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She could just stab him. Stab him, and observe as his secrets gush from the open wound. Stab him, and steal what was stolen. Stab him, and destroy the bridge connecting her beloved land to hell.
The moonlight peered into the chamber through magnificent windows, illuminating her red hair and his pale skin. A bottle of celebratory passum sat on a table; it would not be difficult to set fire to the bed. And the emperor’s closet no doubt contained his parazonium, ironically suitable for such a murder. No opportunity could be more perfect.
Then, Lucretia turned her eye on him again. He inhaled and exhaled, fidgeted, and sporadically muttered incoherent nonsense. Before this night, he’d conceal his face behind a menacing mask, disguising his vulnerable humanity with a blank void. Now, in spite of her feelings of total loathing, she mentally confessed that his was the face of an angel.
And she married this despicable seraph. Emperor Versus.
The sun aroused from her slumber, sporting the cloth of thinly layered clouds. Lucretia stared at the ceiling in hushed defeat and sullen resentment at her cowardly actions – or lack thereof.
Just as she could not kill any innocent man on the street, she could not kill the Emperor.
“Being born first, the throne was Verus’ birthright; his twin, Nero, picked the short stick and emerged from the womb minutes late. Ten years after, one prince was strangled in the luxury of his own bedchambers. Verus shamelessly emerged as the perpetrator, with petty anger as his motive. Of course, he went with impunity.
“Politicians scratched their heads for years over the issue. No one politically benefited from Nero’s untimely demise. No one would miss him, as Verus (even figuratively) blotted him out of existence with his own excellence in court and in the battlefield. Nothing immediately changed, except for a saddened, partial queen.
“However, the ugly beast of fear is nurtured by such conditions. Verus’ coronation was a feared day, indeed.”
Rheon paused effectively and assessed the crowd of listening men, with a particularly close eye on one pokerfaced, wooden-legged individual. On nights clear of myrmidons, he’d present at a local pub and reiterate outrageous, believe-it-or-not tales of the god-emperor. Ignorance was an unfed horse, and Rheon nourished it with venomous knowledge. Enough knowledge, perhaps, to transform men into intrepid warriors of the Foil.
Some accused his stories of blasphemy, and when they did, Rheon laughed insolently in their faces. Only uninformed fools and childish aristocrats truly accepted their ruler as a deity.
“Emperor Claudius IV died from illness a year after the Palatian Empire occupied other world powers, including your native soil, good sir. And yours, too! It’s a sad shame; he worked to fulfill his ambition of ‘ruling the world,’ and died before he enjoyed it. Succeeding him was the young, but tremendous Verus, or as he is known today, Versus. Versus, the man who inherited the world.”
The man, dark skinned and dark haired, rolled his eyes. Rheon’s confidence faltered; the wiser ones required more motive than background history to enroll in a radical force – and he desperately needed the wiser ones.
Then, a striking young woman, vastly incompatible in a bar teeming with males, clambered onto a table and lifted her drink. Audaciously, she completed Rheon’s monologue: “Versus, the man who traded the world for hell!”
Tables rattled with approving beats and the bar rumbled with appreciative hoots. Some men gobbled up his speech; others still chewed on it contemplatively. Among the encouraging ruckus, the one-legged man limped towards Rheon, extending his hand. “I thinks you mighty voolish, sir,” he growled in a thick Northern Barrens accent, “but I cannot twiddle thumbs while pretty little lady vights.”
He welcomed the new recruit, and whispered a password and meeting site into his ear. He then located that girl, so passionate, so out of place, and so sadly vicious. “Excusa! I’m afraid we haven’t met,” Rheon introduced himself. “I apologize if this is demanding of me, but the Foil unhappily lacks in women. If you would…?”
Lurching drunkenly from her chair to embrace him for the recommendation, she declared, “They call me Fashion. And I hate Versus.” As her name dictates, she was quite the trendsetter: the others began announcing their names and hate for the emperor. She giggled at the reaction, and continued their more important discussion in a quieter area.
