no eyes had been on her and Aro. They had been invisible, as the gazes of courtiers and journalists alike had been fixed on the subtle dance of insult and privilege played out among Zardria, Zanny, and Yarrow. The three women had stalked each other like cats throughout the entire party, insulting one another, taking one another’s dance partners, making thinly veiled remarks and — in the case of Zardria to her sister — threats. It had never been so clear as on the night of the first of Duema that the twin daughters of Zameera were anything but twins.

It had been rough on Yarrow, Anala could see, and while she was concerned for her friend, there had been nothing she could do. So she had been selfish — Fer once! — and taken the chance to drink her fill of wine, eat her fill of dessert, and dance all night with her lover — and then take him back to her room for what might well be their last free night together for a while.

And we dinnae waste it, she thought, stretching and groaning at the soreness in her muscles, pleasant as the feeling was. Well, pleasant save for the wound in her side, which, though completely healed thanks to Ghia, still hurt from time to time, usually when there was a change in the weather.

She’d heard of such a phenomenon before — peoples’ old wounds acting as barometers for the world around them — but hadn’t imagined it would ever apply to her. She hadn’t imagined that about a lot of things. Akin bein’ Magi, fer one.

Since her escape from Voco, and before and after the deployment to Aeril, Anala had talked a lot with Ghia — both women had had questions, and their conversations brought them closer to answers then they’d been before, as well as fostering a good friendship.

It was strange, because the old Anala would have wildly denied all that Ghia had told her, and probably denounced the girl as a witch, feeling righteous as the flames consumed the healer’s form, smoke obscuring the same truth about the bellica. She was no longer that person, as if leave and Voco had ripped away a shell she’d been wearing for years, exposing the real woman beneath. As if Aro’s love, and that strange catharsis she’d had at her father’s table, had cleansed her old wounds, allowing them finally to heal.

She’d been open to the truth, when Ghia had presented it. Her mother, Hope, had been part Magi, as had her Aunt Chairty, Ghia’s mother. That was the truth as far as they knew it. Accepting Ghia as her cousin had been easier and more of an honour than accepting her Exsil Vis lineage. Or the possibility that she was the product of an incestuous relationship — Ghia had shown her the necklace with the crest of their family on it and shared her conclusion that Hope and Charity were not Exsil Visian by marriage alone. That combined with Lares’ report of Hope’s actual age seemed to cinch it — Hope was probably of an older generation of the Exsil Vis family, and had married back into the line for some strange reason neither Ghia or Anala could fathom. It went against all convention and common decency.

As did bearing children in such a relationship, but Hope had borne Anala, secured her sister’s escape with the baby bellica through a liaison with Merry, and had then borne Miranda, many years later. The little spy had disappeared, for Anala had searched the castle high and low looking for her. When I find ‘er she’d be ‘aving some explaining ta do, too. The girl was young, though — maybe they could rehabilitate her into Atherian society, get her to break her ties to her father. She couldn’t have much love for the man: he was a monster. She certainly couldn’t suffer the usual fate of spies — she was naught but ten years old! And, spy or nae, she’d be me sister, and a mite too young ta be sure what she’d be doing.

That depended on finding her in the first place. She could be on her way back to Voco already, for all Anala knew — and if that was the case she was out of their sphere of influence until Yarrow took the Sceptre from her sister. She wondered if Miranda’s childhood had been better or worse than hers. Monster or no, Lord Exsil Vis had said he liked to dote on his daughter. Perhaps she got some small happiness in return for the abuses she no doubt suffered. She certainly had had Hope to guard her back, at least until recently. If Miranda hadn’t left Athering yet, she probably didn’t know her mother was dead. Anala wondered how she would take the news. Not well, in all likelihood.

Anala herself had taken the news…well, without much emotion. She felt sorrow for the woman she’d not had a chance to know, and now never would, but there had not been a great deal of grief. Nothing, compared to what Jules was no doubt going through over his father’s death. She supposed when Tenea’s time came, she would feel that pain. because Tenea was the closest thing to a mother she had. Her foster mother had shown her little to no motherly affection when she had been a child; her foster father had used harsh words and blows and slaps to get his point across. Adem had always been their favourite, and when he died they blamed her for it. The truth, as she knew it now, did not excuse anything her foster parents had done — but it had clarified many mysteries in her life.

