Elizabeth M. Holmes accepted to help me with the translation of this story in English, and I am so, SO grateful to her! Eli, you deserve the world for this!
Here I am with a little character study about our favourite little goth (happy birthday, on the 16th June, by the way) and her handsome morally-grey father (yes I am team Viren). They are quite challenging to determine as characters, so I hope I didn't mess up ... Translated from French with the help of Elizabeth M. Holmes!
This is only the first chapter, so keep yourselves informed!
Fellow humans, human fellows, we hope you'll enjoy it!
Claudia does not dare to move.
All the ingredients of the spell are there, right there. In fact, she only needs the Primal Stone, resting smooth, cold and heavy in her hand. She knows the formula, and the rune to draw by heart. She cast it on spiders, cockroaches, rats and mice for years.
It suffices that she utters the draconic word and traces the rune in the void to put an end to this hell.
Your Majesties, I would have accompanied you with pleasure to Banther Lodge, but Claudia an intense flu. She might relapse if she is exposed to the frost of the mountains so soon. It would be more reasonable for me to stay with her at the castle for this year, at least until she recovered fully, say a short week. Soren will leave with you, and we will join you later, just in time for your birthdays.
Her father did not lie. She had been sick for two weeks. The stuffy nose, the double ear infection, the coughing, the migraine, the fever. Even today, she's not sure she fully recovered.
But she knows very well that it is not because of illness or contagion that her father has prevented her from leaving his office for six hours now.
And that it is not a disease that hurts her so badly.
The kitten turns around her, rubs her hand, complains and scratches at the door, comes back to her to ask for a caress. And then it whines, shaking its paw as it rolls the Primal Storm Stone over the dark red pavement. It sticks its white hairs on her black embroidered dress and loves purring all against her as her hand scratches its ears, its throat. White hair, blue eyes. At first glance, it is barely two months old and seems deaf. Viren chose it on purpose, of course - moreover, they are calm and affectionate animals that would not risk sharpening their claws on the Durennian rug or the wrought mahogany door. And even if she tries to hide it, it is evident that she has already become too attached to the animal - perhaps she has already given it a name …
Yet, this is not the first time she has to deal with a situation like this. As an apprentice dark mage, she has already sublimated dozens of Xadian creatures for her spells, and beasts devoid of any Arcanum.
But with this kitten, she can not do it.
She just can not do it.
At first, Claudia had, as usual, tried to believe it a joke. Come on, Dad, you are kidding. It's a gift, is it? But it's Soren's birthday, not mine, it's him that you should have offered this tiny little cutie, and then you know how he likes cats. Okay, he prefers dogs. But a cat is the perfect gift for an eleven-year-old child. Even deaf. And look at this sweet little lad... How can we even want to pull at his tail?
"You already did a lot worse with rats."
"Yes, but rats are disgusting. It doesn't really matter."
"So, a rat has less right to live than a kitten?"
Father had the tone he used when the situation was serious. In the minister's study located on the top floor of his tower, the rumour of the central court reaches them from the traceried windows. But in those winter days, it is all very silent. In the absence of the royal family and the nobles returned to their domains, the castle is almost deserted. Grooms, cooks, guards, servants, stewards: all of them followed their masters, except for the old librarian haunting the shelves, some guards, a steward, a cook and a servant. The fire crackles in the stone fireplace, without any wood fueling it. In the absence of Harrow and Sarai, Viren took the opportunity to keep the castle warm by dark magic - it is better to spare the single servant remaining. That way he won't have to carry massive logs all over the courtyard and five floors with steep stairs for two people only. Their Majesties left just enough staff for the minister and his sick daughter ... to say that the castle is a tomb.
But when Viren spoke like that, slower and a little deeper, it was as if he were the spectre of the tomb beginning to numb the mind, bewitching the spirit like a soul-feng snake.
Besides, he puts his hand on her shoulder. It weighs, it squeezes a little. He does it all the time to give orders or important advice, or when the situation is serious. Even the king's clothes bear the mark - the fabric is a little faded here. That's logical since Father is the appointed advisor to the king.
