Chapter 19: Weight of The Guard

For an autumn day, the heat was scorching. No cloud hid the sun as its rays hit the limestone of the Fleshing Arena walls, but the audience that roared from the rows didn’t seem to mind in the least. The bricks of their seats were burning and the tiles of the roof weren’t enough to shield them from the hot weather that heated the cement of the arena, but their eyes were solely focused on the show before their eyes. Two men clad in what was left of their blue and golden armor rolled to the sides as twirling axes nearly parted them in two. The Noxian crowd booed and rooted, but the Glorious Executioner’s laugh was louder.

At the top row of the arena, General Jericho Swain sat next to the Grand General’s empty seat. His small crimson eyes pretended to stare at the way Draven was raising his arms at the crowd, his bloodied twin axes twirling between his fingers after slashing a Demacian prisoner’s head. Swain didn’t react to the show even when the entire Fleshing Arena clapped their hands when the other prisoner began running for his life but finding no exit as the arena was round and its gates locked. On his right shoulder, Beatrice crowed and flapped her wings, signaling the arrival of another general.

Darius’ dark stare scanned the seats of the High Command. The Captain of the Raedsels seemed to be enjoying the show in silence, while Chancellor Hawkmoon clearly thought of something else as he was having a hushed conversation with Steward Varn. Darius quickly diverted his gaze from that hateful woman, and sat next to General Swain, setting his axe to the side and resting his elbows on his knees.

“I thought we would meet at the Iron Table,” he commented dryly.

“There is enough noise here so no one will bother listening to our private conversation,” Swain stated calmly, one of his clawed fingers reaching out to scratch Beatrice’s neck before she leaped down at the sight of fresh meat.

“What is that woman doing here?”

Swain’s crimson stare drifted to Invetia Varn, the two of them exchanging nods. “Basilich will support my claim as Grand General.”

Darius ran a hand over his stubble. “About that,” he said, “the Ivory Ward marketplace was completely destroyed. Noxus Prime is divided ever since Darkwill’s death.”

The balding man chuckled, leaning back into his seat. “It was certainly my mistake not to send the right officers on patrol last night.”

Frowning at the meaning behind that sentence, the warlord’s fists tightened. “What was the point?”

“I had very special guests down the Opal Street, Darius. But you don’t need to worry too much about it,” Swain reassured him. Resting both hands on his cane, he added, “A lot of Noxians will support your claim as the new leader of Noxus, if you ever were to stake it.”

Darius looked away from Swain, and almost shook his head at the sight of his brother bowing before the crowd, grinning like a child during Snowdown. Both he and his brother had seen the world, and years of battle and climbing the ranks of Noxus were showing on their faces. It seemed that the more lines appeared on their faces, the more scars marked their bodies, the stronger they became in battle. Darius perfectly knew that he had been supported by the entire people of Noxus ever since he executed his superior, General Cyrus, who cowardly wanted to surrender his troops to Demacia. The people stood behind him for years, even when he led the Ionian invasion and agreed with the use of Zaunite poison, and especially when he brought Noxus and Basilich back together.

“I do not plan on staking any claim,” Darius whispered, his gaze never leaving Draven’s face. “If you want us to secure an alliance, you have my word. I will stand by your side and gather my own supporters. I have no interest in becoming the next Grand General,” he admitted in a lower voice.

“I understand,” Swain smirked under his collar. Leaning on his cane to stand up, he added, “When a man promises a woman that they will conquer the world together and then cannot prevent her death, an Iron Crown doesn’t mean a thing.”

Darius refused to look at him, his jaw set straight.

“Because I consider you a friend,” Swain said as he limped away, Beatrice taking flight from her meal in the arena pit to follow him. “I suggest you’d move on. Quilleta Varn died many years ago.”

***

As he descended the two-hundred stairs that separated his private chambers to the main halls of the Crownguard Palace, Garen found it very hard not to cough his lungs out. Weeks had passed since he was brought home from Kalamanda, several healers patching his wounds as well as his comrades’. On the trip back to Demacia, Zelos wouldn’t stop talking about the bastard who took them on and sent them back with a lifetime of bruises. Elim himself wasn’t too pleased about the entire situation, but he was too vocal about it and eventually told the Journal of Justice what happened. With the news spreading faster than the plague, Garen hadn’t needed to confront the King about the recent events. He was ordered to rest, but Garen knew very well that the next time he would cross the gates of the Citadel, it could be the end of his military career. The unexpected fight in Kalamanda left him so weak, he hadn’t been able to look for the Crown Prince afterwards.

