When Berkut is twelve years old, Massena ushers him down to the tunnels below the palace. The tunnels could be considered Rigel’s worst kept open secret, in a way – everyone knows they’re there, yet very few people know what they hold, or where they lead, and even fewer will ever find out, because it’s a maze of traps and spells woven into the earth that houses the ashes of the Rulers That Came Before.
Duma is fire, and air. It’s tradition that those who follow the Forge Father are put to pyre in death, and then scattered to the winds, to return their soul to his embrace. For those of his blood, however – those who are Crowned with Fire and Glory – their ashes are painted on these tunnels, coating the walls lit only by the flickering light of flames that will never die. It should be scary, to be surrounded so on all sides by souls that will never know rest, but they are Berkut’s ancestors, fulfilling their duties to protect and guard their people even in death. It’s comforting, more than anything.
He is led down to a chamber, lit by more than just torchlight, an ethereal glow coming from the blade and hilt of the sword kept safely locked away in the royal vault – it is at the entrance to the vault that Massena leaves him, gesturing for him to go forward; without the blood of dragons, of royalty, the spells woven into the stone that makes it up, will not allow one to pass.
Berkut steps forward, out of the warm yellow light of the burning torches behind him, and into the silver-blue glow of the vault – once he reaches the centre, his uncle is waiting for him, and the solemnity of the day, the ritual, is lifted a little by the smile that crosses his face, the pride that shines in his eyes.
“Lord Uncle,” he says, and bows, hand fisted to heart.
“My son,” his uncle says, and reaches out to straighten him up. “I am so proud to be standing here with you, on this day. And…” he pauses. “Whatever the result, I want you to know that I am proud of you.”
Berkut nods once, stiffly, feeling nervous – his eyes flicker to the Kingsfang, laying sheathed on the altar. He knows, as all know, that the blood of Duma does not guarantee the ability to wield the Falchion; the entire reason his Uncle rules at all is that the previous Emperor had no heirs judged worthy of the blade amongst his children. If Berkut had remained simply his nephew, this test would be unnecessary – but once Berkut had been old enough to decide if it was what he wanted or not, his name had been added under the registry of the main royal line; putting him, technically, above Albein in the line of succession, so long as Falchion would unsheathe in his hand.
I love you, his uncle was telling him. I am proud of you, no matter what the sword may choose.
Taking a deep breath and swallowing his nerves, Berkut reaches out for Falchion with trembling hands.
It’s just past dawn when Aden knocks on her door, yet she’s already been awake for hours. The raised eyebrow he casts over her, seated at her mirror, tells her he knows this already from just a glance.
“You’re up early,” he says, casually, as if he hasn’t come here just to prove to himself his suspicions about her sleeping habits are right, and she scowls at him, before turning her attention back to her reflection and dismissing him from her mind.
“Why do you do that?” He asks, minutes later, and she flicks her eyes up to meet his in the mirror. “Your hair,” he clarifies, and unwillingly she stares at it – half smooth and straightened out, the rest a mess of curls she’d yet to reach that morning. “It’s so beautiful how it is already,” he says. “I can’t see why you’d spend hours each day trying to straighten in when you could be sleeping. Maybe that way, you wouldn’t have to use makeup to cover the bruises under your eyes, because you wouldn’t actually have them.”
Arianna bites back a sigh, and she bites back her venom. “I’m Lady Rinea’s retainer,” she says. “And sometimes, that calls for me, with very little notice, to act as her body double. Lady Rinea, Aden,” she reminds him, “does not have curly hair.”
“I suppose she doesn’t,” he says. “But I also feel like you’re lying, Aria.”
She hunches her shoulders, and considers, for a moment, telling him of the way her mother’s scowl would deepen whenever she saw Lady Rinea walk by Prince Berkut’s side, before looking Arianna’s way, as if judging the two together and finding her daughter lacking. The hours spent, daily, having her skin bleached with chemicals that stung to make her as pale as Lady Rinea; that final, terrible day, when she’d come to realise the end goal of her mother’s plan and the true depths of her insanity, and fled to the Imperial Palace to confess to the Emperor everything.
She could tell Aden, she knew, of the deep inadequacy she felt, and how, after all this time, she couldn’t stop herself from using Rinea as a measuring stick she knew she’d never live up to – but if she told Aden, he’d reassure her she was being stupid. And then, when his words didn’t convince her, he’d go hunt down Lady Rinea, so she could look at Arianna with concerned, tearful eyes, and reassure her that she was beautiful and that she loved her.
