((Taking Place after The Sun's counsel))
Morning started as it usually did these days, with puking.
Bhelith settled on the cot afterwards, still feeling nauseous, though there wasn't much else to get out. Her bones ached, like something at her core was torturing her, which wasn't far off the mark. She reclined with her elbow hiding her eyes, thinking about how slow of a death this would be, if death did come to reap her at the end of it and drag her into oblivion. Outside the tent, sunlight found its way through the cracks, along with the sound of a war camp. It was chilly, heralding an early winter, but this tent had been heated.
It wasn't the worst bivouac she had ever slept in. Somehow it felt a little more comforting than the Eagle's stateroom in Soran Nast. She had started here, herself, and it seemed fitting to her, even preferable, that she go through this damnedable ordeal in the same place she had begun really living, all those years ago.
Maybe she would die here, too, in some useless skirmish. Killed outright, or likely worse if anyone discovered who she really was. Assuming they didn't, she would still likely suffer before the end.
Lukina woke groggily. She gently pushed herself up to look at her Lady. "My mother said that ginger root helped reduce the nausea when she carried me." Her voice was weak, slightly feverish.
"Your mother says many things, child," Bhelith answered, not yet willing to face daylight. Hadn't she earned some godsdamned rest, after all of this? Of course, she had. But not really. "But I shall ask after it. I would fear poison but that I know it would not make me feel worse."
"If you would prefer, the medic should have an anti-nausea shot she could administer that has a scientific basis for working," Lukina suggested as she pushed some of her red hair from her face.
This time, Bhelith did look at Lukina. Aleksasha's half-caste daughter looked like she had been picked up and dragged through a damp and unpleasant swamp, then cleaned off, lacking the leg they had yanked her with.
So this is what I have to look forward to if I survive, thought the Empress. She let her arm fall to the side on her cot, took a good, long look at Lukina. She especially marked the way the girl was looking at her. Lukina had never really had a mother. Aleksasha was more of a rebel than Bhelith counted even her own self, and Bhelith had abandoned a duty, a calling, and a goddess. Whether the assassin cared for the half-elf she had spawned, as luck would have it, after the plague, Bhelith couldn't see that love as being any better.
At first, she had considered Lukina an annoyance. Having someone show up on the doorstep with starry eyes and a hopeful smile and so much pluck and courage that it could sicken the most stoic of hearts was bad enough, but Bhelith wasn't comfortable with the way that the girl looked at her. It reminded her too much of what she was trying to avoid, and had avoided most of her life. It reminded her too much of the pathetic people who milled about her nowadays, simpering as though she had not already detailed the methods and means to gain advantages in her country and her court.
And yet, Bhelith couldn't quite bring herself to hate the girl, just like she couldn't quite bring herself to hate Ginger.
She reached over to the other cot, to take the girl's hand. She said, with none of what she felt, every bit the thankful mother-figure, "Thank you. This usually passes for me, it is just unpleasant for a while."
Lukina's hand was pale and slightly chilled as she accepted Bhelith's hand. "I'm sorry for speaking out of turn but I would like you to find some relief from this so you can rest." She smiled gently, not seeming to sense anything amiss or perhaps, too drugged to truly care.
The girl seemed to be in worse shape than Bhelith felt, so she relented. Not out of fondness. Maybe a bit of sympathy. Something the monarch couldn't quite place immediately.
"I was burned once," she found herself saying. "Fighting one of the tan'nari generals beneath the surface of Liang. I recall laying as you are for months. You will have a better time of it, and be up walking as soon as they can manage it."
"The doctor said something about it being weeks before I would have feeling in my left…leg. I don't have time to wait that long. I will take these 2 days and recover and get back to training, I don't want to let you down," Lukina said again with a half-sad smile. Perhaps, she knew that she had already failed the Empress in some way by becoming injured or perhaps, she had heard fragments of the conversation with Creature. "I'm not Beriadanwen Agranorn but, while she's elsewhere with the Lord Whitemeadow, I have to carry my own banner and fight."