Her high tolerance for alcohol, for one. According to Ghia, full Magi couldn’t get intoxicated from it at all, and there were, apparently, differing tolerances in human-Magi. Her fast healing capacity, for another. She had always recovered from scrapes and wounds with amazing speed, and the wound she’d received in Voco should have killed her, even with the healing store Ghia had given her. Then, her immense charisma, that made men and women pledge and give their lives for her. She’d had no idea what possessed the frenzied, passionate devotion that her regiment and her Honour Guard had for her, or what had driven Trent and Merrik to give their lives for her in her flight from Voco.

Tears stung her eyes, and she knew they shone gold, as they always had during peak emotions. Now she knew why.

She wanted the whole story, dammit!

Not even Magea Rosa had been able to give them that. Upon her return from Aeril, Ghia had introduced her to her Magi mentor, and while the old Anala would have screamed, run the tree-being through with her sword, and set it on fire, the new Anala had just made a small “o” shape with her mouth and nodded, as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence to talk to trees. Perhaps for the devotees of the Meliae, it was, but she was not a priestess sworn to tree nymphs. She was a bellica whose most religious experiences consisted of praying for victory, blessing her sword, and occasionally blacking out during battle only to wake and find that she’d fought like the goddess Bellona Herself, which she could only assume was an instance of being possessed by a goddess or demi-goddess, unbelievable as that seemed. For the most part she did not talk to things that usually didn’t talk back. Like trees. Or swords.

There was a first time for everything, and this tree did talk back. With quite a lot of intelligence and a flair for conversation. Rosa was full of good advice for Anala’s newly found Magi self, so the bellica had started going with Ghia to her training sessions and, more recently, to a few one-on-one sessions with Rosa. She wasn’t getting the full gamut of magekal training that Ghia was receiving, for Rosa said her powers were not fully awakened, and most likely not the same as Ghia’s, although they were as yet untested and unknown. Her Magi self was something Rosa had never seen before. Anala didn’t know whether she should feel flattered or scared. She settled for a middle ground between the two.

Presently the water in the shower shut off, and she heard footsteps as Aro got out. She didn’t move, though she knew she should get up and shower herself. Aro stepped out of the bathroom then, wearing nothing more than a towel and some droplets of water on his skin. Seeing her still in bed, he laughed softly. “Wake up, you,” he said, teasing.

“I’d be awake,” she said.

“Then get up, lazybones,” he said and ducked the pillows she flung at him. Then, before she could get up of her own volition, he picked her up and flung her over his shoulder. She flailed wildly, hitting his back with her hands and kicking her feet, trying to get him to let her go.

“Put me down, Aro,” she said, trying to keep the laughter from her voice. “Ye’d do it if ye’d know what was good fer ye.”

“Alright,” he said, but they were already in the bathroom by that point. Gently he let her down, holding her close as he slid her naked body down against his damper one. When her feet hit the ground he kissed her fervently and held her tight. Anala wrapped her arms around his neck and surrendered to the embrace, wishing she’d awakened earlier, so they’d have more time alone.

As if reading her thoughts, he broke off the kiss and spoke. “We have a few hours before the Ceremony,” he whispered, nibbling her ear gently.

“Aye, but ye’ve just showered.”

“I could shower again.” He paused as he moved to nibble her other ear. “With you.”

She kissed his neck tenderly and shook her head. “As temptin as it’d be, today’d be a friend’s birthday, and I’d only have this time ta spend with her.” She looked at him pointedly.

He sighed and nodded, letting her go so she could shower. “I hear and obey, Bellica,” he said, only a little teasing in his tone.

“Good,” she said, and grabbed his towel from his waist. He protested and moved to grab it from her but she held it out of reach with one arm and held him back with the other, hand pressed flat against his bare chest. “Ye need ta get dressed, Major, and I’d be out o’ clean ones besides,” she said sweetly.

He growled, pulled her close and kissed her again. “Have you know that towel was the only thing keeping me from ravishing you right here,” he said against her lips.

“Well, now it ken be me orders. Go. Get dressed.” She gave his arm a light swat and Aro laughed.

“Yes Ma’am,” he said, saluting smartly and about-facing from her. “Foul temptress,” he muttered, though not soft enough for her to miss it.

“Aye,” she said good-naturedly and, after admiring the view as he left the bathroom, climbed into the shower for a good, hot wash.

~

Anala was well received by Yarrow once the other bellica stopped growling about being waked up so early and saw her gift.

