(AN) AUTHOR'S NOTES: The wait is finally over part one of chapter 39 is here. Thanks for being so patient to wait so long for this update again it was worth the wait, we so far never failed to deliver or disappoint to our fellow readers and fans. Please be sure since we are one one chapter away from the finale to add your vote to my still open poll on my front profile page. We need all the votes we can get to those whom have yet to add theirs so everyone can know in the final chapter what the next writing project will be once TBWC is completed.
(*) As always many special thanks to my editor and co-partner in helping finally get this story off the ground and back burner dragonwriter24cmf. So far we have been getting by with this fan fiction by bit by bit with story and with you guy the fans that love reading each new chapter that comes out. Thanks to everyone, I appreciate your support through this 100% everyone. Keep the constructive criticisms, outgoing comments and reviews coming in.
DISCLAIMER: All rights to Trinity Blood was created and © by late Yoshida Sunao, the anime directed by Tomohiro Hirata and produced by the studio GONZO, as well as a manga drawn by Yoshida Sunao's friend Kiyo Kyoujou. All © rights revered by their respective owners. I own nothing except © to this story, it's plot and it's OC's that will eventually show within later chapters.
Warning:This fan fiction is rated (M) AKA Lemon. This story is ABSOULTLY NOT suitable for children or teens below the age of 16 [So if you're under the age limit turn back now, come back when you old enough to read this. I'd rather not get flamed nor sued by parents whom are just looking for trouble in places their underage children should not be looking nor reading for that matter.
This story contains strong explicit adult themes and sexual ones such slight foreplay - as in hand sex, one-sided love, Attempted Rape, Explicit Sex or anything else mild to hard core kinky for that matter!, references to violence, and strong coarse language. If this disturbs you, do not read any further.
Notice: Trinity Blood War Continuum takes place one month after the events from the anime's finale episode 24 along with some elements, characters and things that will be used and taken from both manga's Rage against the Moons (RAM), Reborn on the Mars (ROM). In addition to some spoilers from stories untold notes left by Yoshida Sunao which he intended to finish off the manga series supposedly. Basically 50/50 will be used on both the anime and manga to those whom are more familiar with manga then others will see this implants as the story develops. Trinity Blood is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Roman Catholic Church/the Vatican is portrayed as a military and spiritual power. The series also strongly implies major and controversial changes in the Church of present reality, such as women being bishops, cardinals as well as romantic relationships and marriages between members of the clergy. If this disturbs you of form or shape of or on imagination then do not read this story.
Trinity Blood: War Continuum – Chapter 39 part 1: Royal Wedding, The Aftermath of War
Sister Kate was waiting for them when they returned, a worried scowl on her face. She pounced as soon as she spotted Abel, in the center of the group. "Father Nightroad! What on earth do you think you were doing, Abel?! Flinging yourself out of the ship. Honestly, I didn't pick you up from that ship just so you could go jumping out like a lunatic halfway down! What were you thinking? Really, Abel...!"
Abel smiled softly. "Yes, yes. I'm really very sorry, Kate."
She sniffed. "I'm used to it! But you'd better have an excellent reason for making me detour like this! And for scaring me half to death!"
Abel blinked, then looked at the child he carried. "Yes, well...it was very important. Now, if you'll excuse me, Sister..." He shifted the sleeping child in his arms and stepped past the holographic nun, heading into the ship.
Kate blinked. "Hold on there, Abel! What's going on?"
"Leave him be." William came up the gangplank, smiling as he held up a hand to forestall her pursuit of Abel. "I think it's best to let Abel alone, for now. I'll make the report to Caterina."
Kate scowled. "That's not what I'm concerned about. I want to know what's going on, William. Starting with what Abel just brought aboard, and what it has to do with him leaping out of my ship!"
The Professor's smile widened. "That, my dear Kate, was Abel carrying a child. I believe he said he intends to adopt the boy."
"A child?" Kate looked shocked. "But how in the world...there's absolutely no way that Abel could have sensed a child in the middle of the wilderness from the atmosphere. Even my best instruments won't do that."
"You're quite correct. However, that child fell from the ARK." Kate's eyes widened. William shook his head to stop any further questions. "As Her Majesty the Empress of Byzantium pointed out, this is Abel's business. While I'm certain Caterina will have her own opinions on the matter, its best we let it rest for now. And Abel as well. Although..." he frowned thoughtfully. "I hope you have some milk on hand. While it's entirely possible they'll both sleep through the rest of the ride, I'd like to be prepared."
Kate sighed. "Well, I do have milk and cream for tea. That will have to be good enough."
"Of course." William nodded.
Esther smiled. Then she caught Seth's eye. The young woman grinned back, then jerked her head in the direction Abel had taken, making a little shooing gesture with one hand. Virgil, standing beside her, caught the gesture. He met Esther's eyes, then nodded. Esther took the hint and slipped down the hallway after Abel.
She found him in his room, seated on the bed with the baby still cradled against his chest. He'd kicked off his boots, and was leaning against the headboard. He looked up when Esther entered, and smiled. "Esther."
"Seth seemed to think I should check on you. The Professor is getting some milk from Sister Kate for him. He said he'd take care of reporting in for you." Esther kicked her own shoes off, then settled to the bed beside him.
"Ah. I'll have to thank him later." Abel flushed. "I suppose it isn't really fair of me, but..."
"I think everyone understands. I'm sure Lady Caterina will as well. After all, you've had a very rough day." Esther leaned over to look at the child he held. "Do you really think...?"
"That it's Cain? Yes." Abel sighed, looking down into the tiny face. "I never saw him as a baby, of course, but...he does look a bit like I did at that age. Besides, Tres confirmed the DNA match, so there really isn't any doubt."
"That's true. It's just..." Esther frowned. "I wonder how he wound up falling from the ARK."
Abel smiled, though there was no humor, and a great deal of tiredness in it. "Well, the rejuvenation process is rather explosive. It probably blew the window out of the observation deck. After that, the change in atmosphere would probably have dragged him through. Or...well, I suppose it might be like when I left the church, after my own revival. Perhaps being revived makes one claustrophobic." He shrugged. "I hadn't really thought about it, to be honest."
Esther shook her head. She could see his energy fading, fatigue settling in. "I'm sure it doesn't matter." She laid a hand on his arm, and Abel leaned toward her gratefully. "How is he?"
"Still sleeping. Honestly, he'll probably sleep for a while. The whole thing is rather exhausting." Abel sighed, his head tilting back.
Esther smiled settled in next to him. "Well, why don't you both rest some? After all, we have plenty of time. And I'll be right here with you, if you need anything."
Abel blinked at her, weariness in his blue eyes. "I...I don't want to impose...I..."
She laid one finger across his mouth, stopping the words. "It's not an imposition at all."
Abel stared at her for a moment, then closed his eyes and relaxed, leaning partially against her and partially against the wall. Within seconds, his breathing deepened, and he was sound asleep. Esther smiled and brushed the loose silver hair back from his face, then curled into a comfortable position beside him.
Abel and Cain both slept the for the entire journey home. Esther dozed, awakened partially by William bearing milk, blankets and hastily improvised baby supplies, and later by Seth bearing food. She and Seth shared a quiet meal, watching the sleeping brothers. Then Seth slipped away to return to her own activities. Esther watched her leave, then curled a little closer to Abel and let herself go back to sleep.
Esther drifted in and out of a light sleep, until a light knock on the door brought her back to full awareness. She shifted into a sitting position, then stretched. "Enter."
Virgil opened the door, one hand balancing a stack of neatly folded garments. The Albion lord looked somewhat rested, and he'd taken some time to clean himself up. Only the bandages peeking out from underneath his collar and his shirt sleeves revealed he'd been in battle at all. He nudged the door closed behind him, then bowed his head. "Majesty."
She nodded. "I'm awake, Lord Walsh." She stretched again, then eased herself away from Abel's side, leaning him against the pillows. "We're almost there?"
"We'll arrive at the Vatican in an hour." He set the bundle of clothing down, then picked up the uppermost set of garments and offered them for her inspection. "I've brought fresh clothing for yourself and Father Nightroad, if you wish to change."
Esther considered that. She'd put on fresh clothing in the infirmary earlier, but it had gotten sticky when they'd gone after Abel. Besides, the clothing Kate had provided in the healing area was plain clothing. Even though she'd been part of the combat team, and hadn't gone officially as Albion's queen, she did need to be a little better dressed for visiting the Vatican. She was still a ruling monarch, even if the visit was unofficial. "I think I'd like that, thank you."
Virgil inclined his head once more, then gestured toward the left hand wall. "There is a bathing room three doors down in that direction, should you care to make use of it. Sister Kate has left it stocked with the necessary supplies, and Colonel Spencer can safeguard your privacy."
Esther smiled. "I'm sure that it won't be necessary to guard me, but thank you." She took the clothing he offered her, then glanced at the man still sleeping on the bed. "I'll only be a few minutes, but if you could please see to Abel, and tell him where I've gone?"
Virgil nodded. "Of course, Majesty." His pale eyes rested on Cain, still sleeping swaddled in Abel's cassock, and his arms. "I shall take care of the child as well, if Father Nightroad permits."
Esther smiled again. "I'm sure he will. Please tell him I'll return shortly." Virgil nodded, and Esther stepped into the hall and shut the door behind her.
The bathing room was right where Virgil said, and stocked with half a dozen scented soaps and shampoos, as well as brushes, a hair dryer, wash-cloths, and several large towels. Esther chose the rose scented soap and shampoo, then turned on the shower. She spent several minutes simply standing under the spray, enjoying the feel of the hot water and being clean. She would have willingly spent hours under the spray, but she didn't want to use all Kate's hot water. Nor did she want to leave Abel alone for too long. She finished her washing, then dried off and shook out the dress Virgil had given her.
It was a fairly simple dress, a crimson red with gold embroidery of the sleeves, hem and neckline, but otherwise fairly plain. Best of all, she didn't need any help getting into it, and it was fairly lightweight. Particularly compared to some of the court dresses she'd worn. Esther slipped it on gratefully, along with the shoes, a slightly dressier version of her boots, then ran a brush through her hair and returned to Abel's room.
She found Abel awake and upright, adjusting the outer robes of his cassock. At the small desk, Virgil was tending to Cain. There was a faint odor that suggested the infant had been changed, and as she watched, the Albion lord pinned a diaper gently in place, then wrapped the child in a fresh blanket. Abel finished what he was doing and stepped around the bed, and Virgil placed the babe in his arms once more.
"How is he?" Esther stepped forward, looking over Abel's elbow at the tiny form.
"Well, he seems all right. But he should probably be fed." Abel sighed, then blinked as Virgil handed him a bottle of milk. "Thank you, Lord Walsh."
Virgil smiled. "I confess, Father. This courtesy is one Father Wordsworth thought to provide, not I."
Abel returned the smile, though his was a pale shadow of Virgil's. "Well then, I shall have to thank him when I see him." He looked at the bottle a moment, then shifted Cain awkwardly in his arms. "Ah..."
Esther smothered a laugh and moved forward to help him. "Here." She adjusted his grip on the baby, and the bottle, then guided his hand into position. Within seconds, Cain was drinking eagerly. Esther looked up into Abel's face, to find him staring at the child in his arms with bemusement. "Have you never done this before?"
"Ah, no, not really." Abel flushed slightly. "I was...well, I don't usually work with children, at least, not this young."
Esther smiled. "I'm surprised. You seem like you'd do fairly well with them." She helped Abel shift his grip slightly, to something more comfortable. "Here."
Abel smiled. "Thank you, Esther."
Virgil spoke from where he was folding the remaining clothing. "Father Nightroad, have you eaten?" Abel shook his head, and Virgil set his work aside. "Very well. If you and Lady Esther would remain here, I will bring a meal for you."
Abel smiled, a little guiltily. "Thank you, Lord Walsh."
Virgil smiled softly. "It is no trouble." He offered Esther a brief bow, then left the room.
Esther waited for the footsteps to fade, then spoke softly. "Virgil told me we'll arrive at the Vatican soon."
Abel nodded, the faint smile on his face vanishing. "I know." His eyes darkened, pain and apprehension in his gaze.
Esther reached up to gently touch his shoulder, then brushed his bangs back from his face. "Will you be all right?"
Abel grimaced. "I suppose so. Though I suspect Miss Caterina will be rather upset with me. Still..." He sighed and bowed his head.
Esther laid her hand on his arm. "I'm sure Miss Caterina will understand." Abel nodded, but the tension remained in his face and shoulders. Esther watched his face. "What's wrong, Abel?"
Abel flinched. Esther tightened her grip reassuringly. "Surely you don't honestly think she'd order his death?"
"No. But Cardinal di Medici..." Abel's face twisted.
Esther shook her head. "I'm sure that neither His Holiness nor Lady Caterina will let him do anything to you. And Seth..."
"I know." Abel swallowed. "To be honest, I'm not truly worried about it. It is just..." His voice cracked.
"Just what?" Esther kept her voice calm and quiet.
"I cannot...Esther, I can't..." Abel swallowed hard, then raised his head, turning his face to one side as a tear slid down his cheek. "The world, the Vatican, they will view this as a victory. And I cannot..."
"I understand." Esther fished the pocket handkerchief from where she knew he kept it, then reached up to dab the tears from his face. "It's going to be terribly hard for you, isn't it?"
"I...yes." Abel swallowed again, then took a deep shuddering breath.
She finished wiping the tears from his face. "It's okay. I'll be with you. I'm sure the others will understand as well. If we all work together, I'm sure we'll find a way to spare you as much pain as possible." She offered him a gentle smile. "In fact, I'm sure the Professor and the others are already thinking about it."
Abel took another breath, then relaxed. After a moment, he turned his head, and gently kissed her hand. "Thank you, Esther."
"You don't have to thank me." A knock announced Virgil's return, with a loaded tray. "Here. Why don't I hold him, while you eat?"
Abel let her take the child from his arms, and Virgil handed him a plate. He took it carefully, then offered Esther a smile. "Thank you, Esther."
Esther smiled back. "You're welcome."
They touched down at the Vatican thirty minutes later. Fortunately, Seth arrived to give them plenty of warning. Abel finished the last bites of his plate. Kate appeared to assure him that she would take care of the domestic details. By the time the ship finished docking procedures, the assault party had assembled by the doors. Abel stood in the center of the group, holding Cain in his arms. Esther and Seth stood to either side of him, while the rest of the team formed an honor guard around them.