Claudia opened her mouth and closed it with a frown.
"Do you think these rats were responsible for being rats, that they deserved death just to be born rats?"
"Er ... "
She wanted to roll her eyes. It sounded like King Harrow talking about Elves. But she did not find anything to answer, as expected.
Of course, Viren knows that it will result in healthy guilt...
"But Claudia must remember," says Harrow's voice somewhere in Viren's memories, "that the lives she will take are never worthless."
"Well, your Grace," replied Viren, somewhat wearily. "You know how it works. Thanks to dark magic, to the casual sacrifice of one living being, we save hundreds of people every day."
"Dark magic certainly maintains a balance, but it's a scale covered with blood, it's unfair, and you know it perfectly!"
"A fortiori when it weighs in the mysteries of power, just like yourself, "Your High Majesty"! "
Harrow grimaces. Here, the use of the title is not honorary, and it is confident of his shot that Viren continues his sentence:
"Those who carry millions of lives on the shoulders, millions of destinies, individuals, people, breaths …"
"It is absolutely not the same th -"
"... all those lives that may vanish at the slightest wrong move. "
In other circumstances, Viren would never have allowed himself to cut off the word of his king.
But there, they were alone in the palace's gardens, without a courtier in front of whom to abide by any protocol, except the white rose bushes, the gravel creaking under their court boots, the butterflies and the twilight showering them in gold and blood light. The perfume of the roses dilated nostrils, and, not the gravity of the situation; everything breathed calmness. Harrow was silent, contenting himself with putting his thumbs in his eyes with a sigh of dismay, tired in advance. They had already had this discussion dozens of times. Viren pushed his advantage in a calm, understanding voice:
"As a king, you tried to avoid bloodshed as much as possible, you wanted to protect your people, as every king should do, and I assisted you in this task as best I could, using my spells. But you too have led men and women to death."
"I ended the war against Evenere. I am the one who ended this conflict that lasted for six years!"
"Admittedly, your Grace ... but to end this war, even with my spells, you had to sacrifice hundreds of soldiers. Tell me how battlefield mass graves are better than a few punctual sacrifices of dark magic. And please, do not talk to me about cheating, honour, shortcut or easy victory."
"And you, dare to say to me that all those whom you have killed for your evil spells represent nothing to you!"
This comeback stopped Viren in his tracks.
When one sublimates a soul for a spell allowing to save ten, even if one is persuaded to have opted for the best solution, to have done what was right, to have done the right thing... The weight on the conscience always remains, this shadow over the acts, this discomfort with every second passed before a mirror, that purulent wound that oozes with guilt... The dark mages' self-hatred, which they choose to hide and stifle in the depths of their pragmatic consciousness so as not to sink into madness.
Because his adviser was still silent, Harrow resumes, with the same worried look that he displays when he speaks of his bastard Callum:
"Viren ... I do not mean to interfere with anything that does not concern me. The education of your children is your business, more than ever now that Cornelia... don't look at me like that every time I mention her name. But you understand that I worry about Claudia losing all respect for human life."
"With all due respect, Harrow, I very much doubt it. She only uses insects and rats to …"
"Oh, do not play the altar boy with me, Viren. You sleep at mass, and you roll your eyes as soon as High Prelate Opelie opens her mouth to talk about charity... although I admit that her formalism is sometimes somewhat stifling."
They exchanged a brief complicit smile, but the king resumed, attacked, worried, ruthless, and Viren's awkward parries struggled to hold the defence as they continued to survey the rose garden.
"All the castle knows when your daughter comes out of dissecting a poor animal since she sings loudly in all the corridors without even washing her hands or having changed her clothes. Admit that an eight-year-old child who hums in this state, the legs and the dress covered with blood, does not forebode anything particularly happy for the future …"
"Nine years old, your Grace. And it only happened twice …"
Harrow glances at him.
"All right," admits Viren with a grin. "A dozen of times."
