Author: FallenAngelCyril PM
TO: LuCT. The tales lie: the only gleam on the knight's armor is blood, the vagrant is crass, not charming, and the princess is most certainly not pure and innocent. An alternate take on 4L. DenamCatiuaVyce.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Chapters: 8 - Words: 95,015 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 03-07-12 - Published: 12-27-11 - id: 7679465
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
This may come off as short and somewhat filler-like, but it's intended to elaborate on several subtle points in Denam's treatment of Catiua, as well as an attempt to make Catiua's character progression more natural than the rather drastic change we're shown in-game. I admit, I've put some intricacies into Catiua's personality, be sure to look for them.
"What do they wait for, Abuna? Me? Or something they imagine to be me?" – Denam, Lord.
"Is there anything else, Your Highness?"
Catiua tapped her fingers against the small bedtable to her right in barely-concealed annoyance. Not even twelve hours had she been in Phidoch and the servants already fawned over her like vultures to a half-decayed carcass. Her very presence set them into motion as each attempted to glean the most gossip as possible from even the slightest slip of tongue. The Princess found them thoroughly obnoxious, but no different from the servants who had served her previously in Phidoch, Heim, or Barnicia, wherever the Dark Knights had herded her for their purposes. Had Tartaros not spent nearly a scale instilling the necessity of servants - or, in Lodis's case, slaves - as the representative of her new social class, into her, she would have ordered them away entirely; she would have much rather served herself than dealt with them.
It seemed like almost an eternity before the servants had finished their prolonged grooming session; though she had absolutely refused to allow them to bathe her, she had finally relented in their persistent demands that they style her hair, rub lotion on her skin, groom her nails, and get her measurements so that they could order her new clothes, if necessary. Catiua had never been known for her self-control, she what little she had was frayed to the very ends, ready to split down the middle at any moment. The servants gave Catiua her space as she stood and walked about the room, her arms stretched above her head with a decided lack of grace, before she closed her eyes and spoke with as much of a 'regal' tone as she could muster. For that matter, what defined 'regal'? Firm? Stubborn? She'd have to experiment on what worked to provoke the best reaction. "Where is Denam?" was all she demanded to test the waters. She did not want any more from the servants than necessary, and, more importantly, she felt incredibly uncomfortable with the way they treated her.
Catiua knew Phidoch well, most likely almost as well as Denam, and she had made the mistake of telling him that – Denam had take than as meaning that she did not need elaboration on the locations where he ordered his troops sleep, his captains, or, most importantly, where his room was. When the duo arrived, early into the evening of the previous night, there was no grand celebration as she had almost been expecting, nor had there been any heed to her presence at all. Quite the opposite, the Resistance soldiers had warmly and respectfully greeted their Commander, with both diligence and some awe, but did not give the woman on his arm, Catiua, a second glance. The men likely thought her some courtesan or wench he planned to take to his bed. Certainly, she did not blame them for their assumptions; had Denam not been so devout in Prancet's lessons, he might well have. The Bakram woman preferred the lack of attention; she was not nearly vain enough, or comfortable enough with her new power, to need followers who surrounded her at all times – something the servants had yet to figure out. She held back her look of disgust.
"The Commander?" The servant looked genuinely confused at the name. Of course; these women wouldn't have known Denam before he became leader of the Resistance, he had already been commander for some time by the time Phidoch fell. Given how formal he could be on occasion, Catiua did not doubt they were truly unaware of his name – or, more likely, they simply did not care. Catiua nodded sternly and glared; she made sure they knew exactly what they thought of their ignorance. They did not even know the man they served! But could she really fault them? Was it Denam's fault, or theirs? She would not have been surprised if they called him 'Butcher of Golyat' behind his back. The servant shied away from Catiua's look of reprimand and spoke rapidly, in an attempt to appease her. "I'm not sure, Princess. He usually keeps to himself, but if I was to venture a guess, I'd say he's either on the training grounds, in his meeting room, or in his chambers. If what I've heard is correct, most of his informal meetings occur in his chambers."
Catiua briefly analyzed the situation; no doubt it was late enough that Denam had already trained, if he planned to, for he had been up for at least an hour or two. Catiua knew of the meeting chamber the servant spoke of, and knew 'twas far too large for any day-to-day activities, which left the last option. There was no doubt Denam was in his chamber. Goal in mind, Catiua pushed herself past the servants with such speed that the three women all jumped back in surprised unison. "Bring me to his chambers, then." None of them moved and they all glanced nervously to each other. Perhaps they thought her inappropriately bold, to privately meet with the commander; Catiua could almost see the cogs in their mind work as they came up with whatever ridiculous reasons for her meeting to gossip about once their work was done. She only barely held back her annoyed sigh as she walked through her guest room to the door. She did not care which of them guided her, only that they stopped gawking at her like the fools they were. "Oh!" To interrupt the servants who continued to glance about as if they drew sticks in a child's game of chance, Catiua made great effort to feign surprise, similarly to how she would react if she remembered something incredibly important. "While you're at it, send my morning meal there as well."
The three servants looked to and fro once again – one of them even had the gall to smile wickedly - before the youngest of the servants finally nodded and took a step forward. "Yes, Your Highness." The young woman curtsied as deeply as she could before she walked past Catiua and out of the room into the hallway. The Princess looked to two who remained and motioned with her head for them to do as she previously ordered; slow as molasses, the two approached her, one respectful enough that she held the door open, and finally they were on their way – with what appeared to be the eldest as her guide.
The halls gave forth a feeling that was surprisingly reminiscent of her time in Phidoch with Lodis. There was an uncomfortable air, as if the natives were not particularly comfortable with Resistance occupation, but accepted it, as they had with Loslorien's. It was bright, but the hallways did not hold a multitude of windows, as Phidoch was a fort first and everything else second, and they held an almost ethereal glow with what little light did enter them. The shadowy halls complimented her dark dress well, and her footsteps echoed down the hallway loudly enough that it reminded her of Tartaros and his guidance through Phidoch when she first arrived; how odd it was that she looked back fondly at the event, despite her depression. Or perhaps 'fondly' was incorrect; he had simply acted the part of what she needed most, given her the purpose and determination she had desperately lacked. Denam, no matter what she felt for him, was too familiar; he could not have given her that push even if he wanted to.