So she did. Bhelith turned her head again to look at the other invalid in the tent. She had her mother's features, but only if one squinted a bit and gave over some generosity for youth and inexperienced innocence. Her mother, one of the blood whelps of Agranorn, was a fiery temptress in whatever light, and did not make for a flattering comparison with anyone, including Bhelith herself. The woman's daughter, young as she was, might just inherit, but without the lovelorn selfish harpy lurking behind the pretty eyes. Maybe it was pity after all that had caused Bhelith to take the girl in. Maybe, also, it was to see how far the fruit bore out away from the tree.
Her own father had been more than a daunting figure. Perhaps that was why Bhelith dealt softly with her.
"There is no need to live in her shadow, child. I am not displeased with you."
"There are many shadows in twilight just there are before a glorious sun," Lukina looked at Bhelith with a soft, respectful regard. The Empress's golden hair was dulled by the black hair dye. Bhelith didn't bother pushing her bangs away. She'd had them cut specifically to be rakish, compelling as an image, and was used to the annoyance. "But that's why I came to you instead of following her and her free company. I hoped to find my own way, though, she still checks on me."
And she had her mother's sense of the dramatic too, Bhelith thought. Not an unnatural trait in elves.
"And now?" Bhelith decided she would satisfy some of her earlier curiosity. She had seen dozens of Gartegens in various, and often complete states of undress, and she suddenly had a strange and dark sense of what that giant alien might do to this frail little twit, love or not. Hadn't her mother succumbed to a similar alien allure? Bhelith couldn't quite recall the man that the assassin had chosen, or whether she had ever seen him at all, but she seemed to recall the height difference had been staggering - strange that this one didn't seem too much taller than her mother, come to think on it. He had been a human from Catalonia. They were all meat-headed men with too much brawn, and that included the one Bhelith had claimed, herself.
Though, if she were to weigh the two, maybe she would have made Aleksasha's choice. It wasn't as though she, herself, had ever been shy about her partners, and it seemed a foolhardy thing to consider now that she was, again, an elf. Still, John had his positive traits. Bhelith had a soft spot for idealists, fools, and lost puppies like the one she was staring at.
She blinked, coming out of her musing. "You seem quite fond of this company. Would you prefer to stay in the province?"
"No. I agreed to stay until the job was done. I don't intend to stay here beyond that, I can't serve two Lords and the whole of the country is more important than this Province. I'd just be picking some else's shadow to live in."
"If I released you, he is fond of you. And you seem quite fond of him. It would be wiser to separate the two of you, but this battle of his will not last forever, nor will yours."
"He's a friend. I don't understand his feelings but he needs someone to keep him on track... he has others that follow and regard him higher. I'm just the only one that was really a knight."
Bhelith stared at her. Stared, softly, she reminded herself; she eased her expression, made herself less severe, hid it all behind a practiced mask. Of all the times that Bhelith had loved and lost, and loved, and lost again, until the very idea of going through it all had come to annoy her, and here she was watching it go on again in someone else. She searched for something to say, and decided upon silence. Lukina would continue. Bhelith knew that mewling tone, filled with unrealized nonsense.
Perhaps Lukina was unaware of her feelings, she was young and inexperienced. "They need weapons and time or they won't survive this. We're short on both but, when I can I can get the weapons for them... perhaps, I can buy them time as well. You had a plan for small groups going against the would be King?" Her thoughts were back to the mission, and the bigger task at hand.
Great. Wonderful. Bhelith wanted to puke again. She didn't puke. It was because of the child, not because of what Lukina was saying, but Bhelith turned onto her side all the same and pulled her pillow closer, watching the person she was sharing the tent with. It seemed utterly peculiar to be talking about war from the side of what felt like a sickbed, but Bhelith didn't mind.
"Yes. If he uses them correctly, they will retake the countryside, and stop the supplies of food and people to the city. He will become the Lord of the province in truth, and when people view him as such, the 'King' will ride out to prove him wrong and raze a village. When that happens, the rest of the army will be able to take the city behind them, and hold it against them."
She toyed with the girl's fingers, because she had them, after all, and Lukina wasn't so ugly or annoying that Bhelith didn't like her. Fond might be a bit much. Maybe fond might have been appropriate wording, there, however; Bhelith counted herself fond of few people. Lukina wasn't an idiot, at least.
