The Last Days of Lovataar
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Day 12

"Princess."

The phantom image of Ava was gone, taking her screams with her. In her place was a viscera-stained slab of basalt in the ritual chamber where Lovataar mina-Ruvsá stood. "Yes?"

Lovataar turned to face a servant whose skin she did not recognize, though its shifts and jitters struck familiar chords in the archives of her mind. She looked to his eyes; flat, bored. Orvo, then. Something must have been amiss.

"Minister Orvo." A light, respectful bow. It would not be returned.

Orvo folded his arms across his chest. "Two things, princess. First of all, while I respect your administrative ability," and I don't expect you to believe me, "it is unbecoming of priestess and Matriarch alike to mourn the death of a slave." His fingers tightened for the most minute of instants. "And especially one put to death for sexual impropriety." His eye narrowed, a knowing scowl in miniature.

Lovataar swallowed, and nodded.

"Secondly, and what I would personally consider a more pressing issue, you have a duty that needs fulfilling." 'Relaxed' and 'softened' were words that did not fit the way Orvo's eyes reverted to their typical boredom. "Report to your station as soon as possible; you've slave-hunters waiting to be processed."

Of course. "Of course, Minister." More dregs to process, shit to sift through for the Ruby she'd never find. "I shan't neglect my duty, Minister." How joyous it would be to never see you again. "Farewell, Minister."

Lovataar walked away as fast as she could.

***

To the common slave, the Verdant Palace was a labyrinthine wonder. Lit by sconces of Verdant flame, each of which powered a myriad of mechanisms courtesy of Xia artisans, to step inside was to know the glory of the Daeva. Wondrous plants clung along the walls, bearing luxurious fruits and wicked poisons. In every hall hung tapestries of the finest fabrics, extolling the glories of Matriarch Ruvsá and the Verdant Mage as they conquered the Imitian hordes. On every pedestal, a masterpiece sat, and with it the history of a thousand artists before it.

To Archpriestess Lovataar, Heir Apparent of the Verdant Province, the Verdant Palace was where she was born, and where she would die. There was a bedroom window that overlooked the city of Raasepula, where an elder sister fell from in her youth. There was a dining chamber, a favored spot for her and her cupbearers. There was her mother, Matriarch Ruvsá's room, where she dared not tread. There were many things in the Verdant Palace, all of which had engraved themselves into Lovataar's mind. Some of them were even happy.

The Chamber of Passage was not one of those things. It wasn't meant to be.

Cut from a single slab of basalt, the Chamber emphasized transience through the uncomfortable shape of its walls, through the uneven incline, through the Verdant Mage's watchful eye carved in ugly murals. Not even the attendant priestess was spared, confined to an irregular basalt throne.

Lovataar squeezed her eyes shut, left out the softest sigh, and beckoned the first of them forward. "Come forward, and state your case."

Two slaves, Xia. Sold by their father to pay off a debt. Lovataar beheld them (beautiful, unfit for manual labor… but could they compare to your Ruby, who might yet wait to be processed?), and assigned them to the house of a petty lord. "Next."

A seditionist. Caught by the Verdant Covenant (they'll see it if you sneer) spreading the doctrine of the King of Rams (and yet your Ruby said so much worse). Lovataar sentenced him to be Silenced, and put to work in the stables. "Next."

A deviant couple. The woman gave birth to a child with the jaws of a wolf and the cry of a goat, a telltale sign of a past fornication (a crime, were you not the Verdant Covenant). Neither would confess (would you?); by the decree of Lovataar, they had until next fortnight to do so, or they would be sewn together and executed as one. "Next."

More slaves. "Next." Yet more slaves. "Next." A grain thief, repeat offender. "Next." A eunuch, a gift from the Fae, another grain thief, an Ortothan prisoner. More, more more, "Next, next, next." Slaves, slaves, prisoners (a slave of fate), gifts (a slave of obligation), criminals (to be made slave or sacrifice), men of dirt and clay and sometimes bronze (men who could never replace your Ruby), next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next next—

"-Half-Blood's rebellion."

And Lovataar was awake.

Before her was a crowd of dregs, a treasonous forest of seditious trees. The fingers of her Ruby, soldiers and peasants and laborers and slaves and a thousand pounds of misshapen flesh (and what of your Ruby?). Lovataar's eyes darted from head to head, face to face, claw to fang to tongue, measuring the hierarchy of the captured (for how else would your Ruby stand if not as a King?), stumbling through their forest like a lost babe.

"Your Eminence?"

