Bloody Banquet

Hey everybody! Story day is here again. This time I’ve got a fantasy story for you. There’s no blurb for this one as it was based off a single line I wrote (though I did do an outline before I wrote it). It’s not too long (about 9300 words) and there are no page breaks in it, but see what you think!

On a peninsula near the south eastern border of the kingdom of Rorchid, Empress Mara Fellowes has arranged for herself and the kings of the two neighbouring kingdoms to meet for a banquet. It will be the first time in decades that the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms have come together in peace.

The on and off again wars between the kingdoms of Rorchid, Eversen and Polaris have left all of the royal families lacking in wealth and weak in power. Many of their citizens have come to question as to whether they need the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms due to their relentless desire to fight one another without cause or, seemingly, end.

But the rolling hills of the Verdant Peninsula where the great longhouse of Parastice resides is sure to give the monarchs the time and space they need without the pressures of their people to discuss and broker a treaty that will benefit them all.

Parastice sits on one of the highest hills of the peninsula which overlooks the Lake of Instance, where the Three Kingdoms converge. Flowers, colourful and brilliant, are already blazing brightly in the late spring rays of the seamless blue skies that hang like a sea above. While the slight breeze carries the scents of the flowers and causes small waves to ripple across the great green crystal waters of the lake before ultimately breaking and lapping gently against the brown sandy shores. The lake is devoid of boats for a change as the fisherman from each of the kingdoms have been asked to stay clear of the lake while the monarchs of the kingdoms are in conference with one another.

Thick green grass rustles as the servants of Empress Mara swarm about the longhouse making sure that every detail as exactly as the their ruler would command it. Her personal guards stationed themselves along the perimeter and having blocked the narrow track that links the longhouse to the small town of Cherish that is further along the peninsula that is back toward the main landmass of Rorchid.

Mara meanwhile languishes in her accommodation at the rear of the longhouse. She is ready for the banquet which will begin before long. Her assistants have already assured her that the guests are beginning to arrive. None of particular note for her station so far, which is why she is bored as she reclines and gazes out the small narrow windows at the rear of the longhouse at the lake beyond. She wishes she could be out there walking among the near knee high grasses. She misses the freedoms that she had before she’d ascended to the position of Empress as a nineteen year old. Her father had been ill, gravely so, though no one had ever properly explained what his illness was. That was at his own request. In fact, she learned after his death that such a command had been one of his final orders and in Rorchid the requests and orders of the dead can never been undone, even by the requesters own children. It is one of the parts of her culture that Mara finds the most frustrating and stifling. She wonders how many times good honest lessons have been lost because of the frankly archaic demands of the dying. Had it cost victories in war? Likely. Had it cost lives? Definitely. Would she continue it when her own reign comes to an end? Doubtful. Though, that was not to say that she did not receive pressure to do so. Her lords and ladies would often make it known that the need to follow tradition is greater than the need of its ruler to wish to buck a trend. But she feels that if she does not her kingdom, her home, will one day fall to a culture like the ones that her neighbours in Eversen and Polaris follow. Neither of those nations cling to such notions.

Mara’s tosses her long white hair back over her slender exposed shoulder. She is already dressed for the banquet but she would never call what she is hemmed into comfortable. Mara doesn’t like outfits of the style of the one that she is finding herself in now. They are meant for show, not for practicality and Mara prefers practicality. The overlong dress forces her to tread carefully as she walks so not to trip over her own feet. Well, the truth is if she trips it will not be over her feet but the excess material at the base of the dress as it drags across the stone floor of the longhouse. And that is before she gets onto the shoes. Who invented heels? She asks herself as she stares across at the slim pointed five inch high heels that are white in colour. They pinch her feet but she’s been told endlessly that they are the highest of fashion in her capital, Pearlescent. To Mara, however, they are little more than torture devices dreamt up by fat old men who wish to see pretty young women dressed in a manner that pleases them while causing nothing but pain of their wearer. The shoes make her frown, her otherwise pale brow furrowing deeply as her ice blue eyes roll and then return to the view beyond the narrow windows ahead of her. She doesn’t feel like an Empress. She feels like a prisoner in her own kingdom and wonders if she really leads the people or whether the kingdom is ruled at the behest of her nobility. She is sure it is the latter. That is why they were not a part of the planning of this day. They have been invited, in a diminished capacity to attend, but this was not there doing. Had it been down to them it would have never come to pass. Her nobles are too greedy and narcissistic to have been able to broker such a meeting. It always had to be about them and what they want. That is why Mara had ordered for messages to be sent to her respective monarchs in the other two kingdoms personally. Not to aids or assistants or anything else, but to the actual monarchs. She had assumed that her fellow monarchs indeed suffered the same annoyances as herself, but she didn’t know. They, she had learned later, did not. Her own kingdom is by far the most bureaucratic, which neither surprised nor comforted her when she had discovered that.

