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Day broke along the horizon, a glorious spectacle of oranges and yellows, brightly sprayed across the land. Through fields of dozing cows, bells jingling in the early morning breeze. Chimney swifts fluttered out of their nests, leaving behind tiny mouths, squealing for breakfast. It was silent, not a soul had truly stirred quite yet. Bats hung from the sharp edges of a dark cave just off the coast. A few shivered uncomfortably, trying to get a better spot amongst their warm brethren. Half the world had hidden away from the newcomer, a beautiful, yet piercing god in a land that yearned for his gift. The others awaited his arrival to be nuzzled awake, hoping to see the colors as they painted the earth, wiping away the darkness of night. But they would ultimately fail, missing the god entirely.
Only the swifts and sulking barn cats dared defy the Lord of Daybreak, preferring to operate on their own terms, rather than that of a god who never offered his guidance. Besides, they could see without his light anyways, the other many gods had blessed them with that gift. As if the Lord of Daybreak enjoyed this toying, he would chase the rebels along the dew-soaked hills and rolling countrysides. All the while, pulling the Lord out of his great chasm, where he slept while his lover bore herself to the world with little admiration, except that of poets, scholars, and hunters. Lady Midnight sucked in her last breath before disappearing from the world, kissing her few admirers farewell with a final gust of chilling wind.
If you blinked, you would miss him, the Lord of Daybreak. His flames licked the long blades of grass, far from view, but yet so near. While the chimney swifts and barn cats laughed as they loped away from His Majesty, wings flapping in the warm morning air, tails hovering over the ground and claws digging deep into the soft soil beneath their paws, a man prayed to his lady, watching the sunrise behind her golden body.
Like most mornings, he wept while he clasped her cold, outstretched hand. The man had always felt as though the sculptors had never truly encompassed the compassion and power that this woman wielded in her life. Her eyes were so cold and sullen like she had to force that permanent smile upon her lips… lips that he had loved once. That he had touched and kissed and ached to taste once. It was the gate to her whole being, those golden slivers that would open more often then they stayed closed. They united kingdoms, cursed cowards, breathed love to admirers, and brought armies of bloodthirsty warriors to their knees. He had seen it done and loved her every day because of it. She was a god, in every sense of the word and would see to it that she would be placed amongst a pantheon of world-benders, rule-breakers, and kingmakers. It had taken him five years after her to reassemble the heart that had been broken when she left. Alas, he still could not find all of the pieces. He saw the blood-red sun move behind her braided hair and crowned head, and kissed her fingers.
“‘Nor sun or stone may wither you. Gods and kings pale in comparison, however, your light does not corrupt but gives strength. Let your strength be the beacon of life, and give us mortals your greatest gift. Heal my fallen brothers and sisters, crown them champions in your Hall of Intrepidity. Wrap me in your winged form and fly me away so that I may love you once again. Money makes kings but wit topples them. Guide me, Gold-Mender, make me better.’”
He brushed her cool cheek with his fingers, fingers that had seen too many years of war, calloused over from rough hilts and forsaken causes. Scars to help him remember he was lost without her. Mercenary work had made him old, crippled, in need of a cane when he was just barely through his fortieth summer. He still wasn’t sure he was fighting for the right cause, but his queen was a woman from his past, one who had offered him little solace in his sins. He saw his love in her but she was just a child.
“You’re up early.” His queen stood behind him, hands folded against the small of her back, a powerful stance for such a young woman.
“So are you,” he grumbled, quickly pulling his hand away from the statue. “The only difference is, I have a reason to be.”
“Praying to her isn’t going to bring her back, Aeneas,” she said, her chin held dangerously high. “No matter how great a hero she was.”
“I know that.”
“Then you would do good to forsake the cause and get some more sleep,” she commanded, like the queen she knew she was. She raised her hand and cupped Aeneas’ cheek in her soft palm, running her thumb underneath his left eye. The once taut skin had become soft and rolled over on itself more than once, turning gray and sunken in. “You’re becoming an old man, Aeneas. What happened to your cane?”
“Left it in my chambers,” he scoffed, pulling away from her kind touch. “I wasn’t weak when I devoted myself to her; I won’t be weak now. Your people will be waking up soon, Your Grace, you have far bigger things to worry about than a man withering away.”
“True, but that man is my friend,” she countered with a smile. “No one is going to wither away today, Aeneas. Now come, you have spent far too long in the dark.”
