Siege of Arey: Three

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Once shut in the relative safety of her personal quarters, Alane couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief.  It was greeted by the soft crinkle of pages, like a book being closed, then the soft rustle of cloth as someone within the room rose, and voluminous skirts settled around the occupant.  Violet haired, blue-eyed with a face full of amusement, Lady Kayah was Alane’s right hand and personal attendant.  The woman looked upon the Empress with a knowing grin.

“Finally escape your adoring court?” The Lady inquired, approaching Alane and plucking the Royal Coronet from her brow.  “You look like you’re ready to glare daggers into someone.”

Alane chuckled dryly, letting the woman abscond with her tiara.  Reaching behind herself, she began to unlace the burdensome gown.  “Only Lord Cyto, everyone else has long since gone.  With the fires down in the village, no doubt some are watching from what safety they can find.”

“I don’t know why you put up with that treacherous snake,” Kayah said, scowling.  She carried the Coronet over to its resting place, a white silk pillow. “Everyone knows that he’s poisoned the Whiteblood against you.  Everything happening in the city can be boiled down to that monstrosity. And I won’t beg Your Highness’s pardon for saying so.”

“I would expect no less of you, Kayah,” Alane said with a definitive note of fondness.  “Out of everyone, you keep me honest and you keep things in perspective.  When everyone else at court has an agenda, you don’t.  You’re simply here for me at the end of the day.”

The handmaiden carried the Coronet over to a secret wardrobe built into the wall, placing it inside with all the Empress’s other valuables.  “You’d be better of getting rid of all those at court who oppose you.”

“Not necessarily,” Alane said, shrugging out of the gown even as Kayah crossed the room to help divest her of it.  Kayah folded it neatly over one arm, intending to take it with her to be laundered.  “Better the snakes that we know, than to supplant them with ones that we don’t.”

Kayah quirked another of her grins.  “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, hm?  I suppose it makes sense, but I can’t imagine spending so much time among people you know hate you and are doing everything in their power to ruin you.”

“I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt, Kayah, though I’d only ever admit that to you.  I won’t say that my court isn’t a lonely, depressing place.  But there are small rays of sunshine amidst all the storm clouds.  I’m not totally without friends.”

“Just mostly,” Kayah snorted in amusement.

Alane sighed, looking into the mirror on the bureau.  “Just mostly.”

 

 

Siege of Arey: Two

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Within the palace walls, everything felt close, almost stifling.  It felt as every eye watched, critical of her every move; as if her life were now under close scrutiny and the world waited for a single mistake to be made.  It made it difficult to know who to trust, but there were stalwarts here, men and women loyal to the Empire that would not be so easily turned by the Whiteblood.  There were also those who were suspect.

Lord Cyto Kine was the current Minister of War, but long had he opposed Alane’s rule, oftentimes undermining her authority during council sessions or circumventing her plans.  His machinations were always subtle, but Alane was wise enough to the ways of her own court that she knew.  Once, she might have drawn him up on charges of conspiracy, but the Whiteblood that served as her guard had turned against her, leaving her near-defenseless in a den of lions.  She could not afford to show any weakness.  Not now.

As if the very thought of him conjured the man, the hulking shadow of the Lord fell over Alane as she passed through the doorway into her audience chamber.  It was empty at this time of night, bereft of the many courtiers that flit and fluttered, trying to catch the eye or attention of the Empire.  There was no one, then, to see as Lord Cyto reached out to take hold of Alane’s arm as she passed him, jerking it back hard to force the Empress to stop. A sickening thread of hatred and anger rippled through Alane, but it was only a passing look of irritation that crossed her features.

“Unhand me, Minister.”  She said with deliberate care.  “The hour is late and I am weary.”

“Oh, a thousand apologies, Your Majesty, I only wanted to make sure that you were all right after seeing that frightful display outside.  How it must wound you, Ma’am, to see our beloved city brought so low.”

“It would wound me more if the Empire were actually guilty of the upsets that the Whiteblood give us claim to, but we cannot blame the people for being lost and confused when our own Imperial Guard have turned against us.  Still, the foul roots of this tree will be excavated eventually and the offenders dealt with.  We have no fear of that.”  Alane extricated her arm from Lord Cyto’s grip with a twist of her wrist, then stepping out of his immediate range lest he catch her again.

“How brave you are, Ma’am,” he said, looking past her to the empty room beyond.  “For someone so alone.”

She inclined her chin with pride.  “We are not alone as one might think.  Have faith, Lord Cyto.  There are those loyal to us still.”  With that, she took herself across the audience hall and beyond into her private chambers.

Lord Cyto watched her go, his eyes narrowing a fraction.  “Not for long…” he murmured darkly to himself.  “Not for long.”

 

Siege of Arey: One

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Gelid winds of winter’s whimpered like the ghosts of autumn’s fallen leaves. Snow had not yet fallen, but the grey monotone of the skies portended that it would be soon enough. Perhaps it would be enough to break the siege and bring the people to sense. Yet, even as the thought crossed her mind, Empress Alane knew it would bring no peace. Common folk had no concept of the art of war, but in this they had the advantage still.

Her palace towered over the city of Arey, but it was surrounded by those who considered themselves her enemies. Lies perpetuated by the Whiteblood, a band of insurrectionists hell-bent on overthrowing Imperial rule and “healing” the realm of its ills.  Once valiant defenders of the Empire, the Whiteblood turned against the crown, seeing enemies where there were none.  It was the Baron Cyto Kines that incited the Whiteblood against her sovereignty, spreading lies about the increase of taxes and the oppression of the merchant class.  He spoke in the streets about the decadence of the Imperial Palace and how the sovereignty had grown fat and complacent.

Truth be told, there was no conspiracy and no increase in taxes.  Reality of the matter was simple: the merchant class increased the prices of their wares, making it difficult for the lower classes to buy and sell goods, but when questioned they claimed it was higher taxes that resulted in the price increase.  Alane had attempted negotiations with the Merchant Princes a number of times, but they always refused.  Yet, rather than learn the truth for themselves, the common folk were all to ready to believe that their Empress and the Empire had failed them.

Alane drew the furred collar of her winter cloak higher up around her neck as she stepped out onto a balcony that overlooked the city.  In the distance, she could see the amber glow of flames as a section of the city burned.  Smoke curled up like sickly fingers of cold corpses, carrying with it the sounds of looting and malcontent. The winter would be a hard one for everyone.  They would be fortunate to survive.

Her eyes drifted away from the city, away from her failures as the steward of its welfare, and instead gazed skyward at the heavens. The Empire taught no religion, wanting no idols and gods to be placed above them in worth.  We are one body, she recalled it being said in one of her old governance lessons, One people.  We either stand together in faith with each other or we fail as a nation, disparate as a people.

There was no immunity from the disease that ate away at the very heart of her city and her people.  Like something terrible and chronic, it festered; lingering onward into a miasma of pain and abandoned hope.

“No,” she finally whispered aloud, her eyes once more returning to the burning parts of the city.  “I will not give up.  I’ll never give up.  There must always be hope.”

She turned to go back inside. “Even if it is only mine.”