|Regulus of Exile Chapter 1|
A Throne Is Humbled
The Imperial Palace, Alquvia
Night had fallen over Alquvia, the crowning jewel and beating heart of the empire. Sweet smelling smoke drifted lazily through the air, as the citizens piled more cherry wood onto their fires to stave of the night's chill. There was one however who found the chill air to be invigorating, she sat on the edge of her balcony, looking down over the capital. She had known the city all her life from its great marble and gold palace to the smallest granite and tile houses in the poorest districts.
She was Aurelia Flavia Luciana the 1st, Queen of all she surveyed and Empress of the Alquvian Empire. She looked out upon her citizens whilst her heart was dancing with excitement for tomorrow was her favourite day of the year, The Festival of Museo. The day upon which Museo the Goddess of Music and The Arts was celebrated above all others and offerings of music and art were made for her entertainment. To Aurelia the day when all of Alquvia was filled with the sounds of music and singing was one of the greatest experiences any person could have. Her heart fluttered again when she thought of the role she would have in the festivities the next day.
She ran across the balcony to grab up her Kithara and begin to play, strumming out the beginnings of a melody. The tempo was slow and it's deep almost hypnotic baseline helping her lose herself in the music. The melody seemed to grow inside her heart. It's acoustic and harmonic qualities, bring a feeling of relaxation. Before she knew what she was doing Aurelia was smiling to herself. She felt her nervousness melt away and tried to think of the words to go along with the tune. She bit her lip as she thought, her fingers still strumming the tune. Her reverie was interrupted by a sharp tap at the door of her chambers, as her mind was brought back to reality she put down her Kithara and crossed the room to answer the door.
"Who is it?" She asked quietly as she put her hand on the door handle. "I'm....I'm sorry.....Empress, its Avita Custodia. I need to discuss the duties for the High Guard tomorrow." Aurelia sighed, but repressed her slight feelings of annoyance at the intrusion. She opened the door and stepped out of the way "Come in Captain." Avita bowed her head slightly before entering the bow "Yes, your Majesty."
The two crossed the room and approached the table together, where Avita removed her sword and laid it down in deference to her Empress. "So Captain, what is it you need to discuss at such a late hour?" Avita shifted a little nervously in her seat. "Well.....your majesty, its...its Senator Omid....She said that she received a last minute request from a Falshin Delegation to attend your performance tomorrow." Aurelia looked unperturbed at the statement. "What is the issue with Aedifica bringing a few people?" The captain looked suddenly serious and sat up more straight. "I can't do my job properly if they are allowed to attend, your majesty. We have no idea who they are and we have no time to find out before the performance. Please......your majesty.......tell them that they can't attend..." Aurelia stood shaking her head and looking stern. "That is ridiculous, captain. We have not been at war with the Falshin Empire for over a decade. Why would they wish harm on me now? Besides what good would one little delegation do?" Avita immediately looked very flustered. "There is already a big risk your majesty, ever since the 12th were ordered away from the city we've been left defenceless...." Aurelia raised her hand and cut Avita off before she could continue. "We are at peace with the Falshin and they are just a small delegation. We have nothing to fear from them, they merely wish to attend the festival. Senator Omid is a woman of good standing, we will trust her judgement and that is the end of the matter." Avita was obviously uncomfortable with openly defying the Empress, but was also uncomfortable with letting the matter drop.
Aurelia decided to head off the problem before it reappeared. "I am tired now captain, I will be retiring for the night." Avita jumped to her feet "Yes, your majesty. Sleep well." The Captain of the High Guard took up her sword, bowed and retreated from the Empress' quarters.
Aurelia returned to her balcony looking over the city. She knew the Captain of her personal guard was just doing her duty and she knew she meant well. However she couldn't imagine why anyone would choose to attack during the festival, it was a day of peace and celebration. She stretched wearily, feeling suddenly drained. She slowly walked back into her quarters in search of her bed and a good night's rest.
The Next Day
As the mid-morning sun blazed high in the sky above the capital's streets, the people readied themselves for the great festival to come. The streets echoed with sounds of music and songs, whilst the scents of various festival foods wafted through the air. Through this mass of hustle and bustle there was one man who sat completely still and had been doing so for some time. The busy people merely walked by the man, he was a foreigner and no one expected him to act normally like they did.