The door opened to reveal Caterina waiting for them, with a full escort of Vatican guards. As the group approached, she inclined her head respectfully. "Your Majesty, Empress. If you will all please come with me, I'll escort you to his Holiness." her gaze flicked over the rest of the group, lingered a moment on the child in Abel's arms. Then she turned away, toward the church, and the rest of them followed.
Armed guards lined the hallway to the central council chamber, all of them in full armor. Esther shivered slightly as they passed between them. She'd only seen the full guard detail out once, and that had been during the Silent Noise threat.
The guards at the door to the Papal Council chamber saluted them as they approached, then came to attention. At Caterina's nod, two of them moved to open the heavy doors. Caterina waited until the doors were fully open, then led them through. Esther glanced around as they strode up the carpet to the Pope's throne. The entire council looked to be present, all of the Cardinals and Archbishops arrayed in chairs around the room, dressed in their formal robes. She felt a little under-dressed, but then, no one in their party was dressed much more formally. And they had just come from a battle.
Alessandro rose as they reached the dais where his chair, along with that of Lady Caterina and Cardinal di Medici, was situated. A genuine smile lit up his face as they stopped. "Esther. Father Nightroad." He glanced at Seth, and a bit of pink washed over his cheeks. "Lady Seth." He looked over the group. "Everyone...everyone came back?"
Abel stepped forward as Caterina ascended to claim her place on the dais. "We were fortunate, Holiness, but yes...all of us have returned safely."
Alessandro's smile warmed even further, softened by genuine relief. "That...that's good. I'm really...very glad to hear that, Father." He paused. "And the battle? Lady Caterina said you'd reported a victory, but..."
"If I may..." William stepped up to Abel's side.
"Please." Alessandro's hand toyed with his staff. "Ummm...that man...the one they called Contra Mundi..."
"He is dead, Holiness. Father Nightroad eliminated him. All of us witnessed that fact." Esther saw Abel stiffen. William continued. "Of the rest of the Order...most of their troops, both Dolls and auto-jagers, were destroyed. Of the core members, only three remain." He grimaced. "I regret to say that the members known as Dietrich von Lohengrin, Isaac von Kampfer, and Helga von Vogelweide have managed to escape us for the moment. However, I'm fairly certain that all of them sustained wounds in the battle. With no support and no leader to rely on, it should be some time before they are capable of regrouping, let alone raising any sort of trouble."
"You still let three members of their organization escape!" Di Medici was scowling.
William smiled grimly. "Yes, well, we were heavily outnumbered. More to the point, I'm afraid a great number of us were distracted by the explosion that signaled the Contra Mundi's demise. It was rather spectacular."
Alessandro blinked. "That...was that...the bright flash in the sky?"
"Most likely. I had no idea it was visible here. But surely, if you saw it, then you can guess the magnitude of the event."
"Ummm...yes." Alessandro blinked, then transferred his gaze to Abel. "Father Nightroad...you aren't...were you hurt?"
Abel shook his head. "No, Holiness. I'm a bit tired, but I am mostly unharmed." Esther wondered if the pope, or anyone else heard his voice catch on the word 'mostly'.
"I see." Alessandro blinked again. "But...that bundle..."
"Ah." Abel stepped forward to the very edge of the dais.
Alessandro looked, and his eyes widened. "It's...it's a child."
"Yes." Abel's voice was soft, but still audible. "He was abandoned on board the ARK. I intend to adopt him, to raise him as mine."
"Why was a child on the ARK?" The question came from one of the Archbishops seated to the side.
William answered. "We're not entirely sure. Evidence suggests they might have been attempting to clone the Contra Mundi for some reason. Or possibly there was some other reason he was there."
"Is this child a threat?" That came from the opposite side of the room.
"Not at this time. And I doubt we'll have to worry much, if he's raised by Father Nightroad." William smiled. "After all, he is a priest, and a remarkably good man."
Cardinal di Medici scowled. Esther saw Abel flinch, and knew the Professor did as well, from the way his hand came up to rest on the back of Abel's shoulder.
"A reasonable supposition. However, the life of one child is hardly our concern. Is the threat from the Order of Rosenkreutz lifted?"
William nodded. "In my estimation, yes. We do need to round up those last three members, but with the organization in shambles and the leader destroyed, I would be willing to say the threat is over."
"It's...it's over?" Alessandro whispered the words. "Then...no more battles? We can...relax? No more...no more fighting, or destruction?"
"No." Abel spoke, his voice still quiet. "There may be a few isolated incidents but..." He raised his head to meet the Pope's gaze, then spoke softly. "It is over, Holiness."
"Okay." Alessandro straightened, his expression firming with resolve. He raised his hands, and silence fell over the room. "Send word to everyone...hostilities with the Order of Rosenkreutz are ended. The war...the war is over."
There was a murmur of assent from all around the room. Cardinal di Medici looked murderous, but he bowed his head in acceptance of Alessandro's words.
Alessandro waited for the noise to die down, then turned to the assembled group of warriors. His eyes came to Abel's. "You look...you look really tired, Father." He smiled, a warm, gentle smile, full of kindness. "I...there will probably be a big announcement later, and a celebration and everything, but for now...you should rest." His eyes moved to each of them. "All of you should. I...it's not much, but there are guest rooms prepared for each of you. Please, feel free." His eyes met Esther's, then Seth's, and he blushed again. "Thank you, Esther, Lady Seth, for helping with this. And the rest of you. Thank you. Thank you...very much, for everything you've done."
Wordsworth spoke for them again. "You honor us, Holiness."
Alessandro shook his head softly, but he didn't verbalize what he thought. After a moment, he turned. "Sister...could you please show them to their rooms?"
Caterina nodded. "Of course Holiness." She descended from her seat once more. "Come." The group bowed once more to the pope and to the seated council, who returned the salute, then filed out of the room.
Somewhat to Esther's surprise, Caterina took the whole group to the guest wing. Petros declined, saying he would prefer to return to his men. Paula followed him. The rest of them went willingly to the rooms she showed them to. Esther wasn't surprised to find her rooms were the same ones she'd used before, with Abel and Seth on either side. Caterina showed them to the doors, then bid them good night. Esther saw her hand touch Abel's arm for a moment. Abel stopped. Caterina murmured something to him. Esther couldn't hear what she said, but Abel relaxed just a fraction. Then she left.
Abel watched the slim form retreat down the hall, then turned to Esther and his sister. "I...well, good night, Esther, Seth." He looked at the doors. "Ah...Esther...did you want me to...?"
Esther shook her head. She knew she would miss his presence, but she was too tired to worry about sleeping soundly. And he needed his rest as well. "It's all right, Abel. Go to sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
Seth grinned and stretched lazily. "I suppose I'll see you in the morning as well, my dear brother." She gave him a quick smile, which he returned tiredly, then vanished into her chambers.
Esther watched Abel vanish into his own rooms, then entered hers. It was almost too much effort to change into the nightgown she'd been left, though the clean cloth felt nice. She just managed it, then toppled into bed. She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
The next two days passed quietly. Esther slept late, and woke only when Virgil gently eased her out of bed and offered her breakfast. The Albion lord had taken his first dose of silver nitrate while they were returning, and assured Esther he was perfectly safe. Esther noted that he looked much better than he had. His wounds were healed, and Caterina, or the Vatican, had provided clean clothing for all of them. Virgil drew Esther a hot bath while she ate, then left a clean dress neatly folded on her pillow while she washed. Afterward, he left her, citing business to attend to. Esther offered to help, but he simply smiled and urged her to rest.
Esther had to admit, she still felt tired. She wasn't weary enough to sleep, but she was glad that Virgil was taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of. She sat for a few moments, enjoying the sunshine, then shook her head and went to her door.
She emerged to see Seth just leaving her rooms as well, also dressed in fresh garments. The Empress smiled. "Hey, Esther."
"Good morning." Esther returned the smile.
Seth snorted. "Well, it's almost good afternoon, isn't it? Still, sometimes you just need to sleep until you wake up." She rolled her shoulders, rocking on her heels. "I think everyone's up, but I was just about to check on Brother Abel."
"I imagine Abel is...very tired." Esther's gaze went to the door of Abel's room, still firmly shut.
Seth snorted. "Abel's exhausted. Honestly, even I don't know how he managed everything." She sighed, her eyes suddenly sad. "And I'm afraid we're going to ask still more of him. I fear that the people won't be content with a simple announcement. And whether he likes it or not, Abel is a hero, to a lot of people."
Esther swallowed. "I know. But I think it would be better to wait and see what Lady Caterina and the others come up with, before we worry too much." She nodded her head at the door. "Shall we?"
Seth joined her at Abel's door. Esther knocked softly, but there was no answer. She waited, then knocked a little louder. Silence. Esther waited a moment more, then eased the door open.
The main room of the guest suite for Abel was empty, but the bedroom door was open. Esther moved toward it and stuck her head cautiously through it.
Abel lay on the bed, sound asleep, long silver hair tangled haphazardly over the pillow. His clothing had been changed to a set of pajamas, and a new cassock was laid over a chair, along with his cross. Someone had set up makeshift bedding for Cain as well, and the baby was lying curled within his blankets, also fast asleep. Esther smiled at the sight and held the door open wider so Seth could join her.
Seth made a soft noise. "Well, it looks like he's completely out." She sighed. She slipped inside and made her way to the side of the bed. "Abel?" She waited a moment. "Hey Abel." After another moment, she reached out and gently shook her brother's shoulder. Abel barely stirred, and his breathing remained deep and even. Seth made another soft sound, though she smiled as well. "You really did wear yourself out this time, didn't you, my dear brother?" She gently brushed the silver hair away from his face.
Esther joined her at Abel's bedside. "Do you think it would be all right if we stayed with him?"
Seth nodded. "As far as I know, Lady Caterina and our advisers are handling things. And I'm pretty sure Abel won't mind." She tilted her head, her gaze going to the mound of bedding in the corner, and the tiny figure within. "Besides, even if Abel remains asleep, I'm pretty sure he'll probably wake sometime soon. It's best if we have someone remain here to take care of him."
Esther nodded. After a moment of thought, she settled on the edge of the bed next to Abel. Seth moved his clothing off the chair and settled in it.
They spent the rest of the day drifting in out of conversation, and light naps. To Esther's surprise, Seth seemed to be almost as tired as she was. Virgil and Father Wordsworth both found them there around mid-afternoon. Virgil brought food for both of them, and fresh milk for Cain. The child woke around evening, making fretful noises. Esther changed his diaper, cleaned him up and fed him. Seth took care of the dirty linens, and the dishes from their own meals.
Abel remained dead to the world. He barely even moved. Esther would have been worried, if she hadn't been able to see the rise and fall of his chest through the sheets. Besides, she remembered that he'd slept like that before, when she'd escaped from the Order the first time. Both Seth and William assured her it was a normal, healing sleep for Abel, and that he would wake in much better she condition. Before she went to bed, she checked on him once more, and was pleased to note that the dark shadows around his eyes had faded, along with what had remained of his wounds. He looked...not quite at peace, but less drawn and gaunt. She smiled, tucked the covers a little more firmly around his shoulders, while Seth did the same with the sleeping babe, then they took their leave.
The next day passed in a similar manner, with Esther and Seth keeping watch over Abel and Cain, and the others appearing occasionally with food, or milk, or clean linens, or even just to check on the two. Cain woke more frequently, and was more restless, but he seemed to like being held by either of them, so Seth and Esther took it in turns to hold the child and rock him soothingly, as well as tending to his other needs.
Finally, around dusk, Abel stirred. At the first sound of restlessness from the bed, Seth handed Esther the baby. "Here. Why don't you stay with Abel, and I'll go get us something to eat?" She smiled. "Abel's probably going to need a lot of food, and I'm sure the others will want to know he's waking up."
Esther nodded and settled back in her seat. She watched Seth disappear out the door, then turned back to the bed, watching quietly.
For several minutes, Abel didn't move. The only sounds in the room were their breathing, and the quiet, contented gurgles from Cain. Then Abel stirred again, and slowly opened his eyes. He blinked hazily once or twice, then sat up. "Esther?"
"Yes." She watched him blink sleep from his eyes, rubbing them absentmindedly. "How do you feel?"
Abel gave her a quick, sheepish grin. "Ah...well enough I suppose. Though, I am a bit hungry."
Esther smiled. "Seth said you might be. She's already gone to get you some food."
Abel chuckled. "She really does know what I need." His eyes went to the baby in Esther's arms. "And Cain..."
Esther smiled. "He's really been very well behaved. We've all been taking turns watching him while you were asleep."
Abel blinked. "I...um...just how long was I asleep?"
"You've been unconscious for most of two days, my dear brother." Seth stepped into the room, dragging a cart behind her, piled high with dishes. She got the cart into the room and pushed the door shut, then turned to survey her brother critically. "But you really are looking much better now."
Abel swallowed. "Two days..."
Seth grinned. "It's all right. Everyone knows how tired you were. I just spoke with the others. The Professor said he'd be by later to talk to you. In the meantime..." She turned and pulled the cart closer to the bed, then set a tray in Abel's lap and began loading it from the cart. "You'd best eat, Abel."
Abel grinned sheepishly. "That does look delicious." He gestured. "Ah...I hope the two of you will join me."
Seth grinned and produced two more plates. "I did try to bring enough for all of us." She glanced at Esther. "I brought some milk for him too. Why don't you set him down on the bed for now?"
Esther nodded and laid Cain carefully on the bed, next to Abel. She tugged a little on the blankets, to form a nest for him, and Abel obligingly shifted the tray so she could re-arrange them. Within his nest, Cain wiggled a little, getting comfortable, then settled down with a soft sound of infant contentment, watching them all with sleepy blue eyes.
Abel paused, then reached one hand over to stroke the soft blond hair off Cain's forehead. Cain made another soft, happy sound. Abel smiled, then went back to eating. Esther and Seth filled their own plates, then Esther returned to her chair, and Seth perched herself on the end of the bed, just beyond Abel's feet. They ate together in a comfortable silence, broken only when Seth got Abel seconds, then thirds. Seth herself took a second helping, and even Esther indulged in a second helping of dessert. Fortunately, Seth had anticipated their hunger. She'd even brought enough sugar and milk for Abel to drain three cups of his favorite brand of tea, complete with thirteen sugar cubes.
