Cuff I: Chapter 1
Knock knock. “Your majesty?”
A young boy stood in a long, elegantly decorated hallway, with fox-skin rugs covering the floor and embroidered tapestries clothing the stone walls. Torches lined the hallway, providing a dim pumpkin light to the nighttime corridor.
It was midnight– nearly aftnight. The castle slept like an unborn baby.
Knock knock. “Your majesty? Hello?”
A gentle breeze slithered through the window. The boy shivered and pulled his thin coat tighter around his body. He wore a dull brown tunic and beige trousers, with little decoration on either. The only hint of elegance on his body was a bright white cuff around his wrist, featuring ornate, geometric engravings.
Knock knock knock knock.
Although he had been explicitly instructed to never pry, the boy had also never been ignored before. The family he served was quite vocal, and would instruct him to enter or get lost accordingly. No knock went unanswered, typically.
He put his hand on the door handle with great uncertainty. Surely the man did not leave. The only other exit from this room would be the window, and no man so old could nimbly climb down the thirty meters of castle wall, nor would a man with such power be interested in such an undignified exit. The boy shook his head. What a stupid thought.
Perhaps he just fell asleep. That seemed equally unlikely though, given the man’s history of trouble breathing. He could never fall asleep in his dove-feather bed, let alone the wooden chair of his study. And, the boy thought, on the rare occasion that he did fall asleep, his wife was kept awake by the sound of air struggling against his insides. No, surely he was not asleep.
Curious, the boy pulled at the heavy, gilded door. It cracked open and he peered inside delicately, ready to close the door and run off if any angry eyes glanced his way. He certainly did not want to be a nuisance.
“Your majesty?” The boy said again, almost at a whisper.
The room was modest in size, but not in decoration. A warm fire raged in the hearth, with an assortment of rare animal heads mounted above it. Globes, compasses, quills, and various other tools littered the room, strewn carelessly across various surfaces. They were the kind of objects that only the wealthy owned, and only the most educated understood. In the far corner of the room, a large desk was covered in papers, ink, and wax seals. The boy imagined that the Emperor had sat there many a night, composing important letters to lords and ladies of the realm. He felt pride knowing that he served such a smart and powerful man.
Several candles washed the area in a flickering yellow glow. Beside the desk stood a large wooden chair. It was where the Emperor sat while composing letters.
The boy breathed a sigh of relief. In the wooden chair, the old man was seated, sleeping, with his head tilted back and his long white beard darkened with spilled ink.
The boy smiled. He would have to remove that ink from his beard in the morning, but at the moment, it seemed rather funny to him.
The Emperor was always so busy. The boy decided that he deserved to sleep uninterrupted, even if he never made it to the bedroom. After all, with the Riverlight Festival coming up, he would likely not get any sleep in the nights to come.
“Good night,” he whispered gently, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could. It shut with a dull thud. He began walking down the hallway jauntily, excited to return to his room and play marbles before bed.
Suddenly, he noticed a strange sound– a sound which was entirely out of place. It made no sense here.
The man was not snoring. He always snored.
The boy sprinted back down the hallway toward the study, his footsteps reverberating all down the hall. He opened the door more fiercely, and, without any of his previous caution, bolted toward the old man, rested in his chair. The boy shook his frail shoulders.
“Emperor Godsrich? Sir?”
The man’s body was limp and feeble, feeling less like a living creature and more like a bag made of skin and filled with bones. His body was warm, but unresponsive.
The boy put his ear up to the man’s mouth. No breathing. He put his hand against the man’s chest. No pulse.
The emperor of Kailin could not possibly be dead.
“You… you’re going to be alright, sir!”
The boy dashed away, nearly tripping on the fox-skin rug on the way out the door. His footsteps had a heavy panic to them and his mind ran in a thousand directions at once. Before he knew it, he stood before an equivalently heavy door in a separate wing of the castle. He came here on occasion, but never off of his set work routine; after all, the Empress had been sick, and the royal Barber and Chymist handled most of her extraneous affairs. Yet, the boy had no qualms about coming to her now.
Without hesitation, he slammed the knocker against the door multiple times, in rapid succession.
