Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Ciel escorts her mistress, Jaan Whitestar, to Court, where they have been summoned. An orphan from the poorest part of town, Ciel is awed to be introduced into this awesome, terrifying world of demons and nobles.
To know more, read Chapter 6.
Tall Gothic windows tinted the light blue. The glow bounced under the high ceilings, floor to wall, wall to wall, turning the air silvery. The clean lines of the architecture and furniture reminded Ciel of a church, although the crowd wasn’t Sunday-morning appropriate.
The lady’s outfit was sober compared to the courtiers’ garbs. Masks and feathers were a dime a dozen. Most women – and some men – wore corsets that cut them hourglass figures and crinolines as wide as overturned boats. High-pitched laughter, music and singing greeted Ciel and her mistress when they stepped out of the elevator, and a rainbow of colors. The servant to master ratio was high, of course – well over two to one, but the black-garbed domestics had made an art out of disappearing in the shadows.
The lady stopped on the threshold of the first room. Ciel did too, three feet behind her on the red carpet, eyes riveted to her mistress’s nape and forbidden to roam. A hush fell upon the Court, and the nobles parted to let the lady stroll inside. Her profile was guarded like never before, only a hint of tight-lipped distaste showing.
She halted again between two Scythers at the next doorway. Someone knocked three times and two voices rose simultaneously, one singing a name in the flowing syllables of the high language, the other declaiming, “Lady Jaan, Retzar of the Saorimen, High Priestess of the Moacabi, Herald of the Saoshalnild, Head of the Whitestar Family, Personal Magician of the Queen, Lady of Whitestar. All hail!”
Impossible not to sneak a long, sweeping look around. Those courtiers who weren’t stony-faced bubbled with a kind of nervous excitement.
“All hail!” echoed the other voice.
A murmuring sea of people had flowed back in the lady’s wake. They bowed as one man. Ciel thought she was meant to bow when the lady bowed, and not to when the lady didn’t, but she was feeling very hot and she wished she could bow with them and escape their attention.
The lady waved the Courtiers back to their feet, then took one step into the Crown Room and fell on one knee. Genuflections were reserved for men, for soldiers. Women curtseyed, servants bowed. The faithful prostrated themselves. Ciel prostrated herself, on her elbows and knees on the red carpet.
“Rise, my White Star.”
The Queen’s voice reverberated throughout the Crown Room. Ciel risked a glance at her mistress, who was rising with her customary grace. Ciel did too – not nearly as gracefully. Their five-feet-two queen seemed a little lost at the end of the red carpet but, then, who wasn’t a little undersized for the throne? It could sit twelve.
“Approach, child,” she boomed in a voice that had to be magically amplified.
The lady walked down the carpet, Ciel trailing behind her. Up close, the Queen looked tiny and mightily displeased. But, then, going by the expression on her face, she was rarely pleased.
Precious little was known of the first twenty-eight years of Fantine's life. Country gentry with but a vein of royal blood, she wasn’t meant to rise to the Throne. After her predecessor's untimely assassination and an unfortunate Plague outbreak, however, she had been the only candidate left in line. Her earliest official portrait hung on the wall behind the Throne. They depicted a girl of simple tastes and of average looks, neither plain nor pretty, but gifted with a serious nature that showed in her big blue eyes.
The woman under the portrait was unrecognizable but for that core of staidness. Now a round woman in her late sixties, her fatness failed to give her a jolly countenance, her face was lined too deeply into a mask of silent grief and unforgiving sternness.
There was no vanity in her appearance. She wore the crown in its simplest guise – a plain gold circlet on her steel gray hair. Her gown was of unrelenting black, except for the royal blue star and scythe motives that circled her neck, wrists and the hem of her skirts. She had spent her entire reign in mourning – for her predecessor, for her King, for the child she then lost to assassins. Ciel couldn’t imagine the pain of losing a daughter, let alone the guilt of knowing that she had died in your stead.
The Crown Room was packed but no one stood within six feet of the Queen, except for three characters that Ciel immediately elected as the most interesting people in the room.
One, she recognized as a regular in the newspapers. He was tall and thin, hard as the steel of his renown sword, his balding head cotton white in places and shiny pink in others. A cousin of the Queen, more country than gentry, his loyalty to the Crown was unconditional. Fantine had granted him a Dukedom, and he had run twelve of her governments before settling down in Brimstone, the Runners’ headquarters. His name was Antil Jevver, Grand Duke of Yelldove.
He hovered like a vulture near the Queen. On her other side were a couple of exotic birds. A male and a female, their beauty and youthfulness set them apart from the human servants, even if they were obviously servants of a sort, clad in the same shades as their mistress.