“It’d be eleven ante-meridian a’ready, Yarrow. Hardly early.”

Yarrow snarled at her and sat down at her desk, head in hands. “It is, when you’re this hungover.” Blearily she stared at her empty bed, a lack of comprehension on her face. “I could have sworn Caelum was in that bed last night,” she said. “Or was I just that drunk?”

“I’d not know,” Anala said practically, kicking the door closed behind her. “Ye left the party far after we did.”

Yarrow snorted, an expression that took her entire body to make. “If you can call that a party. More like a bitch-fest for my family and me.”

“Aye, that it was.” She grinned in the face of Yarrow’s glare. “But I dinnae care much, fer it was a time when no one cared sa much about Anala the Harbourtown Cretin and her major — or what her major may be ta her behind closed doors.”

Yarrow gave her the most sardonic look she’d ever given anyone, and then sighed and relaxed back in her chair. “Well, I’m glad someone had a good time. But your happiness is not helping my hangover nor my mood, so I hope you have something like a puppy, or — better yet — porn behind your back, because I need some cheering up.”

Anala shook her head, bringing the cloth-wrapped gift around from where she’d held it behind her. “Nothin’ sa good as that — but it’d be summat a hangover cure, ye ken.”

Yarrow took it from her hands, stared at it a moment, then ripped off the string and cloth as quickly as possible. Underneath was a bottle filled with a golden-brown drink that sparkled like liquid fire. “Pyra’s Breath, aged 15 years,” she read the label out loud. “From the Smoke River Distillery. Anala, this is…this is really nice,” she said, looking up at the other bellica.

“Happy Birthday,” Anala said.

Yarrow smiled and carefully placed the bottle on her desk before getting up and embracing her friend. “Thank you,” she said, nothing but sincerity and real gratitude in her voice. “This is the best gift I’ve gotten in years.” She let go of Anala and gripped the younger woman by the shoulders. “Let me shower and put your gift somewhere safe, and then we can go out for a late break fast.”

“Best idea I’d’ve heard all day.”

“Oh?” Yarrow tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, looking fairly impish. “Somehow I doubt that, if you waked up next to Aro this morning.”

“Well, if ye’d rather eat alone, I ken just get back to that other idea,” Anala replied without missing a beat, and turned to go.

“Not so fast, Bellica,” Yarrow said, holding Anala back from the door and laughing. “It’s my birthday and I order you to break fast with me.”

“Oh, well, when ye put it that way, how can I refuse? Go on, get yerself showered. I’ll sit in yer chair and pretend I’m ye.”

Yarrow clapped Anala on the shoulder and headed to her bathroom, and soon Anala heard the water turn on from her perch in the chair that looked comfier than it was. “Oh, and can you contact Ghia too?” Yarrow yelled over the roar of the water. “I want her to break fast with us.”

“Sure thing!” Anala leaned back in the chair, trying to get comfortable for the first practical testing of her newfound Magi communication powers.

Ghia, she sent, finding the thought pattern of the healer.

Anala? I can barely hear you. What’s going on? Ghia’s voice was clear and strong in Anala’s head, and she had to keep from jumping. It sounded like Ghia was in the room with her, speaking in a normal voice.

Yarrow wants ye ta break fast with us. Are ye free?

I will be soon. See you at her room in about 30.

Aye, that’ll do.

The contact faded away.

“Well, that was a mite easier than I’d thought it’d be,” Anala said out loud and to no one in particular.

The shower shut off sooner rather than later, and Yarrow was a sight to behold as she tore about her room in a towel, searching for clothes and shoes to put on. Still in her towel, she grabbed the bottle of Pyra’s Breath and got down on all fours in front of her bed, where she proceeded to lift up a floor panel. Inside was a quarter full bottle of the same drink; Yarrow put the new bottle beside the old one and closed up the hidden compartment.

“Ye know,” Anala said, unable to resist, “it’s not that I dinnae appreciate a nice view of a nude arse, but I dinnae ken it’d be yer intention to give me a private show.”

Yarrow got up and straightened her towel before going back to tearing through her clothing. “Nothing you haven’t seen before, you old lech,” she said with a wink at Anala. The other bellica snorted.

Yarrow sifted through a pile of clothing on the floor, sniffing at each piece and throwing most of them into the laundry chute. Finding what Anala assumed was a clean shirt, Yarrow flung it onto her messy, unmade bed, before heading to her closet and dresser in search of something to put on her bottom. A flurry of curse words left her mouth as she flung out each piece of clothing onto the floor, none apparently suiting her.