Then there is a knock at Mara’s door. It’s a steady paced knock but hard enough to make it known that someone is requesting entry. She hopes it’s one of her aids coming to tell her that her presence is needed as the view beyond the walls around her has become dull to view and not be among.

“Come.” Mara says simply as she rolls her stiffening shoulders in an attempt to ease the tightness that is the result of the tension from the narrow decorated straps of the gown. It doesn’t work but she doubts anything will as the door to her room is opened and in drifts, Sasha. She to is clad in a similar, though far less intricate, dress to Mara. She has a wide beaming smile and happy brown eyes. Her hair is held in a single long brown ponytail that sways effortlessly as she moves.

“Your majesty, I am here to plait your hair.” Sasha offers with a slight bow that makes it clear that she is conveying respect to her Empress.

“I had hoped you were here to liberate me from this place.” Mara replies as she waves her hand. It’s a gesture of acceptance which Sasha responds to by quickly sliding the heavy dark solid oak door closed. The three hinges creaking lightly in the moments before the privacy bolt is slid into place.

Mara doesn’t know why the care is being taken to keep the room secure. There are four guards right outside her door, as well as two on either side of the two narrow windows that she is using to gain a limited view of the world outside.

Mara is sure with so many guards she is very safe. However, she knows better than to argue with her Captain of the Guard, Alonso. He is a tall burly man with scars down the right side of his face, dark hair, tanned skin and determined eyes. Nothing has ever got past him, or his men. He has always prided himself on his attention to detail, which is why Mara’s father, Patrice, had picked him for the role. Alonso had been a more than capable soldier, but upon his promotion to Captain of the Guard he had shown his brilliance for analysis and planning. Pity that he could not be here himself for this, she thinks. However, she knows that his presence in the capital is necessary to keep her kingdom running until she returns.

“I’m sorry your majesty, that is beyond my grasp.” Sasha replies as she slinks across the small mainly empty space that Mara has been calling home for the last few days and then rests her hands on her Empresses shoulders.

“Mine to, by looks of things.” Mara replies as Sasha soon begins to run her soft hands through Mara’s long white hair.

Sasha says nothing. She doesn’t know what would be right to say to her empress so instead continues with her task of plaiting her monarchs’ hair. Mara’s hair is thick and soft and smells of rich oils. Sasha knows Mara could plait her own hair and often does but the occasion calls for her to be waited on hand and foot. Even if Mara dislikes the notion of being treated as though she is incapable of keeping herself maintained. That is one of the many reasons Sasha feels the way she does about Mara.

“Why are men not treated this way?” Mara asks aloud without realising it, while Sasha continues to work.

“I do not know your majesty.” Sasha replies feeling a need to answer her monarch. She doesn’t know if the empress expects her to have an answer or not, but she does not want to anger her. Though, Sasha has only ever seen Mara angry at her nobles and in response to their demands for how they wish her to rule and act.

“You can speak plainly when we are alone Sasha. You do not have to stand on ceremony when it is just the two of us.” Mara replies hearing the stiffness in her handmaidens tone.

“Yes, your majesty.” Sasha confirms. She knows Mara means it but Sasha who is a few years further into her thirties than Mara still remembers how her father preferred things to be done. She’s told her handmaiden this a hundred times and expects she will have to say it a hundred more and that saddens her more than a little.

Patrice had been a traditionalist, unlike Mara, and preferred servants of any standing to remember that the royal family of Rorchid should be treated as more than a normal citizen of the kingdom. They are the representatives of a higher order, he had often remarked. That is why it is hard to believe that Mara is his daughter. She is nothing like him. Sasha doesn’t know if Mara is like her mother, Lauren, as she died several years before Sasha had come to serve the family. Sasha expects that she is, but doesn’t dare to ask as she knows it brings forth many sad memories for Mara. Perhaps even more than the death of her father, who perished more than a decade ago.

Sasha doesn’t know who her own parents were, or if they still live. She had been abandoned as a baby and left in the care of an orphanage before ultimately coming into the service of the Emperor who had deemed it best that Mara’s handmaiden should be of a similar age to his daughter.

