Edit: 18 Jul 15
Chapter One | The Golden Child
"You're here again."
The young girl's long blonde hair whipped around her like a golden tornado as she sharply turned around, unsheathing her dagger. Metal met metal with a loud screech, and, with a grunt, the girl pushed all her weight onto her dagger. But the man—no, he was still just a boy—before her would not budge.
"Muu Alexius!" she shouted, her voice dripping with hatred as she held the hilt of her dagger with two hands, pushing with all her might. The soles of her leather sandals skidded across the grimy floor of the Colosseum's underground, but still, it was like she was pushing against a wall. Considering her opponent was a Fanalis—though just half—she was not deterred the slightest in her effort, but she was a bit annoyed.
The man—no, boy; just a boy of sixteen who was unfairly tall and strong, and had the most aggravating personality in the world—sighed as he brought down his sword. Her dagger scratched against the chest plate of his armor when she fell forward in surprise. She dropped to her knees in front of him, and he had on the most infuriating, disarmingly charming smile as she looked up to glare at him.
"Bastard—!" she shouted as she lunged forward, infusing her small dagger with magoi. It was a technique that Shambal Ramal of the Yambala Gladiators had taught her in exchange for representing him in a game of dice. She had been graciously lucky at the time, and had won him a small fortune—at least, it was enough to pay off whatever he had lost so far that day and some extra to assure that he could keep playing until sundown. He still lost it all in the end, but the deal had not been bad at all on her side.
Muu Alexius expressed surprise at her newly learned technique. But nevertheless, he had also trained under the Yambala and was familiar with their moves. He easily parried her attack by infusing his own sword with a small amount of magoi.
"You've picked up a nasty little trick there," he commented, grinning as he hit her wrist with the hilt of his sword. She yelped out in pain and her dagger flew a few feet away. Falling back to the ground, she cradled her hurt wrist in her other hand. Muu Alexius pointed the end of his sword at her neck and crouched down in front of her with his stupid grin on his stupid face.
" . . . You've been to the casinos again," he stated. "What a shameless priestess you are, going to such horrible places all the time."
Weaponless, she could only growl in reply.
Muu's grin only stretched wider at the sight. She looked like a cornered housecat.
The twelve-year old girl jutted out her lower lip in a pout as he stood up and sheathed his sword.
"So, what are you doing here again?" He offered a hand to help her up, but she slapped it away with her uninjured one. She turned from him with a dramatic flip of her hair, going over to where her dagger lay.
"That's none of your business!" she replied hotly, carefully sheathing her dagger after picking it up. She walked further inside the cavernous underground, to the area where the sword slaves and fighting beasts were kept.
Scratching the back of his head, Muu sighed as he resigned himself to follow her. Lady Scheherazade would not be happy if her youngest Vestalis came back worse for wear. The little blonde girl gave him a quick glare over her shoulder when she heard him following, hastening her steps inside. He followed her with an even pace, nodding in acknowledgement at the sparse guards they met. Considering their general indifference to her presence, he assumed that she'd been doing this regularly for a while now. This little one was particularly hard to deny, especially when she started throwing tantrums and screaming like an absolute brat.
She was worse than his little sister—who was half-Fanalis and over five years younger than her, so if that didn't say something, then he had no idea what would.
"Claudia, did you come to see that new monster they put in yesterday?" Muu asked.
"Don't call her a monster! If there's a monster in Reim, it's you!" she snapped back before running into the one of the tunnels.
Rolling his eyes, Muu shared a look with one of the guards and they both chuckled under their breaths.
"As usual, she has a talent for keeping them in check," the guard told him. "She has permission from the manager to look at this one before its debut."
He chatted a bit with the guard about the Colosseum's newer fighters until Claudia came out around ten minutes later. Seeing him still there, she harrumphed, crossing her arms as she walked past him with loud, heavy, and exaggerated steps.
She ignored him as he followed her out of the underground. Back in the sunlight, he could see how much she had dirtied her usually pristine uniform. The back of her skirt was particularly filthy, probably from when she fell earlier. He pulled at her hair, and she made a sound that resembled a disgruntled cat.
"You're filthy," he proclaimed, turning at the street corner. "Lady Scheherazade will be angry at you again. Come on, you can wash up at my place. Mother's been saying you haven't been visiting lately."
