2.2 – Parvulus II
Council Room, Florezian Palace, 80 years past
“My conclusion, council, is much the same as it’s ever been. Italoza is dying, the flames of its destruction will soon catch throughout the country, and it will burn to ashes unless we get ahead of it. I’ll end my report here, to avoid giving the same speech I’ve given for ten years in a row, but I continue to be baffled that all of you are so tranquil about this.”
The teenaged girl didn’t so much sit down as she flounced into her seat, crossing her arms angrily and glaring around the table at the most powerful men in the world. King Thesslenareo had to struggle to remember that her opinions needed to be taken just as seriously as his other advisers, despite the fact that she looked for all the world like a brooding teen.
“I think I speak for all of us when I thank you for not giving us your annual ‘Italoza is doomed’ speech, Little One. The fact remains that my answer to you is the same,” Bardomiano the Coinmaster used to gesture effusively when he spoke, but old age had turned the enthusiastic gestures into vague shrugs, “the economy has risen over the past two decades. The commoners are less poor, the merchant class has more jobs, and our courts have become known for the best in artistry and culture. The burning Italoza you describe seems to have nothing to do with the Italoza we live in, Little One.”
“A castle can burn on the inside and still look beautiful from the outside!” Little One protested, “and until you have your ear to the ground you won’t be able to hear the embers!”
“I think you’re getting your metaphors a little mixed, child. And perhaps when you’re older you’ll learn not to jump at shadows.”
“There is no need to be insulting, here.” The voice of Admiral Damiano boomed even when he wasn’t shouting, and it was effective at silencing the old Coinmaster. “Bardomiano, every member of this council was selected by King Thesslenareo, and as such deserves respect. Little One, we all appreciate your concerns, we truly do, but the simple fact is that none of us can see the effects of what you’re talking about.” One by one the burly man swung a hand round the table to indicate the assembled council of advisors. “Bardomiano may not know Italoza inside and out, but he knows what the coin says, and the coin is strong today. Abele can barely make change, but his Watch have not seen the unrest that you seem to think is around every corner.”
“If anything, the Watch’s job has been easier now that we have Lanisti and Sagittari we can hire,” Abele nodded.
“I have no knowledge of the Watch, but I can tell you that the threats on the border have decreased, and we’ve had no issues of authority among our soldiers. Magister Settimo will know more about the crime of Italoza than I, but I’ve heard of no great increase in executions or trials.”
“The guilty are tried and condemned, same as they ever were,” Magister Settimo said slowly, stroking his long red beard, “Stormtouched or Mortalis it makes no matter.”
Mia continued to brood at the end of the table, but she made no comment. King Thesslenareo felt sorry for the child, but it was his habit to remain largely silent at council meetings, and he let Abele continue.
“That is how this council has always worked, Little One. None of us can have full knowledge of everything in Italoza, but rather we are experts in our specialized spheres. The King hears us all so that he might have an understanding of the whole. Economy from Bardomiano, internal security from Abele, law from Settimo, external security from myself, matters regarding the Stormtouched from Goldtongue…” Damiano faltered for a moment, his eyes flicking to the two at the table he had not mentioned, “…and her majesty and yourself, Little One, to help the King in matters that may require a woman’s delicate sensibilities.”
It was an extremely clumsy attempt at a save, but then Damiano was hardly the most tactful of men. Abele might’ve been able to think of a less condescending theory for why Little One and the Queen were present for council meetings, but Damiano simply plunged ahead with the stubborn steadfastness of a charging bull.
“My point is, we are all here because the King trusts our expert opinions. You should trust your King.”
An awkward silence fell at the end of Damiano’s words, during which Mia swept the table with a scathing glare but remained quiet.
“I believe now is as good a time as any to suggest a short break for luncheon,” Goldtongue said, “we’ve been at this for four hours and have quite a lot yet to get through.”
“Little One, would you mind staying for a moment?” King Thesslenareo said as the counselors began shuffling their way out of the throne room. Queen Elaide and Goldtongue remained in their seats as well, but the King waited until all of the others had left before turning to Mia.
“I should never have taken on ‘Little One’ as a name,” Mia seethed before the King could speak. “It was one of the more foolish things I’ve ever done. As if I wouldn’t have trouble enough being taken seriously.”
“They’re set in their ways, Little One, they don’t take well to change,” King Thesslenareo said. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, Majesty. You, at least, hear me when I speak. I understand that you won’t take action when every other voice on the council is reassuring you that all is well.”
“Not every other voice. My voice has been silent on this issue,” Goldtongue said, “I am not sure enough to argue on your side, but I understand your doubts that all is well.”
“Why is it so hard for you two to believe that all is well?” the King asked. “You seem to think me a fool to believe everything will proceed as normal, but you’ve been worrying for years and yet here we are, the same old Italoza.”
