Bellhalla’s gates opened to Ishtar and the remains of the Gelben Ritter. She had taken one of the enemies’ steeds, the saddle still dried with their blood. There had been no time to clean it. Tine was wrapped in a hooded cloak, sleeping off the effects of a Sleep Staff. Ishtar had found it close to breaking, and there were only so many times it would be effective. She had to get them back to Bellhalla before that occurred.
The usurper was kept in a covered cart in the center of their formation, bound and gagged to await judgment. After running his sword through the imperial princess, he had been quite easily disarmed.
The castle town’s streets were eerily quiet. How strange that no one had come to welcome them. Perhaps they were worried that it was a trick. It was understandable, with how close they had come to disaster. Their forces were still working to scatter the remnants of the Liberation Army. It would take months, if not years, to handle it.
However, one victory was achieved: capturing their leader.
Julius walked out to meet her on the castle steps. The grin on his face filled Ishtar with a strange mix of joy and trepidation. His canines had grown again.
Understandably, his face shifted from glee to fury when he saw her pull the hooded Tine down from her horse, before he saw their resemblance.
“So, your dear cousin came to her senses?” he asked, walking over.
“After a fashion,” Ishtar replied, keeping herself calm as Julius’s fingers touched one of Tine’s braids, rubbing her hair between his fingers. “I have the pretender in chains for you to see. I request to take Tine to my rooms.”
“You may,” Julius let go of Tine's hair, while his hands went up to caress Ishtar's cheek with gentle care instead, which she leaned into. “Take time to rest, but come to me later. I missed my empress immensely.”
“Yes, Lord Julius,” Ishtar replied. “I will not fail you.”
In the days that followed, they were not able to gather more of the rebels, but it was clear that they were no longer a unit. Some were rumored to have gone to Verdane and Agustria, while others had fled to the Manster District.
When the usurper was escorted to the dungeons, she did not see or hear from him again.
“They will be dealt with soon enough. All that mattered was to dispose of those directly in opposition to my authority,” Julius said, as they had tea in the garden.
“I have spoken with the prime minister. The remaining noble houses have agreed to send representatives to your official coronation.”
Ishtar gently stirred honey into her teacup. Part of her longed for a chilled jug of cream, but the roads had not yet been opened officially to trade. A strange illness had taken some heads of cattle from the crown’s personal farmlands, so there was no fresh milk or cream.
“Have him send an addendum,” Julius said as he looked out at the well-tended garden. “Each family must also send a child from their house, to be taken to the castle for proper teaching. Preferably between the ages of seven and thirteen.”
Ishtar’s spoon clanged against her teacup.
“... Lord Julius, do you think it… wise, after what happened with the rebels…”
“Blame it on my late father, if they are so inclined to defy me.” He tapped a strangely long fingernail against his cooling teacup. In the past few days, Ishtar had not seen him eat or drink anything, and she worried about his health, as well as his temper. “He forced my hand when he smuggled away the children I had already gathered.”
“... As you wish,” Ishtar replied, and she knew then that she was a coward for not admitting she was an accomplice to the children’s release, but perhaps Julius already knew that she had assisted, and this was a mere test to see if she admitted it. She was a coward, but she was not a fool.
Her nerves still got the better of her, and she dipped her tea cup too soon. It spilled on her gown, and Tine walked forward to try and help her dab it off. Her hair was shorn close to her head and barely covered her scalp. Julius had ordered her braids cut, under the assumption that “a lady in waiting is never supposed to be equal in beauty to her mistress.”
Ishtar was only thankful it was not her ears or her tongue that was taken. She had seen grown men soil themselves in fear as Julius’s fingers went into their mouth and pulled --
“There, no stain at all.” Julius smiled as he looked at her skirt, before getting to his feet. “Let me show you the flowers. I’ve had the gardener use a new blend, and I’m sure the roses are going to flourish .”
All the noble families attended the night of the coronation, the requested new charges in tow. Many of them, Ishtar knew, were not the lords or ladies' trueborn family: rather, they were distant cousins or bastards that had been pruned from the main branches of the family. Ishtar barely contained her sense of disgust. At least her father had given Kempf a chance to ascend to something greater, rather than being mere fodder.
But then again, perhaps it didn’t matter. He'd died anyway when Prince Leif marched on Fort Nohrden. Reinhardt had been the one to give her the news. The first bad news of many.
Ishtar saw Tine’s hands tremble when she saw the children, and Ishtar took her hand. She stilled, and Ishtar thought for a moment that she would pull her hand away, but she did not.
