BLOOD DANCE: FAMILY TIES
CHAPTER 1: UNSTOPPABLE FORCE, IMMOVABLE OBJECT
Minerva stepped out onto the marble balcony. The cold seeped from the stone into the soles of her bare feet, and her airy night clothes are not helping. She surveyed the kingdom below with an eye full of wonder. Seventeen years of it, but she was still in awe of the fact that it will all belong to her one day. Minerva knew that she really shouldn't be. She was born for this. Groomed for this. Trained for this. To be amazed of it is unbecoming. Plebeian, even. Father would not approve.
Or, rather, Head Councillor Jarvis Slythe would not approve. So, naturally, father would not approve. How she abhorred Slythe's attitude towards anything he deemed common. He's just a fucking snob with old money.
Of course, she'd never voice this sentiment, especially not with that kind of language. Slythe would see her banished to the Under Lands for it, somehow. Being "heir to the throne" did nothing except teach one how to keep one's mouth shut. Also that crimes aren't crimes when you have power. They're politics, and politicking is what a princess does best.
Alright, so she hasn't been a princess for seventeen years. Not until midnight tonight anyways. Before she can get there, she'd have to put up with being paraded around for gawking partygoers like some fancy, exotic pet. There will be an abundance of self-indulgence, everything from food to clothing. Minerva was secretly excited to see the extravagant fashion-Mangoran silk is in this season, so she braces herself for the droves of people gliding about in shiny fabrics imported from the furthest regions of the Under Lands. For clothes that were only meant to be worn once, they probably cost an arm and a leg. Literally. Minerva is quite sure someone died to make those outfits possible. She wasn't excited because she admired their style. Rather, it stemmed from a desire to feel morally superior, which she knew was wrong. Her satisfaction from watching people trip over themselves to impress the princess, ignorant to her private disdain for them, was sickening.
Perhaps she has learned a lot from Slythe, albeit in a way he would neither expect nor want.
Darkness cloaked the camp thick as a blanket. This was dangerous for the Leviathan Guards. Everybody wanted a piece of The Force from Eris, as they were called, but no one was brave or stupid enough to attack in broad daylight. Nights like this-stuck in unfamiliar terrain and unable to see two feet in front of you-were different. The Guards were at their most vulnerable.
Eirene secretly cursed the princess Minerva for being born. Her damned birthday celebration was the reason she and her soldiers were camping out in the middle of fucking nowhere. Rising through the ranks of the Guard to become Captain at nineteen had its hazards, none of which was more dangerous than party duty. That's what the more experienced Guards called it when a young and promising officer was paraded around at parties by their superiors. Since the Guards were divided into nine regions-four stationed at the cardinal points of the map, four at the ordinal points, and one at the capital-as well as numerous other subdivisions, depending on the geography, there was plenty of room for prideful competition amongst the officers.
As the general in charge of the Southwest region, Chester Raleigh always had a chip on his shoulder. His was the area closest to the Under Lands, and everyone knew that was where you sent the most unmanageable officers. Naturally, Chester's brash, unaccommodating personality ensured his assignment to the Southwest, despite his achievements on the battlefield.
So imagine his surprise-and delight-when Eirene Flyntwork, then a fifteen year old Guard Apprentice, volunteered to come study in the Southwest. He'd heard of the girl after her father entered her into Leviathan Training when she was ten. Despite the fact that she was two years younger than her peers in the same class, Eirene outshone them at every turn. Most attributed the fact to her Flyntwork blood, which has produced a long line of fierce warriors. But the moment he saw Eirene, Chester knew she was something special. So he secretly kept an eye on her-to outright favor her would cause a rift amongst the ranks-and had his people track her progress.
By the time she was seventeen, Eirene had become a Guard through her merits during multiple Under Lands uprisings. Chester saw in her an opportunity to leap ahead in the petty game of one-upsmanship that the other Generals were constantly playing. No longer would he have to sit there silently while those privileged buffoons gushed about a new pet. Eirene was nobody's pet. He knew that, but it will definitely bring him satisfaction to watch the other Generals' faces flush from jealousy.
The Central Fortress seemed to be glowing-thousands of gray and plum lanterns that flaunt the Unuigi Empire's might to the heavens. Villages miles away could spot the lights two nights out of the year. The giant lanterns are only lit on the King's and the Crown Heir's birthdays.
On this evening, Princess Minerva sat in front of her ornate vanity mirror and watched as seven different servants worked in a frenzy to primp her for the night's festivities. In their rather zealous concentration, the servants pulled on her hair a bit too hard and tug her dress a wee too tight, but Minerva did not complain. To do so would lead to fearful servants dropping to their knees and begging for forgiveness. Minerva would rather not have to reassure them for the hundredth time that one small mistake does not equal the gallows, though she could hardly blame them. This is a habit that all of the Fortress's servants have learned from years of tending to undiplomatic diplomats and ignoble nobility. That her father allowed for such mistreatment of servants by those who helped him govern the people is bothersome, to say the least.