She turned on her heels and glided down the damp corridor. Pulling his sword out of the small patch of dirt that surrounded Gold-Mender, Aeneas took a step to follow his queen. As if a thread had gone stiff around his heart, he was yanked back towards the outstretched hand whose fingers had once lingered too long on his skin. He yearned to stay with her, closing the door behind his queen, locking himself in until he died and could be reunited with his beloved. But her eyes told him not to. “Leave!” they seemed to scream; a word he had heard too many times when she suffered. He had been the one to ease her suffering… but in turn, had brought on his own. Without touching his lady, Aeneas limped after his queen, brought painfully back to his reality.
While it was true that his queen had built one of the strongest cities in the New Empire, it was heavily walled, guarded by archers armed with crossbows that could kill a fully-grown elk more than twenty yards away with little effort at all. And the people lived outside, daring not to step too close to the dark, looming stone walls that barred them from their queen. Aeneas’ lady had forbidden walls aimed to separate her from her people during the time when she presided over the kingdoms she had liberated. She wanted to be closer to her people, both physically and emotionally, and walls were just another barrier made to be broken down. His queen had a right to fear the people - after what they had done to her in the past - but she would never be like his lady, thus he would never stand with his queen as he had done with his love.
Soldiers marched past his queen in strategically planned formations, armed with spears and fine steel swords still shining silver after being polished by the blacksmith. They saluted her as they passed in one unified motioned, armor clinking. It sounded thunder and made full-grown men flinch but Aeneas stood tall beside his queen, slipping his sword inside its embroidered sheath. His sword was one of the only things he had left of his lady, as much of it had been buried with her when she died. Will-Bender, that was its name. Throughout his many years on a plethora of battlefields, it had been scarred and dented by his foes, but ultimately ended up soaked in blood. It had done so much good but had done something that could not be mended and often Aeneas had thought about getting the blacksmith to melt it down into nothing. However, Gold-Mender had wrapped her golden fingers around his heart and begged him to use it to worship her. And worship it would until the day it would be buried with Aeneas as Stillness had been with his lady.
Will-Bender’s jeweled hilt reflected the Lord of Daybreak’s light and caught the eye of a curious young soldier. He broke formation to glance at it, soaking in its glory and magnificence. Aeneas shot a threatening look at the soldier and on he marched, no doubt thinking about holding Will-Bender in his mud-covered palms. Aeneas had seen that look before, as men often coveted Will-Bender out of sheer greed and the unquenchable thirst for power. But once it had been directed at the one thing he sought to protect above all else. A sword could be made more glorious, but his lady could not have been. Humans cannot be polished to look like new, although he had seen it done before. Natural beauty came in the form of something worth protecting. It was as rare as finding a diamond on a blood-covered battlefield after being picked apart by bandits.
Aeneas saw the growing rarity of his queen’s beauty every day she grew older. Men would covet her in time, tripping over themselves for her praise but hoping secretly that they would be the lucky winner who got to swim in the safes below the keep. His queen knew of this harsh reality and made sure the various men of her queendom were aware of their boundaries. Aeneas, unlike many others, had little to none, for the prospect of a potential sexual relationship with Her Majesty was as revolting to her as it was to him. Besides, he preferred to lie alone in his bed at night, dreaming of his lost love and the boundless possibilities of things she could be doing without him, that the thought of finding another woman made his stomach twist and turn.
“You’re thinking again, aren’t you, Aeneas?” his queen asked, offering him a playful smile to counter his obvious sadness.
“Do I ever not think, Your Majesty?” he sighed, looking ahead, over the stone wall and out at the smoking chimneys as their clouds wafted into the sky, disappearing into the atmosphere.
She laughed, a light-hearted laugh that made his heart lift a little. “Care to tell your queen what it is that you are thinking about?” she spoke more regally in the presence of her men, as any sign of weakness would cause a stir, a thought, a feeling of having her overthrown. His queen was good at playing this game of a power-struggle, but his lady had been the master.
“No, I don’t,” Aeneas grunted.
His queen frowned. “Why not? There’s obviously something you are bottling up inside yourself. Why not share it with me?”
“Because it’s not something a queen should hear.”
She laughed bitterly. “No, it’s something that soldiers should not hear,” she said, casting an angered glance at him. “You think me a child, Aeneas.”
“You will always be a child to me, Your Grace,” he said, still watching the smoke float up into the air only to be carried away by the wind, pulled apart and dispersed until nothing was left but a cluster of particles too small to see.
