2.4 – Parvulus IV
The Tombs, Florezian Palace, 15 years past
Mia sat in the middle of her prison’s huge bed, hugging her legs to her chest. She stared at nothing, her red and swollen eyes searching the pattern in the carpet. Her stomach ached, but she couldn’t bring herself to even look at the plate of food by the door, let alone eat it.
Every morning for the past twenty-four years, two months, one week and three days, she had started her day with a series of exercises and stretches designed to keep her joints and muscles limber and healthy. This morning she had skipped them, opting instead to stare at the sky through the window of her prison, staring without seeing.
She could expect a visit from the prince at some point during the day, either to grieve with her, or possibly to execute her. Her stomach growled, but she barely noticed it; it was understandable that her breakfast had been delayed. There was a knock at the door, the first knock that had ever sounded on it. Privacy was one of the few things she had learned to live without during her incarceration of twenty-four years.
“Come in,” Mia rasped.
How sweet and innocent my voice sounded when I first met Thesslenario, she thought. Now listen to me. I sound like the hag from fairy tales.
Prince Pellegrino looked almost as bad as she did; with dark circles beneath his eyes and a grim expression on his face, the old man looked as if he had aged five years and not slept a day since she had seen him the week before. When he cleared his throat, he sounded almost as bad as she did.
“I have news for you. I’m not entirely sure how you’ll take it.”
“I know, your Majesty. I am sorry for your loss. It is a loss to all of Italoza.” In spite of herself, tears welled in Mia’s eyes.
“You know? What am I saying, of course you know.” Pellegrino heaved a sigh and sat on the corner of her bed, passing a hand over his tired face. It was obvious from his body language that he wasn’t there to inform her of her execution, but Mia was having trouble feeling relieved, or happy, or anything other than numb.
“Your father was a great King, Pellegrino.”
“He was an old king. I’m too old to fill that role, Little One. How am I supposed to fill the crown, after him? How am I supposed to sit in that throne, and act as if I can rule half as well as him?”
Now that he was opening up to her, she could drop a subtle mention of the fact that Lareana wasn’t there. It would be a tiny seed, but it could potentially be the beginnings of a seed of doubt in the Prince’s mind, something to nudge him ever so slightly towards the thought that he needed Little One as a confidant and advisor just as much as his right hand, or perhaps even more. Only the first step of a plan, but one that could work given enough time.
“Majesty, your father tried at all times to be a good man and a good king.” Mia brushed the thought aside, placing a withered hand on the Prince’s shoulder. “I have faith that he and your mother instilled in you the same values that made him those things.”
“No supposition about it. Do not do your father’s memory the disservice of pretending that he didn’t raise a fine young man as Italoza’s next King.”
Her words seemed to have an effect on the Prince, and he stood.
“I’m sorry about the display, I did come here for a reason. The choice has fallen on me now, what to do with the more powerful prisoners of Italoza.”
“I don’t know what to do with you.”
“From what I gather, my father let you live after the rebellion because you did end up helping Italoza, albeit through violence, chaos and slaughter. I suspect he also let you live because of your friendship with him. Your execution now would serve the throne no purpose.”
The revelation to Italoza that the Rebel Queen had been alive during Thesslenario’s reign, combined with her subsequent execution, would immediately distance Pellegrino’s regime from his father’s. It would cement him as a more just ruler, but also as a more heartless one. There would be no question of his forcefulness, so his reign would begin stronger, but it would also send a message to the people that their second Mortalis King is someone who cannot be reasoned with should he make a decision. His opponents are more likely to choose violence rather than diplomacy when dealing with him.
“None whatsoever, Majesty,” Mia said.
“But I’m not quite sure I agree with his imprisonment of you either. Whatever further mischief he thinks you might plan, I doubt that this prison would prevent you from carrying those plans out, so perhaps I should trust you. We could let you leave the prison, perhaps install you as one of my advisors.”
“I’m not really sure how to answer that offer, Pri- King Pellegrino. I don’t even know how I would answer it if I weren’t aware it was a trap.”