“How is it out there?” Mara asks after a time. Sasha almost having finished plaiting her hair into a long wide intricately layered column that stretches down much of Mara’s back.

“It’s becoming…noisy.” Sasha says carefully.

“You mean my nobles are being bothersome again.” Mara translates bluntly before rolling her eyes and then turning to look at Sasha who has tapped her on the shoulder to tell Mara that she is finished.

Sasha is such a pretty young thing, Mara thinks as her eyes study the face of her handmaiden in the moments before she smiles, naturally.

“Thank you Sasha.” Mara says warmly.

Sasha simply bows in thanks and as a mark of respect at the utterance of her Empresses gratitude.

“Is there anything else your majesty requires?” Sasha soon queries with a flutter of her eyelids.

“Are you joining the banquet tonight?” Mara questions sincerely.

“No your majesty, I am not permitted.” Sasha advises trying to stifle her surprise. She would have thought that Mara knew that her own handmaiden would not be present as only royals and nobles are permitted and she is neither.

“Good. Very good.” Mara says without thoughts before adding, “I require nothing else Sasha. The day is your own.”

Mara smiles as Sasha blinks several times confused and then remembering herself turns and leaves. She makes sure to close the door behind her. She has never known Mara to be pleased that Sasha not be present. In fact, Mara is often remarks quite the opposite. Has she done something to upset her? She can’t imagine what or how. Mara had been how she always was with Sasha, honest and caring, except right at the end of their exchange. Maybe I should have asked? She knows she couldn’t have queried her Empress. That, even if Mara urges otherwise, cannot be done. Sasha is a handmaiden, a servant to the Empress. She is not an equal. Not even close. She knows Mara doesn’t quite agree with many of the traditions and layers to Rorchid, but she would never fully abandon them.

Sasha is troubled as she absentmindedly wanders the length of the longhouse. The decorations and preparations have all been completed and some of the minor nobles of Rorchid have already arrived, been announced, welcomed and shown to their seats.

The tables in the great hall have been broken into three u-shaped blocks, with each assigned to a single kingdom, its ruler, their entourage and their nobles, if the last two happen to be separate.

Huge candelabras, each with five long white candles, sit at the centre of the eight foot deep stained wooden tops. They are evenly spaced and already lit, their flames dancing merrily from side to side as the guests who have already been shown to their places are provided with flagons of ale. The dark, almost black, liquid topped with a partial cream coloured froth that fizzles and helps to release the barley notes that rise high toward the vaulted wooden roof that spans the entire space like the overturned hull of a boat. The strengthening beams that keep the two halves of the roof from collapsing inward wrapped in wreaths of flowers as massive chandeliers of silver illuminate the centre of the vast space to ensure none of the guests have issues surveying those around them and the feast that they will be served.

“And you are?” One of the servants asks as a noble decorated with medals adorned to his thick woollen purple waistcoat and a superior look comes to a pause at his side.

“Baron Stefan Vandermire of the county of Arianne, Polaris Kingdom.” The pompous baron advises with a wave of his hand and without looking at the querying servant.

“Announcing Baron Vandermire of Arianne.” The servant quickly declares loud enough for everyone in the longhouse to hear. Several of the guests, all from the Polaris kingdom, roll their eyes in response as the Baron is quickly asked to follow a butler that will show him to his plain upright wooden chair. It is devoid of a cushion and is instead simple, unlike the three seats made for the monarchs. Their seats, which are more like small thrones are all covered in thick velvet padding emblazoned with the crests of their houses and intricately carved. It took days for each to be handmade and nearly as long to be assembled and finished, but the end result is exactly what Empress Mara Fellowes had asked for.

The announcing servant having declared the arrival of two more nobles to the banquet by the time that Baron Vandermire decides that he isn’t happy with his sitting at the table of Polaris. He grumbles to the butler who simply stares at him lost for a few moments. Then Stefan gives up. He can see that the butler will be of no help, so instead he simply collapses into his chair tired. The lack of cushioning makes him wince as he has had a hard and long ride across Polaris to attend this banquet. It was the demand of his monarch, King Darius Watson, that he attend. The same king who, the Baron notes, who is not here thus far.

