This chapter contains violence and instances of transmisogyny and misgendering.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope
Salvatrice Vittoria returned to the living world seated atop a plush, luxurious couch.
She stared groggily about her surroundings as they came slowly into focus, gradually reconstituting themselves before her eyes from the fuzz and noise of dreamless sleep into a gilded and silken room. Circular with a domed roof, highly ornamented, with two stained glass windows depicting the virgin mother of the Messiah, Saint Orrea, the last elf to wield Magic, and banners depicting a green, ivy covered step pyramid, atop which floated an eye.
In the center of the room was an empty tea table with a few chairs.
There was something familiar about the space.
Then her mind regained enough sense to recall what had happened.
She heard the fatal gunshot ring out in her mind and saw her sister’s brains spilling out–
Something between fear and disgust seemed to trigger in her mind, and Salvatrice curled up on the couch, hugging herself as her stomach churned. In a moment the sickness passed, and gave way to further stressful confusion. Salvatrice quickly found that she was richly dressed — she had on a long-sleeved military overcoat, green and gold, old fashioned, fit for a warring prince, and long dress pants. Her hair had been collected into a discrete bun behind her head. She almost feared it had been cut off for a moment.
She slid her fingers over the cloth of her coat, and over her pants. It was extremely fine clothing, soft, smooth, a masterwork in quality. She had never worn boy’s clothes so nice.
Somebody had taken her here, and somebody had dressed her, deliberately.
She looked about the room again. She heard the chanting in her head. Ave Caesar!
All of this ugly picture was starting to come together.
She stood bolt upright from the couch, glancing in a panic over everything in the room once more, grasping for what to do. She felt her skin protest, her bones rattle with stress.
There was a wooden double door at the end of the room.
Moments after Salvatrice forced herself upright, that door slowly crept open.
Salvatrice expected to see a mask, but the first thing through the door was a maid’s headdress. Inching into the room, Cannelle, dressed uncharacteristically fancy in the vein of a frankish maid, approached the tea table with her head down, shaking hands holding a tray of small antipasti plates and full wine glasses. She set them down on the table, sighed audibly to herself, and began to turn around, when she seemed to catch sight of Salvatrice.
She covered her hands with her mouth.
“Princess, you’re awake! Thank goodness!”
Tears beginning to form in her eyes, Cannelle approached Salvatrice carefully.
Salvatrice in turn spread her arms and took her maid into a tight embrace.
She rubbed her face against Cannelle’s shoulders and felt like crying.
It was such a relief to see her after all of this.
Cannelle herself started to sob and weep with building emotion.
“I’m so sorry Princess! Those barbarians came to the apartment and I couldn’t deny them after they told me they had you in custody. They gave me this outfit to wear and brought me here, saying that I would be honored to attend to the divine emperor or something!”
Salvatrice pulled away from Cannelle, looking at her maid with worry.
“Did they hurt you?” She asked, her voice trembling.
Cannelle shook her head. “I resisted enough that they left the apartment briefly. But they had guns and they told me if I didn’t dress up nice and come along quietly, they would certainly shoot. I had to comply, but I used the opportunity to make off with a few things.”
She searched under her skirt, pulling something from her thigh-high stockings.
It was a little wrapped bundle, inside of which were some pink pills.
“Those monsters said you wouldn’t be needing it, but I brought your medicine.”
Salvatrice wished Cannelle had thought to sneak their gun out; but she was also thankful. Even one day without her medicine these days felt hellish. She depended strongly on them for her health, physical, emotional, and mental. And she would need to have a clear head to navigate this mess. Taking the gift, Salvatrice drank one pill with a sip of the wine.
Poor Cannelle! To think her loyal maid had been forced to take part in this charade.
There was no undoing it, however. And her presence was not wholly unfortunate.
She had come from outside the room, delivering food. So, Cannelle had access.
“What is this place?” Salvatrice asked, setting down the glass.
Cannelle shook her head. “It’s some kind of tower. I don’t know what this place looks like outside of the courtyard around this tower and the building connecting to it. I was brought here blindfolded and I’ve been working in a kitchen downstairs, under guard. I’m sorry. ”
“It’s not your fault.” Salvatrice said. She offered a small smile. “Thank you for your help. You’ve been extremely brave, Cannelle. I’m sorry you have been put in this position.”
“Don’t blame yourself either, Princess.” Cannelle gently replied.
Behind them the doors swung open, breaking up their tender moment.
Through the threshold, a young, blond woman in a purple dress stumbled forward.
She looked up from the floor in surprise. The Princess locked eyes with her and gasped.
“Carmela!” Salvatrice shouted.
