The Fallen Diadem
“Where is Alexis?” Professor Melissa as she demanded, scrutinizing each of her pupils in turn. There was a shuffling among them. Each in turn busied themselves with their chalkboard or something about their robe uniforms. They glanced at each other in silent pleas but none spoke up, and the sought after braid of blonde hair was nowhere to be seen in the forum. After releasing the students with an order to memorize the heroic poems of Helmar and be prepared to recite them before discussion in three days time, she broadened her search.
Professor Melissa never let her age get to her, even with her hair grey and her face wrinkled. The solution to both of those problems was an ever tighter bun at the back of her head that pulled her skin taut again and gave her a predatory look that could fix anyone in place. She was nearly the oldest working staff in the Great Library of Aquaria, and had damn well earned her position. Half of her lungs were still scarred from a glassblowing incident, but it was through that pain and work that the new standard for mercury thermometers had been set, as well as the proper measures for endothermic saltpetre reactions.
Alexis, by far her most promising protege, had not attended lecture however. Rising up the haphazard flights of steps in the library, Melissa confirmed the little maverick was also not in the the orchard reading meadow, nor was she assisting in the kitchens. Her lungs began to burn and halt her as she found that Alexis also wasn’t restocking the fifth floor shelves, nor copying the aging scrolls she had been assigned.
Alexis was nowhere that she had any reason to be.
She wasn’t in the library at all, nor in the sprawling metropolis that surrounded the careening tower. She was in the long shadow that reached from the peak of Gaiusrock, where the dragonkin zealots had built their wall all the way to the great library, casting all but the highest peaks into darkness. Between the two religious monuments was a crystal clear lake home to Aquaria.
The water was cold and clean, and yet only made her shiver for the first moment she dipped into it. In mere moments she could dive down among the coral and the rainbow fish where she could look for new pearls and nearly get stung by anemone. The black market on pearls blessed by Aquaria, or so the lay believed, was beyond lucrative, and more than worth the risk of a few stings. With dreams of new copper dreadfuls, notably the latest volume of The Ballad of Death and Love, she happily stuffed her knife into the mouths of clams until at last she grasped her gem.
“You must be Alexis. My sister has told me all about you,” a man said. He stood at the shore, hands in the pockets of his trousers. He looked even older than that hag Melissa, but he at least could smile with that gleam in the eye a happy grandparent tended to have. The only thing that stood out about him was the red woolen vest he wore.
Wringing her hair out and ankle deep in the water, Alexis palmed the pearl and slipped it into a pocket before straightening up to face him. “Did someone send you to fetch me then? What will it be this time? Pots or latrines?”
The man in red laughed. “Come on, it’s nothing like that. How about you get out of the water and start to dry off and then we can talk,” he said, walking with her over to the one little spot that was illuminated. High up in one of the towers was a stained glass mosaic of someone or something, and it had sagged over the years, bouncing light back to the shore and warming it up. “Aquaria seems to think it’s a foregone conclusion that in the next year or so, you’ll be given the diadem,” he said, taking a seat near her and folding his hands in his lap.
“Who did you say you were?”
“Her brother, Mercer.”
Alexis’ towel slipped through her fingers as she stared. “The Everloving?”
He smiled. “Some call me that, yes. But we don’t need to talk about me here. You see, while my sister has a great deal to say about you and your lack of studying, oh I wouldn’t worry about that though; she always had a bit of an obsession with studying, as I’m sure you’re aware. She did, however, say nothing but good things about your prospects and your character.”
“Wait, wait, wait, are you telling me the diadems are actually coming back? The war is here?” she asked, quickly grabbing up her towel once more and wrapping it around herself.
Mercer nodded his head and glanced to the ground for a moment. “Unfortunately, they are. Four have already been claimed. The senate in Throne holds onto one still, and Aquaria another. The seventh can’t be spoken for, but it seems likely that the cycle has come at last. The most recent was the fallen diadem in Vichtstein. It was claimed by a boy no older than yourself, but at a terrible, terrible cost to his friends and his mind.”
Alexis frowned and planted a hand on her hip. “Why do you sound sympathetic for someone who hurt their own friends?”