For the second time in that scant eternity, Lovataar blinked awake. "Which is my Ruby the Half-Blood?"

Their handler was silent.

Lovataar's nails dug into the flesh of her palms.

The next hour saw a mass sacrifice to the Verdant Mage, overseen by Archpriestess Lovataar. If He could hear Ava's cries and the Half-Blood's laughter from the depths of Lovataar's mind, He made no attempt to soothe them.

***

Not half of the wretches dead, and Lovataar was to give a speech to her congregation. She was then to bathe, get herself ready for dinner with the Verdant Court. After choking down whatever fancy meal had been placed in front of her, she was to attend to whatever administrative dealings were due from her office (and, perhaps, the less pressing issues that nevertheless kept her comfortably alone). Lovataar buried herself in wax, signatory or etched, in papyrus and ink, in etched leather signed with the seal of the Pallid Prince, the glittering glass shards of the Fae Courts and the burnt calligraphy of Xia diplomats, well-wishes and troop movements and administrative appeals and tax records and a million more marvelous mundanities.

Unfit for the Verdant flames, Lovataar's office was instead lit by skylight, a window to the sun and her lunar brother. In theory, such an arrangement encouraged Lovataar to take her leave with the sun's light; in practice, Lovataar was learning to read in the dark.

But the sea of bureaucratic distractions receded with time, and Lovataar had time.

She should get up and go to bed. Tomorrow was another night away, a night better spent in a bed than an uncomfortable wooden desk. So why, then, had it taken half an hour for you to summon the strength to stand up?

The halls of the Verdant Palace stood silent, save for the crackling of Verdant flames and the footfalls of Lovataar. One day, you shall inherit these walls, her mother once told her (and her two elder sisters before her). The implication that Matriarch Ruvsá might one day die or, gods forbid, abdicate had yet to be processed; Lovataar had long resigned herself to an eternity of indistinguishable days.

Her bedchambers weren't far. A straight shot down the hall, an ascended staircase, and a few more paces saw her standing in front of the door, seconds away from the silence of dreams.

Lovataar turned the key in its lock, and pushed.

***

There was a man in her bedchambers.

Not a servant, or not one she'd seen (memorized?) before. Short like a slave, pale like a Daeva, with the face and hair of a Xia layman. Wearing the robes of, of something, something alien, not Ortothan or Imitian or Canaanite. Wielding a rough wooden scepter like a walking stick. Standing. Just standing. Why was he just standing?

Her door was still open. That wouldn't do.

"Come to mock me?", Lovataar hadn't meant to say. She hadn't meant to step forward either, to get a better look at someone who just couldn't be your Ruby, right, Lovataar? And no, he couldn't have been her Ruby. His posture was slumped, his clothes were ragged and stained, his eyes can see right through you. Past the veneer of your office and noble lineage, of every lie you've told yourself for the last two thousand winters "Sedition against the Verdant Archpriestess is a serious offense, as is the trespass of her chambers."

The intruder said nothing. Lovataar scowled as if he had instead mocked her.

"Go on, then." Closer still; he smelled of dirt and iron and the corners of Raasepula she dare not tread. "Come to petition the Archpriestess? Petition. Beg for land or gold or worship at my feet, and I'll consider it upon your sentencing."

Finally, he looked up past your twin facades and straight at you, Lovataar and spoke.

"Please, let my people go."

His voice was reedy, garbled by accent of the Eastern plebeians, spoken barely above a whisper even as it resounded through Lovataar's ears as a desperate scream. The tone, supplicant, like the highest emperor prostrated to the lowest slave. Every word, the softest of gut-punches.

your Ruby

No, no, he couldn't be. Her Ruby, the Half-Blood Sorcerer, was powerful, capable of leveling the Verdant Palace in a single night. The Pretender King would never deign to confront the Verdant Archpriestess in such filthy rags. Nor would that arrogant rebel plead so softly for the lives of failed soldiers, to lick their dust off the feet of Daevon's war machines. He'd take what he wanted by force, by tooth and claw and spear and arrow and endless deluge of flesh, flailing in defiance to the bitter end, not…

Lovataar hissed. "Your people? And what makes you think they're yours?" Her Ruby's people, those he rallied through shows of power and controlled terror, wouldn't deign to stoop to this wretch's level.

And yet, spoke the treasonous shade in the back of Lovataar's mind, who else could weather your gaze? Who else could sully themselves with grime and bear to face the heiress of the Verdant Palace? Who else could push past your masks, to see the parts of Lovataar that not even she can bear to face?

