Cuff I: Chapter 3

Cuff I: Chapter 3

EMPRESS VERA

cic3.jpg

“Are you ready, Empress? The Riverlight Banquet begins soon.”

Empress Vera stood up from her desk in the corner of the sleeping chambers, where she had been writing letters, and looked out the window. Clearly, she had lost track of time.

“Why did nobody come get me earlier?”

Xavier rubbed his hands together nervously, like an insect.

“Well, yer majesty, you killed the boy who usually does that.”

Frustration welled up in the Empress’s eyes. If anybody but Xavier had spoken to her that way, this mild annoyance would have been serious wrath instead. It took everything in her power to not strangle Nammargon earlier today, for instance. The High Advisor’s wit was sharp, but his common sense dull.

“Well,” Vera responded fluidly, “Maybe somebody should find me a replacement.”

Xavier nodded. “I’ll send the word down.”

“Speaking of which,” she continued,  “Godsrich’s study is clean now, correct?”

“The boy’s been taken care of. The ink and blood’ve been cleaned up. Nobody’s asked any questions.”

“Excellent.”

“Spotless,” he added. “And, uh, yeah, I’ll find a new servant boy.”

“Good.”

Xavier bowed his head slightly, then turned around on his heel and exited the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

Like well-timed machinery, the smaller door on the side of the imperial sleeping chambers opened at the exact same moment as the main one closed. The Empress’s two handmaidens stepped forward with their heads bowed obediently. They had been trained extensively about when and how to approach the Empress for her dressing, to the point where the entire process probably felt more like a well-choreographed dance routine than handmaiden work.

As they entered, the taller of the two maids glanced briefly at Godsrich’s body on the bed, grimaced, then stifled her disgust and proceeded toward the Empress as if she had not seen anything.

“Yaia,” said the Empress, coolly.

The shorter woman looked up, saying nothing.

“How is young Benjamin?”

“Quiet, your majesty.” Her voice was so soft and submissive that it could have been mistaken for a breeze.

“And healthy?” The Empress raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. He is healthy, your majesty.”

“Good. Thank you. I will have Xavier bring you fine wine as a gift of my gratitude. From Hardol.”

Yaia nodded once.

“Dress me in this year’s Riverlight outfit,” Vera commanded suddenly. “With Barber Beremy’s contraption beneath. I want to look appropriate to give a grand speech tonight.”

The handmaidens obediently began removing her grey dress and finding the appropriate fabrics, powders, and perfumes with which to adorn her.

Several hours of cosmetic preparation produced an outfit as confusing as it was beautiful. Since her noble upbringing in Castle Valor, where her father ruled over the Delta, Vera had always learned patience while being dressed elegantly. In fact, she appreciated that these hours of silent preparation allowed her space to contemplate. After all, she had more than enough to think about.

She would sit with the imperial council tonight, and speak in front of hundreds of highborn families from across the Kailin Empire. If the highborn families do not take favor to her– as many of them failed to do during her husband’s reign– then she would find ruling the empire to be much more difficult. Even more importantly, if the imperial council finds her story unbelievable, then an ascension to power would be practically impossible. The seven councilmembers (eight, counting Xavier) effectively decide who rules, since they individually control the empire’s treasury, military, infrastructure, religion, and more. Power is a tree, and the top of a tree cannot stand tall if the trunk and branches below do not support its weight.

The sun moved south across the sky. Empress Vera walked with Xavier– who wore a ratty, old-fashioned suit– into a small room adjacent to the Great Hall of the castle. Well aware of the amount of news she must announce at this famous annual feast, Vera mentally prepared herself. At no point during her speech could she afford to slip up or lose the trust of the audience in any way. Yet, this acknowledgement of the importance of the event did not manifest itself in her as nervousness. She was exactly as cool and collected as ever.

“We got a little time,” Xavier muttered to himself.

Vera did not respond, choosing instead to continue to unscatter her mind.

She wore a bizarre black dress, decorated with a dozen oversized, uncut gemstones that refracted the light around her onto her chest, casting dull, imperfect rainbows across her shoulders and breasts. A tight black fabric clung snugly to her round stomach, while a sort of backwards cape draped down her body loosely, concealing the obviously pregnant shape and making it more of a large, shapeless mass. Her makeup was extravagant, with shades of grey and white that seemed to exaggerate her already-sharp cheekbones. Finally, atop her straight hair, the Empress donned a thin metallic structure that seemed to form some geometric mesh. Black with tinges of prismatic coloring, the odd headpiece matched the rest of her outfit exquisitely. An exotic, rose-like perfume emanated lightly from her body. On her wrist, she wore the snow-white cuff. Something about it seemed to work with any outfit.

“How do I look?” She asked, adjusting a rough gemstone resting on her collarbone.

“You look beautiful.”

“Pregnancy is not beautiful, Xavier. It is wretched, painful, and strange.”

“Well then, you look wretched, painful, and strange.”

“Excellent.”

Emperor Godsrich had always given the banquet speeches in the past. Vera was not looking forward to doing it herself. She inhaled sharply.

“What time is it?”

“Between afteve and firstdusk,” Xavier answered. “The guests’re arriving now. There are a lotta nice surprises in the crowd.”

“Like whom?”

“Highlord Santiago Whitebeard. Although his wife is home with the newborn.”

“Right. Who else?”

“I spoke for a minute with Highlord Lywo Fortune and his wife. They left Torchlight this morning. Owen Lichovich has made the long journey from Abbot.”