Finally, they all laid aside their plates, Abel with a sigh of contentment. A quick check revealed that Cain had drifted off into a doze. Abel sighed again. "Was I really unconscious for two days?"
Seth made a face. "Every bit of it, Abel. I even tried to shake you awake once or twice." She shrugged. "It's probably all right. Everyone knows you were pretty exhausted."
"That is true." All of them turned to see Caterina in the doorway. She inclined her head to both Esther and Seth before meeting Abel's eyes. "May I?"
"Of course." Abel smiled and gestured for her to come in.
Caterina stepped inside, moving to her subordinate's side. "How are you feeling?" her eyes studied his face, then what was visible of his frame, as if assuring herself that his wounds were healing.
"Oh, much better I think." Abel's smile was warm.
"I see." Caterina returned his smile, laying one hand on his forearm and squeezing gently. Her gaze shifted to the sleeping infant. "And your child?"
"Ah, well, Esther and Seth told me he's doing well." Abel reached out and smoothed back Cain's hair again. "I think he's going to be all right."
Caterina smiled again. "That's excellent news. You should know, His Holiness has formally acknowledged your adoption."
"Has he?" Abel's eyes brightened. "Ah...tell him I said thank you, please."
"I shall." Caterina watched Abel's fingers stroking softly over the baby's face for a moment, then spoke softly, her voice slightly regretful. "Abel..."
Abel spoke softly. "I hadn't had time to ask...what's happened."
Caterina nodded. "We've released the news that hostilities are ended. There are wanted bulletins out for the Order members who escaped. We've received requests for confirmation from most of our associated countries."
Abel tensed slightly. "Confirmation?"
"We've had the representatives of Albion and the Empire report their observations as well. However, at the moment we're planning a quick progress through several countries to let people see with their own eyes that the Alliance leaders are safe, and as a gesture of our faith that things are over. I imagine everyone will want to recognize the members of the final combat team." Caterina's eyes were fixed on Abel's face.
Abel tensed even further. "Caterina..."
"I know. But you've been leading the war effort for the past year. As much as you don't like the spotlight, Abel, it's not an option this time for you to simply disappear into the shadows." Caterina sighed. "We'll try to make it as easy as possible for you, but it's simply not possible for you to avoid all notice." Abel remained frozen, his hands clenching on the sheets. Caterina sighed and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "We'll discuss it more tomorrow, all right?"
After a long moment, Abel nodded. Caterina smiled. "All right. I'll send the Professor down to check on you. Then I want you to get some rest, Abel." She turned away without waiting for a reply. "Lady Esther, Lady Seth, I assume I'll see you both tomorrow as well?" Esther and Seth both nodded. Caterina cast one final look at Abel, then turned and left the room.
William came in a few minutes later. He gave Abel a quick check up, then the child as well. Then he patted Abel's shoulder. "Well, it looks as if you'll be all right with a few days rest." He studied Abel's face. "I assume Lady Caterina has been in to speak to you." Abel nodded, his expression tightening. The Professor sighed, patted Abel's shoulder once more, and left.
Seth stretched. "I think I'm going to turn in myself." She sighed. "You'd best sleep while you can, Abel. Things are going to be pretty busy, I think." She smiled at her brother, then stretched over to give him a quick hug. Then she shared a glance with Esther and let herself out of the room.
Esther waited until the door shut behind the Empress. Abel was quiet, still tense. Esther watched him a moment, then moved to the other side of the bed. "It looks like Cain is asleep. Would you like me to put him back to bed?"
Abel blinked. "Wha...oh. Ah...yes please." He swallowed sharply, his eyes clouded with uncertainty and apprehension.
Esther gently picked up the infant. Cain shifted in her arms, but the tiny eyelids remained shut. She checked quickly to see that his diaper was still clean, then settled him into the makeshift bed. She wrapped him securely in the blankets, then stroked her hand over his cheek once and rose to her feet. "Well, I suppose I ought to be getting to bed myself."
"Esther." Abel's voice was quiet. She turned to see him gazing at her, his eyes still revealing his the turmoil Caterina's visit had stirred in him. Then he lifted one hand, holding it out. His voice was barely a whisper when he spoke again. "Please...stay with me."
Esther blinked. Abel had never asked for her to stay with him before. "Are you sure?"
Abel nodded, swallowed hard once more. "I know it's a bit of a risk, but...I..." His voice cracked.
Esther settled onto the bed. Abel's hand caught her and pulled her to him, gathering her into an embrace. He relaxed slightly as she settled against him. "Esther..." She felt his grip tighten, a quiet desperation in his voice.
"It's all right." She reached up and gently touched his face. Abel relaxed at the gentle caress. "Everything will work out, Abel."
Abel nodded. "I know. But I...need you with me."
Esther tilted her head back so she could smile into his gaze. "Of course." She leaned back into his arms. "Actually, I was thinking the exact same thing."
She felt a shiver run through him, though whether it was laughter or simple release, she couldn't tell. Then Abel relaxed completely.
It was the work of a few moments to maneuver them both beneath the blankets. As soon as they were lying down, Esther snuggled close. Abel's arm circled her shoulders, but he didn't speak. After a few moments his breathing slowed and deepened. Esther twisted her head, to find herself gazing at Abel's sleeping face. She worked one arm free and brushed his hair gently back. "Rest well, love." She shifted to plant a light kiss on his cheek, then settled back. Within moments, she had drifted off into slumber.
The next few days were busy ones.
The next morning, the Professor and Seth woke them for breakfast with the others. The rest of the combat party met them there, as well as Caterina. Virgil brought Esther up to speed on what had been done, while Baibars and Astha did the same with Seth. After breakfast, the group separated for their separate duties.
For Esther, the first day involved a three hour conference call with Vanessa and her Councilors. First, they had to be reassured that the Contra Mundi had been dealt with. Then Mary gave them an updated warning about the Rosenkreutz members who had escaped. After that, they went over all the business that had accumulated. Underground affairs with Virgil, security and guard details with Mary assisting her, and then matters of the kingdom, with the Council and her advisers .
After that, she met with Seth, Lady Caterina, and the Pope to discuss their plans. As Caterina had warned, many countries had requested visits from the final combat party. Word had spread throughout Rome as well, and the people were planning a huge celebration. Many nations had expressed wishes to reward and recognize them as well.
Over the next few days a framework of plans emerged. Before they left Rome, there would be a festival, and Alessandro would present them to the city and give them public recognition. Afterward, they would board the Iron Maiden for a brief progress, visiting the capitals of supporting countries, as well as cities that had suffered heavy damage under the attacks of Rosenkreutz, such as Venice, the Four City Alliance, Carthage and Istvan. Most cities would only involve a two or three night visit, though they would stay longer in the Empire.
After some discussion, Caterina elected to go with them. Though she hadn't been a member of the final assault party on the ARK, she was the leader of the AX. And, as Seth pointed out, she was the final member of the Alliance leadership. Without the alliance between Empire, Albion and Vatican, they'd have all been destroyed. Alessandro was supportive of her attendance as well, and even Francesco gave grudging approval, citing the benefit of a stronger Vatican representation.
Most of it was formula, simply a matter of arriving, attending an honorary dinner or two, a meeting with the rulers, or the city governors, perhaps a speech or two. None of them were adverse to it, except for Abel.
The day after they'd gotten the basic arrangements made, Caterina called Abel into her office to brief him. Abel flatly refused to give a speech, and or even to go forward for recognition. When Caterina pointed out that he was the hero of the war, Abel simply shook his head and reiterated his refusal. Caterina tried reasoning with him, arguing, even asking for explanations, but Abel simply continued to state that he couldn't and wouldn't step forward.
Esther and Seth watched the two of them argue, and shared a long look. Both of them had been helping Abel with Cain. And both of them had been woken by Abel's cries, at least once a night, as he suffered nightmares. He spoke very little about them, but Esther could guess what they were about. Reliving his brother's death, perhaps Lilith's as well, or Seth's near-death and Esther's disappearance. Esther had woken from nightmares of her own a few times, and knew Seth had as well. She saw compassion and understanding in Virgil and William's eyes, and suspected both of them had heard Abel crying out in his sleep as well.
Abel looked as if he was about ready to simply turn around and walk away, when Alessandro spoke hesitantly from his seat. "Ummm...Father Nightroad?"
Caterina stopped, and Abel turned to address the younger man. "Holiness?"
Alessandro blinked, his fingers twisting absently in his robes. "Well...I was just wondering...I mean...I was wondering why you're so against being recognized. I know...you've done a lot for the Vatican and...everyone else. Not just this battle, but a lot of other things. Sister said...that you've been...helping for a long time. Even Brother Petros said so. I think he even admires you. And I...I know I do." Alessandro flushed. "But I...I've never recognized what you've done. I know...before...Sister said it was because...because people couldn't know...about...about your powers. But now...I was just wondering...if there was...another reason. I mean...I don't like crowds, or loud noises." His blush deepened. "Is it...something like that? Because...if it's something like that...we can...we can make arrangements. We can...tape you speaking, or have a private ceremony, or something. Because I...I'd really...I really want to recognize what you've done, this time." He swallowed nervously.
Abel stood still for a long moment, then sighed, shoulders slumping slightly. "It isn't that, Holiness." He watched the young man's face a moment, then took a deep breath. "I...what occurred aboard the ARK..."
His voice cracked. He took another deep breath, then spoke softly. "The man...who was called the Contra Mundi...I knew him long ago."
Alessandro stopped fidgeting. "You...you did?"
Abel nodded. "We were close, once upon a time. I...once, I called him my brother. He was...a good man. He was injured, in an accident, trying to protect me, and lost his mind. Because I knew him...because I loved him...and for all those dear to me who suffered at his hands...I fought him." His voice broke again, but he continued. "I...thought that I hated him...that he had come to hate me. But in the end...it was because I loved him, and he still remembered...that I killed him."
Abel's head bowed. "I'm sorry, Holiness. I know the world sees this as a victory but I...I..." His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "I...mourn him. I cannot see the victory...not now."
"That...that's terrible." There was compassion and understanding in Alessandro's face, tears streaking his cheeks. "Something like that...I didn't realize..." He blinked rapidly, then scrubbed the sleeve of his robes across his face. "I...I'm sorry."
"Nor did I." Caterina's voice was quiet, gentle. "That's why you didn't want to speak, Abel?" Abel nodded, and Caterina sighed. "You could have simply told me."
Esther saw Abel swallow. "I know...but I..."
Caterina shook her head, a faint smile on her face. "No, it's all right. I should have known." She rose and came around to stand in front of Abel, then gently laid a hand on his cheek. "You've always tried to spare me your pain, and handle things your own way. I should have realized it was something like that." She sighed. "I can't let you stay in the shadows, but we can announce that you're still recovering from the battle, and unable to speak. Will that suffice?"
Abel hesitated a moment, then nodded. William spoke up. "I'll be happy to make an official statement to that effect, as Abel's physician." he tapped his pipe thoughtfully. "I think, with a little planning, the rest of us can answer any questions that might come up. It will take some delicate maneuvering, but it's not impossible."
Caterina nodded and returned to her seat. "We'll give you the exact same recognition as the other members of the final attacking force. Nothing special, and we'll avoid as much mention of the Contra Mundi as we can." She held Abel's gaze. "Can you manage that?"
Abel swallowed. "I...if I must." He frowned. "Cain..."
"You should keep him with you." William spoke, his voice thoughtful.
Caterina frowned. "Is that really wise?"
"It may be a very good idea, Excellency." Havel spoke from his own seat. "While I confess I know little about child care, I do know that having a child with him will balance Abel's image as a warrior. A child's presence will ease some of the apprehension people naturally feel when confronted with very powerful soldiers."
"There is that." William nodded. "But it's also an excellent excuse. If it's obvious that Abel has a child to care for, then it will be much easier to dismiss him from events quickly. After all..." He grinned slightly. "There are very few people in the world who wouldn't sympathize with the necessities of caring for a child, particularly an infant."
Abel looked as if he was about to protest, but William held up a hand. "Think about it. I'm aware you don't want to upset the boy, but if he becomes fussy, you have the perfect reason to leave, and one that all of us can cover for you."
Caterina nodded. "An excellent point. Abel?" She turned back to Abel.
Abel nodded. "All right." he swallowed. "Is there anything else...?"
Caterina studied him a moment, then shook her head. "No. I believe that's all we need from you for now." Her eyes softened. "Rest, Abel."
Abel nodded, bowed, and departed. There was silence in the room for a moment or two, then the rest of them bent to the work of figuring out the final details.
Hours later, Esther found herself in Abel's quarters. Seth joined them a few minutes later. Abel was engaged in feeding Cain, but after a few minutes he set the bottle aside and patted the child on the back gently, before laying him inside the makeshift bedding. Seth watched her brother, then spoke softly. "Hey Abel. There's something I need to ask you."
Abel turned. "Yes?"
Seth shifted her position, bringing one foot up on her seat, to encircle it with her arms. "Now that everything's settled...are you going to keep your promise to Esther?"
Abel blinked, confused, then his expression cleared. "Yes."
Seth grinned. "I figured as much." She sighed, and the smile slipped away. "Abel...you do know...what you want...it's a lot different than being Esther's guard, at least officially."
Abel sighed. "I know. But I will work something out." he ran a hand through his silver hair.
Seth sighed again, a tinge of exasperation in her tone. "Abel, honestly, you don't have to sort out everything by yourself. And I wouldn't have asked, if I didn't have an idea." She shifted, then pushed herself to her feet, rocking restlessly on her heels. "You know, there have been a lot of questions in the Empire, about why we've been following your lead. Even with my best efforts, and Mirka and Baibars, people have noticed that I've been deferring to you."
Abel grimaced. "I'm sorry."
Seth snorted. "You hardly need to apologize to me, Abel. Besides, I have an idea that might solve both our problems." She moved forward to lay a hand on his arm and stare up into his eyes. "Abel...I think it's time my brother came home."
Abel's eyes widened and his shoulders stiffened. "Seth..."
"You don't have to go before the Full Court. And I'll make it clear that you have obligations outside the Empire, relating to the Alliance. I won't hold you beside me. But Abel...isn't it time?" Her grip shifted, both her smaller hands holding onto his larger one. "Cain has been taken care of, and you're caring for him. You've saved the world from destruction. With the Alliance, it's not going to matter so much that you're a priest. You don't have to worry about compromising your position. And Esther already understands."