“So, ye think now that ye’re thirty ye might actually grow up a bit?” Anala asked drolly, watching Yarrow’s juvenile antics.

“You should talk, Bellica ‘Nice Arse, Yarrow’,” Yarrow flung back, in good humor. “Be helpful if I knew how nicely I should dress.”

“How formal could it possibly be, Yarrow? We’d be going ta a tavern. I’m no exactly dressed fer fancy dining meself,” she added, gesturing to her outfit, which she generally wore for traveling, hacking, and killing.

“Yeah,” Yarrow said, stopping her searching and grabbing a pair of pants, “you’re right. Besides, I’ll look good no matter what next to what you’re wearing.”

“Another birthday present for ye.”

Yarrow started getting dressed in breeches and linen top. She was sitting on her bed, pulling on her boots, when there was a knock on the door. Anala opened it to reveal Ghia.

“Happy Birthday, Yarrow,” she said, stepping in to the now very messy room. “You wanted to see me?”

Yarrow grunted as she pulled on her second boot and laced it, standing up and stamping her feet to get them to fit properly. “Damn right. It’s my birthday and I want to spend it with my two closest girlfriends,” she said, buckling on her sword belt and checking her boot knife.

Ghia’s eyes flickered from Yarrow’s arsenal to Anala’s, noting both bellicas carried at least one visible and one hidden sharp and pointy object. “I feel a little out of place,” she commented with a small smile. “You both look as if you’re dressed for war, and I’m just in a peplos and soft shoes.”

Yarrow shrugged. “Force of habit. You’ll need a cloak, though — here,” and she shoved her spare wool cloak at the healer, whose arms were bare in her working peplos.

“A’sides,” Anala added to further ease Ghia’s mind, “yer weapons’d be up here.” She tapped the side of her head and smiled at her cousin.

“I suppose,” Ghia said as they headed out of the room and Yarrow closed and locked her door. “You really consider me one of your closest friends, Yarrow?”

Yarrow shrugged, on Ghia’s right side while Anala fell in on the left. “Okay, so I want to spend the morning with my cousins.” She glanced at Anala. “Well, my cousin and my cousin’s cousin. Or whatever the relationships are here; I can’t keep them straight at this point.”

Ghia giggled and flung on the cloak while Anala answered. “I’d think friends should work. Ta the Cauldron then?” It seemed the obvious choice.

Yarrow was looking at the ground and took a moment to answer. “Yeah, let’s go…hold on. Ghia, do you own any other shoes?” She stopped, looking at Ghia’s feet, which were adorned with soft leather slippers with no discernible protection for the soles.

Ghia stopped too and looked at her feet. “No,” she said, sounding self-conscious. “These suit me for most things, though they are getting rather worn.”

Yarrow shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice before. You wore those to Harbourtown?” she asked, an incredulous note in her voice. At Ghia’s nod she took off down the hallway again and the other two women followed, but instead of turning right they turned left. Anala raised her eyebrows at her superior officer, and Yarrow pointed down the hall to the door to Requisitioning.

“That’d be against the rules, ye ken,” Anala said, but there was no censure in her voice. Just a statement of fact.

“Like I fecking care. Ghia needs some proper boots and I don’t trust anything below military grade.”

At this Ghia protested, but ineffectually. “Yarrow, you don’t have to get me any boots — my shoes are fine, really. It’s your birthday today; what are you doing, getting me a gift?” she said when it seemed nothing else would get through to the bellica.

Yarrow just smiled. “Then consider this your belated birthday gift, as I didn’t get you anything before, and your gift to me can be just accepting the damned boots and saying thank you. Okay?”

Ghia’s protests stammered to a stop and she stood gaping for a moment before blushing furiously and looking down at the floor. “Thank you, cuz.”

“You’re welcome. Now, let’s get you some boots and then get me some food. I’m fecking hungry.”

~

Sixteen hundred was not an hour that Anala welcomed with open arms. It heralded the beginning of the five-hour-long ceremony that would end with the solidifying of everyone’s worst nightmare. The only ray of hope was that Yarrow planned to challenge the next day. But of course only the small team of rebels knew about that, so there was no hope, so far as anyone else could see.