“Is that Highlord Sergei’s brother?”

“It’s his son, your grace.”

“Ah.”

“You should know that.”

“I have not been familiar with the residents of Abbot since House Lichovich replaced the Wolfes.”

“I don’t think the Southern Lands are, either,” Xavier replied darkly. “Well, you know, Little Owen’s a good guy. Very Southern. Like his father.” Xavier rubbed his thin hands together while he spoke. It had always been a strange little idiosyncrasy of his. “Probably eats nothing but large game meat, I reckon.”

“Ah,” Empress Vera mused disinterestedly. “The crowd does not seem dissimilar from last year’s banquet.”

“No. Well, Lord Ulexe Oakenthrone of Ulthos isn’t here this year, but several other members of the Oakenthrone family are. Highlord Sylvan York of Ramsyk, of course, declined invitation.”

“Naturally.”

“And, as you know, your father regrets his absence. He must oversee the Riverlight celebrations in Castle Valor lest his people, you know, eat him alive.”

Empress Vera smiled wryly.

“The people of Castle Valor expect grander and grander celebrations of him every year. He will never escape.”

“Exactly. The Azum family has a way with their showmanship. Perhaps this year they’ll burn down all of the Delta with their parties. And when that happens,” he continued, “We can only hope Highlord Azum makes it out alive.”

Vera half-smiled. The Delta culture was, indeed, rather unique in this regard.

“Oh, and I ain’t heard word from the Flectres,” Xavier added.

“None of them?”

“Felix and Reilynna don’t seem to be in Port Hardol at the moment.”

“Strange.”

“Could be headed to Vonyphia like they’ve done in the past. I dunno. Don’t think they’ll be here tonight though.”

Xavier peered through a slightly ajar door to his right. It led directly into the Great Hall of Kailin Castle, which was almost certainly the single largest room in the Kailin Empire. With incredibly high ceilings and a layout designed to seat almost five-thousand people comfortably, it tended to be too large for any usage outside of imperial banquets. The amount of decorations in the Great Hall– between its hundreds of chandeliers, tapestries, tables, and silverware– exceeded the value of goods exchanged in the Kailin Marketplace over an entire year, according to Iriger, the head financer of the Empire.

Tonight, the Great Hall was filled completely. Highlords and highladies, regular lords and ladies, and some lesser houses of the Empire dined all in one place. The higher one’s status, the closer their table to the front of the Great Hall. The imperial family and council themselves feasted atop a raised platform at the very front of the Hall, looking down upon everybody else.

Empress Vera peered out of the open door.

As per usual, nobody was dressed normally. The Riverlight Festival, at least to the imperial elite, meant more than food and festivities: it was the one time of the season when lords and ladies could wear the most bizarre, extravagant, and expensive clothing possible. Last year, Highlord Santiago Whitebeard of Whitepeak arrived donning a suit covered in thousands of gold coins stitched together like reptile scales. It was rather popular, mostly because this exuberant display of wealth represented the whole of the Riverlight imperial banquet accurately.

Seated at the table nearest to the imperial platform, Lord Lywo Fortune animatedly spoke to a thickly-browed young man that could only be Owen Lichovich. Lord Lywo wore a huge, shining gold outfit with a spherical headpiece that nearly doubled his size, while Owen, who looked remarkably like his father, Lord Sergei, wore a long cloak made of at least twenty different types of fur. Together, they looked like a solar deity and an obsessive game hunter.

“I should speak.” Vera noted, turning back from the doorway. “They are nearly seated.”

“The first course’ll be out soon,” Xavier said, nodding. He held out his slender hand and began walking toward a small staircase behind Vera.

The Empress spun around, taking Xavier’s hand, and allowed him to help her up the stairs. At the top, a thick velvet curtain hung before them.

“Alright,” Empress Vera said, letting go of Xavier’s hand now that they had ascended the platform. Wordlessly, Xavier began pulling the curtain to the side, revealing Empress Vera to the crowd, and the crowd to Empress Vera.

With the exception of the long, fancily-dressed dining table in front of her, nothing separated her from the sea of strange colors below.

Her eyes were bombarded with shades of blue, yellow, red, grey, green, gold– with everybody’s clothing viewed at once from atop this stage, the Great Hall seemed to be incubating a flowing field of alien flowers. Some glittered in the torchlight, some stood out brilliantly against the ocean of outfits, and others were concealed in shadow, donning expensive masks and fabrics that seemed to melt into the environment around them.

This colorful, chattering crowd gradually grew silent as Empress Vera’s presence was recognized. Bustling, speaking, and noise of any sort died down, and soon completely stopped. The Empress held up her hand, as she had seen her husband do many times before, acknowledging the respect of the crowd.

Even in a room of five-thousand festive socialites, the silence was absolute. Vera seemed to enjoy this. She held her hand out in the silence for several moments longer, in a demonstration of power. Nobody dared break the quiet. Many a cough was suppressed.

At last, the Empress rested her hand.

“Thank you, family, friends.” She looked down, deadpan. “Lywo.”

The crowd chuckled.

“Tonight,” she continued, “We celebrate the Belesis. One thousand years and three months ago, the world was created by the goddess Saria, the god Zarokam, and the nature spirit Hyra. And tonight, with grand spectacles and delicious food, we celebrate that massive flash of light that created all.” Her raised voice was powerful enough to be heard even in the back of the enormous room, though its reverberation was significantly dampened by the amount of bodies in the area.