Minerva's face lit up as she spotted her father's reflection. King Palleo knocked twice despite the open doors. He's come to understand the minutiae that form a pleasant relationship with his daughter, and one of which was respecting privacy. Despite her deep love for him, walking in unannounced would be asking for trouble. "Better safe than sorry," he reasoned with himself.
"Hello, little plum. You look rightfully divine in that gown."
Minerva grins cheekily at her father. "Oh Mahguthy, I always do."
Her nickname for Palleo never fails to make him smile. It's a relic from a simpler time, where, instead of learning to say "dada" like normal children, Minerva was used to her father being addressed as Majesty. Unfortunately, her infantile linguistic skills only went so far, and Palleo thought it was too endearing to bother correcting her.
Palleo gave his daughter a peck on the cheek. "My mistake. Of course you do. I'm just here to let you know that guests are already arriving."
"So?" Minerva smirked.
"So nothing. I would not dream of rushing my princess on such an important night."
"I see." Minerva finally broke into a genuine smile. "I will be done soon, and then I shall gracefully glide downstairs in my magnificent gown, courtesy of my father, and enchant the masses."
Palleo shook his head affectionately before exiting the room. Watching the heir to his throne grow into an insolently intelligent young woman felt like swordplay. It is exhilarating and, sometimes, it can bring you pride to watch your hard work come to fruition. Then again, there are the cuts and bruises that naturally come with such a thing. Forget yourself for one second-forget that you are playing with a weapon-and you leave yourself vulnerable to a world of pain. Palleo always had to remind himself that with people like Slythe watching, he must keep the reins on his daughter, or she might insult her way to the Under Lands.
Led by one General of the South, Eirene warily made her way through the crowd of the excessively wealthy, who have used this as an opportunity to rub shoulders, overindulge, and give backhand compliments.
"His Majesty has informed me that he will want to speak with you personally," Raleigh exclaimed as he walked briskly, parting the sea of party attendees. Despite not being very tall, the man was built like an anvil.
Eirene looks disinterested and mutters, "I cannot imagine why. It's not as if I'm known for my cutting wit nor sunny disposition."
"Nonsense. You are a gifted warrior, and the king is a connoisseur of talent, if nothing else. You'll be fi--" Raleigh was cut off by a woman obtrusively stepping into their path. "Arma," he said coldly.
"Chester. Still alive, I see. The Under Lands savages must not be as impressive as they say." Arma, who was astoundingly tall, peered down at Raleigh and his protege with disdain. "And who is this lovely sprite?" She turnsedsuddenly to Eirene, using her height as a point of intimidation.
Eirene looked up at with a set jaw and furrowed brows. She was about to retaliate when Raleigh suddenly cackled obnoxiously, which surprised Eirene. The man was usually more of a simmering grump towards everyone except Eirene.
"Oh please," he scoffed rather loudly. " I've seen her take down dozens of men singlehandedly. She's accomplished more with her spritely physique than you ever will, you towering--" He was interrupted by fanfare announcing the arrival of the King.
"His Majesty, King of the Rose, Palleo the Second," bellowed a surprisingly slender old man.
"Thank you for the announcement, Mr. Scrimgy," Palleo nodded kindly at the old man, who turned stiffly to leave as fast as his arthritic body could carry him. "Well now, friends. I welcome you to the Central Fortress for on this most joyous day. As a father, I've watched my daughter grow from child to girl, and, now, she is a young woman."
Raleigh turned to whisper in Eirene's ear. "He gives a very similar speech most every year. Though I suppose there is not much else one can say at a royal birthday party without upsetting certain sensibilities."
Eirene snorted in a rather unladylike manner, drawing the ire of a few people standing in the vicinity. She awkwardly cleared her throat to cover it up. Just then, King Palleo concluded his speech, and the fanfare returned once again to announce the arrival of Princess Minerva.
Minerva is undeniably a vision in her elegant chiffon dress, a deep plum color that accentuates the green eyes inherited from her father. She held on delicately to a gray satin shawl that did not do much to hide her lithe figure.
Eirene caught some of the men in the audience with their mouths agape, most of whom were oblivious to the nasty glances from their respective dates. She shook her head, somewhat amused and somewhat annoyed.
In the corner of her eye, Minerva noticed something not quite fitting in among the expanse of adoring or envious faces looking up at her. It's a young woman, looking impassive, almost bored. The gall of that one. In that moment, Minerva made it the night's goal to meet the young woman and show her the force of nature that is a princess's charm.
Hiding in a corner of the room, close to the food and drinks, Eirene sipped on her goblet of some fruity concoction as she imaginesd running through the forest by moonlight. As strange as it sounds, she'd fallen in love with the wilderness of the Under Lands. Wild entanglements of florae and unbound faunae. Her kind of extravagance. Suddenly interrupted from her fancies by a heavy pat on her shoulder, Eirene very nearly drew her blade out of instinct.