Arianna didn’t want that (she did want that, desperately). She didn’t want those words to come from the one person in the entire world who would only make those feelings worse, and who the truth would only hurt.
“I’m not lying,” she says, and doesn’t meet Aden’s eyes, or her own, in the mirror.
“What’s his name?”
Tatiana blinks up from her pile of papers – medical reports from the infirmary in the palace; she technically doesn’t need to be going through these, and truthfully she hasn’t actually registered a single word of what she’s read, but it was hours ago now that Uncle Rudolf had led Ezekiel off somewhere for a chat, and her hamster mind just running in panicked circles in the meanwhile isn’t helping anyone.
“If you mean what I call him, then Ezekiel,” she says, smiling up at Alm – her little cousin, still not quite taller than her, except when she’s sitting down. “If you mean the name he had before he came to our shores, then I have no idea, and he doesn’t either.”
Alm frowns. “That’s sad,” he says. “If he can’t remember his name, then he can’t remember what his family called him either, huh?”
Tatiana shakes her head. “Even if he had his memory, Alm, not all places are like Rigel,” she reminds him. He might be Albein to the many and Alm to the treasured few, just like she is Tatiana and Tanya both, but in Zofia Alm would be seen as merely a nickname, something anyone friendly enough could call him, rather than something precious and private – a gift given and earned, rather than taken.
“Does he call you Tanya?”
Tatiana feels her face flush bright red. “Of course not!” she snaps. “We barely know each other – to presume he would – that’s so inappropriate – ”
Alm, the brat, laughs. “I just meant, you’re the closest thing to family he has right now, right? Even if he’s from somewhere else, we should make him feel at home in Rigel.”
It takes a moment for Tatiana to calm down, but once she does, she hums thoughtfully. “I don’t know about him calling me Tanya, just yet,” she says. “But maybe I could try being a bit more casual with him?”
Alm smiles at her encouragingly, pressing a kiss to her cheek before wandering off to do whatever it is teenagers liked to do and leaving her with her thoughts.
Ezekiel, she mused.
Whenever Rudolf was done with him, she’d have to ask him how he felt about ‘Zeke.’
It was like looking into a mirror – a funhouse mirror, that reflected your face back at you slightly warped.
The girl was maybe a half inch shorter than Rinea, with eyes a paler shade of grey to her blue, and soft waves of hair that suggested whatever treatment she used on her hair faded overnight while she slept. She fidgeted under the hand of His Imperial Majesty, who had smiled apologetically at Rinea after she’d opened the door of her chamber to see him standing there with this…guest.
“This is Arianna,” he says, and offers no other name – no House name, no father-name, no parish name.
That, in a sense, tells Rinea all she needs to know.
She smiles warmly at Arianna, and steps to the side, gesturing for her to enter the room. After a quiet, fearful second of silence, with Arianna staring at her like she can’t quite believe she isn’t being stabbed or about to step into a trap, she takes a cautious step into the room, and out from Rudolf’s care into Rinea’s own.
“I will be back by the dawn,” Rudolf says solemnly. “You have done Rigel a great service today, and I will not forget it, Arianna.”
Arianna nods shakily, and the door closes behind them with midnight finality. Rinea almost wants to ask what it is her family has done – for Rudolf to shelter her, to hide her away with Rinea, with her House name likely unmade and her father such a criminal she, as a good citizen, cannot bear his name, either – but her eerie likeness to Rinea herself has her uneasy, and Arianna looks tense and unhappy anyway, so she holds her tongue.
“I’m Rinea,” she greets happily – normally, there would be more to the introduction; Rinea Urie of House Heartilly, she’d say, and receive such an answer in return – but it seems a little cruel to throw such a thing in Arianna’s face, so she bites back the automatic urge to carry through with social norms and simply smiles sweetly to finish it off. “It’s lovely to meet you.”
Arianna’s eyes flicker all over her face, as if noting each and every one of the features they share, and where they differ, just like Rinea had only moment earlier. “I’m glad I got to meet you,” Arianna says, finally, and even if her voice rings with exhaustion there’s nothing else to her words but sincerity.
Rinea’s smile deepens. “There aren’t really any girls in the palace close to my age,” she confesses, and darts forward to take Arianna’s hand in her own. “I’m hope we’ll be great friends!”
