Clair stared out at the expanse of sea around Blackthorn City, poised as ever. She was expecting a visitor today—her cousin, Lance, come down from his high tower in the Indigo League to grace Blackthorn with his presence.
“Your Grace,” came a voice from behind her. Johto had always retained its traditional roots—unlike the Unovans and Kalosians, the regions ruled by the Indigo League, by Lance, clung to their old ways. Not that Clair much minded it: the old ways served her well. For now.
She turned to face the attendant, a pretty, black-haired girl. Her eyes sparkled too much for anyone native to the city, though. Clair’s predecessors had always wasted far too much resource on beautiful creatures from other cities and regions—Pokémon, servants, significant others. Clair had no such predilections.
“The Champion will be arriving in a few hours. Shall I prepare the sitting room to receive him, Your Grace?”
“Lance is unfit to rule. You know that as well as I, father.”
“And what would you do about it, Clair? Cast down your cousin? You know what he is.”
Clair flexed her fingertips, velveteen cloth whispering upon her hands. “No. Send the courtiers to the throne room. My cousin did always have a preference for pomp and circumstance.” It was a lie, of course—Lance was the least ostentatious of their family—but Clair intended to knock her darling cousin as off-kilter as possible before the night’s end.
The attendant blinked.
“Your Grace, it is custom to receive-”
“Forget about customs for a moment and remember that you serve me, not the old ways. I will receive my cousin in the throne room.”
The girl stood there for a moment, staring blankly at Clair.
“What are you waiting for? Was I too ambitious in expecting my attendants to be able to carry out simple tasks? Shall I have Dragonite prepare my throne for me?”
“N-No, Your Grace. My apologies.” She dipped into a curtsy far too low for tradition, but Clair had never bothered with traditions for long. They had their use until they didn’t, and that was that.
“He’s just a Titan, father. Not a god.”
“Yet he serves a god.”
It wasn’t fair. None of it was. Lance had been disinterested, indifferent, perhaps even isolationist before he happened upon Lugia. All that power...for what? So he could storm the Indigo League and let it waste away? No. He was even worse than Cynthia in that regard, and she didn’t even bear a bond. Neither of them could be abided for long, but Sinnoh’s League was far from Clair’s reach.
Lance, though, was not so hard to grab at. She had more of a claim to that throne than he ever did—he was barely even nobility in Blackthorn, born without power or sizable inheritance. His only redeeming quality was that he was strong and handsome, a good match to marry off and forget about after whatever alliance was necessary was secured.
“It’s alright, cousin. I’ll protect you! You might not have a bond, but the village elders say I’m going to be the strongest leader Blackthorn’s ever seen!”
How far they’d come. Clair was the strongest leader Blackthorn had ever seen, but all anyone could talk about was how lovely Lance was. How far he’d gone. How they’d all known he was destined for greatness. She wanted to scream.
Nobody had cared about Lance until he happened to stumble upon Lugia like the giant oaf he was. Nobody had cared that Lance had beaten six Gyms—a record for any non-bonded—and certainly nobody had cared when he’d announced his bid to become Elite Four.
And then he’d bonded Lugia, and suddenly everyone and their uncle knew about darling Lance, and how they used to sell him snapdragon plants at the corner market, or how he liked cinnamon bread, or how they’d known his favorite television show as a child.
Clair had always been the darling of Blackthorn for as long as she could remember. Her father had been the previous Gym Leader—such things were hereditary, in Johto—and all the elders had proclaimed Clair would be even stronger than her father had been.
“Clair, have you ever considered challenging the Elite Four, darling? I’m sure your cousin Lance would go easy on you!”
She didn’t want Lance to go easy on her. She wanted to rip him out, root and stem, cast him out into the seas where his precious Lugia dwelled. He wouldn’t even drown, the bastard.
As the blue-haired leader of Blackthorn City trotted down the mountainside, Piper and Kobe, both of whom were the latest in a long line of non-bonded trainers that served the Kuzuryu clan, came to her side. These two were the strongest of their family, trained to perfection and given to Clair to serve as a gesture of goodwill. They were terrible conversationalists, always preferring to exchange meaningful gazes that Clair couldn’t bring herself to care about, but Clair had grown used to the comfortable silence of their presence. Both only spoke when necessary—a trait Clair respected.
“Leader Clair,” came Piper’s voice. Neither twin had ever been much for pomp or circumstance.
She motioned for the girl to continue, not bothering to speak.