Abel swallowed hard. "Seth...I am...still a..."
"Don't even say it!" Seth spat out the words. "Abel...why can't you see the truth for yourself? Even if you've done terrible things, you've also done so much good. Besides...if you promised Esther...are you really going to let your guilt get in the way of that?" She glared at her brother. Abel remained silent. Then he sighed, shoulders relaxing. "You're right." He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then pulled his younger sister into his arms. "I'm sorry. It's just...it's been a long time since I allowed myself to think that way. And with Cain..."
"I know." Even muffled by Abel's robes, Esther thought she could hear the tears in Seth's voice. "But still...Abel...please...won't you at least consider it?"
"I need to talk to Caterina. But yes, I will consider it." He ran his hand through his sister's midnight hair. "Can you give me a few days?"
Seth sighed, her arms relaxing. "After nine hundred years, I suppose I can wait for a few more days." She looked up int her brother's eyes. "But Abel, I'd really like to know your decision soon."
Abel nodded, stroking her hair again. "You will. I promise."
"All right." Seth embraced him again, then released him. "I suppose we'd all better get our rest." She looked up at her brother. "Rest well, Abel."
He smiled. "You too." Seth grinned in response, then disappeared out the door. Abel stood still a moment, then turned and slipped into bed. Esther joined him, and within moments, both were sound asleep.
The formal celebrations were held three days later, starting with a noon procession through Rome. All of the Methuselah had taken multiple doses of the silver nitrate solution Virgil used, and were protected by UV gel as well. Because of the size of the city, they were conveyed in well-decorated open carriages, as opposed to walking.
As the leaders of the Alliance, Esther, Seth and Caterina rode in the first carriage. Abel rode with them as their guard, a silent shadow, his formal cassock completely outshone by the three of them.
Caterina wore her formal Cardinal's robes, the most heavily decorated pair she owned. Esther had a beautiful red and gold and white gown that Virgil had gotten made up for her out of cloth from the church stores. He'd even gone out into the city and purchased a handsome gold, diamond, and ruby necklace and matching earrings, He'd even produced a golden crown, also with gems. It wasn't nearly as ornate as her formal state crown, or as heavy, but it made the point. Seth had an equally resplendent set of robes in green and silver and white, in Imperial style. Emeralds twinkled on her cuffs, her throat, and her waist, as well as in the brow of her octagonal cap. In contrast to her usual preference, the robes were full length, stopping just above her heels. The cut of them gave her face and figure an added maturity, making her appear closer to Esther's age of twenty, than the age of fifteen her body had stopped at.
They rode for nearly two hours, surrounded by crowds shouting, cheering, throwing flowers and waving banners. It wasn't really any worse than anything Esther had seen before, but she was glad of Caterina and Seth's presence. She could understand why Alessandro was nervous in crowds. So much noise, so many people.
Finally, they stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to the Church. Alessandro was waiting at the top, with a full honor guard, every one of them arrayed in their best robes. Alessandro himself was a nearly blinding figure in white and gold and silver cloth, complete with formal regalia and a sparkling miter settled firmly on his fair hair. Three steps behind him, Cardinal di Medici and the rest of the Papal Council stood arrayed, and behind them, a full complement of Inquisitors and Vatican guards.
As the carriage rolled to a stop, Abel alighted, then held out his hand to help each of them descend from the carriage. His manners were perfect, but as Esther took his hand to step downward, she saw the unease, and faint unhappiness in his eyes.
She wasn't surprised. After all, not only did he not want to be in front of the crowds, he'd been forced to leave Cain with Sister Kate, and one of the other Sisters of the Vatican. He'd been adamant that Cain not be exposed to all the fuss, and Caterina had agreed wholeheartedly, given that he was positioned as their guard, and it was impossible to be effective as a guard or a deterrent while carrying an infant. Kate had volunteered her care, with that of a young protégé she'd been recruiting, and Abel had reluctantly agreed.
Esther shook the thoughts away, and offered Abel a quick smile. Abel managed a rather weak half-grin in return, but it was close enough to his usual expression to be attributed to nerves, or the solemnity of the moment. His fingers tightened around hers in a light, reassuring squeeze before he released her to stand with the other two. Moments later, the rest of the assault team formed an honor guard around them.
To Esther's surprise, the other two had voted her to lead the group up the stairs to the church. She'd protested, being the least senior of the three, in either age or time as a ruler, but Caterina and Seth had brooked no argument. She'd been the one to suggest and start the triple Alliance they now had. She'd been the focus of the Contra Mundi's attacks. She'd been the one to face the Contra Mundi multiple times. Both of them felt she deserved a position of honor, and there was no backing out of it.
Esther stepped up to the foot of the stairs, gathering her skirts carefully in one hand. Seth came up to her left, Caterina to her right, a few paces behind her. Abel stepped into place behind them, equidistant to all three women. Virgil and Mary took up positions on either side of Esther, just slightly back. Baibars, Ion and Astha formed up on Seth's side. The Professor, Leon and Hugue formed up on the other side. Petros and Paula formed rearguard, both in full ceremonial armor. Esther waited until she thought everyone was in position, then took a deep breath and started up the staircase.
The stairs up to the Vatican weren't that long, but Esther felt like they went on forever. She tried to keep her focus on the Pope's gently smiling face, full of warmth and encouragement, but she was still very aware of the crowds ringed at the base of the steps, and the throngs of officials waiting behind the Pope. Finally, she made it to the top step, curtsied to the Pope, and took her place before him, the others spreading out in a line to either side of her. Abel took his place at Caterina's right, as her subordinate in the AX.
Alessandro greeted Seth with equal solemnity, then raised his staff for quiet. The crowds at the foot of the stairs, and the muttering officials all stilled, watching.
Out of deference to Alessandro's nerves and the sun sensitivity of the Methuselah, they'd elected not to have any grand speeches. Only simple statements, and a simple presentation of the medals. Esther saw Alessandro swallow nervously, then he smiled at her. "Queen Esther."
She stepped forward, issued another curtsey. Alessandro turned, and one of the waiting officials took his staff with a reverent bow. Another, a Cardinal from his appearance, stepped forward with a pendant draped formally on a cushion. Alessandro took it, then turned to her, and raised his hands to lay it over her shoulders. "For you valiant efforts against the Enemy of the World, and the Alliance you've helped us build, the Vatican thanks you." He smiled then, suddenly a young man instead of the Pope. "Thank you, Esther, for everything you've done. I'm glad we're friends." It was spoken so quietly she doubted most could hear it.
She smiled back. "I as well, Holiness." She bowed her head. "Thank you." Another curtsey, and then she returned to her place in line.
Seth was next, a bright smile on her face. She didn't bow, as Empress, but she did bend her knees in the Imperial form of curtsey, a gesture of respect and equality that had murmurs racing through the crowd. Alessandro repeated his formal thanks. Esther didn't hear Seth's reply, but Alessandro blushed with a pleased smile on his face.
Caterina followed the Empress. She looked regal as she bent her head to accept the formal salutation and medal from her brother. Esther saw Alessandro murmur something else, and thought she caught the word 'sister' in it. She didn't hear Caterina's soft-spoken reply, but her expression was one of amused fondness as she re-took her place in the line.
Abel followed Caterina. He'd argued for someone else, but that, neither Seth nor Caterina had been willing to budge on, and Esther had agreed. He'd been the one who had faced the Contra Mundi the longest. Certainly, he'd paid the greatest sacrifice. Esther watched him stride forward, then bend before the Pope. His height meant that he was more or less kneeling on the stone. The silver head bowed.
Alessandro's eyes were full of warmth and compassion, and kindness. He touched Abel's shoulder in a benediction. "Father Nightroad...you've faced the Enemies of the World for a long time, and served well with Lady Caterina. May the Vatican always remember your faith, and your courage." He lowered the medal of honor over Abel's shoulders, then lifted his hand and gently touched Abel's brow. "May your wisdom and strength be remembered, a guiding light for all those who serve the Lord."
Esther knew, from the way his shoulders shifted, that Abel would have liked to protest the honor. But this wasn't the place, or the time. Instead, Alessandro gestured, and Abel rose to his feet. "Thank you for your words, Holiness. I am honored." He bowed; hand on his heart, then resumed his place in the line.
The rest of the ceremony passed simply enough. Medals were presented, and each combatant given a few words of encouragement and gratitude. Esther let it wash over her, and concentrated on maintaining a proper, regal expression, though she allowed herself to smile when Mary and Virgil received their medals. But then, Seth was grinning like a child on her birthday when Baibars, Ion and Astha were presented, and Caterina had a similar look of satisfaction when her AX members were awarded.
There were no deviations, though Esther recalled that some of them were receiving extra awards as well. Leon, she knew, had been granted a parole, and his sentence was up for review, with the possibility that he would be cleared of the rest of his sentence, in return for continued service to the Vatican. The Professor was receiving his own space to set up a lab. Kate, though she wasn't there, would be getting a complete overhaul, and some desperately needed, or wanted, upgrades.
She knew Alessandro and Caterina had also discussed something for Abel. She had no idea what they were planning, but she knew that, for now, they both intended to honor Abel's wishes that the minimum amount of attention be drawn to him. So far, the only thing he had accepted was Alessandro's formalization of his adoption of Cain.
Finally, the last of the participants received their medals. Alessandro intoned a short blessing. With that signal, cheers and applause roared from the waiting crowd. The Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops clustered around delivered their own applause, and here and there, bows of appreciation and respect.
Finally, the applause died down. The group arranged themselves in a line as Alessandro offered them an invitation, for a east inside. Then, with a final, almost unified bow, the combat participants saluted the Vatican officials, and followed the Pope inside.
Lunch was delicious. Abel sat through the actual meal with the rest of them. Esther saw one of the older Cardinal's speaking to him,but she couldn't hear what was said. Still, she wasn't surprised when Abel rose from his seat just after dessert had been served, offering up a hasty excuse before he fled. She sighed, shared a look with the others, then went back to her wine. Despite her urge to follow Abel, she knew that she didn't really have a good reason to do so. Instead, she settled back to enjoy the remainder of the feast and social hour.
The feast ended fairly early. After all, they were scheduled to begin their progress the next afternoon, and everyone still had things to do, last minute plans and packing. Esther was relieved when the festivities ended. It felt...odd, not having Abel there, after all he'd done.
Esther slept late the next day, then she and Seth helped Abel with Cain, while their advisers handled the matter of packing. She felt slightly guilty about that, but both her advisers assured her it was no trouble. Besides, as Seth pointed out, she was a monarch. There were appearances to be maintained, and packing wasn't something a queen usually got involved in.
They boarded the Iron Maiden early that afternoon. Alessandro was there to bid them an affectionate farewell. He even managed the courage to kiss the back of Seth's hand in parting, though he blushed furiously as he did so. Esther noticed Abel watching with a small smile as Seth returned the courtesy with a swift peck on the cheek that turned Alessandro's face crimson. Then he gave the pope a final, respectful bow and strode up the ramp, Cain in his arms, followed by the rest of them.
The first part of the trip was fairly easy for all of them. They were all still recovering, in various ways, and spent most of their time in lounge areas, or in private quarters. Esther spent time with her advisers, keeping up-to-date on her work and issues in the kingdom, or with Abel and Seth.
Their first stop in Venice went off without a hitch. Just a simple feast and some fireworks. The fireworks seemed to cause both Astha and Abel some amusement, and a shared glance that ended in quiet grins.
Their second stop, Hispania, proved to be a little more chaotic. Cardinal Borgias met them there, courtesy of the Royal Family. He insisted on introducing them, and made something of a dramatic production out of it. Esther noticed that he attempted to trap Abel several times, about Cain, about the final battles, and about several other things as well. Fortunately, Caterina was aware of his tactics, and she and the Professor, as well as Brother Petros, managed to be on hand to defuse the situation before Abel got too agitated or upset. Once, Cain started crying in the middle of Antonio's attempt to drag Abel away, resulting in a quick exit, as Abel excused himself to take care of his adopted child.
Aside from Antonio, the rest of the visit was quiet, friendly. Esther enjoyed a long conversation with her fellow monarchs, as did Seth. The celebration was limited to a grand feast, and a night or two of dancing, and then they were politely ushered back to their ship and given a formal farewell, then continued their progress.
The next stop, Carthage, was a quick one, but difficult. Esther felt uneasy, remembering what she'd experienced in both places, and she could see actual pain in Abel's face, memories too close to the surface. She was relieved that the others noticed as well. Caterina, Seth and her advisers provided a buffer for her, and the AX members, with Seth's assistance, did the same for Abel. Still, it was a relief when they left, only two days later.
Istvan was equally difficult, and for much the same reason. Still, it was far better than her last visit, alone with vampire not-really-assassins and an archbishop out to get her. She was more than glad of the support of her advisers and the AX members. And she almost enjoyed the puzzled looks of the people, that Star of Istvan, Saint Esther, was in the company of several Methuselah.
The last night in Istvan, she joined Abel with Cain. Seth came in a few moments later, looking pensive. She stood at the foot of the bed a few moments, then spoke softly. "Hey, Abel. Do you remember what we discussed, while we were in the Vatican? About your situation?"
Abel nodded. "I do."
Seth chewed her lip a moment. "We'll be stopping in the Empire next. It will take several days to get there, but...I really do need to know what you're going to do. Have you thought about it?"
"I have." Abel sighed, then shifted to stand and wrap his arm around his sister's shoulders. "I've even discussed it with Caterina. She said it would be all right, as long as there isn't much fuss."
Seth started, and looked up at her brother with wide eyes. "Abel...does that mean...?"
"It means you can tell your people that I'm coming home. Well, that your brother is." He laughed ruefully. "I suppose I'll need something appropriate for the occasion. After all, I can't exactly show up in my usual cassock." He sighed. "But...I would appreciate it if we could keep this relatively quiet."
Seth grinned. "Don't worry. I'll have Mirka make all the arrangements. We'll manage. After all, she might be a little bit odd sometimes, but she's certainly very discreet. That's the main reason she's my double, after all."
Abel nodded. "That's true." He tightened his grip gently in a hug. "Let me know what the plans are, and I'll do my best to act accordingly."
