Chapter 21: Steel and Blood

Past the twin statues that stood back to back in the middle of the Hall of Valor, the walls shadowed by the columns of the cemetery were covered in tombstones. The names of the proudest warriors of Demacia reminded every inhabitant of the Citadel of Dawn who they owed their lives to. The entire place shone like a mirror and reflected the figures who dared crossing it, from the marble floor to the polished petricite columns that held an open cupola together. The sun peeked timidly through the clouds. The Harrowing was still not over.

Garen’s dull blue eyes stared blankly at the name before him.

Ser Elim Relgar

Knight of Valor

Officer of the Dauntless Vanguard

2 May, 14 BCLE – 30 September, 21 CLE

“Garen,” a masculine voice called behind him.

The Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard didn’t need to turn around to figure out who it was. Ever since the death of Relgar, he had spent every morning in the Hall of Valor. Zelos would be around each and every time, as if to be ready in case Garen wanted to ask him or tell him anything. He appreciated the concern, but having a second shadow following him around wasn’t pleasant in the least. Zelos would be there from the walk down the Temple of the Lightbringers up to the Hall of Valor. The Citadel was large enough and Zelos’ duties heavy enough not to have him around all the time. Yet, the Captain of the King’s Guard wouldn’t leave him be.

Garen would have ignored his presence, just like every day, but this time he decided to speak. “He deserved to be court martialed,” he said plainly, “instead of getting butchered in front of his own men.”

Zelos’ hazel eyes glanced at the gravestone. “Their captain was away for over a year, Garen. These men learned how to make their own decisions and since they were left in charge with the protection of the capital, they also learned how to think for themselves and for the safety of the people,” he explained, placing a hand on the taller man’s shoulder. “You could have predicted his brashness,” Zelos added, “but what you did was a clear reminder of who is in charge.”

“You don’t believe a word of that yourself,” Garen brushed off his speech. “He didn’t have to die.”

Growing annoyed at the fellow captain’s behavior, Zelos crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall, his head covering Relgar’s name and forcing Garen to look at him. “Then, why did you kill him? Why are we here every day?”

Deep blue eyes looked at him in a mixture of desperation and anger, and Zelos felt his annoyance disappear, only to be replaced with fear.

“There is a disease growing inside me,” Garen confessed shamefully. “I can feel it spread and take over my mind. It speaks before I can even process my actions, and it only brought death into this world.” Licking his dry lips, he went on, “Sometimes I feel my heart tighten so hard that I want to tear my chest open and stab myself repeatedly.”

Zelos lowered his gaze, shaking his head slightly. “You are not ill, Garen,” he replied in a lighter tone. “A wise friend of mine once told me back that there is simply no cure for fools.”

Garen frowned at the Ionian before him. “You are a jerk.”

Zelos cracked a smile, and Garen himself felt the sourness of his mood shake away. The two captains stood in silence, occasionally glancing back at the fallen soldier’s grave.

“Today is the day of the First Light,” the Ionian eventually spoke quietly. “The Crown Prince expects us at the Grand Plaza this afternoon, for his announcement. We should probably get ready.”

Garen nodded at that, perfectly aware of the time. Granted, Jarvan hadn’t said much ever since his return to Demacia with Katarina and the shady figure she considered to be her younger brother, but Garen didn’t need to be told everything to understand that there was more to it than just political schemes. He wished many times he could gather his own wits and confront Jarvan about it, but the possibility that he would have to see Katarina again held him back and he never felt weaker.

Zelos suddenly cleared his throat and whispered, “Xin Zhao is here.”

Before the Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard could turn around, a voice he never thought he would hear again reached his ears.

“Garen?”

The Might of Demacia grabbed Zelos’ upper arm as if to make sure that the entire scene was real. He stumbled as he turned around, his eyes widening upon seeing the uneasy smile of a short, blonde woman dressed in common garments. She still looked like a teenager, and her big, baby blue eyes still bore the innocence of many years ago.

“Lux?”

“The Crown Prince requested her presence,” the seneschal explained, “but I figured you would want to see her first.”

Garen let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding and the moment his younger sister ran up to him, he held her in his arms, lifting her from the ground. His gloved fingers tangled in her shoulder-length hair, and when she sobbed uncontrollably in his chest, he himself found it difficult not to break down. Over ten years had passed since he last saw her, and he was never able to get in touch with her. Luxanna fisted the collar of his cape, her body nearly disappearing in the mass of armor as her brother held her close.

