(If you have not read my prologue or previous chapters, please do so now. And, be warned, this chapter will have graphic elements.)
Tales of Tanjia, Chapter 19 - The Blood of Her Covenant
I immediately rush to my family's side, looking them over and seeing what damage had been done. My brothers, only hours ago they were so full of vim and vigor, but now they rest in a heap, broken in body and spirit. I give in to the tears I had been holding back for so long, weeping openly as I embrace my still living family. "I'm so glad you're safe..."
"Safe for now, Ka'asume," Ma'olu croaked the words out painfully, the bruises around his neck gave me enough of an idea why his voice was hoarse. "We do not know how much longer they will tolerate us, seeing that we're the offspring of such a hated Emperor-" He coughed and groaned, looking dizzy with agony. Koa is bloodier than Ma'olu, not even conscious. My dear baby brothers must have put up such a fight in trying to defend what honor our family has left.
"Yes, I know," I reassure him, brushing a loose strand of hair from his injured cheek. "But let me worry about this now. Rest and heal, Ma'olu, let your sister fight for you now." Kissing his forehead gently, I offer a brief moment of telepathic peace and he allows sleep to take him. After making sure both of my brothers continue breathing, I move to tend to my mother. My brothers were tied with coarse rope, but my mother was bound at her wrists with metallic chains. Her head hung low and her now very short hair covered her face. The splendid robes she wore at moonrise were now in tatters, almost to the point where she could be considered undressed. "Mother, are you awake?"
"Regrettably, child, I am..." She spoke with such venom, looking up at me with a glare. "They may think that they have won, child, but I will fight them to my death." She spat blood out onto the ornate rug and cupped my face in her chained hands. "Do you understand? I will not stop fighting!"
Her hands were bruised and the skin on her wrists had been rubbed raw from the chains. I took them away from my face and placed them back in her lap. "Let me fight this battle, for now, mother. We need to minimize the suffering, not escalate it."
"We need to minimize our suffering. These beasts deserve death for their crimes!"
"They way they thought father deserved death for his?" My chest aches with grief. I want to comfort my family and ease their pain, but their safety needs to come first for now. The commander of the group of soldiers stands tall behind me, blocking the light of the nearby lantern and casting a shadow.
"Your Majesty, it is time for you to retire for the night. You are needed to start the official Reception Feast at dawn." He stamped the blunt end of his spear against the tile to punctuate his statement. In turn, I dried my eyes before meeting his gaze.
"Yes, but my mother and brothers need medical attention. Please send for a healer at once, and I'll retire to my bed as soon as they arrive." My knees don't shake this time as I stand this time, an unexpected reassurance but a welcome one. I stride carefully over to a small drink tray and pour water into the only glass available, a flute for Mi'ilaya, and take a long sip. All this crying and worrying has left me so dehydrated. The glass wasn't even half empty before the guardsman took it from my hands.
"They were not injured so badly that they require a healer, Your Majesty. And, for your information, they earned every wound with their fighting us." Again, he stamped his spear on the floor, but this time he used it to lift Koa's chin so he could more clearly see his face. "This one, especially. It figures that the youngest of the Imperial Family would have the least respect for authority." As the soldier returned his weapon to his side, Koa's chin fell heavily back down to his chest.
I was aflame with rage and my tears flowed down my cheeks like rivers. Such unrighteous cruelty, I cannot stand it. "You claim my Father earned death because of the way he mistreated the people, causing injury to others if it benefited him in any way. How are your actions tonight so different? I am not yet a full adult and my brothers are even younger than I am, yet you beat them terribly. How long has Koa been unconscious? It's not healthy, it could seriously affect him! Ma'olu isn't faring much better, and I can only imagine the humiliating things you might've done to my mother!"
I feel as if I could scream, the anger pulsing through me makes it feel like I could actually fight these men, but I know my strength would fail me. I have been given dominion over the waters of Tanjia and the authority to lead all of her people, yet I am powerless to defy these few men. How can I call myself a Protector when that is precisely what I'm failing to do? "Please," My tone has softened, the strength of my emotions leaving me as I speak. "I only want my family cared for. I'm sure you did all of this to protect your family from the corruption my father spread, is it so hard to understand that I want to protect mine?"