Ishtar had to go sit beside Julius as they both stood in front of the Bragi Church’s archbishop, vowing to protect and rule Grannvale as their noble ancestors had, and that the blood of the crusaders ran strong in their veins. There was a mix of amusement and fury on Julius’s face at the wording of it all. Ishtar expected to hear of the archbishop’s untimely demise within a fortnight.
Bishop Manfroy was not present, as expected. He was never allowed to attend official events, but always thought his time would come soon. It would not. Julius looked at him like a bothersome insect that would soon need to be squished.
Once the coronation was complete, it was time to eat and mingle. She and Julius walked hand in hand most of the night, and Ishtar noted how many of their subjects looked at them in fear. Perhaps it was to be expected. They were the last major bloods in the empire’s lands, at least to public knowledge.
Julius refrained from eating again, and soon said he would retire.
“Come to my chambers after the last bells chime.” Julius kissed her gloved hand, before walking off.
Ishtar looked around for Tine to accompany her: she was a deterrent from any noblemen who wanted to make ‘advances’ in Julius’s mind, and she did not want to deal with gossip and more unnecessary blood on her hands. However, when she looked around the warmly lit hall, there was no sign of her.
A small pool of dread settled in her stomach.
Surely, even after such a short time here, she must have learned that running away was a death sentence?
Ishtar quickly dropped into a proper curtsy, something more from her debutante days than befitted an empress in her distress.
“Duke Etzel, if you will excuse me for a moment.”
She walked out into the hallway, searching amongst the torches for that familiar gleam of silver, unmistakable even with her cut hair. Surely, she wouldn’t try to make for the dungeons? There was no telling what she would find, or how much of the usurper was…
But she did not find her going down a stairwell she was not meant to be. Instead, she found her embracing a stranger.
It was a woman, dressed in the fashion of Thracian royalty, though one of the sleeves of her coat was oddly loose, hanging against her side. Like Tine, she had short hair, though not in a way that it appeared shaved: more like it was cut at an odd angle with an improper tool.
Ishtar stood there, watching her cousin clinging tightly to this unknown woman, and did not know what to do. She was not upset, but she was confused. How could she know her, if the woman was not part of the rebellion?
But then the woman looked up, and their gaze locked. Before she could hide her expression beneath the common mask of courtesy, Ishtar recognized the hatred in her curled lip and bared teeth, and how her remaining arm clutched Tine closer.
Ishtar’s hand instinctively reached for the hip on which she would holster Mjolnir on the battlefield.
“Oh, Ishtar,” Tine said, and Ishtar tried not to cringe at the tremor of fear in her voice. “We… we were just…”
“I think it would be best if your friend returned to the Thracian entourage,” Ishtar replied. “It is growing late.”
“Thank you for the reminder, your Eminence,” the woman said, but before leaving she took out a small pouch and placed it in Tine’s hands. “For your garden.”
“Thank you, Altena.”
Altena? The traitorous princess of Thracia? How did she escape the carnage? Not completely unscathed, but it was… odd.
She wanted to ask more, but Altena left without another word, and did not treat her with the deference of the Grannvellian nobility. Oh well, it was expected, and almost refreshing, to see actual hate instead of thinly-veiled fear.
At least she and Tine were left alone now. No need to worry about appearances as her shoulders slumped in relief.
“You mustn't disappear like that. Please tell me where you are going next time.” She then looked down at the small leather pouch in her hands. “What are those?”
“Seeds, for flowers,” Tine replied, before tucking the pouch away in one of the hidden pockets of her dress, meant for the lady a lady in waiting attended to in case she needed something held. “She knew… I loved flowers from the peninsula. So I could plant them in my room, and they would remind me of home.”
Ishtar took her hand. “That was kind of her, but Tine, you need to remember that Bellhalla is our home now.”
“I… I know, Ishtar,” Tine replied quietly, her face lowered. But she squeezed her hand back.
Ishtar smiled gently. “Come, there is time for one more dance before the last bell.”
Weeks passed with things remaining the same. The nobility returned to their seats of power to defend their lands and prepare what soldiers remained for any potential uprisings, the merchant roads opened once more, and more supplies could be accessed, including cream for Ishtar’s tea, and fresh soil for Tine’s seeds.
“You could always take some from the gardens,” Ishtar reminded her as she watered the pot at her windowsill. “I’m sure it will bloom beautifully, just like the roses.”
Ishtar watched as Tine’s expression froze for a moment.
“That’s… very kind, Ishtar,” Tine replied haltingly. She lifted the watering can from pouring, and set it down. “But the gardens are the prince-- His Excellency’s domain. I would not want to be greedy.”
Ishtar had a feeling she was holding something back.
“What troubles you? Please, share with me,” Ishtar cajoled, moving closer to take her hand in hers.
“It… it’s the smell. We have both been on the battlefield. We both know what that smell is, that comes from the dirt in the imperial gardens.”