Xin Zhao and Zelos exchanged looks, both deciding to leave the siblings alone for a moment. As to not intrude, the two men left the back of the Hall of Valor, their footsteps echoing through the building as their boots clicked on the marble floor.

***

“Everything is ready, Your Highness,” the coachman informed him.

Prince Jarvan IV nodded, never once looking away from the window. His eyes drifted from the winged creatures painted on the glass to the crowd that had gathered outside. His citizens had come to the Grand Plaza, and the noise they made was deafening. Twin Silvermeran mounts dragged his carriage down the Street of Sapphires and beside him, Katarina’s hands fidgeted in her lap. She had decided to wear her official High Command uniform, and for the event, Jarvan had authorized her to retrieve her weapons. Her black cherry uniform was slightly revealing; the corset left her abdomen exposed and the ties on her pants barely covered the side of her thighs. But what really drew attention was the crest of Noxus that adorned her knee caps, belt and blades. Garen and Talon sat across from them in silence, both looking away and wishing they were somewhere else.

Right before they exited the Citadel to reach the Grand Plaza, Xin Zhao had informed Jarvan about Luxanna Crownguard’s arrival. As much as he wanted to get all the information he needed from the young woman, he first had to set the record straight when it came to the Institute of War. It was his time to prove himself and the kingdom that extended knowledge was the most valuable quality they could have, and that it was time to put aside prejudice and old feuds. If he could make his people open to a political alliance with Noxus, he could also shatter the idea that magic was never used for good means and dangerous creatures always prone to destruction. Shyvana would then be able to live freely, without having to hide her true nature. She was his priority, and after his statement, he wouldn’t rest until he would find her and bring her back to a better home he would have built himself.

The carriage came to a halt, and the four people inside got off, hurrying on the pedestal at the feet of the Statue of Valor, right at the center of the Grand Plaza, a statue that was merely a copy of the one at the Hall of Valor.

Cries had risen around them, the crowd pushing and pointing fingers at the sight of a Noxian agent standing at the Prince’s side. Talon remained in the shadow of the statue, but he was well aware of the fact that he had been seen too. His brown eyes spotted the sight of Quinn and her azurite eagle at the far end of the plaza, the two of them perched on top of one of the columns that surrounded the area.

“Assassin!” someone shouted at their left.

One of the merchants reached inside his cart to crush a tomato in his hands and threw it at them, aiming at Katarina. It was flung past the row of royal guards that surrounded the Crown Prince and his guests, and Garen lifted the shield he decided to bring along before the rotten good reached one of them. He lifted an eyebrow at Jarvan, silently telling him that this was to be expected.

Jarvan sighed loudly before raising both hands, demanding the people’s attention. “Citizens of Demacia,” he shouted. “I asked all of you to gather here to tell you in person the truth that you all need to know. Word could have been spread through the Council’s announcements, and Lady Du Couteau could have stayed within the safe walls of her own home, but we decided to stand here, before you, because it is what you deserve.”

Behind him, Talon rolled his eyes as the crowd fell silent. Only whispers could be heard here and there.

“There was never a war between the Kingdom of Demacia and the Empire of Noxus,” Jarvan revealed, cries and protests rising once more. Raising his voice, he went on, “Lady Du Couteau’s father, General Marcus Du Couteau, left the Noxian High Command to gather clues he led us to, clues and proof of a very aggravating situation.

“Last year, the DSS Excursion was reported lost at sea and the men on board victims of black magic, and soon accusations were made against Noxus, for it is known that Noxus and Zaun study the arcane arts at their respective academies. The Institute of War sent their own representatives and one of the League Champions, Kayle The Judicator, to investigate, but it was a charade—the Institute was behind the crime against our Kingdom, as the trading orders all originated from High Councilor Heywan Relivash.

“The purchase of the Nyzer poison that killed one of us, Officer Thom Garvin, was also made on behalf of the Institute of War. Ralston Farnsley himself, the editor-in-chief of the well-known Journal of Justice, placed the order,” Jarvan announced, earning gasps and bewildered looks from the people who carefully listened to him.

Garen himself stood gaping at his Crown Prince as he learned the truth along with the rest of the Demacian citizens.

