Cuff I: Chapter 2
Clean white sheets fluttered gently in the morning breeze, making the massive bed they covered look alive, as though it were inhaling and exhaling organically. A golden headboard with sparkling gem inlays rested regally at the top of the furniture, and a matching footboard framed the bottom symmetrically.
The Empress, sitting on the side of this majestic bed, slipped a white cuff onto her wrist. In some regards, stealing jewelry from a dead boy seemed wrong. On the other hand, the dead have no use for ornamentation anyway. Besides, she liked the look of it. It had elegant, symmetrical patterns carved into its surface, composed of extremely thin lines and curves. It could not have been crafted by anyone less than an expert. The cuff itself was made of some expensive, hard material, with no blemishes or discolorations to be seen. She fleetingly wondered how a poor servant boy got his hands on such fine jewelry.
Next to her, lying in the bed, was the Emperor. His body was cold, and his beard still stained from the ink. Bandages wrapped much of his body, from where Barber Beremy had taken samples last night. Despite the late Emperor’s appearance, from a distance, he almost seemed like a living, albeit sickly, person. The corpse did not even have an odor yet. His skin was as pale as the sheets fluttering about him. Unlike the sheets, however, he was not breathing.
Emperor Godsrich had always been an early-morning-riser, when he was alive. Empress Vera morbidly wondered whether this was the first time she had ever woken up before him.
The thin woman looked up, turning her attention away from the cuff. Bright sunlight nearly blinded her, shining through the open window and nimbly weaving across the room. A soft zephyr made the curtains dance. Today was the day that would define the rest of her life. She had a plan, and could not afford to execute it poorly.
She stood up, and, without speaking or motioning, two women entered from an adjacent room. They removed her night robe and undergarments, and redressed her in a fine gray dress, with black laces down the front. One of the women began pulling her dress together.
“Leave the laces loose,” the Empress commanded as the handmaiden worked her way down the dress. “Yes, right there.”
The maid obeyed silently. The front of the dress looked baggy, but otherwise beautiful. Between her pale skin, dark hair, and colorless dress, the Empress looked utterly monochromus.
The maids began powdering her face and putting shoes on her feet, when, suddenly an iron knock came from the chamber door. The maids froze and looked to the Empress for direction.
“Return to your room. This is for me,” the Empress ordered, slithering toward the doorway.
She swung the door open, revealing a large, shining man, and a tiny figure hobbling closely behind. The Light stood determinedly, holding a small bundle in his arms. Behind him, Barber Beremy fumbled awkwardly with a strange contraption. At the Empress’s motion, the two men walked in, leaving the door to shut loudly behind them. The Light outstretched his arms to the Empress, offering her the bundle of blankets. With little emotion on her face, she accepted the gift, and peered in at its contents.
The bundle was warm, and it squirmed gently. A tiny, chubby baby face was nestled within, sleeping. His tiny pink hand grasped at the blankets absent-mindedly. He had very little hair, but the small amount he had was a dark black color, just as Vera had asked for. His skin was beautiful and pink, though a small streak of crimson covered his forehead.
Naturally, this imperfection seemed to be the only detail that Empress Vera noticed.
“What is this?” She asked, without moving her attention away from the infant. She tried to wipe the streak off, but it was caked on. Perhaps it was a wound. Vera gave up quickly, not wanting to wake the infant.
“The child is healthy,” The Light promised, ominously. “You told me you did not care what I did with the mother.”
The baby started kicking and turning, but his eyes remained closed, as though he was just having a bad dream. After several seconds, he became calm once again, and nestled deeper into the blankets.
A strange half-smile morphed Empress Vera’s face into some expression partway between maternal love and manipulative deviance.
“Benjamin,” she said, soothingly. “Benjamin Flectre.”
The Empress looked up at The Light. “Thank you. He is perfect.”
“Of course, your grace.”
Empress Vera walked over to the maids’ room and entered without hesitation. The two were hurriedly applying their own makeup and perfumes, but, at Vera’s entrance, they immediately stopped what they were doing and stood still, ready for directions.
“Yaia,” Empress Vera began, addressing the shorter of the maids, “You had a daughter of your own recently, did you not?”
Yaia nodded, unable to take her eyes off of the bundle in the Empress’s arms.
“Kindly tend to this child for me. Sing to him, play with him,” she paused, “Feed him. Nobody is to enter these rooms except for me now, and if anybody sees or hears about this child, there will be excruciating punishments for both of you. Understood?”
The maids nodded aggressively.
“Take him,” Empress Vera commanded, handing the bundle over to Yaia, who seemed transfixed on the boy’s forehead. “Don’t worry about the blood, dear… birth is a bloody process, you know.”
The two looked up from the baby, a confused look in their eyes.
