The funeral rites for Justinian and the rest of Rouya’s family were held in public in the atrium of the palace with the gates open. Anyone was free to attend but Rouya knew they all had their own losses to cope with and mourn. She couldn’t expect everyone to be touched in the same way she was.
Rouya dressed in long black robes for the funeral and stood at the front of the proceedings along with the High Priest of Ahmun.
Four bodies each laid on a separate pyre in front of Rouya while the priest recited incantations to help guide them into the afterlife.
“My condolences,” Lord Irul said with a stiff bow. He kept from meeting her eyes. “It’s a great loss for all of us but we’re glad to see you in good health and wish you longevity.”
Rouya gave a polite nod to the lord and turned her attention to the next noble in line. His wife stepped forward and offered her a bouquet of flowers she happily accepted.
“Justinian was a lifelong friend and ally. We’ll do everything in our power to support you, Your Highness. Such acts of barbarism can not go unanswered.”
“Thank you for your support but today is not about me,” Rouya said. She held her hand out to her family. “It’s about them and the relationships shared. Justice will arrive when we have cleared our eyes of the past and focus on the future.”
Rouya went through similar motions with each member of the upper class arriving but as the lines drew to a close, she couldn’t help but realize how many were absent. She knew how short the notice was for everyone but these were people serving her father. Many owed their position or lives to him and yet so many stayed clear of his final journey.
A foreshadow of the greater conflict at stake. One of the many issues resting on her shoulders. The question the people loyal and those in doubt thought, how would she overcome it. Nobody would want to stay on a sinking ship. Her first task would therefore be to let everyone know she was in command and the ship would not sink.
Rouya took her position as the daughter of the deceased, giving the High Priest the field to address those gathered.
“The Lord Ahmun and family Fano thank you all for gathering and bearing witness to this family’s journey,” the priest said, raising his voice for those by the door to hear. Thick clouds blocked the sky and shaded the attended. “I see the loss on many faces before me but let me assure you that they are very much with us. Padishah Justinian led our people to victory in the darkest of hours and united the universe under a common banner. With this great achievement, he will continue to look after and guide us while he takes on new planes of existence. Lord Ahmun is the light of our life but where there is light, there is shadow and Justinian will be there to fight the shadow.
It lays with us, as followers of Ahmun, as children and allies of Justinian to uphold the unity. Shahzadi Rouya, will you be this person?”
Rouya raised her chin. “I am the moon of the night, the guide in the darkness. By the Light of Ahmun and the Pillars of Eternity, I will lead us to greater heights. A home for all to live without fear.”
“All rule by the will of Ahmun. Today we celebrate Justinian’s great undertaking for tomorrow will test your words to the flame,” the High Priest said. A servant passed him Justinian’s sword, which the priest placed at the dead king’s side.
Justinian wore his full suit of armor, with his helmet in his hand. It reminded Rouya of how he used to look before setting out on a campaign but she knew he’d never be returning from this trip. She’d never get to speak with him again and tell him everything she’d meant to say but refrained from. All those times they were in earshot of another but she couldn’t bear to look at him waste his days away.
Rouya gave up on him years ago. The man the High Priest spoke of was long gone and she wondered if she could have done or said anything which would have led to a different outcome. One in which she could still be with her family, despite their many flaws.
The dignitaries and emissaries from throughout the empire settled in at a snail’s pace and even after an hour of waiting, over half the seats remained vacant. Rouya should have expected as much from the warlords on the Frontier but most of the worlds in the Outer Realm decided not to show.
Only the officials from the interior worlds showed up fully, most of which were elder men loyal to her father or grandfather at some point. She’d have to rely on their continued support in keeping order while she retook the relics stolen from her.
Evelyn took form beside her and bowed her head. “He’s not coming.”
“Not coming,” Rouya repeated, tapping her foot. “I asked Markus to join me for the first meeting and he leaves me.”
“I can press the matter and bring him.”
Rouya raised her hand. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll speak a word with him once this is over. For now, I’ll have to work on containing the damage and securing our future.”
“I believe in you. You’re a good person and they will see it too.”
“Excuse me, Your Highness,” came a striking voice from underneath the archway. Strands of blond hair slick with sweat hung in front of his eyes. He had his helmet tucked under his arm and waited for her to spare him some attention. Evelyn was much more defensive and sized him up as she moved ahead of Rouya.
“And you are?”
“Captain Helodion of Fort Larcin.” He removed a slip of paper from his glove and held it out to her. “A message for you, Your Highness. I apologize for not going through the proper channels but it required a measure of urgency and confidentiality.”