“This woman beside me,” the Crown Prince continued, “was framed for crimes she didn’t commit, right here in the heart of the capital. Her ruler was brutally assassinated on his way to Kalamanda, right when he was about to discuss an agreement with my father, your King, when it came to the situation that was on the verge of a major disaster.

“Why, you may ask,” Jarvan paused, catching his breath and trying not to let his anger take over. “The Institute of War never wanted the city-states of Valoran to come up with an agreement when it came to the nexuses in Kalamanda,” he explained. “Right as we speak, they are completing the building of the Crystal Scar, right where people once lived peacefully—people who were chased away from their homes.

“The control of every nexus, of every form of magic blinded them to the point where they did everything they could to bring Demacia and Noxus against each other once again. They conspired with the rottenest figures they could find within the Noxian government, individuals who betrayed their own Grand General, to seize power.

“The Crystal Scar, they call it,” Jarvan repeated with disdain. “But what about our own scars?” he asked the people who began nodding at him. “What about them?” he shouted, his voice cracking as he roared. Offering his right hand to Katarina, who immediately took it, he declared, “From this day on, we must stand together until the League itself answers for this injustice. I chose to come forward on the day of the First Light as a symbol of a new era—an era that I want you to support.”

A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face as the crowd of thousand people remained silent. Katarina’s own dark green eyes scanned the crowd uneasily, keeping her back straight as to not let them believe that she felt any form of hesitation when it came to Jarvan’s declaration. Briefly, she glanced up at Garen, who found it hard to mask his anger at the revelation of the Institute’s conspiracy.

A middle-aged woman raised her hand at the Crown Prince, yelling, “Ho-xallāh!”

It wasn’t long until several people mimicked her actions, and the Grand Plaza quickly filled with blessings.

Katarina felt the weight in her chest being lifted, her confused expression directed at Jarvan. He held her hand before raising it as a response, and he whispered with a genuine smile, “It’s Ancient Demacian for ‘and may God will it’,” he answered.

The Sinister Blade of Noxus didn’t fight back the smile that appeared on her own lips, and she quickly turned her head to look at Talon, only to realize he wasn’t there anymore.

***

Ho-xallāh!”

He was leaning against one of the pillars that held the shelters of the plaza together. The clean leather of his clothes was of a mahogany color that complimented the golden crest embroidered on his long, crimson cape. He wore no armor, and even his heeled boots were free of spiky plates. Talon approached in silence, wondering why there was no trace of his broadsword, not even under the thick cape that draped his body. His hair was significantly shorter, he noted. The trimmed auburn hair was barely longer than his growing beard, but his emerald eyes still glinted with pride and malice.

Talon followed his gaze, which was entirely directed at the woman on the altar. Reaching inside his pocket, the assassin retrieved the pendant Quinn had given him previously. “You lost it,” he said, tossing the jewel at the man’s back.

He caught it perfectly in his hand, not even bothering to move.

Marcus eventually turned around to face him with a wide, sad smile on his face. From the scar on the bridge of his nose to the thick eyebrows, Talon recognized every bit of the man.

“Will you talk to her?” he asked, keeping a straight face to mask the way he really felt about the General.

Marcus’ smile only widened. “No,” he answered. “I am perfectly content.”

Talon’s hands curled into fists. “What about how she feels?”

“My daughter is perfectly happy,” the General countered, nodding at the scene before them. “This was always her place.”

“Your daughter,” the hooded assassin retorted, “is a trained agent of the High Command. She will one day become the Headmistress of House Du Couteau and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ever took over the Deathmasters’ Order as well.”

“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “If that is what she wants. All she must do is decide what she really wants. Not everyone is lucky enough to make that kind of choice. But I wanted both of you to be able to decide.”

Talon scoffed. “It is best if we don’t talk about that little game you played in Uwendale.”

The General looked back at him, shifting his weight against the column and crossing his arms behind his back. “I wasn’t talking about that,” he whispered calmly. “When I left Noxus Prime you had a choice; you were supposed to serve me, not my family. I was gone, yet you stayed. You made your choice. Kaety made hers, and we’re all here today.” Leaving his spot and taking a couple steps towards Talon, he added, “Family is the only thing that ever mattered to me.”

Staring into the General’s eyes, Talon sneered at him. “And how do you expect to protect your family? You left the High Command, Darkwill died because of that and every journal reports Swain’s victory against Darkwill’s son. Well done, General,” he mocked. “Now we have a ruler who sides against the old families of Noxus, and who obviously schemed along with the Institute of War.”