As she called to her, a familiar, imposing figure emerged from the doorway.
His footsteps cried metal on stone, as if the floor was ready to give under his weight, and yet so feather-light was his movement that there was not a scratch or mark left on the tiles. From chest to feet, Legatus Tarkus Marcel was armored in a pale white, shiny metal, segmented like the body of a bug, each piece and shaped sloped down across the chest and around the arms, waist and legs. Swords and bullets would meet steep angles on his person. And yet it was not merely workmanlike. Studded on his gauntlets and chest were deeply purple, cubic gems the likes of which Salvatrice had never seen. They glowed with a palpable darkness — not merely an illusory contradiction, but as if sucking in the light.
Judging by the helm he carried on his arms, and the flourish of gilded wings on his shoulders and lower back, Legatus Marcel did not style himself a beetle, but a dragon.
“Ave Caesar!” He said, saluting Salvatrice.
Salvatrice rushed forward, leaned down, and took Carmela’s hand.
At once, with tears in her eyes, the heiress reached out, and Salvatrice pulled her up.
Hand in hand, and arm-in-arm, the two women stood and stepped back from Tarkus.
“Did he hurt you?” Salvatrice whispered.
“No. But his men made a mighty fuss in my home.” Carmela replied.
“Did they say anything, Carmela?”
She shook her head. “Not a word. I was blindfolded, too. I’m sorry, Salva.”
“It’s alright. I am glad to see you.”
Her hand was shaking in Salvatrice’s own. The Princess was shaking too – but with rage.
She turned a hateful eye on the Legatus, and through her fangs shouted at him.
“Tarkus, you will drown in smoke for this! I swear to you!” Salvatrice shouted.
One of Vittoria’s favorite, sadistic methods of execution. Interred in a sealed, concrete room, the victim would succumb to heat and choke on coal smoke until death.
Tarkus had himself probably condemned people to this fate.
He betrayed no emotion with his response.
“I resign myself to the fact that if such a thing were to happen it could only be by the hands of our divine Caesar and not that wretched witch.” Tarkus replied.
“What is he talking about?” Carmela whispered.
Salvatrice shook her head.
“Tarkus, what is the meaning of all this? Who is Caesar?” Salvatrice shouted. “Are you talking about the anarchist leader Cesare? What exactly is your point here?”
Tarkus closed his eyes and bowed his head, as if with shame.
“Do you really not know? My liege, Cesare Regale has been dead for a long time. He exists as a convenient fiction, an illusion spun to tame a disorganized rabble. He is I, or at least, a spectre of my control. You are, of course, nothing of the sort. You are our Caesar, our divine king, whose banner we long to serve. Who else would you be?” Tarkus gently said.
He was making no sense now. He reminded her of the men in the forest. But back then, he had seemed the more clear-headed among them. Now he was just as dull-witted as they, speaking of nothing but the myths of this Caesar. Had something been done to him?
Salvatrice grumbled. It didn’t matter.
“Let us be even more elemental then: what is Caesar?” She asked.
Tarkus smiled self-assuredly. “Our one true king, our destined elven king.”
She looked into his eyes. She could not see them so well in the forest, and at any rate, she was in no condition for details back then. Now, in the light of this beautifully furnished room, she met eyes with him, and saw a blank, red-ringed, eerie stare looking back at her.
Dispassionate, consumed by something, perfectly, unilaterally focused.
“And where have you deigned to take your king, as you disrespectfully call me.”
“To Saint Orrea’s Hope. You do not remember this place?” He asked her.
“Not one bit.” Salvatrice replied.
She searched her mind for a ‘Saint Orrea’s Hope,’ and found nothing there.
So many estates, so many homes, a childhood spent running; how could she remember?
All she knew was that Tarkus had taken her away many times.
She could have been in Saint Orrea’s before. But there was no confirming it.
“Whether or not you remember, this place is vital to you, my Caesar. Here in Saint Orrea’s, the impossible has occurred. Great and beautiful things have been unearthed. My radio center at the top of Orrea’s Peak is a black mark on this holy site. Your presence is in turn a benediction. Soon, however, my signal will go out, and both of us shall leave.”
Salvatrice grit her teeth. That was his plan. He would invoke the ghost of Cesare one last time and order all of the anarchists in the region to begin their revolt. They stood no chance of winning. It would be a slaughter. But convinced that the conditions of their revolution had been achieved, that the Blackshirt Legion was weak and the Kingdom blind to their intentions, the anarchists would throw themselves at the provincial armies, and they would bleed slow enough for Tarkus to sweep in and claim the throne for himself–
No, for her. For some reason that was what he settled for.
