The Ashes of Joy

The sunrays that grazed the cupola of the Citadel of Dawn were faint and thin, and only signaled the early hours of the morning. The Temple of the Lightbringers burst to life with the deafening sounds of its swinging bells. They rang once, twice, and even more, until they reached past the point of indicating the time. Demacia City remained silent and dormant, but in the left wing of the royal palace, Jarvan III was intently staring at the deep blue sky jagged by orange hues. The young prince sat on his bed, his upper body completely bare and his shoulder-length, black hair grazing his skin. The sheets were bunched at the end of his large bed, and the only color that stood out in the middle of the room was of the golden rug that cushioned his feet. His room had yet to be finished, the plain petricite dulling his mood faster than the woman who lied in his bed as soon as she spoke.

“Your Majesty.”

Her voice was again tainted with disdain, but Jarvan didn’t bother. He wasn’t affected in the least, now that he was king. His father had succumbed to his wounds overnight, but the prospect of continuing what had been started fueled his veins with a fire he didn’t even know he carried within.

Jarvan’s brown eyes glanced behind him, and his gaze landed on the swollen stomach of the blonde woman whose amethyst eyes scrutinized his every movement. “Who’s the father? I never asked.”

She laughed. “Not yours,” she replied, reaching out for the light dress she had discarded on the floor the previous night. “I’m not an idiot. If I don’t dish out blue-eyed babies, who is going to babysit your dynasty, assuming you start one.”

“Lilia,” he warned her. “You can’t use that tone with me anymore.”

Lilia Crownguard shrugged, fastening the ties of her corset while leaving it loose around her stomach, before slipping into her delicate ivory dress. She faced away from her king and began looking for her flat shoes, moving as if she carried no weight.

“There are many things I can’t do with you anymore,” she reminded him bitterly.

“You are married,” Jarvan retorted with a shake of his head as he stood up. “And you have a son already.”

“Because you let yourself get engaged to that woman,” Lilia added accusingly.

The brown-haired man rested his palms on the windowsill, his eyes scanning the dots of the city beneath him, as if he were waiting for something to happen. “The King commanded it.”

“And now, you are the King.”

“I am,” he agreed, a faint smile appearing on his lips. “Trust me, I would rather die today than marry Catherine Spiritmight,” he whispered. Craning his neck to glance at the twenty-six-year-old blonde who crossed her arms at him, he confessed, “But I have plans for my reign. And my reign,” he chuckled, “begins with the execution of the rune mages today.”

Lilia’s darkened stare drifted to her growing stomach, and the uncrowned king’s attention was stolen by the pyres that were being lit around the Temple of the Lightbringers. Nearly bouncing with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of getting rid of the magic users in his kingdom, he ordered the doors of his bedchambers to be opened.

A man shorter than average came in, his almond eyes never even glancing at the blonde woman who wasn’t supposed to be there. The Seneschal of the Lightshields bowed, his long, black ponytail swinging to the side and he lowered his three-talon spear.

“Your Grace.”

“Bring me my retractable lance,” Jarvan ordered before deeply inhaling the fresh morning air. “And I want these sheets to be changed.”

“Summoner Vessaria Kolminye requested an audience, Your Grace,” the seneschal informed him.

“Good,” Jarvan replied, his ego swelling with pride as he walked up to his steward. “Tell her to meet me at the entrance of the temple.”

***

“For the per… Pra… Por… pose—”

The child’s attempts at reading were the only sounds filling the library. Fossian Crownguard II smiled from his spot at the entrance of the room, his bright blue eyes watching the boy struggling in the massive chair that his father would normally use. The veteran soldier glanced at the round ceiling, finding comfort in the only haven the Crownguard Palace had to offer, and eventually made his way towards his nephew. The boy was too tall for his age, not even ten years old, and had yet to fix his problem. Their family had been requesting the best teachers from across Valoran, but they all came down to the same conclusion.

Garen Crownguard didn’t see the letters in the order they were written down.

The boy sent the book flying across the room, and Fossian was nearly hit straight in the face. The soldier laughed, picking up the book, before kneeling in front of his nephew.

“What’s wrong, buddy.”

The child shook his head, staring at his feet. “I can’t, uncle. I tried, but I can’t read. I even heard the maids laugh this morning,” he whispered shamefully. “They said it’s because of my genes.”

The blue-eyed man felt a pang of guilt in his chest, and he licked his lips, sighing. “There’s nothing wrong with you, buddy,” he tried to reassure the boy. “It’s just—no one can be good at everything.” Glancing at the cover of the book that nearly harmed his nose, he read, “Tales of Aurelion Sol and the Targon Pact, a story written by Master Zilean.” Fossian laughed. “See, it’s the book’s fault. This is a boring story.” Throwing the book behind him, Garen’s uncle placed both hands on the youngster’s knees. “You will be a great commander, a kind lord, and books won’t take that away from you. You can leave them to your sister.”

Garen groaned, rolling his eyes. “I don’t want a sister!” he complained.

“Why?” his uncle asked with an amused frown. “You will be able to carry her around, teach her things, catch bugs to scare her.”

Baby blue eyes swelled with tears. “Girls are mean.”

“Are they now?”

“They trick you into doing things, and then make fun of you.”

Fossian laughed out loud, rising to pick up the boy in his arms as if he weighted nothing. “I promise, Garen,” he kept laughing, “not every girl is like that.”

The library doors cracked, and twin blue eyes glanced at the woman who just made her way in. Garen wiggled in his uncle’s arms, and the moment he was released, he ran to his mother. He threw his arms around her midsection, pressing his cheek against Lilia’s swollen belly, and the blonde grinned from ear-to-ear, kneeling to wrap her own arms around her only son.

“How did your reading go?” she whispered softly, ruffling Garen’s brown hair.

Amethyst eyes glanced at Fossian, and the man shook his head. It took her a lot of willpower not to sound disappointed as she said, “It doesn’t matter. Your father wants to see you.”

Her brother-in-law and cousin narrowed his blue eyes at her. “What does Pieter want? He never asks for Garen.”

“And you and I both know why,” Lilia hissed. She stood up, hoping Garen wouldn’t hear her next words. “You’re not making it easier by raising the kid.”

“Is it my fault that Pieter can’t have—”

“Mother?”

Garen was tugging at her ivory dress, his eyes full of concern as he witnessed the two people he loved the most growing angry at each other.

“Go, honey,” Lilia replied gently, brushing her knuckles against his cheek. “Your father is in the weapon room.”

The tall child nodded, pursing his lips and offering his uncle a faint smile before he ran down the hallway. Fossian shook his head at the woman before him, and sighed, one of his gloved hands resting on Lilia’s stomach.

“How are you feeling? I thought you were summoned at the Citadel,” he quickly added, retracting his hand. “Did you enjoy the barbaric display of power?” he asked with disgust.

Lilia ran a hand over her face, biting her lip. “We are leaving soon, that’s why I am here. I just came back for a check-up, and the High Priest is waiting for me,” she explained, rubbing her tummy.

“Leaving? Where are we going?” the chestnut-haired man inquired.

“Jarvan—the King agreed on meeting other summoners at the Mogron Pass. The Noxian High Command will be there as well,” she answered, her hands shaking without her even noticing it until her brother-in-law grabbed her wrists.

“Lilia—”

“Your brother wants to bring Garen,” she blurted, her voice cracking. “What if they do something to him?”

“You can’t travel in this state,” Fossian stated, cradling her face in his hands. “I’ll go, and I promise you Lilia, nothing will happen to the boy.”

He hesitated, but her lips trembled, and soon he placed a kiss on her forehead, hoping to reassure her. His cousin had always been prone to anxiety and panic attacks, and pregnancy wasn’t helping her at all. He held her hand as they left the library, and Fossian escorted her to her bedchambers, where the High Priest waited for his noble patient. Lilia entered her private bedroom with her head hanging low, dragging her feet as she locked the doors and proceeded to get undressed. The High Priest waited behind the plain, purple folding screen until she reemerged wearing only a thin robe. The lady of the palace sat in silence on her single bed, and the religious healer beside her pushed the curtains of her canopy so they wouldn’t bother either of them.

The older man motioned her to lie still and relax while he patted her grown stomach, doing a very poor job at hiding his concerned expression. He reached for the folder he had placed on the end table while he was waiting for Lilia, and scanned his notes. The woman was in her second trimester already, but the swell of her belly looked unregular.

“Have you experienced any sort of pain, recently?” the wrinkled man asked her, placing his index and middle finger against her lower abdomen.