In fact, the only other nobles from his own kingdom are young, lowly and dim-witted. Proof of which is already evident as they are, by the looks of things, already several flagons in and beginning to slur their words. Each is talking up their greatest achievements in bed, in battle or in trade. None of the stories impress Stefan who gazes around the longhouse impressed at the level of detail that has gone into the preparation of this space. He has never met or even seen the Empress of Rorchid, Mara Fellowes, but thus far she has impressed. However, he is still sceptical of this banquet and the rumoured peace talks that have been claimed will follow. Stefan doubts King Darius will relent on any of his wishes, of which one is to marry another monarch’s offspring. The problem is that Rorchid has no offspring as Empress Mara is without child and King Ronan Peters of Eversen has only twin boys. Stefan doubts Empress Mara would agree to offer her yet unconceived first child, if it is a daughter, to King Darius no matter what he claim to be able attempt to offer in return.

But Stefan knows he could be wrong. He just doubts he is, seeing as women are especially hesitant of such things. Not that he can blame them. Unlike kings, he thinks as he strokes at the few days growth he has sprouting along his square jaw line. He regrets that he is not as well presented as he would like but the ride gave him little choice, nor did the timing of the order from his king that said he had to be in attendance.

Stefan runs his hand across his shaven head, picturing how he must look and deciding that it is still better than the other nobles from his kingdom present thus far. Each of them look as though they have been dragged through a hedge backwards after losing a fight with a sheep farmer and his sheers. And yes a few of his thoughts are the result of jealousy, but most are clear truth.

The nobles of the other two kingdoms eye him suspiciously and he returns the glances and stares with equal suspicion. He doesn’t know who they are and they don’t know him, yet they, without meeting, are already dismissive of each other. Especially the nobles from Rorchid who do not approve of this banquet which is, according to rumour, the brainchild of Empress Mara and the latest in a long line of actions she has taken without petitioning for their approval.

At least, Baron Vandermire thinks, the nobles of the other two kingdoms have not already begun to overindulge on the ale, unlike his own countrymen who are becoming a little raucous. He knows it will get a lot worse the later in the day it gets, but at this hour it is too early for the din they are making. So Stefan glares at them angrily. They feel his eyes on them and turn to look his way. The younger and newer nobles gulp and then quickly disperse back to their respective seats, a few of which are closer to King Darius’ seat than the Baron agrees with them being, while a few others simply ignore his judgement. They think him a bitter old fool angry because he has fallen out of favour with their king as he cares little for the issues faced by his county and its people, who Baron Vandermire often assures need strengthened defences due to the fact that they share a northern border with the kingdom of Eversen. Their neighbour having become increasingly brave and disrespectful of their border which they frequently test the limits of to gauge how strong Baron Vandermire’s forces are.

In truth, they are not as strong as the baron would like and his pleas for support have thus far gone unanswered by King Darius who has become frustrated with what he is sure is an aging man’s overreaction and unfounded fears.

And as if on cue Baron Vandermire spies his good King, Darius Watson. The young monarch strides confidently toward the longhouse. He is followed closely by his entourage of glorified wannabes, each of which wishes to curtail favour from nobles like Baron Vandermire through the reciting of tales that inform of their glories in battle. Stefan doubts any of them are true, seeing as all those vomiting these tales are all young and headstrong. There may be truths laced into the otherwise clear fabrication that is these glories, but Darius laps them up greedily all the same as he spoils for war on two fronts. It is a spoiling which he has not thought through as such a thing would almost certainly bring disaster and bring death to the over six foot tall, shoulder length black haired man that has never been on the battlefield. His green eyes darting back and forth searching for hidden enemies as Empress Mara appears in her shoulder exposed gown that is navy blue in colour.

Mara wears a wide smile on her face as she prepares to welcome King Darius who fits the description she had been given of a young, boisterous man arrogant above his years and thirsty for action. However, she knows that she cannot judge him any harsher than herself as her own kingdom is sinking into poverty because of the dragging semi-war that she is fighting between King Darius and the yet to arrive and older King Ronan.

Mara does have to admit however that King Darius has a certain beauty that stems from his unblemished youthful clean shaven face and his pointed strong chin.

“King Darius.” Mara says continuing to hold the wide smile as her words ring with sincerity.

Her hands stay clasped in front of her hiding her long painted nails which are sky blue in colour to fit in with her dress and eyes.

King Darius has to admit that he is more than a little taken aback by the slightly older woman that is stood before him. He hadn’t been expecting a woman with as much beauty as the one he has his eyes focused on now and wonders whether this is indeed the Empress of Rorchid. It could be a decoy to disarm him, he thinks as he returns her smile with far more effort than her own required.