“And once your signal goes out, and we leave, where will we go?”
“To Pallas; to our destiny.”
“And what is your destiny, Legatus?”
“To make a King.”
Salvatrice closed her fists and grit her teeth with anger.
“You have a monarch already, and you once served her!” Salvatrice snapped back. “What madness compels you to fan the flames of the anarchist’s revolt? What do you gain?”
Her words did nothing to sway him. He was implacable, as if without emotion.
“There is everything to gain.” Tarkus said calmly. “Caesar, it is the Illuminati’s goal to return the Elven Empire to the height of its glory. Ever since the usurpation and tyranny of the witch Vittoria, we have labored in shadows to create the conditions for her demise. Vittoria has eroded the power, dignity and morality of the Elven race. We must show the world again our superiority, and span the globe. Vittoria has proven she cannot do this.”
Salvatrice knew this had to be the case, and yet, nonetheless, to hear it said so plainly was shocking. She felt the words like a fist aimed at her chest, and it was hard to bear the weight of them. They intended to kill her mother; and who knows how many more. They had been planning; for how long? When Tarkus protected her as a child, did he plot then?
“Why are you doing this Tarkus? Why? I simply can’t understand it!” Salvatrice shouted.
“I am doing it because it is just.”
Legatus Tarkus was one of the most powerful men under Vittoria’s administration, but he commanded no great armies, achieved no legendary victories. Even among the staunchest elven nationalists, what sort of place would an intelligence specialist, a spy, a bodyguard, have in a revolutionary coup? He could at best be an assassin. But its leader, organizer? Without the prestige afforded the wings of the Queen he labored under he was a lowlife.
Great revolutionaries were thinkers, generals, charismatic men of the public, no?
Justice had nothing to do with this.
His Justice was as convenient and false as Vittoria’s love.
“I am doing it to protect you, Caesar. I have always labored to protect you.”
His voice was hauntingly confident. He reminded her too much of her own mother.
“You have been nothing but an accomplice to my torment!” Salvatrice shouted.
Tarkus shook his head. “Vittoria has been your torturer, Caesar. Anyone who hurt you did so under her duress, whether or not she ordered it directly. That is the nature of her rule. Do you not desire vengeance against her? I thought that you yearned for freedom.”
He withdrew, from one of his ammunition pouches, a folded tube of rolled papers.
Snapping the rubber band keeping them in check, he launched the papers into the air.
Several landed at Salvatrice and Carmela’s feet.
“Our letters!” Carmela shouted in horror.
The Princess needed only a glimpse to confirm. They were copies of her private letters.
Salvatrice wanted to shout, How dare you! but her mind became stuck on How–?
“Each one of these pages is a cry for help. I heeded that cry. I am the White Knight that has come to save a Princess; and the only way that can be done, is to make her a King.”
Tarkus stood ever more poised, ever taller, in his shining armor, and it vexed Salvatrice.
She grit her teeth and stood to her own full height, taking a solid stance herself.
“So that is why you brought Carmela here?” Salvatrice shouted. “You kidnapped her thinking I wanted her to be ripped from her life and forced into this game of yours?”
Carmela glanced briefly at Salvatrice and put on a demure expression.
“She is here because you have impeccable taste in partners.” Tarkus replied. “Simply put, an alliance with the Sabbadin fuel dynasty is a very convenient power-play for the ruler of an industrial nation. That the marriage would be a happy one is secondary but joyous.”
Salvatrice sighed. So nobody was safe from this conspiracy then.
Just by having her attentions, Carmela was in danger too.
The Heiress seemed to notice the change in her demeanor and subtly shook her head.
“Don’t blame yourself.” She whispered.
Salvatrice bit back at Tarkus.
“Tarkus, your commitment to this fiction is frankly astounding, and I commend you. But if what you desire is an end to the queendom, you are sadly mistaken in your choice of recruit. I am Princess Salvatrice Vittoria. I will not be your Caesar. I too am a Queen.”
Tarkus shook his head as if making ready to chide a small, ignorant child.
“The Kingdom of Lubon was a hereditary institution stemming from a dynasty of men. To unseat the witch, it is necessary for there to be a King. Only this will be accepted and proper. When Vittoria usurped the throne, she made any able men were all removed.”
Tarkus pointed a finger at Salvatrice without expression in his face.
“Are you ignorant of what you mean to her, Caesar? You will understand soon.”
“Shut up.” Salvatrice murmured, her voice trembled.
“Caesar, your ability to become a King is a grave threat to Vittoria. You know this.”
“Stop it.” Salvatrice said, gritting her teeth, wilting under the barrage of his words.
“You have labored to become kingly in your own fashion, haven’t you?”