“Majesty, this meeting has been the perfect example of why things will change! They don’t listen, they don’t change, they assume that all will continue as it has. The Storm doesn’t fall along class lines, it doesn’t fall along gender lines.How much longer do you think we have before the commoners realize they have commoner Stormtouched on their side? Or the slaves? Or the women?”
“Before the Storm, bloodlines and the law were enough to keep Italoza running smoothly. The commoners have Stormtouched among them, yes, but so does the nobility. On average, no power has shifted, everything balances out. Besides, a rebellion takes dissent, and the people have had more prosperity under my reign than they have ever known!”
“The Storm is unpredictable, Majesty. Having Stormtouched scattered throughout the classes doesn’t make ‘everything balance out’.”
The King sighed and leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head and staring up at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mia smirk and look down at her lap. To his right, Queen Elaide smiled demurely, and Goldtongue chuckled.
“Echoes,” Thesslenareo muttered, “I don’t suppose anyone wants to fill me in?”
“It was nothing, dearest,” Elaide said soothingly, “Mi made a small jest, it has no bearing.”
“If it was nothing, perhaps we can return to the matter at hand,” Thesslenareo tried not to snap.
“What can I do, majesty?” Mia pleaded. “What can I do to convince you that Italoza stands on a knife’s edge?”
“Little One, you’re the cleverest on my council by far, but Damiano has a point. You don’t know all of Italoza. I can’t simply take you at your word when your word contradicts what every other person on my council says. To convince me, first you must convince all of them.”
“A task which I can never accomplish, not if I had a thousand years.”
“You’re sixteen autumns old, Little One! You’re likely to get your way through sheer stubbornness, by dint of the fact that you’ll outlive everyone else on the council! Infernum, the little prince will probably hear enough of your complaining to agree with you and take your side once I’m gone.” Thesslenareo reached out and placed a hand gently on Elaide’s belly, and was rewarded with a weak kick. Little One smiled at the display, but her smile soon faded into the brood that she had been wearing more and more often recently.
“Assuming Italoza lasts that long. If there isn’t a monumental change there will be a rebellion, and we can’t weather a rebellion. Our neighbors wouldn’t give the new regime the years they needed to stabilize, they would pounce straight away. The rebels wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“I’m glad to see your concern for me is still a top priority,” King Thesslenareo said wryly.
“There’s only so much my mind can handle, majesty, no matter how well I’ve built it. If I can’t save you from the rebels, I would hope I can at least save Italoza after the rebels take over.”
“Little One, Mia-”
“It’s alright, Majesty,” the teenaged girl heaved a sigh and rubbed her eyes with tired hands, a motion that made her look far too old for her years. “The council will continue on as it always has, making only minute adjustments if any at all. I understand that now.”
“We do care about your opinions, Little One. Truly. But we must all look to the good of Italoza.”
“I know, Majesty,” Little One gave him a smile, a sight he hadn’t seen in months, “I’ve been more concerned with selfish things than with the good of Italoza, I see that now. I’ll try to be better about that.”
King’s Quarters, Florezian Palace, 40 years past.
The balcony was awash with warm reds and oranges, far too bright for the cool winter’s night. Beneath his fingers the stone railing was freezing to the touch, almost as cold as the grip of the sword in his other hand. The pale stone of the balcony reflected the firelight from the city below.
In the large bedroom behind him, the loud battering noises on his door had ceased, so he assumed they had broken through and would be out on the balcony for him soon. It would take them a few minutes to search the room perhaps, looking for the rumored secret passages and hideyholes, looking for Queen Elaide or Prince Pellegrino.
The thought of the rebels ransacking his bedroom of sixty years should’ve made him angry, but he could barely muster up any emotion. The buildings beneath him burned, flames far and wide across the entire city. There was less screaming now, or perhaps it was covered by the chaotic noises of a city crumbling around him.
Or perhaps I’m just dying, the King thought grimly. His fingers were numb in the cold, his head pounded. His old joints had ached during the best of cold days, tonight they had been pushed far past the point of pain and had mellowed into a dull throbbing. His whole body was a dull throbbing, and he wondered vaguely what he thought he was going to do with the sword that he clutched. His feeble arms already shook just resting them on the railing.
The door to the balcony opened quietly, almost respectfully, a far cry from the splintering blows that had opened the bedroom door. King Thesslenareo closed his eyes for one brief moment, then raised himself to his full height and turned to face the intruders. He had been expecting footsoldiers, or maybe a handful of Lanisti and Sagittari if the rebels had been feeling respectful. He hadn’t expected their leader and general herself to come for him.
“Hello, Little One.”
Her dark hair was wet with sweat and plastered to her face, her dark grey dress clung to her beneath the heavy grime and blood-caked armor she wore. With the thin sword of lilium steel and partially silhouetted against the doorway, she looked like the angel of death herself, but even now King Thesslenareo couldn’t completely ignore fifty years of fatherly affection for her. She took a step onto the balcony, and Goldtongue followed her through the doorway.