Body-guards, Ciel thought.
The male wore as finely-worked a sword as Lady Whitestar’s. He was pretty, his features perfectly balanced, his face round, a spatter of freckles on his nose and cheekbones, his hair honey blond down to the thick lashes shading his clear blue eyes. The woman’s face was leaner, hungrier. She had high, aristocratic cheekbones, darker hair, almost chestnut, darker eyes too. There was a kind of hardness in her. The only weapons she appeared to be carrying were the silver hairpins in her hair, but she was the most intimidating of the two.
Ciel, uneasy, didn’t like the way they stared at Lady Whitestar with raw hunger in their eyes.
“You look well,” the Queen boomed, almost in accusation.
The lady bowed her head to her in apparent contrition.
“What? Nothing to say, my White Star?”
“I wouldn’t interrupt Your Majesty…Your Majesty.”
A dead quiet fell. Ciel’s eyes went wide at her mistress's gall. Only when the Queen started crackling with rusty laughter, did she start breathing again.
“Oh, your cheek, child…”
Again, the tilt of the lady's head spoke for her, betraying pleasure at the Queen’s amusement.
“Sit with me, White Star.”
The Queen propelled herself to her feet, throwing the whole Court flat on their faces. The lady merely bowed her head. Ciel bent her entire torso, praying she wasn't too far out of line. The Twins helped Her Majesty down the stairs and stuck close to her as she made her way out of the Crown Room, down a hallway and into a plush sitting room.
Ciel, who had followed her mistress, started sweating. Was she supposed to sit? Was it rude to remain standing while the Queen and her lady sat?
The Queen sat first, then the lady, then the Grand Duke of Yelldove, then the female twin. Since nobody else followed suit, Ciel clasped her hands together and remained three feet behind her lady's seat, hoping something happened before her legs went to sleep.
“Miss Greenwave,” Queen Fantine snapped like an order.
The sitting twin closed her eyes and touched the tip of her fingers to her forehead. Ciel’s skin tingled, her ears popped, and she knew a ward had been erected around them.
“Greenwave,” the lady repeated under her breath. Miss Greenwave perked up like an eager puppy. “I knew your face was familiar. Minthe, is it?” Lady Whitestar’s lips curved up at the corners. “You are all grown-up now. Last time I saw you, you were a bundle in your mother’s arms.”
“I know, Salcar. I’m so…” Miss Greenwave faltered, suddenly realizing that she was speaking out of turn. When the Queen didn’t scold her, she finished, chagrined, “…honored.”
The lady, well-versed in the ways of the Court, looked at the male twin, then back to Her Majesty, in silent inquiry.
“You’re curious, I imagine.” the Queen said. “Introduce yourself, boy.”
He bowed. “Vian Pathred, Salcar. Absolutely delighted to make your acquaintance.”
The Queen seemed disappointed at Lady Whitestar’s lack of reaction. “Don’t be so tight-lipped, my White Star. You’re amongst friends.”
The lady’s smile was cautious, toothless. “I congratulate Your Majesty on her friends. Two saoshalnen…A Whitestar magician has to feel surplus to requirements.”
“True. I’ve asked little of you so far, my White Star.”
“Your Majesty has been the embodiment of patience.”
The Queen smiled for real, at long last. “Flattery will get you anywhere. Almost. Yelldove, get us your boys.”
The Grand Duke opened the opposite door to two men in Runners’ black. They fell in a deep bow before Ciel could see their face, but the one on the right reminded her of someone – the wide shoulders, the full head of white gold hair…
Faran Grady rose. To be fair, the man on his right rose too. But Ciel didn’t care because Grady's face was a sight, exhausted, rumpled and glassy-eyed. He seemed surprised to find himself standing before the Queen. Wearily, he moved on to take in the rest of them. He didn’t notice Ciel, but she was getting used to being invisible. The moment he saw the lady, however, sticking out beautifully on her colorless background now, his face went completely slack.
He was stunned. Speechless. Heat bloomed in his eyes before he could blink it away. He looked down, cheeks flushed red, and Ciel wondered if he was ashamed and how long it would take him to use his admiration as well to fuel his hate of Jaan Whitestar.
Finding that she couldn’t read his face anymore, Ciel studied the other runner. He was older – mid-sixties to early seventies. He was bald, long and desiccated, and faced the Queen, tense and brittle as a nervous cat.
“Hail my White Star, Runners.”
They bowed to the lady. Ciel wondered how much that rankled for Faran Grady.
“Rise,” the lady said almost immediately.
Grady's face was scarlet, his eyes resentful. The man really hated too easily. In the silence that followed, the lady smiled her patented smile, forgiving him like one would forgive a wayward child.