They resume their walking, and Harrow returns to his speech, their boots are creaking:
"Even her brother Soren maintains a distance, even a little one. To scare the one who jumped from the cliffs of Castel Nereus at the age of seven, believe me, you really have to want it. But what is absolutely horrifying is that Claudia does not even do it on purpose! »
Viren refrains from roll his eyes. It was Claudia who had informed him at the time. Viren had reprimanded the fool as he deserved after such a stupidity - Soren probably still remembers it today. But the problem was, it was that Queen Sarai had insisted that Claudia also receive punishment for denouncing her brother. "Who can trust this poor boy if he can't even trust his sister?" she had protested. "And congratulations on the values of honour and honesty you instil in your little darling! She will, no doubt, be a most reliable Prime Minister, known for her proverbial righteousness." Sarai herself had solid links with her younger sister, Colonel Amaya, but great gods, why the devil would she be passionate about the fate of the poor boy and the little darling? Viren, seeing that giving her his share of jelly tart for three weeks would not be enough to shake Sarai's convictions, had nodded faintly to the extravagant request: Claudia had thus copied a whole chapter of the Treaty of Popularization on the foundations Elven magic.
Her favourite book of the moment, chosen of course with full knowledge of the facts.
"The cliffs were nearly forty meters high, your Grace," he replies, grimly. "Soren could have killed himself."
"Oh, do not tell me that your wrath did not melt when he said to justify himself that he wanted to be as brave as you."
"It was not courage; it was downright stupidity".
The persistent belief of confusing the two has always exasperated him:
"Soren has no instinct for self-preservation. Put him in a pit with a hungry bear and a wooden sword, and he will jump on the beast without any hesitation. Not only it is hardly flattering for me but …"
"You know what they say," interjected the king again with a jeering smile. Whoever refuses a compliment is actually looking for a second one."
"I beg your p ...?"
Disconcerted by this unfair sting, Viren wonders if the grin that twists his lips will discredit him in his arguments and tip the scales against him:
"Finally ... not only that," he finally resumes more assuredly, "But besides I find nothing that could have one melted, as you say, in this foolish madness".
"If you say so ... "
Their steps have led them into the big greenhouse, where the king sat on one of the benches. Viren leaned on his sceptre, and tried to enjoy the silence but not for long:
"Allow me to insist, Viren," (of course, as a king, he does not wait for permission and ignores the sighing annoyance of his neighbour) " But speaking of madness, our dear little Claudia had tried during a meal to tie the table mats into slipknots to explain us that exact cause of death differed according to the type of knot used, and that, with the eyes filled with stars and a smile from ear to ear? Callum was about to throw up!"
"No offence intended, Your Grace, but Prince Callum is only four years old" retorts Viren, who wedged his sceptre against a sleeping dragon carved in stone and placed his hands behind his back. It is very typical at this age to have such sensi …"
"On the contrary," retorts Harrow, scandalised, "It's even worse! At this age, we hardly know what death is! It is then an abstract concept and totally indefinite, except that it is the punishment that awaits the evil elves at the end of the tales and legends. And did not Claudia added that it would be exciting to attend a real hanging? You hear, Viren," hammers s the king in the same tone where the horror oozes from each syllable, "Exciting!"
"She said that to please me …" finally says Viren.
It looks like false modesty, but he knows the king won't take it.
"But you were not even there!" Harrow protests. "You had left the table to take care of Soren too sick to sleep! I let you imagine Sarai's face in front of the spectacle offered by your daughter …"
Viren can not help laughing, but the blows do not stop:
"And did not she insist on seeing her first execution? What was she, seven years old, if I remember correctly? What were the words she had used already? Ah, yes !"
Harrow beats eyelashes and monkeys a falsetto voice:
"Please, daddy, can I hit his corpse with my whip to see if it still bruises?"
"It was not a human! Viren retorts, unable to control a hint of anger in his voice.
The argument was all the more hurtful because at the time he had himself been destabilised:
"It was an elf who had just tried to kill you!"
"Do not pretend; you understand very well what I'm trying to tell you."
