"He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you."
The country of Tristain had always been a small nation. To its east lay the great expanses of half-civilized Germania. Gallia was to its south and Albion to the west.
Yet those were not the only countries in the land of Helgekinia. South of the country of Gallia, approximately a little over a fortnight's journey from Tristain, rested Romalia. It was a country with no king, but its people were far more loyal and subservient to their leader than any king could have desired. For while kings and queens may claim to be blessed by Brimir, only the Pope of Romalia, Vittorio Serevare, could claim to be Brimir's representative on Helgekinia. He was a young man, not even 25. He had only ruled Romalia and the Church for three years, but his strikingly good looks and strong sense of justice had served to make him beloved among his people.
Yet as busy as a ruler had to be, today was a day of rest as decreed by Brimir. So within the tallest and greatest cathedral in Romalia, the pope slammed his fingers down as he finished the last chord on a pipe organ. He only had it installed a few weeks ago, but had not had the time to play it as often as he would have liked. Still, he had concluded the usual sermons and had no business to preoccupy him so now he had a few hours to…
Oh confound it, the Pope momentarily thought to himself. But he knew that he had no choice but to answer. He had given his guard orders to leave him alone, which meant that there was one person who could or would knock during such a time.
"You're allowed to enter, Julio Chesare."
The door creaked open and the young boy who had temporarily served in Napoleon's army entered. He took a few steps forward and as the Pope stood away from the organ, fell onto one knee.
"I am sorry to report that I have failed my mission, Your Holiness."
"If you had succeeded, you almost certainly would have already returned, Julio." The Pope responded. "It's been quite some time since Cromwell was defeated, and even longer since I sent you to Albion in the first place."
"I wanted to see if there was any chance that I could recover from earlier errors, but-"
The Pope raised a single finger and Julio halted mid-sentence.
"There's no need to excuse yourself." He said. "It was, after all, a secondary objective. Things would have been much easier if you had managed to recover the Founder's rings, but Brimir has decreed otherwise. Do you at least know where it is?"
"Not to a certainty, but I suspect King Joseph succeeded."
"Completely?" The Pope's eyes widened.
However, Julio shook his head.
"No, not completely. Your Holiness would not doubt have heard from King Joseph had he succeeded in obtaining both the rings of Albion and Tristain. But for now, I believe that he only obtained the Albion ring."
"Then where is Tristain's ring, the Water Ruby?"
"I am not totally certain about that, Your Holiness." Julio stated. "The problem is that Princess Henrietta didn't bring it with her to Albion. Consequently, Albion did not claim it when she perished."
"So it's in Tristain?"
"I spent the last few weeks travelling through Tristain trying to see if I could find any information about the Water Ruby, or the Ruby of Fire for that matter." Julio stated. "But travelling through that country has become considerably more difficult in the aftermath of Princess Henrietta's death. Even if the war is over, there are considerably more bandits who are trying to take advantage of the chaos. And I have yet to even say anything about the fighting over Henrietta's succession."
The Pope couldn't help but shake his head in response to that last sentence.
"I will not speak ill of my fellow men, not on this rest day." He quietly said. "Still, what are they doing? Are the nobles of Tristain unable to see what their conflict will bring?"
"Some of them, I truly think are unable to realize what this war will bring." Julio responded. "But only some. From what I've heard, there are those who desire and welcome the change which a civil war would bring."
"Those sorts of people will be the ones who will be hurt the most by that change."
"Yes, Your Holiness." Julio said.
The Pope tapped a finger against his chin. As disappointed as he was that Julio had failed to uncover any of the rings, he was hardly surprised. The boy was talented and clever enough, but he was a foreigner who was easily recognizable with his good looks and heterochromia. Whoever actually owned those rings at this point would be on guard against a figure like him. Besides, the fact that he had returned at all indicated that he had succeeded in his main mission, a simple intelligence gathering expedition of Albion and Tristain.
"Perhaps, Your Holiness, it would be best to send the Inquisition for this matter?" Julio volunteered.
"The Inquisition? No." The Pope said. "As badly as I want those rings – for safeguarding, as you know – there is no heresy being committed in Tristain and sending them without the support of the Crown would be very tricky. I could still probably send them anyways, but under the current chaos, I would rather attempt other methods first."
The Pope began pacing through the hall as he pondered for several minutes. Julio continued to kneel, not daring to look upon his master's face.
"I would rather not use the Inquisition, and as you have just returned, I have no interest in sending you on another journey." He mused. "The best course of action, then, would be to use what resources I already possess in Tristain first."