“Now,” she continued, “This is my first time addressing the Riverlight Banquet. There is, unfortunately, a reason for this.”

The crowd grew silent again; their anticipation was palpable.

“Emperor Godsrich has fallen quite ill,” the Empress announced. Immediately, chatter and gasps consumed the former silence.

“Settle, settle,” Vera ordered, calmly but powerfully maintaining control over her audience. “I know this is shocking– admittedly, only a few emperors have missed their Riverlight Banquet– but this is no time for fear. Our beloved Emperor Godsrich will be alright. I have absolute confirmation from the imperial chymist and the imperial barber: he is as strong and smart as ever. He simply must remain bedridden to heal himself back into the incredible shape that a great emperor must be in to lead.”

The crowd seemed somewhat pacified by the explanation, but the Empress could still sense unease. Absolute trust between the Kailin Empire’s elite and Kailin Castle was paramount to the success of Vera’s plan, and the health of the entire nation. With this in mind, she continued speaking.

“We believe that my husband has contracted Sorren’s Sickness, a serious but highly treatable illness. Despite many cases of it through the years, no royalty has died of Sorren’s Sickness since Greysmane Kailin IX. This was the first case of Sorren’s Sickness among Gursic elite. That was a long time ago. I promise you, friends– Emperor Godsrich will stand before you soon enough. In fact,” she half-smiled, “I spoke to him earlier today. He told me that, in his absence, we should drink to the Hardol Owls.”

The crowd laughed and raised their drinks, acknowledging Godrich’s favorite circlepit team. Vera laughed along comfortably.

“What I am about to say will upset some of you, and invigorate others. But I must say it, in obedience and respect for my beloved husband.” Vera took a breath and picked up her goblet from the table behind her.

“To the Owls!” She shouted, raising the cup.

TO THE OWLS!

The sound of clinking goblets and downed spirits seemed to wash away all fear and doubt about Emperor Godsrich. Vera smiled, then put her goblet back on the table without drinking any.

After about three minutes of noise and chatter, Vera raised her hand again. Once again, the crowd respectfully decreased their volume, anxious to hear her speak.

“There are several other matters to attend to. Much has occurred since the last banquet. Firstly, we must congratulate this year’s honored bard. I believe he is present now.”

Everyone immediately perked up.

“Eberhardt Swandove,” Vera peered into the crowd, “Please, make yourself visible.”

As thousands of bizarrely outfitted plutocrats spun around curiously, a short man dressed in a beautiful flower-patterned tunic stood atop a table and bowed.

“Ah, there he is!” Vera gestured to him. “The famed Eberhardt Swandove the Songweaver, Bard of Ballystrom! To our delight, he won this year’s song competition. His works will truly stand the test of time, and musicians of the future will be singing his tunes to our great-grandchildren. May we honor this virtuoso!”

Massive applause erupted. This musician had been commissioned by so many lords and ladies over the years that he now seemed to live among them, like self-made royalty.

The Empress allowed the cheering to continue for a long time. Clearly, Bard Swandove was greatly admired by the guests of this banquet.

At last, the clapping, whistling, and stomping subsided.

“My friends,” Vera resumed from atop the raised platform, “I must also congratulate our lawmakers and religious advocates. As you certainly know, the first ever Temple of Saria was constructed in the Beautiful Lands last month.”

Several celebratory whistles emanated from the back of the room.

“This is very exciting. While we enjoy the luxury of many Sarianic Temples here in the Emperor’s Lands, as well as in the Delta, the Ashlands, Hardol, and the Southern Lands, constructing a Sarianic Temple in the traditionally Hyra-worshipping Beautiful Lands is a massive feat of boundary-pushing and persistence, as well as a testament to the goodness of Sarianity. May Saria find her way to all corners of this world.”

Saria salut!” A chorus of voices chanted.

“I might remind you all that, not long ago, just before my father-in-law ascended the throne, the Kailin Empire was ruled by a Q’llor-Muz-worshipping tyrant. But Stefan Flectre defeated the heathen Ejon Tachum in glorious battle, restoring peace and piety to the Gursic Island, reinvigorating the Kailin Empire, and ushering in a new age. In his honor, our latest– and most northern– Sarianic Temple has been named The Pillars of Stefan.”

Cheering and foot-stomping commenced, shaking the very core of the Great Hall. “Saria salut!” They praised. “Saria salut!

Even where Godsrich Flectre found controversy among the Gursic elite, his late father Stefan remained a nationally admired idol– a hero to the Kailin Empire.

“Saria salut,” Vera replied. “On this note, I will soon direct your attention to Brother Eduardo, who will give the annual Riverlight sermon. But, before I do, I would like to conclude with one final word of congratulations. Highlord Santiago Whitebeard and Highlady Bevelyn Oakenthrone-Whitebeard have just had their first son, Rio. May baby Rio Whitebeard grow into a healthy, strong future ruler of the Ashlands!”

Empress Vera looked down to see Santiago Whitebeard, adorned with a blocky charcoal-colored armor, as he bowed his head gratefully. Some of the other high nobility seated at the front table, including Lord Lywo Fortune, clapped him on the back excitedly.

“Oh,” Vera began again. “And I have one more announcement.” She paused for a moment, milking the suspense. Many a highlord and highlady leaned forward curiously.

“I have not seen many of you in several months,” she continued, referring to her complete absence from the public eye during her own bout of Sorren’s Sickness. “You may have heard that I was sick. I was not sick,” she lied.

