-- TEN MONTHS EARLIER--
Crowds gathered in the square of Valhalven, cheering in all their excitement for the parade of heroes returning from war. All pomp and full of zeal for their country, the tired knights and soldiers marched with heads held high, victorious in battle.
At the head of the column rode the Duke of Brenlyn, Gilfred Dalmaine, a picture of every females fantasy in his shining armor. His helmet had been abandoned to reveal golden hair and a smiling face. Five years from the Capitol had done much for him in the eyes of the public, turning an awkward young Duke with nothing known of him save his name, into a national celebrity.
High above the procession, in the tower on a hill, the Empress looked from her parapet to what she could see of the small figures below. Pride shone in her eyes, though the smile on her face was hidden, covered by a mask of emotionless porcelain.
"Your Imperial Majesty? " Secretary Fahlran called, distracting her attention. "I have brought the terms of surrender which you asked for, as well as figures from the mines in Agar."
The Empress watched as the old man set down two packets of paper before her usual seat. "What of the Grand Duke's plan of action concerning the policies on slavery? Has he already approached the Agarian government concerning reforms?" Her voice was slightly muffled beneath the mask, as it always was, the soft tones making her appear much less threatening than she was known for.
"He has. He and Princess Anais are still in negotiations. The Grand Duke is in conversation with Parliament today as the final agreements are ironed out, has been since lunch..."
The Empress listened with half her mind, the other reading over the papers he had put down for her to read. Almost everything was complete to integrate Agar into Avalon, all that was left was choosing a steward over the place. Someone loyal and preferably not Agarian... not yet. A transition of laws had to be established first.
A changing of power.
"Let me know when my brother and sister return, I wish to speak with them."
"Very good your Majesty. "
Gilfred Dalmaine stared blankly at his own reflection, his mind beyond his body in more ways than one. In his lap was his armor, his sword leaning against the bench at the end of his bed as he usually had it. He slowly blinked, then sighed, frowning into the floor length mirror.
"I barely recognize myself." He muttered to the otherwise empty room, then scoffing his focus returned. He placed the breastplate down, then stood, crossing the room to his wardrobe. A bath had been ordered and would soon be steaming away in the corner. The least he could do was get ready.
Two minutes later he was back on the bench, dressed only in a robe, but staring once again at his image as if it was a stranger.
He had not had much time for mirrors and reflections on the battlefield, more focused on the fact that any day could be his last. He was a soldier and a strategist, and the war had dragged on for so long he wasn't sure he'd be able to move on with any sort of ease now that it was all over. It was there. Sitting beneath the surface of his mind, just waiting for its moment to bring his memory back, and have him relive it.
His eyes closed as he wrung the robe tie in his hands.
He needed to stop that.
A soft knock on the door snapped him from his reverie.
"Who is it?"
The quiet voice on the other side replied. "Niela."
Gilfred jumped to his feet, crossing the room in three strides and opening the door with a boyish excitement. On the other side, the young woman stood, looking down the corridor with furrowed brows before she turned to him and smiled.
"Hello stranger." She greeted with a kiss, then throwing her arms around hin in a tight hug which he returned, her scent drowning him in the comfort of familiarity. Warm, soft, he relaxed against her.
"Hello." He replied, burying his face in silky strawberry-blonde hair.
Niela Rosemont was the ward of the Empress, a child who she'd taken in as a babe after she became Empress, an orphan of a friend she rarely mentioned. Daughter in all but blood, the Empress and she had something in common: they were both half Arhyn. Niela appeared eternally twenty, while Gilfred had long looked twenty-five, His mother had been half Arhyn or elvish as men called it, which made him long living but not immortal. Niela, well, only the empress knew what she was. All he knew was that she stopped aging a century ago.
"I missed you." Niela said, stroking his hair. "Seven years is a long time."
"I know." Gilfred replied, hugging her tighter. "But it's all over now... we have our lives back."
Niela giggled, pulling back to look at him properly. "Yes, we do." She sighed deeply, foot hooking the still open door and shutting it. Gilfred chuckled as she kissed his nose and slipped away, further into his room. "Though, not until after tomorrow because unless I'm mistaken you're a guest of honor at at a victory feast."
Gilfred groaned. "That soon?" His eyes wandered the room, and he ran a hand over his face, stubble scratching his fingers. "I was hoping at least a week."