The ceremony started with a large, lavish supper, a feast that was meant to see everyone through the next three hours of ritual. Zardria and Zanny were not present for the dinner, as tradition dictated. Zardria’s last meal as heir had been the night before, and her first meal as Empress would be supper that evening. Between the two she was to fast, to show her discipline and devotion to her reiaume. Zanny was expected to do the same in support of her heir.

The feast took two hours for everyone to complete. It was a twenty-course meal and the biggest of any of the traditional banquets. That evening’s meal would be much smaller, though no less rich.

At eighteen hundred everyone started to file into the Receiving Room, where the ceremony would begin at about half-past. Anala had the schedule memorised so she could count the minutes until it was over. There was some confusion as to where people were to sit, with courtiers jostling for front seats and military officers jostling for the back. Eventually the housekeeper, who was in charge of all organising of this huge event, got it sorted out and the courtiers were seated by rank on the right, the military on the left, and the back filled up by everyone else. Anala took her seat at the front between Major Caelum and her own. CMO Fanchone and the other ranking officers of her regiment sat directly behind her. To her left, beside Aro, were Anita and Leala, and to her right Yarrow occupied the aisle seat. The seating stretched that way all the way to the edge of the hall, where the bellica and majora of the tenth regiment sat, and then it started again on the far right, behind the first regiment. Behind the twenty regiments were the professionals — guild leaders, healers, and the like.

Beyond the aisle on Yarrow’s right were the courtiers. The Ladies of Athering and their entourages — larger than most regiments — and families sat in the front; behind them were the Duchesses, and behind them were the considerably fewer Eorls. Anala glanced back and caught the eye of Eorl Gray, and the two exchanged a nod. Beyond the Eorls were the rest of the professionals and a large gathering from the Temple, though the Mother Superior and a High Priestess would be doing the ceremony.

Anala was about to turn around in her seat again to look at the front of the room, but a glinting of light in the back shadows of the hall caught her eye. Looking more carefully, she noticed a man she didn’t recognise standing in the corner. He was dressed in the Atherian fashion but there was something strange on his belt. It took Anala a moment to realise it was a pistol like the one Lares carried.

Her heart skipped a beat. What was a Vocan doing here? No doubt an envoy from Lord Exsil Vis, and no doubt regarding the message that Anala had carried across the water to the island. What if he were here to kidnap her and take her back? Quickly she looked forward again. I best not to be seen. If he wanted to kidnap her, well — let him try. She’d die first before going back there.

She tried to calm herself, but her breathing came fast and her palms were sweaty. She wiped them on her peplos nervously and tried to take deep, calming breaths.

“Anala,” came a voice, directly beside her left ear, and she jumped, her heart hammering in her ribcage. “What’s wrong?” she looked up into Aro’s face, and saw worry in his eyes.

“There’d be a Vocan in tha back of tha hall. Don’t look!” she hissed when he turned to see what she meant. “E’ll see ye. Just trust me, e’s there.”

“And it’s not Lares.”

“Nae. Lares’d be sitting behind the regiments, ye ken, by Ghia.”

Aro sighed and adjusted his seat. “What are we going to do?”

“Not a damned thing. We cannae do anything until we know why e’s here. Jes…keep yer sword ready.” She fingered her own sword, buckled over the court peplos she had to wear.

“May not be effective against his sidearm,” Aro said, grim resignation in his voice.

“I ken.” They spoke no more of the matter.

~

At 1830 everyone was settled, and the Mother Superior of the Temple stepped in to say the opening prayer. Although Anala was not particularly religious, even she felt a swelling in her heart as the woman’s clear voice rang out, awed by the beauty of the language.

She was glad her head was bowed, so no one could see the emotion on her face. At the conclusion of the prayer everyone looked up again and the dithyramb was started, the traditional singing to ask the goddesses to be present and bless the occasion. It was sung by a chorus of priestesses, and the sweet chords echoed in the high-ceilinged room. If the goddesses existed, there was no way They could ignore such a song.

