Leaving Ceres alone in the Hall of Meetings didn’t worry me overmuch. I knew that she’d deal with the political wrangling much better than I ever could. In fact, a large part of the reason I hadn’t put more effort in preventing her from accompanying me here was that I wanted her help navigating the treacherous word games of the aristocrats. As for her security? If she wasn’t safe in the heart of the Empire, then she wasn’t safe anywhere. If the Council decided to turn against us, there wasn’t anything we could really do.
“What do you know about me?” asked Princess Artemis as she guided me out of the Hall through a door behind the throne and down branching corridors, navigating the turns with familiarity and confidence.
There was a… confrontational cast to her gait. The way she held herself — straight-backed, her metallic wings spread slightly in an exclusion of everyone else from her personal space, and with a hand resting on the pommel of her sword — it seemed like she was always ready for a fight; nay, spoiling for one. And her eyes… Those steely eyes of hers studied me with a falcon-like intensity as she waited for my reply, filling me with trepidation and making me feel like the wrong words out of my mouth would earn me a sword through my gut.
Taking a moment to gather my thoughts and compose myself, (What? Talking to a real live Princess, especially one as intimidating as her, was a stressful affair. I could be forgiven for the butterflies in my stomach.) I said, “Nothing, your Highness, beyond what public perception and my first impressions would have me believe.”
“Hmm? And what would that be?”
“That your Highness is the First Princess of Regiis; that your talent is unapproachable amongst your peers and even among those several years your elder; that countless criminals have been brought to justice under the arc of your sword… That you have never been blighted by defeat… and that you never will.
“They call you the Sword Maiden, your Highness, not only because you have earned that title through blood and steel, but because even after twenty summers in this world and four after turning Feral, you are yet to be wed. It is said that Vita’s vile whispers are unable to turn the justice in your soul, that you shall remain pure and incorruptible all your life – a sword dangling above the heads of all who would break the law, reminding them to stay on the straight and narrow when their consciences fail to.”
Princess Artemis smiled thinly. “Yes, they do say that, but I strongly doubt that they frame it in as poetic a prose as you.” She paused. “And there is truth in what they say, shrouded by layer upon layer of exaggeration and sycophancy though it may be. Yet, that is not all they say…
“Heartless Witch, Sword Devil, Crazed Killer… Bloodthirsty Whore. I’ve been called all of those and worse… Right before I sheared the heads of those who gave me those names.”
Conversation died, slain by her words, and we walked side-by-side in a dreary silence broken only by the sound of our boots against stone, the soft susurration of her metallic feathers rubbing against each other, and my thoughts loud in my head. Reaching the end of the corridor, the Princess stepped forward and pushed the ornate mahogany door set into the wall open, revealing a brightly sunlit garden. Though, to call it a garden wouldn’t be doing it justice. It was a forest. A forest where every tree was different from its neighbour; where every tree was pruned for the best aesthetics, and where every tree was a miniature of their counterparts in nature: A forest of bonsai.
A dome of clear glass arched over our heads as we stepped into the garden, glinting under the glare of the noon sun. The earthy scent of moist loam mixed with the heady fragrance of flowers and I saw a knee-high cherry blossom in full bloom, its pastel pinks contrasting with the russet reds, browns, and oranges of a deciduous resplendent in its festive autumnal garb. In another part of the garden, sober white flowers hid the green of the leaves of one miniature tree, while beside it, bright red fruits peeked out shyly from between the fronds of another. Colourful butterflies flitted from one tree to another, busying themselves in the industry of life.
All thoughts of blood and death were driven out of my mind by the magnificence on display and, turning to Artemis, I had to ask: “How?”
“It’s Mother’s pet project,” she said as she swept her eyes over the garden. “Mother uses her magic to guide the trees into their present statures and to keep them frozen in the most splendid moments of their lives. A miracle worked by her mastery over the Aspects of both Healing and Time. If the rose garden outside is something she takes care of for the enjoyment and appreciation of others… then this place is for herself. Her personal sanctum.” A soft smile curved her lips. “And I have a key.”
It was the first time I had seen her don an expression other than severity. It suited her. There, with the sunlight setting fire to her hair and shimmering off her wings, flecking the underside of her chin with patches of light, I could understand why she was so popular among the masses… why it was so easy to idolize her.
“Why bring me here if this place is so important?” I asked.
Turning to me, she looked me in the eye. “You’re seem like a smart person. You should have already guessed why we are taking this leisurely ‘stroll’ right now while the Council convenes without us.” Without waiting for an answer, she explained, “To have us negotiate our marriage.”
Facing me fully, she crossed her arms across her chest.
“Look, I’ll be completely honest with you. This was my Father’s idea. He wants to get close to your parents, and through them and Uncle Corvus, consolidate the Pavone Clan’s status as hereditary nobility. He wants to pave the way for my younger brother, Apollo.” Pausing, she inquired, “You do know that I’m adopted right?”
‘Huh? Really?’ My eyes went to her wings which didn’t match either her father or her mother’s traits. ‘Come to think of it, that does make sense. As the firstborn female, she should have been the one handed the Imperial Technique, not her younger sister, no matter how talented she is or how early she turned Feral. Also, her bloodline and her last name: Valkyria not Pavone… If she is adopted then it can all be explained away.’
Noticing my surprise, Artemis nodded slightly. “Well, you can be forgiven for your ignorance as this isn’t exactly something that is publicized widely. Only the members of the Council are in the know and they don’t make much of an effort to spread the knowledge.
“As I’m adopted, I’m something of a free agent. Politically, I have no specific localization and any authority I have is based only on my strength and achievements and not on my status. So, marrying me wouldn’t bring you anything more than a wife and a loose familial tie to the throne.” She chuckled self-deprecatingly. “Unlike little Venus, I don’t come with a title attached.”