“I was told to inform you that a message arrived for you from the Indigo League early this morning while you were training. I believe it is a missive from the Champion.”
“Mmh,” came her reply. “Very well. I’ll read it when we return.”
She wouldn’t, but Piper didn’t need to know that. Clair chucked most of their missives into the fire. If they needed her badly, they could always send a message on the Pokégear. Traditions demanded that they sent letters, but the League of all things could certainly bypass tradition.
Moments later, the trio breezed into the halls of the Blackthorn Castle, where her throne room laid in wait. With any luck, everything was already prepared. She felt for the Poké Ball where Dragonite resided, feeling the familiar hum as she pressed her fingertips against it.
Attendants buzzed about, whirling past courtiers dressed in traditional Johto garb. One of the nobles raised their sights towards Clair, as though to speak, but a look from Kobe silenced them quickly. She might have laughed, if she were someone else.
“Your Grace.” The black-haired attendant from earlier bowed low, robes kissing the marble floors. The entire thing was far too ostentatious—but then, so was her family. Her and Lance had been the only two Kuzuryu children in generations who weren’t so prone towards gilt and glory that they might as well be peacocks, not dragons. And her father, acerbic and ascetic as ever.
“You are a dragon. There is no room for sentimentality, Clair. Let your screams be naught but bellows of fire and fury.”
“The Champion’s procession has arrived. Your cousin will be joining us within the hour, I’m told.”
“Are we prepared to receive him?” She settled herself upon the cold marble throne. Clair did not bother donning the crown of the Kuzuryu clan—she did not need it. They knew who she was.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Good. You’re dismissed. Send in the Dragonguard.”
“The Dragonguard? We are receiving a guest of honor, not-”
Clair’s fingers curled. In a cold, quiet voice, she questioned, “This is the second time you have defied my direct orders. Do I strike you as someone who enjoys disobedience from those sworn to me?”
The girl paled. “N-No, Your Grace, I meant no offens-”
A mirthless smile pulled at her lips, and she waved a hand. “My darling cousin’s visit has inspired benevolence. I forgive you. Leave me. And bring the Dragonguard, as I asked.”
Moments later, the girl had made herself scarce—wisely, Clair thought—and her presence had been replaced by six Trainers wearing ancient Johtonian Dragon Tamer armor, inscribed with the nine-headed dragon symbol of the Kuzuryu clan. There were three men and three women, each standing with a stern, stoic expression, split on either side of the throne, watching the crowd with a cold gaze.
Piper and Kobe lingered at the foot of the stairs, almost as watchful as her Dragonguard. While the Dragonguard bore the same draconic bond that Clair and her family did, Piper and Kobe were bereft of any such bond, instead only being exceptionally talented traditional Trainers.
Two of her advisors breezed up to the sides of the throne, nodding wordlessly. Only one of them was someone whom Clair even slightly enjoyed the company of—her name was Omyra, supposedly a distant cousin of Marlon, a Unovan Gym Leader. She was a Dragon-bond, same as Clair, but she had a marked preference for water dragons or their descendants. Omyra had been the one to teach Clair how to properly train her Gyarados for the best combat—the woman herself had a red Gyarados, a rare mark that proved her mettle.
“Your cousin is a few minutes out,” Omyra whispered in a voice too low to hear. Her lips barely moved—a skill necessary for any of Clair’s courtiers that wished to survive longer than a month. Blackthorn was a city of serpents, and she was not just thinking of the dragons they wielded like weapons of war.
A full assembly had been gathered in the Hall of Dragons, where the throne of Blackthorn resided. She was not a queen by title, but the people believed her such.
And belief, Clair had discovered, was a powerful thing; for what was a king without belief?
A charlatan, Clair thought bitterly, thoughts turning to Lance.
Yet she could not make her thoughts known. Any one of her courtiers could be an eye for another—Will and Karen both commanded sizable intelligence forces, she had gathered, as did Sabrina—one who supported Lance on the throne. She knew not Will or Karen’s thoughts on her cousin, but Sabrina had been the first to declare her support for Lance. There was something about that that made Clair cautious, even being who she was. Sabrina was a powerful individual, and rumors abound flew that she held the ear of the Kanto branch of the Indigo League far tighter than any other, even Lance or the Elite Four themselves.
“I see,” was all she said to Omyra, after a pregnant pause hung in the room. She turned her attention towards the court at large, and with a cold, acerbic voice, offered but one singular command.