He looked as unforgiving as a statue. Eyes cold and stony, lips pressed into a soft frown. "It is not hard to understand, Your Majesty, but you need to retire for the night. You can hardly conduct the Reception if you are unable to stay awake for it." His vice-like grip wrapped around my bicep once more, and he began to usher me into the bedchamber.
"No!" Prying his fingers from my arm was impossible, I'm not nearly as strong as a trained soldier. Still, I dropped to my knees. The cold tile floor was as painful as the commander's grip, but the sudden drop did loosen his hold, even if it was just a little. "Please just call a healer! Someone, anyone! I know that there are ones nearby. Liri'el is minutes away from here, Kii'jah is even staying in this very building. Please, even if it's only a few minutes, have someone make sure they'll be safe." The tears I'm crying flow hot and strong as if my eyes were leaking magma. "If you hurt them anymore, or, gods forbid, one of them dies I will see that intense retribution falls upon you!"
He yanked me upward so that my face was right next to his, so close I could see the flecks of violet in his fern-colored eyes. "Listen here, young miss," I could smell the pungent aroma of his last meal that hung on his breath and it turned my stomach. "You have no real power, not here not now. You will submit to us, do as we say, or..." Smirking, he jabbed his weapon into Ma'olu's already injured ribs, causing my brother to wake and scream out in pain.
"Stop!" I begged him, struggling against his hold.
"Rest assured, little princess, you will not receive any punishments for your disobedience. They will." One final dig into Ma'olu's side was what it took to satisfy the commander's hateful gesture. "Now, you are going to bed, Your Majesty."
As he dragged me toward the bedroom the heat within me seemed to vanish, replaced with an icy chill I have not known before. This feeling, it's like I'm once again in total control of my mind and body. I managed to get to my feet, despite my awkward positioning. "Not until a healer has seen them." My expression was undoubtedly a fierce glower but he insisted on his way.
"I told you, girl, they don't need one. And if they do, they don't deserve to be looked a-" His words stopped in their tracks for no visible reason. He released my arm from his grip. The movement appeared forced like he was being puppeted, and he looked absolutely terrified. I knew, this time, what was happening. My power indeed reached out to something, latching on with a terrible force, and I finally understood what had happened just off the balcony hours before. My dominion over the waters reaches much further than I imagined, and it's just a little bit frightening.
"And I told you before, to consider that the gods may be on my side in this matter," I raise my chin, looking down on the soldier struggling to understand his predicament. "I think it should be abundantly clear to you now that they are indeed working in my favor." I release my power's hold and he gasps for air like he did before. The other men rush to his side, some of them pointing their weapons at me.
"What did you do to commander Tei'korr?" One of them demanded an answer from me. I did not oblige.
"Just..." Tei'korr spoke, audibly shaken. "Just send for a damned healer, would you? Whatever one she said is staying here." He stood and pointed his weapon at me as well. "The moment the healer gets to this room, force her into the bedchamber. Tie her to the bed itself if need be."
"That won't be necessary, commander Tei'korr. When Kii'jah arrives I will go to bed of my own accord." I refilled the glass with water and offered sips to my conscious brother and mother. "I am more than ready to sleep but I wanted to ensure the safety and well-being of my family first." Ma'olu struggled to stay awake, the toll on his mind and body must be immense. Mother stayed quiet and observant.
"This one fulfilled request does not mean that you are in control now, Your Majesty. Remember, we still hold the power." He stormed off to the door, looking back one final time.
"Only until my anointment, Tei'korr," My eyes meet his as exits the room. "Remember that, would you?"
The door slams shut behind him and the room is filled with eerie silence, broken only by Kii'jah's entrance a quarter hour later.
"There was a call for a healer?" He carried a satchel with his equipment and medicines, the bare minimums that he would have away from an actual healing clinic. He was, I would say, bewildered at the sight of his patients. He scarcely took his eyes off me before tending to my family. "You...?"
"Yes. Please just take care of them, Kii'jah. My brother Koa has not been conscious for some time, and I'm not sure what kind of injuries they've been dealt." I exhale steadily, attempting to calm my still unsettled emotions. "I promised the guards that I'd retire when I was sure you would tend to my mother and brothers." As I stand, I place a hand gently on Kii'jah's tattooed shoulder. "I owe you quite a lot, Kii'jah. I promise I will repay you for your kindness."