“I know of you – Rheon the Renegade. You used to be in the court, or army, or something fancy like that. You certainly do look and speak like an imperial.”
“The army is hardly fancy.”
“High up in the army, I mean,” she gestured to signify the grandeur. “One of those myrmidons with engraved blades or whatever ridiculous things the people are paying for.” When Rheon grimaced at the undoubtedly awful recollections, she politely pursued a different subject. “Women can do a lot for a rebellion force, renegade. Where do you want me to start?”
The air, thick with blood and hate, shook Lucretia. Spying from her tower, the gallows resembled a stage for popular troubadours and bards, as the people encompassed it to obtain the best view. How bloodthirsty, how savage. Will the nation betray the rebel, stone and curse his name as he is beheaded? Or are they organizing their revolution?
Versus, bearing that black, ominous visor, hastily tugged her curtain closed and gripped her shoulders tenderly. “Thank you, Lucretia,” he said in his melodious voice. A voice she feared no one would ever hear or believe. “I’m branded an overly theatrical fool. If I may entreat one final favor, it would be for you to extend that principle.”
“If I may impose a different final favor, one perhaps less selfish and more demanding,” resumed the Emperor. “I implore you to shelter Palatia for me. You, and your daughters and sons, and granddaughters and grandsons.” He squeezed her shoulders and shook her, in the fervor of his appeal. Yes, yes, he was an overly theatrical fool.
“But I fear,” she admitted in cheerless honesty, “that I may never discover anyone quite like you.”
He laughed, and then became grave. “You will. You must.”
Lucretia removed the unsightly thing obscuring him and caressed his cheeks. In many ways, he still boasted the endearing semblance of a child. She seared the image of his distressed eyes, opaque as a starless sky, into her memory. His slender jaw and royal nose. The feel of his velvety skin. The human, Verus – not the emperor, Versus.
For the first time, she kissed him, and promised.
For the second time, she kissed him, and said goodbye.
Already feeling like an oddity in a fine silk dress, Fashion resisted the mainstream and rooted for the blue-marked and dazed stallion. The majestic purple horse, a yearly favorite victor, naturally led the competition. Men roared at the steed backing their money; women fanned themselves and glanced anxiously at the figure lounging in the high box seat, impassively watching.
His black mask glinted in the harsh summer daylight. When he made his entrance, the entrance was made grand: a sweeping gale stole the audience’s attention, smoke and flames erupted from thin air, and a tiny flare soared into the sky and bloomed into a flower with a deafening crack. An enthusiastic buzz radiated from the swarms, speculating how the Emperor performed such godlike feats, and who were they to deny him.
Fashion refused herself to be wowed; Versus, like all monarchs preceding him, exploits every trick in the book.
The last lap. The blue, a new contender this year, skillfully advanced and flanked the purple in a dramatic head-to-head battle for second. Briefly, the arena’s concentration shifted from the games to the Emperor, who stood up and abandoned his box seat. A ripple of bewilderment gripped the spectators, until the purple’s rider aggressively shoved the blue rider off his horse and snatched the victory. The arena collectively groaned or shouted in delight.
Before the censors called for foul play, the ring gasped and grew utterly silent. The Emperor emerged in a section of the arena – Fashion’s section. Versus’ footsteps reverberated and amplified as he unhurriedly scaled the stairs. Visibly, women stiffened and wilted when he passed. Fashion clasped firmly onto her necklace, unsure of what to pray for, or who to pray to, or if she ought to be praying at all.
A nearby soldier’s sword winked at her flirtatiously.
She could just stab him.
But, as silly luck would have it, Emperor Versus elected her. With two fingers of his gloved hand, he tapped her shoulder, and then boldly traced her visage’s contour. Behind her back, Fashion pinched herself, yearning to bite him. His leather touch eventually left her, but she was tainted forever.
Holding out his open palm, he beseeched her.
“Come with me.”