Whispers crawled through the crowd as Empress Vera slowly lifted the shapeless, backwards cape that covered her body. Beneath, her tight-fitting dress revealed a sizeable, round stomach to the entire crowd. The audience grew noisier as they comprehended the view before them. She turned to her side, showing off the bulge clearly to even those in the back of the Great Hall.

“Yes! Yes. I am carrying child. Young Benjamin Flectre is due any day now,” Vera explained, trying to speak over the excitable crowd. “He is the heir to the Kailin Empire!”

Thunderous applause commenced. She watched as the sea of plutocrats all stood up simultaneously, cheering and stomping the loudest they had yet. Many a goblet was downed in celebration.

This news, obviously, had massive implications for the Empire, and Vera knew it. Word of the unborn emperor would spread like fire to all corners of the realm in a matter of days.

The applause did not die down. Empress Vera took this opportunity to bow and seat herself at the imperial table. It was long, elegantly dressed, and paired with ten equally ornate chairs.

As with every year, the table consisted of the imperial family in the middle, flanked by members of the imperial council on either side. They all faced the crowd, as though watching over their guests was more important than conversing among themselves.

From left to right, the council consisted of Iriger, the head financer; Hemma, the construction manager; Gunther, the wartime counsellor; and Xavier, the Empress’s advisor. These four were followed by Empress Vera, then an open seat usually occupied by Godsrich, and, finally, the four remaining council members: Nammargon, the Emperor’s advisor and council head; Sandy, the domestic manager; Bari, the foreign affairs manager; and, at the far right, Brother Eduardo, the religious leader and political head of Sarianity.

Dressed in plain brown robes that contrasted intensely with everyone else’s magnificent fashion, Brother Eduardo rose from his seat and walked to the front of the platform, where Empress Vera had stood a moment earlier. Without the power or command of Vera, the religious man patiently waited for several minutes while the excited crowd decreased their volume at a leisurely pace. Brother Eduardo ran his hands through his thin hair absent-mindedly, as though his habitual fidgeting could stop the early-onset greying.

At last, the crowd’s noise was just low enough to speak over. Brother Eduardo straightened his posture and spoke as loudly as possible.

“Friends!”

About half of the crowd seemed to be paying attention, which was more than enough for Brother Eduardo. Although he held the highest political position of any Sarianic Brother, he was not the spiritual leader of Sarianity. That title belonged to The Seraph Flammarion, who lived in Lightblasalem, a holy city in the Southern Lands which refused any form of governmental role. As a result, Brother Eduardo was far less popular with the people, and even less so with the religious nobility. Accepting of this widespread indifference to him, however, he powered on through his speech.

“What exciting news!” He continued. “It is quite a surprise, even to me! May Saria bless young Benjamin Flectre with her eternal grace!”

Saria salut!” Replied a chorus significantly duller than the one when Vera honored a sports team.

“Exactly! Saria salut! Quite!” Brother Eduardo procured a forced smile. “Now, I will keep this brief… I know we all have our appetites.”

The religious man pulled out a tiny booklet, only slightly larger than his palm. Although enormous, full-sized holy books were traditionally used in Sarianic ceremonies, Brother Eduardo preferred this smaller version when giving sermons at banquets. Perhaps it was symbolic of the piety of his audience– instead of the devout temple-goers that would typically attend Sarianic ceremonies, these banquets consisted majoritively of the gluttonous elite, who much prefer the party to the reason behind it.

Eduardo licked his fingers and flickered through pages clumsily before settling on a passage.

“On this very special occasion,” the plinky man began, looking down into his miniature booklet, “I will honor the Riverlight Festival with a reading from the Book of Belesis, the first of the Books of the Blessed Three.”

He cleared his throat. If some of the people in the crowd groaned reflexively, they could not be heard over the low roar of poorly-concealed chatter.

“In the beginning,” he said loudly, ignoring the noise. “There was nothing, but an endless, shapeless void, and, within it, three entities: the goddess, Saria; the god, Zarokam; and the spirit, Hyra. There was no past, no future; no war, no peace. There was no sun to rise and no land to walk upon. But Saria’s eternal love could not be contained by this nothingness. In a bright flash of light, she created the world. This was the Belesis: the birth of everything.

“It was a cold land, in an endless winter. Snow and ice covered all surfaces. In this world, Saria put trees, insects, monsters, mountains, rivers, and flowers. But she felt incomplete; she still had more love to give. With all of her powers, Saria created the most perfect creature: a human. She named him Saruho, and cared for him, and gave him intelligence. As Saruho grew older, the spirit Hyra used its powers of nature and gifted Saruho hundreds of children, all with different features. All the while, however, Zarokam grew paranoid. He warned Saria that her creation was dangerous and would not obey her. Saria, blinded by love, did not believe the dark god.

“In the year 20, Saruho told all of his children that he was the deity that had created the world, and demanded praise. They stopped believing in Saria, Zarokam, and Hyra, and instead worshipped their father, bringing him grand gifts and treating him like a god. Zarokam, enraged by Saruho’s arrogance, struck him with light from the sky. This bolt burned Saruho and gave warmth to the world, ending the permanent winter and creating spring, summer, and autumn.

“Saruho, who still did not learn his lesson, was then put on Trial before his own children by Zarokam. One by one, his children spoke against him, praising the gods and rejecting their father.”

The colorful crowd shuffled impatiently. They had heard this before. Brother Eduardo, turning to the next page, continued on with all the enthusiasm of a lethargic turtle.