Raleigh chuckled at her reflexes. "I've trained you well," he complimentd her with a smug grin. "Come, it's time to meet your maker."
"The King? Can't I at least eat something first."
"I gave you all the time in the world to do that, but you, instead, chose to sulk and fill yourself with drink." He said the next part in a lowered voice, "Now remember, as much as I and the other Leviathans enjoy your abrasive charm, the royals most decidedly will not. Especially Slythe. Watch out for him." She only nodded casually in reply.
Standing behind her general, Eirene followed suit when he drops on one knee in front of their lord and master.
Palleo patted Raleigh heartily on his shoulder. "Rise, Leviathans. Raleigh, your leadership continues to keep our great empire safe, and I am ever filled with gratitude."
Raleigh squared his jaw. "Your Majesty, it is not only my duty to fight for our people, but also to keep my men and women safe. I could never do it without them." With this, he turned his head a bit to subtly bring attention to Eirene.
"Ah! So this is the magnificent Flyntwork girl. Or rather, woman. I apologize for that indiscretion, but you do look quite young, soldier." Palleo's face lit up while he appraises Eirene.
"Yes, Majesty." She said with a small bow.
Palleo chuckles, "Not a talker is she? Takes after her general."
Eirene mentally scoffed, knowing that this assessment applied to neither of them in the right company. Outwardly she proudly spoke, "It would be my honor to become half the soldier general Raleigh is, Sire." She noted Raleigh's fingers, positioned on his blade, twitch a bit at the praise.
"Loyal, too. You Flyntworks never disappoint. Let me introduce you to the woman of the hour-my daughter, the Crown Princess Minerva." Just as the words left his mouth, Minerva walked, or glided, gracefully over to the three. She was accompanied by a rather handsome man in an impeccably fashionable outfit.
Too handsome, Eirene thought. She did not like contemptuous smile that seemed to be his face's natural resting state. Must be Slythe, she realized.
"Minerva, Councillor Slythe. I believe you've both met General Raleigh." They both nodded while Raleigh bowed to them and kissed the Princess's proffered hand. "This is the courageous Eirene Flyntwork, whom we in the Central Fortress have heard so much about." Palleo beamed at her proudly.
Eirene bowed but is taken by surprise when Princess Minerva also presented her hand. Unusual, but she supposed that the standard Leviathan formal uniforms do carry a certain masculine air. Eirene caught a tiny smirk on the Princess's lips as she bent down to give the hand an awkward but gentle peck.
"Is it true that you've killed hundreds of of people?" Minerva's question was tinged with a slightly challenging tone. The other three looked at her in surprise.
"Darling, I don't believe we should be discussing such ghastly business at your birthday celebration," Palleo tried to hint to his suddenly tactless daughter. She could be too impish for her own good when provoked, but this was unnecessarily brazen.
Eirene did not miss the glint in Minerva's eye when she said, "I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree with His Majesty, Your Highness--"
Minerva interrupted her, "I think it's perfectly sensible for a future heir of the throne to inquire about the business of defending her nation." Slythe sneered, almost imperceptibly, at this comment. Raleigh noted it to himself, however.
Eirene attempted to smile amiably while she addressed the Princess, "I cannot object to that logic. I'm afraid, Ma'am, that my prowess on the battlefield has been highly embellished. I've not killed hundreds of people, and, if the Heavens allow, I hope I will never have to do so."
Minerva raised an eyebrow, seemingly unsatisfied with the perceived meekness of her target. "Really? As a soldier-and a Leviathan, no less-I would have assumed you would be thrilled at the chance to reign destruction on enemy combatants." The men were now watching the exchange with intrigue.
Eirene smiled forlornly as she looks Minerva in the eye. "It is important to remember-especially as a soldier-that taking human lives is an evil, Your Highness. Necessary? In certain circumstances, yes. Acceptable? Never. And to do so indiscriminately is to stand against everything your ancestors hoped to achieve by establishing the Unuigi Empire of Nations. Our ultimate goal is cooperation between peoples, despite the oft unpleasant means we must use to get there." The lengthy, candid answer from the previously inscrutable young woman took everyone by surprise.
"Ha! This one will go far," Palleo remarks. Really, he just wanted to break up the tension before his child angered a trained, career killer. She might be loyal, but everyone has a limit. It also would not fare well for a future monarch to earn the ire of someone who was, not only a celebrated soldier rising through the ranks, but also the descendent of a long line of warriors adored by the public.
Slythe, for his part, was positively radiating with glee at the Crown Heir's inexplicable hostility. The silly girl was well on her way to making a powerful enemy.
After that fiasco of an encounter, Raleigh and Palleo both found a way to separate the two young people. Each woman insolently ignored the questioning looks from her elder and drifted off into the crowds.