Garen leaned on the nearest wall as he walked down the hallway that led to the library. It had always been his favorite room in the entire palace, mostly because that was where he could be alone. As a child, the only person who would spent hours nosing through the books was his sister Luxanna, but ever since she disappeared, no one ever entered the library, except for the maids who kept it clean. Generations of books covered the walls up to the round ceiling of the cupola, and Garen always wondered how they didn’t fall from the shelves. The glass windows were colored in red, blue and yellow, casting warm hues everywhere inside the room. The Demacian soldier spotted his favorite chair, right in front of the small table where he used to drink a glass of rum while glancing through the window, but that was when his blue eyes caught the sight of his mother sitting in silence. Her thoughtful expression sent jolts of pain right where he was wounded, and he considered walking out.

“You finally emerged from your bedchambers,” Lilia commented, her amethyst gaze focused on the workers in the gardens.

“Forgive me for interrupting your time alone,” Garen muttered, ready to leave.

“Stay,” she ordered. Her elbow rested on the windowsill, her fingers brushing against her thinning lips. Her other hand brushed invisible dust away from her long, lilac dress, and she cleared her throat. “Lady Fiora Laurent stopped by after the Council’s session today,” she told him. “She didn’t say much, but I understood.” Glaring at her son, Lilia asked, “Why did you do this to our family?”

Garen gulped, his right hand holding his side as he forced himself not to sit down.

“You were always difficult,” Lilia said with a snarl. “When you were young, you would only spend your time with your sister or that questionable boy who ended up breaking his oath to Demacia,” she reminded him. “I thought you would never find a suitable bride, given the little interest you had for receptions and ladies.

“And then, there was the daughter of the Master at Arms. That little cunning tramp ended up pregnant with another man, but since she knew you liked her she let you believe that it was yours. I wouldn’t hear the end of it; you were ready to marry her on the spot,” Lilia recalled, pouring herself some honeyed rum. “It took a while for you to realize the truth.”

“You sent her at the Temple,” Garen added bitterly. “She died in childbirth, alone, because you wouldn’t let anyone visit her, not even her father.”

“Her father was at our service,” Lilia countered.

“Her child died shortly after.”

Gulping down the contents of the glass, Lilia moved on. “Then there was that actress at the Golden Round, Magga. How beautiful she was with her long chestnut hair and mahogany eyes. Your father had to sign a Council’s decree to force you away in High Silvermere, while we made sure that the actress left and never returned to the capital.”

Fisting his hands at his sides, Garen asked, “Why are we talking about this?”

“I want to know who managed to convince you to destroy our family,” Lilia answered coldly, rising from her seat.

Garen’s own stare turned icy. “It really doesn’t matter. I did it to honor a promise as well as tradition.”

“Whose tradition?” Lilia spat, her small hand grabbing his face. “I honored tradition when I married my own cousin at the age of fifteen and gave him two children before a new Rune War would begin. Now your father is dead and your sister abandoned the military. It’s only you and I left to carry the weight of the Guard and protect the kingdom from where we stand,” she reminded him, her voice breaking. “It’s only you and I,” she repeated. “You are my firstborn, Garen,” she cried angrily. “You will never understand how much a woman loves her firstborn, even when he dies in her womb or grows up to betray everything she believes in.”

His large hand grabbed hers, slowly bringing it to his lips. He placed an apologetical kiss on his mother’s knuckles. “I wish I could say that I am sorry,” Garen whispered, earning himself a heavy slap as Lilia tore her hand away from his and hit him.

“Leave,” she hissed, walking back to the window.

He didn’t need to be told twice. Stumbling out of the library, Garen’s body moved on its own as he stomped down the hallway and out of the palace, strapping his broadsword around his waist and covering his body with his long blue cape, never once looking back. His joints were aching and he could feel his wounds threatening to open, but he kept walking, ignoring the maids’ concerned looks and the guards that politely saluted him as he passed the gates.

Garen’s trimmed hair stuck to his scalp and face as the rain fell hard and he nearly slipped on the road to the Citadel of Dawn. The rain kept pouring from the skies, and around him merchants stored their goods away and children ran to the main squares to play, earning themselves loud scolding from their mothers who tried to block out the rain with large shawls over their heads. Garen felt the stiches on his face loosen and he winced, but his decision was made already. It was time that the Demacian Council quit deciding what was best and what wasn’t for the noblest houses of Demacia. If they decided to strip him from his privileges and sentence him to the Crown of Stone, he would be ready. His loyalty stood proudly for Demacia, but the decaying kingdom was missing its Prince, and Garen refused to take the blame for it again. A part of him tried to pull him away from the brash behavior he was ready to display, and it was only when a young boy ran into his legs and fell to the ground that Garen stopped in his tracks.