Livid myrmidons attracted citizens to the source of their ferocity – so many that trespassers had a limb amputated by the elite soldiers. Unsurprisingly, some arms and legs stained the street and disciplined the unruly multitude. But it was not the assault that roused the myrmidons or impressed the people.
No, the populace forgot the injured very quickly.
Artful graffiti, crude propaganda, both strategic and juvenile. Everything that a young rebellion, traditionally, is.
Painted on a Forum wall was a bold scarlet portrait of the unmasked Emperor Versus. The mug of a monstrous demon with a tentacle beard replaced his face. The slimy facial hair sadistically clutched and crushed people, cash, provisions, and books. Written alongside it, in Barrens-tongue, Geridi, Dalek, Palatia’s vulgar English and imperial Latin, was the message: bring down the thieving demon-king!
Rheon energetically congratulated Gennidy for the idea’s conception and linguistics. Simple enough, but effective. At the next Foil conference, the attendance increased tenfold.
But Fashion didn’t attend, nor did anyone expect her to.
Rheon and Fashion, fifty men and thirty women. Of those numbers, twenty-five could not speak Palatian English. Sixty could not read or write. Thirty failed to set aside cultural differences and segregated the Northerners from the Islanders from the Easterners from the Imperial West Coast. Fourteen were severely malnourished. Ten practiced boorish customs and lacked restraint and respect. Nine were children.
“I can’t do this,” said the boss, whirling away from the disorganized faction in a panic.
Fashion feebly encouraged him. “We can. We just need a translator.”
A deep, gruff voice quieted the jumbled clatter and clamor of the rebellion with competitive volume. In five languages, he bellowed. When he shouted, “Shut up!” in English, Rheon howled hysterically. Some nervous folks chuckled uncertainly with him.
“By the damned Emperor, you, sir, are godsend!” he announced, clapping this linguistics master on the back. “What is your name, and would you like to be our official translator? How delightful, someone so well-versed in these unique tongues!” Fashion never witnessed a man as giddy as Rheon at this moment.
“I am Gennidy, sir,” he rumbled. His wooden peg for a crutch reminded the renegade of their first encounter. “I hail from Barrens. Ambassador, I was. My Valatian English not so good, I am sorry. I bring bad news to Emveror Versus when he become ruler. Barrens do not vant to give lumber to Palatia. Lumber is too vrecious, ve do not destroy vorests. So Versus cut my leg. I vould like to assist. I am sorry for insult, but you muddled, sir.”
Rheon, still chortling, corroborated, “Yes, I am seriously muddled, meus amicus. Do you mind translating this address to the masses? Your voice is brilliantly loud, by the by.” He spoke in English, and Gennidy boomed the declaration to the obediently heeding rebels.
“Many of you think this is silly. You won’t work with the man of the Barrens, because his hands are coarse and his skin dark. You won’t work with the man of the Islands, because his body is lean and painted with symbols you do not comprehend. You won’t work with the man of the East, because he is freckly, tall and blonde. You won’t work with the Palatians, because we conquered your land.
“It’s wretchedly clichéd, but we are all oppressed by the same man. He cares not for religion, for skin color, for language, or culture. Versus only wants to suck us dry of our money, enlist men to labor in the army and in mysterious projects, burn our schools, spirit away our teachers and scholars, and subject us to torture if we resist. He is beyond justification. We have no time to fight amongst ourselves.
“I do have a plan; it’s risky and ridiculous and still in the works. But first, we need to cooperate, expand, mingle, and learn from each other.
“Let’s begin with some education.”
“One secret imperial weapon, thirty thousand men, thirty five thousand women.” Rheon tugged his dark hair back into the traditional myrmidon braid. “Morale and unity is high, and our painted testaments to freedom have not yet been scourged.” He hooked a deceivingly delicate device in his vest and doubted how such a thing murdered so easily. “We will infiltrate the castle and take Empress Lucretia, whom the people and Emperor love.” For the first time in seven years, he fixed his sword readily to his belt. “And if Emperor Versus dares leave her to die, she will spark our uprising.”