The wretch was still. "Have they not pledged themselves to me?"

"No!" Lovataar's legs dragged her across the bedchambers in an uneven pace, yet the illusion remained. "No, they did not. Why would they pledge themselves to, to… for Gods' sakes!"

No matter where she stood, her Ruby's stare followed. Not even the hairbrush ripped from her vanity and thrown at her Ruby could shake it off. "And who are you? Some… some failed martyr come to beg at the feet of your sworn nemesis? You're not the Half-Blood. The Half-Blood wouldn't tolerate any of this. He'd kill me before he'd ask for my mercy. Not… not this."

Finally, the wretch broke eye contact, gaze falling to the carpet. "My apologies, Lovataar. I meant no—"

In an instant, Verdant flames consumed the interloper who dared address the Archpriestess as an equal, a veritable manifestation of the Verdant blood within her veins, the proof of Daeva superiority over such wretched dregs, the only acceptable answer to such a naked blasphemy…

… yet still, your Ruby stands.

The flames receded. Still stood her Ruby, skin painted black and red with Verdant fire even as it reformed before Lovataar's very eyes. Silent. Staring back with that insidiously piercing gaze of his.

Lovataar's palms were bleeding. "… well, go on, Pretender King. Why should I release your band of brigands?"

Though his face had been charred, her Ruby spoke with the infuriating softness of a supplicant. "Forgive me for my impropriety, Your Eminence." And why did such an address feel so unnatural off his tongue? "My followers are the poor, the weary, victims of circumstance. Many are afflicted by maladies of flesh and mind. To them, and I mean no offense to Your Eminence, I am their only hope."

"Sedition and blasphemy, then. You would ask me to commute the crimes of your soldiers on account of the very sins they commit. Have you no shame, Pretender King?"

Once again, her Ruby broke gaze with Lovataar. "My apologies, Your Eminence. I simply do not wish for them to die on account of my sins."

"I am… not sure you understand, my—" my Ruby, she did not say, could not say, not while that hate-tinged fantasy in the flesh stood before her. "Their sins, derivative as they are from your own, were conscious choices. Was it not a conscious choice that, rather than appeal to the Avatars for aid, they took up arms against the Empire?"

Not but the faintest whisper of creaking wood preceded her Ruby's words. "… not the Empire. It is the tyranny of the Flesh against whom they take up arms, the Blind Devourer and its servitors."

Lovataar should have laughed, should have brought him down right where he stood, have him in chains and punished before the whole of Raasepula. The Half-Blood Sorcerer, the object of her sweetest dreams and darkest terrors, was a passive, rambling madman; unfit to lead a caravan, let alone rebellion against the Empire. Why, then, was every step towards her Ruby an odyssey in miniature?

"'Tyranny of the Flesh', he says." Lovataar hissed through clenched teeth. "Listen to yourself! Those who would see my sisters eviscerated, do they care about the 'Flesh'? Those who would see the walls of Daevon fall to the uncivilized hordes, do they care about the 'Flesh'? Those who would cast down the very Gods who protect—"

Her Ruby's staff splintered in his grip, its top half clattering to the floor. "Your 'gods'," uttered as one would the foulest of swears. "Are marauders on a scale surpassing the totality of Daevon's foes. It is they who poison your lands with fire, who carve wounds into your mountains and turn your waters red with blood. They who dress your family as toy soldiers in the war against human dignity, who dust your fields in glass and still demand their tax of blood and death."

Lovataar opened her mouth to speak, and found her throat empty.

Once more her Ruby glared back at Lovataar, eyes finally embodied in his voice. "Your powers, your office, the blood you tout as superior, is it truly yours? The magic in your blood is but the finger of a perverse horror, in service to the crown it left upon your head, practiced lies to separate you and your subjects. You and your siblings were shaped in the image of a weapon, to be wielded by parasites."

For a second, the world was fog.

But the dust cleared,

and Lovataar knelt on her Ruby's prone form, hands around his neck.

"Enough of your lectures! Enough of your foul lies, of the sins flowing from your treacherous throat. You know nothing of my family!"

Her Ruby writhed, flesh twisting in agonous resistance, but it was a Pretender King's gambit against genuine nobility.

"You're nothing. A mongrel slave, deluded into a false importance. Underneath your every scar is a sick freak, destined for a lifetime of servitude. Every life taken in this pointless rebellion will be for naught."

Lovataar's hands grew hot with Verdant flame, and her Ruby could do naught but squirm.