He finally stopped and looked at Julio.
"Do you know which side Walloon will be taking during this conflict?"
"Of course. The relation between the Vallieres and the Walloons has been very strong, so he will take her side."
"Very well then. Send an emissary to him or to the Valliere family. It doesn't matter which one, just get in touch. Also, get in touch with the leader of the opposing faction. I will listen to your reports of what you saw later."
He curtly waved his hands, a gesture which Julio knew to be a signal of dismissal. Without a word, his servant stood up, bowed, and quietly left the room. The Pope took a moment to hear him walk away, and then turned back to his organ.
"You blithering IDIOT!"
A young man, blond hair falling down to his shoulders, paced relentlessly around a richly decorated room. Behind him sat his father, the legendary Marshal Gramont. While his title was ostensibly the Count of Gramont, his famous military exploits had meant that all of the other nobles had chosen to call him by his title of Marshal. Even as old and infirm as he was, strapped to a wheelchair, his presence pervaded the room. His eldest son, Robert, waited behind him as well as the third son, Jean. None of them said a word as they watched Vincent continue to stride back and forth across the room.
The second son of the Gramont family stopped and stared directly at the person in front of him. Guiche de Gramont, the youngest son of the Gramont line, kowtowed to his brother. He did not even attempt to raise his head as it touched the floor, nor did he move when Vincent walked and put a military boot on his neck.
"What were you thinking, Guiche? Did anything cross your head when you did that?"
"I…wasn't thinking." Guiche mumbled from the floor.
"WELL OF COURSE YOU WEREN'T!" Vincent yelled. "Your loyalty is to the family, to the family's honor above all else! Then to the crown and Tristain! So why, why did you swear an oath of loyalty to anyone else?"
"B-because I was in his service and-"
"Did he ASK you for it?"
"No." Guiche admitted.
"Then why did you give it to him?"
Guiche said nothing. In reality, he couldn't say anything to defend himself. Guiche knew as well as everyone else in the room that in his impetuosity and his desire to show gratitude that he had committed a massive error. While everyone knew that the mistake was unintentional, none of the brothers moved to forgive him, nor did they say anything as Vincent finally removed his boot and began to again pace the room.
"And to top it off? You swear it to General Bonaparte? Guiche, if you had sworn an oath of loyalty to Guldenhorf that would be one thing. That I could possibly understand. But to Bonaparte? A commoner? Guiche, just what were you doing, swearing an oath of loyalty to a person like him?"
"Enough, Vincent." Robert interjected. "General Bonaparte is an honorable man. There is nothing wrong with Guiche serving under him in particular."
"Really, Robert?" Vincent asked. "All of us, and mother as well, have you heard you praise him to the sky. But what has he done to show that he's as smart as you claim he is? He got a bunch of Gallians to help him win. Gallians? Anyone can do that! Your general may talk a lot about military affairs, but there's no reason to think that he's anyone important. There's a world of difference between talking and doing."
"He has been made the head of the Alliance."
"Luck." Vincent dismissively waved his hand. "And look, it doesn't matter, Robert. General Bonaparte could be the greatest general in the land, even better than Father. That's still no reason for Guiche to swear an oath of loyalty to him!"
"Enough, Robert, Vincent!" Their father broke in. "The two of you have always been far too passionate in your arguments. A proper general is calm and decisive above all."
The two brothers looked at each other before they turned to their father. They quickly kneeled and apologized before they both stood behind him. The old man grumbled as he stared at Guiche.
"Jean." He asked. "Do you have anything to tell your little brother?"
The third Gramont brother shook his head. His father nodded.
"Always the silent type, eh? So, Guiche, do you intend to fight your family?"
"I-I don't wish to do so, Father."
"What you wish for does not matter, Guiche. I am asking about what you will do. Do you intend to fulfill your oath and fight on General Bonaparte's behalf?"
Guiche said nothing in response. He visibly trembled, and his elderly father's nostrils flared.
"There is something which I believe you should know before you say anything as well, Guiche. It's about the Montmorency family."
"They've chosen to ally themselves with the Vallieres. I am perfectly aware of the relationship between yourself and their second daughter. That, I believe, should be something you should consider when you make your decision."
Guiche stiffened up at those words, but his father had nothing more to say. He waited for his son's decision.
"I can't betray an oath." Guiche finally mumbled.
Guiche lifted his face up and looked at his father. There were no tears, no signs of sorrow written upon his face. Instead, all that remained was cold determination.