"Yes, well... in Yvaines defense she wanted to wait but the council suggested the sooner the better. It's been six weeks since the victory at Farnese, and given how long the war was, they thought that morale could use a boost. There's even talk of it becoming a holiday!" Her eyes were wide with seriousness, adorable in how some expressions she never let go.
"Is that so?"
She smiled. "Yes it is." From her perspective it was more exciting than she saw him think it was, the quicker all the pomp was over, the sooner everything could go back to as normal as possible. Not only the men at the front had changed, but everyone back home had felt loss of some kind. The cook had lost a husband and two sons, the stablemaster had lost a healer daughter, the newly married maid named Rosie Everett had lost her handsome husband. Niela felt blessed by Elyon it had not touched her very much. Gilfred was home. What's more, he was home to stay.
Her fingers grazed the hilt of his sword, eyes roving over new scratches she hadn't seen it with before. It had been a gift from the Empress when he had come of age some 100 years ago. Longer, her mind reminded, and she reached to pick up the sword.
"Don't touch that!" He snapped, causing her to jump, looking at him in confusion. He stood there, eyes locked on the weapon, a grimace on his face. He was stiff, eyes on the blade as if it would harm her, a dozen emotions flashing through his eyes so quickly she wondered what his thoughts were. Finally he looked at her, and softened. Resignation. Apology. Guilt.
She smiled reassuringly, coming close and cradling his face between her long fingers. "I won't then. Not now anyway..." she kissed his cheek, he was barely home, with plenty of time for her to understand. His response was slow but there, arms wrapping around her once more as he fell once more into her comforting frame and held her there.
But there was something in him she sensed was very different, something she feared had taken the young man she'd known and stolen parts that would not likely return quickly. The lightness of his spirit was weighted down.
Her previous thought came to haunt her.
War. War had changed them all.
Shadows lined the cobblestone streets, emptied of all life due to the lateness of the hour. Moonlight filtered softly through the clouded sky, putting a silver rim upon the rooftops, but doing little upon the deep ground below. The buildings blocked the pathway of light, creating the deepest of darkness to fill the street and leave one feeling quite alone.
A cloud moved, the full moon finally making a glow upon the street, a shadow shifting to reveal a man. He seemed to blend into the crevice of the doorframe where he stood, as if he could melt into the emptiness of darkness once again. It was not his clothes which made him so invisible, he was not dressed in poorer stuff so as to seem unnoticeable-- As the silver light shone, there was a glimmer of buttons upon a brocade waistcoat, an ivory lion peeking out from under his cloak attached to an ebony cane. A symbol of status. And yet, he was unnoticed, a shoulder edging out from the doorframe, as his shadowed face turned, looking down the street with expectation.
A figure appeared at the mouth of the street, small and outlined, the child looked behind him quickly before he darted down the street toward the man, stopping short but a moment before his momentum caused him to trip upon his own feet. He started heavily toward the ground, but the man's gloved hand caught him, hoisting him upright before he smashed upon the stones with a crunch.
"Careful!" He chastised softly, his voice a deep whisper that interrupted the silence of the night.
"Sorry sir!" The boy whispered back, straightening himself in a hurry to avoid embarrassment. But it was a little late for that. The man merely let him go, saying nothing which would shame him.
"Well?" He asked. "What did you find out?"
"Sir Thomas is there alright! Drunk as a lord--beggin your pardon-- but he looks alright. But Fern is looking mightily pleased with himself. There's a few other men in there, they've been watching your friend for a little while. They don't look pleasant." The boy rattled off. "Beggin your pardon, Sir, but don't you think it's a little dangerous going in alone? Sir Thomas isn't in a state t' 'elp you."
The man hummed, his cane tapping on his other hand in thought. "You think so?" He asked, but his tone was distant, absentminded. "Tell you what, why don't you get my coachman? Glover is his name." He said softly, his voice a smooth baritone. "He's around the corner, built like an ox. Can't miss him." He fished around in his pocket and put a coin in the boys hand.
The boy scurried off, and the man hummed again, clouds covering the light of the moon once more, his figure disappearing into the shadows.