"The unit they attack will likely die, but afterwards, the enemy will be in the same position we are now. We will hold the province, and they will only have an encampment. The truth of the matter is little help against perception. People give them supplies out of fear, but if they think they are protected, they will stop, and that will make the enemy vulnerable. Do you understand?"
The urge to puke had gone down. Her bones still ached. She kept it out of her expression.
Lukina nodded. "I understand. I was just thinking, that I could infiltrate. The nekovalkryja would be harder to eliminate than a man that is driven by his baser desires. I might be able to do it without them detecting me if I upgraded my equipment... the perception won't shift until the Lord inspires confidence."
Bhelith had refrained from telling anyone the real reasons, and she decided to refrain now. She hadn't yet heard back from her Chancellor, and certain political actions had not yet been taken, where she could wisely speak about the true nature of this - but fortunately, it didn't matter in the short term.
"If you were caught, they would break your mind until all you desired was their domination."
True enough. Bhelith's ear itched, so she sat up in the bed, drawing her legs in and itching beneath her hair. A few strands fell free, so that she could see that her true hair color grew out again. She would have to re-dye it the next time she bathed, or had the time. The annoyance would be even more onerous, since her one handmaiden - Lukina - was gimped like a broken toy soldier.
"I would not be pleased if you were to be handled in such a fashion. Creature would not risk you, or anyone, either, in such a manner. He was not speaking untruthfully. I am as vulnerable against him unarmored as you would be, and I have fought men like the King," Bhelith half-lied - hadn't been a man, but nobody needed to know that. "That, and certain other fashions, make such an option unwise."
"He is a Vekimen?" Lukina asked, uncertain.
What a damn annoyance, Bhelith thought, but good on her for figuring it out. It took her long enough. Outwardly, Bhelith smiled at her, and made sure it seemed a bit sheepish. Good girl, she thought. Nice puppy. Aren't you just so sweet.
"One of the thirteen, a Vekimen himself, believes so. It is difficult to know for certain, but from what I have heard, I do not disbelieve him."
"I thought so because of the order. It... looked normal," Lukina's voice dropped to a whisper. She had not mentioned it since she executed the order.
Oh you poor summer child, thought the Lord Empress. She slid to the edge of her cot, and went to sit on Lukina's. After all, the girl was warm, and Bhelith was cold, and that was a simple consideration. Then, she lay down. Lukina lacked a leg, but what did it matter? The stub had healed, and the fever would break eventually. She did stink a bit. That was the sweat.
Come to think on it, the bath would have to be taken into consideration a little bit earlier than Bhelith had estimated. No matter. By the time this company found a proper place, Bhelith knew she would have forgotten about the issue entirely.
"Their high commander, once begged me to erase a certain portion of her species’ history. The Vekimen were different before becoming what you see them now. I kept the proof safe, though I do not yet know what I shall do with her. It is yet a sticking point in our relations. I have kept her hidden in Soran Nast. She is blindingly intelligent, but nothing like the species; their violence is the result of a disease. A transmittable disease."
She toyed with Lukina's hair. It wasn't as well cared for as her own; it also wasn't her mother's copper tresses, though Bhelith had never been half as close with that assassin. There had been something about their specific classes that had not played well together on the moral scale. That her daughter had strayed so far from her surprised Bhelith, but yes, she had to admit, she was fond. Fond.
"The Empress of the Union is giving them species a wide berth, but I have yet to decide what to do with it in Kowloon. The Gartagens are immune because of their biology. I do not wish to risk anyone with elven blood. Nor do I feel compelled to allow a province to fall to it, though I scarce understand it myself."
"There was only the one so far. I don't understand the attraction but if it's really uncontrollable like the sutakame toxins.." Lukina shook her head and made room for Bhelith to join her. With the extra space, Bhelith propped her arm and took to cradling the much-more-injured woman. It had the added benefit of dramatically lowering their voices. She still didn't quite trust the rest of the camp. "I don't understand being driven by that sort of lust. It was terrifying in those infected by the sutakame."