Amethyst eyes gazed at him in fear. “No,” she whispered. “Why?”

“Do you feel anything if I do this?” the healer asked, ignoring her question and pressing two more fingers on the top side of her stomach.

Lilia shook her head, confirming his initial thought. “What’s wrong?”

“My dear,” the old man said in a hushed tone, pulling her robe down to cover her body. “I will have to ask you to stay here. I would like to further examine your current pregnancy and I will need the aid of a couple other healers. Perhaps Lady Lestara?” he asked her. “I reckon you are on good terms with the woman.”

The High Priest was already standing up when Lilia fisted the front of his deep blue robes, pulling him down and forcing him to bend awkwardly. “What is wrong?” she asked again, her face reddening with bubbling anger. “What is wrong with my baby?”

“Lilia, please,” the priest insisted, his fingers softly curling around her wrists. “It will be fine.”

“Is it because I can’t feel anything?” the blonde broke into tears. “Did she die? Is that it?” she asked between sobs. “Is my baby dead inside me?”

The High Priest sat back down beside her, his large palm cupping one of her damp cheeks. “I am really sorry, Lady Crownguard.

“So, so sorry.”

***

The carriage that had just entered the Mogron Pass was shaking from side to side with each trot as the Silvermeran mounts dragged it through the rising sands. Fossian sat across from his eldest brother and nephew, his elbow resting on his knee and his gloved fist pressing against his lips. Lilia’s words were trapped in an endless loop deep inside his mind, and it worried him that the High Priest had insisted on keeping Lady Crownguard within the walls of her palace.

At least two weeks had passed since their travel began, and his brother had yet to say a single word. Pieter Crownguard was too busy staring out the window that was so dusty it barely let the sunshine in. Both their faces were covered in fresh scars and angry frowns that the raging war between Noxus and Demacia had caused so far, and neither of them was eager to meet with the Noxian High Command. Fossian remembered very well the last battle that opposed them and forever destroyed the Howling Marsh. The High Command had been ready to fire, summoning their Arcane Fist, a well-organized group of powerful mages that decimated the Demacian army’s vanguard in a matter of minutes. The young king was a fool if he believed that he was on the right path when he began executing Noxian initiates as well as Demacian students of the College of Magic, which had been closed the moment King Jarvan II passed away.

The veteran soldier was shaken from his thoughts the moment Garen’s voice reached his ears. “Why aren’t we riding?” the boy asked. “I thought the King and his knights rode proudly whenever there’s a battle.”

Pieter kept staring out the window, as if he hadn’t heard his son at all. Fossian smiled at Garen, leaning forward. “There is a sandstorm, buddy. And if the King isn’t riding, we aren’t either. We follow his orders,” he tried to explain.

The chestnut-haired boy frowned, suppressing a huff. “Why isn’t he riding?” he pressed.

“The King is traveling with his betrothed, Lady Catherine Spiritmight,” Fossian elaborated. “He doesn’t want his lady to be harmed.”

His answer seemed to placate Garen’s questions, until the boy tapped his heels against his seat. “Lady Spiritmight can take the carriage, but the King can ride through a sandstorm. So can you.”

“Enough, Garen,” Pieter finally spoke in a tone that was meant to be harsh but that barely held any authority over the boy who didn’t even flinch.

Fossian laughed at his nephew’s answer. “And leave her all alone?” Shaking his head, the rugged man decided it was time to change the topic. “Now, I saw you read earlier. Tell me, was it about the legends of Targon?” he asked, hoping to sound casual enough. If Garen was able to summarize what he read, then maybe he was making progress.

The child shook his head, lowering his gaze. “It was about Poppy, daughter of Blomgrun, and Orlon the Hero. It told their journey as they helped in the foundation of Demacia,” Garen said in a hushed tone, ashamed of not being able to tell his uncle more.

Fossian made an appreciative noise. “Did the book also mention how the yordle hero helped Galio to rise from his slumber?” he prodded, as if he didn’t know what the book was about.

Garen shrugged. “I didn’t get to that part. Besides, Galio is just a statue.”

“Oh no,” his uncle countered excitedly. “Galio wasn’t named the Colossus for no reason. He was sculpted by the petricite expert Durand, who inherited his knowledge from the descendants of the builders of King’s Rock, the impenetrable fortress our family comes from,” Fossian told Garen with a glint in his eyes, earning himself the boy’s interest. “The Demacian army pulls Galio into magic-heavy battles, so that his petricite, stone-body can soak the magic and protect the kingdom.”

“Will we see him soon, then?”

Fossian’s facial expression softened, and he ruffled the boy’s hair. “Let’s hope not, buddy.”

There was a moment of quiet, until Pieter scoffed. “Is this the nonsense you teach him?” he asked, never once glancing at the other two occupants of the carriage. “Yordles, gargoyles, magic,” Lord Crownguard said to himself. “Impressive.”

His brother’s disdain wasn’t lost on him, and Fossian slumped in his seat, sighing loudly. If Garen wasn’t with them he wouldn’t hesitate one second and he would remind Pieter of the way he neglected not only his son but also his wife, and the whole family in general, hiding behind the Demacian Council’s paperwork and the military ranks he led to war. Pieter was born to guide a powerful house, but he was too young and unprepared when it came to fulfilling his duties. The two of them had just completed their military training when marriage was forced on Pieter, and the prospect of having to marry his own cousin Lilia, of all people, appalled him on too many levels. Fossian remembered their late father’s words; Pieter would have married a Spiritmight, if all of them weren’t either married or promised to another. With the never-ending threat of a Noxian attack, it was unlikely that their family could wait for another noble lady to grow up or to at least reach her first menstrual cycle.

Fossian’s blue eyes glared at the side of his brother’s face, his cheeks reddening with unspoken anger. “Look at your father, Garen,” he ordered, his voice low. “Look at his face and memorize it. From his high cheekbones to his square jaw, from the dull look in his eyes to the brown bangs that frame his forehead.

“That’s not who you want to be. Well, that is, if you aspire to be happy at all, with a loving lady by your side and a family that actually wants to be around you.”

The young boy blinked slowly at the two grown men, not quite grasping the meaning of his uncle’s words. He sat cross-legged then, trying to see past the dust and sand outside the window. “Mother says she’d rather avoid me getting married.”

Fossian laughed, feeling his mood lighten up whenever Garen spoke so casually of important matters. “Why is that?”

“She says that she wants me to be free, so that I don’t end up like her. I am not sure what she means,” he blabbed, wiping the window with his small fist, as if it would remove the dirt that was on the other side.

Fossian closed his eyes as he leaned back in his seat to rest. “What if you like someone, someday?” he asked. “Don’t you like girls at all? Their round eyes, their long hair. What should be the right hair color of the future Lady Crownguard?” he kept asking, waiting for the boy to stick his tongue out as he used to do whenever an adult hinted at a possible romance in the future.

“Red!” Fossian heard his nephew yell.

“Ah, so redheads—”

“Red carriages!” Garen yelled again. “Father, look! Red carriages! The High Command arrived first!”

***

At the foot of Mount Gargantuan, rows of perfectly polished steel and sandy armors that turned soldiers into statues guarded the doors of the Mogron Pass that would grant access to the Shuriman Desert. Only distinguishable thanks to the colors of their respective banners, the two armies that met in the heart of Valoran awaited their leaders’ orders. The sun had long set in the far horizon, but the cloudless sky let the stars illuminate every single area. Commanders checked the ranks on both sides, while stewards and healers tended to the nobles’ needs. It wasn’t long until two summoners met at the entrance of the Pass, one from each side, and beckoned their respective leaders to approach with bows and pleading looks.

Vessaria Kolminye was a very young summoner and master arcanist that had been asked to provide advice for the Demacian Council by King Jarvan II himself. Her round dark eyes and short black hair made her look like an insecure boy who wore fancy golden clothes but the mage who had just shaken hands with her knew better. They both had clashed in several occasions that had opposed Noxus and Demacia, and Heywan Relivash easily admitted that she was equally, if not more talented than him. The plain scenery that surrounded them certainly wasn’t what the King of Demacia and the Grand General of Noxus were used to; two metallic doors, a barrier that separated the North from the South, rocks and sand—but the ruins they walked on were caused by the Rune Wars, and both Vessaria and Heywan figured that this was where the words they would soon speak would have the greatest impact.