“The gods–” he cleared his throat once more. “Ahem— the gods created three more worlds: Sarialand, a paradise; Hyraland, a neutral world not unlike the one we walk upon; and Zarokam, a painful land of punishment.

“After the Trial of Saruho, the gods doomed the arrogant man to Zarokamland for all eternity. The gods then told Saruho’s children that when they die, they, like their father, will be judged. However, as a kind gesture, all of their children, and their children’s children, and so on, will be sent to two of the three afterworlds. This way, no two humans will ever be permanently separated. None will be spoiled by permanent paradise, and none will grow dull of permanent torture. The children of Saruho nodded, and this was good.”

Brother Eduardo closed his tiny booklet. “In the name of the three,” he preached.

We show love and beg forgiveness,” the crowd answered together.

“Friends,” Brother Eduardo concluded, “This was the Belesis. In year 0, that flash of light created us. Tonight, 1000 years later, may we celebrate Saria’s love, and the gift of life itself.”

Hundreds of heads bowed silently. Many others continued chatting over the service.

“Thank you for your time tonight,” Brother Eduardo said to the crowd after a moment. “Now, may the feast begin!”

On cue, dozens of uniformed servers exited from the kitchen door, each carrying about four plates. Together, they moved as a unit, like trains weaving expertly between tables. Everybody excitedly clamored into their seats in preparation for the first course. The room grew outrageously loud.

Empress Vera eyed Brother Eduardo as he shuffled back into his chair at the far end of the table. The Empress had always found his sermons to be exceedingly manipulative, as though he did not even pretend to believe in this religion himself. Maybe she was wrong though, and the pious man truly was just an idiot.

Perhaps, Empress Vera thought, a flash of light did create the world. Perhaps the gods did exist. But Vera was not dim; she had watched her husband pass controversial laws by invoking Sarianity, and referencing outrageous misinterpretations of the Books of the Blessed Three. Religion, like nearly everything else in this world, was created by somebody who sought more power. And it worked. This meek, pathetic man in clothing that belonged in The Rancids now sat at the imperial table, a mere three seats from the Empress. He didn’t even have the decency to disguise himself among the elite– insultingly, he remained an unabashed pauper. Only religion could achieve such an absurd feat.

The first course arrived. The chefs had prepared a salad of cactus and citrus, topped with fresh cheese, a halved chicken egg, purple olives, and tree nuts imported from Z’Ki Island, which were, of course, especially uncommon in the current political climate between the Z’Ki people and the rest of the Kailin Empire. A delicious ginger dressing dripped viscously through the salad.

Empress Vera took a small bite of the elegant appetizer. It tasted even better than it looked: strikingly tart, with refreshing notes throughout. As several minutes passed, Vera’s tiny, delicate bites added up, and the salad disappeared from in front of her.

“Brother Eduardo,” sounded a high, relaxed voice, “do you dislike the food?”

Vera looked to her side. Bari, the turquoise-haired foreign manager, was staring directly at the plain man to her left. He had obviously not touched his plate.

“No, I’m sure it’s exquisite. I have given up multi-course meals for the season.”

“Quite the… sacrifice,” Bari replied, with a nearly mocking tone to her voice. “Will you eat any of the food, then?”

“Of course,” Brother Eduardo answered, as though it was obvious. “I just have to pick one course.”

“Why don’t you just eat them all at once?” Sandy, the older man to Bari’s right, asked, half-jokingly. Vera had always disliked Sandy. Like Nammargon, he seemed unresponsive to intimidation. Perhaps he was brave, or, more likely, perhaps he was simply too old to care about anything.

Brother Eduardo furrowed his brow and glared at his untouched plate of salad, as though he had to seriously consider Sandy’s question and determine whether the gods would allow such a silly loophole.

Sandy and Bari began to laugh at the plain man’s expression.

Empress Vera, who was observing all of this, suddenly got a glazed look over her eyes.

Their laughter grew increasingly distant and reverberant, at some points vanishing entirely. High ringing tones faded in and out of the environment, like a bird was chirping in slow-motion directly into Vera’s ear canal.

As the feast continued at the imperial table, something very strange and unexpected occurred, seemingly out of nowhere.

Vera’s pupils dilated. Instantly, she felt a pressure at the base of her head, followed by a wave of dizziness that spread through her body like chills.

The world around her melted into rainbow soup. The room smelled like the number five, and the chair under her became bouncy in texture, like the flavor of overripe fruit.

“I think I’ll just wait for the main course,” replied a man’s voice from very far away. “I am no sinner.”

The Empress looked up, blinking repeatedly. Her face had an uncharacteristically confused and worried expression. Something was causing a disturbance inside her. Someone was in there with her.

“I don’t think the gods will care what you eat,” replied the scratchy voice of an older man, with exaggerated vowel sounds.

Before her, the Empress saw several faces that she recognized: Brother Eduardo, Bari, Sandy, and the scarred, ivory-skinned Nammargon. Immediately to her left, however, was an empty chair. For some unknown reason, dread filled the Empress.

“The Empress can have it,” Nammargon said, in his deep, semi-exotic voice. “She must eat for two, after all.”

Shocked at his words, the Empress looked down at her stomach, and clutched at it with her hands. It was huge, and strange– she was carrying child. What was going on?

The ringing in her ears subsided, but gave way to the sound of a massive crowd. With continued furious blinking, the Empress looked straight ahead. Thousands of people, dressed like colorful monsters, squirmed to and fro, indulging in the food before them and socializing with their fellow colorful monsters.