“Empress Mara.” Darius returns with the slightest of bows to convey his respect to her position.

Normally Darius would never bow but seeing as this meeting is at her request and within, just, the borders of her own kingdom he sees it only fit to do so.

Maybe I should demand her hand in marriage instead, Darius thinks to himself as his eyes study her from floor to head. He’s impressed, though the gown would not be his choice, much like it isn’t Mara’s who can feel the leering eyes of King Darius on her. She resists the urge to shudder in response as she is sure he is undressing her with his gaze. It isn’t flattering but a monarch of his age knows no better. Mara only hopes the older King Ronan will show more honest respect and not just the false kind that Darius wishes to show outwardly.

“I must admit you disarm me with your beauty, Mara.” King Darius says as she gestures for him to follow.

Mara rolls her eyes in response to his words as she leads the way to his section of the longhouse where most of his nobles are now gathered in preparation for the banquet to begin. She can still feel his eyes probing at the wide lower section of her gown, but she doubts he can imagine anything close to the truth and she’s pleased about that as the gown leaves everything to the imagination. And by the looks of things thus far it is clear to Mara that Darius has only one thing on his mind, which shouldn’t surprise her seeing as his one unrelenting demand is that he must be permitted to wed a daughter of one of the monarchs of either Rorchid or Eversen before peace can be declared. Chauvinist pig, Mara thinks as they arrive at King Darius’ mini-throne. Mara spins on her hidden five inch heels, resisting the urge to wince as they pinch her feet.

“Here is your seat King Darius. I hope you find it comfortable.” Mara says with a forced smile.

What she’d really like to say is, ‘I hope it was badly made and collapses on you, you arrogant sex crazed ass.’ But Mara knows better than to actually do such a thing, especially as this banquet has taken months to arrange, much to her distress. Plus it had nearly failed several times during the negotiating process. Mara still isn’t sure why or what the excuses were as both King’s had been coy to give details. However, such things matter little now Mara knows as they will both be here before long. Backing out for any of them would have spelled disaster as it would have declared that they are incapable of keeping to their word and likely would have led to actual war. Instead of the mainly probing and gesturing that has been the norm for the last near two plus decades.

Mara isn’t sure exactly when the war began or what started it. She doubts the other kings do either, but it should be over soon and when it is she will be relieved. Though, it will mark the start of a period of rebuilding, but anything is better than actual war she knows.

Mara, unlike Darius, has fought out on the battlefield and has taken lives. She didn’t enjoy it but she did accept it. She wonders if Darius would. It is clear he is spoiling for a fight, but has yet never entered the arena of battle himself. Something tells her he wouldn’t, but she isn’t sure why that is her conclusion as she stares back at him.

“Thank you, Mara.” Darius says again without including her title. It is clear he believes he is permitted to be familiar even though Mara has not given permission for him to be. For that alone he could be executed where he stands, king or not.

Thankfully Mara doesn’t have to attempt to converse any further with King Darius as she spies King Ronan approaching and excuses herself by distracting Darius with a promise of ale from the tray of a passing servant.

Darius claims three of the flagons for himself. The servant does nothing in reaction as Darius commands the servant to depart and leave him only to find Empress Mara is no longer at his side. His head whips round before his eyes settle on the entrance to the Parastice which is soon to have King Ronan pass through. At the sight of the older, bald, bushy brown bearded middle aged man, Darius rolls his eyes and sighs before downing one of the three flagons he claimed from the tray. He slams the flagon to the wooden table and lets out a loud smack of his lips. But it isn’t loud enough for Mara to hear and even if it had been she would have ignored the act on principle alone as the portly King Ronan waddles toward her. His face is furrowed and severe. It is clear that he isn’t pleased to be here, or perhaps isn’t pleased that others will be here. Mara had been made aware of Ronan’s displeasure for nobles, which is why so few of them from his own kingdom are present. Eversen is a kingdom where the monarch rules and the nobles do as they are commanded, unlike in Mara’s own kingdom where the nobles have entirely too much say for her liking. Still she welcomes King Ronan in the manner that is befitting a man of his station, with a flash of a wide smile.

“Welcome King Ronan.” Mara offers with her arms wide as though she intends to hug the older man. She doesn’t, but it’s the greeting she feels is most appropriate for the king whose expression softens in response a handle of seconds later.

“Empress Mara, it is a pleasure.” King Ronan replies with a slight forced crack of a smile across his otherwise thin lips, which are nearly hidden by his thick brown beard as he lowers his head to reveal the bald spot that spans much of the surface of his scalp.