Catiua's presence in the Resistance was new enough that not everyone recognized her on sight, even though Denam made a prolonged introduction in the great hall to the soldiers and had, more privately, introduced her to his newest captains that she had not had the pleasure – or displeasure – of previously meeting with. Most noteworthy was the Phoraena woman, daughter of the presently-Abuna Mreuva. Initially, her name had been one of the many she offhandedly nodded pleasantly at, but thought she would forget within the hour - at least until Denam had hinted, with little to no subtlety, that they had been acquainted when they were children. Catiua's mind worked frantically then, flooded with memories that she had thought long forgotten. Yes – she remembered, to some extent. Some part of her disliked Olivya on instinct, almost an innate aversion, like to a snake, even though she knew she had no reason to be so wary. 'Twas probably some ridiculous childhood distaste for the Sibyl; perhaps she once stole Catiua's favored doll. She'd get over it, even if the Princess was not quite fond of the way the Sibyl doted on Denam. When they had spoken, Olivya had offhandedly made mention of Sherri, another of her sisters. When the Princess confronted Denam about the other woman later, he very quietly confided that the Phoraena woman apparently once worked with Brantyn Morne – and of how she had been unable to reconcile with Denam's decision to ally with Lodis. The elder woman had apparently left the Resistance shortly after she joined, and Olivya was the only one who remained with Mreuva.
'Twas not until later, long after the introductions had ended and she retired to her new room for the evening, that Catiua realized the implications of Olivya Phoraena and Denam's relationship. Though Catiua had long known about Prancet and how he had taken the two from Heim, Denam had not remembered – though she had tried to tell him. A part of her wanted to ask how he felt, if she could help him in any way with acceptance of who he was; another part of her knew he wanted to come to terms with it on his own. After much internal debate, she finally decided to let it rest for a time, at least until both she and he had reacclimatized and were comfortable in each others' presences. Catiua had already tried to use the truth to hurt him and stop him once in the past, to do so again would only bring back the memories neither of them wished to experience again.
Denam had also spoken of a few of his other captains – a man named Hobyrim and the Loslorien commander Ozma, a woman Catiua had met formally on a few occasions, but knew little of the circumstances regarding her departure from Tartaros's Order – who had left as well. The names meant little to her, but as Denam explained the Resistance's reaction to his decision, she felt a pang of sympathy for the commander, who had sacrificed companionship for his duty– but also anger that he chose to go so far, as he did the same thing to her. He should have learned the first time. Though the Bakram woman had yet to learn the extent of the situation, and she most certainly planned to, she could barely fathom what went through his mind when he finally made such a decision. It was as if some young, naive part of his mind had been lost, and the hard decisions came more easily for him than in the past – or he simply pretended they did. It was the same with Catiua;He wanted to save her, but it conflicted with what he felt was necessary. In the end he had found a way to do both, even if at the expense of his morals and friendships. Some part of herself knew that someday she, too, would be forced to make such decisions and she was chilled to her core at the very idea. It was at thoughts like those that she knew she was nowhere near ready for what the position she was born to demanded of her.
Officially, Catiua was in Phidoch as both Princess and a representative of the Lodissian –Resistance "alliance" - or, more accurately, if Denam was to be believed, "Neutrality agreement." She had no idea what it meant for her, what she was expected to do and say; given the way she had been simply handed off to Denam she was ready to believe that there was more to the agreement than what Denam told her, or what Lanselot and Balxephon had told Denam. She knew she was useful to Lodis and that they would not allow her to forget her promises she had made to them but she also recognized her lack of bartering power to make great demands in return. She was little more than a tool. It seemed entirely too odd to her that they would hand such an asset off to the Resistance weaken their position politically. There was no doubt Loslorien felt pressure from both sides, Resistance and Brantyn, but that would not be enough. Denam had quite a bit to answer for when it came to the Empire. Fortunately, she and her servant guide seemed to have reached his room, so she might not have to wait long for those answers.
The servant spoke with a pair of stern Knights who stood on guard outside what was, apparently, Denam's room. The men were unfamiliar to her, just as she had not recognized most of the Resistance soldiers she saw; she was secretly pleased that she had not appeared foolish when she belatedly noticed that they had not recognized her until the servant declared who she was and that she requested an audience. Though both men bowed respectfully, one of them gave Catiua a glare that told her he did not approve of her; he served his commander, not the Princess. She offered him a smile in return; Catiua respected his decision, after all, she had done nothing to prove herself worthy of their loyalty – Great Father knew that Denam had earned it twice over. If she was given the choice she wouldn't follow herself, either; she above all knew she lacked knowledge and qualities for leadership. Perhaps such lessons were what Lodis sent her to Denam to learn. Unlikely, she was a better puppet if she had little hand in political decisions.
". . .Sir?" Catiua heard the servant meekly address Denam as the guards let her pass. Even from the partially-opened door she could see in an instant that she knew the room. That was Tartaros's room, or, rather, the room used by the current master of the castle whoever he or she may be. The Bakram woman had spent many hours in there in silence as she watched Tartaros see to his responsibilities. He was a surprisingly busy man, even though Catiua also knew he left much of the administrative duties to Balxephon. After what seemed to be an hour, Denam finally glanced up at his guest, the still nervous servant, and placed his quill in the inkwell. Catiua felt a sudden bout of annoyance pass through her at his disregard for guests.
"Ugh, enough of this." Catiua refused to be 'allowed' to visit Denam's room. She would enter and leave as she pleased. Before Denam could even glance at her, the Princess pushed her way through the open door, to the shock of the guards who had thought her docile; all at once the entire entryway sprang to action, sans Denam, who sat at the end of the table and barely bothered to do more than smile as he watched her brash actions. Catiua was immediately, uncomfortably, grasped by the armored glove of one of Denam's guards and prevented from further entry with a dagger into the curve of her back. She hissed in pain, but tugged stubbornly until Denam, who hid a smile, nodded to the Knights and made a dismissive motion to both they and the servant. For a moment, time stood still as her captors very gently released her. She withdrew from their grasp and massaged her sore wrists as she patted down her dress, frown on her features. True, she had been irrational, but Catiua could not resist the urge to get the last word in and turned and glared at all three as they hastily made their exit without another word. As the door closed behind them, the Princess pasted a smile on her face and turned back. "Good morning, Denam."