"I will burn away your every lie, my Ruby. Break you back into the obedient little slave you were always meant to be, tear every disobedience from your wretched self until you're indistinguishable from the retinue of the Verdant Palace. You will grovel at the feet of the lowest of Daeva, begging for their validation, thank them as they trample your pathetic, miserable form. And only when—"

"Your Eminence?"

A knock on her door. Lovataar turned her head, and inadvertently loosened her grip on her Ruby.

***

Lovataar floats through the Verdant Palace.

Outside her door is Esther, a Canaanite slave captured a scant few moons ago. She appears concerned that Lovataar, who she believes still resides in her room, has not answered her door. Of course, she's well aware of the consequences of trespassing the Archpriestess's bedchambers, and elects not to do so. Lovataar briefly recalls Ava in her countenance, and floats past.

The Palace is quiet tonight. Her sisters are asleep, or otherwise out past their curfew. The guards will turn a blind eye, and Orvo is too busy fornicating with the head chef to care. A stray wind blows Lovataar through the walls of her mother's room. She is sitting on the edge of her bed, reading a scroll with a look of apparent mirth. Lovataar realizes that she's never seen her mother sitting anywhere that wasn't a throne. Her mother does not see her blowing out of the Palace walls.

Something is tugging Lovataar upwards. She has not the will to resist.

From above, Raasepula is small, the Verdant Palace smaller. What little light shines from its windows is overtaken by darkness afar, the fog of distance. The land's details pinch upon themselves as an invisible wind tosses Lovataar across the Empire.

There below her is the Pallid Prince, accepting the sacrifices tossed into His gaping temple. Here is the Scarlet King, attended by His faithful daughters. The Violet Queen delivers Her sermons to Her holiest priests.

And there's the Verdant Mage. And He's screaming.

Lovataar has never seen Him before now. He is little like the tapestries: where once was a beautiful white wolf, Verdant eyes piercing His enemies, here lies a lumpy, misshapen horror, screaming nonsense to an uncaring air. Lovataar cannot bear to look; to see Him like this must be the direst of sacrilege.

And yet, Lovataar's gaze falls back to His fellow "Gods": to the Pallid Prince, tangled, trapped in a knot of His own accidental design. To the Scarlet King, groaning in pain as salve is applied to His wounded groin. To the Violet Queen, thrashing at Her surroundings with the desperation of a senile mind. And yet, as Lovataar is pulled further and further from home, she sees that each is attached at the back, seamlessly, with some horrible rope of flesh.

Further, further up. Raasepula, the Empire itself is but a patch of green and brown and white, surrounded by tendrils of flesh that widen as they spiral to and from her planet.

The tendrils disappear into a nest of flesh, branching off to planets and stars and things for which Lovataar has no name. The empty sky gives way to a pulsing nest of tumors, teeth, tendons, things to which the entirety of what Lovataar knew is reduced to the mite of mites. There is no silence: the screams of all that is suffuses all that is not.

A barrier of stars gives way to the fleshy nothingness of all that is. She sees her home, no different than the one before save the way each tendril violates its being. Another barrier of stars gives way, and she sees home again, and again, and again and again and again and again, a million, billion, trillion, infinite infinities solely of every way Lovataar's home could be violated by the horrors suffused in "being".

Lovataar is removed from Everything. If there were air, she would laugh.

Everything, everything that could have been, is, isn't, will never or always or sometimes be, is a malformed lump. Within its boundaries are a host of squirming horrors, monsters of happenstance, thrashing about in the vain hopes of escape.

Something drags her still.

The malformed lump of Everything hangs on a branch of the malformed tree of Existence, lit by a dim light of unclear origin. From the Tree of Existence hangs yet more Everythings, from which yet more beasts thrash about, desperate to escape. All that may be, the All and Nothing, is an ugly tree in a cloud of darkness.

Lovataar turns. If there were air, she would scream.

It is not quite a serpent. It is not quite a dragon. It is not quite eyes nor teeth that dot it like pockmarks. And it is not quite a maw that snaps shut around Lovataar.

And Lovataar wakes up.

Day 11

Lovataar opened her eyes.

Before her was her room, from the vantage of her silken sheets. In absence of a conscious Lovataar, an unknown slave had elected to clean her room, righting the furniture and dusting away the ashes of Verdant cinders. Daylight spilled from the now-closed window to her right; she had slept in her vestments. Her Ruby was gone.

Lovataar moved to sit up, triggering an unimaginable pain from her neck down to her left hip. Only when her efforts had yielded but the precisely painful map of her injuries did Lovataar concede to merely glancing at her clock.