King Jarvan III approached with narrowed eyes and a smug smile that was highlighted by the decisive steps he took forwards. He wore his armor on top of his royal clothes, a heavy, long cloak gathering sand as it swept the ground and even though he had yet to be crowned, he wore the token of his father’s legacy and power proudly. He was followed by Seneschal Xin Zhao, who held both his weapon and the King’s lance, and the Crownguard lords rode at the dynasty steward’s left. The only person who stood on the King’s level was his fiancée, Catherine Spiritmight, a short, slim woman with long, ebony hair pulled into several braids and light blue eyes that examined every single detail, as if she had never seen the Great Barrier before. One of the noble ladies that accompanied her offered her a handkerchief, and she quickly covered her nose.

“Vessaria,” Heywan greeted the mage, his mop of brown hair nearly covering his squinty grey eyes. “Your Majesty,” he quickly addressed the Demacian ruler, bowing quickly, his chubby body nearly waddling. “Thank you, for making it on time.”

Jarvan nearly scoffed. “You were way faster, for an army that left Noxus Prime.”

“What can I say,” a third masculine voice answered, deep and powerful. “Drakehounds. They fly. Just like time.”

Jarvan’s dark eyes glared at the man who just spoke. Grand General Boram Darkwill was smiling at him and his men, standing a foot taller, his broad chest entirely covered in a spiky iron suit. He looked younger than the King; his face was hairless, and no lines marked his symmetrical features. Only his silver mane gave away his true age, and Jarvan felt his own smile falter.

“And yet,” the King spoke, “you still remain the same.”

Boram glanced at the members of the High Command that formed a straight row behind him, and his grin widened. “We don’t burn arcane initiates in Noxus,” he retorted. “We embrace the magic.”

Vessaria immediately cleared her throat. “Grand General Darkwill,” she began formally, “you stand in the presence of King Jarvan Lightshield III, the Lightbringer of Demacia and Protector of High Silvermere.

“This is Seneschal Xin Zhao, steward of the Lightshield Dynasty,” she went on, moving to indicate the men who escorted the King. “Lord Pieter Crownguard, heir of King’s Rock and High Silvermere, his brother Fossian Crownguard II and his son, Garen.”

Boram raised his right hand to halt her speech, smirking at Jarvan. “Protector of High Silvermere?” he laughed. “And you call it a kingdom,” he taunted. “You can’t even properly annex territories.” His plum stare fell on Catherine Spiritmight and Boram bowed his head. “My Lady,” he greeted. “This is the first time I see a woman among a Demacian war council.”

“She is my fiancée, Lady Catherine of House Spiritmight,” Jarvan answered for her.

“You are even more gracious than my third wife,” Boram conceded as a compliment, ignoring the King and the snickering behind him altogether.

The blue-eyed woman bowed her head in return, a lopsided smile twisting the side of her face and revealing two dimples on her right cheek. “I wish I could say I am to be the King’s third wife,” she replied with sass. “At least, I would have time to get used to the idea.”

Throwing his head back to bark out a laugh, Boram missed the way the two summoners looked and felt uneasy at the whole exchange. Refusing to waste time when Heywan Relivash remained silent in a corner, the Grand General introduced himself. “Well, Lady Spiritmight, I am Grand General Boram Darkwill, the pillar of strength of the Empire of Noxus and this,” he said while stepping aside so she could see the tall men clad in crimson uniforms from head to toe, “is the Noxian High Command.

“General Cyrus, the Lord Commander of our armies; General Raedsel, whose soldiers have been named after him for their relentless savagery skills,” Boram went on, his plum eyes never leaving the young woman’s face. “Headsman Urgot, our most talented executioner and Hand of Noxus.” Boram paused then, placing his left hand on one of his men’s shoulders. “General Du Couteau, the youngest Deathmaster of Noxus and my dearest friend,” he commented with a proud smile. “And finally, Jericho Swain, the Master Tactician of Noxus’ genius. We expect to officialize his status soon.”

Catherine was certain the Grand General was still naming every member of the High Command, but his raucous voice didn’t reach her ears. Her wide eyes that previously stared at the intimidating iron suits and the steel forged by dragonfyre were now focused on the Deathmaster’s impassive face. She swore his lips curved up at some point, but she couldn’t be sure, and the moment she snapped back to reality, Jarvan was arguing about setting up a camp at the Great Barrier and holding the meeting the following day. She glanced at him briefly, then nodded at whatever the ladies that accompanied her were telling her — something about a bath? — and then she found herself listening to the Grand General’s taunts.

“What’s wrong, my liege?” he asked Jarvan. “Scared of minotaurs? Don’t worry. We know how to take care of those creatures.”

The twin drakehounds that were still attached to his massive carriage hissed and roared at the sight of a caged, black minotaur being dragged before the Demacians’ eyes. Catherine heard a squeal; it was probably Crownguard’s child, she figured, but her piercing blue orbs were too busy reading the letters carved into the creature’s manacles.

C O L I S E V M – A L I S T A R.

***

The laughter that erupted inside the Grand General’s tent sounded like a horde of horses hammering all the way down from Mount Targon to the hidden hills of Urtistan. While most of the Noxian soldiers slept outside or rested next to unstable tents, the High Command was nested inside the biggest shelter and spent the evening as if they were in the Iron Hall of the Immortal Bastion. Fresh meat had been served at the long dining table at the center of the tent, and beet wine poured from casks into the ruby grails of the most powerful men of Valoran.

General Cyrus swallowed his ale as if it was water, and punched General Raedsel’s shoulder. “Have you seen the Jay-Three,” he bellowed. “And his cloak in the damn desert!”

The generals all burst into laughter again, and Cyrus wiped some sweat off his bald head.

“I mean, the seneschal carried his lance. If there was something I wanted to see, it was him using his father’s weapon,” Cyrus went on, thumbing his grey moustache. “See this?” he asked the other generals as he pointed at the large scar on his forehead. “Jay-Two was a monster with that retractable lance. It might look like this fancy jeweled spear with useless spikes on each side, but trust me when I say it’s a true barbarian’s weapon.”

Raedsel shook his head at the obviously drunk man on his left, and snatched a grilled lizard leg from Cyrus’ plate. “The only good thing of this journey so far was that woman Jay-Three put on full display. What a vain man,” he voiced out. “I never understood this arranged marriage tradition Demacians have going on, but I wouldn’t complain if ol’ Boram found such a nice piece of ass for me as well,” the curly, black-haired general commented crudely before spitting the lizard bones on the ground.

Rising from his seat at the head of the table, the Grand General slammed his palms on the surface and sent Raedsel’s plate flying across the tent. “Enough drinking, you’re all turning out to be disgusting,” the silver-haired man ordered with a menacing grin. “We have a meeting tomorrow, bright and early. Stop wasting time and wash up. Your stench is sickening.”

Polishing his axe, the headsman of Noxus followed Boram’s movements with interest, his tiny black eyes narrowing occasionally. “Sir, do you still believe Demacia isn’t simply stalling and looking for a way out? Relivash’s arcane strength doesn’t give him the right to meddle when it comes to military strategy.”

Boram’s bloodshot eyes glared down at Urgot, and he silently moved to stand between the two members of the High Command who had remained equally silent the entire night. “Who said anything about Relivash?” he retorted. “There are only two people I trust with their advice; Marcus Du Couteau and Jericho Swain,” he reminded them all, placing his hands on the men’s shoulders. “They believed it was in Noxus’ interest to come and here we are.”

The tent fell silent then, no one daring to question Boram’s logic. The Grand General run a strong hand through his silver hair, and nodded at General Du Couteau, whose emerald eyes glanced back and forth between Boram and the raven-haired man sitting at his left.

“I owe you one, Marcus,” Boram added. “You found the most brilliant mind in Noxus Prime and brought him to me,” he spoke deeply, glancing at Jericho Swain. “And you,” he turned to the slim man whose red eyes glinted with silent curiosity. “You’re the reason why we won at the Howling Marsh. You were right; Noxus needs elite fighters that are neither guards nor assassins.

“Noxus needs a Crimson Elite, and it shall be founded the moment we return. You already seem to know what their training should be, given the way your ranks fought.”

Marcus and Swain exchanged a brief look, and it was completely lost on their Grand General, who simply retreated inside his own tent to rest. The moment he left, the atmosphere inside the dining shelter was dulled and beet wine no longer poured. The Deathmaster stood up quietly, nodding at the fellow generals, and emptying his glass on the ground.