The revolutionaries swamped the Forum and Palazzo entrances, blazing story-high bonfires, tossing rocks at soldiers, bearing signs written in every language. Gennidy, the wisest, remained behind to signal their eventual retreat. Rheon, the cleverest, employed his old familiarity and his expired status as a myrmidon to roam the palace. Distracted by riots and protests, the night sentinels could scarcely guard.
“Caesar,” Rheon reported, opening the door a crack. “The people are revolting. Our hands are full. We require your powerful presence and your wisdom.”
The Emperor sat on his bed, still fully clothed, still fully conscious. In a tired voice, “Is it that time already, my good man?” And without waiting for a response, Versus slid past him like a phantom in royal robes.
Rheon held his breath, and counted the infamous oppressor’s steps. One dead, ambitious father. Two twin princes. Three irrational rebel leaders. Four countries united under one name. Trembling, he could not delay – but when he pointed that killing device at Lucretia – their lovely, striking, Lucretia – she mimicked his gesture.
“Forgive me,” she said.
With a bang, a deadly, invisible arrow pierced Rheon’s shoulder, streaking his old soldier’s uniform. Right on cue, guards roughly detained his graceless corpse and transported him to the dungeon. The renegade could only distinguish Lucretia’s silhouette and a pendant twinkling around her neck.
In her younger years, her father, the tailor, adorned her in elegant dresses and patterns. Thus, she was nicknamed Fashion; the term stuck despite her outgrowing the clothes, her father’s atrocious death three years ago, her poverty preventing her from purchasing trendy cloth, her mother smacking her whenever she failed to scrape up enough money for provisions and taxes. Nevertheless, men thought her striking red hair and brown eyes beautiful, and beauty seemed to be her sole escape from an impoverished existence.
“Emperor Versus is looking for a wife,” said her mother.
“Emperor Versus will never make a woman happy,” said Fashion.
“Emperor Versus doesn’t care for the rank of this girl,” said her mother.
“Whatever the rank of the girl, she will not care for Emperor Versus.”
And her mother slapped her, because slapping her is better than watching her hang. Just as abruptly, she hugged her daughter close and whispered, “Nothing would be better for my girl than to be an empress. Get out of here, for me.”
Promptly, she was thrust from her dwelling, decorated in the prettiest old dress her late father designed, bound for the Magni Cursi, the Grand Races. The entire Palatian capital typically congregated there, and this year women were admitted for the Emperor’s scrutiny. It came as no surprise that he could unfeelingly select any cute looking woman from the crowd to bear his future demon spawn.
Rheon appeared like he frequently does, within condensed crowds so as to evade suspicion. “I hear,” he murmured, “your mother wants you to fraternize with the enemy.”
“My mother wants it, not me.”
“Non, non, you’ve figured me all wrong!” insisted Rheon, “We like fraternizing, fraternizing is good. I believe the correct term is, ah, double agent. You can be our double agent.” He winked at her playfully, but added soberly, “You do realize I’m not joking.”
Fashion glared forward, at the towering Goliath of the arena. She never entered it, but the fear of marrying a man she abhorred dwarfed the thrill of the majestic structure. “I understand your reasoning,” she replied, wishing rationality would triumph over girlish emotions, “but you must understand my position, too.”
Rheon considered this briefly. As an answer, he tugged her to the nearest tailor shop. “Excusa, sir, have you a dress of imported silk in your wares? A beautiful one, for this beautiful girl.” With a solemn smile, he positioned a pendant around her neck. “As gorgeous as you are, you cannot win an emperor’s affections wearing last year’s clothing.”
“You coward! You barnacle, you lout!”
“Insolent girl, depart from this court at once!”
“Give me my father back!”
A bunch of nobles gathered at the ruckus, like dust to an antique. A young teenager, fifteen in age and garbed in raggedy shirts eluded the guard and advanced like a fierce arrow to the Emperor. She wielded tailor’s scissors, poised to messily assassinate. Before she could quench her homicidal thirst, a myrmidon apprehended her and lifted his blade to purge her of her arm.
