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Chapter Seventy-Six: Pups

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Seventy-Six: Pups

 

“Hmmm, how about this one?” I ran my fingers through Nalithor’s hair to pull back a section, then slipped a platinum ornament into his hair to hold it in place. The handle of the piece was shaped like a dragon and had pale blue topaz for eyes. On the table in front of us were dozens of such pieces. ‘Elise really went overboard.’

“We’re going to court, my dear, it will need to be more than one piece.” Nalithor chuckled and reached up to grab my wrist. “I have three titles I’m expected to represent and I believe the Royal Families’ expectations of you will be much the same. We should endeavor to appease them for now.”

“You’re certain we need to make an impression?” I asked, frowning.

“Not on the Royal Families, no,” Nalithor began, shifting in his seat so that he could pull me onto his lap. He smiled deviously and traced the Brands of Divinity around my throat with one finger. “The citizens, the Alliance, and those so-called ‘candidates’ for my role are who we need to make an impression upon. Even if we can’t reveal your identity to them yet it’s high time that we made them understand their place.”

“Well, that’s something we can agree on,” I mused, reaching up to cup his face in my hand. “That said, neither of us can get ready if you keep me trapped on your lap.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Nalithor murmured, his gaze thoughtful as he examined me. After a moment, he scooped me fully into his arms and carried me into the wardrobe. He set me down, moved over to my much smaller selection of clothes, and pulled several things off their hangers. “Let’s have you dress as an Adinvyr princess, shall we? You can finish helping me after I’ve helped you into your attire.”

“Just what are you plotting now?” I arched an eyebrow at him and studied his smirk.

“An Adinvyr princess’ attire consists of elaborate robes, certainly, but also armor,” Nalithor replied innocently, his smirk growing as he strode toward me. “You’ll—”

“She should dress as a X’shmiran princess,” Djialkan interjected, appearing between us in a puff of smoke. “The King and Queen will not be here, but representatives from their court will be. The Families are concerned that displaying Her Highness in outright Devillian attire—again—will raise too many suspicions.

“Humph, X’shmiran attire?” Nalithor muttered as he turned sharply to return the garments he’d selected. “I won’t pretend to be fond of the idea. It is summer and X’shmiran clothing covers everything, does it not?”

“You’re just sad you don’t get to play dress-up with me.” I grinned at him.

“My dear, I find a unique pleasure in helping you into your clothing,” Nalithor answered with another smirk. “It comes second only to taking you out of them.”

“Please.” Djialkan rolled his eyes before releasing a heavy sigh. “On to business. The Families, nobles from the Vorpmasian territories, Alliance delegates, X’shmiran representatives, Darius, and four supposed candidates for Balance will be in attendance today, along with the usual smattering of soldiers, commoners, and merchants from the city.

“Lucifer has said that, if Arianna decides to attend, she may act as she pleases so long as it doesn’t give her identity away. The Families have been advised to treat her like a foreign princess while in public settings such as this.”

“That is hardly attire for a princess.” Nalithor frowned as he watched me pull on one of my X’shmiran robes.

“Because they don’t consider me to be a princess, remember?” I countered dryly. “For me, dressing as a X’shmiran princess means to dress as an Umbral Mage—though I refuse to don a mask. Darius and the nobles can whine all they like but they won’t sway me on that.”

“Good.” Nalithor sighed before giving me a small smile. “I suppose I can’t convince you         to show up to court in your true form, and dressed as the First Princess of Vorpmasia, can I?”

“You would be a fool to try,” Djialkan stated with a snort. “I understand your eagerness to show Arianna off to her people. However, we must wait—and not just for Darius’ sake, might I add.”

“I know, I know,” Nalithor muttered, a pout forming on his mouth as he turned away to search for the final touches to his own attire. “After Arianna has chosen five hair ornaments for me, we can leave. I have a feeling that we shouldn’t keep Lucifer waiting.”

“Five?” I arched an eyebrow before turning to walk out of the wardrobe.

Pursing my lips, I poked through the collection for a moment before grabbing several and returning to Nalithor’s side. He shrugged on a floor-length brocade overrobe before swiftly pulling sections of his long hair up. I handed him the ornaments one at a time until he was finished.

“We are rather mismatched, aren’t we?” I laughed, tugging at the front of his extravagant robes. “What’s on the agenda after court? There should be more documents for us to pour over, or we could spar, or—”

“Unless something pressing appears, you and I will be going into the city,” Nalithor informed me.