Monsters.

What was this?

Panic set in. The Empress’s head began swimming. She looked down at her hands. They shook violently. Her entire body was an earthquake covered in skin.

“Empress?” A deep voice floated through the noise and crawled into the pale woman’s ears. She could not tell where it came from, or when it came from.

“Empress?”

“Empress?”

“Empress?”

The voices might have come from different people, but they sounded completely indistinct.

“Empress?”

“Empress?”

“Empress?”

“Empress?”

As the environment around her blurred, one recognizable person came into view: the slender, comforting face of Xavier. Despite the chaos surrounding her on all sides, the Empress felt somewhat relieved. Xavier was always there for her. He looked deep into her pupils, straight-on like a fisheye.

Someone pulled her up from under her arms. The bouncy seat disappeared into a void below, and she travelled through space, encountering a velvet curtain, a hard surface, and, finally, a soft bed. She collapsed onto the comfortable surface, and the world slowly slithered back into focus.

Everything became asymptotically faster, then immediately slower as it caught up to the present time.

“Shh, s’alright. Drink this.”

Suddenly sat upright, the Empress felt a cool goblet touch her lips. She enthusiastically drank its entire contents.

Although nothing made any more sense to her than before, the Empress felt remarkably better. She could see, hear, and feel clearly. The rainbow soup slurped back up into her eyeballs and froze into identifiable images.

Xavier was in front of her, assisting her in holding the goblet. An incredibly handsome man in silver armor stood behind Xavier. The Empress smiled girlishly; The Light had always been like her own personal knight in shining armor. She was happy to see him again. At least, she thought so.

They appeared to be in a bedroom, but it was not hers. Three torches glowed on the stone walls, flickering light across the medium-sized room. The Empress, as she had suspected, was seated upright on the side of a bed. Her clothing– a black dress covered in weird rocks– made absolutely no sense to her. It seemed to be both uncomfortable and ugly. Even more confusing, though, was the large lump on her stomach, which felt very unnatural to her typically skinny body.

Nevertheless, she focused on the more pleasant aspects of her strange situation.

“It’s so nice to see you again, Xavier,” the Empress cooed, with an unusually carefree and high-pitched tone. “And you,” she nodded toward The Light, smiling almost flirtatiously.

“Empress, you’ve become your second face,” Xavier answered seriously.

“Why do you always say that when we see each other?”

“Because this ain’t how you typically are. And this ain’t exactly an opportune time to do this,” he added, frustratedly.

“I don’t understand.”

Xavier sighed. A troubled wrinkle emerged on his forehead, as though he was thinking about how to handle this situation.

“My dear Xavier,” the Empress continued, “You are always so kind to me. Such a good friend. Thank you for that. You know, the last time I saw you was on Godsrich’s name-day! Isn’t that mad! I’ve missed you!”

“Er, you’re welcome, your majesty.” This bubbly, pleasant version of Vera contrasted so heavily with her usual disposition that, even after having dealt with this before, Xavier was taken aback. It felt so unnatural.

“Yes, Godsrich’s name-day was just excellent,” she mused. “Such fun.”

Xavier winced expectantly, hoping that she would not ask the exact follow-up question that she did.

“Oh, where is my husband?” The Empress looked around the room as though he might appear out of thin air. “He’s always so busy working that I never get a proper moment with him. He’s really a good man, you know.”

“He’s… uh, he’s still working.” Xavier, obviously uncomfortable, did not like lying to his Empress. Yet, he was unwilling to tell this unusual version of Vera that her husband had died, since she did not seem to know it herself.

“Oh.” The Empress looked crushed for an instant, but perked back up again with more questions. “Xavier, am I carrying child? How did this happen?”

“No,” Xavier replied, deciding to stop lying to her sooner rather than later. “It’s just a fake belly. Look.” He pulled up the tight-fitting black cloth that stretched over the Empress’s stomach, revealing a tan, jiggling substance strapped to her body.

“Oh.” Vera could not seem to make sense of it.

“You had it made for you,” Xavier explained.

“No,” she answered, “I think I would remember that.”

“You did.”

“Somebody else did this.” She pulled the black cloth back over her fake belly. “Where are we?”

“Kailin Castle. Your home.”

“But… why are there so many monsters here?”

Xavier raised an eyebrow, trying to make sense of her odd inquisition. Behind him, The Light replied in his seldom-heard, deep voice.

“It is the Riverlight Festival. They were in costume.”

“Ah, yeah,” Xavier said, remembering the colorful crowd. “It’s the banquet, Empress.”

“So where is my husband?”

“Er, at the banquet.”

“I thought you said he was working.”

“Well, in a manner of speaking.”

“What manner of speaking?” She cocked her head.

“That’s enough questions for the hour, don’tcha think, Empress? Why don’t we all just relax and drink some tea?” Xavier had a look of utter desperation in his eyes, and the Empress did not miss it.

“Sure, Xavier. Sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“S’quite alright, Empress,” he sighed.

Xavier motioned something to The Light, who subsequently exited the room. Xavier the turned back to the Empress.

“Y’know, you, er, look very beautiful tonight,” Xavier said, trying to keep conversation pleasant.

“Thank you,” she answered, looking down at her dress. “You’re so sweet.” She began grasping at some of the bumpy, semi-transparent rocks attached to her outfit.

“Be careful, Empress. Those’re damn expensive.”

“They just look like rocks.”