The first people to approach him were some street urchins, young children who had grown curious about the man. They climbed on the boxes beside him so they could touch his long dreadlocks. The man simply smiled and waited patiently for the children to stop. After a few minutes the man was surrounded by curious street urchins. All of them were wondering why the man was sitting there, seemingly waiting for something
"Who are you??" One of the urchins finally became brave enough to ask. The man smiled genially and pulled a sack of coins out of his robes. "My name is Arash, I am a man who likes to hear stories. I will give a gold coin to anyone who can tell me a story of something they've seen, but only if I haven't heard the story before." The urchins were suddenly a mass of excitement and glee. A whole gold piece would mean they could buy so many sweets they would get sick by the end of the day. Immediately the children were all calling out trying to tell their story first.
Arash laughed a little and pointed to a small boy at the front to indicate he should speak first. "I saw a man carrying a big pile of spears off a ship yesterday. He wasn't a merchant or anything." Arash nodded gently and handed the boy a gold coin. The child was so excited that he ran straight into a box, before recovering and scampering away. He pointed to a girl near the back next. "I saw a bunch of men getting off a boat yesterday. They were all dressed like beggars, but I saw they wore armour on under their rags." A boy next to her shouted in disappointment, obviously having seen the same thing. Arash gave the girl her coin and she ran away.
A few minutes later all the children had given their little stories and earned their coins, leaving Arash alone once more. As he stood and began to walk, his mind was once again stuck by the thought that these children would have told him all of this for much less and a gold piece. Then he remembered the smiles and excitement they'd shown when they'd earned their gold. It was a festival after all, if there was ever a time to be a little generous it was today.
He came to a stop outside a very ornate looking building. It was a building that most people knew well; it was the Falshin Empire's consulate. A man dressed as a soldier snapped to attention. "Welcome back, Envoy Govad!" Arash raised his hand making a small salute of his own as he passed through the door. As he passed through the door he was met by a man dressed in large and colourful robes. "Envoy Govad, I am the consulate's new military attaché Marzban Hamza Parisa." The man was enormous, his bulky robes doing nothing to decrease the idea that the man was huge. After taking the situation in for a moment Arash nodded and signalled for the man to follow me. "It is good to meet you Marzban, I would give you a guided tour but unfortunately I must change and depart for the palace forum. The Empress of Alquvia is due to be giving a performance soon, it is the social event of the year." Hamza followed Arash as he walked into his offices and put on his ceremonial robes over the clothes he wore. "You should come with me, a social event like this is perfect to introduce you." Hamza looked cheery at being asked to join him, but the cheer never seemed reached his eyes.
Arash sighed as he saw Hamza's reaction "Typical military man, why can't they send me one that isn't miserable some day." He thought as he lead the way back out of the consulate, an almost complete stranger in tow. In any other situation he would be suspicious of who the stranger was, but without proper credentials he wouldn't have even made it past the front door.
The two made their way down the street Arash leading the way from stall to stall. He took his time walking along, making attempt to provoke conversation as they went. "I love the streets of Alquvia during a festival; these people really know how to throw a party." He pointed to the mass of flower chains over hanging the street. "These decorations are made between the families who live on either side, they each make one half and connect them in the middle." Hamza merely looked bored as he looked up at the decorations.
Arash drew from his reserve of patience and pushed on trying to keep the conversation from dying all together. "To think ten years ago we were at war with these people, they probably would have run in fear at the sight of us. Now..." He walked over to a stall and handed a free sweet to try. "they're generous almost to a fault." He ate the sweet and suddenly smiled hugely "They also make the best sweets, this is a brown fruit twisted around a thin honeycomb centre and candied on the outside to keep it together. The best sweets in the world are sold on these streets."
Arash handed the vendor some coins in exchange for a bag full of sweets before moving on again. "The people have changed so much since the war ended ten years ago. Back then they would have seen us as enemies, attacked us in the street." Hamza snorted derisively obviously considering an attack from Alquvian civilians to be of little consequence. "Now the Alquvians will let us freely walk the streets. Legatus Primus was exiled and the 12th Legion, the legion that was guarding the city, had to be sent away from the capital. Even after all that happening they still let us walk the streets, they're so different from what they used to be."