“Don’t call me ‘Your Grace’ if you think me a child,” she snapped, looking up at him, trying desperately to meet his far-off gaze. “It is only salt in the wound.”
“Of course, my queen,” he grumbled, attempting to pick fun at her. It had fallen flat and his queen tore her eyes away from him, directing her attention to the outside world. He had been funny in his youth, like most men. The only difference was that his lady was a master of wits and cunning, every word out of her mouth was either dangerously clever or was a jab at a man’s self-worth and pride. He had to play his lady’s game if he wanted to stand by her side, and play he did. He never won, his lady made sure of that, but he came close on a few notable occasions. None worth remembering without her, of course.
“Tell me about her, Aeneas,” she commanded. “Gold-Mender and the Mad Empress.”
This took him aback. When his queen was no taller than his hip and no older than a pathetic whelp, she had first asked him about Gold-Mender and the Mad Empress. In truth, it was a story of not only her queendom’s history but her own history as well. He never finished it, every time she asked him to, it was just too great and too painful to retell, the laborious lifestyle of a mercenary didn’t help his chances of ever finishing the story, either. She seemed to have gotten the hint when she asked to hear it the four-hundredth time and he refused. Perhaps it was time for her to hear the whole thing, but Aeneas would resist for as long as he possibly could.
“Aeneas,” his queen said. “I want to hear the story.”
He pretended not to hear her, looking off into the distance, eyes trained on some far-off object. Aeneas spotted some of the local children kicking a ball along the cobblestone path, followed by a scrappy-looking black dog, pink tongue flapping in the wind as it hobbled after them. Anyone else would have thought that the dog was chasing the children with the intention of ripping their throats out, but not Aeneas; his lady had taught him to love animals, to show them kindness rather than brutality. The children were smiling, stopping to throw the ball to the dog, who chased after it gleefully. It was no doubt a stray that some farmer had deemed too old to work any longer and had dumped it within the walls of the city, one last act of kindness so that the poor beast wouldn’t starve to death in the wilds beyond his queen’s keep. Regardless of the amount of flees the poor creature had on it, the children made sure to pat the dog as a reward for bringing their toy back to them.
A woman in a dirty apron saw her children with the dog and let out a yelp of horror, tearing her children away from the animal and rushing them inside. They would no doubt receive a beating and the dog would be alone once again. Not noticing this, the dog wagged its tail, hoping that its friends would return. Its tail sunk low as it heard the loud screams from inside the home, knowing all too well the sound of rejection. Limping down the cobblestone road, the dog went in search of scraps to fill its empty stomach with. Aeneas knew that the searching would lead the dog winding through the muddy backroads of the city, ending up behind the keep, trying to nuzzle its way into the kitchen. The cooks were greedy and violent, it would get kicked in the ribs if they found it begging outside. In a way, Aeneas had felt like that dog too many times in his life. He vowed silently to the dog that he would offer it some dinner before it got to the kitchen.
“Aeneas,” a new voice said, a man’s voice.
He focused his attention on the armored man that was positioned in front of him. One of his men, he noticed from the sigil that had been welded onto his breastplate; a wild horse, rearing with its metallic mane flowing in the air as it looked behind it, into nothing. It was ironic for reasons only Aeneas knew and it almost made him smile when he remembered how it became that way.
“And your queen,” his queen grumbled.
“Of course, Your Grace,” said the soldier, bowing his head in respect. “I have news from Stoneport, sir.”
He brought no letter with him and bore no sign of genuinely knowing that the news was true, but Aeneas trusted him for the time being. “What news?” asked Aeneas, realizing that his queen was growing increasingly impatient.
“The lord of Stoneport just uncovered an underground slave operation,” he said, casting a glance at his queen but kept his stance aimed towards Aeneas. “They’ve recovered about twenty women that were believed to have been kidnapped from the island holds in Elstonia.”
Elstonia, that had been Aeneas’ home once. He had been a noble, respected warrior, a captain of numerous ships, a general of armies, a man once considered to be great enough to be king. After he met his lady, it seemed like those titles meant nothing because he would never be anything compared to her. She was his gateway to titles much greater than the ones he had held before.
“And?” his queen urged. “What exactly does this mean for Storm’s Breach? Elstonia has not threatened our province or my rule.”
“It means that the slavers are growing stronger, Your Majesty,” Aeneas explained, hearing the sharpness in her tone. “They are kidnapping women for sex.”
“I’m aware, Aeneas,” she snapped. “Have the slavers come to Storm’s Breach yet?”