The magician has set his glance on one of the flowers of the garden in silence.
A Campania Semiplena, or rosa alba for close friends.
He wondered - stupidly enough if the evening light could make it redden a little more. If the white flower could turn red by staying too long at dusk, where day and night clash, where the border between life and death turned into blood haze ...
His fingers are tapping nervously on his elfish sceptre, producing a metallic sound.
A butterfly lands on his forefinger but flies away immediately.
Is he so repulsive?
Harrow takes advantage of his silence to continue:
"Viren ... You have to make her aware of what she is becoming. Otherwise, she risks losing herself in a furious madness, an icy indifference, sowing death as one picks flowers. Who cares about the flowers that are torn from the ground to make a bouquet?"
"That's a pretty metaphor," Viren grunts, despite not being a cynic. Inspired by this sublime floral decor, I guess?"
"You must act. As a dark mage, you tend to think that it does not matter ... um ... to use a soul if it can be used for a spell."
"The exact term is "sublimate", Your Grace," says Viren without much hope of being heard because King Harrow never listens to anyone.
"Of course, of course," continues Harrow, of course without noticing the interruption because he never listens to anything. "Claudia is a nice girl. I know it. She can even be compassionate at times - see how she reacted when Callum bruised the other day, a real mother hen, haha! Sarai did one of those heads …"
"She can even, sometimes, be compassionate." Does his Grace hear himself talk?
"You say," Harrow continues, "using right spells in the right circumstances can save lives, and you've proved it for many years. But how do you know if Claudia will be able to determine the right circumstances? And correct me if I'm wrong, but dark magic is killing to use the soul of the victim, hm? "
Viren agrees, without using the language abuse on "use". The silence that follows is fraught with a too grim future. The sunset that illuminates the rose garden is now a twilight before dark; a whole nation dragged into the abyss by the weight of a head bloated with progress, arbitrary justice, bloody grandeur; a night of countless innocent victims, negligible lives and unnecessary sacrifices.
"Admittedly," he finally replied, "but I make sure personally that she learns everything a prime minister needs to know: horse riding, economics, geopolitics, military strategy, diplomacy ..."
On his bench, Harrow looks exasperated at the flowers that have not done him any offence. Twilight gilds his dark skin, and his scarlet robes embroidered with crimson dragons make him vaguely resembles a god of anger.
"Of course," acknowledges Viren, "She does not stand out by her ease in learning languages …"
"And that's the least we can say, given her neolandic accent …"
"... but believe me, Your Grace, she will be perfectly able to discern where her duty lies."
"Oh, excuse me for having doubts," laughs Harrow, "In spite of her big smiles marvelling at the scaffolds and her obsession with the bone powder and the brain-juice of sentenced-to-death...
This time, Viren does not even shy away from rolling his eyes, opens his mouth to retaliate, these are just re-used ingredients for spells, she's not going to kill people on purpose to sublimate their corpses, nor will it sacrifice thousands of young soldiers for a simple strategic diversion, finally, the term is not "brain-juice" but "cerebrospinal fluid"; but before he could speak, His Majesty raised his hand:
"You know very well that if she continues on that path that you chose for her, she will plunge into an abyss ... hum, an abyss much more devastating and voracious than self-hatred."
Harrow, usually so sure of himself, seems to be searching for his words as if the monster that stood out in Claudia was darker and crueller than the human mind could imagine. Viren does not answer and keeps staring at the white flower.
"What's more, if she inherits your position in the High Council, if she finds herself just like you in charge of millions of people, I have no need to tell you about the consequences for Katolis ...
The King trailed off mid-sentence, no doubt considering that the underlying threat will be reinforced. He is not, however, familiar with the effects of rhetoric. Moreover, he finishes his sentence, like an axe:
" ...and even for all the humankind."