Seth nodded. She hugged her brother tightly, then stepped back. "Well, I'd best go start arranging things, if that's the way you want it, Abel." She sighed. "What do you plan to do with Cain, though? You'll blow your cover pretty fast if you have a child with you."
"Well, it isn't too much trouble. I'm sure Sister Kate and I could keep an eye on him." Esther spoke quietly.
Seth smiled. "That might be a very good idea. I'm sure Mirka could help as well. After all, she isn't going to be needed quite so much for this, since I'll be home, and the Earl of Memphis will be representing the family." Seth's smile was touched with relief. "Thanks, Esther. You really are a big help."
Esther blushed. "Well, it's really no problem."
"Okay then." Seth stretched, then turned away to the doors. "I'll let you know what the plans are later, Abel." She gave her brother a quick wave, then ducked out the door.
Abel sighed. "Ah, thank you, Esther."
"I said it's no trouble." Esther gently tickled the quiet infant beside her, earning her a giggle. "But...what Seth said..."
"She wants to have me recognized as her brother." Abel ran a hand through his silver hair. "I suppose I don't mind, and there are some benefits to being a member of a royal family, but really...the responsibilities and everything..."
"I'm sure you'll do just fine." Esther smiled, then rose to take his hand and kiss him lightly. "But you should probably get plenty of rest. After all, we'll be starting for the Empire tomorrow, and it looks like you'll have a lot of work in front of you." Abel nodded, then pulled her close to him.
They arrived within the Empire several evenings later. Rather than going to the Imperial Star Palace, the Iron Maiden docked at the Moldova estate. Mirka met them there, and escorted them all to guest rooms. She and Seth planned to return to the Palace by separate routes the next day. The rest of them would be summoned a day or two later. Abel, instead of playing the part of silent shadow, would be a public escort for Esther and Caterina, with Baibars, Ion and Astha acting as his honor guard. Sister Kate and two of Mirka's most trustworthy maid-servants would be responsible for Cain.
Normally, Seth would have greeted Esther and Caterina first, but Abel's homecoming changed matters. Instead, he would be the first one to greet the Empress, as her long lost brother. He and Seth had spent several days on board the ship, discussing how the whole thing would go forward. Esther listened to the plans, surprised by how elegantly everything fell into place. Abel fidgeted, but agreed.
The afternoon before their planned entrance to the Palace found Esther out in the gardens, sitting by a fountain. She was looking forward to the evening, but she couldn't help feeling nervous as well. Even though Abel would be the main focus of the night, the thought of standing before the full Methuselah court was a bit daunting. And she knew that most of them would remember how she'd been Abel's junior partner on their first trip to the Empire. She had a feeling there would be a lot of questions, and she wasn't sure how to answer them.
Movement startled her from her thoughts, and she looked up to see Caterina standing nearby. "Lady Caterina."
Caterina inclined her head. "I was out for a walk in the gardens. I wondered if I might join you."
"Oh...certainly." Esther moved aside so Caterina could join her on the bench. "I was just admiring the view, and thinking about things."
"Ah. I understand." Caterina settled gracefully into her seat. "Anything in particular? That you wish to share?"
Esther fidgeted with her skirt. "Well, it's just...I've never formally visited the Imperial Court. I mean, I was here as an envoy, but its different now. And...I was wondering about Abel. I know that the Empress plans to announce him to the Court as her brother but...won't there be questions?"
"There will." Caterina sighed. "We're planning to keep it fairly quiet, but still...there's absolutely no way this won't get back to the Vatican, and to Albion. And then there will be an uproar." She sighed again. "I'm fairly certain His Holiness won't truly mind, but Cardinal di Medici..."
"He'll be furious." Esther swallowed. "This...is it going to cause trouble for you? I mean, my Council is used to Lord Walsh and his sister, and they've gotten fairly comfortable with Methuselah, but the Vatican..."
"There will be protests. However, for once Abel's silence has truly worked in our favor. Or at least in mine. As have circumstances." Caterina smiled ruefully. "Abel absolutely refused to tell me any more than he had to about his past, or his family. Because of that, I can honestly say I had no idea he was a member of the Imperial family until after the Albion incident. And since then...he's been an auxiliary member, working either in Albion as your guard, or as a go-between for the Vatican and the Imperial and Albion courts, or as a military adviser. So it can be argued that he hasn't been a member of the clergy, officially at least, since I discovered his identity."
"I see. But even so...I was under the impression that all your Imperial contacts involved Abel."
Caterina smiled. "They did. However, almost all of those assignments were given at his own request. I had originally planned to send the Professor or Tres to meet the Duchess of Kiev in Venice. Likewise, when you were sent as an envoy...your presence was requested by the Earl of Memphis. Father Nightroad was an addition to guard your back, and he volunteered. And while it was my decision to deploy him in Carthage, to retrieve the messenger, many of his actions were taken independently. At the time, I assigned Abel those missions because he was the best suited. Of all my AX members, he was the most reasonable regarding Methuselah. However..." Caterina folded her hands. "Abel is a brilliant strategist. I never guessed how much so until we entered this conflict. I know he advocated peace between Methuselah and Terran, but if I didn't know better, I'd say he planned this whole thing, using himself as the go-between."
"You think he planned to bring the Empire and the Vatican together?"
"I think he planned to attempt it, certainly." Caterina sighed. "I almost want to be angry with him except that, whatever his motivations, I know Abel. Whatever he planned, he was, and is, still genuinely my friend. Abel has never used anyone save himself."
"That...that's very true." Esther looked out over the fountain, the glowing flowers and bushes that surrounded them. "And honestly, I don't really regret the way things happened. I just...I wonder if doing this now is really in his best interests."
Caterina nodded. "It will certainly raise questions. However...it will also offer him protection. With the current Alliance in place, especially at a time when we have a great deal of support, being publicly recognized as a major power will support his position. There have been questions about his status, given his previous position as a rather nameless priest working for me. I know several people have questioned his rise to power. However, as with Cardinal Borgias and his dual role as the Prince of Hispania, if Abel is revealed as a noble in his own right, there will be far fewer questions. Even as a Prince of the Methuselah, he'll be safer than he is right now." Another smile, somewhat admiring, curved her mouth. "I suspect Abel doesn't care, but Her Imperial Majesty most likely knows that."
"I think so. She mentioned that there had been questions, about why she was listening to a Vatican priest." Esther found herself toying with the lap of her skirt, and forced herself to still.
"Indeed. I've faced similar inquiries." Caterina folded her hands in her lap. "However...I honestly believe it will be all right. Abel is, if nothing else, very persuasive. And as a hero of this conflict with the Enemy of the World, people will be willing to give him far more leniency. All in all, the timing for this is excellent." Caterina smiled. "I think we'll be able to manage this in a satisfactory manner, so I'd advise you not to worry."
"I suppose you're right." Esther swallowed. She'd been hopeful, but hearing Caterina say that things would be all right made her relax. She glanced at the setting sun. "I guess we really ought to be getting ready to go."
Caterina nodded and rose from the seat. "You're quite correct." She inclined her head as Esther stood. "Shall we?" Esther nodded, and followed her out of the garden.
Getting dressed took very little time. Virgil was already waiting for her, as was Mary. Three of Mirka's servants helped Esther wash and dress, then her advisers assisted in the final touches. Virgil and Seth had provided a splendid formal gown of ruby red silk and linen, with insets of white satin and gold brocade on the sleeves and waist. Mary helped put Esther's hair up. She hadn't cut it for a while, and the red tresses fell to just below her shoulder-blades. Mary brushed it out, then deftly put it up in a slightly less severe bun than her own military style, leaving a few locks to frame her face. A servant applied a little lipstick and make-up, and then Virgil added her jewelry, a formal crown, a gold and silver bracelet for each wrist, ruby teardrop earrings and a finely made gold chain with a tri-stone pendant of ruby, emerald and diamond, symbol of their alliance. Both advisers looked her over, then excused themselves to see to final preparations.
Esther shifted her weight, relieved to find that the gown hung well, and was relatively easy to move about in. A glance at the clock told her there was still some time before they departed. She considered, then crossed the hall and knocked gently on Abel's door. "Abel? May I come in."
"Yes." There was a bit of shuffling, then Abel pulled the door open. "I was just getting the final touches on this..." he trailed off, eyes widening. "Miss Esther...you look fantastic!"
Esther studied Abel's outfit and swallowed.
She knew Abel and Seth had discussed his outfit carefully. They'd considered dressing him in Imperial garments, but they wanted his homecoming to stand out. Despite his distinctive silver hair and blue eyes, they'd agreed that Abel's homecoming needed to have more impact. They'd also agreed that Imperial nobleman's garments were too flashy to really suit him, as a man who'd been living and working in the shadows for so many years. And that too much ostentation could cause rumblings of unease. Instead, Seth and Mirka had commissioned an outfit from the tailors that would accurately reflect his humble nature, while still being suited for a prince, and a man who had been gone from the empire for a long time. And the result...
Abel wore a close fitted shirt of cream-colored silk, under a deep, emerald green shirt. The over-shirt collar was cut in a v-shape low on his chest, then flared high and folded back at his throat, framing and hinting at the strong muscles of throat and chest. The long-sleeved tunic fit close, though not too much, framing his broad shoulders, and the trim, lean lines of his frame. The sleeves were full length, buttoning tight to highlight the lean wrists. Beautiful abstract patterns were stitched in silver thread on either side of the open collar, emphasizing his broad chest. The garment had been cut long, tapering to the waist before it flared out, falling like a coat to his knees. Silver brocade decorated the hem, ornamented by golden tabs that matched his cuff links. Below that Abel wore charcoal gray trousers, fitted to show off his narrow hips and long legs. Black dress boots polished to a high shine completed the ensemble. He wasn't wearing glasses, and his shining silver hair had been left mostly loose, styled back away from his face with a simple, elegant, wide clip at his shoulders, rather than his usual severe ponytail.
The effect was elegant and striking, and a very far cry from his usual appearance of a rather battered priest. Esther stepped forward to brush a lock of silver hair back from his face. "You look absolutely amazing." She smiled. "I don't think anyone would possibly believe you and Father Nightroad are the same person."
"Yes, well, that is the point. Still...I wouldn't want to embarrass my companions." He returned her smile, then caught her fingers to kiss them with courtly grace. "You really do look quite lovely, Esther."
"Thank you." Esther could feel herself blushing. She changed the subject. "I think it's almost time to go to the Imperial Palace. We should probably join Lady Caterina and the others."
"Hmmm." Abel shifted his gaze. "I suppose you're right." He bowed, then held out his arm. "I do hope you'll permit me to escort you to the carriages, Your Majesty."
Esther grinned at his tone, then looped her arm through his. "I'd be very honored, my lord." Abel's expression twitched in a grimace at her choice of address, then he led her from the room.
The Imperial carriages were actually motorized vehicles, larger and more elegant than traditional Albion or Vatican conveyances. Esther shared hers with Abel and Caterina, as the honored guests. The rest of the party was divided into additional carriages. There was actually room to stand inside the vehicles, and it was very comfortable. It reminded Esther somewhat of the train ride she'd taken from Istvan, her first journey with Father Nightroad.
The carriages stopped at the foot of the stairs leading into the Imperial Palace. Following Imperial protocol, Esther, Abel and Caterina waited for their subordinates to disembark first. Each of them were ceremoniously handed out, Esther by Virgil, Caterina by William, and Abel by Astha, who was acting as his most senior partner, even though Baibars held a higher rank. Instead, the head of the Yenceri was waiting to bow them into the Palace. He waited until Abel approached him then bowed low, extending one arm. "This way my lord, my ladies. The Empress awaits you in the Greater Council Hall."
Abel inclined his head in a shallow nod. Esther stepped up this right, Caterina to his left. The others formed up in an honor guard around them, just as they had for every other stop they'd made on the progress, save that Abel formed the center, rather than one of Caterina and Esther's subordinates.
Robed guards clad in full ceremonial armor met them at the head of the stairs. Also there was an official page of the Imperial household, a middle aged Methuselah clad in an emerald green uniform. He bowed low to them, then led them inside, deep into the Imperial Star Palace.
The Palace was as much of a labyrinth as the main section of the Vatican was. Even having been there before, Esther felt confused. She was glad for their guide.
Finally, the page stopped in front of a huge set of double doors. Esther didn't recognize them, though she thought, from the slight shift of his shoulders, that Abel did. Still, she was relieved. The last time she'd encountered the Imperial Council had been Suleyman's death. She didn't want to deal with the memories of the man's final betrayal and subsequent demise. She took a deep calming breath, then schooled her face into what she hoped was an appropriately regal and relaxed expression as the page threw open the doors.
The room was packed with Methuselah nobles, all dressed in glittering, jewel-accented robes of every color but green. Within the sea of bright colors, Abel's outfit stood out both in its elegant simplicity and its color. Esther heard more than one shocked intake of breath from the crowd, and furious muttering, instantly quelled as the page took the proper three steps forward and announced "My Lords, My Ladies, Beloved Empress...I present to you the assembled Heroes of the Rosenkreutz War, from Albion, the Vatican, and our most sacred Empire!" With that final note, the assembled nobles all rose to their feet. The page stepped to one side of the long carpeted aisle to the throne and bowed, hand on his heart. "My lord."
Abel didn't hesitate. He strode forward, up the carpet, shoulder straight, head held high, looking every inch the confident noble. Watching him as she followed three paces behind, it was almost impossible to believe this was the same man who'd argued against this ceremony for over an hour the night before. Esther pushed the thought away and concentrated on maintaining a calm appearance and not tripping over her heels or her long skirts.
Abel stopped a foot and a half from the stairs leading to the elevated throne. He held his position for one moment, then dropped gracefully to one knee, left knee on the floor, right knee upraised with his right hand resting on the ground beside it in a fist and his left pressed to his chest. Silver hair fell forward to obscure his face as he bowed his head. The rest of them followed suit, Caterina and Esther modified their position to accommodate their longer skirts.
Silence fell, and into that silence, Abel spoke, his low tones ringing through the room. "My Empress."
Seth rose from her seat. "Rise, all of you, and be welcome within my Court." Esther straightened, glad that they hadn't had to kneel too long. With her skirts, it was more of a deep curtsey, and hard on her knees, especially in her heels.
Abel rose as well, facing the throne. The rest of the Imperial nobles stood to either side of him, Ion and Astha flanking him, Baibars forward and to the side, in his position as the Captain of the Yenceri, the Imperial Guard.