Yes, Ishtar knew the smell very well. It was the smell of blood. The entire gardens reeked with it, but she never did so much as wrinkle her nose when Julius took her on strolls. She knew to do so would lead Julius to enquire, and that might lead to some answers she did not wish to know.
“Very well,” Ishtar answered, “I will not ask again.”
“We will not speak of this again.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Ishtar did not even correct her on proper titles, instead leaving the room to immerse herself in paperwork, among them letters from noble families who had left their children in the Emperor’s care.
It was still far too early in the process. According to Julius, he would keep them all separated for an undisclosed amount of time, in order to break down their past relationships, and begin their new education in history and arts of war. Only those most promising candidates would have to fight in the arena.
She wrote a simple response to each letter. They were not all that different, but she decided it would be for the best to give them hope while there still was some of seeing their child again.
When she went to sleep that night, Ishtar decided the screams she heard outside her window were only the beginning of a bad dream.
Three months after their coronation, there was news of an uprising in Chalphy.
“I was wondering when the worms would emerge.” Julius smiled as she told her the news over breakfast. Instead of the standard fare, he had taken to eating rare steaks at breakfast to assist with a growing case of anemia he would have in the mornings. When he invited her to share his bed, Ishtar had awoken more than once to see her love sitting in front of an open window, basking in the sun. Despite how much he tried to follow the physician’s orders, his robes began to grow looser and looser.
But instead of making him appear weak, it made him more mercurial in mood and temper.
“How shall we proceed?” she asked.
“I will take my personal guard to Chalphy. I need you to stay here and protect the castle.” He reached out, resting his hand over her middle. “And our child.”
Ishtar could not help but blush. “I only just missed my cycle. Perhaps it is too soon to tell…”
“I feel the life there, Ishtar,” Julius replied, his gaze taken on a fierce, almost hungered sheen. “We will have a child.”
Ishtar felt pinpricks from Julius’s fingernails through her dress.
“Of course, my love,” Ishtar replied, and Julius smiled with absolute joy as he kissed her cheek.
“My love,” Julius purred, placing a heavier emphasis than usual on my . “I will not be gone long.”
“I will pray for your safety.”
Ishtar did not ask why he would not be able to simply warp there with his guard. She saw the constitution of the deadlords. Parts of them would fall off from the strain of magic and be far less effective for it. She also knew that Julius’s hold on magic was growing weaker.
When the emperor and his guards left, Ishtar made her way to the dungeons. She would not be able to change any of the children’s situation, but… she could not stop up her ears or cover her eyes any longer. Especially when it was her fault that they were selected in the first place.
The dungeons of Bellhalla were surprisingly deep and vast. There was a legend that there were old tunnels that ran all throughout the old kingdom of Grannvale, but that when Saint Heim became King he had had them demolished.
Since the beginning of Emperor Arvis’s reign, the dungeons had gotten more use than they had in years, and Julius was continuing it for his various purposes. She waved away the guards who were at the door, only for an infuriatingly familiar voice to call from behind her.
“Where are you going, dear Empress?”
Ishtar did not hide the scorn on her face as she turned to look at Bishop Manfroy. “I could ask the same thing of you. I thought you were intending to visit Velthomer for research?”
“The Emperor bid that I return. I just arrived, and decided to check on our charges.”
“You are excused then,” Ishtar replied, turning back. “I will check on the children myself.”
“Are you sure that is wise? The Emperor did not give you permission to enter.”
“He did not forbid me either.” Ishtar snapped back. “My lord is not the kind to punish me for a slight.”
“That is correct. You above all else are exempt from punishment.” Manfroy replied. “... But that is not the case of your cousin.”
Ishtar felt her blood run cold.
“A cousin not only with the blood of Thrud, but also of Vala in her veins. It would be a shame if the bloodline died out…”
Ishtar knew Manfroy did not have the authority to make that decision. But he could still tell Julius she was here, and then Julius would take out his anger on someone else. It was not an idle threat.
And then whatever occurred after, she would be the one at fault.
When she returned to her rooms, she found Tine setting a tea tray by her desk, gently fussing with the teacup. The scene filled Ishtar with a sense of warmth.
Perhaps when her child was born, she would have more sway over Julius. Enough to make some changes. But for now, she had to be content with protecting her own.
“What is all this?” Ishtar asked. “I don’t usually take tea at this hour.”
Tine turned to her with a soft and shy smile. “The flowers bloomed, and I wanted to try making a tisane mix with them. I… wanted you to try it.”
“Well then, pour me a cup.”
Three days later, Ishtar awoke with blood on her sheets.
Julius had been wrong.