The first hour had already begun. Lovataar was late to breakfast with the Verdant Court, and if she couldn't summon the strength to stand up, she'd be late to her morning sermon. Someone would be sent to check on her, someone who could afford to suffer the same fate she had. A slave would bear witness to her broken, vulnerable form, and…

The door opened, and out stepped a distressingly familiar face.

The Ruby, adorned in the garb of a Verdant slave, carried with him a tray of peculiar foods. He was practiced, to be sure; kitchen slaves rarely carried so many delicate foodstuffs upon a single slab. Doubly impressive, as when the Ruby set the tray onto the bedside table, Lovataar spotted the subtle bend of the copper where his fingers once were.

Lacking in strength, Lovataar attempted to channel her hatred into her glare, only to find it replaced by a resigned shame.

The Ruby cleared his throat. "I made breakfast."

"Kill me."

"But I made you breakfast."

"You should have killed me."

His shoulders slumped in a defeat Lovataar hadn't earned. She would have lectured him further if the sheer pain of whatever he'd done to her last night hadn't caught up to the words in her throat, so Lovataar settled for glaring. That he near-instantly wilted under her gaze was yet another insult.

Lovataar closed her eyes. This was a bad dream, in the sense of not only its negative content but the sheer, literally unbelievable indignity inflicted onto its dreamer and subjects. In but a while she would wake up at her desk, her flight of fantasy pierced by the sheer pain of falling asleep in that chair, and Lovataar would retire to a proper bed.

Lovataar opened her eyes.

Everything was exactly the same, save the tears trickling from the corner of Lovataar's eyes.

Lovataar reached for a bowl of some queer porridge in defeat. Perhaps it was poison, either quick like she needed or slow like she deserved. The Ruby's words suggested no such luck, and she barely had the strength or stomach necessary for the first bite. But, Lovataar supposed she had a long day ahead of her.

"… this is… well, this is quite good."

The Ruby looked up, and Lovataar could almost spot the faintest of smiles. "I'm glad you like it. It's a recipe my father taught me when I was a child, some…" His hand went to scratch the back of his head. "It's funny, I can't quite remember when."

Another spoonful. The flavor was earthy, with a slight hint of peach. Peculiar for autumn. The Ruby must have procured it through magic, though Lovataar knew no stories of the Half-Blood's botanical exploits.

He paused. "You can talk, if you wish."

"I do not wish to talk."

"That's fair."

Lovataar finished her meal in silence. The meal, a modest assortment of grains, fruits, and queerly cut meats, could not compare to the food she had missed in her sleep; somehow, it felt superior in its simplicity.

***

Half an hour after the start of her sermon, the door to her chambers opened without fanfare, to reveal a servant with dead eyes. "You're late. What are you doing in bed?"

"Minister—" Lovataar jerked upwards, spraining something in the process and overtaking her words with a pained grunt. "A-apologies I—"

"This," Minister Orvo strode into the room, positioning himself at the edge of Lovataar's bed. "Is the second time you've been late to an appointment this week, princess." Though he feigned frustration, closeness only cemented the practiced boredom in his expression. "And my God, did you sleep in your vestments? Hrmph. All this work, for your sake, you have the audacity to squander—"

"She was attacked, my lord."

Orvo and Lovataar turned towards the far corner of the room, where the Ruby presently stood.

"Who is this, princess?" Lovataar turned to face Orvo in time for his expression to briefly crack. "If this is a situation akin to last week's, then I refuse to cover for it."

Lovataar sprained her neck on the way back to looking at the Ruby, forcing her to lie back on the pillow. From what little she saw, the Ruby wasn't making eye contact.

"My lord: during the night, Her Eminence was set upon by a brutish Canaanite assassin. Though she slew him, the Canaanite managed a blow with his club before succumbing to Her Eminence's Verdant fire. I was… I was called to assist, my lord. To aide her as she recovers."

There was a pause, before Orvo disappeared from Lovataar's field of vision, footsteps heading towards the Ruby. "There would have been ashes."

Something was dragged across the floor.

"… I see. Well, thank you for work, and be sure to take care of Lovataar in the meantime. I will inform the others that she will be unavailable until tomorrow."

Orvo briefly reappeared in her vision, wielding his frown as a cudgel, before taking his leave.

***

It was early afternoon when Lovataar found the strength to get up from her bed.

There was… difficulty, in each step. A sharp pain in her chest, a crescent of fire that scorched all it illuminated. But pain was preferable to soiling herself and her sheets.

