I think my heart just skipped a beat. Dead? And not only that but murdered? How? Why? When? A million questions go through my head at once. When I start consciously breathing again, the air around me gets chilly. My emotional state right now is so bewildered that my enormous mana began leaking.
“Who did it?” I ask and my voice breaks.
“Ryuu…,” Erik tries to comfort me but I don’t let him.
“Did they catch those who did it? Was it humans? Some personal vendetta against me?” I keep asking and lighter objects in the lobby start trembling menacingly.
We weren’t at the greatest terms with Grandma but she was still the person who provided roof above my head. I didn’t end up in an orphanage only thanks to her. She wasn’t a particularly kind person but she didn’t deserve to die like that.
“Not good!” Liana panics. “Erik, Gotrid, do something or he’ll shatter the building!”
She’s not exaggerating, I’d be able to do it. My mana capacity grew tenfold since I stopped keeping it bottled inside. I don’t feel like smashing anything but my mana circuit reacts to my jarred emotions and is leaking out like a wild fire.
Gotrid wraps me into his wings and lets Erik under them as well. My partners do their best to comfort me and it does work to a certain degree—the trembling stops at least. For a moment I think I might cry but tears don’t come out. I’m more angry than sad. I’m angry that someone dared to hurt the only member of my family I knew and grew up with.
“I should have given her some protection, hire human bodyguards,” I lament.
“She wouldn’t let you,” Erik shakes his head and kisses me gently. “You know how she was.”
“Let’s get you into our apartment, hon,” Gotrid tries to manoeuvre me into the elevator. “You need to calm down.”
My surroundings get a bit hazy. I try to find refuge in the minds of my partners and I don’t care what’s happening around me. I guess Celestials are horrified, humans are freaking out that I’m bringing so many of them with me but all I can focus on are Erik and Gotrid.
I partly snap out of it only when I realise they’re taking my robe off and Cien with Ayala are hastily preparing a bath. Hot water is pleasant but I can’t really relax. My head is full of scenarios, one more catastrophic than the other—it was our most heated hater, it was some secret governmental agency, it was my father, it was possibly even a Draconian.
There’re a lot of reasons why somebody would want to see my Grandma dead. She’s my only known relative so they could mean to hurt me with her murder. Or made me so furious I’d break the agreement between us and humans. She was also quite outspoken about her antipathy whenever she gave an interview for the media.
“Ryuu,” Erik sighs sadly while soaping my wings. He can feel what’s going through my head right now.
When my wings are snow-white again, Gotrid wraps me into a huge towel and with Ayala’s and Cien’s assistance starts drying my feathers with warm air. Erik helps with a hair dryer. Nobody’s saying anything, they’re letting me think. When I’m dry, they dress me into a new robe and comb my hair. Everything is done in stifling silence.
“Aefener,” Liana is waiting for me in the living room, nervously stepping in one place. “We started investigating immediately, I have people on the job already.”
I nod and let Erik seat my on the sofa.
“I’m not hungry,” I shake my head because someone brings me a meal.
“Yes, you are,” Gotrid says softly but uncompromisingly. “We were flying back for more than two hours, that sandwich must be fully digested by now. I’m sorry, love, but we have to insist. You can’t lose even a pound.”
I obey but I’m chewing mechanically, not really paying any attention to what I’m eating. I might be much more assertive now but this is something they have every right to just order me. Making sure their Emperor is clean and well-fed is a priority.
“Bauerova wants to talk to you,” Liana says carefully. “Can we send her in?”
I nod and wipe my mouth with a napkin. There’s still one third of a portion left but I simply can’t eat anymore. Ayala sighs but she takes the plate away while Luviael goes to fetch our guest.
“Your Majesty, how are you coping?” the Czech Prime Minister blurts the moment she sees me. Her wife Elizabeth is with her.
They’re humans and politicians but I’m glad to see them. They genuinely care. I try to smile a bit but it’s cringy. Erik clutches my hand and Gotrid starts caressing my feathers. I’m still this close to make everything tremble.