“Do not speak when my cousin enters the Hall.” It was customary for Champions to be greeted by an entire court with a murmured blessing upon their health, but Clair would not be fanning Lance’s ego any further. Not today.
“After all,” she said when their faces shifted towards shock, “one does not greet family with formality.”
The advisor to her left—Laira, a spindly woman, nodded approvingly. Laira was her spymaster, her eyes and ears amongst the people. She was also, perhaps, the most dangerous of her advisors, not because she could fight, but because she did not have to fight. The woman was her most proficient courtier by leaps and bounds, maneuvering the deadly game of politics in Johto with all the ease of a panther stalking her prey. How appropriate that her primary Pokémon was an Umbreon, Clair thought idly, peering at the raven-haired woman in the corner of her eye.
Thoughts of Laira and her dangers were interrupted by the sound of an entourage outside the great stone doors of the throne room.
Slowly, yet surely, the doors parted. They would open only to the blood of a descendant of Blackthorn’s original nine clans, sealed by Clair’s many-times great grandmother’s magic, back when the world was young and bestial. Lance needed no escort to part those doors, and perhaps that was what unsettled Clair more than aught else.
As the doors parted, Clair was greeted by the sight of a full armed escort. Champions typically brought small entourages with them to make visitations, but this was...larger, to be sure, than most of those entourages.
Clair couldn’t find herself minding. Let Lance be afraid. Let his blood chill at the thought of confronting his cousin alone.
She bore no crown, but in truth, she did not need to. Her chin came up higher than was perhaps necessary, her eyes gleaming with fire. The Dragonguard stood solemn at the foot of the stairs.
Slowly, his entourage filed in. Every last one of them wore the burnt maroon armor that denoted them as warriors under Lance’s command. Technically speaking, every army in Kanto and Johto was Lance’s by right, but these were his and his alone.
The everburning flame symbol sat in the center of their armor, marking them as the Johtonian sect of the Indigo Warriors, the elite force that served the League and the League alone. The Dragonguard tensed at their presence, but it was imperceptible to anyone that wasn’t familiar with their training. Lance, unfortunately, was, yet if he noticed, he did not seem to give it much regard.
Before Lance himself entered, a few surprises filed into the hall, the first of which was Sabrina, then Koga, and finally, Will. Champions did not typically bring any League members on their visits—nor did they ever bring Gym Leaders. But Lance had never been one for tradition, she supposed.
They had that in common.
Lance entered the Hall with little pomp and circumstance—or as little as could be expected of a Champion. The silence in the throne room was deafening as he entered, however, and Clair took a strange sort of pleasure in that fact. There were a few, however, whom she could see whisper the old words.
“Dragonfire illume you, Champion.”
She’d heard it uttered many times before, by her father and her grandfather before that. The few who murmured it now were old bastions of tradition, men and women who believed in the ancient rites over what was right for the people of Blackthorn. Nuisances, nothing more.
It was the Dragonkeeper—no, Champion—in the center of her throne room that bothered her, now. A cloak of deep stygian tumbled off his back, billowing across the stones. Power hung around him, now, different from before.
“Your cousin outweighs you in power, Clair. Be wary of that.”
“He will never take Blackthorn from me.”
“Perhaps not from you. But your corpse holds none of the same prejudices.”
She did not rise from her throne, though custom demanded it. He did not kneel, though custom demanded it.
The two Kuzuryu descendants stood facing each other, each in defiance of tradition, each waiting for the other to break.
“I greet you,” Clair began, silver tongue poised with years of sharpening, “cousin.”
Laira drew in a soft breath of irritation, but nothing more. It was a minor violation of custom.
“And I greet you, Clair.”
Her blood might have turned to ice with the cold rage that seized her. Perhaps she had toed the line with her remark, but he had named her directly, with no titles, no recognition, and no deference.
Clair did not allow a whit of her true feelings to show upon her mien. There was naught but icy serenity.
Bereft of the sound and fury, Clair began to speak again, cold command the only emotion touching her words.
“Welcome to Blackthorn, Champion Lance.” Theirs was a twisted dance. She could not recall how it had begun, only the steps.
Lance had changed since last they had seen, as though he himself were like the Dragonites he wielded: once, a shy, reserved boy, and now, he was a powerhouse in and of himself, a dragon for true. He did not play the game quite as well as Clair did, and not half as well as Laira, but he played it in his own way, though Sabrina at his side surely helped.
“Thank you, Leader Clair. It is good to be home.”
This place was never your home, cousin. But if you believe it so, I shall indulge delusions.