“No, Your Grace,” the man responded.
“Good, and I would like to keep it that way, Aeneas,” his queen said, fixing him with an irritated glare. “Do not get involved. I don’t have the patience nor the resources to fight a war.”
“When and if the slavers come to Storm’s Breach, I will concern myself with this issue. Until then, I forbid you to continue ‘saving’ these people.” His queen turned and went towards her keep, back facing him. Her temper was fiery enough to set a forest ablaze.
“Your Majesty,” Aeneas yelled after her. “This is our connection to the other provinces. We have been a part of this alliance for years! We can’t just---”
“You can and you will, Aeneas,” she growled, refusing to stop walking.
He sighed and dismissed the man. “Paean would never have broken up this alliance.”
“I am not your lady!”
As Lady Midnight cast her light across the land, sending the chimney swifts and stray cats back to their holes for the night, Aeneas sat awake, still fingering the meal of beef and potatoes that had been served to his chambers by a servant boy. The boy was skinny, his arms so devoid of flesh that it seemed that his pale skin clung to his bones. His eyes were as sunken in as Aeneas’, but he was riding on many sleepless nights, serving his queen; this boy was starving. In an act of kindness, Aeneas gave the servant boy a slab of beef and a skinned potato to fill his belly. He had thought it was a bit odd, however, that the boy did not thank him and instead took the food like a hungry animal and rushed back into the direction of the kitchen. Perhaps he did not speak Aeneas’ language? But throughout his many travels, Aeneas had made note of all the ways natives had thanked him, whether it had been a nod or a foreign word of admiration. And still, the boy said nothing.
In the glow of a single lit candle above his wooden table, Aeneas did his best to enjoy his meal. Storm’s Breach was not known for its flavorful cuisine and the food often served was hardy and meant to fill bellies at war. Bread, meat, and potatoes, that is what Aeneas had become accustomed to during his time serving not only his queen but his lady as well. He mashed potato between his teeth, staring out the little window that gave a lovely view of the dirty trainees as they “practiced” in the courtyard. Pathetic, Aeneas thought. I’ve seen better out of women. His heart stopped and then started again. In truth, he had seen better out of women. His lady could easily soak half a battlefield with her enemy’s blood before the infantry even had their weapons sharpened. Lady Kazza fought better than any man Aeneas had ever trained and she had only ever had experienced combat when she defended her home from invaders. If anything, Aeneas and his men looked like novices when they road into war, stumbling over themselves, hardly making a feeble attempt at competing with the women. Maybe Her Majesty should learn to kill, he wondered. Perhaps she could show these boys a thing or two. Gods know she’s got a temper to do it.
He heard an angered grunt and saw the trainees jolt. The grunting continued on with a loud cry from something that wasn’t human. Aeneas got to his feet, pushing away from the table to grab Will-Breaker. He flung the door open wide and prepared to do something brash. The cold mountain air chilled his bones and he looked back at the slabs of meat that were left on his plate. In an act of what could only be described as sheer desperation, he grabbed what was left of his dinner and clutched it in his hand, feeling the grease trickle through his fingers.
The trainees had gathered around the back door to the kitchen, where one of the overweight cooks was leaning over the stray dog Aeneas had seen earlier. No doubt the poor creature had been kicked and beaten, as it was lying on the ground gasping for air.
“Dumb s**t,” the cook grumbled, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. “Thought ya ‘ould come ‘n beg fur some food, did ya?” He spat on the dog, leaving a glob of mucus clinging to the dog’s fur.
The trainees laughed and one nudged the dog with an armored boot. Aeneas felt a flame of anger grow in his belly.
“Should I put the poor thing out of its misery?” another asked, pulling an arrow from its quiver, clicking it into place, and then aiming it at the dog.
“If you do, I’ll put you out of yours,” Aeneas snarled, making all of the men turn around, looks of confusion and fear on their faces.
“Oh, ‘ome on, Aeneas!” the cook rumbled. “It’s just a mangy fleabag; it’s probably gonna die soon, anyway. Might as well use it as target-practice, ‘ight?”
He sat up straighter, fingering the hilt of Will-Breaker making sure that the men saw the glint. “Leave it alone, Wylt,” he ordered, right hand hovering over the hilt, threatening to pull it out of the sheath.
“Aeneas…” the cook chuckled.
