Helodion leaned over the parapet and gazed over to the city of Kyrarae in the distance.
A bustling city just out of reach and a position in the military going nowhere. Kyrarae was the seat of the empire on Aequilla and home to hundreds of thousands of people. Fort Larcin used to be part of the city’s outer defense ring but armies became obsolete in the wake of Battle Maidens.
“Do you think we’ll see any women today?” Kaspar asked as he sharpened his sword for the fifth time in a week. “I mean, we’re allowed to have families but how are we supposed to create one if we never happen upon women in the first place?”
Captain Helodion gave him a sidelong glare. “Use your imagination. I don’t think there’s a woman out there who’d take you even if you had all the time in the world.”
Kaspar frowned and sheathed his sword. They knew each other for the past three years since being stationed at Fort Larcin along with a hundred other men. Kaspar hadn’t been a part of the Magi War and even Helodion only joined at the end of it. By then his job became that of a peacekeeper in the newly conquered territories. For his service in the Outer Realm they awarded him the position of Commander and sent to Fort Larcin. Kaspar picked up the spyglass and examined the royal road leading out of the capitol and passed the numerous farms. The temple of Ahmun lay by the riverside whose priests worshipped the divine fire Ahmun.
Helodion didn’t believe in such nonsense even if the Maidens were real, higher beings were a step too far for him. “Have Xeras ring the bell and prepare for lunch. Let the men stuff their bellies and then we’ll head out for a forced march up the mountains.”
“What do you know, I’m in luck. There’s a woman heading right our way.”
“She’s probably just heading to the temple,” Helodion said with a roll of his eyes and straightened out his uniform. They never received visitors from anyone else but the farmers bringing them their weekly supplies but they weren’t due for another two days.
“Nope, definitely coming to us but I’ll leave her to you,” Kaspar said with a grin. He set the looking glass aside and moved to the railing overlooking the inner court where the battalion was busy training and a few stable boys grooming the horses. He gave Xeras the signal followed by the ringing of the bell.
Helodion watched the woman approach with a sense of unease. Today would differ from any other day, if only because a woman of class came out to the fort.
“Take care of lunch. I’ll see what our visitor needs of us,” Helodion said and made his way down the flight of stairs before crossing over to the wooden gate. A huge plank sealed the gate with a small door built into the right side which he was able to open without assistance.
“Captain Helodion,” the woman said, already standing right in front of him. “I’m sorry to be disturbing you and your men but you’ll all be needed at the Imperial Palace.”
She brushed by him and held a small child, perhaps even a newborn wrapped in a blanket to her chest. He glanced down at her feet and the pair of shoes he wouldn’t be able to afford in a lifetime of service but looked awfully uncomfortable to be walking the eight miles between the palace and the fort.
“Excuse me, but how is it you know who I am?”
“I’m afraid there’s not a lot of time to explain. Suffice to say, I am Lady Calisma and the Emperor and his family are at great risk. A group of traitors have snuck inside the palace and vow to dismantle the empire.”
* * *
“Ugh, it’s too tight. It won’t fit!”
Rouya winced as she tried to squeeze her lithe body into an even smaller dress. She had it made by a Pashwa tailor known for his more eccentric designs. A single strip of silk fell from her shoulder to encompass her breasts and then wound down her left side and waist before widening and covering her intimate area. It left little to the imagination but accentuated her blessings.
Evelyn raised an eyebrow as she examined the princess. The Maiden opted for a more traditional dress befitting those on Aequilla. “You could just slip on the dress you wore at your birthday.”
“Easy for you to say. You just shift into whatever you like and it fits perfectly.” Rouya turned to look in the mirror and attempted to reach for the strap again. “Besides, I already wore that dress. You can’t go to a celebration with the same outfit twice, that’s a crime against fashion.”
“As you say, princess. By this rate, I’m sure you’ll manage to avoid most of it anyway.”
Rouya scowled, puffing her cheeks as she gave up and crossed her arms. “Don’t just sit there, be useful for once and help me fasten the lock.”
Evelyn rose from the bed and crossed the room. Rouya watched her set to work and bit her lip as she pulled back on the strap and fastened it tight. Several men already commented on Rouya’s long legs but Evelyn still loomed a few inches higher. She met Evelyn’s gaze in the mirror and held her breath in to where all she could hear was the thumping of her heart.
“We-we better get going now. I’m sure they’re already waiting for us.”
“Are you all right, princess?”
“It’s nothing, I just thought, uhm, maybe it might be a bit too revealing after all.”
Evelyn stepped back and took in the princess. Heat flushed into Rouya’s cheeks as she fought to restrain her emotions. Evelyn only made matters worse by smiling. “You look beautiful.”
“I know that.” Rouya noticed Evelyn’s fingers trailing along her arm and let out a gasp. It was technically forbidden for anyone, even a Maiden to touch a member of the royal family.
“You seem a little distressed.”