My nylziis slid an arm behind my back and steered me out of his suite. Djialkan glided after us and then perched on one of my shoulders, while Alala came barreling down the hall toward us and promptly leapt up Nalithor’s robes.

‘Into the city? Why?’ I glanced up at him.

‘For both business and for pleasure,’ Nalithor answered, a small smile playing on his lips.

‘That doesn’t tell me much.’ I snorted.

“Your Highnesses,” a pair of guards acknowledged us as we approached the throne room. “General Il’thar is already waiting for you inside.”

‘And he has dozens of men stationed in the area,’ Nalithor remarked dryly, an amused expression settling on his face. ‘Shall we, my dear?’

‘We may as well get it over with,’ I answered with a small shrug.

The guards pushed open the doors for us and bowed slightly as we walked past them. I looked around with slight discomfort, uneasy about remaining in a place that was filled almost wall-to-wall with people. Alas, I knew I had little choice in the matter if I truly wanted to put the so-called candidates in their place.

“Your Excellency, surely there’s an alternative to war!” Darius exclaimed from near the dais.

“I must echo the Human boy’s sentiments,” an Elven woman spoke, her stance tense. “Was it not the empire’s—and the Alliance’s—decision to leave Falrrsald to the tribes within it? At the very least, we should attempt to negotiate with the N’lafmarans before—”

“The leadership of both empires is in agreement,” Lucifer stated, his tone harsh. “Falrrsald has been left alone for too long and has become too troubled for us to ignore. The sooner we act, the more loss of life we can avoid.”

“But war will just lose more lives!” Darius argued, seeming oblivious to Nalithor and I striding past him.

The Elf, however, was not.

“We’re trying to have a conversation here. Wait your turn!” The Elf turned to glower at us, but all color drained from her face when Nalithor glanced her way. “L-L-Lord Balance, I—”

“Good timing, you two,” Lucifer remarked, shooting us both a smile. His expression shifted to one of mischief when his gaze settled on me and he patted the smaller throne to his left. “Have a seat, Arianna-jiss. Nalithor, you may take your usual place.”

The ripple of murmurs among the Devillians present was enough of a hint for me to understand that my father was up to something and that that particular seat held significance to it. I glanced at Nalithor briefly but he had already begun to move for his chaise that sat to the far left of the dais. Without a word, I nodded to my father and strode toward the smaller throne.

Nalithor and Eyrian exchanged a brief look and soon after the Draekin shifted to stand behind my throne. Within the crowd, I spotted easily a dozen of our men shifting so that their positions were closer to the dais. The Imperial Guards themselves had grown tense and looked as if they were summoning more of their soldiers to the throne room as well.

‘Lucifer enjoys causing us trouble,’ Eyrian remarked but his tone implied that he enjoyed the emperor’s mischief.

‘This doesn’t seem conducive to keeping my identity a secret though,’ I pointed out.

“Now then,” Lucifer began with a brilliant smile but his gaze was razor sharp as it settled on the Elf woman, “Arianna-jiss and Nalithor-zir are the ones who discovered the many problems within Falrrsald. If you wish to avoid a war between the Alliance and the peoples of Falrrsald, it is these two you must convince first.”

“Ari!” Darius immediately turned to look at me, his expression pleading. “People will die if the Rilzaan Alliance goes to war with Falrrsald! Haven’t they suffered enough?”

“The N’lafmarans are suffering under the tyrannical rule of the Nusth Family,” I spoke pointedly. “They enslave and kill their own kind while following directives from beings claiming to be the Elder Gods—we have reason to believe they may in fact be under the thumb of Exiles instead.

“If we don’t intervene, the Nusth Family will run out of people within their own borders to subjugate and will begin looking elsewhere. The neighboring Zehylor kingdom will be next, followed by the tribes living within Falrrsald itself.”

“And then to us,” Nalithor stated, his tone making my brother flinch.

“As matters currently stand,” I began while drawing a map of aether in the air, “there are easily a dozen problems within Falrrsald itself. The region is being toyed with by forces we can’t allow to do as they please.

“We intend to take N’lafmar with as little bloodshed as possible but some is unavoidable. That said, thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of people will die in the next few decades if we decide to do nothing.”

“The Alliance does not intend to allow itself to be guilty through inaction,” Lucifer stated, his booming declaration making many of the foreign delegates flinch. “Doing nothing to help a region in need is akin to murdering them by our own hands.”

“Surely negotiations—” Darius started.

“It’s none of the Alliance’s business what happens in a foreign territory,” the Elf woman stated, her voice flat. When my brother fell silent, the woman motioned vaguely at the room. “We should be more concerned with fixing the territories within the Alliance.