Marcus grabbed Talon by the shoulder, his own stare darkening. “Swain took something from me,” he told him. “I live for the day I will have put everything Swain wants in his hands, only to take it away with steel and blood.”

Patting the young man’s shoulder, Marcus glanced one last time at Katarina, and walked away from the Grand Plaza.

***

The corridor that connected Prince Jarvan IV’s private apartments to the Red Chambers was permanently empty, silent and brightly illuminated. Katarina walked in silence, her heels clicking on the floor with every step, and her deep stare was solely directed at the blue torches that lightened the path. For the past few weeks in Demacia City, she had been escorted to the Red Chambers by the King’s seneschal, following the Crown Prince’s direct order at the end of every day. The fact that Xin Zhao was not walking in front of her but instead, Garen was, made things less easy for her. The seneschal’s presence had been requested by the King himself, and Jarvan had simply shrugged it off by ordering Garen to escort her, preferring to be left alone to discuss confidential matters with Luxanna Crownguard. Katarina knew that Garen wanted to stay with them, with his sister, rather than acting as her personal guard.

The uneasiness and discomfort between them was new to her. She had felt many things for him—hatred, rivalry, affection, but dead silences were never a part of anything they shared. Katarina let out a sigh at the sight of the red doors of her bedchambers. At least, it was over, she figured.

“Captain Zelos informed me that Officer Karris isn’t on duty tonight,” Garen told her in a professional tone. “His daughter was born earlier today. Given the fact that Jarvan allows only a few soldiers to guard your door, it will be my duty tonight,” he added, opening the red doors and waiting for her to get in.

The confusion and hesitation that previously marked her features disappeared, leaving only anger. Katarina glared at him before moving behind him and pushing him inside using both hands. She kicked the large door behind her, her cheeks becoming redder by the second.

“That is all you have to say?” she shouted in his face. “The last time I talked to you was two months ago. And all you have to say now is that you will guard my doors?” she scoffed. “First of all, I don’t need any guard at my door; give me a candleholder and I will murder the first unwanted guest who tries to sneak in. Second of all,” Katarina paused, lowering her voice, “you never came back. Why?”

Lowering his gaze to the marble floor beneath their feet, Garen replied quietly, “I did. Twice,” he added. “First, when the battle was over. And the second time, to make sure I checked every corner of the camp,” he told her. “But you were nowhere to be found; I thought you were dead, or made prisoner, and then you appeared again, as if nothing had happened.”

Katarina bit her tongue, glancing away. “You didn’t want to see me,” she concluded. “You were better off with the idea of me being dead.”

“No,” he quickly retorted, grabbing her elbow when she still refused to look at him in the eyes. “But I don’t want to be here,” Garen confessed without a hint of shame. “Every time I get close to you, someone has to die, either on purpose or by accident,” he said in a tired tone. “I don’t want that.”

Green orbs searched his eyes, and they both remained silent upon realizing that he only spoke the truth. Garen relinquished his hold on her, and she slowly moved her right hand to rest on his shoulder. Her tiny fingers slid under the clasps of his shoulder plate, and she pressed until she heard a click. She repeated the same action until his other shoulder plate fell to the ground with a loud thud. Her hands traveled down to his belt to unfasten it, fingers brushing against the clasps of his chest plate. The only sounds that could be heard were the clicks of the iron pieces and her steady breathing. Katarina never looked at his face, her focus solely directed at his clothes. The ties at the sides of his body were swiftly undone as well, and his mail joined the pieces of his armor, leaving him clad in the plain fabric of his casual attire.

Without blinking, she kept her gaze on his face, and he watched her kick away her heeled boots. The front fastening of her corset was quick to follow, but not as quick as the tight-fitting pants she peeled off her skin. The angry look on her face caused him to swallow hard, effectively testing his resolve. He brought his hands to her face, cradling it and shaking his head at her with a sigh. He nearly lowered his lips on hers when she pushed him backwards, sending him on top of the bed sheets. Her small body straddled his as he sat there, beyond confused and frustrated. The redhead was the one to initiate a kiss, and much to his surprise, it was slow and rather soft, given the mad stare he received only a few seconds prior.