"Well met." She could tell he wanted to laugh at her, and she knew she deserved it, but she was pleased not only to have gotten in, but to see Denam in high spirits. Catiua let her smile drop as she approached and Denam stood to greet her. "You're up early." He pulled out a chair to his right for her, as he always had for their meals, but unlike when they were younger, there was no warm hug or kiss of greeting. Catiua knew she should not have expected one, but some part of her felt. . .empty without it. Lonely. It was she who asked they treat each other as individuals and not siblings, yet some part of her was still unable to accept her own wishes, rationality be damned. She pushed the thought from her head; there was time for affection later, she had more important things on her mind.
"I thought to break my fast with you," Denam poured a glass of water for her as Catiua glanced over the table, but chose not to sit in the place Denam prepared. She held back her smile as she saw there was no evidence of food, just as she had planned. She allowed her voice to take on a playful tone; if Denam wouldn't care for himself, would have to do so for him. "- but it seems you already have."
"I'll do so lat-" He immediately fell silent as he realized what he had revealed. Catiua could not stop her giggle as she watched his features turn from pleasant to sour and then into a glare in her direction. The Princess ignored him and turned away, before she walked back over to the door she had entered from only a moment before. She opened it slowly, to not alarm the Knight guards, and poked her head out. "The commander wishes for his morning meal." She declared and slammed it before either could respond.
". . .Thank you." Was his hesitant reply as he looked away in shame and sat back down at his place at the top of the table where he earlier worked at. The previous day, during their midday meal and during their supper, the Bakram woman had spent some time in lecture about how he should take care of himself, yet still she had not gotten through. If Catiua must break her fast every day with him to dig her point into his baldur-ridden head, she would do so without complaints. For that matter, 'twould do her some good to watch his day-to-day actions, which she had cared little for in the past. She could no longer avoid responsibility, or so she told herself. What responsibility? A little voice in the back of her head spoke up; its whisper alarmed and mocked her. Her only responsibility was to look lovely and keep the nobility pacified, it ridiculed. The Princess was if unsure she was even capable of doing what was assigned to her, let alone if she even wanted to. She quickly pushed the thought away; Catiua had made up her mind, she would be Versalia. When did you decide? The voice was firmer then – and she had no answer, for 'twas certainly not Catiua who made the decision. All she could tell herself was that as long as Denam was there with her, she could do it – or so she hoped.
"So these are the Resistance commander's chambers?" Catiua made effort to appear genuinely curious as she walked about, through both his meeting chamber, where she had entered from, and into his private quarters. Despite being occupied by Lodis for over a year, the chambers did not feel like Tartaros or Loslorien. It was not quite the Denam she knew, but all at once she would never believe the rooms belonged to anyone else. His mark was everywhere, with the way he organized his parchment, pillows, chairs, clothes, weapons, and armor. Even the smell was familiar. She felt Denam's eyes on her as she walked about before she realized what she'd done; to walk about an adult male's chambers, even one she had known for years, was thoroughly inappropriate, especially after they had only just reunited. Even though she found such traditions rather musty, she knew Denam took them seriously. The woman clenched her jaw as her mind worked frantically to think of a subject to talk about. Immediately, one came to mind as she turned out of his room and back towards the table her companion remained at in the meeting chamber. She remained standing as she looked pointedly at the commander, who had put aside his parchments entirely to give her his full attention. "I did not quite believe you when you said the Resistance was gone." She gave him an accusatory and pointed look. "Rightfully so, it seems!"
"I never said 'twas 'gone,' I believe the phrase was 'unrecognizable.'" She knew he was irritated at Catiua's question, but he did not show it. He had never been fond of those who questioned his competence once he felt he had already proven it. A brief flash of memory filled her at the thought: Rhime, Leonar, Ronwey's assassination. Catiua had told Denam he was no leader and was unable to do the job, saying he was mad and deluded in a desperate attempt to dissuade him from his path. That had been one of the last turning points for them; she had seen the pain in his eyes – which had already suffered from the decision he was forced to make – and how he took to heart her belief that he was unworthy. She had been harsh then, and she saw how wrong she was many scales later. But whether or not he would be a better leader than Ronwey was still left to be decided by history – and Lodis.
She supposed he told the truth, even if she found his play on words almost as irritating as he found her questions. The air between the Resistance soldiers was different; she could not place it, but 'twas cold, professional, perhaps. The soldiers she had seen, which were admittedly only of higher rank, were more experienced and less everyday rabble, like much of her prior experience with Resistance forces were. But 'unrecognizable' still did not explain the most important question, one she believed she knew the answer to – one she had avoided thinking about, but knew she could evade no longer.
"Where's Vyce?" Vyce had not come to greet her when she arrived, as she would have expected. 'Twas not until Denam had told her that certain captains had left that she felt the familiar dread that always came about from knowledge of the Walister man and his irrational actions. Or, perhaps, not so irrational; he despised Lodis. She knew he was gone, her mind told her so, but her heart would not accept it. She did not blame Denam for hiding it from her. That Vyce had not interrupted her morning rituals only secured her doubt that he was not in Phidoch, no twists of words could make the truth any less apparent.
Almost instantly, Denam stood. Catiua stopped her paces about the room and waited for Denam to approach, which he did, more quickly than she would have thought possible. As he did so, he played with the back of his neck, but from her angle was unable to define his purpose. The commander continued to fiddle about for a moment, completely distracted from her presence, face twisted in an annoyed frown, before he finally succeeded at whatever 'twas he did, took her hand in his, and forced. . .his necklace into her grasp? Catiua did not know what to say. She blinked and ran her fingers over the metal, warm and very slightly oily from its touch against Denam's skin. "I believe this is yours." He murmured and turned away before she could give it back. No. It was not hers, she could barely think of taking the precious item from him. Even when all Denam, Catiua, and Vyce had left was the clothes on their backs, their lives, and the necklaces, Denam had still refused to sell them; it was just as precious to him as hers was to her, even if he was not entitled to it by his birth. Before Denam could take more than a step back away from her, the Bakram woman grasped his hand and forced the blue necklace – even if 'twas a gift from her father – back into his hand. Catiua knew Denam's plot; he had failed, but even she could admit 'twas a brilliant attempt. Had the subject of Vyce not been so important to her, she would have fallen for it. No, the Princess would not play his game. "There, 'tis yours now." Denam turned back around and held the necklace in his hand for a long moment and looked down at it with unreadable eyes, as if conflicted on what he should do next. Catiua would not give him the chance. "Do not change the subject, Denam; you will tell me where Vyce is."
