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“I apologize for the lateness of this meeting,” Bevara said coolly, although she wasn’t actually the one responsible for calling the meeting. She leaned back in her seat, the tapestry behind her whispering nonsense in a breeze against the stone wall. The table before her was a heavyset wood elliptical shape, a large swath of the middle a perfectly polished silver metal. A group of eight sat before her, the four Commanders to her left and three scholars to her right.
The Imperator sat directly across from her, eyelids drooping from exhaustion, her cheery yellow wrap bloodied and torn from her in places. Though Bevara was surrounded almost exclusively by familiar faces, none of them seemed happy. “Why don’t you brief me?” she suggested, gesturing to Imperator Roheus. The wind caused the candles to sputter and waver all throughout the room. Even with all the windows along the eastern wall opened, the moon was too weak to light the room by itself.
“Princess Emyra, your sister, and direct heiress to the throne, has committed treason.” A chorus of muttering erupted on either sides of the great table. Bevara herself watched on idly. She had known of her sister’s feelings for a long time, she had simply been too well exiled to let anyone else know. The Imperator rose, her arms shaking as she leaned on the table, her thick black braid slipping over her shoulder and dangling in front of her. “Focus, everyone. That is the short telling of the story. We can gossip about the rest later. What is important is that we are left in a power vacuum, and it must not last for long.”
“So what are you suggesting we do, Imperator?” The other attendees watched the conversation bounce across the room.
“I’m suggesting–” the Imperator’s voice grew ragged, her elbows shaking violently, to a point at which the man sitting to the right of her patted her back and ushered her to sit. She did so, slowly, Ardy at her right whispering concerns in her ear. “That as next in line, able-bodied, and of mature age, the crown should go to you.” Murmurs ruptured throughout the room again, and Bevara broke eye contact with the Imperator to focus on Ardy. As a childhood friend of hers, surely he would understand the gravity of the request. His mop of curly brown hair, the thin rectangular glasses he wore, it was as if he had stepped out of a memory. She watched his shoulders rise and fall in a sigh, and suddenly the memory caught up with present time. His hollowed-out cheeks and the pitying look in his eyes. He nodded slowly.
Bevara could feel a weight return to her chest and shoulders. She hadn’t felt it in many years, and the return of it made the room become stifling. She was hyper-aware of her own sweating and breathing, and strongly resisted the temptation to start taking off the padded armor she was wearing right there in her seat. “I… am hardly a princess. Much less an empress. Technically, aren’t I still in exile?”
“Well that’s just a matter of paperwork.” Commander Inamoira spoke up, waving her hand as if to shoo the matter away. “We can just add an addendum to the documents and it will pass in record time.” The Commander’s single steely blue eye narrowed as she spoke, the other eye covered by an eyepatch Bevara definitely didn’t recognize from last time she saw her.
“What if I’m… not up for the task?” Bevara admitted.
“That is not up for debate.” Knava put her elbows on the table as she said it, leaning forward.
“If I may-may-may-I may, interject,” came a soft voice from Bevara’s right. All eyes turned to the meandering speaker. Bevara knew him as Spruce, and though he was rather cleaned up from how she normally saw him, even still she could see leaves braided haphazardly into his hair, his robes clean but patchwork by nature. “The, uh, Empress should be-be-should-be should be able to recover in a matter of, uh, j-just a matter, of, um, months. When she-when-when-when she regains her memory, she might re-re-re… she might return to the throne.” He was kneading the back of his neck nervously, Bevara’s eye contact with him only made the kneading more intense.
“So for all intents and purposes, you should only have to be in command for a few months,” summarized Master Oppius Caprenium, from directly beside Spruce. He was a small man, but had a surprisingly commanding voice and presence. “We can guide you, Princess.” She narrowed her gaze at him, remembering something as soon as she saw him.
“Thank you,” she said quickly. “By the way… I’m sorry about your books. I’ll return them, uh, when I can.” He bobbed his eyebrows and looked away from her, staring at the thick wood grain in front of him instead. There was a collective nervous chuckle from the group, Bevara allowing a smile to creep on her lips.
“That would be much appreciated, Princess.” He mumbled a few other things under his breath, and Bevara’s smile grew wider. She decided against pressing him for what he said. Across the room, Ardy and Imperator Roheus concluded the intense conversation they were having since others decided to speak up.
It was the Imperator that spoke next, “yes, Bevara, we can guide you. I know it has been some time since you were here last, and much has changed in that time. But that is exactly why we need you to step in as Empress. The people of Basti need tradition. Change our system now, and the people would see it as a deposition. What little is left of our stability would scatter in the breeze.” The Imperator waved her hand to illustrate, setting it down with a small pat. It was the softest Bevara had ever heard the Imperator be. She felt the weight shift a little, but not leave entirely, and she straightened up slightly in her seat. “Please, a triumphant return is exactly what they need right now.”