The Prince’s gaze on her is a weight on the back of her neck she could do without, and in the back of her mind, it itches. She fidgets a bit, to fight back the urge to claw at her own skin – if the leathery, scarred mess she hides underneath her robes can even count as skin, these days.
“I’m sorry,” says Prince Albein. “Am I bothering you? I’ll leave if I am, I just rarely get to see Clerics work.” He peers down at the patient under her hands, a palace guard that had drunk too deep of ale on his night off and then proceeded to all but crack his head open on the marble floor trying to stagger his way back to his quarters.
“You’re not bothering me,” Kat reassures with a smile, even though the itch that persists says otherwise. The Prince is of Duma’s blood, and her service to Lord Duma is her penance, her thanks for the blessing of life he gave her, when she survived the fire but her mother didn’t. She’s just tense because she doesn’t want to screw up the healing in front of Duma’s heir. She could never be bothered by the Prince’s presence.
“I don’t think I recognise you,” the Prince says, cheerfully, like her reassurance that he isn’t a bother was a signal to start a conversation. Katya can’t say she minds – she’s always wanted to have a chance to talk to one of the royal line, though maybe the timing of the moment isn’t the best, as she sweats to keep her focus. “Are you new?”
Kat doesn’t quite know the best, most politically correct way to say she fled from her old church at the behest of the head priest once the radicals of the Duma Faithful began lingering in their territory, fearing for not only her life but her mind and free will, but a quick glance up at the Prince shows that underneath that open, friendly tone, there’s something dark in his eyes that already knows the answer.
She stills, slightly frightened for a moment, before relaxing and telling herself she’s being silly. Of course the Prince knows what’s going on in his own country – and you’d have to be either blind or wilfully ignorant to miss the amount of young girls pouring into the capital, looking for one last bastion of safety against the plague of bewitchments that stalk the countryside and steals daughters and wives away in the night.
“I’m not too far from home,” she says, and from the tension that pinches in the Prince’s eyes, he gets it.
She’s not too far from home, because the radicals aren’t too far from here.
The last time they’d made a move in the capital, she’d heard, was the night Prince Albein was born. They’d stolen away and bewitched his mother, and the resulting fallout at the hands of Sister Danica of the true Duma Faithful, who’d gone to avenge her sister, had left the radicals scrambling for new recruits and licking their wounds for years. They hadn’t come anywhere near the capital since, which is why it seemed like a logical safe haven to girls running for exactly that.
But, if they were crowding in, so close, on all sides…then maybe, once more, they were ready to make a move.
“Thank you, Sister,” Prince Albein says. “Forgive my presumption, but I believe I’d have more peace of mind if you stay here, in the palace.” He smiles down at her, and Kat can feel her cheeks turn pink.
“I – ”
“I’m going on a journey, before this year’s end,” Prince Albein says. “And I’m probably going to need a cleric. I’d been considering asking my cousin, but… I don’t quite know. There’s just something about you that tells me I’ll need you by my side.” He offers a hand to her. “Sorry to be so abrupt, but I’m Alm, and I’d really like it if we could be friends.”
“I’m Kat,” she says, finally, and slips her hand into his, allowing him to pull her up out of her seat. Lord Duma works in mysterious ways, and his touch is warm like fire but doesn’t burn. If the Prince says he has a feeling about her, then as much as she’s confused as to why, she believes him. “I…I think I’d like that, too.”
“I don’t understand why I’m serving the second prince,” he grumbles. “I don’t even understand why he counts as a prince – he can’t wield the Kingsfang, so he’s not even in the line of succession, Duma’s blood or no.”
His father cuffs his ear. “You serve,” he growls, “because that is what our blood does.” Duma’s blood ruled. In Zofia, Mila’s blood drowned itself in debauchery. And the blood of Aylward, the human man who had stood by Duma’s side when Rigel was first founded, guarded the blood of Duma as that same blood guarded the kingdom.
We protect the protectors, his father had long told him. We serve where they cannot.
Because, generations, eons down the line or not, those of Duma’s blood where those of dragon’s blood. And there were some things in life that couldn’t be done properly without proper, one hundred percent human, sense behind them.
“I’m not denying that,” Aden says. “All I’ve ever wanted is to serve. I just don’t understand why it’s the second prince.”
“Because Crown Prince Albein isn’t getting an Aylward guard,” his father says, and Aden jolts up.
“But – !”