She made a face. As much as others couldn't deny her when she threw a tantrum and screamed like a brat, she couldn't deny him when he pulled out the mother card.
That woman was scary, end of story.
She followed him without hassle, but kept a five-foot distance. Stopping, he raised a hand over his shoulder, gesturing for her to walk beside him. It took her nearly a minute to travel the distance, and the people passing smiled at them, laughing behind their hands. Claudia was well-known around the capital as the High Priestess's troublesome little attendant, and they enjoyed the shows she—unintentionally—put on.
Well, most of the time anyway.
When she was finally beside him, he put a hand on her head, messing up her hair because he knew she hated it when he did that. She slapped his hand away with a grimace, muttering curses neither a twelve-year old nor a priestess-in-training should know. He sighed heavily as they began walking again, and she fussily fixed her hair, readjusting the position of the coronet around her head.
"So what have you been doing lately, besides checking on the fighting beasts?" he asked.
She crossed her arms, huffing as she faced away from him. "Like it has anything to do with you!"
He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her closer to him before the children playing with barrels could mow her over. She spluttered in an undignified manner, cheeks red as she pushed away from him.
"D-D-Don't just suddenly d-d-d-do that!" she shouted with her head bowed to the pavement before running ahead.
Scratching his head, Muu muttered with a small smile, "She's always so easy to tease."
He walked back home at a leisurely pace, buying some apples for Claudia and Myron from a vendor on the way. When he finally arrived at his family's estate, one of the servants at the entrance informed him that his mother had taken both girls into the bath—apparently his little sister had been playing in the dirt too.
He climbed up the stairs, taking one of the apples and biting in as he headed to his parents' room. Placing the basket of fruit on the bed, he knocked twice on the bathroom door.
"Hey, I'm coming in—"
He was met with a wet towel to the face when he opened the door. The half-eaten apple fell to the floor.
"Ah, Brother can't look!" Myron shouted, and the little brat threw a bar of soap at him.
"Shoot—Myron!" That hurt much more than the towel, especially since she could throw much, much harder than Claudia could even though she was younger. He rubbed his sore forehead for respite, and to wipe the suds and the residue off before it reached his eyes or mouth.
The three females were in the tub, the overabundant bubbles hiding what needed to be hidden, though it wasn't like there was a point to it, since there wasn't anything he hadn't seen before.
"Muu!" His mother held the two girls in her arms, the blonde one with her face nestled in the crook of the Fanalis woman's neck, and his little sister sticking out a tongue at him while peeking over the edge of the tub. "Claudia and Myron are growing young ladies! What are you doing peeping at them in the bath!?"
He had no excuse for Claudia but, "Myron's six. There's nothing to see—ow!" The soap dish was thrown at him this time, and he was starting to think that the brat had unnaturally good aim for someone so young. It hit him square on the forehead again. Their mother cooed in pride. "Okay! Fine! I'm getting out!"
"Stupid Muu!" Claudia snarled at him just as he was about to shut the door. He turned around to retort, but he caught sight of his mother's face and hurriedly got out of the bathroom.
He picked up the basket of apples again, glancing at his reflection in the mirror before leaving the room. An angry red spot throbbed on his forehead, and he mumbled a bit about younger sisters with too good aims before heading back downstairs to wait for them someplace less dangerous.
They were out nearly an hour later, and he had to stop himself from finishing them all after he noticed he'd already snacked on practically half.
"Why does taking a bath take so long?" he questioned as they entered the dining room, his mother picking out apples from the basket. Calling a slave to bring over a knife and a plate, she sat on the seat opposite his, with Claudia and Myron on her left and right, respectively.
"It was a bit hard to properly wash out the grime in Claudia's hair, and Myron wouldn't stay still," his mother replied dismissively as she began removing the skin from one of the apples. Myron stood on her seat, intently watching their mother's hands as she handled the knife. Claudia looked everywhere but him.
Eyes roving her form once, he noted that she wore the clothes his mother hoarded for when Myron grew up. The off-white tunic looked fine, but the bright red of the sash clasped on one shoulder didn't quite suit her—it stood out too much against her pale yellow hair and seafoam green eyes.