Bevara closed her eyes and rolled her head, popping her neck as she did so. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes and hoped to the gods she wouldn’t see all these expectant faces looking her direction.
Her hopes were not fulfilled.
“Very well,” she breathed. She got up slowly, the weight almost dragging her back down to her seat. “Empress Bevara Viteri it is.” She had her fingers splayed out on the table, stabilizing her, the high winds from outside and the pressure on her chest threatening to topple her. There was a moment of confusion, but Bevara remained standing.
Clapping began on the left side of the table, somewhere among the Commanders. She wished she’d been paying attention to which one in particular, but for some reason she couldn’t look away from the Imperator. Their eyes were locked, the Imperator’s half-lidded ones so dark and in shadow they resembled pits. Finally, perhaps the last one of the group, the Imperator clapped as well, softly so as to nurse her injured right arm. Bevara nodded once to her.
“So, as acting Empress, what are my first few orders of business, group?” She tore her gaze away from the Imperator, scanning both sides of the table. Commander Markasih covered her mouth as she yawned. The Imperator finally slumped in her seat, leaning towards Ardy and letting others take over.
It was Ardy who spoke first. “Well, perhaps this isn’t an order for you. But it is an urgent matter of business. The Consul’s funeral must be arranged,” Bevara curled in her lips and stared down at the table. “I can handle the planning, but you must make an appearance, of course.” That’s right, she’d almost forgotten in the rush of events that the beloved Consul Thule, a devoted physician and intelligent advisor, had sacrificed himself earlier that night to break the spell that had held her mother captive. Shivers coursed up her spine, tingling at the back of her neck. If he had been here, this entire meeting would be going much smoother. Despite her four years of exile, she predicted her hesitations would be less if Thule were backing her up. She gulped down a breath looking at the empty seat closest to her on her right.
“Of course I’ll be there.”
“Then there is-” started Oppius.
“The people are-” Commander Cicero started speaking at the same time. The both of them exchanged glances, the fearsome Commander looking down the table at the suddenly meek Oppius. Commander Cicero was sitting closest to Bevara on the left, her hawk’s beak nose and stiff posture a testament to her rigid nature. She was wearing a pale orange head wrap that stirred in the wind, occasionally exposing the scar that went down the right side of her face and neck. Oppius gestured for her to continue. She folded her hands together and turned to Bevara. “As I was saying, the people are ready for action. Emyra saw to it that they had boats ready, and that the fighting women were prepared for war. The wheels are already turning, but they were turning for a usurper. What should we do with their restless energy?”
“Contain it. We are not ready for war right now.” Bevara broke away from the table, pushing aside her seat and pacing towards the tapestry, which was a depiction of the Great Siege. It was a dirty white, figures in black, red, and dark brown rushed in every corner like harried ants, fighting tooth and nail against figures in grey. “No. If we meet the world with war, then we will be destroyed, just as we nearly were hundreds of years ago.”
She heard a collective sigh of relief from the table behind her. Those who didn’t sigh didn’t speak up, so she presumed they were outnumbered. Her heart pounded in her ribcage, the breeze blowing the tapestry against the wall and her hair against her face. She wasn’t sure what to say next. War, expansion, and conquest was such a nebulous concept with such a vast machine to set in motion, and she never thought she would hold the reigns so tightly as to be asked such a question. Her eyes traveled upwards along the tapestry, her vision filled with the little ant-like warriors. She had always subjected herself to take her rank among them, and when her eyes reached the top, she saw an Emperor pictured larger than everyone else doing battle with a massive grey nemesis. And that was her now. Nemesis-less but larger than ever.
Silence had gone on long enough, she realized. Oppius had been waiting to ask a question. “You were saying, Master Caprenium?”
“There is the matter of what to do with your sister.”
“I have an idea for that, actually.” She nodded almost to the ceiling, working her way back down the tapestry to the ants at the bottom.
“Might we hear it?” Bevara pivoted halfway to make eye contact with the Imperator. She gripped the back of her chair, but made no move to sit down again.
“I, well…” she was already regretting what she was going to say next. “I was going to speak to her first.” All four of the Commanders, from Inamoira closest to the Imperator to Cicero closest to Bevara, eyed her with varying levels of distaste. “Not to collude, but to compromise. If we take her to trial we most certainly have enough evidence to make the people call for her execution. If we exile her, as she did me, we give her the opportunity to come back stronger. But my sister had one thing right – she knew what the people wanted. I would say, if I speak to her and she expresses remorse, and believe me, I am sure she will be much harsher to me than she would be with all of you, but if she expresses remorse to me of all people, then her life should be spared.”
