The weather was cloudy over Caernarfon Castle, as it often was during the winter season.
Standing on a hill at the entrance to the capital's harbor, the impressive fortification featured two layers of curtain walls molded from milky-white quartz. It was the only castle of its scale cut entirely from a single stone. Its central citadel towered high above the surrounding city, a testament to just how skyscraping the crystal once was.
The Faerie Lords didn't believe in 'construction'. Instead, their magic cultivated the earth and shaped it to their will.
Today, this ancient citadel tower -- reaching over twelve stories into the air -- served as the apex of human power in Ceredigion. Home of the Perennial Court, it featured lush, sprawling indoor gardens that took up the entirety of the eleventh floor, surrounded by clear-crystal windows from floor to ceiling.
A glass, Levitation-powered elevator climbed straight to the gardens and opened its doors. Out stepped a lady of surprisingly common bearing, except for the phoenix standing on her shoulder.
Two squads of guards stepped aside as she strode past them like the wind. Two dozen aristocrats and courtiers bowed in a wave of motion before her approach, this despite intricate garments which put her simplistic green-and-white dress to shame.
Not even King Elisedd of Ceredigion would remain seated in her presence, as he stood from his emerald throne and descended the platform to greet her.
"Queen Mother," the youthful King spoke in awe. Though she was more like his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.
Elisedd ap Gwladys was thin-shouldered and tall, looking no older than his late twenties at most. Fair skinned with delicate features, his appearance held an elfin quality that the elegant, flowing robes and shoulder-length hair accentuated.
"Your Majesty," Gwendolyn stopped before him and dipped a perfect curtsy.
"This is... a most unexpected event..."
The King looked speechless. He clearly hadn't recovered from when the Seneschal informed him of her arrival. Nevertheless, his political training soon kicked in and lit up a beaming smile worthy of any family reunion:
"But it is a joyous one nonetheless, Queen Mother! For after centuries, you have returned to us at last!"
The secret diary of the Rhodri royal family was the only record of her truth: that their former queen left to 'travel the worlds', promising to return only when her people needed her most.
"I wish I were as optimistic, Elisedd," the Gwendolyn's polite smile vanished. "I'm back on business, and not the most pleasant kind."
The King frowned, clearly unsure of what she spoke of.
"You allowed the Caliphate into our lands without so much as moving a single battalion to stop them," the Oriflamme Worldwalker challenged. "I demand to know why."
Elisedd sighed as though Gwendolyn had just resurrected a beaten-dead horse for discussion.
"Queen Mother, the days of the Independence War are long past us now," the King gestured as he paced back and forth. "Both the Imperium and the Caliphate seek only peace with us. There is nothing to gain from upholding ancient, outdated promises to march to the Empire's banner -- especially when the Gaetane throne sees us as some backwater region only remembered when they are in need of us."
"You cannot seriously be that short-sighted?" Gwendolyn's brows furrowed as a shadow of contempt grew in her gaze. "The Gaetanes leave us alone because out of the four Kingdoms, we are the most geographically isolated and have the smallest population. But do you really believe that the Caliphate would just leave Ceredigion be once Avorica falls? Or have you forgotten those centuries after the First Imperator overran the Lotharins and enslaved entire tribes at his whim? When Imperial magistrates raped even the chieftain's wife and daughters with impunity?"
The King spun around, his lips pursed:
"Queen Mother, you've been gone for centuries. Do you even know what the Empire has become? For the past sixty years Emperor Geoffroi has expected us to support his wars -- to retake Lotharin lands in Avorica and Garona, to extend the Empire east until Weichsel's borders. We've paid in blood and money for his conquests, and for what? So he could dump the treasury building crown roads in the heartlands and boosting his own fame and revenues? What benefit does that serve us!?
"Meanwhile, the Caliph has not only offered us peace, but gold, and trade with the whole of the southern continent as well! He has even personally guaranteed our neutrality. And until yesterday when that exiled princess lured them into battle, the Caliph's armies have not molested a single Ceredigion village!"
"So tell me," King Elisedd strode back up to his throne and gracefully sat down. "Why should I risk my neck for a liege that gives me nothing, over a better man who actually respects me in return?"
Gwendolyn took a deep exhale as she nodded, slowly.
This is your mother's fault, she thought. Always fooling around with those sweet-talking bards and never paying attention to her own child.