“Call me Aeneas one more time, Wylt,” he threatened, unsheathing Will-Breaker in one effortless motion, aiming it at the cook’s throat. The trainees backed away, shouting pleas and words of calming with their hands up, away from their weapons. “And I’ll spill your pudgy guts all over the snow.”
The cook lifted his hands with an irritated and defiant sneer on his face. “Alright, alright. Ya win,” he grumbled, Aeneas let the end of his sword fall. “We’ll leave the dog alone if that’s whatchu want. Next ‘ime watch where ya put that thing.”
The trainees hurried away, back to the other end of the courtyard where they would cast wary glances back at Aeneas until he crawled back to his chambers. They will never learn, thought Aeneas. My lady is not here to teach them. He knelt to the ground and placed Will-Breaker down beside him, offering the dog a comforting pat. It grunted and sat up, sniffing in his direction.
Aeneas held out the hand that had the beef in it, to which the dog cautiously nibbled. “Easy, boy,” he soothed, sitting down. “I won’t hurt you.”
The dog looked at him with its big, dark eyes that seemed to blend in with the rest of its fur. It had large paws that were awkwardly proportioned onto its body like a child wearing his father’s shoes, and a tail that had fur too long to be a farmer’s dog. Its coat was silken and had a few patches missing here or there, but was otherwise long and luxurious. Aeneas smiled when it began to eat the meat and noticed that one of its ears flopped forward towards its nose while the other one stuck straight up. Its mouth was gentle like it had been a pet someone had managed to train to be soft at the mouth around children. It wasn’t a young dog, Aeneas noticed by the graying hairs around the dog’s eyes, mouth, and muzzle. “You and me both, boy,” he laughed, gently stroking the dog’s head as it finished off the last morsel of beef.
His heartstrings began to strum as he stood and sheathed Will-Breaker, turning to go. He only had the intention of saving the dog from a more gruesome fate, but couldn’t help but want a little company. The dog whined and attempted to stand, falling back over out of exhaustion. And what seemed to be a lame leg.
Aeneas suddenly saw his lady smiling in the middle of a bustling city, as carts and carriages and busy people rushed by. She didn’t even notice them, although they called her name and sang her praises. Instead, her attention was focused on a pile of hay in the back of a run-down stable where she crouched over a dozen mewling puppies. They were all different shades; some brown, some white, some black, some a mixture of colors. Their mother lied in the back, panting from the sweltering heat and so emaciated she couldn’t move to feed her pups. The pathetic-looking horse nudged her as well, begging for food. She pressed the horse’s mud-covered face against her own and whispered a promise that Aeneas couldn’t hear. His lady kissed the horse’s nose and gathered the poor weak mother-dog in her arms, waving over Aeneas to grab the pups. With one hand, she held the dog, with the other, she pulled a wad of rope from the wall and tied it around the horse’s neck. At first, both the mother-dog and the horse shuddered in fright, but soon the dog was leaning into his lady’s warm embrace and the horse followed her wherever she went.
Aeneas smiled and thought he would cry. He saw a younger him jog up to his lady, offering to take the mother-dog, but she refused and ordered that he grabbed the pups, instead. A tough-guy, he thought he was, with a heart of steel and a harsh grip, but when the pups snuggled into his arms, he could feel nothing but the love swell inside of him. Even steel can be melted. His lady carried the dog out of the dingy stables and lead the horse out of the dark behind her. She walked towards him and he felt that love that had been gone so long, return like it had been only moments since they had last seen one another. It was bittersweet and the vision faded, melting back into the cold, dark world around him.
He saw his lady in this animal, an animal that wasn’t even born during the time when she had blessed the earth with her presence. In an act of sheer impulsivity, he scooped up the dog in his arms and held it to his chest. The dog licked his jaw with its pink tongue, a show of great affection that only reinstated what he had already found out to be true.
“You’re not a boy, are you, girl?” he said, rubbing the dog’s ear.
As Aeneas walked back into his chambers, he felt the trainees’ eyes burning into the back of his skull, wondering just how far-gone the old mercenary really was. Inside, Aeneas fed the dog the rest of his meal and tried to construct a makeshift cushion for her to sleep on. He knew how important it was for a lame dog to get proper rest on a comfortable surface. While his queen had created a very prosperous city, allowing for it citizens to provide their families with soft straw and goose-feather mattresses - a rarity in most other provinces, but due to the booming economy and natural resources - every comfortable mattress had the capability to become stiff and hurt one’s back for many days. Aeneas knew the feeling of not getting a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t always the mattress that was to blame. The most he could do was provide his new companion with her own spot to rest her tired head.