An icy smile forced itself across her face as she rose from the Scaled Throne, cloak whispering upon the stones.
“And it is good to have you home,” Clair began, taking a single step onto the marbled stairs that led down from the throne behind her.
“A shame, however, that you have brought so many whom do not know our customs. It is custom for foreign advisors to remain outside the Hall of Dragons when one is meeting with the ruler of Blackthorn. And your escort outsizes my own, which I, of course, cannot fault you for. They are Indigo Warriors, not Dragonguard. They cannot know the ways as we do.”
You should know better, the words implied.
Lance smiled tightly. He was always too expressive for the games they played in Blackthorn, where dragons were the least of one’s worries.
“It is a dangerous time,” her cousin said simply. “Villains abound rise up once more. You can never be too careful, even at home.”
“You are correct, of course. It is a very dangerous time indeed. Particularly for Champions.”
Laira sucked in a breath.
It was then that one of Lance’s companions broke in, and Clair smiled to herself. They almost made this too easy—even the bastions of the old ways could not deny her sending them out, now. But she chose not to.
“Surely you realize the stress Lance is under,” Sabrina said flatly. Clair’s gaze flicked towards her.
A light shrug of her shoulders punctuated the sentence. “I mean no disrespect to Lance, Leader Sabrina. He is my Champion, after all, and my flesh and blood. I merely seek to inform him of his missteps.”
“With thinly veiled threats?”
“We do not wear veils in Blackthorn,” Clair said conversationally.
Sabrina’s fist clenched.
“And I will remind you, Leader Sabrina, that this is not Saffron City. Custom dictates that only myself and my audience speak—and I have not welcomed you as one of the court’s audience. The misstep is forgiven, of course. It would be rude of me to punish for a rule yet unknown.”
But I will not forgive the next.
Sabrina’s nostrils flared, and she looked as though she were about to add a final remark. Will gently laid a hand upon her forearm, and the Psychic suddenly paused, anger dying on her mien. Sabrina had never had a reputation as one quick to anger, but there were stories abound referring to the woman’s inconsolable temper.
Tempers were a weakness, Clair knew. And she fully intended to exploit that weakness.
But a dragon knew when to pick a fight, and from the look in the eyes of the Indigo Warriors, perhaps now was not the best time.
“Blackthorn custom dictates that visiting dignitaries must stay in the Frozen Keep, but you are not quite a foreign officer, cousin. You and yours may make use of the guest wing in our ancestral home.”
Lance blinked. It was an offer he could not refuse—for many reasons.
“I gratefully accept your invitation, Leader Clair. Does the invitation extend to the Indigo Warriors, or must they take residency so far across Blackthorn?”
Clair frowned, as though genuinely considering it.
“We have no space in the barracks for such an influx. Your captains may stay with the Dragonguard, but no more.”
It was the best she could—no, would— offer Lance.
Clair turned to walk back towards her throne, casting one last icy gaze at Sabrina, who met it in kind. She would need to be watched. One of Laira’s many Dark-types under her employ would do nicely. Psychics couldn’t detect them, even Sabrina.
Once she was settled upon her throne, the gathered Indigo Warriors canted their gazes up towards her, Lady of the Kuzuryu Clan. They had never dealt with Blackthorn before, clearly, from the way theirs eyes lingered too long on the throne, lingered too long upon her Dragonguard.
They were used to the weak Leaders of the mainland. They did not yet know that dragons had bones of steel to match their breaths of flame.
But they would.
“That is all,” Clair said simply, waving a hand. “The Dragonguard will show you the way to your rooms.”
The aforementioned Dragonguard stepped forward, all ice and formality. Clair motioned idly with her fingertips, allowing them permission to do as commanded. None in Blackthorn moved without Clair’s blessing.
Slowly, the foreign leaders and their accompaniments were escorted out by the Dragonguard, leaving Clair in relative silence. Only her own courtiers remained—and Will. Clair narrowed her eyes, but elected not to kick up a fuss.
“You linger, Psychic.”
The Elite smiled, briefly reminding Clair of a snake. Elites so often thought themselves much smarter than they were, but Will did seem rather dangerous. Yet he was a man, and men were so often prey to their own emotions.
“As do you, Your Grace.”
“I did not think an Elite would recognize my titles,” she began, posture rigid. Without the Dragonguard at her side, she felt almost naked. Omyra was a welcome comfort.
Will gave her another slippery smile, approaching the steps leading to the throne, stopping short at the base of them. “Do not judge so quickly. We are all here for our purposes.”