“How was your journey?” Mara asks pleasantly as she walks at Ronan’s side as though they are equals, which they are. It is not a gesture she was willing to give Darius, who now sneers in response to the obvious disrespect that he knows he experienced. The young king quickly draining the second flagon of ale to claimed, in an attempt to suppress his irritation.

“Tiresome. But at least it’s over now. And I have a great feast that I am salivating in anticipation of.” King Ronan answers honestly before licking his lips hungrily.

If that had been Darius the licking would have been in response to something completely different than for King Ronan, she is sure. That’s why Mara chuckles lightly in response to make Ronan feel at ease. That is not to say that she trusts the middle aged monarch however, as he has a reputation for underhanded tactics. Many of which have been used against his nobles to strip them of the powers that they once possessed and could have used to unite against him and oust him from his position.

It is a fear that Mara shares in her own kingdom, which will be much more difficult if this banquet is as successful as she hopes it will be as she and King Ronan cross the longhouse to his little section. It is much emptier in terms of guests than her own and especially King Darius, who seems to have insisted on inviting every noble from the necessary to the pointless. Mara is sure it is supposed to show his brilliance in some form or another, though she can’t imagine how as most have never seen battle by the looks of things.

“I hope this will be acceptable for you King Ronan.” Mara says with a warm smile meant to disarm the older portly man.

“I’m sure it will be more than acceptable, Empress. Though please call me Ronan.” The portly king says with a suspicious glint in his eyes as he momentarily looks past Mara before returning his focus to her young porcelain skin.

King Ronan can see how many would consider the Empress beautiful, but she is not his type. He likes heavier set women, shorter too with wide child-birthing hips. That is why he misses his Marsha so. She died two winters ago from a blood infection that was the result of her insistence on tending to the palace gardens. In response King Ronan had ordered the gardens burned upon her death and he regretted nought of it. But his precious Marsha had given him two children, both boys. Both of which are already here and by the looks of things in a competition with young nobles of King Darius’ kingdom to see who can drink the most. If they were older he would find call them embarrassments, but they are still young men and have plenty of time to get such things out of their systems before the eldest, Robert, will take Ronan’s place on the throne some day. The nobles from Polaris on the other hand should know much better, but the antics of King Darius’ countrymen do not surprise him an ounce.

Robert is a few years older than his brother, Raymond, but they look more like twins as they smirk and down the dark ale without a care.

“As you wish Ronan and please call me Mara. Some have already taken to such things without being as courteous as you.” Mara declares making it known that King Darius has shown her nowhere near the respect that King Ronan has.

“What a sad fact to be able to utter.” Ronan says with a shake of his head. He knows exactly what and who Mara is referring to and that is even before he turns his head to look in the direction of King Darius who is still leering stupidly in Mara’s direction. Mara doesn’t turn her head to look, she can feel the young kings’ eyes on her and refuses to give him the satisfaction he so arrogantly insists should be granted to him.

“If you can excuse me Ronan, I think it’s time I get this banquet under way. Don’t want my guests going hungry after all.” Mara explains with a soft short chuckle as she excuses herself to announce the commencement of the banquet now that the last of the guests, the kings, have arrived.

The doors to the longhouse having already been pulled closed by her guards who are all stationed outside the structure so not to make her guests feel uneasy. It had been a suggestion that the Empress had herself put forward before either of the kings had been able to themselves. All so she could remove as many potential issues as she could, and it had worked, unsurprisingly.

“My honoured guests.” Mara announces as she stands at the head of her own collection of tables that face out toward the other two u-shaped arrangements that fill the space. Her voice is loud and confident as her eyes drift from face to face, many of which are unknown to her.

“We are gathered here to feast and feast we will. Let the food be devoured and the ale flow freely as we celebrate all those who are in attendance.” Mara continues before finishing with a wide smile followed by a thunderous clap a couple moments later. In response to the clap dozens upon dozens of servants appear from the kitchens carrying trays of succulent foods roasted and glazed as they lie presented effortlessly on the silver platters upon which they are transported.

The guests cry and cheer at the sight of the feast that is being laid in front of them, while more attendants arrive with great kegs of ale already tapped in anticipation of the consumption that will be indulged in during this most magnificent of feasts.