"It is similar, though perhaps a bit weaker. Buhan keeps consorts. They worship him." Lukina was burning up, but Bhelith knew she would benefit from the physical touch, even if it would eventually become uncomfortable for both. Bhelith continued, "I do not believe there is more than one, at most. From what I understand, only a very few women were broken like that. The rest were simply misused."
"Like Valériane was?" Lukina frowned.
Bhelith nodded, gentling the girl. A certain part of her, in the very rear of her consideration, proposed the idea that perhaps this was what mothers did. The monarch could remember, if she chose, but she did not choose to. She had received little enough consideration, herself.
"So only a male assassin could possibly have a hope of ending it."
"My hope is that Creature du Rochon," she said, with a certain amount of dark-hearted relish at the joke, and an accompanying smile, much less sardonic, "will end up with that peculiar honor. How this small war plays out may set my policy on the species overall. Without an example, it would be difficult to announce such a thing without repercussion."
Lukina thought of the mother sobbing uncontrollably for weeks afterwards. She contemplated a notion that might help them. "I was thinking of going to 188-605 to get a new kit, they have scientists that are constantly developing things... perhaps, they could develop a cure or maybe a way to render us immune to that… poison?"
Bhelith contemplated. Mostly, she weighed the idea of someone representing her visiting some far-off country or place, haphazardly. It occurred to her that it could make her house look weak internationally. It occurred to her, also, that the place Lukina mentioned - something that only vaguely registered for the Kowloonian monarch as a non-place, full of non-issues, especially compared to the larger players on the dice board - might bear further investigation.
Hadn't someone proposed forming a college of Magisters? An echo of those scholarly long-robed elves who had devoted themselves to solving the esoteric mysteries of the universe? Whatever came back into Kowloon could be reverse-engineered, understood, and then either improved upon or recreated. The upgraded Tianshi that she had been piloting, the prototype Paladin, had served her well already. Other devices might serve her better. As doting as John was, he had introduced her to the possibility of using Alliance-style technologies, in the same way that her family had once wielded divine magic.
And then, of course, was the austerity to consider. A foreign scientist developing a cure to a local problem would, naturally, put Asteria into the sort of debt that Bhelith had sought to avoid placing it under. Liang, if she told them, could likely find the cure faster and with more aplomb. Mitsuha was a raging megalomaniac raised by the most terrifying and utterly self-serving man that Bhelith had ever had the unpleasant misfortune of meeting, but one thing that Tai Pan could do, under any circumstance, was make things from nothing. After all, they had broken the elvish pantheon and banished the gods to do it. That sort of technology wasn't anything to sniff at.
But, no. This was a distinctly Kowloonian problem; the other nations were, more or less, immune, save for the humans, and Bhelith - despite cradling this little half-caste, and bearing her own - wasn't fond of the species as a whole.
She realized after a few moments that she had only been stroking Lukina's hair, and not speaking. Bhelith decided to continue the motion for a while longer. It wasn't that the Empress was lonely, per-se, but it had been a while since she had physically touched someone.
Surprisingly, she found that she missed it.
"I would be interested in what you bring back," she said, reasonably.
Lukina nodded. "I don't intend to be gone long and... I'll be reachable still."
* ~ *
Lukina watched Bhelth's face, she couldn't remember a time when anyone had this much physical contact with her. "It'll be strange, an elf with cybernetics," She found it difficult to read what was going on behind the strange, golden eyes.
"It is not as strange as some of the things that I have seen in my life."
Lukina's mistress had warmed, and not just physically. There was something strangely necessary in the way that the Lord Empress cradled her. Perhaps it was the sickness, or the several weeks, now, that they had spent near. Bhelith was rarely so forward, and never doting.
"Is my mother really going to marry again?"
"So it seems."
"She… sent me my father's files... I think the Lord resembles him when he was younger," Lukina's voice was soft due to proximity and thoughtful consideration.
"Does he?" Bhelith asked, as quiet, her expression far-away and a little thoughtful. "That is strange. I always thought that he resembled his mother, more than anyone."