“Did the police discover anything? Any clues? Camera footages? Witnesses? She lived in a huge block of flats; somebody must have seen something,” Liana asks for me.
“Nothing,” Bauerova shakes her head. “Whoever did it, they were professionals.”
“So it wasn’t hate crime?” Liana is making sure.
“Improbable, it was done too expertly,” the Prime Minister answers. “Footages from security cameras were deleted remotely and it happened at night so there were no witnesses. If she struggled, nobody heard it because her apartment was sound-proofed. The ambulance was alarmed in the morning only after the monitor detected she didn’t take her medicine.”
“I don’t understand, why her?” Erik is confused. “Sure, she was connected to the Celestial Emperor but it was publicly known she renounced her grandson.”
“Ehm,” Bauerova bites her lip. “There’s more. She was tortured before she died. Probably for information.”
“T-tor…?” I finally speak up but my voice fails me.
My mana starts leaking again and my partners have to do their best to calm me down. Bauerova and Elizabeth can’t sense mana directly but they get goosebumps nonetheless. Even humans can vaguely tell when the embodiment of magic does magic.
“Your Majesty,” Bauerova coughs to clear her throat and gets extremely nervous. “People are panicking. They think you might want revenge.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I frown.
“You would never or you wouldn’t do that in this case because you weren’t close with your grandmother?” Elizabeth says rather sharply.
I want to reply that I’d never launch a conquest just for revenge but then I look at Erik and Gotrid. If something happened to them, I have no doubt I wouldn’t rest until those responsible weren’t eradicated.
“Not helping to calm them down, Ryuu,” Erik hisses because the sudden silence pretty much confirms it.
“If something happened to either of you…,” I don’t have to finish the sentence.
Bauerova twitches in her seat and Elizabeth gulps.
“Still, I’d never hurt innocent people,” I make that perfectly clear at least. “Your idea of conquest and our idea of conquest isn’t the same.”
“That remains to be seen I’m afraid,” Bauerova doesn’t back down. “But as I was lucky to get to know Your Majesty better than the rest of the world, I put my trust in you and I’ll do anything in my power to investigate this horrendous crime.”
I nod gratefully. Even though it doesn’t make the pain go away, it’s something. Grandma was a Czech citizen so Bauerova can do a lot to push the investigation and share findings.
“Ehm,” Luvi hates to interrupt us but she has to. “I’m sorry but I just got the information that Mr President Bennett is here and asks for an audience with His Majesty.”
“Figures,” Bauerova clicks her tongue. “It’s hard not to notice thousands of Celestials occupying the hotel. He must suspect you mean to take then with you to Europe.”
“Sorry, Katerina,” Liana addresses her former classmate familiarly. “I’m afraid Europe means mainly Bohemia as our headquarters are in Prague.”
“Suspected as much,” Bauerova shrugs and, surprisingly, she’s not against the idea as strongly as I would expect.
“You don’t mind?” I raise my eyebrow.
“Well, considering the latest events,” she lowers her head, “I want my country to be protected from those monsters.”
Bennett enters the room with a grim expression. He bows and sits down next to Bauerova. He looks exactly as he feels—anxious.
“Your Majesty, rest assured that we’ve put our best people on the investigation,” he pleads.
I can tell he’s telling the truth and I can also tell that he’s still nervous it won’t be enough for us. It finally strikes me why he’s suddenly so afraid of me. With thousands of incoming Celestials willing to obey my every word, I got myself an army. And not just any army, we’re talking about flying magic casters here.
“I’ll leave you to it then but I expect you’ll share all your findings with us,” I state a condition.
“Of course,” Bennett complies.
Our eyes meet for a second but he quickly reverts his gaze. I can’t believe I was ever uncertain around him, that guy is scared-shitless by me, by all of us. The time Draconians were hiding and getting used to their new bodies is over. Humans will have to learn how to coexist with us, not the other way around.