Meanwhile Mara herself has sunk back into her seat in preparation for the tasting of the food that she ordered cooked for this meal. And she has to admit that it looks just as good as she had assumed it would. Her chefs have done the finest of jobs and she beams proudly as she takes a leg of chicken, as well as an assortment of vegetables, which she delicately carves up with her knife and fork.

“Gravy, your majesty?” One of her servants asks with a deep bow.

“Please.” Mara replies in the moments before the thick hot liquid is poured over every ounce of her plate, which isn’t piled high like many of those around her.

Mara sees no reason no overindulge as she thanks the servant who quickly zips off to serve another of the guests, which leaves Mara to dig into her meal.

Many of her guests have decided to forego the niceties of their stations as they instead use their hands to hold the legs and tear at the meat with their teeth as though they are little more than animals. It humours Mara who watches them as they engage in banter and competition. She doesn’t understand any of it as she notes that she is the only woman present. The reality saddens her slightly, but only for the shortest of times as the taste of the food her chefs have produced can be described as nothing short of sublime. And by the looks on the faces of her guests it is clear they too would likely agree. Not that Mara intends to question any of them to confirm her suspicions as her eyes flit between the two kings who couldn’t be much more different.

King Darius tearing at a chicken leg with his teeth while grasping hold of a flagon with his spare hand which he waves back and forth as he cackles and roars with laughter. It is clear that the young king is already deep into the merry stage of inebriation. King Ronan on the other hand is picking at the meat with his fingers, savouring the taste as he licks continually at his lips. Though his plate is otherwise devoid of food save for the various meats on offer, which range from hare to chicken to veal to steak, pork and fish. Mara had been unaware that the king of Eversen had a disinterest in vegetables, even if it does explain his rotund belly and waddling movement.

It is clear that none of the guests are paying as much interest to the Empress as she is to them or their surroundings, which is proven when the first deaths come and they are caught entirely off guard by them.

The first death is that of a lowly noble of King Darius’ who finds his throat cut wide by the dagger Baron Vandermire had stored in his boot. No one had thought to check him and why would they? Baron Vandermire is an aging noble who arrived with no entourage. He, at least in his own kings’ mind, posed no threat. But that is where his king, the failure, was wrong. The Baron will make Darius pay for his arrogance as countless other blades suddenly come into view. Each and every one pulled by a servant who throws themselves at a noble. The numbers don’t quite equate one to one but the ‘servants’ aren’t servants. They are soldiers trained for war, experienced in combat and killing and that is why so many lives are lost before any reaction comes from the guests.

When it does though, Empress Mara is one of the first to attempt to flee, but she is tackled to the floor and the last thing heard from her is an ear-splitting scream that would make any man feel harrowed to hear.

King Darius, arrogant and too drunk to understand he is no match for a trained soldier, rushes headlong toward the Empresses attacker. It isn’t clear what he expects to achieve but the result is about as much as could be expected when the soldier runs him through and then shoulder barges him to the floor. The blade sliding free of his torso as he tumbles and slams his head, which cracks open, against the thick wide stone slabs that are stained and pockmarked by the countless centuries of wear they have seen. But Darius is not dead, instead he screams in pain as he flails about trying to right himself. He looks like a turtle stuck on its back but never achieves his goal as the soldier drives the blade of his sword into the centre of the kings’ chest. Blood, thick and dark, spits from his mouth as he reaches for the blade. He is trying desperately to wrench it free but for what purpose no one will ever know as the soldier slices a serrated steak knife across his throat. Darius gurgles several times as the blood swells from the wound but then his eyes glaze over. Death has claimed him much like it has many of the nobles in the longhouse. Though, some of them have managed to claim the lives of a few of the ‘servants’ by ganging up on them. Nobles representing each of the three kingdoms having banded together in a manner that has not been seen in maybe five decades or more.

Were the situation different King Ronan might have been proud, but right now as the last royal he has to fight for his life. He cannot suffer the same fate as the Empress or King Darius. Had he not seen the death of the Empress with his own eyes he would have declared her as the orchestrator of this plot. But it is clear that those responsible stem from a different branch, a non royal branch. Is it internal politics of Rorchid which he, Darius and their nobles have found themselves embroiled in? Or were they the targets all along? Ronan does not know but if he survives this he will find out, of that the plotters can be sure as Baron Vandermire throws himself at Ronan’s youngest son. The boy, barely a man, screams in terror as the dagger in the barons hand sinks deep into Raymond’s side. But the boy refuses to lay down and die as he drives his elbow outward to meet Stefan’s mouth with a sharp jab. Stefan’s head snaps backward in response to the impact and as it does he is sent staggering backward, the dagger in Raymond’s side sliding free. Raymond howls again as blood begins to spurt from the deep single puncture wound that sees him turn just in time to be met with a thrusting blade to the back of his throat.