The pair continued to walk towards the palace for the Empress' performance. All around them sounds of singing and music echoed through the streets, filling the air with harmonious noise. "They call the empress, the Songbird of the Empire. It's a real privilege to get to be close to a performance." Hamza pointed to all the street corners "Where are the guards? Why aren't there more troops here?" Arash sighed at the question, trust a military attaché to ignore the culture around him and look for troop positions.
"Normally the legion stationed in the capital would normally be lining the streets as a ceremonial guard, but as I said they've been sent away for retraining after their Legatus was been exiled. He was charged with sedition and plotting treason against the senate. Though oddly there were no reports of such a plot from my sources and the senator had a mass of proof." He knew in that moment that this attaché would need training. He couldn't stand it when dumb military men didn't listen to him. As he finished speaking the pair walked out into a busy forum that was slowly filling with people from all directions. Above the forum stood the great marble and gold palace of the Empress of Alquvia.
At The Palace Gates
Avita Custodia stood at the exit of the palace looking over the crowd growing increasingly worried. She watched as two ornately garbed Falshin diplomats moved into the diplomat's area to stand next to familiar female faces of the Alquvian Senate. Something just didn't feel right to her, as if there was something obvious that was being overlooked, however she couldn't put her finger onto what it was. She had the 50 members of the High Guard lined up ready to move out into the forum. She sighed and looked over to the Empress, who was slowly pacing from one side of the room to the other. She was singing scales as she walked, preparing her voice for the performance to come.
Avita stood and waited awkwardly for the Empress to walk close to her. "Em...em....empress, I don't like this. Without Legatus Primus and the 12th Legion on the streets we should be more careful. Regulus wouldn't have let that many foreigners get so close without checking them." She sounded confident in her last statement as if the mentioning of the name gave her greater resolve. "We......we.....sh...should postpone the performance until we can organise more security."
Aurelia did not look amused in the slightest and walked over to her crown to put it on without a word. "I am not missing my performance for some speculation Avita. Get them ready to move, now." Avita looked distressed, but decided not to say any more. The Empress had made up her mind and no amount of complaining was likely to change that.
Avita muttered to herself as she looked out over the forum. "If only my sister could see me now..." Her expression then changed becoming a mask of seriousness She had a job to do and just like her friend Regulus would do. "Unfurl the Empress' banner, let's get this over with." The High Guard all snapped to attention as one of them raised a small pike on which hung a small flag upon which was an image of a black songbird on a background of pure white. Aurelia took her place in the centre of the formation, her crown glimmering in the afternoon sun. There was a raucous cheer as the crowd caught sight of the Empress' banner moving out of the palace towards the forum. Aurelia's attention was only focused on one place however, the wooden stage erected at the end of the path and overlooking the forum. From there she would stand before her people and honour Museo with music and song.
In The Diplomatic Area
Arash was making his way slowly through the crowd of senators and aides that awaited the performance, stopping every now and again to give a fake smile to an important figure. He'd given up on trying introducing the boorish military attaché after the first few senators. The man seemed to only be interested in the fact they were women as if he'd never seen so many before. He just started telling them stories the hardships he'd endured during times of war and in life in general, as if doing so would make them like him more. Arash was the consummate professional that everyone knew; kind, well spoken and always willing to listen. Finally Arash reached the area designated to the Falshin delegation and was perturbed to find it was already filled by someone.
"Excuse me, but this area has been designated for the Falshin delegation. I am afraid you will have to find another space." A masculine voice came back from the person filling the space. "That's a rather harsh way to greet and old friend. Wouldn't you say Arash?" Arash's heart leap in his as the man slowly turned to face him presenting a familiar face which took a few moments to full sink into his mind. "Daršam?? Daršam, is that really you?" The man nodded and smiled, though just as with Hamza the smile never seemed to reach his eyes. "How did you get here? My sources should have told me you were coming." Daršam waved the question off flippantly "It was a last minute arrangement, I had a disagreement with The Emperor about what to do about Alquvia and he sent me here as a punishment. He knows I hate these sorts of festivals." Arash found his friends answer very disconcerting; he had networks of informants and information traffickers everywhere from his home capital to all over the Alquvian Empire. Not a single report of his friend's movements had reached him, not even a speculative mention. Something about that was very wrong and his experience from years of gathering intelligence was telling him it was something important.