Lukina raised her gauntlet up and pressed the jeweled eye of the wyvern and displayed a volumeric projection of an image of a human man in his early thirties with pale skin, raven black hair and deep storm blue eyes. Bhelith looked at the image and, a little amused, observed, "So he does. I had not noticed. Perhaps when he ages, he will seem similar, though that had not been my intent."
"I'm to have siblings at some point?" She commented as she looked at the image and smiled, "All this time and now is when she decides to tell me the truth." Her eyes lingered on the image for a moment before she dismissed it again.
Bhelith must have noticed the smile, because she returned a bit of a mischievously rueful one. "Gods willing. Though, from what I am told by one of the thirteen, it maybe you have another half-elven sibling. A man I sent Whitemeadow seems to have taken her fancy instead. I have yet to decide what to do about the matter, myself, or whether to leave it to itself to resolve. I am told they are not fond of each other."
"Mother is... willful."
"So she is," Bhelith agreed, quietly. "Your line has ever been so. I think if she realized the gift in what I gave her, she might change her mind about it, but I doubt it."
"My... Uncle Turold was telling me that she's giving it a chance. Spending more time with Aniseth and becoming less... I guess... aloof?"
The ancient elf beside her made a quiet tut at her. She explained, in the same gentle quietude, "From what I have known myself, true members of our species are always so. At least, after a certain age. Your mother is young, yet. I sometimes wonder if it is worthwhile, making some of these appointments, and giving them to children. But they are both of true stock. Both your family, and the Rowaden go back further than history recounts. The blood will tell out, eventually."
"Will I have to marry someone of someone else's choosing for our species? Or am I too far gone for such consideration?" Lukina wondered.
"No, child," said the Lord Empress.
Bhelith stopped stroking her hair, and from where she lay beside Lukina, she looked down a bit and closed her eyes. In the early morning silence, she stretched out on the cot and then, once she had finished her feline recumbence, she opened her eyes again.
"I was nearly married off myself," she divulged. "It does not please me to suggest it to others. Only in this specific case. And, they seem to have taken my suggestion as a law. I do not blame them. I would be sorely disappointed if Aniseth does not tell out as I think he shall. The Councilors of Xia took him from his true calling. Perhaps he is still young enough to change, and she might be his catalyst."
"What was his true calling? I think my mother is many things... a catalyst is a mild way of describing her."
Here, the Empress hesitated. She turned her faux-black haired head back to Lukina, and gave her the weighing look that she so often gave others. Lukina, as many in Bhelith's court, had come to recognize the look as just that; a weibach. She was considering if someone could be trusted with information.
She would always say something afterwards. Always. But the value of that something depended on the counter-balance. Half-asleep, she had watched the Mikado quietly, in her own strange way, like a lion purring, nurse Creature directly into what she had wished all along, and now she sensed that strange vertigo from the golden eyes again. Something was happening here. Somehow, even here, in her sleeping clothes, with a gentle bulge denoting her reduced condition, surrounded by none of her soldiers save the one, Bhelith still seemed to be on top of things.
"He's a warrior," Bhelith answered, finally. "The Council attempted to gentle it out of him, I understand. I think he has a sense of it himself. Your mother may make a killer of him, of the sort that our peaceful homeland would not tolerate. It is much the same reason I am so reviled, there, myself."
Lukina considered the weight of this information. Her step-father in the younger, elven image of her departed human father. The tailor upbringing clashing with her mother's assassin calling. Would her mother recast Aniseth in Makarios's image?
As though to answer some of the question, Bhelith admitted, just as soft as before, "A part of me hopes that perhaps they succeeded, in which case, I expect him to live peacefully and for your mother to handle that sort of affair. Elves like your mother and I do not live long. Her craft, unpracticed, will be the death of her. I have been lucky and have simply recast mine. My contemporaries are all dead, and interred deep in the Towers they guarded. There is a great deal more to learn about warfare. The lives of solitary killers like your mother tend to be short. Men die more easily than armies."
"She's not alone any more, the free company is with her now, and Aniseth is with her too... perhaps she has a chance of changing too," Lukina gently suggested.
"Perhaps if it is stagnancy that kills us, she will survive it, as I did," Bhelith agreed, "And perhaps she shall not. But, they will live a while yet, the both, and the planet they cultivate will be a good foothold for further expansions into the frontier."