Garen’s large arms circled her upper body, and when she reached between them, he flinched. She tugged hard on the front of his pants, and as he felt her flesh against his he barely managed to bite back a moan. Katarina’s own arms circled his shoulders, pressing her naked chest against his shirt, her lips still sucking on his. Grunting, he reached behind her, fisted the hair at the nape of her neck and forcefully tilted her head. His lips found her pulse point, and he covered her neck with open-mouthed kisses. She felt him against her inner thigh, and wasted no time in positioning herself on top of him. Garen let go of her tresses when she cried out, shutting her eyes.

Resting a large, calloused hand on her hip, he whispered, “You should have waited.”

“I’m sick of waiting,” she retorted in annoyance, inching her face closer to his, their lips barely touching.

She moved slowly, and every time she rolled her hips, she felt him grow harder inside her. Garen’s blue eyes were clouded with lust, and as much as he wanted to set the pace himself, the moment was too unique for him to taint it. He couldn’t help his mind from traveling back to their first night together. It was the only time she had initiated things in a comparable way, desperately trying to erase the memory of bloodshed that haunted him. But even then, Katarina had been rougher and less considerate when it came to their mutual pleasure, preferring the physical act in itself than the meaning behind it. All he ever managed to do afterwards was to match her, but what was currently happening was entirely different.

His lips sought her swollen breasts when she arched against him, pulling at his military trimmed brown hair and pushing to keep him right where he was. Their movements became more erratic by the minute, and it wasn’t long until Garen fell back on the bed, pulling Katarina completely on top of him. His hips hammered into hers, eliciting all sorts of gasps from her, and his right hand brushed against her skin, from her breast down to her rear, his long fingers tracing the narrow space between her bottom cheeks as he pounded against the backwall of her womanhood.

When she woke up in the middle of the night, Katarina’s flushed face was nestled in the pillows of the bed and the chilly wind caused the crimson curtains to move against the tall windows of the balcony. She rubbed her nose, sitting up as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The one candle that still burned in the right corner of the room was becoming shorter. Katarina winced at the pain in her lower regions and she quickly shifted her weight, scratching her head.

She firmly believed that Garen was fast asleep when he whispered, “I can hear you thinking.”

“I am supposed to leave at dawn with Talon,” she replied, her voice sleepy.

His large hand brushed the soft skin of her back, pushing away her red locks. “Why don’t you stay here?” he asked gently.

Katarina glanced at him, furrowing her brow. “Here, at the Citadel?”

“Here in Demacia,” Garen corrected. “It doesn’t have to be at the royal palace.”

She nearly considered it, but still rejected the idea. “All I want is to be able to go home, with my father and Talon, and then I have to find my sister and convince her to come back as well. And that won’t be possible as long as people such as Swain and Darius rule Noxus Prime,” she told him decisively. “You promised me,” the redhead reminded him, her green eyes looking for his.

“And I am helping you,” Garen replied with an intense look. “By trying not to let you go just now. Whoever threatened your family in such a drastic way is a force to be reckoned with, you can’t deny it,” he added when she was about to ridicule him. “Be smart about it,” he whispered, his fingers still brushing against her skin.

Katarina’s gaze drifted to the ceiling and she sighed, leaning into his touch. “In any case,” she whispered back, “I can’t possibly learn more about their motives by staying here. I have to go, and you shouldn’t stop me at all.”

“I won’t,” he promised, letting her lie back down and use his chest as a pillow. “As long as you leave to learn and not to make any brash moves.”

His fingers brushed through her dark auburn hair, his other hand coming to rest on her upper arm as she hugged his waist. “Is there a place where you would want to be that isn’t Demacia?” Katarina breathed against his skin.

Garen lifted his eyebrows at the question, and he allowed himself to think about it. “I am not sure,” he finally spoke. “Demacia is my home,” he said, a part of him finding it hard to believe in his own words.

“When this is over,” Katarina said, lifting her head to look at him. “What do you think of sailing to Bilgewater?” she asked with a small smile. “Before Kalamanda, I often traveled there. The island is nothing like you would imagine,” she told him with a dreamy look in her eyes, something he had never witnessed before.

“What did you do there?” he asked curiously.

Shrugging, she replied, “Drank black rum, tricked men into lending their ships, placed bets, had sex.”

His pointed stare caused her to laugh. Grabbing her chin between his thumb and index finger, he smiled himself. “When this is over,” Garen agreed, before letting her rest on top of him again, waiting for dawn to come.

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