The desert night was chilly, and the wind messed up his hair completely as he walked past his own tent and silently strode in the darkness. Marcus spotted the unguarded row at the back of the Demacian ranks, before he laughed to himself and walked backwards to the front, right where the King’s Guard stood tall. They were still wearing their fancy blue, feathered hats, with their spears pointing at the sky and their thin swords strapped to their waists.

The auburn-haired man whistled, getting two of the guards to glance around and whisper to each other, and Marcus disappeared behind them, strolling inside the Demacian camp completely unseen. It wasn’t hard for him to find what he was looking for, since the King’s seneschal guarded the entrance of the tent without even blinking, or shivering in the frosty night.

Marcus readjusted the hood of his cloak so that it shadowed the upper half of his face as he emerged from the shadows. His emerald stare still pierced through the darkness, and Xin Zhao looked around as they came face to face, wondering if anyone had seen the man.

As if reading his mind, the redhead smirked. “Don’t worry. You know I’m a professional.”

Leaning forward, the almond-eyed steward hissed, “What are you doing here?”

Marcus raised an elegant eyebrow at the man who was quite a few years younger than him. “Let me in.”

The tanned man before him shook his head vehemently. “You’re out of your mind. I am at the King’s service.”

Marcus pursed his lips, folding his arms behind his back and rocking on the balls of his feet, humming quietly. “Viscero,” he warned. “I mean no harm.”

For the first time since they met, Xin Zhao looked hesitant and an uneasy expression stole the firm look that marked his features. He relaxed his brow and shoulders, his slave name awakening emotions he had repressed for years.

The seneschal lowered his spear, avoiding the Noxian’s stare. “I am Xin Zhao now,” he reminded Marcus. “And I owe you nothing, since I already paid for my freedom. I do not belong to Noxus anymore, or to their Coliseum. King Jarvan II liberated me, as well as the three-hundred men I defeated for the sick, twisted pleasure of the people who watched.”

Marcus nodded, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder the way Boram did to him earlier. “I know. I am the one who made it possible for King Jarvan II to even cross the Noxtoraa.”

Xin Zhao stood back in a defensive stance. “And I owe you nothing. I gave you the access to the Noxian infiltrators’ meeting room. Now,” he nearly growled, “leave.”

Marcus’ look softened for a split second, before a grim smile froze the seneschal in place. “Viscero,” he said his slave name again. “I hear the King is too young to understand what comes with power. He seems to be making reckless decisions; you don’t want him to know who let me inside the Demacian dungeons. And by the way, they call it the Fleshing Arena since your prowess, not the Coliseum.”

The seneschal swallowed hard, his fixed stare never betraying how he really felt, although Marcus knew. Smiling to himself, the High Command general and head of the Deathmasters’ Order slid inside the opening of the tent.

The candles all seemed to be burnt, and the only light that allowed him to recognize what surrounded him came through a tiny hole above his head, but the sound of rustling clothes signaled that the occupant of the tent was still awake. Marcus approached slowly, the woman who stretched next to her bed completely oblivious to the fact that she wasn’t alone. Her charcoal hair had been released from the braids she fancied, and the nightgown she wore was thin, lacy and of a pure ivory color.

Catherine Spiritmight glanced at the book she still held in her left hand, and he figured she had just decided it was time for her to rest. Her long eyelashes grazed her cheekbones, and the moment she set her book on top of her pillow, Marcus covered her mouth from behind, silencing her muffled scream and trapping her arms by circling his other arm around her smaller body.

“Don’t scream, beautiful maiden,” he whispered in her ear, his hot breath sending shivers of terror down her spine. “I came here only to ask you a question.”

She was trying to push him off her, her blue eyes widening in the darkness and her muffled protests a clear indicator that she wasn’t about to cooperate. Marcus sighed, all the while smiling, and he slid his hand up, fingering the golden pendant around her neck before he tore it away from her. Catherine kicked, and clawed at his wrists, but when the necklace dangled before her eyes, she stopped moving.

“It would be a shame, having to explain how you lost it,” the auburn-haired man whispered again, his lips tickling her earlobe as he bent. “What are you going to say, that a stranger was in your tent in the middle of the night? Who could possibly bypass the careful watch of Xin Zhao, the Seneschal of Demacia?”

Her breathing slowed down, and she released his wrists.

“Don’t scream.”

His hands left her body, and it took her several seconds before she managed to turn around, hugging her upper body and giving him a look that was a mixture of confusion and curiosity. “What is your question?” she breathed out, her tone completely deprived of the attitude she showcased the first time he saw her.

His emerald eyes never left her face. “Why were you staring at me?”

Her eyes began glancing at different spots, and he figured this was how she looked when she desperately looked for the answer to a question she never asked herself. “You’re highly delusional,” she croaked out, “if you think I was staring at you.”

Marcus tilted his head to the right, his impassive frown back in place. His left hand still toyed with the necklace he stole from her and her breath hitched in her throat, wondering if he was at least half-serious when it came to the threat he voiced out.

“What about now?”

Catherine found herself staring again. It was something between the way his long, crimson hair fell around his face and past his shoulders, and the intensity of the look in his pine eyes while the rest of his face remained perfectly still. His chest heaved with every long breath he took, and only then she realized how tall and broad-shouldered the Noxian general really was.

She rolled her eyes at herself, hoping he didn’t see it in the darkness. “I am not staring,” she answered. “And if I was, it would have nothing to do with the fact that you’re the first man who doesn’t feel repelling.”

His lips did that thing again, she realized, as they curved up but not entirely. He wrapped the necklace around his fist, raising an eyebrow at her. “I’m not quite satisfied with that, but I’ll let you rest.”

Marcus walked out slowly, using the front entrance as if it wasn’t guarded at all to begin with.

Catherine didn’t rest at all that night.

***

“I still don’t understand why you want me to be there.”

King Jarvan III pulled on the reins and halted his horse to look at the woman who rode beside him, the two of them ready to head to the mountain-tall doors of the Mogron Pass, where the meeting was supposed to be held by Vessaria Kolminye and Heywan Relivash.

His mahogany brown eyes narrowed at the sight of his tired fiancée, and she glared in the distance so hard she could have set fire to the desert with her anger alone. Her hair was down, and not neatly pulled into braids. She wore no jewelry, no trace of an artificial blush adorned her cheeks, and most of all, she refused to look at him, while she was the type of woman to defy his commanding stare.

Catherine tugged on the front of her ivory dress, the tiredness causing her to feel hungry and cold. “I am not a prize you’re allowed to flaunt,” she added sourly.

“Listen to me, Catherine,” Jarvan ordered, grabbing her chin when she didn’t obey. “You will be the Queen of Demacia. You are not a prize,” he explained in a tone that was unusually soft. “I don’t love you. I don’t respect you. I don’t even know you,” he went on coldly, even as she pushed his hand away. “But I want to learn how to do all that and the best way for me to do it is to have you participate in every political decision on the future of our kingdom. I want you to be involved.”

Catherine’s sapphire eyes looked everywhere but at him. Scoffing, she replied, “You make it sound as if it matters.”

“Of course, it does,” the King plainly stated. “I don’t think you’re only a pretty face. But all you do is fight me.”

The youngest daughter of the Spiritmight noble house glanced at her king one last time before she grabbed the reins of her mount again, following him to their destination. Jarvan was a handsome young king, she couldn’t deny it; the fact that he was the king should have been enough, but he was slightly taller than the average Demacian male, with long brown hair and deep chestnut eyes. The lines of his face were defined and masculine, but he was proud. Probably a bit too proud, if she were to be honest with herself. He expected everyone to earn his respect and consideration, while he did nothing to gain others’ trust. If that was what kings did, Catherine didn’t want to be a queen. If her older sister Giselle hadn’t taken it upon herself to become the Magistrate of Fossbarrow, she would have probably been spared. Then again, she didn’t want to be a magistrate either.

She just wanted to be herself.

The table of negotiations was already filled with people, while she and Jarvan arrived at a fashionably late hour, which was only her fault. The ebony-haired lady had refused to emerge from her tent, claiming to have slept very poorly, and the reason behind that was sitting right next to Grand General Darkwill.

Vessaria looked exaggeratedly relieved upon seeing them and as Jarvan sat at the opposite end of the table, right across from Boram, the summoner nodded at her counterpart, who strictly served Noxus. “Thank you all for joining,” she greeted. “Heywan and I hope to get straight to the point and to share our opinion as clearly as possible.”

“It gets quite hot here around noon,” the chubby man to her left jokingly added, earning himself not a single smile or frown.