“Take good care of him, you two,” Vera said, leaving the room. “He is to be the heir of Kailin Empire.”
The door shut.
Back in the Empress’s room, The Light and Barber Beremy stood silently in place. The Light looked as confident as ever, but Beremy’s face was quivering with doubts.
The Empress paced around the windows, looking out onto the grounds of the palace. Beautifully manicured gardens stretched for acres, with magnificent fountains and statues gleaming in the sunlight. Hundreds of thousands of flowers, both common and exotic, dominated the far end of the gardens. From this far away, their colors fused into a beautiful, gradient rainbow.
“Beremy, did you make me a belly?” Vera asked, without looking back from the window.
“Yes, your majesty,” he looked down at the strange contraption in his hands. “Um, your majesty, forgive me, but I don’t understand.”
She turned around. “What’s not to understand, Beremy?”
“Your majesty, uh, one does not go from thin to carrying child overnight. Won’t somebody– perhaps– be suspicious?”
The Empress smiled patronisingly. “Beremy, nobody has seen me in weeks. Not except for those of us in this room now, my maids, and Xavier.” She paused. “And Nammargon,” she concluded, with vinegar in her voice.
“But… your majesty, how will you–”
“Listen, Beremy,” she interrupted, “I was ill for weeks. Now it is my husband’s turn to be ill for weeks. There is no reason for suspicion.”
“But, your majesty, surely, er– Benjamin– will look too old to be a newborn, when you… birth him?”
“Well, gods be damned, Beremy, the court is not going to watch me give birth! Besides, tonight is the Riverlight Festival. I will announce the good news at the banquet.” She frowned thoughtfully. “Perhaps I will give birth the following day. Or the next. But you are correct, Beremy, the sooner I do, the better. I wouldn’t want The Light to have to fetch me another Benjamin.”
“Understood, your majesty.”
“Good, now fit me with this belly of yours.” She began unlacing the front of her dress, which had been left loose.
Barber Beremy looked down at the object in his hands, and began unravelling it. It appeared to be a large, beige blob with cloth straps attached to it. His spectacles slipping down the bridge of his nose, Beremy held the blob up to the Empress’s exposed stomach and began fastening the cloth straps behind her back. After about two minutes, he pulled the straps tightly one last time and stepped away. The Empress’s figure had dramatically changed, from her slender self to a conspicuously pot-bellied woman.
The Empress laced her dress back up– more tightly this time– and walked toward a floor-length mirror in the corner of the bedroom. She turned slowly and observed herself from all angles.
“Very nice, Beremy.” She cautiously put her hands on her stomach. “Very convincing.”
“It’s made from an old material, your majesty. A good one. It should behave similarly to the human body.”
The Empress pushed on her stomach through the dress, and felt the material give way.
“It could almost fool me,” Empress Vera noted amusedly. She turned to Beremy once more. “Thank you for your help, Beremy. You are dismissed.”
The little man smiled a thin-lipped expression of relief, then waddled out the door, obviously pleased with himself.
Vera held a hand beneath her fake stomach. Perhaps this would all be simpler than she expected.
Wistfully, she looked out the window again. The gardens truly were a sight to see. She fleetingly remembered her first walk out in those gardens with Godsrich. She remembered her first time kissing him, and the way he knew about every single plant on the grounds– even the most exotic ones.
It seemed almost funny how many things could change over such short periods of time. A few decades kills your dreams. It kills your expectations. It even kills your husband.
“Your grace,” a gruff voice began, “Xavier will be in the undercroft any minute.”
Empress Vera turned her attention away from the window, and focused instead on The Light.
“I told Xavier to bring him at midnoon.”
“It is almost midnoon, your grace. We should move.”
The pale woman glanced back out the window one last time, noticing the placement of the sun. Perhaps she had slept in longer than expected.
“Alright, then.” She turned back to The Light. “Escort me through the back corridors.”
“Let us go.”
“Before we go, Empress,” The Light began, with menacingly hushed tones, “What would you like me to do to him?”
The woman paused and thought carefully. Her expression shone with fierce indecision, as though every new thought changed her mind.
“It depends how much he knows,” She finally answered, confidently. “I will handle this. We will hope for the best.”
The radiantly silver man nodded.
“Now,” Vera repeated, “Let us go.”
Making no sound except for the usual clink of his armor, The Light turned around and obediently pulled open the chamber door for Empress Vera. She exited delicately, and The Light followed behind, less delicately.
The two figures wordlessly trekked through the halls. They took sharp turns down strange stairwells, and ducked through low, unused doorways. The Empress was a gravid ghost, floating over the stone floor with her wavy granite-speckle dress. The Light, an enormous mechanical beast, followed behind her protectively, joints moving like clockwork.