Xavier chuckled. “Well they ain’t ‘just rocks,’ no. They’re rare gemstones. They’re just uncut and rough, so they look a bit, y’know, uncut and rough.”

“Why wouldn’t someone cut them for me?”

“Well, you wanted ‘em that way. It’s fashion, I guess.” Xavier put one of the rocks, still attached to the dress, between his long fingers. “Plus, these gemstones make tiny rainbows sometimes. But it’s rare that they do that while uncut like this. So I guess you just wanted to wear something unique.”

“I guess so. I just wish it was all a bit more comfortable.”

She touched her hands to her head curiously, before removing the geometric headpiece and placing it on the bed next to her. Her hair fell down, straight and black, across her shoulders, and her entire body gained a better sense of balance without that heavy contraption atop her.

Just then, the bedroom door opened, and The Light returned, carrying a small platter, almost as shiny as him, in one hand. Three cups and saucers clattered atop it, puffing steam gently into the air.

The Empress smiled innocently. The idea of tea right now soothed her greatly. It was warm, happy, and inviting.

She accepted a cup and saucer and took a delicate sip of the piping hot beverage. It was extremely floral in flavor, as though she was drinking a flower perfume. She enjoyed it. It made her feel like she, too, was in bloom.

“Don’t you love this tea?” She asked. “Doesn’t it just make you feel… like youthful springtime?”

“Well, er, I actually don’t care for that flavor. Mine is simple breakfast tea.” Xavier looked into his cup. “Because I’m a simple man.”

“Oh. Well I just love this pleasant taste,” Vera answered, putting it up to her lips and swallowing more of the liquid. The floral tea was so familiar, and so delicious.

Xavier drank his equally-hot tea. The room went silent but for a quiet slurp every so often. This, however, did not necessarily help the Empress with her strange predicament. With every passing second of silence, in fact, she delved deeper and deeper into her own head.

Over the course of about a minute, her relaxed smile deliquesced into an expression of pure existential terror. Even the tea could not distract Vera forever; something troubled her deeply. She stared at her feet blankly.

Xavier was not oblivious to this odd behavior.

“You ain’t looking quite right, Empress. What’s wrong?”

“I…” The Empress, still staring forward motionlessly, did not appear to have yet gotten out of her own head.

“Empress?” Xavier’s voice was soothing. The Empress snapped out of her trance, and looked him right in the eye. Depression swam through her irises.

“I just miss seeing everyone I love,” she replied. “Godsrich, my father, Ashelia…”

“You miss them?” Xavier stopped for a moment. “Wait, who is Ashelia?”

“We used to play by the river,” the Empress mused nostalgically. “I don’t see her much anymore.”

“Ah,” Xavier replied, assuming that the Empress was mentioning some long-lost childhood friend.

“I just…” suddenly, tears welled up in the corners of the fair-skinned woman’s eyes.

“Oh no,” Xavier moved in closer and touched her arms as comfortingly as he could. “What’s wrong, Empress?”

“I just want to live a normal life.”

“You can!”

“No, I mean… I love you two, I do… but I feel as though all I do now is spend time in a room with one or two of you while exciting things happen outside. I want to see my husband. I want to enjoy the Riverlight Festival. I want to understand where I am and why I’m dressed like this and… and… and who I am.”

“S’alright, Empress. Everybody feels that way sometimes. This world is confusing.”

“But… but not to you. You can go outside of this room and see things and understand things and remember things. I’m just… confused.” The tears began to drip down her face, leaving lines through her makeup. “Why am I always being kept in a room away from the world? Am I dangerous?”

“No, Empress, of course not.”

“Then… why?” Her face scrunched up, preparing to cry more. “Will I hurt people? Am I a beast and I don’t even realize it?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then why?

“Because this is not you.”

“What do you mean?” A tear or two slid down her structured cheekbones.

“I’ve explained it to you many times before, Empress. I know it ain’t easy to understand. This is your second face. You act differently. You… you’re like a different person completely. And whenever this happens we need you to just relax and calm down and not interfere with things. Or get confused.”

“What would I interfere with?”

“Well, er, you have a lot of big plans. And when you become your second face you kind of… forget those plans.”

“I just want to live normally. I could just stay like this.”

“No, Empress. You’ll return to your normal self soon enough.”

Her tears fell harder. “And then I’ll have to say goodbye to you, again. For who-knows-how-long. And then I’ll appear in some other strange place, weeks or years from now, and have you two take me away and give me tea in a room, like you always do. And I’ll be confused forever.”

Yearning for a sense of comfort, she tried to take another sip, but looked down and found an empty cup. She placed it back on the saucer sadly. Xavier immediately motioned to The Light again, who exited the room once more.

“What if I miss something important?” Empress Vera asked.

“You won’t.”

“How do you know?” Tears trailed down her cheek, drawing wobbling lines through her makeup.

Xavier pursed his lips.

“You don’t miss anything, Empress,” the scraggly man replied. “You just forget things sometimes while you’re like this.”

“No… no, this isn’t me forgetting. I don’t think I’m the same person as you know.”

“S’just your second face, Empress.”

“I–” Vera paused. Her eyes widened, as though some memory had taken root in her brain. “Xavier…” her voice dropped to an icy whisper.

The slender, stubbly man leaned in toward her, shoving a pointy ear toward her lips.

“I remembered something…” she continued in the same hushed tone. “You told me that my husband was working at the banquet.”

Xavier gulped. “Uh, yes,” he affirmed.