Clair smiled back, remembering the tutelage of her father. Ice in her veins, fire in her breath.
“I hope to see you for dinner, Senator.” The archaic title caught him off-guard—most still labeled Elites as Elites, but Clair knew the proper ways. She rose once more from her throne, cloak fanning out behind her.
Will bowed as she walked past, as did her courtiers. To her ears alone, a whisper parted the violet-haired Psychic’s lips.
“Dragonfire illumine you, Your Grace.” Clair blinked.
Perhaps she had misjudged Lance’s skill in the games of Blackthorn. The ancient words were not lightly spoken. She dipped her head in recognition of them, but nothing more. Laira looked positively wan in Clair’s periphery—but then, she always did. Omyra was a statue, as ever.
The courtiers bowed lowly until she reached the middle of the room, where a dragon coiled around the Johtonian flame had been emblazoned upon the floor. Then, they all moved to cross the room, exiting the throne room before she did. All except for Will, who hung back just long enough to flirt the line of disregard. Then, once her last courtier had exited, he did as well, accompanied by one of his foul Xatu.
There had been much controversy over the decision to replace Agatha and Lorelei with Karen, a Dark-type bond, and Will, a Psychic-type. Both were Johto-born, and until now, all Elite Four members had been hand-selected for the role, typically from Gym positions. Lorelei, by all accounts, should have remained on the Elite Four for much longer.
Yet she was strangely absent, and had yet to make any public appearance since Lance’s ascension to the throne. His reign was now a favorable one, but at the time of his claim, it had been subject to much speculation. He was Johtonian—already a point against him, to the largely Kantonese government. While Johto and Kanto claimed an equal number of seats in the League, the Kantonese seats had always commanded more power. Aside from Blackthorn and Ecruteak, none of the other Leaders had any real political sway, and truthfully, Ecruteak’s was solely due to its population, as well as its connection to ancient Johtonian myth. Blackthorn had won its reputation with its army, as well as the reputation of its leadership.
A reputation Clair had only expanded, since taking the seat from her late father. He had been too compromising, even going so far as to take a consort from Kanto as opposed to Ecruteak. That had nearly cost them their centuries-old alliance with the city, whose necromancers were things of legend. Their current leader, Morty, had been more than willing to forgive the sins of their fathers, but Clair was still slightly embittered at her father.
“Your Grace?” Laira’s voice cut into her thoughts, and she blinked, turning to look at the wraithlike courtier.
“Ah. Forgive me, Laira. I seem to have been lost in my thoughts.”
Laira gave her an inquisitive look, before continuing on, timbre never once shifting away from the cool dispassion she was prone to, when in private. “Your cousin is under your skin. You must excise him quickly.”
Omyra made a small noise of assent.
“Lance is inconsequential,” she said with a smile she did not feel.
“That is fundamentally incorrect,” Laira replied simply. “Lance has come here with the intent of bringing Blackthorn more firmly under the League’s thumb. We have always enjoyed relative independence, yet he clearly feels homesick.”
The walls of Blackthorn Castle were the only place Laira had ever seemed to feel at ease enough to speak so plainly, perhaps because her ‘little birds’, as she often called them, crawled the walls and snarled at shadows.
“If he wants Blackthorn so badly, why does he not take the Indigo Warriors and storm us? His legions outnumber our own, and he commands the storm.”
“Your cousin is not a monster, Your Grace. He is a Champion, and he is doing what all Champions do—establishing power. The last Champion attempted to do the same with your father, though he quickly squashed the notion. It helped that there was no familial relation, however.”
Clair snorted. “What would you have me do, then? You are my advisor. So advise me.”
Laira ran a spindly fingertip through her hair, dark brown strands rippling around her touch. “One must handle a Champion like Lance delicately. He is perhaps the most powerful Champion we have had in terms of strength, but the least well-versed in the title he holds. This is why he clings to Sabrina. You must separate her from him, and then strike a deal.”
“Not quite. He will make no deal under duress, which means Sabrina must willingly leave his side. Your cousin is not stupid.”
Clair disagreed, but that was a matter for later. “I do not want to control my cousin. You know my true intent, Laira.”
The woman hummed. Clair had never really looked at her, but when she did, she was startled by the notion that Laira was actually quite pretty. She had a willowy beauty, dark and subtle, and her green eyes seemed almost warm when not filled to the brim with cool calculations.
