“My dear, I thought the worst when I saw the bodies outside.” The physician crossed the room, pausing as he noted Markus and Evelyn standing between him and the princess.
“I’d hardly require your services if I were dead, now would I?” Rouya sat up in her chair and planted her feet on the table still ridden with arrows.
“Lucky to be alive,” he said going down on a knee as he inspected her ankles. He snapped the bone in place, tearing a scream out of Rouya before she slumped her head back and panted. “Thought that might hurt.”
“Then why didn’t you warn me?”
“Wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said and opened his bag. “I’ll need to apply a binding and then infuse some magic to help accelerate the healing process. You’ll be able to walk again soon but I need to warn you not to overextend yourself and definitely no running.”
“You make it sound so easy after what just happened.”
“No, I’m saying this because it’s hard. What’s important is that you stay alive.”
Markus nodded and added, “Running out there now will only get you killed for nothing. You’ll probably even be doing the separatists a favor.”
Rouya lowered her face, balling her hands to vent off the steam building inside of her. “How dare you validate their claims by referring to them as separatists? You expect me to just sit here and let them get away with attacking my family. I want the traitors captured for interrogation. They are all going to pay for what they did.”
The physician raised his hands, trying to calm Rouya. Markus went to the window and gazed across the courtyard. He’d sent Mitra out to scout the area for any remaining enemies.
“I have a hideout in the mountains of my satrapy. You’ll be safe there and can fully recover while I rescue my wife.”
“I understand your concern, but this is something I have to do. I can’t abandon the people of Aequilla. They need to know that I am unwilling to backdown and will continue to protect them from the people that wish to tear the universe apart. We’ll find a way to get Adelaxia back together.”
Shahzadi Rouya led Markus through the corridors littered with paperwork, clothing and gemstones inside the palace. She recalled her mother mentioning an appointment they had to celebrate the birth of her half-brother. She’d despised the affair but father insisted on creating a new family portrait and to include the bastard.
“You know who’s responsible for this,” Rouya asked as they cut around a corner and entered the waiting room in the section of the palace that the Emperor slept in. He never slept in the same room twice in a row but settled into whichever room he found after wasting away for the night.
“I do,” Markus said in a low voice she couldn’t help but hear the sorrow in his tone. “Kalim is orchestrating the affair, and he’s being supported by the former Shah. Most of his allies belonged to the lower caste of nobility and the military. I assume he gave most of them promises to rise through the ranks when this is over with.”
Rouya paused as she passed by the tables still set up with drinks and snacks. Her younger brother was particularly fond of cookies shaped after creatures from the Shadow Realm. He may have only been seven, but he knew he wanted to become a summoner and step in father’s footsteps.
The room was empty with the painting still resting on the easel. Rouya moved in closer, searching for signs of where they might have gone. The guard post had been overrun and the nearest garrison was Fort Larcin located outside the city.
Evelyn and Markus followed her inside, keeping a watchful eye on all points of entry as they moved. Mitra startled Rouya as she took form beside the easel and pointed to the painting.
The unfinished painting depicted her mother sitting in the middle on the couch in front of her with her hands on her lap. Her brother Bartel and sister Lilya each rested their heads against her shoulder from either side. It wasn’t until she looked closer at the image did she recognize the oddity. What she assumed to be a smear on the canvas was located across the throats of all her family members. Red.
Rouya turned away, feeling the blood drain from her face and a chill sweep over her as she glanced at the sofa.
“What’s the matter?” Markus asked as he approached her.
A dust cover hung over the sofa but three pairs of shoes were still visible beneath it. Markus lifted the cover and gasped at the sight of the bodies. They were all sitting in the exact position of the painting with blood coating their shirts. Lilya’s lips were parted ever so slightly and appeared as if she might whisper at any moment.
Rouya stumbled back, pressing a hand to her mouth as she held in her breath. Emotions welled up underneath her skin and threatened to crush her under a wave of which her only option to escape was by moving into action. She fled to the nearest door and into the corridor.
Evelyn appeared in front of her and Rouya ran right into her embrace, shedding the tears she’d been holding back all day.
“I’m alone. They’re gone and I haven’t been able to help anyone.”
Evelyn brushed her hair back and held her chin up to look at her. “You’re not alone. I’ll keep you safe. Wherever you go, I’ll be there with you for the entire way. I want you to be my master.”
Rouya marveled at how certain Evelyn sounded. She wanted to trust and give herself fully to her. In the darkness engulfing her, a simple Battle Maiden proved to be her only light of hope.
With the public announcement ended, Kalim turned his attention to politics. As much as he wanted to be in complete control of everything, he still relied upon others to help carry the burden.
The League of Independent Worlds was his solution to the empire. They could have their liberty while also holding a united front against imperial forces. Once the empire was pushed aside, they could mop up the rest of the worlds.
“Come take a seat and be my guests,” Kalim said to the other members. He sat opposite Lord Bijan with Cian sitting beside him.
As servants went to work distributing the food and filling up drinks, Lord Telium turned to Kalim.
“Farid and Parsa haven’t responded to my messages. I’m beginning to worry about their well-being.” Telium folded his hands and looked to the other members. “This pact you’ve made with Markus is on bad terms. I can’t imagine any man letting another take away his wife. He’ll come for us.”
“Bad terms?” Kalim repeated. “I let him keep Mitra, by the Pillars. He should be happy we let him live after he turned against us. We’ll give him some time to cool his mind and come to terms. It’s better to have him on our side than against us. Adelaxia is merely a guarantee he doesn’t begin to second-guess his decision and I’ll return her to him once the transition is completed.”
“Very well, but I don’t approve with any of these methods. They are without honor.”
Kalim began slicing an apple into pieces. “I understand your concern but look how far it has gotten us. We hold all the power in the universe and even if Markus should dare raise a hand against us once more, we will finish him off with ease.”
“We should have finished him off on Aequilla,” Lord Bijan said in a firm voice. As a military commander in the Magi Wars, he had an air of authority to him and valuable insights Kalim intended to use in their second phase of operations. “Allowing him to live will grant him time to rally his forces and position himself as a victim. He has not pledged himself to the league.”
“The empire has been mortally wounded. If he decides to stake his life to the old system, he’ll go down with it,” Kalim said. “We are fighting for freedom and the best interests of our people. Markus Relius is the traitor who killed his emperor. The Inner Realm will never allow themselves to be ruled by one of us, which is why it’s better to have Markus rule as our ally. One we can control.”
“I trust you,” Javed said, leaning forward with an eager expression crossing his lips. “The question is, what are we going to do with all the worlds we have just liberated?”
“Spread the good word, of course,” Kalim said. He turned to Cian and told him to retrieve this material from the study. “There are plenty of records dating back before the Shah’s conquest. They reveal an entirely new perspective on the universe and the boundaries of the olden days. We should take these worlds back into our care and rule them as guardians for the time being. A fair share between all of us present.”
Next time on Battle Maidens …
Episode 6 – A Fair Maiden