As Arash was getting lost in thought a set a trumpets sounded from the palace gates; announcing the Empress of Alquvia’s arrival onto the forum. Daršam put his hand on Arash's shoulder and shook him. "Do not worry, I'm sure my reasons for being here will reveal themselves soon enough. Life is funny like that." Arash smiled and decided he was thinking too much into the matter; why should it matter so much that his friend had managed to surprise him at the festival? He should just take it as a blessing and enjoy the performance. As he looked over to the podium the Empress was taking her place centre stage and the people were looking up at her with eager expectation.
Silence fell across the forum as everyone awaited the beginning of the performance, all wondering what song the Empress would sing for them. The silence was momentary as within moments there were shouts from the entrances to the forum. The crowd was annoyed at the interruptions and made shushing noises to silence the late comers. The late comers were unwilling to be silenced by the crowd and soon more voices were joining them in muffled shouting.
Arash peered curiously across the forum searching for the source of the noise. It was very unusual for Alquvians to misbehave during such important religious festivals; most of them would fear the god's wrath for doing so. His attention was diverted by an unknown man running through the crowd of dignitaries and stopping at Daršam's side. The man whispered something in Daršam's ear, handed him a long object wrapped in cloth and then stepped back to the rear of the crowd. "Arash my friend" Daršam said softly "it is time I showed you what my purpose in being here is." He removed the wrapping from the end of the object and pulled sharply, as his hand raised the object shone in the afternoon sun. The crowd around him reeled back as they realised that Daršam was hold a sword up in the air.
"Attack!! Now!!" As if Daršam's instruction was a cue for their voices a chorus of screams and panicked shouts erupted from the back of the forum. Daršam turned to Arash his eyes burning into the soul of his friend. "The Emperor was too weak to do what needed to be done; now this will be my Empire. Join me my friend; from here we will change the whole world." Daršam's voice was almost gleeful as if he was revelling in being able to tell his plans. Arash froze here was an old friend and trusted companion speaking pure madness. Arash could see it now in his mind; it was the beginnings of a war, a war that would sweep across the lands and plunge millions into fire and death. In his moment of realization others were acting. From the rooftops above him Falshin soldiers were moving and those men threw their spears at the podium, the weapons whistling as they flew through the air to strike down the High Guard now surrounding the Empress. The sight of the soldiers of his people striking down the Imperial Guard of Alquvia cemented in his mind what needed to be done.
Voices called all around them "It's the Falshin!!" "They've taken the gatehouses!!" "Where are the Legion?!" "Help!" In the middle of all the chaos Avita Custodia was regaining control of the podium. "Quickly, surround the Empress. Form Hard Shell! Form Hard Shell!" The High Guard moved fast forming two rows of circle around Aurelia, then as one they raise or held out their shield. From all direction thuds of metal against wood resounded as High Guard formed a protective dome of shields around their ruler. "Empress, we have to get out of here." Aurelia struggled against Avita as she began dragging her towards the palace. "Help the people!" Avita shook her head and kept pulling Aurelia towards the palace gates. "There's too many of them, we have to get away!" The High Guard formation moved down off the podium as the sound of spears thudding down intensified.
Arash stared at Daršam in shock as the air around him seemed to shift and distort; Daršam locked eyes with Arash greylish lines appearing on his face "The world we've known is changing Arash; armies, navies and citadels their time of holding sway is over. I have found a new power....." Daršam walked forward to the edge of the parapet. His skin turned virescent and scaly and his teeth extended into sharp fangs. "Witness the power that will give me this world, the power of the Basilisk!!" As his eyes began to glow sickly yellow, he glared out into the crowd loking eyes on the front row of the citizens. "I am death, the world ender! Now fall!" The light from his eyes shot into the eyes of those who met his gaze there were screams and the people began to fall.
Arash was watching in horror as the civilians fell lifelessly to the ground, blood pouring from their eyes; whilst all around him leapt down from the rooftops to charge at the High Guard. To him it was if the world was moving in slow motion; the wildness in the eyes of his countrymen, the thuds of their foot fall that seemed to shake the stone as they ran. The screams of the innocents in the crowd as they struggled to grasp what was happening as they cradled their fallen loved ones or fled in terror. He saw Daršam fall back to be steadied by Hamza, saying "I have you my Lord."