“I do, yes. But you cannot lay claim to the Champion’s seat without an army, and to depose Lance you will need more than that. You would need all of Johto to support you, or half of Kanto and half of Johto. Thus far, you have...Ecruteak, maybe.”
“Olivine and Violet City both owe us an ancestral debt.”
“True. But Lance is also Kuzuryu, and you cannot disown him.”
“He is the sitting Champion. To do so would bring great disgrace to Blackthorn. An exiled Kuzuryu on the Indigo Throne? Perish the thought. Your reputation is made leagues better by his presence, even if you do not like it. Perhaps you might try to establish yourself further before ousting him, Your Grace.”
Laira only called Clair by her honorific when in company that required it, or when trying to appease her. She glared at her spymaster.
“I will not prostrate myself to my cousin while I weasel my way into his good graces. Dragons are honorable creatures, even if he is not worthy of it.”
The willowy spymaster sighed. “Clair, your cousin is exceptionally strong. He does not have the love of the people just yet, but neither do you. To them, you are one in the same—two dragons come to lay claim to a throne they barely care to acknowledge. Besides, you’ve yet to claim a successor. Are you certain you wish to do this? Lance could order your execution.”
“My cousin would do no such thing. He is too soft.”
“Actually,” Omyra cut in, to Clair and Laira’s surprise, “I agree with Laira. Champion Lance is not what he once was. Surely you noticed it as well, Clair. It is not just his aura that has grown—it is his presence. We will support you regardless, but you must consider all the consequences.”
“My decision is final,” Clair said, voice like steel. “I will unseat my cousin or die trying.”
“Then you must name a successor, and soon.” Laira peered at Clair with interest.
She wracked her brain for a name. None appeared to her. All of the Kuzuryu still in Blackthorn were too boastful for their own good—it was by pure virtue of her branch of the family that they’d continued on. There was Iris, her niece, but Iris was Unovan-born, and the apprentice of Drayden, the Gym Leader of Opelucid City. Iris was potent, but her blood was too diluted by her father, a Unovan Dragon-type in service to Drayden. There was, however, her other niece, Viviane, born to her youngest brother, Rod. Rod had married, at her father’s behest, an heiress to House Endo, one of the more powerful Blackthorn families.
Viviane’s bloodline didn’t interest her, but the girl had shown potential.
“Look into Viviane.” She directed her gaze towards Laira, then, making it clear whose responsibility the girl was.
“As you wish. Regardless of your intentions, Clair, you must at least keep Blackthorn’s independence. Step carefully around your cousin.”
She sighed. A word, and Lance could state that Blackthorn was his by right. It was incorrect, but she wondered how many of her courtiers would leap at the chance to dismantle Clair’s reign. Too many, most likely. Many more would remain neutral in the conflict, waiting to see which cousin was more masterful in the dance. Her many-times great-grandfather had claimed power in much of the same way, seizing it from his cousin—by marriage, not even by birth—and ousting them from the Scaled Throne. In their shame, the family had fled to Unova, where they’d married into the family that ruled Opelucid. Clair had a feeling that power in Opelucid would soon rest in the hands of a Kuzuryu, however, if Iris was half as smart as Clair thought she was. The girl was only thirteen, but Clair had been fifteen when she’d ascended to Blackthorn’s throne after her father’s abdication.
“I shall,” was all Clair said before laying a hand on the door to her bedroom. Two Dragonguard stood outside the door, sworn to Clair’s personal service, not the service of the Scaled Throne—her father had demanded that she make a portion of the Dragonguard swear oath to her personally, as he had. Piper and Kobe hung behind Laira and Omyra as well, silent and watchful.
“Leave me.” Laira and Omyra both bowed—Laira’s was deeper by half, of course—and began to walk off. Piper and Kobe hesitated, but Clair shook her head. The two stayed firmly in place, taking up positions beside her Dragonguard. There was no telling what that witch Sabrina was up to.
The feast in honor of Lance was due to begin in an hour’s time, and Clair still had yet to decide what to wear. She did not often waste time on such frivolities, but Blackthorn had become a nest of Arboks with her brother’s arrival, and she did not intend to step into it without proper garb.
Finally, her eyes settled upon a gown that, in all likelihood, had cost more than the price of Blackthorn Castle. It was made of the finest Johtonian black silk, and worked with crystals imported from Icirrus City. The crystals made a nine-headed dragon on both sides of the dress, and traced onto the billowing sleeves as though filigreed silk.
It had been her grandmother’s coronation dress. Her grandmother had been the one to usher in an unprecedented era of expansion for Blackthorn, had been the one to truly solidify the city’s power on the League Council.