Then Zanny and Zardria were led in, the Empreena in a peplos of the deepest royal blue with a black velvet trim. She wore the traditional veil, dyed blue, which, when lifted, would signify her awakening into womanhood and acceptance of the responsibilities of ruler. Zanny looked small and fragile next to her niece, and she was clothed in a peplos of white, the colour of mourning — also traditional, to signify the death of her leadership and the birth of a new one. Anala felt sure, watching the Empress’s face, that Zanny knew as well as anyone that the death of her rulership was not the only one she would suffer. The bellica felt a small twinge of pity for the woman, but ruthlessly pushed it aside. I cannae be wasting me energy on one who’ll so soon be dead, and is in no position to beg for mercy besides. Weakness or no, Zanny had allowed her country to fall into ruin since her sister’s death, committing deeds that doubtless made this age memorable as a dark one by the historians.

The High Priestess led aunt and niece to a spot just before the throne. Another priestess handed her a bowl of water. She bid the royals kneel, facing each other, and she set the water between them.

Zardria lifted back the veil as the High Priestess anointed their foreheads with the water and said a blessing in a language — or several different languages — that Anala didn’t recognise. Regardless, she understood that what was happening was the Blessing of the Elements, and next would come air, earth, fire, and aether.

Sure enough, another priestess came forward with a censer, which she waved so the smoke enveloped Zanny and Zardria, and the High Priestess said another prayer in that strange language or languages. A bowl of sacred earth was given to the High Priestess and she rubbed some dirt on each woman’s face; a bowl of sacred fire was brought, and Empress and Empreena bathed their faces in the heat of the flame.

There was no physical representation of aether, so the High Priestess supplicated to the Heavens with her prayer, and Zanny and Zardria looked up, waiting for the blessing from the stars.

After a period of time they apparently received it, for the High Priestess stood and spoke to the two women. “You have been anointed and purified by the Elements in the name of the Goddesses Whom you serve. All that shall take place now shall be done in service to Them and Their children. Are you prepared to serve, Empreena Zardria?”

“Yes, I am,” Zardria said, her voice loud and clear.

“Empress Zanny, are you prepared to pass on the Sceptre, and to support your heir as she takes her first steps in leading her reiaume?”

“I — I am,” Zanny stuttered, her voice shaking. Anala was close enough to see the perspiration shine on the woman’s face and the small shudders her body made as she tried to hold back her fear. Another twinge of pity twisted the bellica’s heart.

“So be it. I take this crown of purest silver from your head, O Empress, and place it upon the head of your heir. May it bring her wisdom, and forever remind her of the weight she bears in service of her people.” The High Priestess took the coronet and placed it upon Zardria’s head.

Zardria bowed her head in acceptance as the crown was fitted on her. “I accept the crown of purest silver, may it bring me wisdom and remind me of my service to my people,” she intoned gracefully, though Anala could have sworn there was a hint of mockery in the tone. Zanny looked smaller, as if the crown had been giving her most of her form and substance. The High Priestess continued and, dreamlike, the Empress raised her left hand for the next part.

“I take this signet ring of purest copper from your hand, O Empress, and place it upon the finger of your heir. May it bring strength and justice to her, that she may rule with a firm and righteous hand.” The High Priestess slid the ring onto Zardria’s left ring finger.

“I accept this signet ring of purest copper, that it may bring me strength and justice so I might rule firmly and righteously.”

Anala felt herself holding her breath as the next part came — the coronet and ring were just trappings, just pretty things the Queen — Empress could wear. The Sceptre held the real power in Athering. It had been the Queen’s symbol of rule for several thousand years and its symbolism was firmly ingrained in the people’s consciousness. Regardless her obvious puppeteering of her aunt for the past dark age, this was the moment Zardria would truly become ruler of all they knew.

Zanny raised up the Sceptre to the High Priestess and the final step of the Investiture began. “I take this Sceptre of purest gold from you, O Empress, and place it in the arms of your heir, that it may remind her that mercy is the better part of valour, compassion the better part of strength, and that these qualities are never strained.”

“I accept this Sceptre of purest gold to remind me that mercy and compassion are the better parts of valour and strength, neither being strained by their own weight.”

“Rise, Empress Zardria, and rise, Zanny deZora.” As one the two women stood, Zanny looking half the size she had been upon entering, and Zardria suddenly a great, terrifying, dangerous majesty. Zanny moved off to the side quietly, and Zardria faced the High Priestess, her very movements regal.

“Do you, Empress Zardria, promise to serve and protect your people to the best of your ability?”

“I do.”