"What?" She had her lips pressed together, and the look in her narrowed eyes was cool and aloof, but the tips of her ears were singed with red.
"So, yeah—uh, sorry about a while ago," he apologized awkwardly, since his mother was giving him the look. "Shouldn't have done that. My bad."
Claudia sighed overdramatically. "I guess there's no stopping the flow of time; how sad. I kind of expected better from you, but I suppose you're still just a guy."
Something about the way she said that grated at his nerves more than her usual comebacks.
"Claudia, sweetheart, stay for dinner. Your clothes should have dried by then." His mother offered her the plate of sliced apples. Myron was already munching away. "Muu will bring you back to the House of the Vestales later."
Myron made faces at him when his hand moved to rub at his still-a-bit-sore forehead. She was grinning way too widely and had too much self-satisfaction oozing out of her. He half-heartedly threw an apple at her face, but she caught it in time. She stuck a tongue out at him and nagged their mother, who was talking to Claudia, to peel and cut it.
"Sweetie, I think it's time you learned to handle sharp things," their mother said, sitting Myron on her lap and putting the knife into her small hands.
Muu grimaced. "Mother, she's way too young—"
"Nonsense," the Fanalis woman decreed, maneuvering the knife in her daughter's hands across the apple to peel it. Myron's smile was bright as summer sunlight. "I learned how to handle knives at four."
Muu pinched the bridge of his nose.
"You haven't been in the Colosseum much lately."
He glanced over at the only blonde in the room, who was busying herself with the plate of apple slices.
"I've helping out Father in his work," he replied, and she paused in her apple slice inspection before staring at him with a ludicrous expression.
She clasped her hands on her lap, shoulders hunching forward. "You and . . . politics?"
"What's with that tone of voice?" he asked dryly as he placed an elbow on the table, cradling his chin in his hand.
Claudia turned to his mother with a serious face, "Auntie, is Reim going to be alright?"
"It's never been alright with my husband in the Senate."
"Honestly, Lady Scheherazade is a miracle-worker to keep this empire running with those idiots at its helm," his mother sighed exaggeratedly. "Magi are truly fearsome."
"Anyway, you're eventually going to have a say about the way things are run, too," Muu said, facing the blonde girl. "It's one of your privileges as a Vestalis—Lady Scheherazade might send you to represent her in meetings when you're older."
She gave him a blank look, tilting her head to the side. "But isn't it fine because I'm smarter than you?"
A toneless voice had never aggravated him so much before.
Muu grimaced, though said nothing in the contrary. He conceded that she was more academically-inclined than him. The Vestales were not merely attendants of the High Priestess—they were her apprentices whom she gifted with her knowledge and guidance. All who entered her service—not only into the College of the Vestales, but also the other assemblies she headed—came out as outstanding citizens of Reim, becoming doctors, scientists, teachers, and scholars.
Usually, the ones Lady Scheherazade chose to become her Vestales were magicians, but on a few rare occasions, she chose non-magicians as well. Claudia was one of those few exceptions—despite not being able to use magic, she had a large capacity for magoi and an almost frightening learning speed.
It made her a little arrogant, but it was within his tolerance limit. Usually.
It was only too true that Claudia was a brat who screamed really loudly when things didn't go her way, but since her way was usually the most effective despite how stupid or incomprehensible it seemed at first, rarely anyone actually denied her. She was called a lucky girl—a golden child—though most of the time it seemed like simple dumb luck was the reason behind things going her way.
If anyone other than Claudia made the choices she did, the outcomes would no doubt be vastly different.
"What? No comeback?" she asked curiously, obviously biting back the smug grin pulling at her lips.
Muu sighed, raising his hands in defeat. "I'm at least smart enough to concede on that point."
She covered her grinning mouth with her hand in a manner that could be considered demure—that is, if her eyes weren't sparkling way too much.
"Oh? Reaaally now?"
Muu sighed for the hundredth time that day.
Dinner had been uneventful compared to the rest of the day. His father conversed with Claudia all throughout the meal, asking her about the matters Lady Scheherazade dealt with. As usual, her manners, eloquence, and the grace she carried herself with around important people were impeccable, and absolutely incomparable to show she treated him.
Muu took Claudia back to the House of the Vestales once she got changed back into her own clothes after dinner. She carried what was left of the apples he bought earlier, as well as some fruits from the southern provinces his father had given her as a present.