“I am not sitting here with these vile men to joke and laugh,” Jarvan reminded Heywan. “They decimated my vanguard with the use of unchanneled magic – we’re sitting with a man who has been around since my grandfather’s era,” he spat uncarefully. Glancing from the Grand General to Vessaria, he ordered, “I agreed on trialing the Noxian arcane prisoners and the students of the College of Magic, but it had better be worth the travel.”

“Please, Your Grace,” Vessaria tried to placate him with big pleading eyes. “Look around you. All that is left of the Great Barrier is sand, dust and ruins of civilizations that once thrived and prospered. It all ended after five Rune Wars, my King.”

“Caused by people like him,” Jarvan interrupted her, pointing at his Noxian counterpart, who chuckled in return. “My father made use of magic too,” he conceded. “I won’t deny it. He himself appointed you to the Demacian Council,” the young ruler reminded Vessaria. “But my father died after the Howling Marsh battle. And I do not intend on following his steps.”

The short-haired woman exchanged looks with the chubby summoner who stumbled over words, and Catherine placed a hand on Jarvan’s shaking fist, the motion not going unnoticed by the other lords and generals.

“The heavy use of magic is far too dangerous,” she spoke in a tender tone that clashed with the diplomacy of her arguments. “We all know that. It decimated the entire south of the continent; we will never see civilizations such as Icathia, Urtistan or even Shurima. Surely, executing mages is not the right thing to do either,” she offered, her blue eyes set on her fiancé, who simply looked away from her. “But I agree that this meeting is necessary.

“Demacia would lose the war,” she admitted out loud, causing Pieter Crownguard to shake his head and mutter something rude to his brother. “And this might look like we are trying to avoid defeat,” Catherine told Boram, holding his gaze. “Maybe that is what it is, but I think Vessaria here, as well as Summoner Relivash, are trying to avoid another Rune War that could, this time, wipe the north of Valoran off the face of Runeterra.”

Jarvan licked his lips when he found himself at a loss of words, and simply placed his other hand over hers, as a quiet sign of gratitude.

The Grand General pointed at her, chuckling. “My Lady, you are most definitely the living proof that Demacia is in for a major change that will speak through your future husband. Your mind is as sharp as my advisers’,” he complimented her, eyeing Marcus and Swain, who were both staring at her intently, the auburn-haired Deathmaster offering her a smirk. “They’re the reason why I agreed to this meeting. I don’t give away free wins for the sake of it.” There was a pause during which everyone glanced at each other, and finally Boram Darkwill declared, “Deep down, I believe we all think the same here.”

Heywan felt the weight of General Du Couteau’s stare, and the raven-haired man who sat next to him lowered the collar of his deep forest robe. For the first time since he arrived, Jericho Swain spoke up. “Relivash,” he said the summoner’s name in a monotone. “Tell us what your plan is.”

The double-chinned summoner felt his palm sweat, and Catherine frowned at the sight of Marcus and Swain exchanging a satisfied look, the redhead sliding a folded note in front of the Master Tactician, who quickly put it away.

“Vessaria and I have been in contact with a mage who survived the horrors of Icathia,” Heywan began. “He goes by the name of Ryze and his statements were backed up by an Angel of the Universe, Kayle. They both seemed very concerned about the ongoing events surrounding the Howling Marsh, and the lands that separate Noxus from Demacia. They both believe that these are very fragile areas, so we would like to suspend the unsupervised use of magic.”

Swain rested his elbows on the table, his fingers intertwining as he folded his hands together. “How so,” he asked, while the Demacian lords whispered in the background.

Heywan blinked and cleared his throat. “We believe that summoners should be trained and supervised by expert arcanists, that the runes they use to craft their magic should be stored in a safe place and so the nexuses and nexus shards they might be in possess of.”

Letting go of Catherine’s hands, Jarvan leaned forward. “Do you really believe I’d let another city-state, or even worse, Noxus, control the runes that endanger us all?” he roared, his crown nearly sliding off.

“No,” the summoner immediately answered, shaking his head and raising his arms defensively. “It would be a separate organization.”

“An institute,” Swain suggested, leaning back into his chair. “An institute consolidated by city-states who agree on lending part of their authority, for our safety.”

Marcus nodded, the two of them exchanging another look. “And it would be kept in place with the presence of city-states ambassadors, so that no one can feel left out or outnumbered,” he elaborated.

The Grand General seemed to find the idea amusing, since his smile widened, and his plum eyes scanned the entire table before resting on Vessaria’s approving look. “And you two,” he said, pointing at her and Heywan, “would what, preside it?”

Vessaria was taken aback. Stuttering, she replied, “I-I don’t—first, we would have to agree on this. And then, come up with a drafted plan, as well as a location where the institute could exist. This could take some years.”

The Noxian High Command had no qualms it seemed, while the lords of Jarvan’s council were already arguing with each other, and begging their king to listen to them.

“We can postpone the decision to another—” Heywan was already taking notes on a yellow paper with his quill pen, when he was interrupted.

“I would like to seal the deal,” King Jarvan III declared, looking only at Boram Darkwill. “Now.”

Catherine whipped her head around. “Jarvan?”

Grand General Darkwill stood up slowly, towering over them all. “Your Majesty,” he said without a hint of haughtiness. “I hereby seal the deal if you release the Noxian arcanists you hold as prisoners and keep the College of Magic closed,” he stated his conditions, extending his right hand.

Without even bothering to look at his lords and commanders, the Demacian king extended his own hand. “I hereby seal the deal if you return the crown of King Jarvan I and the rest of his remains.”

The raven-haired man who couldn’t have been much older than Jarvan himself stood up as well, leaning on the table when his right knee trembled. “I am afraid,” Swain spoke quietly, “that crown is now a vital part of General Sion, who doesn’t quite enjoy the sunlight as much as he used to, which is why he wasn’t able to join us.”

Jarvan’s hand nearly balled into a fist he would have shoved in the slim man’s face, but with way the Grand General kept his hand extended and given the pleading looks the summoners were giving him, the weight of his own pride didn’t allow him to back off.

He shook Boram’s hand quickly. “Then free that minotaur and leave; I’m tired of your sick displays of power,” he growled, before leaving the table of negotiations to inform his army they would leave the Great Barrier before dusk.

***

As the night was filled with the sound of stewards loading carriages and soldiers polishing steel, it became clear that King Jarvan III had made a decision that set up Demacia’s current turmoil. Lord Crownguard could be seen patrolling the ranks and giving brief orders that made him sound as if they were going to war rather than home. Many commanders shared his viewpoint as disappointment and frustration painted their faces, but for the average soldier, being able to go home without having to worry about a possible Rune War was a blessing. Some still thought this was another Noxian trick, and that a nation who took every chance to display its superiority through numbers, drakehounds and minotaurs wouldn’t simply agree on taking a step back without a motive.

And they were right. Jericho Swain’s crimson eyes scanned the moonless sky as the sound of soft, flapping wings reached his ears. The young tactician ran a hand through his rather short, black hair and left his arm extended so that his six-eyed raven could find her perch on his forearm. Beatrice was small even when her wings were large and shiny, with indigo hues highlighting her plumage. She tilted her head to the side, and crowed happily.

Swain’s lips curved up, and he brought a finger under her beak, stroking. “You are a hopeless romantic,” he told the baby bird, who flapped her wings in response.

“Who, me?”

The slim man turned around, raising an eyebrow at the general who just stood there with his arms crossed. Marcus looked satisfied and eager for something, which Swain preferred to ignore. “No, not you. You are a blind fool,” he replied.

The two of them glared at each other, until Marcus threw his head back and laughed loudly. His arm came to rest around the shorter man’s shoulders, and Swain’s frown turned into a faint smirk. “You wound me, my friend,” the red-haired general faked a hurt look. “Don’t you have any faith in me?”

“If I didn’t,” Swain commented dryly, “I wouldn’t be here. You and I are the ones who truly rule over Noxus. And I have a feeling some may have noticed already.”

Marcus nodded at that, and the two of them began walking towards the iron doors of the Mogron Pass. “Cyrus feels betrayed. His men must march back before they could even let their axes bathe, and with this Crimson Elite of yours, he feels stripped of his dignity. I think Raedsel agrees with him on that,” he revealed in a hushed tone.

Swain leaned on his friend’s arm, as a sharp pain seized his weakest knee. “Cyrus can be easily placated. He will ride north, and regain control of Basilich.” Stopping dead in his tracks, his red eyes pierced through Marcus’ emerald orbs. “She’s here.”