She caught Bhelith watching her again, though this time wryly. The Empress did resemble a cat, in more ways than one. "And, in either case, I expect that you shall shortly be less than alone in half-elven kin. Your mother, Aniseth, and the others, are not the only elves in Kowloon, and I expect as we mingle with humans and their ilk again, most of the population will have points on their ears again ere long. My own bastard notwithstanding."
Lukina's eyes appraised Bhelith's features and the blackened hair, "Aniseth takes after your mother?" she vocalized her question, it was speculation. Perhaps it was the elven grace that all pure elves had that made some of the same relations look similar. But she had been told that Aniseth was Bhelith's nephew.
The monarch laughed gentle music.
"I should not tell your mother, were I you. She rather despises me already."
"I don't know what she would really do with that information, but I won't."
Bhelith nestled her head on the pillow beside Lukina's. "It is a story I heard myself only after I became an elf, again. In specific, it is my step-mother he resembles. My father lived for a while, without a cause, after my mother died bearing me. He was a cruel man, by Liang's standards, but no crueler than he had to be, I think, for I became the guardian he wished me to. Afterwards he might have lived for Aniseth's mother, who, I think you can imagine from looking at him, was rather beautiful in her own way. The child is my half-brother, though my father and his new wife passed many years ago to make way for a more peaceful country. Aside from the child, and myself, there are no more of our line that I am aware of. The old arts will die with me."
The ancient elf shifted on the cot, unnaturally divulgant, especially in Lukina's experience. Maybe it was the nostalgia that had her talking. Perhaps it was the pregnancy. "I tried to pass them along to a mao zhanshi, once, but she mistrusted me, though she loved me dearly."
"They don't have to. We have a camp full of people being trained to be soldiers and guardians. The arts don't have to disappear and... we have some much technology that... you don't have to die either," Lukina placed her hand on Bhelith's. "It's not like it used to be. We don't have to pay a toll for life with death."
Though she took the hand and, as she had before, toyed with it, Bhelith said, "I prefer dying."
The tone she used differed from the other tones. It felt like lead in the otherwise crisp morning.
"You've suffered, I understand that. But this phase of your life doesn't have to end in death," Lukina's eyes went to Bhelith's stomach for a moment. "It's easy to die, there are so many ways to end a life, especially out here on Piyapon but life is harder. We must fight for it. Not every battle has to end with sacrifice."
The elf contemplated that, though she did so far-eyed, as she often did, and didn't quite seem all there. "No, this one likely shall. Often to create something, you must step aside for it. I will remain, live or die, but after such a while, I think that nothingness, or whatever afterlife the gods prepare, will be enough for me. When a tree grows, and a seed is planted nearby, does not the seed suffer for the shade?"
"We have forests that flourish. A seed takes roots and sprouts and grows towards the light. The shadow of the tree it came from does not stop it from growing, it simply finds a way to grow alongside. Life will find a way to thrive even in the most desolate of conditions. A tree doesn't need to die for a seed to sprout," the half-elf replied. "We do not forever live in the shadows of our parents. Not human children, not elven children and certainly not half-elves like me."
Bhelith looked up and, after a moment, she smiled more gently than Lukina had considered possible for the monarch.
"Clever girl. Still, I have the sense of my own death. I would rather not spend my time in the meanwhile attempting to escape it. If it does not come as I expect, then I will have spent all the effort for nothing, in any case. Either way, I have lived as I wished."
"We can't live in fear of death. Not on a battlefield... not in mundane life, life is meant for living. After all, that's what I've been fighting for all this time, so people can live their lives and not be haunted by this specter of death," Lukina continued to smile. Her gauntlet gently started to beep at her. It was almost time. "I have to go. Will you be okay?"
"Dear child," Bhelith exclaimed softly. She kissed the girl's forehead, and then drew her into a hug a bit tighter than perhaps Lukina's present constitution strictly merited. Bhelith was a deal stronger than she looked, though this was only surprising in the sense that it was sudden. "Yes. I shall be fine, for a while yet."
Startled and surprised Lukina returned Bhelith's hug. "I'll come back soon, I promise."