A short while later, her business concluded, Lovataar cleansed her hands with Verdant fire and… slumped against the washroom door. She could get up, at any time. At any time. This was temporary, of course. Only temporary.

Lovataar sighed, for no one in particular. "Why are you doing this?"

Something shuffled from behind the door. "I apologize, Your Eminence."

"You should have killed me, half-breed. Or taken me, broke my body and ripped my vestments and… Lovataar growled. "What gives you the right to flaunt the laws of war, half-breed? By what right do you engage in such deviant humiliations? Prostrated at my feet like you aren't… like you're… damn it!" Lovataar pounded her fist into the flooring.

The Ruby was silent, for a time. "… I don't want to kill you, Your Eminence."

"Tell that to the Daeva you've massacred, half-breed. To their shredded bones and spilled blood."

A longer pause. "… I don't want to kill anyone, Your Eminence. My heart weeps for the blood I've already spilled. But…" The Ruby paused. "… if Your Eminence would humor me, imagine a Xia peasant."

Lovataar furrowed her brow. "Your father?"

"Not exactly, Your Eminence. The peasant could have been my father, but they do not have to be."

Lovataar blinked. "That word you used. 'They'. Is that its name?"

Another pause. "I apologize, Your Eminence. It is a slave word, meant to establish personhood irrespective of gender."

"Impossible. Gender is determined by State apparati, is it not? That which has no determinable gender is an 'it', irrespective of ambiguity."

"Regardless, Your Eminence, imagine a male peasant in the Xia Kingdom. Say he lives near the edge of the Kingdom, in a small mountain village that relies on imports to feed its population. He… we can say he's a stonecutter."

Lovataar rolled her eyes. "I can imagine this, half-breed."

"Good. Now, imagine this stonecutter, who is dependent on the kindness of merchants to feed his family, is thrust suddenly into the strict system of trade imposed by the Empire. When next the grain merchant arrives in his village, the stonecutter is shocked to learn that he must exchange metals he does not have to feed his family. What's to be done?"

Easy enough. "Can not the stonecutter grow his own grain?"

"Perhaps had he lived along the Yellow River, but Your Eminence must remember he lives in a mountain town. Arable land is wanting."

"Can not, then, the stonecutter trade labor for grain?"

"Perhaps, if the merchant acquiesces. Perhaps that works, for now. But say, next month, the price of grain has been raised by the state. So much so that the stonecutter cannot perform enough labor to feed his family in the time the merchant stays in—"

Lovataar groaned. "By the Matriarchs, is this one of the Eunuch's riddles? Such a shame his Silencing was undone." Her fingers tapped against the floor. "Please get to the point, half-breed. I grow weary of your storytelling."

"Right, Your Eminence: what's to be done, when you've worked as hard as you could, and the only way to feed your family is by taking grain through violence?"

"You have an… active imagination, half-breed."

"Is it so active, Your Eminence? How much grain robbery does the Verdant Province prosecute daily?"

Lovataar opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. It occurred to her that she hadn't been keeping track. And so she sighed, instead, and waited for the words to come back.

They didn't.

***

Moonlight streamed through Lovataar's window. She was still awake, and not for lack of trying; her best efforts were thwarted by the searing crescent of pain against her side. There would be no slumber tonight.

But what did it matter? Lovataar was dead, or assured to be so. Matriarch Ruvsá had no use for a crippled heiress, less so one at the mercy of the Half-Blood Sorcerer. In time, one of her sisters would kill her, to take her bureaucratic crown and empty promise until the next sister lost her patience. The pointless cycle would continue, until the Pallid Prince devoured the moon and stars.

Lovataar's mind was wandering. It had done that quite a bit today.

It occurred to Lovataar that she'd never given much thought to death. The body of the Daeva rarely died, true, but "rarely" was not "never". And what of her spirit? Would she be reborn into the Verdant House, to once more be groomed into the role of Matriarch? Would her spirit find its way to Kazenrud, to Soronești? Into the Hidden Courts of the Pallid Prince? Or would her failures damn her into a lower house?

The thought should have terrified her. But Lovataar's mind found greater interest in the intricacies of her ceiling. Small wonder, her next words:

"Half-breed."

The darkness stirred. "My apologies, Your Eminence. I do not trust the Minister cloaked in skin to leave you unmolested."

"When your people die, where do they go?"

The Ruby was silent, for a while. "… I do not want to kill you, Your Eminence."

"Irrespective of that, half-breed. When your brethren die, when your rebels perish on the field, when you… when the Emperors of Xia execute their own, where do they go? Where have the soldiers of Daevon sent and been sent?"