“Lord Duma’s orders, apparently,” his father says, stiff and tart. “He’s still asleep but he can reach his blood through dreams. Rudolf was strict on this one.” He leans forward, and looks Aden directly in the eyes. “If you want to serve, it’s Prince Berkut, or it’s no one.”
Aden scowls. “Fine,” he says, and isn’t happy about it.
And that’s how he is where he is now – kneeling before the Dragon Throne, Emperor Rudolf seated upon it, his son by blood and son by name standing by each arm. A word from his Emperor, and he stands, his father at his back, his hands coming to rest on his shoulders.
“This is Aden, then,” the Emperor says, and his father nudges him.
“Aden Gareth, of House Aylward,” he says. “Ready and willing for service.”
“Aden Aylward,” the Emperor says. “Should you enter into service here, your House name will be the only one you require.”
Aden nods. He knew this – his father had warned him; if he was to swear himself to one of Duma’s blood, he could keep no ties to his family that might divide his loyalty. The only other life that should bind him beyond his liege lord’s would be his own, and even then only for the purpose of acting as his lord’s shield. “I am ready, Majesty,” he says, and the Emperor nods.
Prince Berkut steps forward, likely to greet him, and Aden feels his father’s hand tense on his shoulder – a warning to, well, not be himself, probably.
But then the prince leaves the shadows that surround the steps around the Dragon Throne, and Aden is struck dumb.
“You look too pretty to be useful,” he says, without thinking.
The prince pauses, and flushes of red appear high and bright on his cheeks – Aden can’t tell if he’s flattered, embarrassed, angered, or some mix of the three. His father’s hand on his shoulder is an iron grip, burning, and if Prince Albein hadn’t chosen to break the tension at that moment by bursting into laughter, Aden wasn’t sure what would have happened.
“You two,” he cackles, bent double and gasping for air, “you’re perfect for each other, Beka.”
Prince Berkut definitely looks offended now. “Alm!”
Unwillingly, a little, Aden feels himself grin.
Maybe serving the second prince won’t be so bad after all.
The sheath slides off the blade like silk, and Alm takes in a deep breath. It’s just him, Beka and father down here – neither of them look terribly surprised to see Falchion shine so bright and easy in his hands.
“Are you sure about this, father?” Berkut asks, anxiety pinching at the corners of his mouth, his eyes. “Bad enough that you’re sending Alm to Zofia, but to send him with Falchion – ?”
“No one will know,” father says. “Not here, nor in Rigel. No one will know, except the three of us who stand in this room.”
Alm shares a look with Beka, before raising a brow at their father. “Hate to break this to you, dad,” he says, “but Falchion is, uh, kinda recognisable.”
“I suppose it is,” he agrees, and steps forward to lift the sword out of Alm’s hand, before resting it against the altar once more and drawing his own blade.
“Uh,” Alm says, and Beka takes a wise step back automatically, even as his eyes widen in concern and he calls out in protest.
Their father slams his blade down onto Falchion, and light flares up, with a ringing in his ears that Alm doesn’t think is purely physical. He looks up, and Falchion is, of course fine – at least, the blade is, forged from Naga’s fang, it is, essentially, unbreakable. The hilt, while well made, is manmade, and though it completely destroyed his father’s greatsword in the process, it can be and was destroyed.
“Why,” Beka says. “Just, why.”
“You said it yourself, Berkut,” their father says. “To send Alm off with Falchion is insanity. So, we won’t.” He reaches forward, and picks up the Kingsfang, now hiltless, truer to its second name than ever before. “Duma is known as the father of the forge for a reason,” he says, “and for that reason we of his blood are taught to smith, to keep his legacy living on. Alm will leave with a sword that looks just like any other, that I promise you.”
“You’re crazy,” Beka says flatly, but doesn’t protest. Alm knows, after all, that his brother doesn’t want him going to Zofia at all.
But this is something he has to do. He can feel it. In his soul, in his heart, in his blood.
“Don’t worry, Beka,” he says softly. “I’ll stay safe.”
Concern and annoyance war on Berkut’s face, before exhaustion wins and he sighs. “You’d better,” he snaps. “Because if anything happens to you, I’m coming for Rothschild blood, and I’ll have an army behind me.”
Alm laughs. “You worry too much,” he says. “This isn’t going to come to war, Beka.”
“You can’t guarantee that, Alm – ”
“I promise, okay?” he says, and leans forward to link his pinky around his brother’s, aware of their father’s eyes on them, warm and sad. “I’ll be home before you know it.”