“Might we have a representative along with you?” Commander Lucius asked. Her elaborate gold earrings jingled against her shoulders and neck as she spoke. Bevara was quick to answer, sensing others would soon agree with the Commander.
“If there is anyone other than me, by myself, Emyra will believe she is being tricked. I will let you know when I do it, but I think she needs to wait.” She watched Commander Markasih stretch her mouth open in a yawn and prop her head in her left hand. “And I think the rest of this conversation needs to wait. It’s late. Let’s sleep. Meeting adjourned.” Bevara wasn’t sure of the proper protocol for ending such a thing, but no one seemed to be in any particular mood to drill her. Commanders Cicero, Lucius, and Markasih all rose immediately, Spruce and Master Oppius rising just shortly after them. The group turned their backs towards Bevara, and she waited while they filed out the large door behind the Imperator.
The Imperator herself rose slowly, Ardy at her left elbow and Commander Inamoira at her right. Bevara pushed in her seat and made wide strides to catch up with them. The Imperator didn’t seem mortally wounded, but was certainly shaking in exhaustion as she used the two to stabilize herself. Bevara came along Ardy’s left, gently sinking her hand in his unruly hair. She leaned his head towards her, and couldn’t help but smile as she did so. Ardy smelled of salt, a certain sign that he had sailed recently, or otherwise had been near the sea. He was happiest swaying on the deck of a ship, this she knew.
“We have a lot of lost time to make up for, my friend,” she said lowly, their faces almost touching. They were almost exactly the same height, Ardy slightly below eye level to her.
“It’s so good to have you back,” he whispered. He might as well have been shouting, for the Imperator and the Commander were silent and the four of them were in some awkward way, all linked together. The Imperator shot Bevara a look that made her let go of Ardy, though she stroked his hair down the back of his head and neck to make it look less forced.
“Yes, well… you have my Imperator to take care of. Good night, all of you,” she still said it lowly, allowing the three of them to go ahead of her. Ardy mouthed a “sorry” and Commander Inamoira gave her a nod. Unfortunately Bevara was on the side of her face that had the eyepatch across it, obscuring her from being able to read her full expression.
The Imperator sighed and said, “good night,” in return. Bevara stopped in the doorway to the conference room, more frequently referred to as the war room, and watched them assist the Imperator down the hall and out of sight. Bevara leaned in the doorframe. The hall was tall and thin, with square columns and doors lining it, the shadows reaching towards her from the torches. She could hear the torches hissing in the wind coming from behind her. Carefully, her eyes touched every corner of the hall. The guards were making their rounds and probably coming to shut down the room now that it was no longer in use. However, she felt the presence of someone else watching. It could have been a result of the recent events involving her older sister, but she had a feeling this was founded in reality.
She pushed herself off the doorframe and stepped out into the hall to let the guards pass. They walked silently past her and into the room, and she heard the sound of windows closing. Whoever else was there, they didn’t leave any concrete evidence that they were. So she took a guess.
“Elian, I know you’re there.” Now, if she was wrong silence would pass and she would walk up to her old room she supposed, but if her little sister was actually trying to make herself unseen…
“What?! How did you know?!” The fierce whisper was heard from slightly behind her, and Bevara grinned. “I was doing everything you taught me, I swear!” Footsteps padded up to her, Elian coming about to the height of Bevara’s chin.
Bevara scooped Elian up in a hug, grabbing her by the midsection and pulling her off her feet. “I leave for three years and you’ve gotten huge!” Elian, her curly reddish-brown hair bouncing, wrapped her arms around Bevara’s neck and smiled against her cheek. She let her go, her strong arms dropping Elian back on her feet.
“You’re still taller than me!” She had grown so much since Bevara had left. She had left behind the childish look and was clearly becoming a young woman. Her normally lighter tan skin was darker from being in the sun, and Bevara even noticed a bit of musculature on her sister.
“And hopefully it stays that way.”
“But seriously though, how did you know I was there?” They had begun walking down the hallway, the guards closing the doors behind them.
“I didn’t teach you the final trick to stealth.” Bevara felt strange being so close to Elian, every muscle in her being screaming at her to keep hugging. She wrapped one arm around Elian, the two of them stumbling for a minute before walking in sync. “Trust your skills. Even if someone’s calling you by name, don’t break from your stealth unless they’re coming straight for you.”
“You mean you didn’t actually know I was there?”
“Nope.” Bevara’s smile was ear-to-ear.
“Bevara!” Elian did her best to shove her away, Bevara’s cackling echoing down the hall.
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