I clutch Erik’s hand to remind myself that there’re many good people among humans still. I don’t want a war with them, I don’t want them dying because of those monsters. We’ll protect humans and in return we’ll be respected, not just tolerated.
“No word from Delgado?” I ask Luvi.
“The American President returned to the White House when we didn’t show up in the morning,” Luvi informs me. “He doesn’t plan to attend the rest of the conference.”
“Screw him then,” I wave my hand. I became much more confident now that I’m in harmony with myself. “I’ll focus on Europe and he can do whatever he wants in the States. He can put tanks in the streets if he thinks it’s a better alternative to us. At least Draconians are free to leave.”
“So…?” Bennett gets hopeful.
“We’ll protect you,” I promise. “I can’t speak for other races but I’m quite sure they will agree when I say that we don’t want people dying. Besides, we’re looking forward to finally testing our abilities.”
“Let’s discuss the details and make it official in the EU,” Liana is enthusiastic again, having fully recovered from her brief mental breakdown in the forest.
I’m glad that I didn’t do any permanent damage to her ego but she seems different somehow. I think the others didn’t notice anything because it’s very subtle and only towards me. She won’t treat me as an incompetent young adult anymore, that’s for sure. I’m her superior and she switched completely to this new mindset.
We keep discussing the details quite smoothly until Liana declares that Draconians have to be paid for it just as firefighters, paramedics and police officers are.
“It’ll be a very dangerous job, Draconians who sign up for it will be literally risking their lives,” she insists because Bennett is hesitating.
“But then we expect that those who do sign up and receive a salary for it will be on the lookout and available whenever monsters attack,” he negotiates. “And located strategically across the whole EU.”
“Naturally, it’ll be a proper job with everything it entails,” Liana nods. “You need protection, we need to keep our people busy and let them earn money.”
Don’t feel excited about it, hon, Gotrid warns me all of a sudden because he notices that I started to become eager about the prospect of going out more and trying out spells for real.
Gotrid’s right, there’s no way we’re letting you fight like that again, Erik seconds. Not in the first line anyway.
What?! Why not? I have to exert a lot of self-control not let defiance show on my face.
Because you’re the Emperor and we need to protect you at all costs, Gotrid replies calmly, firmly convinced about the fact.
My feathers puff a little but the delates are too occupied arguing with Liana about the rates for salaries to notice.
“The conference ends in three days but we should manage to have discussed everything until then,” Liana concludes the meeting. “Your Majesty, do you want to add anything?”
My title slips naturally from her mouth so I don’t even twitch. It seems her change in the attitude towards me also includes addressing me by my title when in public. I guess it’s fitting even if I don’t like it.
“No, I’m more than content,” I shake my head and look at the clock.
It’s half past seven already, no wonder I’m starting to feel really tired. It’s been a long day. When humans leave, I can finally release the strict upright position of my wings.
“Deminas, Fefnir, Twyla and Werden have just returned,” Luviael announces. “Of course, they want to talk to us as well.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” Erik starts massaging my sore wing muscles.
“I can take care of it,” Liana offers.
“You’re just as tired as I am,” I oppose. “Let them in, I can do another hour or so.”
My subjects aren’t happy to keep overworking me but this is an emergency so it’s only understandable. This is my lifestyle now—unending workload, no privacy, titles and responsibility. But I’m somehow more at ease with it now that I’ve fully accepted to be the Celestial Emperor.
Deminas and Fefnir show up first, having to bend their heads because the door frames are too low for them. Deminas is frowning his scaly eyebrows which might look menacing to humans but to us it’s obvious he’s just worried. Twyla and Werden follow in a minute.
“Aefener, you’re okay!” Twyla hugs me warmly. “What happened?”
“Seriously,” Deminas grumbles. “A race ruler can’t just disappear, it might cause panic.”
“Emi disappeared and everybody’s fine with it,” I purse my lips.