Yelldove’s voice cut through the tension, “Make your report, Runners. The Queen listens.”
“A drone and the young saÿrim she was nursing were killed yesterday in Fisher’s Hills.”
The news rang hollowly through the sitting room. Ciel, chilled to the bone, thought, ‘So, that’s what they think of doing when they glare at us on the street…’
“A mob?” their ruler asked.
The Queen repeated, “‘Seems so’?”
“Ash Dogs,” the older runner replied.
“They left no witness,” Grady explained.
There was a beat or two of silence. Ciel couldn’t decide whose death they were mourning: the graent, the baby saÿrim or the slaughtered humans.
“Any connection to the recent anti-magic movements in the human population?”
“It’s likely, Your Majesty.”
Grady clicked his tongue disapprovingly and his colleague glared at him.
“You disagree, runner?” the Queen asked.
“I do, Your Majesty. I don’t believe that the New Inquisition is deliberately trying to cause pogroms. They only contribute to a general atmosphere of hostility toward the so…the saÿrimen.”
“Any proof of that?”
“No, Your Majesty,” he admitted. “No proof but…”
“Runner Grady is making wild guesses, Your Majesty,” the older runner said, smirking.
“I am nonetheless curious to hear him out,” Lady Jaan said.
Grady managed not to look in any way grateful. The man truly had an amazing gift.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said tonelessly before focusing on the Queen, “All I’ve got are strong suspicions. The New Inquisition isn’t as new as it sounds: I unearthed pamphlets in our archives dating back three decades. They were a fringe group until the recent rash of saÿrimal-related murders.”
“Something similar happened during the Three Bloody Winters,” the lady offered.
He nodded. “Right. The ever-increasing number of victims fosters an atmosphere of panic and rage in the human population. Perfect circumstances for a riot, and hate groups gain a greater following, but that’s entirely contingent. Back in the days, it would have been anti-war terrorism and pro-Krimean activity. Today, it’s saÿrimen-haters and anarchists.”
The Queen cleared her throat. “Runner Grader’s theory does have merits,” she told the older runner. “Who is working on it?”
“Your Majesty,” he stammered. “We…We…We already have a lot of personnel deployed on the ground watching the New Inquisition.”
“That’s good,” she said, and the man puffed up proudly. “But-” He deflated. “-if your colleague is right, watching the New Inquisition won't help you predict or avoid more violent outbreaks. Runner Grady, what would you do next?”
“Well…Your Majesty…” Grady glanced around hesitantly. Surprise, surprise, when neither his colleague nor his superior seemed willing to intervene, he turned a silent plea to the lady. Ciel valiantly tried not to smirk when her mistress didn't fly to his rescue. He had to brazen it out on his own, “There is an attested increase in saÿrimal murders. I’ve come to wonder why.”
“Are you saying that saÿrimen activity, not human activity, is to be blamed for the mob violence incidents?”
“No…yes…it’s…” He sighed. “I don’t think it should be about assigning blame, Your Majesty. We’re looking for the causes of what could very well be an accidental occurrence: the recent peak in saÿrimal deaths.”
“Hm.” The Queen looked thoughtful. “It seems to me that Runner Apelroth and Runner Grady are looking at the same phenomenon from two different angles. Both points of view seem equally worthy to me. What do you think, my White Star?”
“I agree, Your Majesty. Maybe the Runners’ investigations could run parallel. Runner Apelroth seems to have anti-saÿrimen activities well in hand. An investigation into the increase in saÿrimal-related deaths doesn't look like it would hinder him.”
“Well-put, well-put, my White Star. I have it in good authority that the current thinness of the sao could be impacting saÿrimen. Do you agree?”
“I do, Your Majesty. The sao is thin. It has been a cause of worry for me and mine in recent months.”
“Runner Grady is ill-equipped to investigate sao-related matters, wouldn’t you say?”
“Runner Grady is…” The lady's voice trailed off as she studied the runner from every angle, as if clapping eyes on him for the first time, and he tensed. “…quite capable, Your Majesty. A bit too headstrong and a bit too outspoken, if one is looking for flaws, but a very good investigator.”
Again, that blush, but it could have been anger at being spoken of so rudely, especially since the Queen went on as if he wasn’t in the room, “But not a natural caster, right?”
“No, Your Majesty. Although Runner Grady probably has a few magical tricks up his sleeves, as is often the case with Runners, he is not a natural caster and has no sense of the sao.”
“Shall I take him off this investigation, then? Hand it over to one of his more sensitive colleagues?”