It was too much for Arash to bear; those civilains had been killed for no reason as it if was mere sport, an offhand massacre to demonstrate the unholy power. He could not let his countrymen become the monsters of old once more, he would save them from themselves even if that meant standing against them. As he braced himself reality seemed to return to normal; as if the decision itself was what had caused the change.
Arash dashed towards the podium and was almost swallowed up by the mass of soliders charging across the forum's edge. The rampart that led around the side of the stage was a steep slope that led up to the level of the podium and as he got closer he realised there was no way through. The mass of soldiers were blocking the way forwards up to the podium and the High Guard formation. As the distance closed he knew that there was no way he could weave through the soldiers, they were too tightly packed and heavily armed. As he got close to the throng of men he took the only route available to him, the wooden railing along the side of the rampart. The railing was shaking as he approached, but there was no other option and he leapt. He managed to make the landing and keep his balance just barely. The soldier began to stumble into each other as they reeled back in shock at the man's sudden appearance in what they considered to be an impossible place. Their moment of shock gave Arash all the opening he needed to safely start running along the railing. Taking but a few moments to reach the top of the rampart Arash threw himself in front of the first rank just meters before they reached the High Guard formation.
The first rank of Falshin soldiers tripped as the unexpected opponent suddenly leapt out in front of them. Arash was already moving pulling on both shoulders of his own cloak causing the fabric to rip down the middle of his back. He quickly spun both arms making the thick fabric wrap around both arms forming a protective covering over them.
"Kill him!!" was the cry of the soldiers as they recovered their poise and continued their arrested charge. The first man to reach Arash lunged with his spear the tip speeding to skewer him through his stomach. Arash slipped to the left and swung his right arm around in an overhand motion, striking the spear mid-shaft. The blow shattered the spear's shaft, destroying the weapon and leaving its owner in a state of shock. As the man passed by his side, Arash slipped his leg behind the man and swung his right arm back up striking the man in the throat. The soldier flipped backwards and bounced across the ground becoming entangled and crushed by the onrush of men that was behind him. The spears flew from further back in the formation, screeching through the air to strike the Alquvian shields. Arash was forced to drop low to let the weapons fly overhead, before running alongside the Alquvian formation. Falshin soldiers lashed out with their weapons, but the strikes were easily deflected by whip quick strikes from Arash.
Taken aback by the sudden assault from an unarmed man, the Falshin assault began to falter. In that moment the High Guard passed through the palace gateway and broke ranks, running pell-mell along the path to the great wooden doors of the building. In the front and centre of the group Aurelia was practically being carried by the two strongest looking women in the High Guard.
Aurelia was able to see the chaos in the forum as he was dragged backwards towards the palace doors. Tears filled her eyes as she watched her people flee. On all sides of they were being chased by soldiers; men, women and children screaming as the Falshin troops tried to cut down anyone how looked vaguely strong. She bit down on her lip as he saw a man use his body to shield his little daughter, only to feel the slice of a Falshin sword through his back. She screamed out in anger and thrashed around trying to get free, to go to her people. The grips of the High Guard were too strong for her
Arash was stood in the palace gateway, spears coming from all angles with only his experience as a martial artist keeping him alive. Rolling the side of his body to dodge a thrust then stepping into the soldier's front to prevent an ally from sending another thrust. His hand were a blur as they landed heavy blow after heavy blow on the soldier's exposed areas before dancing away to his next target. It was the masterful art of a spy, just enough damage to incapacitate whilst minimising the risk to his body. In his mind the mantra his master had taught him was going round and round in his mind "Step in fast, strike hard and move away! Step in fast, strike hard and move away!"
He could hear the voices of the High Guard shouting form behind him, but he could not spare the moment required to look around to them. He was too busy trying to find space to run. "Step in fast, strike hard and move away! Step in fast, strike hard and move away!" A weak thrust to his left gave him the chance to smash a spear, before striking the attacker in the throat and jumping backwards. A woman's voice sounded from he knew not where "Launch spears now!" As soon as his mind processed the words he dropped into the lowest stance he could. The spears flew in and the Falshin soldiers raised their shields to protect from the assault. Arash stayed low and prayed that the Alquvians were not aiming for him too.