“Again, I must demand that you allow me to proceed with my work in Dauthrmir.”

Several voices echoed her sentiments and she was soon joined by two men and another woman that I didn’t recognize. I narrowed my gaze at them but chose to say nothing for the moment. Djialkan nudged me with his snout and gave me a brief nod when I looked to him for confirmation.

‘They’re the so-called candidates, huh?’ I considered, watching as my brother moved to join them. ‘An Elf and…what are the rest?’

‘The other woman is Raogsur—an Ocean Elf,’ Djialkan answered with a haughty sniff. ‘One of the men is Human and the other is an Angel. All of them, including your brother, believe they are each a candidate for Balance.’

‘And they have been pestering me for permission to work in the capital,’ Lucifer added, glancing briefly at me. ‘You must have something to say about that.’

“What manner of work could an Elf possibly have to see to in Dauthrmir?” I asked, allowing a venomous smile to spread across my lips. “Given your attire I would have thought perhaps the Scarlet District, but I doubt you need His Excellency’s permission for that.”

“You…” The woman’s face twisted into a snarl before she turned sharply to look at Nalithor. “My lord, you would allow one of your concubines to speak to candidates for your role in such a way? Does she not realize that one of us could become your spouse?”

“I see no candidates for Balance here,” I remarked, rising to my feet. Darkness whirled into life around my feet as I walked down the steps to the dais and approached the five candidates. To his credit, my brother didn’t shrink away from me in the manner the other four did.

“What would some common who—” the Raogsur woman cut herself off and grew pale.

“Not a single one of you has Brands of Divinity!” I gasped with mock-surprise, bringing a hand up to my mouth before giving them a devious smile. Darkness erupted around me as I fully shifted to one of my light armor sets, revealing my bi-colored Brands for the fools to see. The four foreigners took a nervous step away from me. “Everyone was informed that candidates would bear Brands, yet you five,” I paused to give Darius a pointed look, “do not. If you wish to incite change within the Alliance you should do so through official channels.

“Nalithor and I will not tolerate interference from anyone, especially not self-proclaimed candidates with no understanding of the role of Balance.”

“My ayraziis is right,” Nalithor spoke up as he appeared beside me. “We have already begun our work within Alliance lands and I will not permit ignorant pups such as yourselves to attempt to worm your way into matters of Balance.

“The five of you can’t hide your intentions from me. You are pursuing your own interests.”

“If she was truly your ayraziis, the Elders wouldn’t have need of candidates,” one of the males spoke, his eyes narrowing as he glared up at Nalithor in defiance. “Her Brands must be fake!”

The impertinent man grabbed me roughly by the arm and attempted to rub off my Brands as if they were painted on. Within seconds, members of the Imperial Guard and my own men had surrounded us. Color drained from the man’s face as he slowly looked up at me.

“I’ve had enough of this.” I twisted my arm out of his grip and promptly spun into a kick.

My shin connected with his stomach and sent him skidding backward toward the Imperial Guards. They parted, causing the man to fall to the floor. I strode after him and summoned Eoraso in one hand. The moment his gaze fell on the sword he let out a strangled squeak and hurriedly scrambled to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor.

“P-please spare me, Your Highness!” the man gasped. Gray feathered wings sprouted from his back and trembled as he continued to beg for his life.

‘What is it?’ Djialkan nosed me when I stopped a few paces away from the Angel.

‘Would it be too troublesome if I gave the guards orders?’ I kept my gaze fixed on my prey.

‘Be careful with your words,’ Djialkan suggested.

“General Il’thar,” I called, listening as the Draekin hurried to join me. “Would you see to it that our Angel friend here is brought somewhere ‘comfortable?’ Given his race and his status as an Astral Mage, there is more for us to discuss with him—but later.”

“Sir?” Eyrian glanced to Nalithor, who simply nodded his approval. “Very well. You three, see to it that our guest is handled appropriately.”

“Now then,” I murmured, smiling as I turned to look at the remaining candidates. “Which of you actually gives a damn about Balance, and which of you is simply trying to ‘marry up?’ Hmmm?”

“I refuse to allow some Human concubine to speak to me in such a—” the Elf shrieked in pain as Eoraso pierced her shoulder. I smiled and drove the tip of Eoraso into the floor, my booted foot coming to rest on the wrist of her other hand.