"I…" Silently, the Ruby stepped out of the darkness, illuminated by the moonlight. "… there is a fire, underneath us. Not Verdant, not Scarlet, not Violet. Heedless of Shangdi, of Gonggong, of Manu, of the Centipedes, of Asherah, of Moloch. There is…" The Ruby paused.

… was he trembling?

"… the fire rages not simply to devour. It does not purify. It does not erase. And though the fire corrupts, that is not its purpose, for the fire has no purpose. The fire is an accident, set in motion by that mindless Devourer. It…"

The Ruby stopped, circling the bed to look out the window, or perhaps so as not to look upon Lovataar. "… there are cracks between this world and the fire. From our world flows waste, trash, that which is small enough to be forgotten. Mercifully, our flesh cannot fit through."

"… but what of our spirits, half-breed?"

For a moment, silence. Then, something fell upon the floor, quieter than a whisper. Soon, another. Another. An irregular procession below everything that could have mattered. "… all that lives must cling to life, Your Eminence. For all that awaits us in death is the Devourer's cauldron."

Something stirred in the back of Lovataar's mind; but it was nothing more than a stir, and for a while, Lovataar would not challenge the silence, the gentle wind that rode the moonlight, the irregular procession that soon faded into the ether.

"… send me there."

The Ruby did not respond.

"Send me to the Fire. If all that lives is truly bound for an eternity in fire and trash, it makes no difference what sends me over the precipice."

The Ruby did not respond.

Lovataar forced herself to sitting, fighting through the fiery crescent's sting. "They'll kill me. Orvo. My sisters. Mother. Do you understand, my Ruby? Take the honor yourself."

The irregular procession resumed, and the Ruby did not respond.

Lovataar growled. "Mockery! What good am I, bedridden, wracked with pain, at the mercy of an enemy of Daevon?! To what use is she who cannot fulfill the illusion of a successor?! She that cannot lead the rites of her god, nor bring him his sacrifices, nor even play to the whims of his horrid spawn?! What worth is a failed, crippled princess unworthy even of ravaging at the hands of the one who brought her low?!"

The Ruby… inhaled? A sharp catch of breath, like a gasp but… not quite. The shadows obscured his face as he turned back to Lovataar, slowly, quietly making his way to her bedside.

Another catch of breath. "… I'm sorry, Lovataar." One of his hands moved from his side, to ghost over her throat, and it was Lovataar whose breath now caught. "There is worth in all life. To…" The Ruby swallowed. Had his voice always wavered so? "To take even one… even one is tragedy."

His hand shook, hovering over her neck, until it moved down to her shoulder, her forearm, her rib. To the crescent of fire.

"But such is the nature of flesh to kill."

The Ruby's fingers plunged into Lovataar's side, and all went black.

Day 10

Lovataar awoke, refreshed, to the light of dawn spilling into her room.

The morning routine went by like a gentle breeze, the pleasant haze of a perfect night's sleep subsuming the monotony of washing, cleaning, arranging the outfits and vestments expected of her schedule. She even had time to stretch.

And if she noticed the six fingertip-shaped circlets on her side, let not a simple nightmare ruin the rest of her life.

***

Kalma looked upon Lovataar with interest as she entered the dining chambers; Kivutar feigned it. Regardless, Lovataar nodded to both as she knelt before the table. "I apologize, my sisters. An… urgent matter came up, yesterday."

"Oh?" That might have been the wrong greeting: nothing excited Kalma more than secrets. "Do tell! Well, if you're allowed, big sister."

"Unfortunately not, little sister." Lovataar hoped they didn't see her swallowing; only after she was sure her expression had stilled did she look over to Kivutar. "And how are you doing, little sister? I trust the business with the Library has been taken care of?"

Kivutar stared blankly at Lovataar, before rolling her eyes and returning to a scroll of poems.

The servants were quick to bring the breakfast today. It was a haste at odds with the dish before Lovataar: a queer assortment of meats and vegetables, mixed within shaped egg and garnished with some darkened liquid.

It… tasted amazing, Lovataar supposed.

***

The congregation chanted along with Lovataar's sermon, sang praises unto the Verdant Mage, fell into wordless frenzy under the spell of the sacraments. It was, overall, an astounding performance; Lovataar's worst nightmares couldn't dampen her showmanship.

Only after, as she prepared for her duties in the Chamber of Passage, did she question why she suddenly thought of it in such terms.

***

As the rest of the judicial entourage filed into the Chamber, Lovataar found herself glancing to the murals.