". . ." He remained silent as he circled the necklace around his neck again. Catiua continued to glare at him; she knew he would relent given enough time. Almost on cue, once he finished putting the necklace on, he turned away and walked back to the table and sat, then he spoke, his words cautious and precisely chosen. "He and I had. . .a disagreement about how the Resistance should best deal with Lodis."
Even though he told her exactly what she anticipated, Catiua found herself breathless, terrified, and angered. "I-Is he. . .?" The Princess was unable to finish her sentence. Vyce had already left Denam and she once, it hurt her that he would do it again. Her emotions traveled between betrayal and acceptance, and how 'twas both painful and something that she completely understood. She suddenly felt very weak and moved over to the chair Denam had earlier pulled out for him and sat. She took a long sip of the water that had been poured and shivered at her imagination's very vivid image of a dead Vyce, impaled by a Resistance soldier's spear. She had almost lost Denam, she did not think she could stand to lose Vyce as well.
"He's fine." Denam spoke confidently, in attempt to reassure her. He failed miserably; she and Denam both knew Vyce was in pain, was lonely, and suffered from how he was pursued, if not by Denam, than by other groups. Even if his health was fine and he lived, that did not mean he was happy or safe. "I've my shadows on him. He, alongside a good number of former-Resistance troops, has reformed the Alliance." As the commander saw his words did not have their intended effect, he continued. "He only left a few days ago, do not worry."
"So the merging did not go as expected?" Was all Catiua could think to say as she looked down into the water in her cup. Of course it didn't – she remembered quite vividly the hostility Resistance and Alliance troops had for each other. Denam and Vyce had barely been able to keep the upper echelons of the orders from insults and mockery, let alone discrimination by class or Clan or belief. She had left Almorica and the Resistance soon after the two groups allied, but apparently they had not been able to reconcile their differences as hoped. The Walister people needed unity more than anything – and, for a time, Ronwey had given it to them. That was when the Resistance would have succeeded, and 'twas why Catiua believed that, even if incompetent and biased as a leader, he was still the best they had. Denam did not have the reputation for it, hero or nor, nor did Leonar.
"For a time it did." He explained. She still did not look at him, but she could tell by his tone that he regretted the way the news of Vyce's departure was revealed. At her wordless request, Catiua could tell he belatedly remembered that she did not know the full depth of the situation and sought to alleviate her lack of knowledge on the subject. From his tone, she could tell he felt a bit foolish. "'Twas only more recently that certain issues kept us from unity. Vyce and I decided the best option was for him to leave. You and I both know there were tensions between groups. While I'd like to say we parted on good terms, unfortunately we had an argument and he left with a good number of our troops." The commander spoke only the words she had just mused on; Catiua nodded acknowledgement and understanding as she regained control of her emotions from their previous outburst. No longer did her mind see pictures of a fallen, broken Vyce, and instead rediscovered its rationality. The moment of utter despair faded away as her curiosity and responsibility got the better of her. She had missed so much – or, rather, she knew so little. What Denam spoke casually of overwhelmed her, especially as she knew there were subtle intricacies involved that she likely had not even considered. When she was with the Resistance before, she had cared little for politics, loathed them even, in fact, but Tartaros had shown her their necessity. She was to be Queen, she must learn and experience firsthand what qualities were necessary in leadership. She could not simply follow Denam's lead forever. You must take a stand. The voice of Lanselot Tartaros echoed through her mind in one of her most powerful recent memories. He had told her that there were things only she could do – that she must do. She had clung to those words, and still did, until they became a part of her, a subtle self-manipulation.
"I admit Denam, you speak so casually that I'm quite overwhelmed." She spoke her thoughts in a low voice. "I've missed so much. I want to learn; please, start at the beginning. Tell me what I have missed." She had to start somewhere, and knowledge was the best place. It would also answer her questions and possibly give her insights into Denam's dilemmas – and future plans. Knowledge only advanced her position, even if she had no idea what she should do with it. She wished she could say she was so selfless enough that she learned only because 'twas her duty as princess, but that was a lie. If she spoke truly to herself, her hunger for the truth was not about being Princess at all. Catiua only wished to be on the same as Denam and Vyce, to not watch them only from behind, to stand beside them as equal, not as simply the one they cared for and protected.
Before the commander could reply, a loud knock on the door sounded. Catiua almost jumped at its persistence, her water only barely stopped from its spill over her dress, and Denam looked irritated, but he called for entry. If the Knights had allowed whoever the guest was to knock, then more than likely he or she meant no harm. The Princess watched as, instinctively, her companion grasped his hand on his blade's hilt, the only object of war that he war without his armor on, but relaxed as two servants entered. The two each with large trays topped with the morning meal Catiua had ordered, or demanded, to be sent to them both. She was surprised at how long it took for it to arrive; usually the kitchens were efficient in the morning, mass of soldiers or no. The servants placed the food – mostly breads and native Valerian fruits – in front of them before they hurriedly exited, well aware of the commander's annoyance. They were forgotten before they even left the room. Habitually, Catiua allowed Denam the first bite. He did little more than pick at his food but Catiua smiled with fondness as he picked up and ate what she knew to be his favorite flavor muffin. Some things would never change; her mood lightened as she, too, started her food, their meal comfortable and silent beyond the clink of silverware.
"Of course." He broke the silence some time later, only after Catiua had stopped her glares that were meant to ensure he ate enough to at least be considered healthy. He wanted to continue their earlier conversation, but seemed hesitant - "Where would you like me to begin?" – as if he didn't know where to start.