“Then place your hand upon the Book of Aradia and repeat after me.” She held out an old, large copy of the sacred book, and Zardria placed her left hand upon it solemnly. “I, Empress Zardria —

“I, Empress Zardria –”

Do affirm and avow —

“Do affirm and avow –”

That I will serve the people of Athering —

“That I will serve the people of Athering –”

In my capacity as Empress —

“In my capacity as Empress –”

Come war, famine, flood or pestilence —

“Come war, famine, flood or pestilence –”

With the will of the goddesses —

“With the will of the goddesses –”

For as long as I shall live —

“For as long as I shall live –”

Or until such time —

“Or until such time –”

As my duties may terminate —

“As my duties may terminate –”

In favor of my heir —

“In favor of my heir –”

And that even through graceful retirement —

“And that even through graceful retirement –”

I shall follow this same vow —

“I shall follow this same vow –”

And always keep my country —

“And always keep my country –”

My people —

“My people –”

And the goddesses —

“And the goddesses –”

In mind with every thought, word, and action.

“In mind with every thought, word, and action.”

Upon the Scriptures, the most Holy Book of Aradia, I so swear it, and may Juno strike me down now should I be telling a falsehood.

“Upon the Scriptures, the most Holy Book of Aradia, I so swear it, and may Juno strike me down now should I be telling a falsehood.”

Zardria removed her hand from the book then, and the High Priestess bowed to her. “You are officially Empress, Zardria deZameera.” She moved back and gestured to the throne. “If you take your seat, the Pledges may begin.”

Anala settled into her seat more comfortably, as this was the long boring part that would take a while. Across the aisle, Lady Subverra of Atherton arose and came to kneel in front of the throne, her hand on her heart.

“As Lady, I pledge that all my decisions and rulings will be made in accordance with your rule, my tithes will be made with appropriate good faith, and that I will adhere to the wills of the goddesses as you so deem them.”

Zardria nodded beatifically, a small smile on her face, and responded with the traditional “So be your word true, under pain of death should you falter,” reminding everyone just what serious business it was to run this country. So on the Pledges went, though every single Lady, Duchess, and Eorl.

Anala sat up a bit straighter as it got to the end of the nobility, for it would soon be her turn. Though truth be told she’d rather be run through with her own sword than get up there and speak in front of everyone — but this was a matter in which she’d had no choice. Majors couldn’t take the oath for their Bellicas. She watched Yarrow walk up, an image of grace in her mother’s black peplos, draw her sword, and Pledge herself. It was over in what seemed less than an instant to Anala, and next thing she knew her feet were taking her to stand before the throne. She drew her sword, knelt, and held the tip of the blade to her heart, hilt towards the Empress and within grabbing reach. It was an exercise in trust.

“As Bellica,” she said, nervousness making her voice shake, “I’d be pledgin’ me sword –” she broke off as she heard the laughter ripple throughout the room at the sound of her accent. Her face flamed in embarrassment and she was unable to continue speaking.

“Quiet!” came a deep, booming voice, and Anala looked up to see Zardria glaring at the congregation. Then, in the almost eerie silence that followed her command, she turned to Anala and her face softened. “Go on,” she said in a tone almost gentle.

Putting aside her confusion at Zardria’s uncharacteristic compassion, she bowed her head again and found her place back in the oath. “I’d be pledgin’ me sword in tha defense o’ yer life and ta the safety o’ yer land and people, Yer Majesty.”

Zardria took Anala’s sword by the hilt then and touched the flat end of the blade to Anala’s left shoulder, then over her head to the right, and then back to the left again. “Your pledge is as good as blood. Arise, Bellica Anala,” she said, turning the hilt towards Anala again, “so you may better serve your Empress.” Anala shakily got to her feet, bowed, and took her sword back.

“Thank ye, yer Majesty,” she said, and somehow her voice was steady though she didn’t know how, and she sheathed the blade and walked back to her seat, head held high as she could make it as she refused to meet anyone’s gaze. When she reached her chair it took all her remaining will to sit gracefully and not collapse into it shaking. Aro grabbed her hand and squeezed it; when she managed to look up at him he gave her a smile and mouthed words of encouragement at her.

You done good, kid.

She returned his smile weakly and tried to relax herself for the remainder of the ceremony.

She didn’t notice with any great clarity the rest of the twenty regiments’ bellicas making their pledges, and it was only the barest buzzing in her mind that signalled her awareness that the professionals would be making their pledges. She watched without great interest beyond wishing to get out of there, when with a start, the shock of recognition went through her weary brain as her eyes registered the flaming red hair over the dark green peplos.