"I can't betray an oath. I made an oath to General Bonaparte. To be eternally loyal to him and to obey his commands. To break it right at the very moment he needs me? I can't do that."
"And what about your loyalty to your family?"
Guiche did not hesitate this time.
"I am sorry, Marshal Gramont."
Everyone in the room knew the implications of Guiche's statement. The old man stared at his son for half-lidded eyes. The four Gramont sons, with bated breath, awaited their father's decree.
Clap clap clap.
The old man calmly applauded his son's decision. Vincent's eyes became wide as dinner plates, and even Guiche could not conceal his own surprise.
"That is the correct choice, Guiche. I am proud of you."
"Father!" Vincent sputtered. "You cannot be serious!"
"I am. I would have not accepted Guiche had he chosen to fight for his family. He may have had made his oath out of foolishness, but that alone cannot make you break your oath. I did similar things when I was his age and accepted the consequences."
Marshal Gramont leaned back in his wheelchair and smiled at his youngest son.
"Needless to say, Guiche, I will not harm you now. It would be dishonorable. I will grant you three nights and two days to pack, prepare, and leave Gramont territory to join General Bonaparte. I do not think I need to tell you that you will never be welcome here again."
"Yes, sir." Guiche quietly said
"My sons, is there anything you want to tell him?"
Robert and Jean shook his head, but Vincent nodded. He walked up to his younger brother. While Guiche had before flinched before Vincent's rage, he now stayed calm. It was clear that making his decision had imbued him with new determination.
Vincent stopped before Guiche and raised an arm in the air as if to strike him across the face. But the blow never came. Instead, he lowered his arm, knelt down to Guiche's level, and then wrapped his arms around him in a ferocious bearhug.
"Go…to…hell, you stupid brother!" He half-laughed, half-snarled. "You come back here, I'll have your guts for garters, you hear? I definitely won't help you out, okay?"
"Of course, brother." Guiche murmured. "Of course. I won't disappoint the Gramont name."
"Says the newest Gramont exile." Vincent said. "Well, get out of here! And bad luck to you!"
Vincent finally let go and joined Robert and Jean. The three of them clicked their heels together and saluted Guiche, who reciprocated in turn. The young man got to his feet, bowed to his father, and then left the room.
"You are dismissed, my children." Marshal Gramont calmly stated.
Vincent and Jean nodded and walked out through a different door from Guiche. However, Robert stayed behind, looking at his father. The old man looked back at his eldest son.
"Is there something wrong, Robert?"
"Did you really intend to exile Guiche if he chose to fight for the Gramonts?" Robert calmly asked.
The old man smiled at that question and shook his head.
"Of course you figured it out. You're easily the cleverest of my sons, Robert. Well then. Do you know why I told Guiche that?"
"It was for his sake. Guiche will no doubt go through moments when he will doubt himself, when he will wonder if he made the right choice to follow his oath. You told him that you wouldn't have accepted him if he had chosen differently to prevent him from wallowing in the dangerous question of 'did I make the right choice?'"
"I am not Karin, son. I do not hold to the rules as rigidly as she does. I still don't understand why she chose to exile her youngest daughter. I am glad Karin made the decision to take the throne for herself, but things would likely have been easier if we could have given the throne to her youngest daughter. She's the only healthy child Karin has left at this point now.
At any rate, I don't intend to do the same thing to Guiche. It is his decision to go into exile. To make him suffer in the idea that his life could have been better if he made a slightly different choice? It is far too cruel."
The old man rocked back and forth in his wheelchair as well as he could.
"Still, I have to admit Guiche surprised me. I thought he would have broken his oath the minute I told him about his girlfriend. I do admit that I would have been disappointed if he had chosen to break his oath, and probably would have sent him to some minor post as a result, one where he could see her more often. Furthermore, he will have more opportunities and a better chance of glory in the Alliance."
"He is serving under General Bonaparte." Robert said. "He will do well."
"You think he's that dangerous, huh?" Marshal Gramont said. "Well, I'll see for myself. I would like to have a chess match against him sometime."
In a small farming village, the day had come to an end. Many of the tired farmers and workers headed down to the local tavern, eager for a long drink and the chance to grouse with each other. The bartender greeted the new arrivals with a hearty smile and a few lively insults and broke out the cups.
Many of them noted that there was someone there whom no one had recognized. A lone figure sat in the corner closest to the door with a mug and plate in front of him, his face covered by a long hood. A few of them looked at the stranger and thought about approaching him, but even though he said nothing, the person gave off a completely frigid air which belied any attempts towards conversation. Some of the farmers muttered to each other about the person, but most of them just chose to ignore him and instead talked about the day's events.