"Anywhere." It would take her some time to fully understand the extent of the situation, but at the very least he could tell her the current state of affairs. "Tell me everything you know; if I am to be Princess, I am not going to be a simple figurehead who sits about. I want to assist you." Denam met her eyes and smiled at that, positive and proud, as if he greatly approved. He had never given her a look like that before; Catiua allowed herself a moment of vain satisfaction and pleasure, but both were soon overwritten by an intense regret. He never would have given Catiua the woman such a proud look, only Catiua the responsible Princess. It was almost as if he wished for such theatre. The moment of pride was short-lived and the emotion fell away from the man's features as he averted his eyes.
"It's unpleasant and dirty work, best leave most of it to me." Catiua held back her hiss of distaste as best she could and almost bore a hole through Denam with her glare until he relented with an exasperated breath and a long sip of water. "Are you sure?" He looked deadly serious; she had no doubt the issues that plagued a commander were thoroughly overwhelming, but she could not afford to sit about and pretend they were not there. You are to be Queen, you represent your country! Again Tartaros spoke into her mind. Even as she repeated the words to herself, the Bakram woman felt a stubborn doubt arise at the back of her mind; she was terrified. 'Twas far easier to avert her eyes and let Denam deal with the war while she remained an onlooker. He was strong, she was not. She shook the thought away as best she could; one did not get over their fears by running away with them. She was not young enough to believe that problems went away if she ignored them. If Denam could shoulder the burden, she could as well; she must. "Never before have I been so confident in my wishes." A white lie, but not a harmful one. She knew Denam would hold back if he noticed any hesitation at all. In some way, the Princess knew she should be proud of herself, satisfied that she had taken a step towards her independence, but the topic only filled her with worry, and her doubt persisted, stronger than ever.
"To be honest, Vyce and the Alliance were the least of my issues. The Galgastani rebellion resurged some time ago and there was a brief bout of civil unrest." Galgastani rebellion? Catiua assumed he had dealt with the Galgastani when he took Coritanae, but apparently not. That or a new faction that arose. She wanted to scold Denam for continuing to speak as if she knew what he referred to, but decided against it, as it had been difficult enough to get the man to elaborate in the first place. She could put the pieces together on this particular subject easily enough. "We've weathered this particular storm well and thus far, Ravness and Juenan – he's a Galgastani from Brigantys –" Denam, who seemed almost impassioned, caught his mistake with the names, and for that she was thankful, but what surprised her more was that he had come into contact with Ravness yet again. By some odd twist in fate, or some sinister plot, that woman seemed unable to stay away from Denam. Catiua found it suspicious "- have done well. They're in command of my forces at Coritanae, but it appears that Resistance occupation of the region is not going to end any time soon."
He spoke the somber report without a trace of emotion as he took a bite of his food. Catiua blinked as she let the news wash over her. It seemed Galgastan persisted in its stubbornness even after Denam brought it to its knees. If nothing else, she could not help but respect their tenacity, even if it only served to make life more difficult. "So, you do not have full access to your troops?" She cautiously questioned, in hopes she understood what he said. The Galgastani were a huge people; if even a third of their army had submitted to the Resistance, then Denam's numbers would have at least doubled. Denam likely had to send a large number of Galgastani forces to deal with the usurpers, which left his strength greatly diminished. Her view of Denam's rather desperate situation became clearer.
"Yes – and in more than that area." Catiua was unsure of what could be worse than having to send a good portion of his troops away to deal with a rebellion. Denam's eyebrows drew close together and he stabbed at one of the fruits purposefully. She knew he tried to find a way to word his dilemma, but something about his hesitation set her on edge. "Rumors spread for a time, but I, ah, believe they are under control for now." Yes, there was definitely hesitation. Catiua blinked and realized what she did, and had continued to do even without her knowledge. Why was she so distrustful? Denam was not a boy anymore, he was entitled to his secrets, so long as he did not lie or hold back imperative information. Still, the little part of her mind that was still an elder sister was angry that he was so evasive. She closed her eyes as her mind worked in circles for a moment before she finally decided to trust the man. She would not delude herself into thinking that he did not elaborate because he thought the information would overwhelm her – most likely the rumors were unpleasant and had to deal with him and possibly even his personal life. She could respect his desire to not speak them.
"You know of the Burnham Tigers?" He changed the subject abruptly. Catiua nodded; everyone who had spent prolonged time in southern Valeria knew of them; officially, they were members of the Order of Philaha, but more secretly, she had heard they were loyal to the Regent. Their groups were not united; some members certainly did not act as loyals of the Church would; then again, neither did the Templar Knights Loslorien. "They're on the rise as well. Many of our members desert to join them, especially as I've gained power." Despite what she would have thought, there was no bitterness at the admission, only quiet, shamed acceptance that some would rather follow the Bakram than he. "I also deal with civil unrest; when you were with Loslorien, there were many who abandoned us to support your claim, as they felt we rejected it. Even more left for the church – fortunately, I was able to secure an alliance with the latter and, as you might have expected, the former has been quelled. I believe that many of their number will return to us, or so I hope." He shrugged. "That's really only the start of it; we've also had more isolated incidents that haven't led to more trouble – yet." He laughed dryly as he looked to the roof and mused on his next words. "Truth be told, I was, perhaps, a tad irrational, but at the time I had no other choice."
"A 'tad.'" Her tone was equally dry and lacked amusement. She definitely saw how dreary his situation had been; his worn look and changed attitude certainly fit, yet she could not help but wonder if he had not simply signed his death ledger in attempt to grasp onto what little support he had left. There was no point in criticism; what was done was done. She could not alter his decisions or change the past. "So your numbers dwindled. Despite gaining power and influence, you lost ground." She received a firm nod in return for her analysis. "Thus, your alliance with Lodis – which I'd assume also upset quite a few." He nodded again. "So, now that I'm here, you could simply remove yourself from your agreement, yes?" Her comment was offhand and she certainly did not expect him to do so, as 'twas more a curious question than an honest one. The Princess would have been angry if he broke his oath; she was pleased to be beside Denam again, but they were brought together only through the grace of what appeared to be the incompetent state of the Resistance, the commander understood and accepted his weak position. Perhaps being humbled did him good; that 'Hero of Golyat' bit had gone to his head, after all.