She longed for her grandmother’s advice, now. Akane had died when she was seven years old, a few days after Rod’s birth, but she had left Clair behind a great deal of letters, journal entries, and the like. They’d touched her father’s hands, first, but now they were Clair’s, locked away in a box beside her crown.
The crown is a great burden, but you must bear it. You must do what must be done.
Clair sighed. Her duty was a great one, but she would see it to its end. The throne was her destiny, she was sure of it. Lance was born to follow, not to lead, and he would have a place in her new kingdom, so long as he permitted her to leash him. Yet kings did not take well to such things, and Lance had the blood of kings in him, just as Clair had it. The only difference was that Lance stood in open defiance of the blood rites, whereas she embraced them. Decades of precise breeding had led to her birth, and she would see her family’s efforts to fruition. No matter the cost.
Her handmaidens filed into her room shortly after she rang the delicate silver bell beside her vanity mirror. Her room was the size of some people’s houses, and yet still it felt too claustrophobic.
Clair stared at her reflection in the mirror as a handmaiden took her cyan hair into her hands, letting out the harsh braid Clair had kept it in. Curlers were inserted into her hair, left to sit there as the rest of her handmaidens began applying makeup to her face. She glanced down at the desk, where a datapad sat, so out of place amongst all the archaic architecture of Blackthorn. Johto had always been a bastion of the old ways, and Blackthorn was no exception, yet they’d found clever ways to integrate technology into their everyday lives. Blackthorn boasted the greatest navy in Johto, and it had been fully outfitted with new technology. They’d even recently replicated the Unovan submarine, and had three fully operational, now.
But naval strength would not secure her the Championship. She needed Gym Leaders to rally behind her for that.
Her gaze cut over towards a demure handmaiden, who was presently rearranging her brushes.
“Inform Laira that I wish to have a holo-call with Morty of Ecruteak. Tonight.”
The girl bowed low as she spoke, voice soft, “Yes, Your Grace. At once.”
Blackthorn had far more sway on the Council than Ecruteak, but they were often viewed as isolationist. It would not do for Clair to suddenly break that view; it was still far too early for her to cast such suspicion onto herself. Morty could detect which way the wind would blow far easier than she could, and though it rankled, Clair would not ruin everything for her pride.
The other handmaidens returned to their work, and Clair sighed out a breath. Everything was balanced so carefully. She could not afford it falling down.
Will’s room in the guest wing was expansive, though not quite as decadent as Lance’s—far better than Sabrina’s, and nearly the same as Koga’s. A small, nigh undetectable way of establishing the general pecking order in Clair’s mind. It was flawed, of course, but Will had already gathered that while Clair saw every situation for what it was, she had a tendency to strongarm them into how she wanted them to be.
She was frightfully intimidating, though she had seemed almost kind to Will. If it were not an ill-kept secret that Will preferred the company of men—and Clair the company of women, if his spies were worth the salaries they made—he might have thought she was trying to garner his affections.
Yet that was illogical, even if they were possessed of the proper preferences. Will had not been of particularly notable birth—his parents were wealthy, yes, but claimed no noble origin, which was the same as being nobody in Johto, where tradition was everything and old blood was that which bound laws.
It had been a shock to everyone, then, that he had been put forward for the Elite Four, Will included, yet he had, of course, been more than pleased with the nomination. He had a feeling it was due to Sabrina—he served her directly in the Order, after all—but regardless, he now held one of four seats on the Senate. What had shocked him more, perhaps, was Karen’s nomination to Principal Sitter of the Senate, taking Lance’s former seat. She was not a member of the Order of the Titans, and seemed in no way tied to Sabrina, which meant she had maneuvered her way to the seat on merit alone. It was fascinating, and yet, vaguely unsettling. Why had Lance put her forward? What purpose did she serve? Her eyes-and-ears network was vast, yet so was his, as was Koga’s, whose ascension to the Elite Four had shocked absolutely no one.
Yet his ruminations over the Elite Four were irrelevant, at present. Blackthorn, he had quickly learned, was a hundred times more dangerous than even the most contentious Senate meeting, as was its mistress. Clair Kuzuryu had ascended to the throne of Blackthorn only a decade prior, and yet she inspired almost frightening intrigue throughout the draconic city. Her presence had filled the throne room nearly to bursting, even before her chilly reception of Lance.