Marcus felt his shoulders tense, and he slowly turned around, his eyes scanning the empty area that surrounded them. Their own camp wasn’t too far away, but the light of the fires didn’t reach their current location.

A thin figure walked up to them, and two identical pale women smiled at each other before merging into a single person. Her hair was long and cascaded down her back, but her light-brown eyes were the one feature that froze both Marcus and Swain in place. Her nearly yellow stare was cruel and dangerous, and the dark lines around her eyes only emphasized it.

“Marcus Du Couteau,” she greeted him.

Never one to forget his manners, the general bowed his head and offered to place a kiss on the back of her hand, but she shrugged it off.

“I know you’re a lord and a general,” she conceded, “but there is no need for that.”

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Marcus asked with sheer curiosity. “The first time I looked for you, Matron LeBlanc, you didn’t even want to receive me.”

The Pale Woman glanced at Swain with a small smile on her blood-red lips. “That day was a very special one for the Black Rose. Sometimes, you have to let people think you’ve fallen so you can rise again.” Her heels dug into the sand as she came closer to circle Swain’s waist with her long, thin arm. “I will be very straightforward with you, Marcus. I do not appreciate your manners and strongly dislike most of your allies. We all know who the rightful heirs of the Immortal Bastion are.

“However,” she went on, resting her chin on Swain’s shoulder after she slapped the raven away. “Jericho assured me you mean well. So, tell me. Why do you want to join the Black Rose, Marcus?”

Sensing the general’s discomfort, Swain gave LeBlanc a warning look. “He’s on our side.”

“I want to know whose side he’s not on.”

Marcus ran his tongue over his bottom lip, their short interaction answering the questions he had been asking himself for a long time now. “Boram Darkwill took a lot from Noxus, and from the people who truly belong to the Iron Room—from you. Too many generations have lived under the glory of Darkwill, instead of the glory of Noxus,” he answered firmly, his eyes never leaving LeBlanc’s face.

The Pale Woman grabbed his hand then, her skin cold yet soft, and she placed a large key in his hand. Marcus eyed the wooden tag on the chain. 7 0 3.

The silence between them was quickly shattered by the crowing of Swain’s raven, and the two men looked at each other. A bewildered look was plastered on Marcus’ face for a moment, and Swain shook his head.

“Someone responded positively.”

Marcus’ hand lingered on his friend’s bicep for a moment, but before the gratitude he felt made things too awkward between them, he folded his arms behind his back and took long strides in the direction of the western entrance of the Mogron Pass.

LeBlanc raised a curious eyebrow at Swain, her hands curling around his wrist as she leaned even closer. “And this?” she asked.

“Let him be.”

“You know, Jericho. Perhaps, you were right. He does seem to be an asset to the Black Rose,” she confided in him, earning herself only a scoff.

Swain fisted the hair at the back of her head and pulled hard, causing her neck to bend and almost break. LeBlanc hissed, her pointed fingernails clawing at the sides of his oval-shaped face, scratching skin softer than hers. “I thought you were smarter than that, Evaine,” he spoke harshly. “Marcus has been looking for us since he joined the High Command. Do you remember what you told me the first time, that he is Darkwill’s lapdog? He wants to destroy us from the inside. No one joins the Black Rose for its cause.”

LeBlanc gritted her teeth. “Not even you, Jericho?”

Planting a bruising kiss on the woman’s lips, he then released her to allow Beatrice back on his shoulder. “We will have to see, Evaine. We will have to see.”

***

Sapphire eyes glanced at the mountain-tall doors of the western entrance of the Mogron Pass. Catherine hid underneath a large cloak of an iris color, a folded note in her small hands. Her hair was braided loosely and fell over her right shoulder, the only reminders of her high status being the water stones of her headband and earrings. She had been standing there for what felt like almost an hour, and the desert air was getting cold, just like every night.

She didn’t hear him approach.

“You came,” Marcus stated, masking the excitement in his voice.

The ebony-haired woman turned around quickly, her lips parted and her eyes darting around. She was thinking. Throwing the folded note at his feet, she complained loudly, “I don’t understand. I heard a thud outside my tent, and when I came out, I found this. The seneschal wasn’t there anymore.”

“Viscero is smart.”

“Viscero?” she repeated, her eyebrows knitting together. Shaking her head, she decided not to dwell on that detail. “What do you want?”

Marcus shrugged. “I wanted to talk to you. You’re leaving soon.”

“I should have left a while ago,” Catherine corrected. “The King is still arguing with his lords.”

Sighing, she leaned against the dusty doors behind her, her blue eyes staring at the tip of her shoes that poked out past the hem of her dress. Marcus mimicked her actions, but only let his shoulder graze the western entrance of the Mogron Pass. His emerald eyes traced every line of her face, although her plump lips were what really caught his attention. They stood in an unexpected, comfortable silence, until the Deathmaster spoke again.

“Do you want to leave? I can take you back to the camp, no one will notice anything.”

She laughed at him. “How?”

Marcus shrugged again, smiling at her antics. She surely blinked a lot, he realized. “Ways,” was his answer. “A good assassin doesn’t reveal his tricks.”

The smile faded from her lips, and for a moment, she seemed scared and doubtful. Clearly, the assassin part she forgot, and she mentally chastised herself.

When she didn’t say anything, Marcus coughed, eyeing the doors behind them. “You can find the Shuriman desert behind these, did you know?” The future queen nodded briefly, her big blue eyes glinting with interest. “The first village you will find is Kalamanda – it’s just a fisherman’s village. Then, there is a lot of nothing until you reach Sing-Stones, and even then, at best you can find a well. Actually,” he chuckled, “I believe the only village of Sing-Stones is called The Well. The one populated city of Shurima is currently Bel’zhun.”

“Have you been there?” Catherine cut in. “It sounds like you have.”

Marcus noted the sad look in her eyes, and he extended his hand, which she took almost immediately. He curled her fingers into a tiny fist, and placed her knuckles against the iron of the doors. “If you knock, maybe someone will let you in.”

She frowned, before pushing against his hand and shoving him away playfully. “Don’t make fun of a lady,” she ordered lightly. “One day, Jarvan will take me there.”

“Ah,” Marcus nodded exaggeratedly. “Yes.”

They both laughed at that, and Catherine pressed a hand on her chest when she felt her corset squeeze her ribs with every burst of laughter. As much as it was uncomfortable, it was also oddly liberating. Marcus sighed, clouds of air escaping his lips, and he offered her his arm.

“I’ll take you back now. It was a pleasure meeting you, Lady Spiritmight,” he whispered. “The King is a very lucky man; you’re beautiful, and a way better diplomat than him.”

The blue-eyed woman hooked arms with him, but remained perfectly still when he took a step into the direction of the Demacian camp. “General Du Couteau,” she said his name in a surprisingly formal tone.

Marcus raised his eyebrows at her.

“What if,” she gulped. “What if we knock on these doors instead?”

***

The Crownguard Palace was covered in snow, nearly buried under the thick, fluffy whiteness. Fossian’s blue eyes scanned the tall, slim windows of the second floor, narrowing when he realized Lilia’s room was filled with darkness. He turned around, shivering slightly in his light armor when he grabbed his nephew and helped him get off the carriage. The boy immediately ran towards the second gates of the palace, laughing and stacking snow in his arms while calling his mother.

Pieter ordered the carriage to be dragged inside the shelter, and the coachman couldn’t have been more eager to reach a warmer place. The two Crownguard brothers exchanged a brief look, then the eldest made his way inside in silence, ignoring Fossian and the conversation he wanted to have altogether.

“Pieter,” Fossian called, shaking his head. “Pieter, we need to talk.”

“About what?” Lord Crownguard snapped, turning around. His untrimmed beard made him look even older. “What is there to talk about?”

“You’ve been silent the entire time,” Fossian stated, throwing his arms in the air. “You’ve been silent for at least nine years. You don’t talk to me, nor to Lilia. And that is fine, but tomorrow,” he pointed out, “you’ll have to speak up. The King made a clear decision, and the Demacian Council will have to support him. No more executions, only trials, and Great Barrier Pact—”

“The King,” Pieter interrupted with a snarl, “is a young fool. He let that woman speak for him, and he got nothing out of the deal he sealed. Even she left.”

His younger brother remained silent, finding it hard to contradict him. He spotted Garen enter the palace, the maids already working on removing his dirty boots and cape.

“You can’t ask me to hold a speech in favor of Demacia’s downfall.”

Pieter moved to make his way inside, when Fossian grabbed his shoulder and forced him back. “The King and Lady Spiritmight saved our future,” he whispered.