“No, it’s fine.” Rouya shook her head and marched towards the door with her chin raised high. “I’ll let you know that I plan on holding you to your word. These celebrations are more taxing than they are refreshing.”
“Then I’ll do my best to keep you occupied.” Evelyn joined her and they went out into the corridor together.
“You know how to dance? I find it hard to imagine a Battle Maiden performing such an art.”
They passed by paintings of family members she knew little to nothing about. Most had been simple lords ruling over Aequilla until her father and Markus expanded to other worlds. Of course Justinian did his best at polishing the image and making their ancestry greater than it was. The corridors were bare of people and despite most of the servants being occupied with the celebration, Rouya noticed a complete lack of guards. On any given day there’d be at least a guard at every door to hold it open for her and prevent unauthorized people from entering the wrong wing of the palace.
“Something’s not right,” Rouya said as she glimpsed the vacant post outside the Great Hall. She immediately regretted having put so much effort into looking breathtaking when she could have been wearing her training attire. She moved to a window and gazed out over the courtyard leading to the palace gates. Everything outside appeared in the ordinary with guards on patrol and the gates closed.
“Go back to your chambers and lock the door,” Evelyn said. Within the blink of an eye she shifted into her armor and ventured on ahead while Rouya took a few cautious steps back.
At that moment dozens of armored men accompanied by a handful of magi marched down the halls and burst through the doors of the Great Hall. It took Rouya a moment to place them. They weren’t the Imperial Guard but guard forces belonging to an unmarked satrapy. Three of the stragglers took position outside the door when they noticed the two women. Evelyn pulled her glaive from the air and charged forward. The soldiers unsheathed their swords and struck in unison, their blades tearing through Evelyn.
Rouya stood perplexed while her body trembled. She couldn’t comprehend what she just witnessed. Battle Maidens were the strongest warriors to ever exist but Evelyn had been defeated with a single blow. It was only as the Maiden began to dissolve into smoke did she realize that they hadn’t actually hit her but through her fading form.
The princess stumbled back, bracing herself against the stone walls as she attempted to find her balance and raced down the corridor. Fear spurred her on with blows as sharp as a whip. The quick sound of boots followed her every turn of the way. She darted into her room and locked the door behind her, pressing her back up against the door. Thumps shook the frame, and she knew the hinges wouldn’t keep them out forever. Rouya dragged a nightstand to block the doorway and let her dress fall to her ankles. She briskly redressed into her training outfit but she never kept her scythe stored in her chambers. It would be stored in the armory with everything else.
The lock snapped free, and the door opened a crack with a man’s face peering inside. Rouya rushed forward, slamming the door shut on him with a resounding crunch of his nose. The only way out of her room was through the window. The only issue with her being located on the second floor, making it more difficult for intruders, or as her father believed for men, to sneak into and for her to escape. She squeezed herself through the small space and held on to the ledge outside.
Rough winds battered against her but she held herself steady. A small garden pool rested a few yards away from the palace. She used to refer to it as her little moat. The guards broke through with a crash and made their way after her. Arms shot out of the window, latching on to her legs and trying to drag her back inside. Letting herself get captured would resign herself to a fate worse than death.
Shahzadi Rouya leaped from the ledge and flailed as she fell. Her hair fluttered in her face and she closed her eyes to keep herself from bearing witness to her own demise. She plunged into the depths with her feet striking the bottom all too soon and the snap at her ankles accompanying it. She screamed at the top of her lungs and tentatively probed her foot, only to have the pain flare back up.
The men chasing her peered out of the window but refrained from pulling off the same stunt she did when they spotted the patrolling guards notice her.
“Shahzadi,” one of the men called out as he recognized her. All three of the guards stood around her as she crawled out of the pool. They reached out but pulled away before helping her in any way and instead began to debate amongst each other on etiquette.
Once she was out of the water, she crumbled up against the facade and looked to the senior of the three men. “Don’t just stand there, help me up. There’s a coup in progress.”
“A coup, Your Highness?”
“Time is essential and things would go a lot quicker if you don’t question me on every matter. There is a coup. I need you to set the Guard in alarm and bring them to the palace immediately.” Rouya winced, gritting her teeth to keep the pain at bay. “Bring me to a physician at once. They aren’t going to get me to roll over and die that quickly.”
“At once, Your Highness.” The guard passed on orders to inform his senior of the situation while he and the third remained with Rouya and helped support her across the palace grounds. They entered a guard post where two of the guards controlling the gate jumped out of their seats in surprise at seeing the princess.
“Lock the gates. I don’t want any of these traitors coming out of here,” Rouya said, collapsing into a chair. She sighed, easing the pressure off her pulsing feet. “Where the Pillars is the physician?”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon, my la—“ The Captain of the Imperial Guard was cut short by an arrowhead protruding from his neck.
Next time on Battle Maidens …
Episode 4 – Power of a Leader