“That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it?” King Pellegrino frowned. “You’re too clever for your own good, Little One. There’s no test I devise that you won’t see through, and I don’t know of anyone I trust enough to design such a test.”
Seventy decades of experience made it all too easy for Mia to hide her emotions, but she felt a fierce sense of pride in the newly-made king. He knew his limitations, and even better he could tell the difference between liking someone and trusting them. Her own personal feelings aside, paranoia was a good trait for a king to have.
“Your father had much the same dilemma, if I read him correctly. He didn’t wish me ill will, but for obvious reasons he didn’t trust me.”
“Much as I told him he should make up his mind one way or the other, I suppose I have to keep you here. Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite.”
“Or perhaps you’re already learning some of the intricacies of the crown.”
“For what it’s worth, I hope that, in time, I can think of such a test.”
“I hope so too, Majesty.”
The Tombs, Florezian Palace, 5 years past
Mia didn’t often write in the waking world. Leaving her thoughts out in writing was too prone to others finding it, deciphering her intricate method of encryption, and trying to muddle through some of the many plans she had running through her mind. Now was a bit of an exception, however; she was trying her hand at composing poetry. It was proving frustratingly difficult for her, and the experience of frustration was refreshing.
“Little One, may we enter? I’d like to introduce you to someone,” the question was accompanied by a knock. Mia guessed that the King didn’t realize he always knocked now, ever since his father had died. Perhaps it was a sign that in some way, once she became his responsibility, he thought of her more as a guest than as a prisoner.
“Please, come in.”
The man and woman who entered with the King were slightly younger, though he too was beginning to grey around the temples. His skin was pale and wrinkled, but his step seemed spritely enough for someone his age.
A room full of fossils, Mia thought, absentmindedly rubbing a hand which had become cramped from writing, in a country full of younglings.
The man was uncomfortable, but not because of the King or Mia’s presence. The woman who was with them moved out of the King’s way, and his motions made it clear that he couldn’t see her. She was an Echo then, which meant the man was a Stormtouched. The King wouldn’t expose her to a Stormtouched unless he believed that Stormtouched could provide proof of her loyalty.
“Is this the Stormtouched who will tell you once and for all how trustworthy I am?” She asked.
“How does she know that? Any of that?” the Stormtouched asked.
“I’ve learned it’s best not to ask,” King Pellegrino said wryly, “she won’t tell anyone, so for my own mental sanity I don’t bother much about it. Little One, this is Master Bernardo De Luca.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Master De Luca. And to meet you as well…Mistress Berna? Mistress Ber?”
“Bea, and likewise,” the woman smiled. “I wasn’t quite sure if you could see me; do they keep your Echo in a different cell?”
“No, Mi….my Echo is dead.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Bea put a hand to her mouth, looking genuinely regretful.
“It happened a very long time ago. Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but discussions he is not privy to make the King very anxious. It’s a trait he inherited from his father.”
“If we could get back to the point,” the King said testily. “As you’ve ascertained, Master De Luca is here to ease all of my doubts, once and for all. He’s going to draw a sketch of you, while the two of you talk.”
“Whatever puts your mind at ease, Majesty,” Mia shrugged, her mind already returned to the problem of the poem. She returned to her seat as Master De Luca set up an easel and laid out paper and thin black chalk. Only when he was ready, his hand poised over the paper, did he look up at her.
“The King calls you ‘Little One’, but I’m sure that’s not your name,” he said, with the air of someone choosing their words carefully. “I wonder if you could tell me how you got the nickname? In fact, if you could tell me as much of your life as possible, that would be most helpful.”
“Ninety-one years is quite the life story to tell, Master De Luca,” Mia said with a half-smile.
“I am in no particular rush.”
Mia sighed and closed the book, staring at its cover for a moment as she gathered her thoughts.
“One of my earliest memories is on the balcony of this very palace, meeting King Thesslenario for the first time…” she began.