He helped the dog onto his bed and stroked her silken fur until he fell asleep against the rhythmic rising and falling of her abdomen and the thumping of her content heart, knowing that she was finally safe and wanted. But not before Aeneas had succumbed to the weight of exhaustion, the trainees’ confidence had returned, their voices rising over the sound of the whistling wind that was reaching a near howl. Their words latched themselves onto the center of his heart, seemingly throwing the fatal spear of fear and insult right through his very soul.
“If that poor sod gets any softer, we might have to start worrying about our own safety.”
Aeneas was up before the barn cats and chimney swifts the next day when Lady Midnight still held onto a good majority of the land with her blue-black tinge blocking out the smallest sliver of light-blue that threatened the skyline. Gold-Mender was dark and cold that early in the morning. Her eyes were seemingly void of care and empathy, replaced with hollow spaces that bore down upon Aeneas as he knelt before her.
I am sorry, my lady, he prayed silently. I know that dawn suits you better, but I have other things to attend to this morning, and I need all the time I can get. He could almost feel her laughing at him, at his silent prayer. Aeneas knew better than to assume his lady, wherever she may be, would punish him for praying to her before dawn. In life, his lady barely accepted words of praise, often turning the attention to the people who she thought deserved it. He worshipped her, she knew that, but it was almost pitiful that he could only say the words he wanted her to hear when she was in the place where none could really hear them. Aeneas often thought himself a coward; kneeling before a golden effigy of the woman he loved, knowing she wouldn’t be able to talk back. But for some reason, his lady kept him going and whispered to him that he was quite the opposite. So the praying continued on, albeit with the feeling of cowardice still piercing his heart.
Aeneas successfully snuck into the kitchens and stole a generous portion of last night’s beef supper to feed his new companion who had spent the night trying to get used to her new surroundings. While he had wished that the dog had picked a better time to make all of that racket, Aeneas had to admit he enjoyed all of the action. His queen was a good company but she had a city and people to look after, and the feelings of an aging mercenary were at the very back of her mind. To have a dog that could constantly be with him and enrich his days and nights with joy, something his life had lacked before.
The dog wolfed down the meat that Aeneas brought for her, finishing her breakfast within seconds. He was amused by the way she looked at him after she lapped up the last remnants of grease off of the floor. Her tongue lolled out of the side of her smiling mouth, seemingly asking Aeneas if she could have some more. There was so much character in this creature that she was almost comparable to that of a human being. Which made Aeneas all the more confused as to the reasoning behind her supposed abandonment. She was no farmer’s dog, that had been ruled out the moment he had really gotten a good look at her. But she was too kind a soul to be some warrior’s loyal hound. Perhaps the description of just being a stray was all that could be found out about her past, but something in Aeneas’ gut told him that there was more to be discovered about his new companion. It left somewhat of a mystery to fill Aeneas’ lonely hours with. Following in the footsteps of his lady, Aeneas would continue to paint glorious tales of the dog’s past life inside his mind until somebody could construct better ones. And somebody would most certainly construct something better.
Aeneas heard a knock on his door. At first, he didn’t make for the door and waited for another knock, but none followed. The dog thumped her tail against the wooden floor, anxiously waiting for the door to be opened. A worried sweat prickled at the skin on Aeneas’ neck, as he reached for the curved metal handle. Pulling it open, Aeneas saw his queen standing outside, hands folded regally in front of her and her posture imposing even though she stood at least a head shorter than him. Her lips were reduced down to a thin pale line, obviously due to anger and the early morning’s bitter chill. She wore a fine woolen dress, embroidered with the sigil of the white owl crowned by a thin silver circlet that dawned a deep blue crescent moon. The owl’s long white feathers stretched across his queen’s chest, encircling her neck. Her shoulders were covered by a thick timber wolf pelt that seemed to do nothing against the cold as she was shivering in the wind.
“Good morning, Aeneas,” she said. “Care to let me inside?”
He stepped out of the way without saying anything, ushering his queen inside. The dog thumped her tail and jumped to her feet, favoring her left leg. His queen lifted her eyebrows. “A dog, Aeneas?” she asked a hint of amusement in her tone. “Should I even bother asking where you found it?”
“Last night,” he answered, leaving out the formalities due to the unusual level of privacy. “She was begging for food outside the kitchens and Wylt was beating the s**t out of her... I couldn’t just leave her there to die.”