The Lord of the House made a sound of disapproval, his nostrils flaring, and shrugged off his brother’s opinion, as well as the hand on his shoulder. He had just stepped inside, the snow that covered his boots tainting the deep blue rug by the doors. He took off the weapon strapped around his waist, and handed the broadsword with a large water stone embedded in its hilt to his master-at-arms.

“Justice looks unused,” the older, shorter man commented, eyeing the clean state of the sword.

Pieter ignored him, his tired eyes narrowing at the sight of the High Priest speaking with two maids in a hushed tone. Wind blew past him as Fossian rushed up the stairs at the sight of the holy healer, and for the first time in years, Pieter followed him, raising his hand when his master-at-arms tried to keep talking to him.

When he arrived on the second floor, his brother was kneeling in front of a very upset Garen, whom he hadn’t seen cry since he was learning how to walk. Fossian glared at the door that was set ajar, trying to ease the boy’s cries. Pieter heard his son sob out words on how his mother didn’t want to see him and shoved him to the ground when he tried to climb on the bed.

The lord pushed the door open, not even bothering to close it behind him and slowly approached the single bed his wife lied in. She seemed to be staring at the ceiling, and even though not a lot of time had passed since the last time he saw her, Lilia looked as if she hadn’t eaten in months.

Pieter carefully sat next to her, the purple sheets wrinkling underneath his weight. He took off his gloves, a finger pushing away the blonde bangs on her forehead.

“Lilia.”

“I lost it,” she whispered weakly, her amethyst eyes still staring at the ceiling while her hands clutched the sheets covering her chest.

“It will be okay,” Pieter told her in a monotone, their gazes meeting after years of avoiding each other’s presence. Her hand was about to graze his cheek, when he spoke again. “There will be no war,” he explained, the pain she was going through forcing him to make up his mind about the Pact of the Great Barrier. “We don’t need to have more children.”

It was instantaneous. Gathering the little strength that was left in her, Lilia slapped her husband’s cheek so hard he nearly slipped off the bed. The hatred she felt for him had never been more ferocious than in that exact moment.

“We don’t need children,” she repeated, her voice breaking. “Get out, Pieter.”

“Lilia—”

“Get out!” she screamed, over and over again, throwing everything she could reach for at him, from pillows to water flasks and empty chamber pots, until she no longer saw his face.

Tears rolled down her cheeks and her entire body was flushed with anger, and when she realized that Pieter had left her room, Garen peering at her from behind the doorframe, she nearly bounced off the bed to run after him and fight him with all she could. Fossian was holding her down though, and her brain didn’t register the moment he stepped inside. He held her close, trying to soothe her the way he had done it with Garen, only this time it didn’t work. The blonde gripped his clothes, and kicked the sides of his body, letting herself be consumed by her despair.

“I want to leave,” she whined in his neck. “I want to leave. Take me back to High Silvermere,” she pleaded, crying even when she ran out of tears.

“Lilia, please,” her cousin whispered, caressing her back. “He didn’t mean it that way.”

“I don’t care,” she replied, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “He’s emotionally stunted. I want to leave,” she repeated.

Fossian nodded slowly, unable to deny her only sensed request. “But you must rest now,” he reminded her, lowering her on the bed. “We will talk about High Silvermere tomorrow, okay?”

Lilia’s hand grabbed his as he stood to leave, and he cradled it in his own, his calloused fingers tracing her palm.

When she finally closed her eyes, her breathing slowing down and her lips parting, Fossian let go of her. He was staring at the floor as he reached for the door handle, only to realize that Garen had been standing there all along. The boy looked at him in confusion, but still grabbed his hand as his uncle offered to escort him to his own bedchambers.

***

The heat was scorching. The Shuriman sun shone high in the sky and caused Marcus’ skin to turn a bright shade of red, especially since he had discarded his shirt on his way back from The Well. There were miles of sand and dust everywhere around him and the abandoned tavern he stood next to, and as he looked at the sky, he covered his face with his forearm to avoid getting blinded. His emerald eyes turned an even brighter color, and the light flickered.

The Deathmaster blinked, and he realized he hadn’t imagined it. A small raven flapped its wings above his head, only to drop an envelope at his feet. Marcus bent down to pick it up, smiling at the bird who nested itself between his shoulder and the crook of his neck, probably trying to avoid the sun. Marcus broke the seal, a pentagram with a rose adorning every point, and found a white card inside the envelope. He could read the numbers 7 0 3 on the front, but what was on the back was more frown-worthy.

He slipped the card in his back pocket and entered the abandoned tavern.

As usual, he found Catherine lying on her stomach on top of a pile of clothes that were too warm for the Shuriman weather, her knees bent as she kicked the air and her bottom barely covered by half of her old cloak. She was scanning the front page of a newspaper he had brought from The Well the day before, and he figured she was just trying to keep herself posted when it came to what happened on the other side of the Great Barrier. Her long, black hair covered most of her back, and it was completely straight ever since she abandoned her formal braids and herbal soaps, which only her army of maids could provide.

She looked at him when he placed a large bucket of water on the floor, and those plump lips of her curved into a smile.

“It’s probably hot by now,” Marcus noted, eyeing the bucket.

“I’m used to it,” she replied, placing the wrinkled article on the floor. “I’ve had a month to get used to it,” she added, stretching her back like a feline before resuming her previous position.

Marcus took off his boots, crawling behind her as he peeked at what she had been reading so far. Most articles related the pact between Noxus and Demacia, the truce that had been agreed on without any violation, and the coronation of King Jarvan III. The newspaper was several weeks old, he realized, having his own sources of information, but it was to be expected since The Well was a very secluded village, and there were weeks of travel between Sing-Stones and Bel’zhun, the only city with a reliable network of journalists ever since it was conquered by the Empire.

Marcus buried his nose in Catherine’s hair, standing on all fours above her while she played with one of her locks. “Are you pretending I’m not here?” he whispered in her ear, his right hand traveling down her back and sliding under the flimsy garment that covered her round bottom.

“I’m pretending I didn’t see the letter that is creating a hole in your pocket.” She felt him stiffen, and she turned around fully to look at him in the eyes. “Is it the High Command?”

He offered her a faint smile. “Something like that.”

The playfulness drained from her face, and she ran her slim fingers across his toned, yet lean chest. “You can go back, if you have to. You know that, right?” she asked him seriously, her blue eyes searching his.

Marcus shook his head. “I can’t leave you in the middle of nothing, all alone.”

A malicious glint shone in her eyes, and she began laughing happily. “But I’m not,” she whispered, grabbing his left hand and kissing it, before resting it on her lower stomach. “You will always be with me.”

His eyebrows shot up, an incredulous look seizing his features. Marcus stared at her giggling, blushing face, at the way her breasts bounced with every laugh, and finally at her stomach. “Cat.” He broke into a full smile instead of his usual smirk before he asked, “Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“Then, I must rephrase your words, Lady Spiritmight. You are the one who will always be with me.”

Catherine leaned into him with lidded eyes, moving to capture his lips as she circled his shoulders, but he kissed her first, reveling in the feel of her supple skin. His back arched up with every lick and peck, almost as if he were trying to drag her away from their bed of clothes, but she quickly pressed their lower bodies together and lifted her thighs to trap his hips. With one fast thrust upwards, she made her intentions clear and soon found herself straddling the man. Marcus’ hands were quick to find her round hips, grabbing at her and palming her thighs when he couldn’t get enough of the softness of it all. His lusty stare fell on her stomach, which was still as flat as her waist was thin, and he almost wanted to bury the Black Rose’s letter under the sand when he realized he might not be around for at least half the duration of the pregnancy.

The dark-haired woman ran a hand through his auburn mane, and her fingers tickled the beard he was unable to shave without a real place to stay at, and she brought their faces closer. “What’s with the sad look?” she asked in a worried tone.

“She’s so small,” Catherine whispered in the darkness of her bedchambers. Her sister Giselle had left them to talk, but neither of them dared say anything meaningful, for fear that it would only fast forward their lives.

Pine eyes glanced at the small creature that rested in her arms. “Yes, she is,” Marcus agreed.

Marcus kissed the palm of her hand. “I want to keep you with me, Cat,” he confessed almost shamefully. “I want to be able to give you more than an abandoned tavern with a hole in its roof.”

Her eyes watered slightly, trying not to hear what he was saying. “But I like the hole in the roof,” she said, sobbing when she least expected it. “Don’t we have everything we need?” Catherine asked before covering her mouth, her shoulders shaking.