Rouya cocked a brow and unfolded the paper. She didn’t have time for games and secret messages but the fact that he came all the way just to deliver a message intrigued her. Her heart fluttered at the words and she glanced up to meet his eyes. “They got away? I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear they’re all right. When are they coming back?”
“Not at all. Lady Calisma decided to leave and took the child with her. We don’t know which world she went to.” Captain Helodion rubbed the back of his head. “She also wanted me to wish you a speedy recovery and hopes to see you on your feet again soon.”
“A speedy recovery…” Rouya began, laying her hand to her thigh as her thoughts returned to her ankle. “How thoughtful of her. Well, she’ll be welcome here any time if she changes her mind. You’re free to take a rest and regain your strength. Be my guest for the day.”
“Too kind, Your Highness. I await any further orders you have before returning to the fort.” Helodion took a curt bow and gave Evelyn a nod before he stepped away.
Rouya marveled his grace but shifted her attention back to the Great Hall and the matters at hand. Silence swept through the hall as she entered and marched to the head of the long table. She went to sit at her usual spot but stopped herself in the last moment, hand resting on the back of the chair. It was no longer her place to sit beside her father but in the shadow of his massive portrait ordaining the wall. The empire needed her to fill his seat and let everyone know she was in control and would be able to restore order.
Evelyn moved on ahead to pull back her father’s chair and help her get seated in front of some twenty officials.
“It’s good to see familiar faces here,” Rouya began. “Yesterday marks a tragedy which we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. We’ve all lost much and are filled with grief, hatred or can’t find the words to describe what’s going on inside of us. You don’t have to explain yourselves to me. Being here in this time of need is enough. I will do everything in my power to bring justice to those responsible. I’m counting on your services for which my father held you all in such high regard.”
A governor from one of the interior worlds rose. She’d seen Nicon plenty of times and at his high age was still loyal to her family. “My sincerest condolences, Your Highness. Unfortunately, this does bring back dangerous times for us all. I don’t wish to be too intrusive but how many of the relics do you currently possess?”
“Just the one?”
Rouya nodded, holding her hand out to Evelyn. “She’ll be more than capable in dealing with any situation we may come across. I’ve also trusted Satrap Markus with Mitra to help locate the remaining relics.”
“A single relic leaves the empire in a precarious situation.” Nicon pressed his lips together, fumbling with his hands as he waited for some assurance from her. Better to hear it from them directly than have them work against her.
“We just spent twelve years campaigning for Justinian,” Governor Lans said before looking around the table. “My people will be difficult to convince to sacrifice their loved ones for another war.”
“Nobody’s said anything about war,” Nicon said.
“Don’t blind yourself. The war’s already begun and as we speak villages all across the galaxy are in turmoil.”
Rouya signaled for silence. “I understand what both of you are saying but arguing will benefit no one. I’m very much aware of my father’s tactics in the Magi Wars but can guarantee you all that I will not follow the same course of action.”
Lans coughed a laugh but quickly held a fist to his lips when the other members shot him disapproving glares.
“I’ve crafted a plan that will allow me to honorably restore control over several relics and gain a clear advantage over the rebels.”
“We’re going to challenge each of the summoners individually to a duel,” Evelyn said.
“As if any of them would be foolhardy enough to gamble their Battle Maiden away.”
“While my intentions are to minimize the loss of life, I’m quite certain they will accept my offer,” Rouya said. “Who would they be to decline the power of two Battle Maidens? It would put them in a position of power over the others. The ego that propelled them to murder my father will be their undoing.”
A moment of chatter broke out amongst the dignitaries. They all wished to have secure homes, far away from any battles with the potential to destroy entire cities. She let it carry on and help ease the tension inside them before wishing to continue.
“Silence,” Evelyn said, kicking her heels together.
Nicon rose once more, cocking his head to the side while he tapped his fingers on the surface of the table. “I don’t wish to be naysayer amongst us—“
“Then don’t,” Evelyn said but Rouya signaled her to calm down and let him speak his mind.
“You’ve never taken part in battle before and your skills as a summoner haven’t been tested before. What faith do you have in succeeding and not just giving our enemies another Maiden?”
“You’re free to test my abilities at any time but I can’t guarantee you’ll be unscathed by the demonstration. Out of all the rebels, Bijan is the most skilled summoner. I’m not going to walk into his court first thing tomorrow and challenge him. I’ll take out his allies one by one until he’s just as alone as the day he sent his goons to kill me.”
Next time on Battle Maidens …
Episode 9 – A Word