“Sorry,” the tanned boy apologized, rubbing his red nose.

“You should watch where you’re going,” Garen sighed, offering his hand.

The boy ignored him, rolling on all fours before standing up. “The Prince is here!” he shouted before running in the direction of the Citadel.

Garen frowned and stared at the child’s back for a second, before sprinting himself to the entrance of the royal palace. A massive crowd had gathered already, rejoicing and greeting Jarvan as he rode a Silvermeran mount. The armor he wore was the one he had in Kalamanda, but what caught Garen off-guard was the sight of two hooded prisoners chained to the saddle and walking behind the Crown Prince.

“Jarvan?” Garen whispered, refusing to believe that he was safe and alive.

The Crown Prince rode without even acknowledging the people who were screaming his name and offering him all sorts of presents, from fresh food to wet silk. Garen spotted one of Zelos’ men, Vel Karris, having trouble keeping the excited children away from Jarvan’s horse. The boy that had previously hit his nose against Garen’s knees was pulling at the breeches of the shortest prisoner.

“You have pretty hair,” he heard the boy comment before being grabbed by Karris and pushed away.

“Your Highness!” Garen shouted, his eyes lighting up when they met Jarvan’s startled gaze.

He walked past the royal guards and was only a couple inches away from the prisoners when the shorter one hid behind the horse, and Jarvan raised his hand to halt him.

“Back off, Crownguard,” Jarvan said coldly.

“Let me escort you to the Citadel and take the prisoners to the dungeons,” Garen nearly begged. “It is good to see you again, Your Highness,” he said with a faint smile.

Jarvan’s eye twitched, and he cleared his throat. “Your assistance isn’t needed, Captain,” he retorted, blinking away as the rain stopped pouring and the sunrays pierced through the dissipating clouds.

“Jarvan,” Garen protested, forgetting about court etiquette. “We have much to discuss.”

“And we will discuss everything there is to discuss,” Jarvan assured him. “But not today.”

Feeling the frustration and the humiliation boiling inside his chest, the Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard fisted the hilt of his broadsword. “Who are these prisoners?” he inquired, the crowd behind them whispering and inching forward.

Jarvan eyed the two hooded figures behind him, licking and biting his lower lip. “This is the business of the crown,” he stated. “Your loyalty is appreciated, Garen, but the Dauntless Vanguard has no place in this matter.” Lifting his retractable lance, he pointed at his friend. “Stand down,” he ordered with a glare that was more piercing than his father’s.

***

The East wing of the Citadel was guarded by a hundred men alone. Jarvan noted with displeasure that royal guards and soldiers of the Dauntless Vanguard stood around every corner, and he wondered what exactly was going on. He didn’t see Captain Laurent anywhere, and the two prisoners who walked behind him were beginning to fiddle with their chains. Jarvan tugged on Talon’s chains, his lips curving up when he heard him curse.

“What was that for?”

“For the way you dragged me around since Kalamanda,” Jarvan whispered, his blue eyes spotting Xin Zhao exiting the Citadel.

It seemed that the seneschal received his message, after all.

The ride back from Noxus had gone smoothly, Jarvan had to admit that much. They had stopped only once at the Howling Marsh, where he made sure to send an audiopathic message to Xin Zhao and let him know that he would arrive soon and needed to be escorted inside the Citadel of Dawn without being interrupted or questioned.

Jarvan didn’t think he would return to Demacia anytime soon, especially without Shyvana, but the folded piece of paper that Talon and Katarina had retrieved turned out to be a map of the Demacian dungeons left behind by General Du Couteau himself. Neither Talon or Katarina had a clue as to why the General hid the map or who gave it to him. Such documents were safely stored away in the War Tower, and only royals and their councilmen had access to it.

Nodding at the King’s seneschal, Jarvan dismounted and unlocked the chains that restrained his travel companions. “Why is this wing still guarded?” he asked. “I thought I was clear.”

“Your Highness,” Xin Zhao whispered, eyeing the soldiers and guards that wouldn’t budge. “The King decrees that the Royal Guards and the Dauntless Vanguard stay by the Crown’s side at any given moment, literally,” he informed the Crown Prince.

“Get Captain Laurent.”

Xin forced himself not to sigh at the request. “Captain Fiora Laurent was demoted after the King deemed her services not good enough for the protection of the Crown.”

Jarvan’s eyebrows knitted together. “What?” he asked, befuddled.