Will had never known of any bad blood between the two cousins, yet they had been poised to bare fangs at each other in Blackthorn Castle. It was troubling, to say the least. Will knew Lance wished to bring Blackthorn closer into the League, but he had figured this would be a meeting of mere ceremony—of course Clair would honor her cousin’s request. It was surely a great honor for a Kuzuryu to sit the throne of Johto. Yet Clair looked as though she wished to slay Lance where he stood.
It made sense, after Will had thought on it. Lance was a cousin to Clair, and not of the ruling branch of the Kuzuryu clan. By all accounts, he had been a demure and unintriguing child, with no Dragon-type bond to speak of. Children without bonds were fated to ambiguity, typically, unless they were lucky enough, as Lance was, to be born into the royal family. His fate, instead, was meant to be a member of her council, a simple courtier. An arranged marriage before he was thirty, most likely, with the heiress of one of Clair’s political opponents. A bargaining chip.
Yet he had defied that. Instead, he had left Blackthorn the moment he could, and had wandered the world, growing stronger. His nomination for Elite Four had been a source of much scandal, especially given it came just as Clair had been rumored to be the next pick.
Not that she would have accepted, of course. Blackthorn held more acclaim than even the Senate, as of late, and Clair would give up her title only for the Champion seat, if that. From the look in her eyes, that did seem to be her goal. Will wasn’t sure who he’d support, in that instance. Lance was kind, yes, and frightfully powerful, but he was naught more than a puppet for Sabrina, at least at the moment.
As if summoned, a knock came at Will’s door, and he quickly came to answer it. Sabrina stood outside of it, donned in a flowing red dress, worked with the symbols of Saffron City and Kanto.
“Bold choice,” Will quipped, wry grin working itself across his lips.
“How so? It is not bold to show one’s affection for their home country.”
“Johtonians have little love for Kantonese displays, as you well know. I daresay you did it on purpose. Trying to throw Clair off-balance?”
Sabrina ran her slender fingertips over the dress. “If she is shocked by my choice of garb, then I welcome it. Lance could use every advantage we can get.”
“No confidence in our darling Champion, I see. Is he not your mouthpiece?”
Sabrina shot Will a look. He shrugged—it was not untrue. It was an open secret in the Order that Sabrina had strong-armed Lance into obeying her, at least for now. Yet Will wasn’t quite so convinced. He’d seen Lance in action before, and though the man was hardly a political prodigy, he was intelligent. Perhaps he was willing to dance to Sabrina’s tune for awhile, but only time could tell what sort of Champion he was.
If his cousin gave him the chance, that is. Much remained to be seen. Tonight would set the tone, he was sure. It all came down to Clair.
“Lance is what he is. I can do naught but give him the skills necessary to succeed and pray he uses them.”
Will smiled again. “You do recall he was a Senator, yes? The Principal Sitter, if I recall correctly. I daresay he can hold his own.”
“He was markedly isolationist, though I realize you wouldn’t know that, being a new addition.”
“Ah, you’ve dealt me a great blow, Sabrina! However shall I recover from this wound to my ego? You’re right. I’m a filthy social climber,” he chimed, grinning all the while. Sabrina sighed.
“Alas, my dear, I fear it is time we face the music. Come, Sabrina. Let us dance with dragons.”
Will and Sabrina arrived in the dining hall only moments before Clair herself entered, looking poised to doom them all to dragonfire. Her hair, brilliantly blue, had been curled nigh to perfection, soft waves falling all about her mien, and Will blinked at the realization that despite her draconian chill, Clair was rather pretty.
A crown sat atop her head, entirely black—much like her dress—and worked with the same crystals that made a stunning display of her dress. When she turned, he could see it was the nine-headed dragon of the Kuzuryu clan.
Touche, he thought to himself, gazing at Sabrina’s dress. If the Psychic had thought to be the center of attention, she was sorely outplayed. For once. It was not often anyone gained the upper hand on Sabrina.
Clair also bore her cloak, though this one was longer, draping behind her in a long train. This one bore the flame of Johto upon its black cloth, starkly golden against the otherwise midnight deep of the cape. She looked every inch the queen she was, and it was then that Will realized that every corner of the room had Dragonguard in it.
A nice touch, to be sure. Clair had no intention of being caught off-guard tonight. Lance had already filed in—he was always punctual to a fault—and cut an imposing figure at the opposing head of the table. The two cousins sat directly across from each other, and Will thought they made a fine contrast; Lance’s fire mixing with Clair’s ice.
It would be an interesting evening indeed.