"So, did you hear about the rebellion? That there's going to be another war in Tristain?"
"What? Are you serious? Who invaded us now, the Gallians? The Germanians?"
"It's a civil war. Those damn nobles are ready to kill each other over who gets Princess Henrietta's crown."
"Well, that's just great. That means the nobles will tax us harder to pay for their wars."
"Yeah, but I think it is different now." A younger farmer piped up. "Especially since one side looks like they're interested in us commoners for once."
"Are you serious, boy?" An older man guffawed. "The nobles never care for us. Oh sure, they make a big speech about how they protect us and we're supposed to serve them because Brimir says so, but they never do. Princess Henrietta was the only one who ever looked out for us. Now that she's gone, life's just going to get harder."
"You should take a look at this, then." The young man said as he waved a paper. "It's the latest news from Giono's paper."
"Young whippersnappers who think reading will solve everything." The old man grumbled.
Still, as he stuck a pipe in his mouth and lit it, the old man listened to his companion read the paper out aloud to the tavern. He noted that the front of the paper had a large picture on its front, of the person he recognized as General Bonaparte. The one who Giono in his papers called the "Defender of the People."
"Good men of Tristain!" The young man read. "The National Gazette reports that Tristain has been embroiled once again into war. Foreign agents from abroad intend to usurp our throne and take it for themselves. The Duchess Karin de la Valliere has welcomed many of them and plans to give up the city of La Rochelle to them."
The young man continued to read from the paper to the crowd. It was filled with lurid details about the righteousness of the Alliance – or rather, of their new leader – and the sinister implications of the Vallieres taking the throne. Most of the crowd didn't really understand what exactly the paper was talking about when they warned about threats to liberty and such, but they could feel the alarmed tone from the reader's words. And clearly, whatever it was talking must be important if the Gazette had such an alarmed tone.
The young man's reading was suddenly interrupted as the door to the tavern was violently pushed open. A man with well-built shoulders and ripped muscles arrogantly strode into the tavern. As he walked towards the barkeeper, a longsword and a pouch of gold jingled at his side.
"What will it be, my good man?" The barkeeper asked.
"I didn't come all the way to this village in the middle of nowhere to drink." The arrival said. "There's something I'd like to ask. Have you seen a girl pass by this tavern? Black hair, pretty? Scar on the left side of her face?"
"I haven't seen anyone like that. Still, that's a strange combination you described there. Pretty girl with a scar. I think I'd remember if someone like that passed this way."
The man dug a hand into his pouch and fished out two gold coins.
"These happen to refresh your memory?"
"I can't tell you what I don't know, sir." The barkeeper responded. "I'm an honest man. I could take your gold and give you a false lead, but I won't do that."
The man nodded in appreciation and then looked at the rest of the farmers in turn. None of them gave any indication of knowing the answer to his question. Eventually, his gaze fell upon the hooded stranger in the corner.
"You look like a traveler." The man called out. "Would you happen to know anything?"
There was no response. The man rose up from his seat, a hand resting on the hilt of his sword as he walked towards the stranger. Still, the person at the table seemed to take no indication that anyone was coming near him.
That is, until he grabbed his cup and dashed a large quantity of hot tea into the swordsman's face.
The swordsman fell back as he clawed at his face in pain. The stranger in the meantime dashed out of the inn before the farmers could react. As she did so, the hood fell away from her face, revealing black hair.
"There she is! That must be her!"
"Should we go after-"
The swordsman roared out a single word as he drew his weapon.
"She's mine! Mine, and mine alone! Stay out of this, you hear me?"
Without waiting for a response, he charged out of the tavern, chasing the fugitive.
Siesta was tired.
It wasn't the running which had worn her out. She had been a maid who was no stranger to physical work. Furthermore, the fact that she knew that she was running for her very life meant that her muscles gained just a little more strength and energy to keep herself going.
But she was tired of running and hiding from everyone. She had hoped, to some degree, that killing Louise's father would have been the beginning. She knew that the commoners were simply terrified of nobles and their magic, like she had been so long ago when she worked at the Academy. But if she, an ordinary peasant girl, could strike down the official head of the most powerful noble family in Tristain, it would show the people that the nobles weren't invincible. That they could be killed. And if they could be killed, then the common people would be encouraged to rise up against them.