When she told him the news when he returned with his guard, a peculiar blood-stained chest, and one deadlord missing, she knew that he had been victorious. There was more color in his cheeks, and though he was obviously… disappointed, he did not begrudge her.
“It just wasn’t strong enough,” Julius said, squeezing her hand gently. Ishtar ignored the dried blood beneath his fingernails. “We’ll make a better one.”
But they did not. Months passed, and no matter how many times they attempted to conceive, Ishtar’s cycle would continue. It began to come at an uneven pace, and some days it hurt so much she could not leave her rooms, relying only on Tine as her nurse.
News of growing strength in the uprisings of Augustria, Silesse, and the peninsula continued. They had lost contact with King Areone, his whereabouts unknown, as well as his sister’s. It hurt to tell Tine that, but her face was… oddly serene when she did.
“She’s safe. I know she is, if she is with her brother.”
“But you are not sure of that, and with her arm…”
But Tine shook her head. “Altena wouldn’t let a loss of limb get in her way, no need to worry about that.”
With a small curtsy, she then went to prepare afternoon tea.
“Ah, right…” Ishtar gingerly sat in a chair. She had felt ill for a few days, but was regaining enough strength to look through her mail. While she took her tea, a servant came to her rooms to let her know that, if she felt well, the Emperor requested to dine with her this evening. Ishtar accepted.
When she came to the corridor that led to Julius’s apartments, she could already hear the arguing. Well, it was less arguing and more bargaining.
“I have told your Excellency many times: when a child is born, things will go smoothly--”
“But a child has not been born. And it was your machinations that put me in such a fragile body in the first place!”
The first voice was Bishop Manfroy, the second was Julius. And yet, Julius’s voice sounded different. More hoarse, as if he was speaking with a sore throat. Was he unwell? She walked closer to the door, hovering her hand over the knocker, then lowering it to continue to listen.
“Your Excellency, please sit down and take the medicine I made. It will help your… condition... from worsening…”
“The only thing that quells my hunger is more meat. And I grow tired of cattle.”
There was a small, barely audible wheeze.
“Tell me, Manfroy, do you know of a god’s hunger?
“We grow tired of you, Manfroy. Your conniving and simpering has become tiresome. We loathe tiresome humans.”
“I... I pledged my life to you…!”
“And what of it?”
Ishtar stood at the doorway. She knew this day would come, and even now, she felt little sympathy for Bishop Manfroy. But Julius’s voice… changed. Taking on a raspier tone, but almost sounding as if many voices, layered one over the other, were coming from behind the door, all speaking in a low cacophony that hurt her ears.
There was a small, quivering wail, and then a thud.
Ishtar slowly backed away from the door as blood began to pool through it. When she heard the sound of clothes being ripped and the cracks and wet noises that followed, it took all of her power not to flee in terror, but slowly back away and head for the dining room.
Julius was late to dinner, but he ate ravenously, and told her that, unfortunately, they could not share a bed tonight.
“Someone made a mess of it, and it must be tidied up before my love can visit.” ‘Julius’ said.
His teeth had gotten longer, his nails growing more and more like claws.
And Ishtar had to finally accept her Julius was gone for good.
A week later, Tine served the tisane again.
“... I would rather have a different tea today.”
Her stomach lurched when she saw the calm facade over Tine’s face crack.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything else on me.”
“Then send to the kitchens for something. That cannot be the only tea in the castle.”
“...Ishtar, it’s… it’s bad to have a fresh pot go to waste…”
“What is the name of that flower at your windowsill, Tine?” Ishtar pressed. “You say it’s from the peninsula, but I do not recall ever having it out our table in Alster.”
“It… it is a flower that grows in Thracia--”
“Strange-- the Thracian mountains are not known for the abundance of flowers. I read the only flowers native to it are wildflowers that quickly bloom and die, depending on the season. But yours seem to be doing well.”
“It-- it is because I tend to them--”
“Stop lying to me.” Ishtar hissed, standing up. “Tell me what those flowers do.”
Ishtar crept forward, grabbing the front of Tine’s dress.
“... You can’t let it breed.”
Ishtar closed her eyes, her voice growing softer. She was far too furious to scream.
“My child. My children , Tine--”
“They would have never been yours.” Tine, for the first time in their lives, interrupted her. Her eyes were cold, her face stern. “And I will not be silent as you delude yourself any longer. Its line must end here and now. If not through war, then by smothering its offspring. Sit down, and drink the tea.”
With surprising strength, Tine peeled her fingers from her front, then shoved her back into her seat. “Drink.”
“You took everything from me,” Ishtar said. “My brother, my father, my mother, and now my children, you ungrateful--”
Then her mouth was pried open, and into it went a cup of tea still so hot it burned going down her throat.