For once, Harrow is not exaggerating, and Viren knows it. It is not their own realm who share the greatest portion of common border with the enemy Xadia, but Katolis is the most extensive, most populous and most powerful kingdom of the Pentarchy in terms of military forces. Katolis is the bulwark, the protective shield of the human territories. If Katolis fall, unbalanced by the weight of a green-eyed head swollen with nonchalance, dreams of power and death, all humanity will find itself defenceless against elves, monsters, drowners, wyverns, ghouls and dragons.
If Katolis fall, this is the end.
Viren can barely answer "All right, Your Grace".
In the green eyes of this twisted, deformed but yet so close Claudia, there is roaring Thunder.
Viren shakes his head and lets out an exasperated sigh to chase the king's words from his mind.
Guilt is undoubtedly accompanied by a vague temptation to jump into the abyss to no longer have to bear one's own breath. But for the moment, rather than herself, it's more him that Claudia seems to hate.
She is standing near him, on his side of the table. In addition to the dark magic fire that glows in the fireplace, the white winter sky enters through the window and is reflected in her raven hair and on the dark red tilling. For a study, the room is large and spacious, and daylight fails to illuminate it completely. There are still dark recesses escaping from the rays of the bleak winter sun, between the books, around the ocher Durennian carpet, under the side tables, behind the hangings and the official portrait of the King where Viren sat by his side.
The shadow is still there. The shadow is always here.
It is at about two o'clock. Viren gave orders to bring three meals at fixed times, medicines for Claudia's flu - she is still not cured-, and some fish left over for the animal. According to his prediction, Claudia should put forty-eight hours to make her mind, and she has been in the room with it for eight hours already.
Harrow has left him some paperwork to check - all which does not need the royal seal. Essentially statistical reports: crime rate, access to education in remote villages, price of bread, the standard of living of the inhabitants ... On his desk, on his shelves, many ancient spell-books to examine. Under his fingers, he feels the distinctive touch of the eleven skin parchment, and the smell of reddish ink - coagulated blood. Ancient draconic, ancient Valyrian, Tarquian, Merovian, so many dialects from the bottom ages to decipher, so many spells stating how to drown the Sun, freeze the Moon, change the ocean into lava ...
Viren has enough time to make it worthy of being away from the Royal Family. And Soren. He will have to think of something for him, or he will still make a fuss like he did last year. Fortunately, he has already planned the present for Harrow, which will undoubtedly arrive the next day, but one is never too careful.
Claudia comes close to him when he sits at his desk. She is holding the white kitten in her arms, covering her black dress with hair as she passes, and caressing its head distractedly as it purrs. But following the witticism on the rats that Viren has just made, which resembles him so little, she seems completely lost. Then she nervously taps on the kitten's fur, pinches her lips, she stares at the Durennian rug with her green eyes as if she wants to make it burn.
"Do you understand how crazy your reasoning is?"
"... And you, you ask me to kill a kitten for nothing. In which way, this is better ?"
When Claudia looks at him with those big wet green eyes, he has trouble holding back a smile.
"No, I ask you to kill it so that you can attend the king's birthday. And that of your brother. They have gone to Banthere with Queen Sarai and the princes, and we will not go to join them till you killed it."
Viren lets an apologetic smile distort his features briefly. That was the only excuse he could think to back her into a corner. He is not sure that she understands his intentions - and he himself is not convinced that his double machination will be of any efficacity. She is only nine years old, after all. So he goes on lying, he insists:
"Of course, you can also wait and let this cat door is open; you can go out whenever you want."
He calls it with a gesture of the chin. Finely crafted, double-panelled wood. Claudia pouts, looking at her feet. She does everything to keep the door out of her eye range.
"But you would not want to miss such an important event," Viren finishes, resting his hand on her shoulder, his voice velvet-smooth again.
"But - "
"Kill it, Claudia. "
He runs a hand through her long raven hair, then dips his quill in the inkwell and goes back to his paperwork. Claudia doesn't insist, and returns to the middle of the room, on the carpet, the kitten in her arms. She lays it on the ground so that it can pounce on the remains of fish on a plate, then swallows her medicine for her flu, looking at the crafted wooden door.
Suspense, suspense ...
I hope you enjoyed this first chapter!