115 ~ Jules

Jules could feel the shock reverberate through the woman sitting in front of him as palpably as if he’d been hit in the face with a shovel.

Caelum as Consort? What a political blunder, to choose that man for a position that required the best in court manners, etiquette, and diplomacy.

Was Zardria crazy? Jules hastened to think what use could she possibly have choosing Major Caelum as Consort. Besides hurting Yarrow.

Maybe that was it. Period. Maybe Zardria felt that, for whatever reason, there was no need to choose someone actually suited for the job and so had calculated her decision to cause the most hurt. Which would make her either really stupid, or so terrifyingly intelligent no one could see it.

“Now that that’s all done with,” Zardria said then, to a ripple of laughter from the courtiers, and Jules realised his musings had almost made him miss the next part, “I would like to make a few decrees as your new Empress.” She smiled a smile that made Jules shudder.

“First, I am revoking the monarchical decree that made the Temple its own political entity and bringing it back under the rule of the Sceptre. The Temple will now answer to me on all counts and will follow my rulings as I make them.”

The general outcry that came at that comment mimicked the sound in Jules’ head. His eyes made contact with his sister’s and he saw the same fear he felt reflected there.

“Those first rulings,” Zardria continued, grabbing control again, “are thus: primary worship is no longer to be focused on Aradia and her pantheon. Umbra is now this nation’s principal goddess.”

A louder outcry erupted at that. Serve Umbra? The Maiden of Darkness that feasted on the hearts of children? Who flew through the night looking for victims and if you saw Her it felt as if your skin was ripped off and pepper was poured all over your fleshless body and that was the feeling of Her taking your soul? The ruler of Tyvian who held dominion over the damned? Kore’s dark twin, who imprisoned the Goddess of the Sun in Her domain? Zardria wanted them to serve the Goddess no one dared supplicate and none dared ignore?

She was crazy. Or evil. Or both, Jules decided.

A loud noise cut through the outcry. It was Zardria banging the Sceptre on the throne.

“Silence!” she shouted, and all went still. “My next ruling is that High Priestess Sarai be made Liaison between myself and the Temple, and my own personal spiritual advisor. Sarai, you are to Dedicate to Umbra at your earliest convenience,” she said as an almost non-chalant aside.

Jules looked at his sister and every muscle in his body urged him to scream “NO!” at this, but Sarai, ever graceful and ever bowing to the wind, simply stepped forward and bowed.

“I am honoured to serve, Majesty,” she said, and that was that.

“Good,” Zardria said with a self-satisfied smile, another soul broken on the altar of her malevolence. “Next, I hope you all will join me in the Square tomorrow for a public execution of the rebel leader from Aeril, after which I will hear petitions here in the throne room.” There was no outcry there, but that was to be expected. The only people who didn’t want the execution were rebels themselves, and were working hard at keeping that quiet.

“Now — and I promise this is it for today — now it has come to my attention that we have a traitor among us.”

Jules felt a cold stone drop into the pit of his stomach and, with a flash of insight, he knew who Zardria was talking about.

“A bellica who, under the guise of following orders, committed the most heinous crime known to us as a people.” She paused for effect before turning her gaze to her sister.

“Yarrow. You stand accused of using terrabane on Lord Timor during the East Campaign. How do you plead?”

To Jules’ disbelieving senses, Yarrow stood, faced her twin, and said in a rock-steady voice: “I plead guilty, your Majesty.”

A murmur broke out in the room, but Zardria did not let it get out of hand before she spoke again. “Then you are hereby charged with murder of the first degree, dereliction of duty, dishonourable conduct in your service to the Empress, and use of a forbidden substance under the Drug and Poison Act of 3800 — the penalty for which is death.”

There was a pause, during which Yarrow bowed her head in acceptance and the murmur faded away into silence. Jules was sure the whole room could hear his thumping heart. Yarrow was going to die. Yarrow was going to die and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Old feelings he thought he’d buried came flooding back, and he knew he couldn’t bear for that to happen. No matter what kept or faded away between them, he did not want to see her die a traitor’s death. Bellica Yarrow deserved a warrior’s death — on a distant, blood-soaked battlefield Bellona would call her home.

Not hanging from a rope in the Square.

“However,” Zardria said, and Jules started, hardly able to believe there might be clemency from the treecat, “I cannot bear to order the execution of my dear twin sister.” Jules had to choke back a laugh at his, and saw that Zardria was also having trouble keeping a straight face. He sobered then, and wondered if it was possible to hate someone as much as he did her. “So instead I strip you of rank and surname, Yarrow Achi deZameera, and banish you from my reiaume. You have two safe days — until the end of tomorrow — to take yourself beyond the borders of Athering; after that your life will be forfeit.”

Yarrow bowed low and turned and left, not sparing a word for the Empress or a glance for anyone on her way out.

“Bellica Anala,” came the smooth voice of the Empress, and Jules saw Anala jump in her seat — not for the first time that afternoon. He wondered what had made her so jittery.

“Aye, Majesty?”

“I offer you the position of First Bellica. Do you accept?”

Anala stood and bowed. “Aye, Majesty. I do.”

“Good.” The Empress banged her Sceptre three times against the throne. “Let the festivities begin.”

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