Mercer put on a smile. “Sometimes, you know, you hurt your friends without meaning to. Mistakes, misunderstandings, or sometimes you just can’t predict what will happen if you do a certain thing. The only problem is when you can’t make it up to them. The friend he lost, he’ll never be able to apologize to, but that’s not the case for the others he ran away from.”
“So? If he has a diadem, and you think Aquaria is going to give me her diadem; then that makes him my enemy. Everyone who picks one up dies. It’s just a question of if their wish gets granted first.”
Mercer nodded along. “I’d like to think it doesn’t have to be that way. I’d like you to try and find another solution to the problem. So, do you think you could give it a try?”
“I don’t even want the diadem though!” Alexis shouted, and she spun her gaze around to spot any eavesdroppers or window-spiers. She thought that just maybe there was a gray-haired crone watching from the sixth floor. “I don’t even have a wish I’d want to make, but everyone else has just decided that I’ll be the one to get it. Do you know what sane people would call that? Child warfare, or human sacrifice! What these book-mad connivers are doing should be a crime.”
Mercer frowned, and gestured for her to take a seat near him. “Alexis, I’ve been around for many cycles now. I’ve met just about everyone who ever held a diadem, and the truth is that you don’t just need one wish. Think about how silly that would be. If it were one wish, then you’d be equating the levelling of some highways to the creation of the sun. The Throne’s power is used by the creativity of the one who sits on it, and if you’re clever enough, you can fix many, many problems in one cycle. The history books just aren’t very excited to write about the subtle changes that are done. It’s much flashier to discuss the creation of the Holy Lances than it is the porosity changes in the bedrock beneath cities to filter well water.”
Alexis crossed her arms and sat down with a huff. “That’s ridiculous; changing the porosity of buried stone would take huge amounts of energy. Like way more than binding souls to weapons.”
Mercer couldn’t help but laugh. “Don’t you see that your attitude there is why people want you to have the diadem? You’re not the best at any one subject, but you’re trop ranked in everything the library has to offer. So could you do me the favor? You don’t need to accept the diadem right away, but at least meet with the boy from Vichtstein. He could use your help.”
Alexis groaned and grumbled, turning the problem over in her head.
Before she could squirm out, Mercer sweetened the deal. “If you do, I’ll personally put in a request to double your free time. We can call it a research project. I have a few strings I can pull here at the library.”
“Deal,” Alexis said, eyes locking on the old god. “What’s his name anyways? How am I supposed to find him? If he comes strutting in here declaring he has the diadem, then he’s too stupid to be saved. You realize that, don’t you?”
Mercer laughed. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that. He’s already learned just how dangerous other diadem holders can be, and he knows he’s got more than one enemy by now. I don’t think even the most discerning spy in all of Dalvurnia would look at him twice with how he’s coming into town. If you can’t catch him disembarking from his dragoneering ship, the next best way to find him will be watching the smithies. The boy takes after the sword, and I’m sure he’ll want to buy himself all sorts of new toys with his pay.”
“Oh joy, a boy who can afford steel instead of sticks,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s going to be a complete hick, isn’t he? Probably illiterate too.”
“Now now, a stereotype like that would hardly have been able to make off with a diadem. Try to have a more open mind and friends will find their way to your heart,” Mercer said.
Alexis’ lip sneered up like a caught fish.
“Imagine, if you would, what you would feel like should you arrive in a foreign land all by yourself. Wouldn’t you want someone to hold out a hand and help?”
She sighed. “Just get on with it, will you? If he’s awful and obnoxious or evil, I’ll just ditch him in Robber’s Alley. So what’s his name?”
Thank you all to whoever reads my work through to the end. I hope I've written an enjoyable story. I will now be marking TFD as complete for the sake of the MALxHoneyfeed competition, having reached a whopping 92,000 words, but here and there I may drop back into add more short stories like omake 1 and 2, so don't forget about me! I really want to write about Claire and Sister Evey discussing her lost duel to Mark over a few bottles of wine.
I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts on how this all came together in the comments below.
Hopefully, the judges nominate me for the next phase, but even if that doesn't happen, I certainly learned a great deal about my own limits for writing so far. 2000 word chapters every single day was technically achievable, but didn't give me nearly enough breathing room and There are certainly some sections where it's obvious I was making it up from day to day.
It did however let me accomplish something more than simply proving I could. I can now, at long last, invite you to read the first letter of every chapter title.