“But… his chair was empty.” Blurred memories of being dragged out of the banquet hall swam through Vera’s mind. She distinctly remembered the feeling of dread she got when she saw his empty seat.

“Empress, he just–”

“Something has happened to him. You’re lying to me. You’re keeping something from me.” Her voice raised to a normal volume, as though she was gaining confidence in her rhetoric. “I need to help him.”

“No, no, no, Empress–”

“Stop lying!” Vera, clearly conflicted and confused, stood up from the bed, sending her cup and saucer clattering onto the ground. The sound of shattering china made Xavier wince.

“Godsrich is in trouble,” she declared.

“No, he–”

Before Xavier could do anything to stop her, the Empress sprinted toward the door, opening it and darting out into the hallway.

The lanky man jumped up, destroying his own cup and saucer in the process as well. By the time he reached the door, it had already been slammed shut behind the panicked Empress.

Vera sprinted the length of the dark stone hallways, occasionally leaping up stairs or turning shadowy corners. She could hear Xavier’s nervous voice behind her, which only inspired her to move more quickly.

She did not know the nooks and crannies of this castle, despite living here for many years. It seemed like every time she wanted to look around, Xavier and The Light locked her up. In this regard, her memory felt rather incomplete. Yet, while flying through the corridors of the castle, Empress Vera recalled the way to her bedroom. It was the only place she knew how to reach, since it was where she was taken most often.

Xavier’s voice became fainter and fainter as she grew nearer to her destination. At last, two large doors stood before her at the end of a torchlit hallway. Without knocking, she burst through them.

The room looked almost exactly as she recalled– with the gigantic, elegant bed and the pearl-white curtains– but with one distinct, horrendous difference.

Vera began screaming.

She stumbled over to the bed like a drunkard. Her bloodcurdling cry persisted as she put her hands up to the pale, bloated face of her husband.

“Godsrich!” She cried out. “My love!”

He did not respond. Vera’s head collapsed into Godsrich’s bare chest, as though her tears might bring him life. Yet, this chest that she had put her head to many times no longer inhaled or exhaled. It no longer raised and lowered her head with that sense of comfort and security. It no longer pulsed to the rhythm of vitality. Coldness and emptiness was all that she felt. The love of her life was not alive.

“No!” She continued, heartbroken. “No, no… this isn’t happening…” The woman trailed off in hysteria.

Her hands slid down the corpse, eventually intertwining her fingers with his. She closed her eyes, and

My love…

“Empress?”

Vera tilted her head slightly and looked through the veil of straight black hair covering her eyes. Her vision obscured further as she tried to penetrate the ocean of tears. The world rippled like a stone thrown into a pond.

“Empress?” A quiet, female voice called again.

Vera could faintly make out the shape of one of her handmaidens standing in the doorway between the imperial bedroom and the maid’s quarters. Wiping the tears away, Vera could see that it was Yaia, with a baby suckling at her breast.

“Why are you weeping, Empress?” The woman asked innocently.

The tears welled up again. “I– I knew something was wrong. He’s… dead.”

“Nobody lives forever, Empress,” Yaia offered.

Although her handmaiden’s kindness was appreciated, Vera only began sobbing harder as she struggled to comprehend her own reality, and the fact that her husband died. When had this happened? Why did she not know about this before?

“He passed very peacefully, Empress,” Yaia stated soothingly. “Have you had any flower tea, Empress?”

“Yes,” the mourning woman answered tersely, her face contorting with sadness.

“How long ago, Empress?”

“Ten or– or fifteen minutes,” Vera stuttered.

“Ah, good. Empress, would you like to see your baby boy?”

The sobbing woman turned, confused. She brushed some of the hair out of her face and watched Yaia pull the infant from her breast and hold him out.

My baby boy?”

“Yes, Empress. Benjamin, you named him. He is beautiful.”

Vera cautiously peered at the entity cradled within Yaia’s arms. A tuft of black hair on his scalp reminded her of herself. She wiped a tear with the back of her hand.

“He is,” she said softly.

“Here, Empress, hold him.”

Vera reluctantly left the side of her husband’s corpse and reached out for the infant. He was soft and swaddled, with translucent irises and squishy cheeks. Every ingrained maternal instinct drew Vera toward this adorable bundle, distracting her from the tragedy in her bed.

“Feel his skin, Empress.”

Vera delicately ran her fingers down the child’s face. He was calm right now; not sleeping, but not nearly as distressed as his mother.

“Isn’t he smooth, Empress?”

“He… he is.”

“I adore your little Benjamin.”

“Yaia… how did I have a child? I don’t even remember.”

Yaia smiled sweetly. “It’s nothing to worry about, Empress. You are in your second face. You won’t remember every detail.”

“I’m… confused.”

“That’s normal for someone like you, Empress. And it is alright. Just relax and be happy, even when nothing makes sense.”

“I don’t know how to be happy.”

“Yes you do, Empress.”

Vera’s eyelids fluttered.

“How do you feel, Empress?”

“Sleepy.”

“Here,” Yaia offered, holding out her arms. “I can hold Benjamin. You get some rest.”

“Where will I sleep…?” Vera mused, as though she had a choice. The sudden lethargy took control of her entire body, and she suddenly began falling asleep on the floor, despite her fiercest attempts at staying awake.

The last thing she remembered was the bedroom door opening and some figure entering, and picking her up. Then, as quickly as she came, Vera’s second face fell into a drug-induced dream state, gone from the world for an indeterminate length of time.