He felt two sets of hands grasping his shoulders and was being dragged backwards before he could react. "We're got him." A female voice called "Close the gates!" Arash watched the Falshin stand up lowering their shields just as the heavy gates of the palace slammed shut. A big woman pulled him around and pointed towards the path to the palace itself. "We appreciate the help. Tell the captain the gates are closed, but they won't hold for long. Go!!"
Arash didn't need to be told twice as the gate bounced up with the force of soldier charging up against them. He needed to find a way out fast or it would all be for nothing. A war worse than all that came before; it would begin and the lives of millions would be destroyed, in the face of that monstorous power no army could stand and be victorious. He started running feeling the pressure of the world at his back.
The Throne Room
Avita Custodia was standing in the centre of the throne room planning her next move. She could hear the screams of the civilians outside mixing with the muffled thuds of metal on metal. She was sure that the most secure and easily defendable room in the palace was the throne room. Yet against such overwhelming odds she was not sure that her meagre contingent of High Guard could hold the position. The exterior of the palace was intended to be protected by a legion of troops in the streets. Now there were only a mere handful behind the gate and even less in the throne room.
She could hear the empress impatiently pacing the floor behind her, but she had no time to cater to her ruler's whims at that moment. All her attention was focused on one task: how to keep the empress alive. The moments passed as Avita struggled with herself, the lives of her High Guard versus their duty to the empress. She could see the fear in the eyes of the women around her as they awaited the onslaught from outside. The entire world became stillness for a moment as Avita turned to the great golden throne that stood at the head of the room; in that moment it felt as though she could feel the fear of the entire empire reach around her heart. She moved closer to the throne as if drawn in by its majesty and dragged down by the weight of the feelings. The empress walked into sight once more headed for the throne as well, yet she moved as if there was no weight. Avita felt repulsed; could her leader really not feel this weight? Aurelia turned to her guard captain and their eyes met, no words were said yet the glance was worth a thousand words to Avita. The eyes showed the weight of the feelings bearing down upon her and yet still he stood.
Avita felt her calmness return to her heart, her empress was worth any sacrifice if she had the strength to bear that crushing weight. "You! Foreigner! Come here!" Arash was startled by the sudden summons but he obeyed the guard captain's instructions. "I saw you fight out there. No double agent would put themselves at such risk. I want you to take the empress and flee the city, you must protect her now." Aurelia ran over to interrupt the discussion. "What do you mean you want him to protect me? What about you?" Avita smiled gently and took off her gladius, holding it out for her empress. "If you are to escape your highness, then we must buy you time here. If we do not then all will be lost and the empire will fall." Aurelia made to protest, but for the first time ever was interrupted by Avita. "Not a word! The empire needs you and this is the only way to make happen!" Aurelia was taken aback by the sudden abruptness of her normally shy and retiring High Guard captain. Avita gently pushed the gladius into Aurelia's hands, closing the fingers of her ruler about the scabbard. "Please empress, don't let my girls have died for nothing."
Aurelia held back the tears of regret that were building behind her eyes and nodded silently. The simple movement was all she could trust herself to do, she fear that if she tried to speak her voice would crack and betray her. Arash decided that this was the moment to ask the important question which had been bugging him since they had arrived in the throne room. "How can we escape here?" Avita grabbed Arash's arm and dragged him to the stone protrusion reaching out from the rear of the throne. She pressed a round shape on its side with enough force that whatever was surrounding the circle cracked and gave way. A second later the stone fell straight down making the first step in a narrow spiralling staircase leading deep underground. "It is the last resort of the imperial palace. If the palace can't be held, we must hold the throne room for long enough to allow the empress to escape." Arash saw on her face an unbreakable determination he had only seen once before. He knew better than to try to sway the captain's mind. He stood aside and allowed the empress to take the first step.
As Aurelia began her descent she spared one final look to her High Guard, their armour glistening in the light as they took position for their final stand. She swore to herself that she would not let their sacrifice be in vain; she would find help and restore the empire. She could hear the diplomat's foot falls behind her own as she descended into the dark tunnel. The weight upon her heart felt heavier than it had ever felt before and yet somehow it gave her new strength. She knew her resolve would not waver as she fled towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
|Regulus of Exile|