Only Grady's balled fists betrayed his anger. Except for his colleague, who was still gaping at the Queen, and Minthe Greenwave, who hadn’t yet stopped gawking at the lady, everybody was watching him.
“I believe that Runner Grady's lack of magical prowess will not necessarily hinder the investigation, Your Majesty.” He relaxed; he probably wouldn’t have lived down the insult to his professional pride. “His stubbornness and dedication will serve him well – his belief in his theory, his dedication to proving it. He will not be distracted. One would be hard-pressed to find all those qualities in a more sensitive runner.”
There was an insult somewhere in there. Grady didn’t look like he cared a hoot.
Talk about being dedicated to your job, Ciel thought.
“Is that true, Runner Grady?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Grady put a hand to his heart and humbly bowed his head. “I’m everything Lady Whitestar said. I’m stubborn to a fault, and I believe that the truth lies with these dead-bodies on the docks, and I won’t rest until I’ve found it.”
“Very well. Then, my White Star will assist in your investigation.” His face fell. Ciel, who had seen it coming from a mile away, wanted to laugh despite the gravity of the hour. “You will be partners.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the lady replied coolly.
“Lady Whitestar is to help in my investigation,” Runner Apelroth said slowly, dazedly.
The Queen ignored him. “My White Star will be a great help to you,” she said, sitting farther back in her plush armchair.
Ciel couldn’t decide whether she was ordering it so, foretelling the future, gloating or – same as them – praying the stars that it would be so. The New Inquisition, thin sao, pogroms and saÿrimen superiority advocates didn't sound too good.
Actually, the lady and Faran Grady working on it together didn't sound much better at all. But Ciel knew there was nothing she could do about that.
The Queen stood up, propelling them all to their feet. The faint buzzing in Ciel’s ears stopped. The ward shielding the privacy of their conversation had been brought down.
In clear dismissal, Her Majesty trumpeted, “We’re pleased you came, Whitestar, we hope we’ll be seeing more of you.”
In an unusual display of emotion, the lady winced, but Ciel was probably the only one who noticed, since her mistress’s face was adverted, and her voice sounded serene as ever, “Yes, Your Majesty.”
We are pleased.
Ciel sincerely hoped that it was a royal ‘we’. It didn’t bode well for the country if the Queen really believed that her statement reflected the general view in her Court. The atmosphere, as they threaded their way through the gaggle of courtiers, was one of defiant hostility, not of welcome.
Nobody wanted Jaan Whitestar there – not even the lady herself. Nobody but the Queen.
Ciel was almost glad that the crowd parted before them as if they were plague-ridden: it had suddenly occurred to her that it would be hell to forge her way otherwise – one doesn’t elbow one’s superiors.
At long last, they reached the bank of elevators. Ciel started breathing easier once inside. The lady must have heard her suck in a breath because she forestalled the question, “Remember what I told you, Miss Sarven.”
Eyes and ears everywhere, Ciel remembered. She would have to bite back her curiosity until they were safely back behind protective wards. Because she wouldn’t ask them yet, it didn’t mean that she couldn’t make a list, though, Were Greenwave and Pathred saorimen? What were saoshalnen? What was their connection to the Queen? To the lady? Why did they look at her with such awe in their eyes? Why had the Queen pretended that she wasn’t planning on making the lady and Grady work together right from the beginning? What did the lady know about investigating? Would she involve Ciel in it? Where could Ciel get a gun and silver bullets?
Important, that last one. Definitely.
Why had the Queen’s man called the lady a retzar? Did she hold the same function Archblue did, albeit amongst the Saorimen? What were those other titles? Why did everyone seem so wary of her? Was that the reason why she seemed to have no taste for Court?
“We will take a walk through the park,” the lady said – and though it had nothing to do with her cold reminder, anyone listening in would have thought it did. “It is truly a thing of beauty. Nothing like the stuffy, crowded rooms of the Palace.”
Though her tone was one of command, the intent behind it was kind. Again, Ciel wondered if the lady could read her mind. She added that to her growing list.
Could the lady read her mind? If she was so powerful a magician, what could she do beside healing? How would she help Grady find out why the sao was so thin?
“Hm. Yes, my lady.”
And why the hell was she so tolerant of that rude asshole of a runner?! Was it truly that she admired him or was he simply an entertaining bug that happened to be related to one of the lady’s faithful retainers?
Ciel decided she probably wouldn’t ask that last question. Not like she would get a straight answer. In her experience, consciously or not, people rarely ever admitted to their true motivations when it came to interpersonal relationships.
To know how the nice tour of the Palace grounds turn out, read Chapter 8.
Spoiler alert: bad surprise coming up for Ciel.