Catherine held the newborn so close to her chest, he sometimes wondered whether she would suffocate the child with her own skin. Her face was pale while the rest of her body was of a rosy color, just like the baby’s own skin. The bedsheets were hanging from the bed and covering half the floor, and Marcus kicked at them when the silence became unbearable.

“Jarvan visited me,” she told him, brushing the baby’s forehead with her knuckles. “He was kind to me. A part of me wished that half the things he said to me came out of your mouth, not his.”

For the first time since they met, he could feel the disappointment and resolution in her voice. “I’ll do anything, Cat. Just tell me,” Marcus reminded her.

After eight months of separation, the future Queen of Demacia gazed at him. Her forehead wrinkled into a frown and her eyebags looked even bigger than his. Their eyes met for only a second, before she brought her lips down to kiss the newborn’s nose.

“I keep holding her, and looking at her,” Catherine confessed. “I fear that the moment I stop, something will take her away from me.”

Marcus rested his hand on her shoulder, massaging it lightly. “What did you name her?”

Sniffing, Catherine shook her head and almost shoved the small creature in his chest. He was quick to react, and cradled the baby against his chest. His daughter let out a whine, then hid her face in the warmth of his vest. She kept sleeping.

“I’m not keeping her,” Catherine decided, her eyes boring holes in his skull. “I can’t. I think her eyes are dark, but I can’t tell until she fully opens them. However, my sister and I were both born with a mop of black hair and she wasn’t,” she explained, caressing the baby’s arm with the back of her index finger. “Jarvan said it doesn’t matter, but everyone knows I wasn’t in Demacia City for the past year.

“Jarvan is kind, Marcus,” she sobbed regretfully. “I can’t do that to him. And I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a golden cage, unable to do whatever she feels like doing, just because she would need to be surrounded by the King’s Guard and at least three Crownguards.” She rolled her eyes at the idea, covering her face with both hands.

Catherine broke into tears at once, and her former lover reached out to hold her, planting a kiss on her forehead.

Marcus sat up, holding her close and tangling his fingers in her dark mane, rocking her body back and forth. “I will do everything that is my power, never doubt me.”

She could only nod against his chest, unable to answer. Catherine was good at containing her tears and easing her own pain, but Marcus felt his body tighten and his mind go blank. Emerald eyes glanced out of the window with the broken glass, tears silently rolling down his cheeks as he blinked at the sight of the tiny raven that had brought him the Black Rose’s message tilt its head. It stared at him with its six eyes. Fury quickly replaced desolation.

“I told you, Cat. You will always be with me,” he promised again. “I will take safe care of her, you don’t have to worry about a thing. And I will always let you know how she is.”

***

Gloved hands held the invitation letter before his eyes. Glaring at the date that read, 13 July Current League Era, the Noxian general tore the piece of paper in several pieces and let them fly behind him as he walked past the tall pillars of the freshly built Institute of War. The minotaur that guarded the entrance scribbled his name without even having to ask for it, the two of them having met on several occasions at the Fleshing Arena of Noxus Prime.

The heels of his boots clicked against the marble floor, and he very well knew that he had missed every honorable speech and official presentation, but he had meant to avoid the Court of Demacia, only to later learn that the Queen wouldn’t have been able to attend in the first place, having just given birth to the King’s heir.

The general’s auburn hair was neatly tucked into a half ponytail, and his stare was set on the wide stairs that would take him to the top floor, where he hoped to meet the High Council of Equity, the three summoners that ruled the Institute – Heywan Relivash, Vessaria Kolminye and Kiersta Mandrake.

Marcus Du Couteau was halfway down the corridor when a smaller body collided with his legs. A boy fell backwards, rubbing his lower back.

“Sorry.”

Recognizing the chestnut-haired boy who literally ran into him, Marcus sighed and offered his hand. “You should watch where you’re going.”

The small Demacian nodded, bowing his head and running into the adjacent room. Marcus shook his head, and climbed the stairs until he reached the top floor, where the ceiling was entirely made of glass. The doors to the High Councilors’ meeting room were ajar, and without even knocking, Marcus pushed them both open, laughing to himself when he realized who sat at the oval table in the middle of the room.

“You’re late, Marcus,” LeBlanc commented with a smile, twirling in a chair that hovered at the end of the table, a golden staff lying on her lap.

She was curling a strand of short black hair around her fingers, perfectly knowing that no one would even come upstairs as long as the ceremony went on.

“Petal?” she asked a tall, platinum-haired man dressed in crimson garments, his eyes as light as the first rays of the sun as it rose. “Where is Relivash?”

“Still downstairs,” the man answered in a bored tone. “Marcus, I never had the chance to properly introduce myself,” he suavely noted, bowing his head and running his elegant fingers through his loose hair.

The Deathmaster offered him a polite smile. “I know who you are. You’re the Marquis of the Tempest Flats, Vladimir.”

The nobleman feigned a surprised look, and turned to his Matron. “Smart, isn’t he?” He walked up to her only to grab the glass full of red contents that was on the table, and when he noticed the way Marcus’ eyes narrowed, he chuckled. “This?” he scoffed. “Only wine, of course.”

“Were you hoping to speak with someone else?” LeBlanc asked him, rising from her seat and leaning against the table. “Darkwill, maybe, or perhaps the High Council?”

The look in her light-brown eyes made it clear to him that his answer would probably define the next thirty years of his life. The bitterness Marcus carried inside evaporated the moment a familiar cry reached his ears, and the color drained from his face. He turned around, his green orbs widening as the doors were shut and Jericho Swain limped towards him, a toddler in his arms. His friend smiled under his collar, and offered him a free, out-of-jail card as he sat down at the opposite end of the table, the young child bouncing on his lap.

“We agreed I would take his daughter here myself,” Swain spoke casually.

Except that they didn’t. Marcus had left his daughter in the care of the maids back at his mansion, but the toddler was dark-haired, hues of auburn standing out in the dim lighting of the room, and she wore a golden pendant around her neck, with a maiden rising from an altar carved into it.

The raven-haired man rubbed the child’s back as she grabbed at the ornaments of his emerald robes, and he raised an eyebrow at Marcus, who was torn between the idea of snatching the kid from Swain’s arms and the need of keeping a cool demeanor.

“She is very beautiful,” the Master Tactician said. “Marcus, one, and Jarvan, zero.”

“What?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Swain asked with nonchalance. “The King’s son was stillborn.” With the way Marcus glanced at the closed doors, the crimson-eyed tactician didn’t need to read his mind to understand how his brain was wired. “Don’t go, my friend,” he advised him, mimicking the way Marcus used to talk to him. “You made a wise choice two years ago when you returned to Noxus Prime.

“The war is over,” Swain reminded him, feigning a nostalgic tone. “Which means that we won’t get to draw the King’s blood for free. And we need it; Darkwill wants his Fallen General back. We don’t wish to disappoint him, do we?”

Marcus eyed the two other members of the Black Rose who were watching their exchange in quiet satisfaction. “What is your point?”

“I thought it was clear when I contacted you back then.” Lowering his voice, Swain elaborated, “You return the Queen and she gives us an heir to work with. You secured your spot among the Black Rose, Marcus; don’t look at me like that.” The Master Tactician stood up, using one hand to stabilize his balance, and placed the child in Marcus’ arms.

The young general hugged his daughter, who didn’t seem phased in the least and began pulling at her father’s hair with her tiny, chubby fists. Swain brushed his black bangs away from his eyes, then rested his hand on the kid’s back, patting her gently.

“Make appropriate use of your newfound power, Marcus,” Swain advised him. “We know where to find you,” he added, although his gaze lingered solely on the child.

Marcus Du Couteau could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears as he stood in the quiet room, scrutinized by the three individuals who abducted his daughter under his nose.

“Why don’t you enjoy the party, at least for a little bit,” Vladimir suggested, his voice filled with amusement.

The double meaning wasn’t lost on him, and Marcus wasted no time in leaving the room, rushing downstairs and out of the columns of the Institute of War. From the top floor, Jericho Swain watched his retreating figure, leaning on his pointed cane and paying little attention to the Matron of the Black Rose, who placed her chin on his shoulder as she circled him from behind, nor to the Petal of the Black Rose sipping his bubbling beverage from his seat at the oval table.

“Make appropriate use of it, my dearest friend,” Swain whispered to himself.

The rest of his thoughts was swallowed by the loud rasping of a grown, six-eyed raven above the roof of the Institute of War.

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