The Seven Stars Inn in Anwald was once a very fine establishment in the era of King Bearne, housing legends who would come to stay before they ventured off to Elyon knew where. It was a place of renown, where the food was always good, and the beds were of excellent condition. But that had been a good near century ago. The Seven Stars was much more of a tavern now, the old stables had burned down, and the once bustling Edgard Road-- upon which sat the Seven Stars-- had slowly become part of the slum due to the city's expansion. No one reputable went there these days, with High Street becoming the main throughfare, Edgard Road had become forgotten.
It simply was on the wrong side of High Street.
The sight of a gentleman was rare, for those of high standing who did visit often didn't stay for very long, and aliases were commonly used to mask identities which desired to stay away from scandal. It was a den of iniquity, and the Seven Stars had taken more than one types of questionable businesses under its roof. Pretty girls in plunging necklines and soaked in perfumes wandered around the tables with painted lips, an arm thrown around a gentleman's shoulder, or perhaps leading him to one of the old inns rooms, where beds that would have been burned in the old place rather than used, were frequented.
In the corner table, shrouded in shadow with only a lonely candle to light the wooden surface sat Sir Thomas Destron, his body swaying as he tried to adjust his seating. He blinked, squinted, and attempted to read his cards, making a face of unsurety before he put down one upon the table. The man across from him eyed the three other players, tapping his fingers on the cards before he put one down. The others did the same, and Sir Thomas scoffed behind his hand, taking another sip of his ale.
The men scowled.
Into this room, entered the cloaked man. His grey eyes searching. He could see the men in the corner, leaning forward as Sir Thomas put another card down. In his eyes they looked like vultures, just waiting for their victims death. He spotted one of the painted ladies head toward Sir Thomas, pretend to lose her footing, and crash right into the table, her wine spilling over the lord.
She gasped. "I'm so sorry! How clumsy--" she exclaimed, fooling the very foolish Thomas who spluttered and apologized himself.
The Gentleman sighed. Typical.
A few more moments and he'd have to step in--
The door creaked open, and a woman stepped in, pulling the hood off her head and looking around. The Gentleman groaned as he looked at her, her well made dress alone was very out of place, but her air was even worse. A pretty face with large dark eyes and black hair, she looked in her twenties and far too comfortable. She either was innocently naive or dangerous.
With a smile, she greeted the proprietor, asking if the Seven Stars had a room to rent. The Gentleman listened. She definitely did not belong. Somehow that complicated things, as she may be used in the confrontation which was about to begin. Poor woman, he thought as his grip on his cane tightened. Thomas had stood, face red with fury as he gestured to the cards which he swore up and down---"I had an ace! One of you slimeballs took it!" -- oh dear.
The Gentleman sighed and moved, shifting his aura to be as relaxed as a tiger in his jungle. There was one problem. Thomas was beginning to resemble a rat caught in a pit of vipers.
"Thomas!" He finally spoke, drawing the ever growing annoyance of the Snakes in his direction. "Fancy seeing you here."
"Oh hello, Percy." Thomas replied, shifting his weight as he clearly used some of his non- intoxicated mind to see this as an opportunity of escape. "Didn't think you frequented these parts."
Percy smiled. "I don't."
Thomas tried to move toward him, but a big man was blocking his path. "You owe us fifty gold. You're not leaving til you pay."
"I told you, I don't have that kind of cash just on me."
"You don't?" Percy asked in false innocence, aware that they were beginning to draw the attention of everyone in the room. He needed to get Thomas out.
"No, of course I don't! Do you carry fifty gold din in your pockets, Percy?" Thomas snapped.
"Touchy, touchy. No need to get angry with me, I'm only trying to help."
"Well it's not helping."
"Hey!" The big man cut through their banter. "You owe us, and you're not leaving til you pay one way or another." His eyes were fierce and terrible. The other two men weren't much better in terms of threatening, if anything the three of them were terrifying to behold.
"... do you have it at home?"
"Yes, of course, Percy, but how am I going to get home, wake Annalise -- which will inevitably happen -- and get back with the money, which is in her dresser and therefore not something she'll let me just walk out of the house with?"
Percy tutted. "Sounds like you're in a fix"
Thomas stared at him incredulously. "Are you serious? Do you have it?"
"Me? Heavens, no! I never carry around that much--"
The big man got tired and swung a fist at Thomas, hitting him in the jaw and sending him to the floor. Thomas fell with a great THUD!