There was a moment of stillness, then Seth lifted her hand and raised her veils. A shocked mutter rippled through the court, punctuated by gasps as the Empress, Mother of all Methuselah, stepped forward and descended from the dais, stopping in front of the silver-haired man wearing her colors.
"Well then, have you come home at last?" Her tone was conversational, but formal. "Have you finished the task you set out to do?"
"I have." Abel's tone matched Seth's perfectly, Court-formal and as at ease as if they'd been in his rooms after a quiet day. He bowed his head to the slight figure before him. "I would wish to continue my work with your Alliance, with those who are dear to me beyond your country's borders, and with these nobles who have served so well beside me, however...I have come home, to stand once more beside you, if you will have me, My Empress."
"Ah. Dear brother." Esther heard the renewed ripple of shock that resonated through the room. Then Seth's eyes raised, to seek those of her Captain. "My Lord Baibars, Duke of Khartoum, Captain of my Yenceri. Do you speak on my brother's behalf, for this assembled Court?"
"I do. I have served with him for months now. I find this man to be honorable, strong, a true hero of our Empire. I would gladly serve with him. I would gladly serve him, with as much honor as I do yourself, my Empress. I would be greatly pleased, should His Highness resume his rightful place." Baibars bowed.
Seth nodded regally, then turned her glowing green eyes to her envoys. "Lady Astharoshe Asran, Duchess of Kiev, and envoy to the Outer. You have served my purposes in Albion and the Vatican for years now. Tell me, would you continue to serve with this man?"
"I would be honored. I have always found him a worthy partner." Astha inclined her head.
Seth turned to Ion. "Earl of Memphis, you to whom I have entrusted several vital missions, who served well in both the Vatican and Albion, as well as risking your life for my Empire in the matter of the Duke of Tigris...would you continue to serve in Albion and the Vatican, and at my brother's side?"
"It would be a great honor to serve with him, Empress." Ion mirrored Astha's bow. "I have had the privilege of serving with this man for several months now. His honor as a noble is without question, and I believe his skills are invaluable, both to the Empire and to our allies."
"Queen Esther of Albion. Cardinal Caterina of the Vatican. I welcome you to my Empire, and ask you both, do you agree with the Earl of Memphis' assessment?"
Caterina nodded once. "I do. I have found this man's services and advice to be vital in the war against Rosenkreutz, and I fear, without him, peace would perhaps never have come to pass. He has been a guide and adviser in the shadows for many years, and his words have been well worth listening to. I would be pleased to count him as a formal ally at last."
Seth turned to look at Esther. Esther bowed her head in acknowledgment. "While I don't know him as well as Lady Caterina does...this man has been a good friend to me. Without him, I might never have assumed the throne. I fully agree with what Lady Caterina and the Earl of Memphis have said."
"Very well then." Seth's gaze lifted, full of royalty and power, every inch the Empress. "I trust you of the Court, my loyal children, have heard the words of these allies and Councilors. Do you accept them?" Her tone was stern, and left no doubt about the answer she expected.
Murmurs of assent swept through the Council room. One by one, the assembled lords and ladies of the Imperial Court bowed their heads, offering formal acknowledgment and acceptance of the words they'd spoken.
Seth waited until the words had rippled around the room and quieted. Then she turned back to the silver-haired man before her. "So then. I will ask you to kneel once more."
Abel dropped to his knees once more before her, bowing his head. It was odd, that even kneeling, he came up to her chest. In other, less formal circumstances, it might have been amusing. But this moment was far too solemn for laughter. Even Leon was still and somber, expression set in a polite mask.
Seth lifted her gaze once more, and spoke. "Duchess of Moldova, step forward." From the shadows, Mirka emerged, the lavender and white of her formal House colors mingling with the robes that proclaimed her a member of Her Imperial Majesty's Secret Council. In her hands she bore an emerald cushion, on which rested a silver circlet, adorned with three small emeralds.
Mirka descended the dais with graceful, careful steps, then bowed and extended the cushion towards Seth. "Empress."
Seth turned and took the circlet carefully from the pillow. Mirka bowed slightly lower, then moved to stand beside Baibars.
Seth looked down at Abel's bowed head, then spoke in a clear, ringing voice that held all the authority of the 900 year Empress. "You have stated your desire to return to my side and serve me. You have been vouched for by my Council, and by our allies. Therefore, in my own name as Augusta Veradica, I do openly restore you to your rightful place, and announce you to all those here assembled as my brother, Heir to my Empire, Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimer." She set the silver circlet upon his brow, then took his hands and lifted him to his feet, a brilliant smile replacing the solemnity of moments before. Then she stretched up and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Welcome home, my beloved brother."
Abel smiled, and kissed Seth's hand with a courtier's grace, then kissed her cheek in return. "Thank you. It is good to be home with you once again." Then he turned to the assembled nobles.
Baibars, Mirka, Astha and Ion dropped to bended knee at once. Esther and Caterina were high enough ranked to get away with a curtsey, but the rest of their group also went to one knee, heads bowed in respect. All around the room, the nobles of the Methuselah Court followed suit.
Seth let them hold the position for a moment, then gestured. "Rise, my beloved Children. And you, who are my honored guests..." She smiled. "You have no need to bow to me, and I would say that my beloved brother feels the same."
"Indeed." Abel, now Aloysha, strode forward and extended his hands, one to Esther and one to Caterina. "We have worked together a long time, haven't we? Between such friends, there should be no need for such formality as this." He drew them both to their feet with a smile. "Lady Caterina, Queen Esther...for all these years of partnership..." He owed his head over their hands. "My deepest thanks."
Esther nodded. Caterina as well. Still smiling, the newly appointed Prince led them forward for formal introductions to the Empress. Seth greeted them both with a smile and a kiss on the cheek, a customary greeting they both returned, and forestalled their bowing. She shook their hands warmly instead, and bade them stand beside her as she recognized the others.
The rest of the ceremony followed the pattern of previous visits. Esther managed all the proper phrases, the gestures as she assisted Seth in pinning Imperial medals on Virgil and Mary. Still, it all felt surreal, and oddly anti-climactic. Her eyes kept going to the slender silver-haired figure who held the medals for his sister. Abel Nightroad. Prince Aloysha Kasimer, Crown Prince of the Methuselah Empire. Her Abel.
Esther dragged her attention back to the ceremony at hand. Finally, the last of their party, Sister Paula, was awarded the Imperial Medal. Caterina looped it over her head. Paula bowed to her Cardinal, then to the Empress, then took her place beside Brother Petros. Seth lifted her hands. "My beloved children...I give you the heroes of the Rosenkreutz War, and the Empire!"
And the room exploded into cheers and shouts of acclimation.
The reception went on until well past dawn. Esther, Caterina and Abel stayed with Seth. The rest of the group mingled with the Methuselah nobles. Servants brought in tables, loaded with wine and food and Aqua Vitae.
Esther was glad to be away from the main section of the room. There were so many tense undercurrents, it was like watching a riptide in motion.
Petros and Paula were clearly uncomfortable, and suspicious, here in what had only a few years before been enemy territory. Most of the Methuselah seemed to share the sentiment, and steered clear of the Inquisitors. It would have been open rudeness, save that Baibars and a few other of the Yenceri, as well as Mirka, took it upon themselves to open a discussion, which seemed to mostly involve commiseration on the trials of keeping an eye on one's leaders, comparisons of the hardships that could be faced, and not-quite comparisons on the glories of respective rulers. Mirka even went so far as to tease Petros gently, making him blush just slightly, which went a long way toward easing the tension.
The rest of the AX agents were doing fine. The Professor had engaged a few individuals in a quiet discussion, and Leon had found a set of his own, lingering by the wine. As for her own people, Mary was clearly a known figure and Virgil was well capable of holding his own in an Court. In fact, he looked almost more at ease within the Imperial Court than he did at home in Albion. Esther spotted him speaking with several different individuals over the course of the evening.
Esther found herself speaking to several people as well. It seemed as though every noble in the room wanted to come up and greet their new prince and their allies personally. There was a steady stream of individuals coming up, bowing to the Empress, bowing to Abel with murmurs of loyalty or greeting or congratulations and welcome, then turning to greet her and Caterina. After the first few dozen, it was difficult to hold onto her calm expression. By the time the trickle began to slow and the nobles disperse, Esther felt exhausted. Even Caterina looked pale and tired, and Abel looked almost unconscious on his feet. Seth was the only one on the dais who seemed to have any energy left, and even she looked subdued.
Finally, a few hours after dawn, Seth rose and invited he guests to remain in the Star Palace for the remainder of their visit. She then dismissed the Court and retired. Esther, Abel and Caterina followed her, surrounded by her guards.
It was a relief to be led to their rooms. Polite, quiet maids helped her out of her dress, provided a set of nightwear, then left. Esther took a moment to relax, savoring the peace, then wrapped her robe around her and stepped across the hall to Abel's rooms. She knocked and heard a muffled response, and let herself in.
Abel stood in his bedroom, balancing Cain on his hip. Like her, he'd exchanged his clothing for a loose nightgown and robe. His feet were bare, as was his head, the silver hair now disordered. His face looked tired, but his expression brightened as she entered. "Esther."
"I thought I'd come see how you were doing. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
Abel shook his head. "No. I wasn't ready to sleep yet." He sighed. "Really, I need a few minutes to unwind. Honestly...I thought this was supposed to be quiet..."
"Sorry." Seth appeared in the doorway, dressed in loose, casual garments. She gave Abel an apologetic smile. "That really was as quiet as I could keep it I'm afraid." She stretched. "At least with a full Court, they won't have quite as much need to gossip about it. And I rather thought you might like to meet everyone at once, rather than putting up with three or four days of Formal Court introductions."
Abel grimaced. "Really..." He sighed. "You're right. Though, honestly...that name..."
"It suits you." Seth grinned. "Besides...did you really want to be something like...oh, Justinian or Nikolai?"
Abel winced. "Ah...no, thank you. Aloysha Kasimer is fine. It is memorable, I suppose." Cain made a sleepy unhappy noise on his shoulder and Abel shifted the child's weight absently, making him comfortable.
Seth rolled her shoulders. "You'll have to appear a few more times with me, to make the point, but there shouldn't be anything like this again. I don't really come out in public much, and it's rare for me to allow that much informal contact. So...I think a couple appearances standing or sitting on the Throne Dais with me will do, maybe an appearance in the garden. You shouldn't have to talk to anyone. And everyone else will be doing the rounds as well, so it shan't be that bad. And you can stick close to me or Esther or Caterina."
Abel sighed. "I'd really rather not, but I suppose I can handle that, if I must."
"I know Abel." Seth laid a gentle hand on his arm for a moment, then withdrew. "Still, you'll be in the Inner Court most of the time. I don't allow my nobles back here, except for my special servants, and Mirka and Baibars. There aren't even that many guards. And there's a whole wing you know, so you and Esther have plenty of privacy." She grinned. "I did give Esther her own rooms, but that doesn't mean she has to use them."
Esther felt her face heating, and Abel turned a deep shade of pink. Then Abel turned his head to meet her eyes, and a small smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "Thank you."
He returned his gaze to his sister. "Truly, Seth...thank you."
Seth sniffed. "You don't need to thank me." her eyes were sparkling in the low lights. Then she suddenly took two quick steps forward and flung her arms around him, burying her face in her brother's chest. "I missed you so much Abel. I know you'll go with Esther but still, getting my brother back, being able to see you like this...I'm so glad you finally decided to come home and be my brother again. I know that you don't like the spotlight, but I'm so glad you've finally decided to emerge from the shadows, big brother."
"I know." Abel's free hand came up to brush against her hair, then to wrap gently around the thin shoulders. "I know. I'm sorry I left you with such a heavy burden for so long. I'm sorry I left you alone."
Seth sniffed, then pushed herself back. "Idiot. You don't need to apologize." She scrubbed the tears from her face. "I'll let you and Esther get some rest."
"Wait." Esther stepped forward. There was something about the lonely sadness in Seth's face that caught her heart. She was reminded of the child she'd known on the space station, sad and needing her older brother's comfort. She glanced at the bed, and at the crib that had been set up for Cain. "If you aren't needed elsewhere...why don't you stay with us? Just for tonight...today I mean, at least. I'm sure the bed's big enough for all three of us. It's certainly bigger than that one at the Vatican."
Seth gave her a weak smile. "I'd hate to intrude..."
"It's all right." Abel's hand snaked out to catch his sister once more. "Esther's right. Just for today..." He embraced her. "I've missed you as well."
Esther knew she'd made the right decision from the way Seth's shoulders relaxed. "Okay."
Abel smiled and released her, then turned to lay Cain in his crib. Then he turned back to the bed and turned the sheets down. "I don't know about you two, but I am tired."
Seth grinned, and followed her brother. Esther did as well. It took some arranging, but eventually Abel was settled in the middle, Esther on one side and Seth on the other. Esther snuggled close, relaxing in his warmth. One hand found his, the other draped across his chest. The last thing she was conscious of was Abel's steady breathing, and a small hand whose fingers tangled in hers.
They remained in the Empire for a full ten days, as opposed to the normal two or three days. The extended stay had been justified by the fact that they were formal Allies, and that of the three countries, the Empire was the one that the various forces had spent the least amount of time in. So they stayed, relaxing and meeting the noble families.
True to their agreement, Abel joined Seth in Court a handful times. He also joined her in the gardens on several occasions, and once or twice in the city. Dressed in his Imperial Court garb, green and sparkling with gold and silver and gems, it was hardly surprising that no one identified him as Father Nightroad, AX priest. Really, it was more surprising that no one commented on the priest's absence, though Esther knew that Seth and Mirka and the others had spread rumors about continued recovery from wounds, his duties with his adopted child, and even a possible breakdown of health due to the strain of a progress so soon after his battle with the Contra Mundi.
Esther thought that there might be one or two among the Court who suspected his identity, but if so, there were no mentions of it. Not even that the Prince bore a passing resemblance to the priest. Then again, Abel habitually stooped, and his straight back added a good inch or more to his height. His bearing had completely changed, and his spectacles no longer obscured his face. The silver hair that hung loose instead of tied back in a severe ponytail changed the apparent shape of his face as well. Between that and his changed mannerisms, he really was a different person. Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimer.