At last, they turned a corner and found themselves confronted with a long, high room. It contained dozens of columns that rose straight from the ground before blooming into the curved stone architecture of the ceiling. A myriad of tall windows with pointed tops lined the stone walls, giving the room a distinctly greenish tint as sunlight filtered through its colorful stained glass. The wall opposite them– in the far distance– had numerous barrels and boxes stacked up against it. All of the castle’s finest beers, wines, and liquors were stored here.
The Empress stepped forward into the undercroft, coating herself in its green light. Her shoes left tracks on the ashy ground.
“Nammargon,” she said simply, her commanding voice echoing intensely throughout the room. The reverberation continued for several seconds.
“Your grace,” a smaller voice replied, from her side.
Empress Vera turned her head. Xavier was standing next to a column, his two earrings glinting in the stained luminescence. Behind him, a taller and wider man peered in analytically.
The Empress stepped forward. Her powerful presence was almost suffocating in this dusty, echoing room.
Xavier bowed his head respectfully, and the more sizable man behind him moved forward, closer to the Empress. He did so with confidence, and no semblance of fear. Perhaps he was well-composed, or perhaps he was an idiot. Vera often pondered which description better suited this odd man.
“Your grace,” the man repeated after Xavier, in deep, smooth tones. He bowed his head as well.
“Nammargon,” she began, “We must speak.”
The man looked back up at the Empress. He had skin as pale as hers, but his covered a much larger figure, enhanced by fat and muscle alike. His head was completely bald, and his face bore a number of exotic, decorative scars: his forehead had three horizontal lines cut across it, the skin under his ears was dotted, and he wore a small triangle wound just under his right eye. These unusual marks of beauty garnished his face for as long as Empress Vera could recall. Yet, they were still off-putting.
“And what a strange place to speak,” Nammargon replied, gesturing to the huge room. His deep voice contained only the slightest tinge of a mainland accent.
“This is important, Nammargon. I had to be certain that no curious ears could find us.”
“Or eyes.” The bald man looked down at The Empress’s stomach pointedly. “I don’t suppose we’re down here for the wine.”
The ghoulish woman glared at his scarred face, unamused. “You have such a serious face for such a funny man.”
“And you have such a funny face for such a serious woman.”
The Empress looked over her shoulder. The Light was several feet behind her, shining like a mirror and ready to do her bidding.
“I wondered why I hadn’t seen you for so long,” Nammargon continued, causing the Empress to look back at him. “I thought you were sick. Now I understand.”
“That is exactly why I am here,” she explained, satisfied that Beremy’s belly at least seemed to fool Nammargon. “You are one of my husband’s most trusted councilmen, and we do not intend on leaving you in the dark about such important matters.”
Nammargon looked up from her stomach. He was clearly piecing information together in his mind, and deciding carefully upon the wording of his questions. This odd man always knew more than he let on, and Vera hated him for that.
“I am more than a trusted councilman. I am the High Advisor, and the head of the council.”
“Yes. Of course.” Her verbiage was terse and frustrated.
“And– forgive me, Empress– why is Emperor Godsrich not telling me this right now?”
“I was ill, Nammargon. Barber Beremy diagnosed it as Sorren’s Sickness. It is a rare and long-lasting illness, but a treatable one. I am cured, and my son,” she touched her large stomach, “Is expected to be a fit and healthy child.”
The Empress suddenly motioned behind her to The Light, who effortlessly pushed a wooden crate over toward her, through the dull ash covering the ground.
“Forgive me, Nammargon. Motherhood is exhausting before it even begins.” She sat upon the crate dramatically. “My husband now has the same illness. He will likely be under the close supervision of barbers and chymists for weeks to come, but, if our understandings of this illness are correct, he will emerge from it as strong as ever. But, for now, I must be the one to tell you these things, and not him. I apologize for this. I know you prefer his company to mine.”
“Not at all, Empress. I think he just prefers my company to yours.”
“Nammargon, I plan on announcing this to the realm tonight, at the Riverlight Festival.” She continued, ignoring his jabs. “I will tell them the good news of my son, and the unfortunate news of my husband’s sickness.”
“Very well, your grace.”
“Now, you are a smart man. Do you see the major flaw in this?”
The large, pale man cocked his head thoughtfully. “You are carrying child.”
Nammargon paused again. “You will have nothing to toast with.”
“No, you oaf.” The Empress breathed in aggressively, trying to calm herself. “The flaw is that the realm cannot see my son as weak. They cannot know that I was ill while carrying child. They will consider my son malformed and unsuitable.”
Nammargon nodded once in understanding, with all the speed and grace of a feeding tortoise.
“I will tell them that I was simply sick with motherhood,” she explained. “My husband catching Sorren’s Sickness now was simply a coincidence. And we will not tell another soul otherwise.”