“A-Ari!” Darius yelped, startled. “If you kill her—”

“I won’t kill her unless she gives me a better reason to,” I spoke coolly. “She’s not a threat to me, nor does she appear to understand just who she is talking to.”

“Ahhh, I see our favorite is dealing with the trash again.” Sihix appeared beside me. His tone was one of amusement but, the moment he settled his gaze on the Elven woman, she wet herself and whimpered.

“You should teach me that trick sometime,” I remarked, glancing at the Lari’xan.

“Honestly, what is it with mortals pretending to be something they aren’t?” Yiltanys appeared to my other side. “Candidates for Balance are marked with Brands appropriate to the role, and Arianna-jiss is the only one in this room with such markings.

“Furthermore, we, the Lari’xan, have decided that Arianna-jiss and Nalithor-zir are the only ones we will recognize as Balance.”

“You creatures can’t even withstand our power! Sihix exclaimed with mock disappointment. He turned to look at the remaining two candidates and my brother. Get out of our sight.

“More specifically,” Yiltanys interjected, blocking their path, “you will submit to questioning. I labor to believe you’re all foolish enough to pretend to be candidates, especially when in the presence of the God of Balance himself.”

“To the rest of you,” Sihix began, pivoting to look at the gathered delegates, commoners, and merchants alike, “we expect full cooperation with Arianna-jiss and Nalithor-zir’s inquiries.”

“Do not make us get involved,” Yiltanys stated, his gaze like ice.

“Are you going to let her up?” Sihix turned to look at me, a hand on his hip. However, he smirked in response to the look I gave him.

“Do as you like,” I scoffed, pulling my blade out of the bitch’s shoulder.

Without another word I turned on my heel and summoned a cloth to clean Eoraso with. The familiar tingle of aether filled the air, followed by the Elven woman’s screams. I glanced over my shoulder to find that Nalithor had drawn his spear and had plunged it into the woman’s stomach. Corrupted light magics fizzled around her hands as she grasped his weapon and attempted to remove it by force.

“Bastard, you would protect some Human harlot?!” The Elven woman glared at Nalithor in defiance.

“Arianna,” Lucifer stated, drawing my attention toward him.

‘You know as well as I do that I shouldn’t do what you’re thinking,’ I replied as I dismissed Eoraso. “Eyrian, have the Elf taken to the academy. They can treat her wounds there before searching for the cause of her corruption.”

“C-corruption?” Darius stuttered. “What do you mean corruption? That was light—”

“It was corrupted light magic, boy. Yiltanys rounded on my brother as I took a seat beside Lucifer once more. The foreigners were all focused on the Lari’xan and their exchange with the fake candidates, but every Devillian in the room had their attention focused on me.

“But light is purity!” Darius argued. “It can’t be corrupted!”

“Are you really going to argue with the Lari’xan of Light about his own element?” I asked, pressing my fingertips to my temples. Darius gave me a clueless look so I continued, “Darius, a ‘Lari’xan’ is an elemental deity. Yiltanys is quite literally the God of Light, and Sihix is the God of Darkness.

“Arguing with them about what their own element can or can’t do is…”

“So light can be corrupted?” Darius frowned and turned to look up at Yiltanys with a doe-eyed gaze. “Then, shouldn’t you be avoiding a place like Vorpmasia? It’s steeped in dark aether, isn’t it?”

“Yiltanys and Sihix’s domains intertwine with each other,” I stated, watching as my brother flushed. Clearly, he was thinking that wasn’t the only thing that intertwined—but I couldn’t honestly claim he was wrong in his assumptions. “You could spend an entire semester learning about their relationship, let alone the relationship between their elements, Darius. Suffice to say that they are quite literally the authority on dark and light, and—”

“And that the Devillians are our favorites,” Yiltanys interrupted, appearing beside me. “Especially your darling sister here. Sihix and I are both indebted to her and Nalithor for saving our domains. We intend to support them in their endeavors as Balance with our full authority.

“Unlike Angels, Devillians are loyal and will not betray me.”

“But Ari isn’t Devillian!” Darius protested. “Shouldn’t her actions have gained your favor for the Humans?”

“Arianna-jiss was acting on behalf of the Vorpmasian Empire,” Yiltanys answered, smiling as he drew a finger down my jawline. When Nalithor growled at him, the Lari’xan stopped and allowed his hand to rest by his side once more. “Darius-zir, you would be foolish to think that the Lari’xan are unaware of X’shmiran matters. After all, a portion of Sihix’s domain resides close to your home city. The Mists do not keep Sihix from knowing all that has transpired under the Black Family’s rule.