It would have unnerved Esther, but she understood what it meant to don a mask. And despite several appearances on both their parts they both spent most of their time in the privacy of the Inner Court. And there, the masks would fall away, and he was Abel again. Her Abel, the warm, loving, complicated and gentle man she'd fallen in love with. They spent much of the time being together, simply enjoying each other's company, talking, relaxing. Under the quiet of those days, with her and Seth, and the others as occasional guests and Cain's caretakers for a few hours, some of the terrible strain lines that had been in his face since the battle began to fade. By the time they'd been there a week; Abel had even begun to honestly relax. There were still terrible shadows in his eyes sometimes, and he still woke from nightmares, but they were less present than they had been. That was a relief to all of them.
Their last night in the Empire was marked by a grand banquet. It wasn't a full court, but most of the nobility was there. Fortunately, it wasn't a situation that required too much mingling. Dinner would be with their chosen companions, the other warriors at the Empress's table. Afterward, there would be some music, and some dancing. But it was a well-known fact that they'd be leaving in the morning for the Four Cities area, so it would be an early evening.
Dinner was a full several-course meal. Esther was seated at Abel...Aloysha's right. The Crown Prince sat to the right of the Empress, with lady Caterina, as the senior of the remaining Alliance leaders to her left. The rest of them were arranged along either side of the table. Not surprisingly, Esther was seated next to Colonel Spencer, the next highest ranking of the Albion contingent. The space next to Caterina had been taken by the Professor, the most senior AX member after Abel.
Dinner was fairly quiet. Abel was slightly withdrawn, as he usually was in public appearances. Mary was watching the assembled guests, and Esther was content to do the same. It was strange. At 15, she'd considered these people her mortal enemies. At 17, she'd had several Methuselah friends, including the Empress. And now, at 20...they were allies. It was amazing. She turned her head to look at the silver haired man beside her. Everything was because of him. Because of Abel. She set the thought aside, knowing he'd be embarrassed if she mentioned it.
The music after dinner was very beautiful, but Esther felt more like listening than dancing. She wasn't very well versed in Imperial dances, after all. Besides, Abel looked tired again, and seemed to share her reluctance. Esther leaned over and brushed his hand with hers, out of sight under the table. Abel's lean fingers caressed hers, accompanied by a warm, relieved smile. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing, enjoying the music and each others presence. As soon as the Empress retired, Abel and Esther followed. They spent an hour or so with Seth, then fell into bed.
The following mid-morning found them preparing to exit onto the Empress's private ship dock. The Iron Maiden had, from the state of the metal, and some modifications Esther could see, been treated to a thorough cleaning and overhaul. Whatever had been done, Sister Kate was in an extremely good mood as she greeted them.
They said their farewells to Mirka while the servants loaded their luggage. Seth joined them, dressed in an unassuming outfit that Esther knew she'd used when posing as a servant in Court. She was last to hug her adviser. After a final round of farewells, including a teasing admonition on behavior that left Ion blushing, they boarded the ship, and were away.
The next two stops, in the Four Cities Alliance and the Franc Kingdom, were easy ones. As with Hispania and Carthage and Venice, they only stayed a few days. Long enough to be congratulated, have a one or two evening celebration in their honor, and then they left once more.
The Four Cities Alliance was by far the easiest stop of the entire journey, at least for Abel. Father Hugue was a well-known figure in that area. Esther had heard of it, but she hadn't realized that Hugue was a member of one of the elite families of the region. The last surviving member, in fact. He'd apparently spent much of the war networking among his old contacts and colleagues. His return caused quite a stir, and the local excitement over welcoming their own home-town hero allowed Abel to slip into the background almost completely unnoticed.
The Franc Kingdom was far more neutral. Fortunately for Abel, they'd heard he had a child, and the King was more than happy to make allowances for Abel's duties as a new father, and his apparent tiredness. Abel made one short appearance at the main celebration background, then remained in his rooms for the rest of their two day stay.
Finally, just over three weeks after their progress began, they turned toward their final destination. Albion. Esther's heart was lighter than it had been for the rest of the trip. Despite her enjoyment of travel, and everyone's company, she was relieved to be going home at last. As the ship sped toward Albion and Londinium, Esther found herself gravitating to the forward observation deck, watching for the lights of home.
Mary and Virgil joined her as the first lights of the city came into sight. At the sight of the glowing lights, Mary smiled. "Looking forward to being home, Majesty?"
Esther nodded. "It's strange. Three years ago, I'd never even seen Albion. It was just the place my father was from. But now...I think I miss the city and the palace even more than I used to miss Istvan and the church there."
"It's a good thing. After all, you are our Queen. Albion is your home, your country."
Esther nodded again, then turned to her two advisers. "What about you?"
Mary's smile widened a fraction. "As a warrior, I am proud to have participated in such a legendary conflict. As a noble and a politician, I am pleased for this opportunity to build new contacts. However, personally...yes. I am looking forward to returning home, Majesty."
Virgil inclined his head in agreement. "While I do not begrudge our time spent, I find I miss the Underground, and Vanessa. Even the Court."
Esther turned back to the approaching lights. "There is that. But really, I think I'm just glad to be nearing the end of the journey. I'd really like to finally be able to have a chance to relax, and let everything settle back to normal."
"That too." A small smile touched Virgil's face. The three of them enjoyed a companionable silence for the rest of the approach.
They disembarked in the evening air. The landing dock was well lit by lamps, and most of the Court was there to greet them. Esther had asked Virgil and Mary to send a message ahead. Much as she would have preferred to simply land and enter the Palace, and announce her presence the next morning, she knew the Court would have been offended. So she'd send messages, informing her nobles and Vanessa's people of her projected time of arrival.
Because it was her country, Esther was the first to disembark, Virgil and Mary at her side. Seth and Caterina followed, with Abel near the middle of the group, Cain in his arms.
By the time Esther set foot on the paved walkway to the Palace, her nobles lined it, three people deep. As she stepped forward her steward, standing next to the ramp, rapped his staff on the ground. "All hail Her Majesty, Queen Esther, and her companions, Cardinal Caterina Sforza and The Methuselah Empress, Lady Augusta Veradica!"
All the way down the path, people bowed, or sank into deep curtsies. Esther inclined her head in acknowledgment, then strode forward, nodding to people as she passed.
Her steward rapped his staff again. "The survivors and heroes of the Rosenkreutz War!"
At that, backs straightened, and a roar of muted cheers and clapping rose among the assembled.
Esther led the group through the cheering crowd, to the entrance of the Palace, then turned. The cheers were already fading a little, but her upraised hands brought silence. Esther waited a moment, then lowered her hands and smiled at the crowd.
"Thank you, everyone, for your warm welcome. It's good to be home." She had considered a longer speech, but it had been a long flight, and an even longer journey. "I'm very glad to see all of you, and I look forward to greeting you all properly. However, it's been a very long trip, and I know our guests are tired. So I hope you will excuse me for tonight. I wish you all a very pleasant evening." Another murmur rose up, but she saw understanding and sympathy on the faces nearest her. She bowed her head once more, in acknowledgment and dismissal, then turned and entered the Palace.
Vanessa was waiting inside the doors, along with half a dozen others. She'd even foregone her customary outfit of leather for her dress uniform. As Esther entered, she saluted smartly. "Your Majesty. On behalf of the Underground, I welcome you and your guests." She gestured to the others. Then a small smile crossed her features. "I'm not as proficient in such things as Virgil or Colonel Spencer, but rooms are prepared for you and your guests if you wish to rest, and there is food if want it."
Esther exhaled softly in relief. She'd had longer actual flights, but after weeks traveling all over the continent, she was tired. And now that she was truly home, she felt herself relaxing in a way she hadn't managed to at any other location. Even the Vatican, familiar and comforting as it was, and the safety of Seth's Inner Court hadn't been as soothing as the walls of Buckingham Palace. She smiled. "Thank you for all your effort. I can't speak for my companions, but really, the thought of a bed sounds heavenly." She turned to the rest of the group. "My friends, I think I wish to retire for the evening. However, please feel free to take advantage of the refreshments Lady Vanessa has provided, as well as anything else you need."
Caterina smiled gently. "Your offer is kind. However, I admit, I am feeling fatigued. I think I shall retire as well." The other Ax members nodded, William with evident relief, and even Petros relaxed slightly.
Seth stretched, as much as her semi-formal clothing would allow. "No kidding. Honestly, it's always a bit difficult, going from a nocturnal schedule to a daylight one. I could use a little more rest." Behind her, Astha made a face, and Ion nodded in agreement. A shadow passed over Abel's face, then vanished.
Vanessa nodded and offered another bow. "Then my men and I would be honored to escort you to your rooms. She straightened and set off down the hall, and Esther followed.
Twenty minutes later, Esther shut her door with a sigh, looking at the familiar furnishings. Not surprisingly, Vanessa had elected to house the entire war party in the Royal Wing, a decision Esther had no qualms approving. She sighed again, then moved over to the inner rooms. A glance revealed a night-dress already laid out for her, and another revealed fresh towels and soap, if she wanted a bath. She considered it, then slipped out of her dress and into the robe, and collapsed on the bed with a sigh of relief.
She considered crossing to Abel's room, across the hall. But her bed was warm and soft and comfortable, and she was getting drowsy fast. She knew Abel was as tired as she was, if not more so. She also knew that if he truly felt he needed her company, he'd come to her, as he'd done in the Empire. There was an equal chance that he'd simply go to bed, as she had done. Esther yawned and pulled a blanket over her shoulders. Almost of their own accord, her eyes dropped closed. Within seconds, she was fast asleep.
Esther woke the next morning to sunlight shining in the windows, though a glance at the clock revealed it wasn't that late. Someone had already hung out one of her Court dresses, and when she pushed herself out of bed there was tea on the bedside table, and a note that breakfast was in the main room, written in Virgil's neat hand. Esther smiled and slipped on a robe, then strode out into the main room.
To her surprise, Abel was waiting for her. He was wearing a clean uniform, his hair damp from a recent bath. He looked slightly tired, but far better than he had. He looked up from buttering a roll when she entered and smiled. "Esther." He rose and held out a chair for her. "Good morning."
"Good morning." Esther smiled as she seated herself. Abel poured her a cup of tea, then stepped around to settle into his seat. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting for too long."
"Hardly at all." Abel smiled sheepishly. "I'm afraid I've only been up for a short time myself. But Lord Walsh said he had business to attend to, and asked if I would wait for you."
Esther nodded. She knew Virgil had been fretting over the state of the Underground for a few days. Not that he ever appeared less than calm and collected, but he'd been slightly restless. Not that it was a surprise. Mary had been similarly concerned about the Palace Guard. Despite the fact that Vanessa was quite capable, neither of them liked leaving their chosen positions, and they'd all three been gone from Albion for over a month. Esther found herself wondering what the reports from the Council would be like. Out of deference to their late arrival, they'd agreed to postpone the Council meeting until just after noon.
She helped herself to a little of everything and watched Abel pile food on his plate. "Did you sleep well?"
Abel shrugged. "Well enough I suppose. Cain was a little fussy this morning, though he's napping now."
"I'm glad. You look like you're feeling much better."
Abel nodded. "I do. Honestly, I'm very glad we've reached the end of our journey, at least for a while."
Esther nodded. "I think everyone feels that way. So, will you be returning to guard duty?"
Abel blinked. "Ah...well, that rather depends on a few things, I think. Cain for one. Besides..." A sudden boyish grin lit his expression. "I have something very important to take care of first. I really think...well, I have a very important promise to keep."
"Oh." Esther blinked. "Really?"
"Of course." Abel smiled. "You needn't worry about it, Esther. Anyway, speaking of sleep, I trust you rested well?"
Esther felt a little startled, but she allowed him to change the subject. They spent the rest of the morning in quiet talk, broken only when Abel left the room briefly and returned with Cain on his hip. From there, they played with the child until Esther had to get ready for Council. Due to Cain's presence, Abel wasn't attending with her, but she didn't mind. She knew he'd likely use the time to rest. And she had to admit, the morning had been nice, and she didn't want to break the peace for both of them.
The Council meeting was tiring, and busy. First, Virgil and Mary presented the report of the final battle aboard the ARK. Esther added her own observations as well. Seth and Caterina were both special guests at the meeting. Seth confirmed the death of the Contra Mundi, and Caterina added the observations of AX members and the two Inquisitors. From there followed a brief discussion over the wanted bulletins for the remaining three Order members, and the precautions they should take, in case there was an attack. All of them doubted that any of the three fugitives would be so reckless, but there was no point in being careless.
From there, they went into reports on the state of Albion. Spring was in the air, and with it came planting time, and a mountain of permissions and requests. Also there was the matter of taking the military, including the Eire branch of the navy, off of military alert. Pay was discussed, and possible rewards and bonuses for soldiers who had been in combat. However, most of the reports were favorable. Esther was glad that Albion hadn't taken any harm in her absence. She'd been afraid something would happen, but everything had gone fairly smoothly. In fact, the safe houses for the Underground had been opened more fully, due to to possible evacuation preparations. Several shop owners from both sides had been talking, and there were tentative trades and contacts springing up all over the place. With the open Methuselah-Terran Alliance between the Vatican, Albion and the Empire, and the cessation of hostilities, relationships were beginning to form between the two peoples. The development pleased Esther a great deal, and she could tell Virgil was equally interested.
The weather had been fairly mild, and the reports from the countryside were optimistic, hopeful for good crops. Most of the Council lords had a stack of permits and requests from their lands, in regards to irrigation procedures and necessary equipment. Esther promised to look over them carefully.
There were a number of other items of business, all of them fairly mundane, the usual Council reports by the lords. For a wonder, there had been no serious disasters, or even all that much trouble. The most pressing issue was approving the suggestions for the celebration in Albion, for the end of the conflict. Several townsfolk had put forth requests, including a long petition for fireworks over the city.
Esther was more than happy to approve the celebration for her people. After debate, the Council granted permission for the fireworks, as well as special funds to supply food and drink for the city guilds and populace, and an additional small feast with entertainment for the Royal Guard and the military in the city. They would have to enjoy the evening in shifts, but Mary had guaranteed everyone would get a turn at the festivities.
Palace celebrations included a formal banquet for that evening, and a semi-formal ball three nights later, the same night as the city-wide celebration. Despite all the business, Esther was still able to release the Council with plenty of time to prepare for the banquet.