Nammargon scrutinized the woman, and then looked behind her at The Light.
“I would never expose the secrets of the royal family,” Nammargon said, a serious tone to his voice for the first time. “I have always been trustworthy, and will continue to be so.” He frowned. “An advisor without honor is as useless as a book without pages.”
For once, Vera seemed satisfied with his answer.
“Good,” she replied. “Thank you for your time today, Nammargon.” She stood up from the crate, clutching her round stomach, and looked around the huge, dusty room. “I am deeply sorry that we had to conduct this in such secrecy.”
“I understand now, your grace.” Nammargon bowed slightly. As he returned back to an upright stance, his expression scrunched into one of deep thought. “Say, your grace, I don’t mean to pry, but… have you been okay?”
“Yes. My temperature has–”
“No,” he interrupted. “I mean, have you had any… episodes… as of late?” Even the bravely outspoken Nammargon seemed hesitant to inquire about this. In the tense silence that followed, he appeared to regret asking entirely. Perhaps he had pushed too far.
“No,” Vera answered with equivalent coldness to the stone floor beneath them. “I am fine.”
“Ah, glad to hear it. I am sorry for intruding, I simply–”
“I understand,” she cut him off, inviting more awkwardness.
“Ah. Good.” Nammargon reached back and began shaking the hood of his cloak, preparing to pull it over his chalky skull. “Now if you will excuse me, Empress, I must go. The Highlord of Ramsyk is complaining to us once again about an insignificant problem of his. He lost a servant, so I hear. I must orchestrate some… elaborate means of shutting him up.”
“Highlord York is an idiot and an annoyance,” Empress Vera agreed. “You may leave.”
The High Advisor pulled the black hood over his scalp and began walking toward a far exit. With his last visible step, he looked back once more, his three parallel forehead scars casting strange, greenish shadows across his face, all of which was framed by his mysterious hood. Wordlessly, he spun around and exited through a side doorway of the undercroft.
Once the sound of Nammargon’s reverberating footsteps on the stairs had faded into silence, Xavier inched forward.
“Why did you let him go?”
“What do you mean?” The Empress asked.
“I thought you were gonna have
the moony killed,” Xavier replied,invoking an old racial slur.
“My goal is to suppress suspicion, not initiate a murder investigation.”
“He’s too dangerous, Vera. When was the last time he saw you?”
“Around four months ago.”
“Exactly. More recently than most. He would remember if you had been carrying child.”
“I was not so big then.” She touched her fake stomach.
“He remembers how skinny you were, Empress. Too skinny. Nammargon doesn’t forget. He’s dangerous to us.”
“He seemed convinced.” She rubbed her stomach once more before removing her hand from it.
“Yeah. And if he hadn’t, he would be dead.” Xavier looked back at The Light, who remained stationed next to the back exit like a living suit of armor. “Extremely dead. He knows that.”
“And you think that he will risk treason to propose a conspiracy theory to the council?”
“I don’t… look, Empress, you ain’t exactly loved by everyone on the council. Sandy and Bari could be convinced easily. They eat up Nammargon’s every precious word. But if he was… y’know…” Xavier ran his thumb across his neck symbolically.
“Xavier, I will not–”
“He knows what we know,” Xavier cut her off. “And he ain’t on our side. If Godsrich hadn’t been so fond of him, he’d already be–”
“And he is the High Advisor to the realm, Xavier.” The Empress replied tersely and powerfully, as though she did not wish to be argued with any longer. “His murder would not go unnoticed, especially with my husband’s death at nearly the exact same time.”
Xavier paused thoughtfully. “Has Barber Beremy discovered the cause of Godsrich’s death?”
“What if… it was a double assassination?”
“Empress– that’s it!” Xavier beamed excitedly, rubbing his hands together. “Nammargon and Godsrich were both killed by our enemies. So you gotta take the reigns and appoint a new High Advisor– like me– and restore stability to Kailin Empire. And then you even got an excuse to go to war with Z’Ki Island or something. Say they did it. Or whoever you want. It’s perfect.”
The Empress contemplated the proposal. Could she take this plan a step further? Could she convince the council– and the realm– of Nammargon’s assassination?
The Empress gazed out at the stained-glass windows behind Xavier.
He had a point. Nammargon was too smart, and, moreover, he had a habit of being frustratingly persistent about any little detail. Godsrich’s death would be deeply analyzed, and Benjamin’s birth, even moreso. It might even be easier to kill Nammargon and lie about it than to leave him alive.
“We will wait and see,” Empress Vera finally concluded, looking straight through Xavier. “If we can dispose of him, we shall.”
“We can, and we will.”
Vera spun on her heels and began walking back up the same staircase she had previously descended. She did not look back once, but the sound of differently-weighted footsteps told her that The Light and Xavier were following loyally behind.