"Yes, the Emperor's policies do seem biased," Gwendolyn began anew, her placid countenance revealing a hint of pity. "But the Lotharin heartlands also connect the four Kingdoms and serve as the breadbasket of the Empire. The crown's own demesne in the Southern Lotharingie Mountains is also abundant in timber and minerals. Geoffroi's investments has already driven down the price of food and materials in Rhin-Lotharingie -- conditions necessary to spur the growth of commerce and industry! And while trade with the south is tempting, it cannot possibly surpass those with our neighbors, bound not just by proximity but also a common cultural heritage!
"So even if -- and I say if -- the infidels could uphold their promises in the centuries to come when new Caliphs sit upon the throne, just how do you expect Ceredigion to prosper when rest of the Lotharin lands lay in beggary under a foreign whip?"
"I do NOT accept that," the young King pointed a gloved finger at Gwendolyn. "I will not be bound to some obsolete superstition that our fate must be tied to the rest of the Lotharins!"
"Superstition?" the former Queen's shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. "Have you not checked in with reality lately? We were nothing more than an Imperial colonial protectorate before the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition threw off the Inner Sea's yoke. Since then, only the Empire's bulk has sheltered our lands from the wars that sweep the continent! Furthermore, the major powers of Hyperion -- aside from the Grand Republic -- all practice Mercantilism. They're only interested in selling us their finished goods, not supplying us with the raw materials to develop our own economy! Because of this, over seventy percent of our needs come from within the Empire..."
"That can change!" Elisedd shot back. "Skagen did it -- apart from us and the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr, they hardly even speak with the rest of Hyperion!"
"Yes, but Skagen is a naval power! They have the world's largest merchant marine and Frontier colonies to extract their resources! Even if the Caliphate and their traders were willing to fulfill our needs, they would only do so to exert their own economic dominance. It would turn us into their vassal instead, except this time on the front lines of their religious expansion!"
"Enough! Queen Mother!" King Elisedd bolted up to declare, his eyes now ablaze. "I shall have you remember that it is I who is the King of Ceredigion, not you!"
"Then act like a King!" She hissed back. "And not some ignorant child tricked by cheap sweets and promises of more candy!"
Elisedd's nostrils fumed. His knuckles clenched and twisted at his side, struggling to suppress royal impulses. Despite his youth, it was clear that the King had not suffered an insult for decades now.
"For your information, it is precisely my vision for the future of Ceredigion that made mother choose me over my brother to succeed her!"
"Yes," his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother raised her eyebrows, unimpressed. "I can see that somehow, stupidity has managed to settle into the family."
It was the last straw as the King snapped:
"This audience is over!"
"Sit your rear back down," Gwendolyn berated, summoning the clan matron of old. "This audience is over when I say it is!"
...Though Elisedd already wasn't listening.
"Guards!" He yelled, seething. "Kindly escort the Queen Mother out!"
The Oriflamme Worldwalker didn't budge a millipace. Quick glances to each side told her that even the royal armigers looked hesitant as they advanced, their faces full of doubt and uncertainty.
"You're even a greater fool than I had thought, Elisedd..."
"You will NOT address me in that way!" King Elisedd yelled as he strode down the throne's platform. "I am the King, 'Your Majesty' to you!"
"Yes, you are the King," Gwendolyn gave a tilted nod at the young man, his twisted fury barely an arm's length before her icy expression. "But I am the mother of all true Rhodri sovereigns, which gives me the right to judge your actions and be the Kingmaker."
The King's eyes suddenly bulged from their sockets. His lips quivered as a trail of blood slowly dripped out.
Looking down, he saw his ancestor's clear crystal sword buried into his chest.
The entire court was frozen in shock as his trembling gaze looked back up at his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.
"Y-you would kill..."
"I once killed my husband to save my country," her spring-green gaze was steady and unmoving. "You're not that special."
"To the King!" Gwendolyn heard the cry emerge from the royal captain of the bodyguards, awoken from his stupor just a few seconds too late.
She pulled her translucent blade out with a splash of blood, dumping the King's body on the steps of the throne.
...And that was when the slaughter began.
Gwendolyn knew that to truly change a nation, it was not only necessary to replace the sovereign, but the entire senior administration as well. Otherwise, the interests of the old guard -- power-brokers of the crown's authority -- would simply carry over to infect the new blood.
Therefore, in her quest to change Ceredigion's state policies, she saw no reason to keep any of the current court alive.