“I’ll correct myself then—the Celestial Emperor can’t disappear like that,” Deminas looks around. “And then mysteriously bring thousands of new Celestials with him.”
“That’s actually not my fault,” I say defensively and give a word to Liana to explain what happened.
They listen carefully and when this matter is cleared, I tell them what we agreed on with Bennett.
“I didn’t dare to speak for all races but Celestials in the EU promised to protect humans,” I summarise.
“It’ll be a proper job, right? For money?” Werden is making sure.
“And dead monsters?” Deminas clicks his tongue which in his case produces a noticeable fume.
“Loot will belong to us, we insisted on that,” Liana assures him. “As for how to divide resources, we propose sharing, trading and focusing on what each race can do best. There should be a working economy not only between Draconians and humans but also between ourselves.”
“You mean we craft a weapon, you enchant it,” Fefnir finishes that idea.
“And we will be producing potions and provide healing,” Twyla seconds.
“And Clawfangs?” Werden impatiently thumbs his fingers. “Damn, Emi should have been here at least for the negotiations.”
“Securing resources, stealth, recon and possibly… beast taming?” I name a few.
“We complement each other a bit too well,” Deminas clenches his teeth. “As if Draconians were carefully engineered exactly with that in mind.”
A shiver goes down my spine. We’re back at the original problem. How was the Great Evolution even possible? Who did it? For what purpose? Where are these monsters coming from? Why? Why? Why?
“For now, there’s nothing better that we can do than use it to our advantage,” Twyla says resignedly. “We should focus on what we can naturally do best.”
“Sure, we got ourselves a ton of chitin so I’d actually prefer to focus on processing it instead of politics,” Deminas agrees. “We’ll gladly leave intellectual stuff to Celestials. Of course, we’ll want to be kept updated and vote on the most important decisions.”
“And we’ll happily focus on medicine and biological research,” Werden nods.
“Hey, who says I enjoy politics? I’d rather focus on magic research,” I retort.
“You’re just natural at it,” Twyla says amicably. “Lore-wise, Celestials seek power and influence. If you won’t abuse those powers, we have no problem with it.”
“Our cute Emperor certainly won’t,” Gotrid chuckles to ease the atmosphere. “He’s one of those impossible people who are good rulers exactly because they don’t want to be rulers.”
“That’s why we’re not afraid to put our trust in him,” Deminas finally smiles, revealing his spiky teeth.
We keep on debating until it’s way past nine. I’m still devastated about Grandma but at least I can feel my hunger levels again and assess that my stomach is empty. My body is burning calories like crazy right now, trying to balance today’s enormous loss. I remind myself that I promised I’ll try eating better.
Luvi? I address my adjutant slowly, not wanting to startle her. But I still do, she twitches when she hears my voice inside her head. Do you think we could have dinner now?
“Of course,” Luvi bows and runs off to fulfil my request.
The race rulers stare at her, not having a clue about what just happened. Only Liana knows right away and rolls her eyes ostentatiously.
“Aefener,” she uses my name again now that we’re among friends. “I beg you not to use your telepathy like that, it’s rather rude, unnecessary and downright confusing for anyone else who isn’t involved.”
“Ehm… what just happened?” Fefnir scratches his right horn.
“Our Emperor’s telepathic ability got stronger,” Gotrid announces proudly.
“My panic escape was full of self-discoveries,” I murmur, embarrassed. “Sorry, I guess it was a bit rude not saying it aloud for everyone to hear when it wasn’t anything secret. I just asked Luvi if she could bring dinner, I’m starving.”
“It’s that late already?” Liana realises only now.
“That’s right, high time to let His Majesty rest,” Cien speaks up assertively, not at all afraid of all the race rulers gathered here.
“Still, your telepathy got stronger you say?” Werden looks at me, intrigued.
“It’s rather I’m not blocking myself unconsciously out of fear anymore,” I set the record straight. “Also, I decided to tell all Celestials.”