Nothing of the sort had happened. She had talked to people who were unaware of her true identity. Whenever the subject of the attack at the Valliere estate had been brought, she found herself condemned almost all the time. A few commended the murderess's boldness, but then grumbled that it would invite a crackdown from the nobles and that she had done nothing to help commoners out.
Her actions had not sparked any hope. The commoners continued to maintain their passive acceptance of the nobility, of their power, and condemned her strike for justice. And even as the country threatened to spiral into civil war, the elites who had split Tristain found time to unite to kill her. The Vallieres were chasing her, but she had learned that Andre Giono, the famous printer, and a commoner at that, had commissioned forces to take her down. It was utterly insulting.
She would have continued to think, but her brain finally took the time to pay attention to her surroundings. And when she saw where she was, she began to panic.
"A dead end…."
Siesta did not know this town, nor had she planned where to run when she had been discovered. Her legs had just carried in random directions as she sought to evade her pursuer. Now her carelessness had placed herself in this precarious position
For a moment, she wondered whether she had managed to escape, but that hope was quickly dashed as she heard his footsteps. They were a fair distance away, but no doubt he knew where she was. He would be on her momentarily at this rate. Furthermore, he was probably a professional – an amateur would have likely yelled at her to stop or insulted her, but he clearly wasn't interested in wasting his breath.
She had to hide. But where? There were a few barrels there, but that was too obvious. Maybe in the shadows and she could try to trick him? There was a sewer grate, but it was far too small for her to squeeze into. What about-
A ladder lay upright next to the wall, and a row of stone extended out over the alleyway. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. It was high enough that if her pursuer didn't look up, he wouldn't be able to see her.
There was no time for hesitation. Siesta clambered up the ladder. When she reached the very top, she leaped to the row of stone. It was small, far too small for Siesta to actually rest on, but her arms wrapped themselves around it as her legs helplessly kicked in the air.
Just then, the man finally arrived. He stopped as he looked into the alley, not noticing his target directly above him.
"Where is that blasted whelp?" He muttered. "I know I saw her run down this way."
He noticed the ladder, but in a flash of irritation, he kicked it over and watched it topple onto the ground.
"Hey, little girl!" He suddenly yelled out. "I know you're here! Even after what you did to me, I'm not going to kill you! I've been promised an additional 500 gold if I bring you back to Tristania alive! So come out and make it easier on yourself!"
Siesta, of course, said nothing. But the hard stone cut into her arms and her muscles ached. She knew that before long, her strength would give away and she would tumble down into the alley where he would wait. Even if she no longer believed in Brimir, she prayed to someone, anyone that he would leave.
But he did not leave. He kicked the barrels around and began to walk up and down the alleyway a few times in visible frustration. But then eventually, his eyes fell upon the ladder and they lit up in recognition.
"She must have gone up."
He was right below Siesta as he said those words. He slowly began to look up, towards where she hid…
And then something fell on the man's shoulder.
It was small and light. He could tell that. The man looked over, and saw that a rat had fallen onto his shoulder. It sat up and perched where it had landed.
The man breathed a curse and moved to brush the creature off. But before he could do anything, the rat suddenly sank his teeth into his shoulder
The man howled in pain for a moment. Forgetting the chase, he grabbed the rat and hurled it onto the ground. He then strode over, determined to stomp this insolent pest to death.
But then, before his mind could begin to even process it, he instinctively realized that he was doomed.
Rats. Hundreds upon hundreds, a great army of the creatures swarm out of nowhere. Whether from the sewer grate in the alley or even from the rooftops, out of nowhere they swarmed the man and viciously attacked him.
Screaming in agony, the swordsman tried to stumble out of the alleyway, into the town where he could find help. But he was completely surrounded and covered, like ants would devour a frog or a great worm. No matter what direction he took, they clung onto him, biting his face and cheeks and arms and legs and whatever they could. Out of desperation, he swung his sword, hoping to keep them away.
It proved to be of no use. One rat bit his thumb and the sword clattered to the ground. With a last, terrified scream, the man fell onto the ground as he died.
Siesta continued to cling on the stone row, but she no longer felt her muscles ache in her shock. She couldn't believe what she had just seen. Her mother had told her when she was a little girl that rats were dangerous. But this…this was something different. Even now they continue to crowd the dead swordsman's body.
But then the rats suddenly stopped what they were doing. Almost as if one, they all turned to look directly at her. And as Siesta began to wonder if she would meet the same fate as her pursuer, she noticed a white rat perched on top of the sewer grate.