“Your Majesty if you would be so kind-” Goldtongue began carefully.
“Don’t!” King Thesslenareo tossed his sword to one side in disgust. “Quia misericordiam propter, silence your cursed Rhetor tongue. Give me at least the dignity of choosing to disarm myself.”
“Of course, Majesty. My apologies.”
“Don’t you apologize to me, damn you,” the King snarled and turned back to the city, gripping the railings hard and blinking the tears from his eyes. He kept his back straight, waiting for the razor sharp blow on his neck. The pair had been closer to him than his own family; they would make it quick at least. There was enough humanity left in them to do that much. At least, he hoped so.
Mia rested her elbows on the railing of the balcony, standing next to him and looking down at the city. Her dark eyes didn’t flinch away from the fires and destruction below, but her hand did tighten just a touch around the handle of her sword. The firelight played along the blade.
“There’s blood on the blade,” King Thesslenareo noted aloud. “Didn’t think you were the type to actually dirty your hands.”
“If my convictions are strong enough to give orders of death, I can’t shy away from dealing that death with my own two hands. It’ll haunt me no less,” Mia said quietly, “and it felt…necessary.”
“‘Necessary’? ‘Necessary’? What about this is necessary?” the King swung an arm out to indicate the burning city. “You have a hundred Stormtouched Rhetor mouths with a hundred different ways of taking the country from me peacefully! You could’ve kept me as a puppet even, only the highest up would know the difference! Instead this…death and chaos and destruction was your answer. How do you have the audacity to stand here and say that this was necessary?”
“Taking Italoza was never my goal, Majesty, I-”
“Don’t!” the King hissed, “don’t you dare call me that, not after you betrayed me, not after all you’ve done these past weeks! I am not your King, I’m not anyone’s King anymore; you’ve accomplished that much with your rebellion. And look, this was all that had to be sacrificed for it! Just the people of Florezia. Just the capital city itself.”
“Little One, we’ve just had a courier,” Goldtongue said from the doorway, “the Thirteenth Constellation is less than an hour away. We should see them over the crest of the hill in a few moments.”
“My, my,” King Thesslenareo said bitterly, “you aren’t one for half-measures are you Mia? Your rebels, your Rhetors and Lanisti and Sagittari and Caleators and Faberi, all of them weren’t good enough, you had to enlist mercenaries as well? What were you so afraid of, that your wreckage and ruination of Florezia wouldn’t be enough to take the city?”
He had expected her to be more fiery in the face of his bitterness and contempt, or at least to bristle at his accusations. Instead, each word he said seemed to weigh Mia’s shoulders down further. He had known woman for fifty years, for longer than his own son, and yet he had never seen her look so sad.
“Taking the city was never what was needed,” Little One whispered. “Just the ruination.”
King Thesslenareo didn’t know what to say. He turned away from her to look back at the city that she gazed down upon. All of the fire had died in his chest, and now he simply felt numb and weary. Hollow. Absurdly, he felt the urge to extend his wrinkled hand and clasp hers where it rested on the railing a small ways away.
I want to grasp a hand that’s red with the blood of loyal subjects, killed for defending my throne. What preposterous thoughts we think when about to die.
The sun was just beginning to rise, its first sliver lighting the city and making the fires seem a bit less extreme. Over the crest of the hill on the horizon, a large black mass made its way towards the city; the Thirteenth Constellation, a mercenary force that rivalled his own army.
“This was where we first met, you and I,” Mia said quietly. “You brought me here and we looked down at the city below.”
“I remember,” Thesslenareo grunted. “You told me what kind of king you thought I was.”
“What kind of person you were,” Mia corrected.
“You would know, I’d trust your memory what” he said, attempting an offhanded shrug. His casual demeanor was somewhat marred by the tears that rolled down his face. “You always were far smarter than me. Hell, you even predicted the rebellion, as a teenager, do you remember?”
“Though I suppose that’s not an impressive prediction, when you ended up bringing it about.”
“I suppose not.”
“Why do you bring up the past now? Feeling guilty about your role in this night?”
“I strongly doubt there will be a day in which I don’t feel guilty for this night. No, I brought up the past because I wondered if you knew the answer to the question you asked me, back then. Do you know who you are?”
“What was it you said back then? ‘Not a good man, but rather a frightened one’? I suppose that’s still true. I’m just a man. I tried to live a good man, I’ll die a frightened one.”
King Thesslenareo reached up a withered hand to wipe the tears from his eyes, then blinked. The companies of the Thirteenth Constellation were closer now, close enough that he could see their banners. They weren’t flying the red-and-pink of the rebels; they flew the laurels on a white field of Thesslenareo’s Florezia. They weren’t here to fight him, they were here to fight for him. The King turned to face Mia, confused.
“You’re not a frightened man,” Little One held out the bloody sword to him, handle first. “Usted es el rey de Italoza.”