“Your Highness,” Xin went on in a hushed tone. “I suggest you visit your father at your earliest convenience. If King Jarvan II himself didn’t appoint me as the Lightshields’ steward, I would have been demoted as well. Your father was heavily injured in Kalamanda,” he explained calmly.

His words were a hard blow for the Crown Prince, who remained silent and nodded awkwardly. “I will,” he promised. “But we need these men to back off, or we won’t be able to ascend to my private apartments.”

Behind them, Talon cleared his throat to get their attention without having to speak. Jarvan huffed, taking a couple steps towards the assassin and leaning in to listen to whatever he had to say.

“Have the seneschal escort me to The Crossing,” he whispered quietly. “We still don’t know what the numbers on the map stand for, and I know exactly the person who might have the answers. And don’t forget about the summoning,” Talon reminded him with a hint of disdain in his voice.

“Xin Zhao,” Jarvan immediately called, putting aside the dislike he had for Talon. “There is one last thing I need to ask from you.”

The seneschal bowed his head. “Your Highness?”

“I need you to escort Talon at The Crossing. The sooner he gets there, the faster we can end this charade,” Jarvan explained. “On your way back, please find Luxanna Crownguard and bring her here.”

“I reckon the Circle of Illuminators and their headquarters aren’t easy to find,” Xin retorted, a pensive look on his face.

“Lady Buvelle is their benefactor,” Talon spoke up, recalling Luxanna’s words perfectly.

Xin Zhao and the Crown Prince exchanged looks briefly before the seneschal cleared his throat, his almond eyes never leaving Jarvan’s decisive stare when he ordered, “Guards!”

Royal guards and soldiers readied their weapons in unison.

“Break the ranks! March.”

“Jarvan,” Garen’s voice reached their ears. “Forgive me, but I really believe we should talk now,” he said, walking towards the Crown Prince and the King’s seneschal without realizing how surprised they both were to see he had disobeyed the Prince’s previous orders.

The royal guards hesitantly began to march away from the gates of the eastern wing when the Dauntless Vanguard unsheathed their weapons. Jarvan and Xin immediately whipped their heads around, wondering what was happening. Clouds quickly covered the setting sun as the wind blew harshly, and Talon’s eyes widened at the sight of Katarina’s hood falling back, her long red locks breaking free.

“Assassin!” one of the soldiers yelled, and Jarvan’s eyes traveled from Garen to the man who was ready to charge at them.

“Thell, care!” another soldier shouted, holding him back and staring at the Sinister Blade in horror.

Katarina stood frozen in place as a third soldier pushed the other two to the side and brandished his sword, moving fast and ready to strike. Never had the cold metal of her restraints felt heavier. She tried to walk backwards, but the chains around her ankles caused her to stumble down. The blonde man who stared at her in pure hatred repeated the word assassin, and she closed her eyes, keeping her breath in.

The shrill sound of steel meeting steel caused her to snap her eyes open, and she saw Garen block the blow with his own sword, using only his left hand to hold his weapon for the first time. The two blades shook with the impact, and if it wasn’t for Talon, Katarina would still be sitting on the ground.

“I gave you no order, Elim Relgar,” Garen snarled.

“She burned our mausoleum to the ground,” the soldier said angrily. “She’s here, disguised as a prisoner, to harm our Prince!” he roared, headbutting Garen to push him aside.

Wiping the blood that spilled from the corner of his mouth, Garen readied his sword to parry another blow, noting how Relgar grimaced every time he was about to strike, giving away his moves by doing so. Garen countered each strike with ease, having trained the Vanguard soldiers himself. Relgar’s moves were his own, but he was faster.

Blue eyes narrowed at the sound of a third blade being unsheathed and from the corner of his right eye he spotted his man bring the shortest sword he carried to his throat. Garen’s heart stopped beating, and with one swift movement, he fisted the hilt of his weapon with both hands and drove it inside Elim Relgar’s chest, right between the slit of his chest plate and up to his throat. The soldier dropped his blades, staring wide-eyed at his captain, blood spurting from his mouth. His knees were starting to give way under him, and Garen held him by the shoulder for a second.

“Ca-captain,” he heard him say, more blood spilling down his chin.

Garen inched his sword inside until he felt Relgar’s spine crack, and the soldier fell to the ground. Cold blue eyes stared at his dirtied hands then glanced behind him, where Jarvan tilted his head in confusion and the other soldiers of the Dauntless Vanguard sent horrified looks at him. Garen felt dizzy as he stared at his bloodied hands again, but swallowed the disgust he felt for his own actions.

Wiping his blade with his forearm, Garen ordered his remaining men, “Break the ranks,” before he walked away.

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