She clearly saw that Denam did not feel the same as she about the Empire. He more than likely felt that his alliance betrayed his beliefs, just as Vyce did, but recognized that he was pushed into a corner and had no choice. There was no loyalty to the country he had pleaded to, only deeply ingrained bitterness. ". . .If only 'twere that easy." He breathed. An odd reaction, unexpected; she would have thought him more willing to turn Lodis away, given the chance.
"It's not?" Her words were all but a demand, more curious than accusatory; she knew his reasons likely went back to what he had promised the empire. Denam's treaty was one of the issues she was determined to get out of the man, even if the Princess had to force him to stay in his room all day with her. Tartaros would not have handed her away like a piece in some game, he had to have some purpose.
"What happens when we defeat Brantyn and if we push Lodis out? Will we have the strength to deal with the full power of the Empire's Orders?" He did not expect an answer and spoke with casual ease despite the subject. "Loslorien is but one. What if they return? Lanselot may not have told you, but father – Prancet – told me they seek some relic of Doraglua's." The name of the man who had raised them caught Catiua's attention more than the name of her father. Prancet was an odd man, she had not realized how little she knew of him until the last few years; he knew more than he let on, in subjects he should have known very little about. The last Catiua had heard about him was Tartaros and his offer to visit – she had not-so-respectfully declined in her anger towards him. After that she simply assumed him dead. Apparently not the case, it seemed, if Denam had spoken with him. "You were simply a tool of theirs to obtain it." The Princess disagreed. She had been told something to the effect, not the details of course, but knew what Denam referenced had been only one aspect of Tartaros and his overall plan. The higher ranks had been surprisingly open about her purpose; in some ways, it was a welcome change to the constant feigned flattery of the nobility she had been introduced to, who used her only to further their own influence.
Catiua continued to muse on her companion's words, but 'twas clear that he had missed her subtle hints entirely. She had not asked him about removing Lodis from the Isles, she wanted to know more about their personal agreement, and why Denam had been so utterly horrified when he finally understood its terms. That Lodis would have a presence in the isles was something she still believed beneficial, at least for a time. Valeria was not strong enough to stand on its feet, not yet. Whether or not Denam made matters worse was yet to be seen, but Catiua did not believe he could have promised anything a Princess was incapable of.
"'Twas Tartaros who supported and crowned me in the first place; it makes no sense for Lodis to suddenly deny my right to rule. Or betray me – us, even if we disagree with their politics. We have political leverage, even if only in the form of my necessity to their plans." She pointed out factually. Emotions would not adhere to Denam's better judgment when it came to his decisions; he was far too pragmatic for that.
"Little more than fancy words and empty promises." He was almost dismissive in his cynicism. She almost felt as if he spoke to her like he would a child. She did not appreciate his unintentional condescension. "Lodis is very different from Valeria. We are much like a small insect to them. We've something they want, and they will do what they must to obtain it."
Catiua frowned and shook her head. She could certainly understand his intentions, but she did not agree with them. The Princess had spent prolonged time with Loslorien; not all were the foul things she and Denam had been led to believe after Golyat were true – though she certainly could not deny there was some truth to them. Martym and Barbas were monsters, through and through. They had never once showed her a modicum of respect or tolerance – even if they only acted that way towards her, an Islander, she loathed them. It surprised and, to some extent, amused her that Denam held onto his grudges so firmly. He was more like Vyce than he would admit, or perhaps Vyce had finally left his mark on him. "I believe Tartaros does not wish for these islands to fall into chaos. He was the one who stopped Brantyn's rampage into Southern Valeria before Golyat, if you remember" The commander nodded cautiously, but Catiua could tell he was annoyed at how she defended a man they once considered enemy. 'Twas her turn to feel as if she lectured a child; Lodis was an ally, Denam could not afford to reject them. "If I'm on the throne and the Isles are at peace, the world community would be required to take notice if Lodis moved against us."
His nod was more confident as he spoke. "Yes, I've staked quite a bit on that." Was all he said, but he clearly held back his distaste. 'Twas fine with her, she did not wish to hear his childish rants. He had acted just as cruelly as Lodis – she would not bring up Balmamusa again, but was that any different? As if on cue, a moment later he decided to persist on the exact topic that Catiua had no desire to progress into. "As long as we are here, it does not suit Loslorien for the Resistance to lose." 'We?' Other than herself, she did not know who he referred to, certainly not Denam himself. The Resistance, perhaps. "Once Heim falls and Valeria is united, I cannot make that guarantee any longer." Catiua frowned and continued to watch Denam as emotions flashed over his features before they were quickly locked away, all unreadable, all little more than a whisper. There were definite subtle meanings behind his words, ones that went beyond their disagreement about Lodis and its influence, but she could not define what they were. She did not like that one bit; this entire point of this discussion was about Denam and how he was to tell her everything relevant he knew.
"I take it you're still not going to tell me what you allude to." The Princess was not going to let the commander off so easily.
"It is as I said." His tone was just as obstinate as hers and it became immediately apparent that neither would back down. The previously-pleasant atmosphere turned chill as both looked stubbornly at each other; these events were not particularly uncommon between the two, even before the war, but with their relationship still as rocky as the harsh cliffs of northern Valeria, it immediately became apparent that neither would back down.
"Yes, but there's more to it than that. Something about the alliance with Lodis distresses you." Something that was more than his petty grudge; the Denam she knew would not have let simple distaste break him down. Catiua pressed on the tension without care that it would snap; she had the chance to pursue the subject Denam had subtly avoided over their meal.
"There really isn't." Rather than snapping, the tension fell away with that, replaced with a chill in the room that had nothing to do with the air. "When I. . .In Rhime, I realized what Balxephon planned in regards to this 'agreement.' I am. . .unsure if I will be able to stay in Valeria once the war ends."
"What? But why?" She spoke out instinctively, before she could control herself. The words left her lips before the thought even formed in her mind. The Bakram woman's dream had been to live in peace with Denam and Vyce; she would not let it fall away so easily. She may be doubtful in many other regards, but this she would persist in until her final breath left her.
"Look at what I've done. Do you honestly believe the people will wish me to remain in any position of power? Besides. . ." She could think of no words to respond with as he trailed off. Even she had not wished him to be in power at one point, if for different reasons. He had that resolute look about him again, and Catiua knew he was about to be incredibly foolish. "When this is through, I will surrender myself to the law and allow social justice to take its course."