...Not even Elisedd's pregnant wife. Especially not her. The last thing Ceredigion needed was a seed that could germinate into civil war.
Before Gwendolyn departed from the citadel, she used a broadcasting spell to emit a powerful infrasound. She had kept her entrance as low key as possible, but several castle guards and staff nevertheless met her on her way in. She had planted a triggered memory manipulation spell on each of them, her magic straining but nevertheless piercing the ether resistance of mortals. Now, without their accounts, any rumors that spread could remain nothing more than mere conspiracies.
With a deep sigh, the founder of modern Ceredigion strode into a tree on the eleventh floor. Her final thought recognized that this, was just another reason why the Worldwalkers have rules against interfering in the world.
----- * * * -----
Leaning over the war room table in the palace at Avis Avern, the former Duke and now Emperor Gabriel examined a map of Rhin-Lotharingie and its shifting war fronts.
The Central (Mountain) and Southern (Garona) Fronts had been deadlocked for weeks now, as exhaustion and supply problems forced both sides to encamp for the winter. Only in the Western (Avorican) Front did the Caliphate push forward and lay siege to Roazhon. The army of Saint Estelle -- no, it was Sylviane's now -- had retreated into the Ceredigion Forest. Then news arrived this morning that they had scored two costly but resounding victories.
The Caliphate's western thrust would never take the fortress of Roazhon by assault, not with their reinforcements routed and their elite troops annihilated. The city's supplies could withstand siege for two full years -- more than enough to hold out until a Lotharin counteroffensive relieved them.
In other words: the Cataliyan juggernaut that had caught the Lotharins off-guard had finally been stopped, at least until Spring when the war renewed itself. If the Empire ultimately triumphed in this Holy War, then these two battles would forever be remembered as the war's turning point.
It came as no surprise that the victorious news completely altered the political climate of Rhin-Lotharingie by evening.
Until today, only King Alistair of Gleann Mòr and Duke Raymond, Co-Regent of the Kingdom of Garona, had denounced Gabriel's worthiness as Emperor. Neither of them even mentioned Sylviane -- not even Alistair Mackay-Martel, whose clan always proved a friend to the Gaetane dynasty in times of need.
Meanwhile, the Oriflammes Cosette and Gervais, respectively in charge of the Southern and Central Front forces, had been sitting on the fence for weeks. They were neither willing to declare their allegiance for Gabriel, nor ready to denounce him and lose all future military support from the crown.
The pregnant Queen Katell of Avorica, depressed after her husband's death in the opening battles, had also dodged all political questions in the face of invasion. The Crusader Saint Edith-Estellise was no different, having announced years ago that she served only the Holy Father, and not the conflicting interests of Trinitian crowns.
Now, all six of them declared their public support for Crown Princess Sylviane's succession to the throne. That gave her backing from all of the front-line armies, plus three of the four kingdoms who paid homage to the throne.
Gabriel still retained control of the Lotharin heartlands and support from the northeastern Belgae lords. But even if his courting of Duke Hugh de La Tours -- whose family influence dominated the southeast, Haut-Rhône region -- succeeded, he would still be an emperor with only a third of his empire remaining.
In just one day's time, the balance of power had shifted against him.
You've done well, Sylv, Gabriel nodded at the interactive map in solemn acknowledgment. Better than anyone except your father could have guessed.
He opened the locket hanging around his neck and smiled.
People always assumed that he looked upon a shrunken painting of his wife when he did this. It certainly played into his 'devoted husband' image which earned the Church's approval. But the portrait that hung closest to his heart was not that of his devout wife whom he barely touched. Instead... it was an image of him being hugged by his little brother, both still in their late-teens.
Even back then, Geoffroi was bulky enough to dwarf him. The younger prince -- just months before summoning the phoenix Joyeuse -- had one arm around Gabriel's thin shoulders. The two of them smiled with heartfelt joy, innocent without a care in the world.
Emperor Gabriel felt his eyes moisten as he thought back to those childhood years.
What wouldn't I give to live those days once more...
Snapping the locket closed in his palm, Gabriel spun on his heels and strode out from the war room. There was no time for sentimentality. He still had a mission to accomplish, a continent's future to change.
It was his divine calling, even if the Devil might approve more than the Lord would.
But what about after that?
You've proven yourself worthy, Sylv, the Emperor smirked. Now come and face me.
[ Extra Chapter | Author's Notes ]