“Is that wise, Aefener?” Fefnir whistles.
“Maybe not,” I admit. “But I wanted to do it.”
“That’s Celestial business, Fefnir,” Deminas nudges him. “We won’t tell anyone and if Aefener doesn’t want to keep secrets in front of his own people, I totally understand.”
My servants then politely but hastily escort everyone out and Liana also excuses herself to rest in her own apartment. I almost can’t believe the day is finally over, it seemed endless. Dinner arrives and I’m really happy we can eat it casually in the dining room and just the three of us.
“Love,” Erik pets my wing because despite me asking for food which is a small miracle, I’m not able to each that much in the end.
“You made an effort and that counts,” Gotrid praises me and allows the maids to clear the table.
I was bathed when we returned so I don’t need to go now. Gotrid does and Erik claims that he sweated a ton during all those hours he didn’t know where I was. They go take a quick shower, leaving me sitting on the bed for a short meditation.
Being alone is just an empty phrase for me, though. With my partners gone, guards position themselves at the door. But I don’t mind anymore. I sit on two pillows, cross my legs, relax my wings, close my eyes and go into a meditation. I try to focus but my Grandma’s face keeps popping up.
She was horrible to me, I shouldn’t be mourning her. Yet, I can’t bring myself to hate her. She had an untreated bipolar disorder, she was sick. What if my Mom never left for Japan? Would she persuade her to find treatment? I heard from our neighbours that her mood swings got much worse after Mom left. Grandma never admitted it but she must have been devastated to lose her daughter.
“Your Majesty, are you okay?” the guards are suddenly leaning over me and they usually never leave their post.
I open my eyes again to discover that tears are pouring all over my face.
“Do you need counselling? Should we call Zetraya?” the guards are panicking.
“He needs his partners,” Gotrid storms in, his wings dripping water. “Sorry, love, we tried to hurry when we felt your turmoil but we had to wash the soap off at least.”
“Hey, bird, you’re flooding the place,” Erik runs after him and throws a huge towel. Gotrid sticks his tongue out at him.
Their teasy interaction makes me laugh and even though it’s a sad laugh over tears, I feel better. Gotrid is right, I need my partners. Now more than ever.
“Sit on the carpet and let me dry you,” I say.
“We’re okay now, thank you,” Erik dismisses the guards.
“Oh, being dried by my Emperor, is this heaven?” Gotrid sings when I cast warm air currents and blow them into his feathers.
While I’m drying Gotrid, Erik sits behind me and gives my sore wing muscles a nice relaxing massage. For these peaceful moments with my beloved, I’m willing to endure just about anything.
“It’s okay to cry… to mourn,” Erik whispers half-way into the massage because I start silently crying again. But they’re tears of relief as I need to get the tension out of my body.
When Gotrid’s feathers are dry, he turns around and hugs both me and Erik into his soap-smelling wings. Erik doesn’t resist this time and we stay like that for several long minutes until my eyes dry as well.
“I want you both and I want you now, not after we return to Prague,” I sigh out. My wings drop and start shaking—a Celestial equivalent of arousal.
Eriks smirks, takes me into his arms and transports me into the bed with Gotrid helping to carry my wings I can’t seem to fold properly. They take a hold of me, surprisingly cooperating without any conflicts. I surrender to them completely and connect our minds when they feel open enough to let me. This is the first time I connected the three of us fully on every possible level.
I show Erik all sides of my mind, not hiding anything anymore. I’m not afraid to look too Celestial in his eyes and he’s not afraid to see. I show Gotrid my vulnerability but his unwavering faith in me as his Emperor isn’t shaken.
I find refuge in their minds and then stretch myself further to feel all Celestials in the vicinity. Because they all know anyway, I gently touch their minds and send them some of my love as well. Many of them are nervous, scared of future, unsure. They need some reassurance. They need to know that their Emperor cares about every single one of them.
I will protect you, I send them a tender thought. A promise.
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