His queen chuckled. “I should have known…” She trailed off and rubbed the dog’s graying head. “I hope you’re not planning on keeping her, Aeneas.”
He shrugged and took a seat at the splintering wooden table. The dog whined with excitement as his queen smiled and resorted to sitting down as well. A spark of joy lit up his heart as he watched the two of them happily interact. It wasn’t often that his queen allowed herself to breathe and let down her guard. She had been held to such a high standard ever since she was young that it was hard for her to think of anything but ruling Storm’s Breach in a way that wouldn’t turn on her in the future. In a way, his queen was troubled and this truth made her increasingly distant from both him and all of the other members of her court and hold. It broke his heart to know that this was going to be one of the only times she could truly be herself.
“Well,” his queen sighed, leaning back in her chair while the dog persisted in smothering her. “Does she have a name?”
“If you’re going to keep her, Aeneas, she should at the very least be given a proper name.” His queen looked over at him, a smile still lingering on her lips. Her bright green eyes were playful and her bronze skin had turned ever so slightly pink from the sudden rush of affection. “Do you have any suggestions?”
He looked at the dog and made note of her physical appearance. She was obviously black in coat color and graying slightly around the face. She looked similar to a wolf with that long pointed snout and awkwardly large paws, but it was the pelt color that really seemed to strike Aeneas as something worth a nod in the dog’s name.
“How about… ‘Shadow?’” he suggested.
His queen laughed. “Oh, come on, Aeneas,” she said, patting the dog on the head. “That is perhaps the most basic name you could have possibly given this poor dog. How many people do you know that have named their black dog ‘Shadow?’”
“I’m not good with naming things, Firja,” Aeneas grumbled, slightly defeated. It was true that he was never good with names, that was another thing his lady was good at. He had never really seen the point in naming swords let alone animals that would certainly die off sooner or later. Their world was too dangerous to get attached to things as futile as dogs and horses. To give an animal a name was within the same realm as giving it a personality, and thus a reason to protect and care for it. Once again, it was his lady that forced him to not only christen his sword but would ultimately cause him to develop feelings for every animal that crossed his path because there was always going to be a lingering ache that told him they deserved a name of their own.
“Your sword has a good name, Aeneas,” she pointed out. “A great name, in fact. That is evidence enough that you have the capability to come up with something better than ‘Shadow’ for a black dog.”
“What would you suggest I name her, then?” Aeneas challenged, done with his queen’s insults.
“I am glad you asked,” she said, smiling as she took the dog’s face in her hands, examining her features. “Othella.”
“Othella? Like the goddess of--”
“Love and beauty? Yes, that is exactly what I would name her.” His queen leaned back, satisfied with her choice.
Othella. Aeneas thought about it for a moment and decided it was rather fitting. Othella was one of the few Elstonian goddesses that had been assimilated into the Pantheon of the New Empire. In Aeneas’ youth, he had heard the tales of the goddess Othella’s creation and ultimate assumption into godhood and was rather disappointed that the New Empire’s version of events had been significantly dulled down. Elstonians held strength and sexuality above all else in their culture, and Othella was no exception, but the New Empire had forbidden the telling of the original story because it was “unfit for young minds to comprehend,” as they put it.
The dog was certainly beautiful, with her silken black coat and calm, understanding eyes, but the origins of Othella were far from anything a stray animal could accomplish. He looked over at his queen and the dog lying on the floor, pink tongue lolling out of her mouth, and smiled. He would now be sharing the company of a goddess and was rather pleased.
“Is there something you needed me for, Firja?” Aeneas asked, addressing the task at hand. His queen didn’t often just visit him, offering idle conversation to fill the lonely hours of the morning. It was more likely that she wanted something, and he was intent on figuring out what that was.
She sighed and her smile faded. “The New Empire is pressing more taxes on Storm’s Breach,” she said. “They demand that we pay four times as much for foreign goods than we did before, and they say that they will be sending more men to set up camps around the city to make sure that we follow through.”
Aeneas knew this would happen eventually. The Angellanean Empire had been torture enough during Gold-Mender’s time, taxing poor provinces and implementing their own selfish ideals into foreign governments by seating their own nobles on those thrones. On almost all levels the Angellanean Empire was a theocracy, ruled by an emperor or empress that was granted their position solely out of divine right and governed by a league of masked priestesses who whispered the words of their god into the listening ears of young nobles. They believed that they had the right to control any province they wanted because their Living God said they could. The Angellanean Church needed the coin to properly fund their religion and thus the spread of the Angellanean influence. Because of this, the Empire taxed almost every province they controlled to squeeze out every last bit of gold from its citizens. This created rebellions and the eventual downfall of not only the Angellanean Empire and their church, but also the destruction of the Living God.