"You fool!" She hissed and, to both she and Denam's surprise, she slammed her fist against the table in reactive passion that would have put Vyce to shame. "You speak as if getting killed will make Valeria a better place! I've never understood this primal desire of yours to seemingly take upon pain and wallow in your misery."
"Because I can endure it. If I can stop one person's –" She knew what he was going to say and also knew that unless she interrupted him, he would go on as powerful of rant as she was about to. She interrupted him as quickly as she could; if she let Denam have his word in, their argument would never end.
"But why should you have to? Why is it always you? Never anyone else?" She was not child enough to call it 'unfair,' even if that was what she felt it was. He was never like this before; he had purpose, a goal, and would not have simply allowed himself to fall into darkness because he felt 'twas 'responsibility.' When had he gone so wrong? Was it Vyce? Perhaps 'twas even her. Yes, she saw it. After she left, he had nothing left but the Resistance and Valeria, so unlike when he had Vyce and Catiua as companions and purpose, he put all of his heart into the army – and his heart had been shattered by Lodis when he realized he lacked the strength to succeed. Catiua suddenly felt very small and had to force her mouth closed. She had been so selfish, so childish, so irrational. There was no way for her to make it up to him other than by making sure it never happened again. "I will take it from you."
"What?" He looked horrified – no, more than that. He looked completely overwhelmed, even flabbergasted by Catiua's stubborn declaration, as if it made no sense to him. Or, if it did, he was so against it he could not find the words to properly vocalize his thoughts. He worked his mouth but nothing came forth; Catiua took the initiative in his moment of hesitation. She would not back down, she refused.
"If you wish to shoulder the burden, then its weight will fall onto me as well." She clarified factually, with as best no-nonsense tone as she could muster.
"Stop this." He was just as stern. She spoke again before he could continue, best let the man get as little word in as possible. If she had to layer on her attacks to get a point across, so be it.
"No. You will listen to how mad you sound. I have power, and, like you, many will be upset at my rise when Brantyn falls, as not only do I cause revolution, but I am not even nobility beyond my father's blood. Just like you, the populace will be angry that I've put Valeria under Lodis's. . .protection. Many will be angry that I seek a unified country, they do not want to put under one name." Vyce immediately flashed in her mind; he was one who embodied those thoughts, one who rejected such unity in favor of separate-but-equal people. Catiua would make sure he understood – he must. In truth, 'twas the first time she had ever vocalized such thoughts, and acknowledged that only she had the strength to fulfill them. In some ways, she found she only repeated what Tartaros had said to her, ingrained deeply into her being, but in others she knew she spoke her true desires. Which was which, she was still unsure. Finally, she looked down to her lap and whispered what she had tried to avoid, because she had little else to say. "It's unfair for you to solely take the blame."
"Unfair, perhaps, but it's the best-"
"Do not interrupt your superior." Denam's eyes widened at the words, and even Catiua was surprised she dared take on that tone with him. She hated that she was forced into such a position where she must reject him entirely, even distance him in a way she feared more than anything, but he'd be damned before he listened to her in any other situation than if she ordered it. His refusal brought forth only more anger and suddenly, the words sprang from her lips uninhibited once again, accompanied by a vivid memory, one that she knew would provoke emotion in Denam almost as much as it did her. "So you wish to become my Leonar? To take all of the evils onto yourself so that I remain pure?"
"Yes." There was no emotion, only an obstinate refusal to give in. It only provoked her further and she trembled in anger and frustration, unable to control her emotions any longer.
"No! I will not allow it." She stood up, ignoring the loud, obnoxious sound of the chair that was pushed back behind her as she almost yelled to emphasize her point. "As always you fail to grasp the simplest of subjects. How do you think I would feel if you simply allowed yourself to be killed?" This was not the first time she had used that argument – he had not responded to it before she left for Lodis, and he would not respond now. But she could not simply pretend she felt nothing, not any longer. "I'll tell you – I would be saddened, because you're the only one who understands. But it's more than that; you see me as Catiua, without you I would truly be alone. Not in the manner of some ridiculous tantrum I had before – I'd be well and truly a figurehead that no one saw beyond their position in power."
She breathed hard as she ranted, unable to stop herself. She felt tears spring to her eyes from her explosion of emotions, both rage and sadness, as she revealed the thoughts she had kept hidden the day previous. Neither of them would find peace together until both released the emotions that lay heavily on their hearts. She did not care if Denam looked or listened to her; she paid him no heed any longer as she looked ahead into nothing, sight blurred, only the vague outline of brown, grey, and off-white of the room in her vision. "I'd gamble ten-thousand Goth that you know what I speak of; I see it in the eyes of your troops. They look up to you as Resistance commander, not Denam. Would you have me suffer that same fate? Would you have me as only Queen and not a person?" Her eyes slowly cleared as she took deep breaths to control herself, but she still refused to look at Denam as the silence dragged. "We humanize each other. We are connected; loss of one is the loss of us both. I know you mean well, but your actions affect more than yourself." Vyce again passed through her mind and she could not help the wry smile that crossed over her features. "I'd bet even Vyce would be saddened at your death."
"Everything is already in place." She heard Denam speak and finally she allowed her sight to clear and her eyes to drift towards her companion. She was not in the most rational of mental states and could not read his emotions. His eyes were slightly downcast, as if he was ashamed, but that was all she could see. "Even if I choose not to, the Lodissians will force it." He sighed as he picked up his water and finished it in a long sip. "That is why I reacted as I did yesterday. I would gamble that same ten-thousand Goth that Balxephon wants me free of political ties in Valeria – and he will do what he must to make it happen."
Catiua released a breath. Denam's calmness, feigned or no, was infectious and she felt her uncontrolled emotions drain in relief. She pulled the chair back behind her and sat down again, empty, but also satisfied. The Princess had concluded almost immediately when Denam entered her room in Rhime that he and Balxephon had been the ones who came to the agreement, but 'twas the first time Denam had openly, with no subtle hints or in references to another subject, admitted that the Lodissian was the one who he held hostility towards. Again the pieces came together. She could not meet Denam's gaze again as she very hesitantly changed the subject. "You're not the first I've heard such negativity about Balxephon from, but I admit other than Golyat, he's simply a bit intimidating, but was always respectful to me."