“Empress Vera!” The boy called out desperately. He would never be so obnoxiously loud normally, but the health of the emperor was above all else to him. Nothing mattered but getting help. “Empress Vera!”
The door opened, revealing a slender woman with an annoyed look on her face. Her pale skin and jet black hair, straight and silky down to her waist, always gave her a somewhat corpse-like appearance.
“What is it?” She asked, clearly bothered. “Have you any idea the hour, child?”
“I’m so sorry, Empress. There is an emergency. A big emergency, your majesty.”
“Oh?” The ghoulish woman raised an eyebrow curiously.
“Um, your majesty, Emperor Godsrich is… he is sick.”
“More than sick. Please, your majesty, come. There is not much time.”
The woman motioned to someone inside her sleeping quarters, then turned back to the boy, who was clearly itching to run back down the corridor.
“Let us go.”
The boy sprinted down the halls, followed closely by the Empress, who, in her long, dark sleeping robe, appeared to float above the stone ground. Behind the Empress, a handsome man in gleaming silver armor jogged effortlessly to keep up. He was well-known in the realm as The Light, a bodyguard that never left the Empress’s side, even while she slept. He had a face that could woo any woman, and a physique that looked as though he could snap a person in two, and probably had many times before. The boy saw him around the castle on occasion, but never spoke to him.
They reached the door of the study, and the boy burst in without hesitation. This man could not die. He refused to allow it.
Empress Vera looked in from the doorway, expressionless. Her husband sat motionless in the wooden chair, ink still clotted in his beard.
“Fetch me Xavier and Beremy,” she said, unwaveringly.
“And Nammargon?” The Light asked.
“Absolutely not. Just Xavier and Beremy. No one else is to be awoken.”
“Yes, your majesty.” The Light exited immediately, his armor clinking confidently.
The boy looked up at the Empress, who still had not come into the room. She appeared much less distressed than the boy, although perhaps she was just better at keeping a clear head, as lawmakers should be.
“What did you see?” She asked in her silky, legato voice.
“I– I don’t know, your majesty. I came to help him to his sleeping chamber and, and, well he didn’t answer, your majesty.”
“So you entered regardless.”
“Uh, well, your majesty, I did knock.”
“And then entered anyway.” Her tone sounded unexpectedly scolding.
“Well– yes. Yes I did, your majesty. I am sorry. I should have–”
“No, you did the right thing, child. Had you not entered, someone else might have found out.”
“Found out, your majesty?”
“I thank you for coming to me first. You are very smart, and very loyal.”
“Uh, thank you, your majesty.” The boy was confused and did not really know how to accept a compliment right now, even from the Empress. His mind was singularly focused on his beloved Emperor Godsrich.
“Will he be okay?” The boy asked stupidly.
“I have no idea,” she replied bluntly, “Which is why Barber Beremy is on his way.” The sudden, familiar sound of armor caused her to turn around. The Light and two other men were waiting in the doorway; one was small and chubby, and the other tall and scraggly. “Speak of Zarokam,” she said. “Beremy, we have a problem.”
A little middle-aged man with huge spectacles and a massive overbite hobbled into the room. With every breath, his round physique wobbled to and fro like a bottom-heavy ornamental egg. This short man was not old, but was said to have wisdom rivalling that of the most elderly, experienced men.
“I, er, I can take a little look.”
He gently pushed the boy out of the way and began putting strange metallic instruments on the Emperor’s face and chest. He whizzed around, feeling parts of the man’s body and putting different odd tools everywhere. Finally, he put down his instruments and looked up at Empress Vera, a sad twinkle in his bespectacled eyes.
“Empress, he, um, is gone.”
“Thank you, Barber Beremy.”
The Barber began gingerly placing his tools into a black bag, gloomily silent all the while. The boy was still in shock.
“No– wait!” The boy knew better than to interrupt his superiors, but in this instant, all of his manners had evaporated. “Surely you can do something, Barber, sir! He cannot just… die!” The boy refused to let this happen. The most important person in the Kailin Empire could not be dead.
The Barber was sympathetic to the boy, excusing his poor etiquette. “Unfortunately, son, he has ‘just died.’ I’m afraid I can do no more.” He closed his bag of tools with a tiny button. “I am just as upset as you.”