Versus said, “Hold, soldier. There is no need to spill blood here.”
Fashion spat at him, her emaciated body pathetically challenging the guard’s. “Kill me now, like you killed my father,” she provoked him.
His neck snapped to her, the words piquing his interest. “My dear girl, I am an Emperor, not a killer.”
“Cure him, bring him back; you cursed him, devil!” The tears sprung forth from her eyes as the image of her father, grotesquely disfigured with cancerous tumors and dried blood revisited her mind. Tucked in his soiled pocket, a note printed in a pompous calligraphy thanked him for his expired services.
Like a nimble myrmidon in fluid combat, Versus lifted his poised hand and struck the girl’s consciousness out of her. “Transport her safely to her mother. I’ll not tolerate invaders within the court again, else you, not the interlopers, will pay the penalty.”
Wordlessly, the Emperor turned and entered the Palazzo, with heavy eyes and an aura of grief.
In all probability, Dowager Queen Pomona discovered the legendary Fountain of Youth. Throughout Fashion’s lifetime, the Queen’s countenance consistently remained youthful and stunning – if not, her features improved at every public appearance. Those still loosely loyal to the dynasty used her everlasting beauty as a conspiracy device. Up close, she did exude the atmosphere of a goddess.
Goddess or no, Pomona still frightened her terribly. As the regal woman orbited Fashion with a circumspect eye, she felt her social status’ flaws, her exterior’s obvious shortcomings, and her disgust for the entire royal family magnify by the thousands. The Emperor’s reclining idly on his throne did not relieve her plummeting opinion of him.
“What is your name?” the queen demanded.
“They call me Fashion, for my late father’s trade.” To her reply, she belatedly attached, “Your Highness.”
She tittered as politely as tittering can be. “Young girl, I requested your name, not your street label.”
“Please forgive me, Your Highness, but I was never identified as anything but Fashion. Not even by my mother.”
Queen Pomona ceased in her wolfish circling. Her eyes, a dark, dark black, held alarming resemblance to Rheon. Endless tunnels for eyes were, of course, an imperial feature. “My poor, poor girl,” she cried, though lacking in sympathy, “I will be your mother soon. And I refuse to summon you in such a crude fashion. Forgive my pun.”
Off the side, Versus chuckled, a reaction that Fashion expected not from him.
Humiliated, she surrendered her mortifying name, “Lucy, my original name is Lucy.”
In a rustle of weighty garments, the Emperor glided to her side. “Lucy is no name for a queen,” he said with impacting charisma. “It is English, and unflattering juxtaposed to your loveliness. I pray your mother will not admonish me for desiring a more becoming title.”
He stood at such close proximity. Fashion’s face flamed red, a product of a discomforting blend of emotions.
“I shall call you Lucretia.”
Versus never asked anything of her; all requirements for an appropriate Empress were, essentially, mandatory by the court. Etiquette, Imperial Latin, proper attire, etiquette, politics, Palatian history, etiquette, and etiquette. Pompous nobles regarded her with elitists’ scorn and teased the Emperor’s modest (or as they say behind his back, poor) spouse preference. Versus ignored them, and did not ask anything of them, either.
In truth, Lucretia discovered he rarely asks anything of anybody. Just a quintet of taxes, absolute obedience, discarded scholarship, labor and military time. He employed amputation as his primary method of discipline – no matter how awful, it was still a far cry from execution. Instead of that fabled fiend who strangled his brother, his apathy, silence, and disinterest stressed his humanity.
And when he spoke, he spoke beautifully.
Often, she found herself voicing aloud, “I’d never expect that from you.”
And every time, he’d respond almost sorrowfully, “You’ve figured me all wrong.”
And perhaps she had.
Every night, Versus mumbled in his sleep. Just a quintet concerning his dynasty, a secret, an execution, Lucretia, and Nero.