"If you view him that way, then he's doing his job effectively." Denam raised an eyebrow at how she defended the man. Just as she had earlier supported Tartaros, she had to make Denam understand her decision.
"Or perhaps I've simply seen them as human, where you still pointlessly villainize him." 'Twas usually Denam who spoke of acceptance and rationality, she felt odd in that she had to lecture him for once. He could not clamor for peace and unity is he was to force one ethnic group out of it, even if they were a minority much, much smaller than the Walister. No, she corrected herself, Denam did not hate Lodissians: he hated Loslorien. Perhaps the commander had yet to make the distinction in his head. "What do you mean Loslorien will 'force it'?" A bold question, one that she had attempted to get him to answer for some time and finally had the perfect opportunity for. 'Twas impossible for Denam to avoid it without walking out of the room entirely.
"'Tis more a feeling. I've no proof, not yet, but. . ." To her surprise, he responded immediately, not with the delay she would have thought. He was hesitant and conflicted as he chose his words carefully, but he was quite blunt and did not seem to hide anything from her. "It's not my tale to tell, truly, and I respect the teller enough not to disregard his wishes for secrecy. Even I was not told everything, but I do know that Balxephon's time is limited; he made a mistake that he will soon pay for." Whoever had spoken to Denam must have made a good case, if the commander was so set in his ways. "'Tis not Tartaros who has any interest in me, but my existence resolves any uncertain political factors that would arise in case of an untimely death or loss of political power –Lanselot simply plays along because Balxephon's plan secures his position if such an event occurs." He seemed bitter. "In fact, it might even be more secure once Balxephon is gone."
So there 'twas: the truth. Yet somehow his clarification had only confounded her more and she felt the hazy details only grew foggier. Denam was no royalty or noble, other than his skill with strategy – for Vyce was certainly better with weapons – and charisma, he was not particularly useful for Loslorien, let alone Lodis. As she mused further, she remembered his earlier words, the ones that had angered her: he would take all of the blame for what happened on Valeria. The thought, paired with his admission, made more sense. 'Twas Denam who would shoulder any mistakes and deaths Loslorien caused, and the Dark Knights and Lodis would be free of condemnation. It really was quite brilliant; it seemed she had underestimated Balxephon after all. Then what did Balxephon's death have to do with matters? She was absolutely sure that Denam would not replace him in Loslorien, even if the greatest of duty demanded it, if that was what he implied.
The two fell into silence, both unsure what to say. Denam had never responded to her earlier attacks or reassured her that he would be safe – she knew he never would - and she could almost hear his voice in her mind if she persisted on the matter that said 'Are you quite done?' Somehow she had to make him understand, but his head was harder than the stones that made up Phidoch. Catiua picked at what little remained of her meal and instead watched as Denam slowly finished his. He seemed distracted, as if he didn't taste the foods. She noticed his eyes glance to the side every so often and Catiua belatedly noticed the parchment. Of course – he was commander, he had work to do. Tartaros mostly gave the orders to Balxephon to deal with, so he was not so overwhelmed, it seemed Denam did not do similarly and instead chose to deal with the intricacies of politics himself. The Princess would need to change the way Denam worked within the next few days; perhaps she would be able to give Denam more free time. Then the stubborn commander could use that 'there's been no time' excuse when it came to his health.
". . .What do we do now?" Catiua broke the silence after a time. Denam glanced up at her and made a curious grunt that she only took as 'hnn?' before she continued. "I do not wish to sit around – I had enough of that while I was with Loslorien. I wish to act, as we both must do if we wish to unite the country."
The commander chewed his food in the prolonged silence before he swallowed and nodded, more to himself than her. "For now, we wait and plan." Catiua frowned; waiting around did nothing. "Do not give me that look; we must secure our forces and numbers. Taking Heim will be difficult; it was built entirely to withstand assault and even if we've greater numbers, they could rout us by their sheer defensive strength. We have only one chance, we must be absolutely sure of success." Catiua felt suitably reprimanded; Denam knew more on the subject of war than she did. "But – and forgive me if I speak out of place – your rule starts now." She definitely sensed hostility in his tone and cringed away. She deserved his tone for her earlier cruel words that dismissed him by rank, even if they had been a necessity. "To wait about is pointless." His declaration mimicked her thoughts and, to some extent calmed her. They both had the same will after all. "Make your presence known, speak your beliefs aloud. Show the Island you are no tool of Lodis. A Queen is nothing without the support and love of her people; it is they who lift you up. You give them that chance to rise on their own."
"I. . ." The words slipped away from the Princess as she considered the importance of her companion's statement. 'Twas too late to take her oath back as she realized the extent of her promise when she earlier stated she would she share a part of his responsibility. There were so many who looked toward Versalia for a better future, so many who believed in her for her blood alone; they did not recognize her as a woman, she was a creature of legend, royalty, to the commons. She was all they had. When she had been with Loslorien, she never had the chance to truly think on any of the implications of power; Tartaros had promised he would put her on the throne with no issues and she had simply accepted without thought on what it truly meant. She suddenly realized why Denam looked like he had aged within the past scales; she certainly felt pressure weigh down on her and, unlike the commander, she had no idea how to cope.
"Don't worry; you'll be fine." He offered her a reassuring smile that did little to calm her anxiety, but sent warmth and nostalgia through her. After what she'd done, she wondered if she deserved such support – No – she knew she did not. Their short-lived calm would no doubt end soon. As Catiua, or Versalia Oberyth, looked toward the man who was not quite her brother – a little more, but also a little less – who finally pushed his plate to the side and pulled his quill and parchments back in front of him, she knew with utter certainty that the temporary peace had more meaning to her now than it ever had.
Denam had such faith in her, yet she had none of it in herself. All she could think about was the words she had spoken. Did she truly mean the promises, the oaths, of a better future, a united Valeria, or did she simply recite phrases given to her by Tartaros, meant to appease Denam, Lodis, and the people she would rule?
The more she mused on it, the more she realized she had no answer.