The boy felt tears welling up, but held them back. What did this mean for him? For the people of the Kailin Castle? For the entire Kailin Empire? Would he have to serve a new, strange Emperor? Would he be forced to leave the castle completely and find new work? How would peace be maintained without the eternal wisdom of Emperor Godsrich?
“Beremy and Xavier,” the Empress began, “We are not going to call a court meeting over this. In fact, nobody else is to know.”
Xavier, a slender man with two pierced ears, nodded approvingly, as though this made perfect sense. Barber Beremy was less certain.
“Uh… forgive me, Empress. Nobody else is to know… about the Emperor’s death? They will notice, will they not?”
“No, Beremy, they will not. And if anyone does find out, you will face punishment. Is this understood?”
Beremy gulped and nodded.
“We will tell the court that the Emperor has fallen ill, and the only visitors he is allowing are me, Barber Beremy, and… Chymist Stefana.”
“Why Chymist Stefana?” Xavier asked calmly.
“The court will be suspicious if she is not involved.”
“And how we gonna deal with her?” Xavier inquired, with his twangy accent.
“She will be trustworthy. She will obey.”
Empress Vera turned around and looked at The Light, who stood protectively behind her.
“Bring me a newborn baby. Male, with pale skin and dark hair.”
The Light nodded once, unquestioningly.
“You will do this as soon as we are finished here.” She paused for a moment, thoughtfully. “I do not care what you do with the mother.”
The Light remained silent, understanding his mission.
“And you, Xavier,” she began, “You will bring me Nammargon, tomorrow at midnoon. In the undercroft.”
“Beremy,” the Empress said, turning to the last person in the room besides the boy, “I want you to find out exactly how my husband died. You can keep him hidden in my bedroom. Run whatever tests you must. But before that, I would like you to build me a belly.”
“A belly, your grace?”
“A belly,” she repeated, without further explanation. “For tomorrow morning. Are we done here?”
The four adults looked at each other silently. Suddenly, with an expression looking as though he had forgotten about his presence, Xavier made eye contact with the boy.
“What about the kid?” He asked, pointing a long, tendril-like finger at the terrified boy.
At once, they all turned and inspected him as he stood motionless by the dead Emperor’s body. The Empress made fierce eye contact with him, looking him up and down. The boy’s lip quivered nervously.
“He will not speak,” she answered simply. She paused for a moment thoughtfully, before turning to The Light. “See to it that he does not speak.”
The Light pushed past Xavier, approaching the boy intimidatingly. He unsheathed a small dagger, as silver and reflective as his armor. The boy was frozen with fear, not moving and not speaking.
“You have done a great service for the realm, child. Had you told anyone else about this incident first, this all would be much more difficult,” Empress Vera crooned. “So I must thank you for that.”
The Light put his muscular hand around the back of the boy’s head and pulled it backward by his greasy hair, exposing his neck. The boy could see only the ceiling. Suddenly, in a panic, he regained the ability to speak.
“No, no! Please… your majesty…”
“Say ‘aahhh,’” The Light instructed.
The Light pulled the boy’s head further back, as though he had lost patience with his disobedience. The boy felt cold metal push up against his throat.
“I WON’T TALK! PLEASE! YOUR MAJESTY, I WON’T SAY–”
“I cannot thank you enough, child,” the Empress said calmly, ignoring the boy’s groveling. “For this, your name shall never be forgotten.”
Suddenly, and surprisingly, the sharp metal was pulled off of his throat. The large hand pulling back the boy’s head loosened its grip slightly. The boy sighed in relief and, while readjusting his head’s angle, he made eye contact with the Empress. She was expressionless.
“Your majesty–” The boy began.
The hand tightened its grip on the boy’s hair.
The last thing he felt was a cold knife plunging into his neck, and warm liquid spilling down his chest, saturating his clothing. He spat and gurgled, losing control of his muscles. His cheek felt the floor slam into it. The walls closed in on him from all sides, and everything went dark, except for the bright glint of the silver armor above him. The boy’s breathing ceased.
The world disappeared.