“Which means that I know everything. You would do well to reconsider whose side you wish to ally yourself with.

“Then…the reason Ari isn’t scared of your power…” Darius looked between me and Yiltanys for a moment, before stepping forward with a resolved expression. “Ari isn’t scared of you because your power isn’t corrupt? That means something is wrong with my light, doesn’t it?

“Your Excellency, I’m formally requesting that you have me admitted to the same place they’re taking the corrupted Elven woman. If my magic has truly been corrupted, I wish to have the problem remedied before the corruption spreads and warps my mind.”

‘Says the boy who tried to kill his own sister,’ Sihix muttered as he strode up the dais stairs to join me and Yiltanys.

“It will not be easy,” Lucifer murmured, his gaze unreadable.

“Becoming something that my sister and Nalithor must hunt would be harder,” Darius answered, clenching his fists by his side. “Many of the problems found in Falrrsald stem from a manner of corruption, do they not? As do the people warped by beast blood? It may be different types but I don’t want to become something Ari has to kill!”

‘Do not trust him,’ Yiltanys murmured, placing a hand on my shoulder when I moved to speak. “If you wish to be cleansed of corruption you will be dealing with me personally. Do you truly think you can handle me or my power, boy?”

Darius flinched and looked away from the Lari’xan with an expression of discomfort. A few simpering X’shmiran nobles stepped forward to attempt to talk my brother out of it but he shied away from them and shook them off. I caught a low growl from Nalithor and the narrowing of his eyes as he looked at the nobles. Before he could rip into them, I gave him a warning nudge with my darkness.

‘Not yet,’ I stated, watching my nylziis’ stance loosen. ‘You said your instincts told you that punishing the X’shmirans must wait, didn’t you?’

‘It’s still a struggle.’ Nalithor took a deep breath before turning away from the X’shmirans and striding toward me.

“Nalithor,” Darius spoke up in a strange tone, causing my nylziis to pause and look at my brother. “Do…do you love my sister?”

“More than anything,” Nalithor stated. He didn’t bother waiting for Darius’ reaction before striding up the dais and conjuring a seat of shadows to my left. Once sitting, Nalithor caught my hand in his and laced his fingers with mine.

“Then why are you so insistent on possessing her?” Darius questioned, a deep frown settling onto his features. “If you love each other—”

“Darius-zir,” Lucifer spoke up sharply, making my brother flinch, “it is the Devillian way. Lovers possess each other. It is not as one-sided as you make it sound.

“Maric, escort the boy to a secure room at the academy and have the staff go through his things to make sure none of his belongings are the cause for his warped light. Inform his partner and the Beshulthien emperor of his decision.”

“Yes, Your Excellency,” Maric bowed deeply to Lucifer, glanced to Nalithor and I with amusement, and then turned to face my brother with a serious expression. “Darius-zir, this way.”

‘Nalithor, send your Vulin to fetch some of my servants for me,’ Yiltanys glanced at Nalithor briefly before returning his gaze to the whispering crowd in front of us. ‘We will need to take precautions to keep his corruption from spreading to the academy staff. If it is as bad as I believe it is, we should keep them away from him entirely and allow only me and my servants near him.’

“Now then, with those matters out of the way,” Lucifer spoke in a commanding tone, drawing the attention of his people and the delegates. “We will resume morning court as usual. I apologize for the interruptions. If the Families have no protests, I will extend this session to make up for lost time.”

“That would be wise, Your Excellency,” Aelia Il’thar spoke up and nodded to Lucifer before any of the other Families could speak. “You will hear no protests from us.”

“Sihix and I will remain to oversee matters and make certain no more false candidates demand access to places they do not belong,” Yiltanys spoke, pivoting to look at my father. “Balance has other matters they need to attend to before the day wastes away.”

“Of course…” Lucifer glanced at Nalithor and me, then nodded. “I am grateful for any assistance Balance can provide us with the issues plaguing the Alliance. Should you need anything of us, you shall have it.”

“Thank you, Your Excellence,” Nalithor spoke formally as he rose to his feet. My nylziis shifted to look at me and then smiled, offering me his hand. “Shall we, my dear?”

“I’ll try to leave some prey for you.” I shot him a mischievous smile as he pulled me to my feet.

Nalithor escorted me across the throne room and toward the doors. As we walked, Eyrian fell into step with us, his expression taut. Several more of his men joined us after we left the throne room and I soon noticed we were not heading for our temporary headquarters—we were making our way toward the road that would lead us to the Sapphire Quarter.

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