“You should be honored that I deign to dirty my hands with your blood.”
“You do me wrong, sir. My blood will cleanse your hands.”
“As emperor, I have not killed beyond the battlefield. My hands are clean.”
“The empire knows of your pride in your no-killing policy. But here you are, prepared to murder me.”
“Renegades have their place. I am merely herding an angry goat.”
“But sir! Savage wolves are not herders. I will kindly overlook your error, as you’ve never known goats anyway.”
The silent gathering listened, half perplexed and half mesmerized by this exchange. Lucretia observed from a raised platform, body numb with anticipation and hands clenched and clammy. In her musings, she cursed at them for enjoying their chitchat while she suffered in the suspense.
Her compassionate side, however, forgave them. They deserved an ultimate banter.
Versus unsheathed his magnificent parazonium, soliciting gasps from the crowd. Killing a lowly renegade with an imperial sword? Preposterous. “Are you so scared, renegade, that you delay your demise with your words?”
“Oh, yes, I am a frightened little pup. I’m not ready to die yet. Are you?”
Something in Rheon’s words stunned the Emperor, if only for a short-lived second. Throughout the wide-eyed metropolis, it was silently acknowledged that the blood of a rebel was about to spill. Versus perceptibly trembled as he declared, “You, Rheon the Renegade, former imperial myrmidon, are guilty of treason against the Emperor. Therefore, you will be decapitated before the populace, as a reminder and a punishment. Have you any last words?”
He breathed deeply in mock deliberation. “Yes, I do,” Rheon exclaimed. “You announced my name incorrectly.”
Versus raised his chin, gaze locked on his wife.
And with a wry smile: “My name is Nero.”
Just as they anticipated, the crowd erupted into cries of disbelief and delight and disorder. Just as he said, Versus delayed before delivering death. Just as they practiced, Lucretia stood, aimed that killing weapon and pulled the trigger.
And then she laughed sadly, because a rebel’s blood did spill in the end.
She was falling, but her feet remained firmly on the floor. Pure, white light flashed at her, and the walls encompassing her trembled with velocity. The tumbling sensation ended, but Lucretia dizzily stumbled through the open doors. The ceiling omitted powerful light without any flames. Busybodies, totally engrossed in their occupation, sported odd garments and shoes, and nothing reeked of the city. People spoke rapidly, odd noises sounded to her left and right – explosions, animal sounds, beeping. Was this the land of the gods? Was this heaven, or hell?
“This is the Underground, and the greatest of my secrets,” Versus explained bitterly, allowing her to steady herself on his arm. “Legend has it that humans once shared this knowledge, and this knowledge destroyed them. Weapons of war, concocted diseases, loss of faith in the presence of science. The wars ceased when the earth was reduced to a remnant, a mere shadow, of her former glory. My family took it upon themselves to reboot the human race.
“We could not obliterate knowledge. Knowledge would develop and mature again. Alternatively, we contained it. We have for years, in fear of repeating history. Not all of my ancestors, my father for example, obeyed this creed. Instead they cultivated the secret into what you are witnessing. An underground laboratory buried under the world above.
“When my father introduced the secret to us, we did not know what to make of it. He blathered like a madman, so engrossed in the very sciences he forbade, so obsessed with dominating a world he cared not for. Nero, being a clever idealist, organized an elaborate scheme that today consumes our lives.” Versus blinked furiously, like a boy striving to be a man. “If only Nero realized how insensitive it was, forcing a weak man such to convert into a cold-blooded, detested Emperor while he played the people’s advocate. His resistance unifies the nation under mutual hatred for me, and my dynasty’s secret will crumble as my Empress defies me.”
Head pounding from an overload of revelation, she released his hand and retreated from him. She put two and two together, and despised the outcome. “My dear Emperor,” Lucretia said, eyes stinging, “why are you imploring the only woman capable of loving you to kill you?”
Versus only looked at her breathlessly, as if her words were all he could ever ask for.