"I am only doing what I vowed to do as a healer, Your Majesty." And thus, he returned to his work. Cold and serious, so unlike how he was when I first met him. Though, perhaps, this is how he truly is.
When I enter it, I find that the bedchamber is immense, filled with rich navy and fabrics and cushions. The bed has a sheer silk canopy surrounding it as well as a multitude of sheets and comforters. I remove all of my robes, choosing to sleep in the nude tonight, and take the cheese knife from the platter on the nightstand. It's not much of a weapon, but I need something beyond my power to protect myself with. I'll find something more useful in the morning when it comes.
And morning did come, all too quickly if you ask me. Just before the break of dawn, a team of maidservants quickly prepared me for the day. They dressed me, did my hair, painted my face with an absurd amount of makeup, everything that had been done like it had been at moonrise last night. Except, this time, Rii'ei was nowhere to be seen.
A look in the mirror let me see just how I had been done up for today's festivities. A soft mint gown with minimal beading was draped over my lithe form and my hair was mostly loose, save for a few braided sections, including the halo braids worn in Imperial tradition. Again I wear the two painted moons on my cheeks, and I will wear them every day of the festival until its conclusion at sunrise six days from now.
When the maidservants lead me out of the bedroom I see that my mother and brothers are no longer in this suite with me, though Ledi'ia was reclined on the couch. "Where is my family?" A woman soldier approached me and cleared her throat before answering my question.
"They are safe and well, Your Majesty. We simply moved them to where they could have their own beds. The healer Kii'jah will continue to look after them for the next few days."
"Yes, I see. Thank you. May I ask who you are?" She smiled softly at me and held out a rope of pearls and metallic beads.
"I am Captain Ve'raena, Your Majesty." She bowed curtly and returned to gesturing the beaded rope towards me. "If you would please hold out your hands, Your Majesty." I reluctantly obey and she binds my hands with the pearls, mercifully loose, though, thank the gods. The rope was tied across my back instead of in front, I suppose to better conceal it from the public.
"What is the reason for this, captain?" I test my range of motion with my new bindings. It is limited greatly, but I think I can still manage to feed myself and make minute gestures.
"Commander Tei'korr thought it'd be wise to have you minimally restrained, but, of course, we can't have you clad in irons while you start off the Reception Feast, so we thought of this." She shook her head in disapproval. "Personally, I don't think that it's necessary, but the commander got spooked last night at something and thinks it best to restrain you where we can."
"Luck does favor the prepared, captain. Shall we go? I'm sure the crowds are eager to begin eating the Alignment Festival's famed Reception feast." Before we leave, though, I turn to Ledi'ia. "I will have a report to the Grand Council written tonight, Ledi'ia. Until then, you should enjoy the festival."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." She continues sipping her tea, and I am escorted to yet another balcony that overlooks Taj'erii's city square. I'm so tired of balconies, but, I do what I must and address the people. I give a short speech about the blessed union of Ki'konia and I'Ono, how they want us to celebrate with them, and the best way to start any celebration is a feast. The crowd cheers and begins to devour the spread of delicious food set out before them.
I am smiling and waving dutifully at the people when my stomach growls distastefully loud. I feel my face flush a violet color and I lean toward the captain at my side. "Ve'raena, may I participate in the feast now, as well? I haven't eaten since dinner last night, and I'm growing rather hungry."
She smiles kindly and leads me off into a dining hall where a long table is set with an exquisite meal. A moment of observation, however, reveals that this meal is for me and me alone. The soldiers place me in my chair and retreat to guard the exits and windows while I partake in my lonely breakfast. I can still see out of one of the windows, and from here I can see the throng of happy people, the confetti, and streamers floating through the air. A lovely glimpse at the beginning of our splendid festival.
The people all seem genuinely happy and I would never want to take this moment of joy away from them. If an Empress must shine for her people, she should be as a lantern that shines to illuminate the path ahead for those she is leading. I am a servant to my people, and I intend to protect them both as their Empress and as a Protector of Tanjia. Such is my birthright, such is my duty.