Who had carved the countenance of the Verdant Mage? Had she been Daeva, some stone-faced artisan with fire in her veins, eager to seal the Verdant Pact in basalt? The sacred image was too important to entrust with slaves… but actually looking at it, the mural didn't look as sacred as Lovataar had once assumed. Surely, the face of the Verdant Mage was not so… well, had it been slaves who carved the image, then? Why entrust the Chamber's design to its helpless passengers?

"Your Eminence."

Lovataar turned to resident warden, and the procession of miscreants behind him. "Of course. Come forward, and state your case."

Three slaves, formerly of the Scarlet Province but apprehended on the road Southeast of Tolyakin (it was almost impressive). Accused of murdering their master, a bureaucrat from the Kazenrud outskirts. Lovataar ordered them deported to Kazenrud for summary judgment; Hgan, if present, would be punishment enough (the brute). "Next."

Mill slave, domestic. Accused of stealing grain from her mill. She would pay for it with a month of work in their latrines, decreed Lovataar, after which her fate would be up to her master (a… merchant. How did you guess?). "Next."

Son of a bureaucrat. Caught stealing grain. Let him take the mill slave's place.

… what happened? Why wasn't anyone moving? They just stood there, silent, staring at her like they were waiting for something. Had she made a mistake? That… such a notion was preposterous! Archpriestess Lovataar was the resident authority within this hall, subservient only to the Matriarch and the Mage, neither of whom had entered the Chamber. But then, what did—

"Your Eminence, is something amiss?"

Right. Lovataar shook her head. "No, no, I'm quite alright." She licked her lips. "Next."

Petitioner (thank the Gods), a farmer from the Southern reaches of the Verdant Province. Come with a story of hard times, of insufficient crop to satisfy the tax while feeding her family.

Easy enough. Can not the stonecutter grow his own grain?

The farmer was silent, for a while. With great reverence, to be sure, she questioned what Lovataar means when she refers to some theoretical stonecutter. Surely, in Her Eminence's infinite wisdom, it was something that escaped the farmer's grasp, but if wasn't any trouble, could she elaborate on what she meant?

… "Next." But the farmer's query— "Next!"

A trembling freedwoman. Her husband was still enslaved to her former lord, a rancher. If it was quite alr-r-right, would she be able to submit herself to temporary quarry work in order to buy his freedom? Lovataar ordered her to speak up. If it was quite alright, would— sure, decreed Lovataar. Right, when did— "Next."

A Scarlet Priestess. Lovataar must forgiver her for her insolence, of course, but why had she just assigned a female to quarry work? So removed from the Domain, quarry work was the work of males, no? Actually, and not to be presumptive towards Her Eminence, she had also assigned a male to a domestic mill. Was there some extenuating factor?

Lovataar blinked.

Right, she decreed, it was quite unorthodox. The priestess's concern had been noted. "Next." Forgive the priestess, but that wasn't what she came — "By the Matriarchs, next!"

Son of a farmer. Caught stealing grain. Gods, why were there so many grain thieves? Had they not enough rebels to burn? The people of the Verdant Province were already wanting for grain, damn it!" Lovataar slammed her fist on the throne's arm. "Why in the Gods' names would you make our problems worse?! I should have you branded a Sufferer, pull you apart and hang you by your entrails in the center of Raasepula, make the same example of every single one of you degenerates! Maybe if you had the fear of the Verdant Mage in your heart, you'd mind your fucking manners!"

The petitioners stared back at Lovataar in stunned silence, and opening her mouth once more, Lovataar realized that she too was caught under its spell.

Elsewhere in the Palace, a wolf howled mournfully.

"… my apologies." Lovataar cleared her throat. "If you all would excuse me."

Lovataar walked off of her seat and absconded with what remained of her dignity.

***

It had not been three minutes since Lovataar's outburst that a pair of cruel hands grabbed her from a doorway, dragging her into a small room, empty save for a Verdant Covenant simmering with rage.

"I am very patient, princess." Orvo's snarling maw was barely hidden behind the stern expression of his human face. "Time and time again, I've covered for your every mess, for your missed appointments and shameful dalliances. Let me remind you, then, that you are not the first heiress whose mistakes I attended to, and if you keep stumbling over every stone in your path, you won't be the last."

Day 9

Day 8

Day 7

Day 6

Day 5

Day 4

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1





Part two of a psuedoseries I'm tentatively calling "… and the Klavigar had time."

Ion and Lovataar's meeting was partially influenced by the relevant section from Meta's 1st Anthropological Approach.

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