What in Tyvian’d be Ghia’ up there fer?

Zardria apparently wondered the same thing, for she asked where Head Healer Helene was.

Ghia curtsied prettily and bobbed her head nervously. “Apologies, your Majesty — Helene is still recovering from the fever and is not well enough to leave her bed. She has sent me in her place, as her heir.”

Zardria leaned back in her throne, still frowning, and nodded. “Proceed.”

Ghia curtsied again and then knelt before Zardria, placing her hand on her heart. “As Head of the Guild of Healers in Athering, I pledge my abilities to the task of keeping your body and the body of your reiaume healthy and safe — no matter the illness or injury, I shall never falter in my sworn duty to my Empress and to the people of Athering.”

Zardria nodded again and said the traditional response, and Ghia rose and strode back down the aisle, returning to her seat. Anala looked over her shoulder to watch the healer go and saw Jules, sitting behind Yarrow, staring after Ghia with some intense emotion in his eyes. His head swivelled to follow her progress down the aisle until she was obscured from view.

Anala wondered if he could be any more obvious. Or if Ghia could be any more oblivious.

Turning to the front, she saw the Mother Superior was in front of Zardria, hand on the Book. It was the last pledge.

“I duly swear to uphold the Teachings of the Aradian Order, to maintain law and goddessliness in this land, and to be available as a spiritual advisor to Empress and people for as long as I shall live.”

“In the name of Aradia, so be it,” Zardria said, and tapped her Sceptre three times against the throne.

It was done.

She was fully Invested.

The High Priestess came to Zardria’s side then, to bring about the final step in the Ceremony: the choosing of Consort and subsequent pledges of loyalty to him.

“If your Majesty has not decided on a suitable candidate, this part can be put off till later,” the High Priestess was saying, but Zardria cut her off with a sharp movement of her hand.

“I am ready to make my decision,” she said, and the High Priestess nodded, bowing to Zardria’s will. Zardria stood, then, and faced her people with a regal air she’d never possessed before that day. Her eyes shifted over the crowd, but Anala had no doubt the Empress had made this decision months in advance and the “looking for him” was just for show. Her eyes moved from nobles to military officers and hovered on Aro for long enough to make Anala seize up in fear, and the bellica realised she still stupidly held his hand but couldn’t make herself let go. Zardria’s eyes moved away after a moment, and Anala breathed a sigh of short-lived relief.

“Major Caelum! Do you accept the honour of Consort?” the Empress said, and her voice echoed in the silence that had fallen.

Had Anala been drinking anything she would have spit across the floor. Looking around, she waited for the walls to blur and run together, signifying the end of this bad dream. The stone and wood stayed terrifyingly solid, and she watched Caelum rise and stand before Zardria, to whom he bowed. “I do, your Majesty.”

“And you understand the duties and privileges this position entails, and you swear to faithfully execute them such as they are?”

Anala couldn’t hear what Caelum said, her head was buzzing so loud. She looked over at Yarrow, who sat stock still. The older bellica’s face held such heartache, such pleading disbelief on it, that Anala wanted to hold her friend and tell her everything would be alright.

She looked to Aro, whose face held the same incredulity she felt, and wondered if anyone had seen this coming. Then she looked at Caelum, who was saying his oaths with perfect clarity and accepting the Consort’s ring, and saw no surprise on his face — only a dark determination, mingled with other unidentifiable emotions. He’d known. He’d known for a while now — she could see that. And he dinnae tell Yarrow?

Anger flooded her at this betrayal of her best friend. How could ‘e? Unless ‘e’s sided wit’ Zardria all along. Cold realisation came crashing down on her. Of course. Even with their romantic liaison there had been some issue of trust between Yarrow and Caelum, some rift that could not be mended. Anala wondered now if it was because Yarrow knew, on some level, that he’d been playing them all along.

Oh, they were royally fecked now. They’d be lucky to make it through the day alive.

“Bellicas!” Zardria shouted, and Anala jumped in her seat, and then to her feet as she saw the others do so. “Do you pledge your loyalty and keep your promise to me to Consort Caelum as well?”

“We swear it!” the bellicas shouted, more or less as one, and Zardria moved on to the Guild professionals.

As Anala took her seat again, she silently pledged something entirely different, directing all her hate and anger on Consort Caelum: I promise, ye mangy cur, that afore this all ends I’ll stand above ye prone form, me sword drippin’ yer blood.

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