“Cease your worthless fantasies at once Tarkus!”
Tarkus, without any compassion, continue his same course. “Vittoria has told you about all of these mysterious circumstances of your birth; can any be proven? Is anyone alive who knows the real truth? You would’ve made her but a Regent; now you’re another Princess.”
Salvatrice could not muster a response anymore. She felt instantly sick. She felt too acutely the fact that the eyes of someone like Tarkus attacked what she felt she was.
This whole conversation, this attitude, this line of questioning, this thinking, it made her sick. It made her sick to her stomach. It was disgusting. It made her flesh scream. It made her mind heavy. She held her arms around her chest, gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, feeling a visceral discomfort with her surroundings, with the clothes she wore. All of the ambivalence that she felt about herself as a person, and all the careful, comfortable things she told herself about herself, seemed suddenly under attack then. It was fine for her in her time and her mind to style herself a man. It was fine because she did it, because she flitted in and out of that skin as her body desired. But suddenly, these men styled her king.
She would be their King. King. Their King. They were making her their King—
“You were meant to be the King whose miraculous power will restore us–”
This time it was not Salvatrice’s voice admonishing the man.
From her sound, the demand came like the report of a gun.
“Shut up! Shut up right now!”
Carmela withdrew one of her sharp-heeled shoes from her feet and struck Tarkus.
She had an incredible arm; Tarkus reeled as the shoe caught him in his unguarded face.
“Shut up! Never speak to her like this again! I’ll be the one who has you smoked to death!” Carmela shouted. “Do you know who I am? My family will erase you from history!”
She shouted so loudly it felt as if the windows would burst.
Cannelle covered her mouth in shock.
Tarkus raised himself back to his full stature, wincing, bleeding from over his right eye.
And yet there was a strange calm even to his then-obvious fury.
“Were your fortune, name and your hand in marriage to the Caesar any less valuable, you impudent harlot, I would have you thrown from the tower.” Tarkus icily replied.
“Come claim me then, Legatus!” Carmela shouted mockingly.
Salvatrice shook her head, trying to clear the miasma that Tarkus had planted in the recesses of her mind. She set herself on guard beside Carmela, opposing the Legatus.
She was exhausted, in every fashion. But she could not give in. Resistance was all she had.
Tarkus reached up to his forehead, and turned over his own blood in his steel fingers.
Toward this, too, he had no emotion. It was as if he was working off a script.
“Whether or not you cooperate, your destiny is set. I brought you here to Saint Orrea as a child, and I confirmed it: you have the Power of the King. I brought you here again, on this fateful eve, to claim your power, and to claim your throne. Saint Orrea will be your path to ascension, Caesar. It cannot be undone. You will thank your loyal servant, as you stand over the world, as you should, as you must, as it was destined since we left the Cuvenen.”
Tarkus twisted around and made for the door.
Salvatrice wanted to rush him, but she knew it would do no good. He was bigger, he was armored and armed, and there were probably more men right outside. At worst she would probably provoke them enough to threaten Carmela or something equally befitting the ruffians they really were. These Illuminati had her chained to the ground without need of metal. They had won. Despite all she knew, Salvatrice, truly, still knew nothing now.
She was not a religious person, but in that instant, she found herself wishing for a miracle.
She knew not the ancient elven words, for she paid little attention to religious study.
But something in her supplicated itself to destiny, and prayed that it was not Tarkus’ destiny which would unfold for her, but something else. Anything else, at that moment.
Before Tarkus was out the door, it seemed that destiny answered.
First with a sharp report in the distance.
And then with a series of booming bellows, and a rumbling along the ground.
Tarkus stumbled under the threshold of the doors.
“Artillery?” He shouted, his emotionless drone slightly tinged with outrage.
Two men appeared on the edge of the door, visibly shaken in their uniforms and masks.
“Sir, it’s a coordinated attack, mortars, anti-armor, assault fire, it could be Limitanae–”
“Absolutely not.” Tarkus responded to them.
“There is no force in Vicaria that could possibly respond to us–”
In an instant, his eyes widened, and then almost immediately, narrowed again.
“Geta.” He said, slowly and deliberately, as if to himself.
Salvatrice’s own eyes drew wide, and she felt her heart lift as the world shook around her.
That reckless, selfish, low-class, black-hearted Centurion–
She was alive.
And she was here.
Tarkus shoved past his men, running down what sounded like steps.
Though the doors closed on the tower, Salvatrice knew the doors of Saint Orrea had been thrown open. Holding Carmela close, and catching her breath, she knew she had a chance.
The Illuminati were being forced from the shadows, into the light of day.