The banquet that evening was a repeat of practically every other stop they'd made. A presentation of the assembled heroes, followed by a formal dinner in their honor. As the host rulers, Esther received her own presentation from her Council, including Virgil and Mary. In turn, she presented the rest of them. Abel was third, following Caterina as usual. Vanessa and two of the more highly recommended maids had taken charge of Cain for the evening.
The presentations were harder than Esther had expected. It felt odd, speaking so formally to the people she'd considered friends for years. Abel was the hardest. Her heart insisted on pounding when he knelt in front of her. There was something about the subservient posture that made her want to pull him to his feet, and having him so close made her want to pull him up and kiss him. Still, she managed to restrain herself.
The meal afterward was delicious, though Esther noticed that Abel disappeared as soon as possible. She didn't blame him. She felt more than a little tired after the long day of paperwork, and she knew that he was both concerned about Cain and still uncomfortable celebrating. She was tempted to leave herself, but she knew it would be rude of her to do so. Instead, she contented herself with chatting with Seth and Caterina, and answering various questions. Between them, they managed to keep the talk fairly light, and the evening was actually rather enjoyable.
The next few days passed in a flurry of Council meetings, Court meetings, catching up on her work, and arrangements for the ball. Despite the workload, it felt oddly comforting to settle back into the routines of ruling. Two years ago, she would have been relieved to get away, but the past years had given her both appreciation and interest in her country. Besides, with the threat of attack no longer looming so darkly on the horizon, business had turned to more interesting matters, such as economics and internal Albion politics. The threat of Rosenkreutz had made her lords far less opposed to each other than they could have been. Now they were a little more divided on things. Also, with the threat lifted, the Alliance could begin shifting its focus from military support to more cooperative efforts, like trade and mutual enterprises. Things such as cross fostering programs, or an international trade school, regarding the sharing of technology and history. Ion had once mentioned that various legends and histories of the Vatican didn't appear in the Methuselah world, and both Esther and Seth had a keen interest in rectifying the discrepancies.
She saw little of Abel for those days. He spent much of his time taking care of Cain. Alessandro had helped him collect the necessities for the infant. Diapers, a few changes of clothing, formula and so forth and so on. Mirka had supplied more. But he she knew from Virgil and William that he'd been acquiring some Albion-style outfits for the child, as well as a re-supply on diapers and food a baby could eat.
He also spent a fair amount of time with Caterina and Seth. When the other two weren't joining her for joint meetings, or simply small talk, often one or both of them were with him. Talking, walking in the gardens, simply relaxing over tea. Esther missed having Abel by her side, but she didn't begrudge either them or him the time. After all, Seth was his sister and had just named him formally as her brother and her heir. And he'd been Caterina's friend for a very long time.
She knew, too, that he was still troubled. One night, she'd woken to a faint cry, and gone across to find him awake, still visibly recovering from a nightmare. She'd offered to stay with him, but he'd gently refused, pointing out that she had a country to run and needed to sleep. They'd talked a few minutes, then she'd returned to bed. As much as she felt odd, sleeping alone, she knew he needed time, and was resolved to give him as much time and space as he needed.
Finally, the evening of the ball arrived. Esther got ready early. She was excited, but also apprehensive. She enjoyed balls, though she hadn't been to many. She liked the music, and they'd become much more enjoyable once she'd learned to dance. She was light enough on her feet to pick up steps easily, and she knew there would be a number of people she could dance with. Virgil would dance with her as her adviser and friend. Ion, of course, was always happy to partner her. William and Leon as well.
Still, she couldn't help remembering the last ball she'd had. The wonder of the evening, and its disastrous conclusion. And really, she wasn't sure Abel would even be attending. He'd tended to avoid most of the celebrations, after all. She didn't think he'd attended even one of the dances that had been thrown in other countries, and she understood why. But she couldn't help being a little hopeful that he'd make an exception.
A knock on her door drew her from her thoughts. She smoothed a last crease in the red and silver dress she was wearing. "Yes."
The door opened and Seth bounced in, followed more sedately by Virgil and Ion. Ion had agreed to escort Seth, and Virgil was Esther's escort, as he'd been before. Seth was wearing a multi-shaded green dress with silver embroidery. She smiled at Esther's scarlet, gold and silver. "You do look nice, Esther."
"She's right. You look very pretty." Ion smiled.
Esther smiled at the compliment. "Thank you. You look very nice as well." He was wearing his preferred colors of blue and gold and white. He was dressed in Imperial style. Virgil was wearing dark gray and gold. Both of them favored a reserved style. It added maturity to Ion's face and bearing, and suited Virgil as well. "You as well, Lord Walsh."
"Thank you, Majesty." He extended his arm with a courtly bow. "The ball will begin soon. Shall we go?"
Esther nodded and took his arm. Seth did the same with Ion. One last check to make sure that everything was as it should be in her outfit, and then they exited into the corridor. Esther cast a look at Abel's door, but it was shut.
"I think Abel's coming later." Seth was studying the door. "He told me there was something he wanted to take care of, but that he'd probably show up later this evening."
"All right." Esther nodded. "It's just...I know he really doesn't like these events."
Virgil shook his head. "Vanessa will be absent this evening. However, she mentioned earlier today that she needed to speak to Father Nightroad. A project he was working on that he required her assistance with, I believe."
Esther blinked in surprise. "I would have thought he'd ask you."
A small smile touched Virgil's face. "Father Nightroad and Vanessa share an odd understanding. While I have spoken with him, and know roughly what he's working on, I believe this was a project more in line with Vanessa's skills."
"I see." Esther frowned. "I hope it's nothing serious."
Seth snorted. "Everything's serious with Abel. But I don't think it's that kind of serious. Just something important to him."
"All right." Esther wanted to ask more, but they were approaching the doors to the Grand Ballroom. She straightened her back just a little more, set her expression in a pleasant smile, and set the thoughts aside. Whatever Abel was doing was his business. Still, she hoped she'd get to see him.
The ball opened smoothly at the stroke of eight, with the help of a fantastic fireworks display over the city. Esther, with the rest of the court, watched the enthralling display. It went on for just over an hour, then dissipated, and the musicians took the floor.
Esther danced a round with Virgil, then Ion, William and Leon. She even took a turn with Baibars and Petros. Both warriors were stiff, and Petros looked as if he'd rather not be there, but they were both courteous partners and excellent dancers, and compensated well for the difference in heights.
After she'd danced once with each of the others, Esther excused herself. Virgil, attentive as ever, brought her a drink and a small plate of snacks. Caterina was already seated on the dais that had been set aside for them. Moments later, Seth joined them, Ion handing her a drink as well. The three women shared a quick look, and Esther relaxed. She missed Abel's presence, but the music was bright and lively, and she was determined to enjoy herself. She didn't feel much like dancing, but it was enough to sit and listen and watch the others.
The time drifted past. Virgil and Ion managed to coax her out on to the floor a few more times. She noticed that Leon and Astha seemed to be pairing more than usual, though Leon also danced with Caterina, and with Paula, of all people. And Astha also danced with William and Baibars. Still, the two seemed to prefer each others company. Over the rest of the floor, her nobles danced, ate, sang, and socialized, relaxing and enjoying the freeing from the tensions that had gripped them for over two years.
The clock chimed eleven. Esther was contemplating a glass of wine when a familiar voice spoke in her ear. "Miss Esther?" She turned.
Abel was beside her. He'd foregone his glasses. His hair was clean and shining, pulled back in its usual ponytail. His blue eyes were sparkling warmly, a smile playing around his mouth. He looked nervous, but oddly more relaxed than she'd seen since the Empire. He wore his crucifix, but the rest of his clothing...
He still wore the black of a priest, and there was some similarity in style. But instead of a cassock, he wore a black shirt with silver buttons and black and silver stitching outlining the collar and sleeves. His pants were more formal slacks, and the over-jacket resembled Virgil's court jacket more than his usual over-robe. His boots were cleaned up and polished even, and she recognized the boots he'd worn as Prince Aloysha, rather than his usual AX combat boots. The total effect transformed him subtly to something more than a mere priest. He looked as if he could be a noble in his own right, as much or more than any of her own courtiers.
Abel let her stare at him for a moment, then held out his hand, smiling. "Miss Esther, would you care to honor me with a dance?"
"Of course." She took his hand and he lifted her to her feet. She saw Caterina and Seth both smile. Abel glanced at his sister, who gave him a quick smile and a nod. Then he led Esther to the floor. Somehow the other saw them coming, and when they reached the floor they found a cleared space waiting for them.
The song beginning was a slow one, meant for couples. Esther turned, put her free hand on Abel's shoulder as his hand came to rest on her waist. Then they were dancing, stepping naturally to the music as if they'd both been doing it all their lives.
Esther took a moment to get settled into the rhythm, then looked up at her partner. Abel was watching her, still smiling softly. She relaxed, and returned the smile. "I'm glad you came."
"Yes. I did intend to come. I just took some time to arrange a few things." He blushed slightly.
Esther nodded. "Virgil and Seth told me." She glanced around. "What about Cain?"
"Ah. Miss Vanessa consented to watch him for me, after I did her a favor." The blush deepened.
"I see. I hope it wasn't too much trouble."
Abel laughed softly. "No. Not really." His voice dropped away as he relaxed, his expression thoughtful. "Miss Esther..." he paused.
"Yes? Is there something wrong?" Esther swallowed, wondering if he was stressed by the crowd. She tightened her grip gently, offering comfort.
"Ah...no. It's just..." He sighed. "I...Esther do you remember the last ball we danced at?"
Esther nodded. "Of course. Why?"
Abel swallowed hard. "That night...you asked something of me, and I refused you. But then...I realized I was wrong."
Esther nodded. "I remember." Her free hand shifted to touch the necklace under clothing, with the ring and locket she always carried with her. "But I thought, after I returned, I thought we straightened that out."
Abel nodded. "We did. I told you of my past, my true identity, and you didn't reject me. And after that..."
He paused, looked away, then stopped dancing and looked into her eyes. "That night...I made you a promise. A promise that I would come to you, after the threat was over, and Cain was taken care of."
Esther swallowed. Her heart was suddenly pounding hard, and it was hard to breathe. "I remember."
Abel closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he gently stepped back. "Esther...I know...things are not completely over. And I...I don't know what will happen with Cain. But still...I love you. I love you more than anything else in this world. And...I would like to keep that promise I gave you a year and a half ago." Another deep breath, then he pulled a small box from his pocket and opened it, to reveal a white-gold ring, surmounted by a ruby, framed by two small star sapphires. The body of the ring was an intricate knot-work pattern, like the one carved into the red-stone ring she wore on the chain.
Esther was aware of the song ending, of people all around the floor stopping, turning to watch. She was vaguely aware of Virgil and Mary, and William and Ion and the others. Even Seth and Caterina had come through the crowd. But she could barely spare any attention for them. All her attention was on Abel.
With fluid grace he knelt on the marble floor before her, one hand holding the ring. She saw his shoulders rise in another deep, slow inhalation. Then he looked up into her eyes, his own shining brighter than the gems of the ring he offered her. "Esther Blanchett...will you marry me?"
Her throat was tight. She could feel tears of joy brimming in her eyes. She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. It still felt hard to talk. Instead, she reached out and took the ring gently from him, then slid it onto her left hand ring finger. The fit was perfect. Abel's eyes lit up. He started to speak, but she took a step forward, leaned forward and kissed him, letting the passion of it speak for her. With him kneeling, it was so much easier, a matter of tilting her head a couple of inches. She heard a catcall from Leon, a similar sound from Seth, the swelling noise of cries of mixed surprise, congratulations, whistles and applause. She didn't care. All that mattered was Abel, the kiss that burned like fire between them. Abel's hands found her shoulders, pulling her closer, deepening the kiss.
It was becoming hard to breathe. She broke away, still dazed. Abel met her eyes his blue gaze burning with hope and a fierce dawning joy that she hadn't seen since that night in the garden.
She smiled and brought her hand up to lay alongside his jaw. "I accept."
Abel's eyes widened. "Esther..." Suddenly he stood, pulling her into a strong, warm embrace. "Esther." A moment later he leaned down, kissing her once more, all the strength of his emotions pouring through the touch of his lips and hands on hers.
The room exploded into chaos.
AN's smcandy: The meaning of Abel's Imperial name.
- Aloysha: Defender of man
- Kasimer: Commands peace.
Look up from which countries those names we got came from. I do not have the time nor energy to state otherwise since I waited and worked a long time to get this update to everyone.
[*]- Now We, meaning me and dragonwriter24cmf had one hell of time thinking of good Nobel name for Abel we excluded using names such as Constantine, Justinian, Octavian and so on because it was names used way too often in other fictions, media writings and plays and we wanted something to matching his personality and way of doing things he does presently then he did back during the Armageddon war. Now since Seth's name Augusta Vradica: a feminine form of the name of the Roman Emperor Augustus and Vradica possibly taken from the nick name of the historical figure 'Vlad the Impaler' AKA Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia whom lived from the year (1431–1476), was a member of the House of Drăculești and most well-known for earning his nickname 'The Impaler' suggests, his practice of impaling his enemies is central to his historical reputation. He also the inspiration for Bram stokers "Dracula". It is also suggested that Stoker may have been made aware of the reputation of Vlad through an acquaintance of his.
[*]- Since Seth is called as the "Mother of all Methuselah" & "Augusta Vradica, the First and Only". Abel is "Addressed as Prince of all Methuselah" which suites him better because Abel is surely NOT Lord or Father nor Master of all methuselah empire the tiles and names due not suite him we both agreed this was to be the best addressed choice in referring to Prince Aloysha Kasimer.
[*]- Why Abel wore green the empresses color is because the first introduction, wearing green validates his position as her brother the empresses. He's not been there long enough in the empire to get his own colors, and for sure it would never be like Abel to have a color that only he can wear in a kingdom. He's not like his sister having a signature color only for one person to wear although it's shown in the anime/manga he presently wears dark colors like black while in his RMP uniforms and when he transforms he signature color is really blue. I have on my Deviantart page in my scrap books section folder a partial picture to what my editor made based on the that exact green outfit. You can come view it for yourselves if you like on my Da page.
[*]- Also the newest ring Abel gave Esther at the end of is not her official wedding ring, just the engagement ring. You'll see in the next parts of two or three of chapter 39 what Esther wedding ring will be and look like ^^