When Empress Lorelena Angellane was overthrown, the people of Syr decided to reconstruct the Empire in a more equality-driven image. Aeneas had seen what “equality” had brought upon societies in the past under one united banner, and it was not what anyone wanted. Each individual province had its own values, religious figures, governmental systems, practices, roles, and things that foreigners couldn’t even fathom. In Aeneas’ grandfather’s time, the Angellanean Empire had been more of a local government and only controlled the nearby province of Jatul, which was primarily made up of dry, barren land. As it grew, promoting its perfect image of what society across Syr should look like, each province slowly started to lose its identity and was molded into a depressing shell of what they used to be. The New Empire sought to change that by putting three chancellors in charge of their new realm, and equality was the most prominent driving force.
Life was good at first, the people started to regain their coin and rebuild war-torn cities and villages, and even managed to feel a sense of pride. But then, reality started to sink in. Yes, the people of the New Empire were equal, if you’d consider that the poor everywhere stayed poor and the rich stayed rich, while a merchant was unable to become too wealthy but could always fall on hard times and become poor if the Chancellors saw that they were getting too powerful. In Aeneas’ eyes, the New Empire’s version of equality was a falsehood. The taxes always got higher because the righteous New Empire cannot handle the thought of one province getting more powerful than them. Elstonia and Storm’s Breach had arguably received the brunt of the damage, as they were the second and third largest in both population and landmass. His queen was young and already knew the hardships of ruling a country that ached to be it’s own. The culture had been lost to the New Empire as well as its sense of identity. Thanks to the constant taxation, rebellions were quickly stomped out and wars could never be fought.
The Chancellors and the New Empire were arguably just as tyrannical as the Angellanean Empire.
“Firja…” was all Aeneas could say.
“My people do not know about the new taxes,” she continued, looking down at her folded hands that were placed daintily on her lap. “I have been able to pay off most of the tariffs in the past, but the amount of gold they expect us to pay… I can’t do it, Aeneas. I don’t want to tax my people. I don’t want more of those damn self-righteous troops polluting my land! My court barely believes I can keep my head on my shoulders. If these taxes get through and they see the troops marching… I don’t know what to do, Aeneas.”
Othella’s tail had stopped wagging, seemingly understanding his queen’s pain. Aeneas’ heart twisted inside his chest and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, preparing to give some sort of advice. He opened his mouth to speak.
“Your lady, Aeneas,” his queen said, cutting him off. “She was a conqueror, wasn’t she? She fought tyrants and freed her people, right?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “But they weren’t her people.”
“But she led them, didn’t she? She was their queen.”
Aeneas shrugged. “Not necessarily...”
“Aeneas,” she grumbled. “If you can’t tell, I am looking for a little advice here.”
“I’m not very good at giving advice, Your Grace.”
She sighed a long, heavy sigh. “Do you think I am a good queen, Aeneas? I know you think I am a child, but… I try to be a good leader… I really do.”
“You are a good leader, Firja, I don’t doubt that,” Aeneas said confidently. “Your only fault is that you were born a woman in a world where men run free. You are a strong queen and a strong woman, just like your mother. You just have to convince the men of this world that is true.”
His queen was silent, contemplating the words that he had said. A stoic veil covered her face, a shroud that was nearly unreadable. Aeneas started to worry that perhaps his words had not had the intended effect on her that he wanted.
“You knew my mother?” she finally said.
Aeneas’ world started to crumble around him. He knew this would happen. He knew that one day he would let it slip, that the truth would finally bleed through that white cloth that he had suspended over her delicate head since the moment she was entrusted to him. Or that his queen would one day be smart enough to understand that every piece of Aeneas’ being was connected by threads that yanked those people to him. He could feel Gold-Mender’s presence at that moment, smiling at him while she whispered words of encouragement in his ear. She needs to know, Aeneas. You did a good job hiding it all this time, but you have to tell her the truth.
His stomach was in his throat as he began to speak. “You asked me yesterday,” he started. “To tell you the story of Gold-Mender and the Mad Empress.”
“Yes?” she assured, leaning her elbows on the table, anxiously waiting for Aeneas to begin.
“Well, it is time that I tell you the whole story.”