Since she came from the southern provinces before she was brought to the capital, she was quite happy about the bunch of ugly, yellow-green fruits his father had given her. Although they smelled rank to him, when he warned her they may have rotten already, she said that that was how they were supposed to smell.
"You wouldn't understand the allure of such a high-class delicacy!"
"'Delicacy' is just what they call the horrible food that no sensible person would eat."
She kicked him in the shin, and his knee buckled. Scowling in pain, he made a mental reminder to himself to keep that girl away from Shambal Ramal.
She ran ahead, and he took a moment to fix the magoi flow in his leg. He easily caught up to her, grabbing her basket of fruits and catching her around the waist before throwing her over his shoulder.
"Let me go!" she screamed as she kicked and pounded on his back. People eyed them again, laughing behind their hands at the scene they made.
"Stay still already," Muu sighed tiredly, hooking his arm over the back of her knees. "Your skirt's riding up."
Her legs stopped moving immediately, but he could still feel her pounding on the back of his armor.
"Stupid Muu! Idiot Muu! Go bald, you girly-haired bastard!"
He did not give in, steadily ignoring her as he made his way to her home. Without garnering a reaction from him, her fit fizzled out in a mere thirty seconds. Soon, he could hear her making meowing sounds at the stray cat that was curiously following them.
"We're almost there. Tell your relative to stop following us already," he said, and it earned him a harsh tug on his hair. He grunted as his head was pulled back slightly, but it wasn't particularly painful.
At least, that was what he told himself to keep calm.
He let her down once the temple was in view. She huffed at him, crossing her arms and puffing out her cheeks. Although he was of the opinion that she was already too old for such childish actions—she turned thirteen soon after all—she was still short, and it made her look young enough to be able to pull it off and still have effect.
She harshly took the fruit basket when he offered it to her, turning away from him with another overdramatic flip of her hair. She stomped towards the entrance of the House of the Vestales, finally lightening her steps when she was only a few feet away from it.
Lady Scheherazade appeared at the top of the staircase when they entered the lobby, and they both fell into bows.
"Lady Scheherazade, a good evening to you!"
Claudia rolled her eyes at the ground. The guy was way too obvious. She stepped forward, curtsying before her mistress.
"I was invited by the lady of the Alexius household for dinner," she explained as Lady Scheherazade went down the stairs. "My apologies for coming back late." She held out her basket of fruits. "I was given gifts by the lord of the household—delicacies from my home province, which he has recently visited. I would be honored if the Lady Scheherazade and the other Vestales would taste it."
Lady Scheherazade simply nodded. "It's fine. I expect you made sure to thank him properly."
"Of course, my lady."
Lady Scheherazade nodded again. Turning to the half-Fanalis boy, she said, "Muu, thank you for accompanying Claudia back. I assume she was of no trouble?"
Muu stood from his bow, keeping a fist over his heart. "She was no trouble at all, Lady Scheherazade. My mother and Myron were ecstatic to see Claudia again."
"I see. I hope your family is doing well. You should head back before it gets too dark, Muu."
"Of course," he replied brightly. "It was wonderful seeing you, Lady Scheherazade."
The half-Fanalis dismissed himself with another bow, and the High Priestess looked steadily at her apprentice with half-lidded eyes. Claudia avoided her gaze, staring awkwardly to the side.
Lady Scheherazade sighed, the decorations on her staff tinkling as she turned to head back up the stairs. "You are much too fond of him. It worries me sometimes."
"I—" Claudia flushed red, scurrying up the stairs after her mistress. "It's not like that at all! He's just an annoying pervert who follows me around!"
The High Priestess stopped, turning to pat her apprentice on the head. Claudia fidgeted, her bright blush fading into a soft pink that stained her cheeks. She pouted slightly, biting on her lower lip as the decorations on Lady Scheherazade's staff jingled again.
"Come, Claudia. I am making a new clone tonight. This is your first time seeing the creation process, is it not?"
The young girl blinked, mouth hanging open in surprise. "It would be such an honor—!"
"Call Aquilia as well—she has also not seen the process yet," Lady Scheherazade said. "Come to the atrium after you fetch her. Coelia is already making the necessary preparations."