“I’m quite angry that you haven’t brought the portrait Master De Luca painted of me, young man.” Was it that she had become so good at hiding her emotion that she hid it herself, or did she truly not care? Mia hardly knew any more, all she knew was that she was vaguely anxious and quite vexed because of it.
“The portrait that Master De Luca painted told him whether or not you could be trusted,” King Pellegrino said, “I would’ve thought you would know that.”
“Of course I know that, but I still would’ve liked to see it,” Mia snapped. The King regarded her with a face of stone, hands clasped behind his back, one foot tapping on the ground. She couldn’t read him, and the fact worried her.
“Aren’t you the slightest bit curious of what his portrait told me about you?”
Mia crossed her arms and tapped one wrinkled finger impatiently against her sleeve. Of course she was curious, she was only human. That said, despite the fact that her life was in the balance she refused to give him the satisfaction of begging. Whether he told her now or she found out later, it wouldn’t change the reality of what it was. She had more pride than to-
“Tell me what he said. What did the mystical painting of the old man say about me?” Mia said. King Pellegrino strode back to the door of her luxurious cell and threw open the door. It probably wasn’t as effective a gesture as he thought it was, since the first and only time she had seen the hallway was brief glances as her food was delivered to her.
“It’s empty,” she said, more for the King’s benefit than her own. “The guards are gone.”
“From now on, Little One, you are a free citizen of Italoza,” the King beamed.
“Excellent,” Mia nodded once with great satisfaction, then returned to the book of poems.
Perhaps in focusing on the meter, I’ve overlooked the more creative aspect of the-
“That…that’s it?” the King asked. “Little One, you’re free! You can leave your cell, you can go anywhere and do anything you wish!”
“I’m quite content here, thank you.”
“You’re ‘content’? You’ve been a prisoner for a quarter of a century, and now you intend to stay here for…for how long exactly?”
“Oh, probably until I die,” Mia waved a frail hand, “what is there out there that I can’t find in here?”
“Knowledge of the outside world!” King Pellegrino exploded.
“And how is your tryst with Lareana, majesty? Has the Queen found out yet?”
“How did…that’s private…you know what, I give up,” Pellegrino looked positively deflated, “I’ll leave you to your…your self-imposed prison, I suppose.”
“Have them send up supper, if you would be so kind,” Mia called to him as he shut the door behind him.
Norcia Transport, Florezia, 5 days past
Giorgio Norcia finished filling the lanterns with oil, replacing the top on the cask.
“I’m telling you, anyone who wants to leave so late is bad news,” his brother grumbled from the fireplace. “You’re a fool for taking the old witch anywhere. Should’ve taken my lead and gone inside.”
“I’m taking her and that’s that,” Giorgio grunted.
“Tell her to wait until morning at least! Most likely you’re about to travel into a roadblock and get robbed and left for dead; some thieves probably decided to pay the old lady since she seems so harmless!”
“I’m taking her Sesto, the fare’s worth it. She paid half up front.” Giorgio was a man of few words; his brother rarely heard him say so many at once.
“The fare is worth it, is it? I get that it’s a lot of money, it’s a long trip to Milia, but is it worth your life, Giorgio?”
Giorgio sniffed, then set down the bag the old woman had given him a few moments ago. Even by the dim light of the fire, the jewels and gold gleamed and reflected, sending sparkling multi-colored flickers across the walls and ceiling.
“Might be,” he grunted, picking up the lanterns and stomping outside once more.
The woman had already taken her place in one of the Norcia brothers’ cart, but she was fixated on something over his shoulder, staring at it with tears in his eyes. Giorgio half turned as he tied the lanterns in place on the cart.
“Never used to sunsets like that?” he asked.
“The sun sets in the west,” she answered, as if that explained everything. “I haven’t seen a sunset in a long time.”
“Oh? How long?” Giorgio climbed up and took the reins.
Giorgio paused for a moment, but then shrugged.
Crazy pays just as well as sane, he thought, and slapped the reins, humming tunelessly as they started their journey towards Milia.