“NOOOOOO!” King Ronan roars as he sees his youngest son die and his blood boil beyond a limit he would have believed to be possible. The anger results in him exploding into a frenzy that sees him tackle the closest of the fake servants so he can exact some form of revenge.

Ronan pounds at the man’s face which soon becomes bloody and misshapen, but Ronan never gets to confirm the attackers’ death as he is tackled to the floor by several other attackers, who pin him to the cold, hard and unrelenting stone floor of Parastice.

Ronan thrashes wildly screaming and demanding that they fight him like honourable men and not cowards. Suddenly and much to his surprise his demands are answered as he is hauled up to his feet. But the soldiers don’t release the last royal, the king. Instead, they make him watch as Baron Vandermire finishes dispatching Robert Peters, heir to the Eversen throne, his eldest child.

The young man doesn’t beg or plead as he is stabbed over and over by the Baron’s dagger, the blade of which is slick with thick crimson as the young heir lets out his last gasp of air.

Stefan releases his hold on the young would have been king, whose body drops to the floor like a sack of potatoes. He posed no threat to the baron who turns toward King Ronan now. Stefan has lost an eye in the frenzy of the slaughter that this banquet has become.

“Coward!” Ronan thunders. He recognises the man as one of King Darius’ nobles, but he is not acquainted with the man personally and cannot put a name to the face that has killed his sons so savagely.

“You will perish for this! There is no place in this world or the next in which you can hide to escape my wrath!” King Ronan roars definitely.

“Really? So your last words are to be a threat against me? No questions as to why?” Baron Stefan Vandermire replies in disbelief. From what he’d heard of King Ronan he was a practical and curious man, but the truth is clearly far different. Not that it matters to Stefan as blood streaks down the left side of his face, emanating from where his left eye used to be. The pain, he would have to admit, is far greater than he would have expected. But it is worth it, or at least it will be. The war had dragged on for far too long and the monarchs have done nought to bring it to an end. That is why things had to change and now they will. King Ronan won’t live to see the changes however.

King Ronan says nothing in response to the Baron though, and instead simply glowers at the man who cleans the blood soaked dagger against his own purple woollen waistcoat. The disrespect sickens Ronan who, while having never liked King Darius, cannot believe the disgusting nature of the betrayer in their midst. If only Darius had dispatched his nobles, like Ronan had. But the young man had been too arrogant and cocksure that he would be able to control those around him. The betrayer now before King Ronan is proof the younger monarch had been wrong.

“Nothing?” Stefan asks now that the blade is clean of blood, though the stubby cross-guard that links the short narrow blade to the hilt is still stained with the blood of the barons victims. The baron himself would never call any of them victims, but he is sure they themselves, if they were not dead, would.

King Ronan has a thousand things he’d like to say. Many of them are questions, but he doubts the betrayer will answer them as it seems obvious to Ronan that this baron intends to end his life sooner rather than later. On that he has to commend the Baron, but it does surprise him that a noble of Polaris has managed to so successfully infiltrate the kingdom of the nation of Rorchid.

“I thought not. Though this may change your mind.” Stefan says as a wide smile rips across his otherwise thin face and the sound of footsteps begin to ring out.

Ronan studies the sound but decides that something about the steps are off. Not because the steps are either too many or too few, but just the sound. They sound like heels of leather but the only person that might have been wearing heels is dead.

As he concludes such a thing however Empress Mara slides into view. His eyes go wide and his jaw physically drops. He can’t believe it. The Empress really is stood before him, alive and well. In fact, there is not a mark on her except for the dark stain on her dress, right over her gut. A stain that has no puncture wound associated with it.

Ronan snarls at first as he realises that he has been played and that his own plans of having Darius and Mara assassinated have been thwarted by the one royal he was sure would be his easiest target. If she were not the enemy he would commend her for her brilliance, but she is so he won’t.

“You did this.” King Ronan sneers through gritted teeth as his hazel eyes attempt to burrow into Mara’s soul and make her feel uncomfortable. But his attempts fail as Mara feels no guilt for the actions she has taken.

“Before you could make a move of your own, Ronan, yes.” Mara replies much to the surprise of Ronan who can scarcely believe that the Empress of Rorchid had discovered his own plans of assassination.

“You knew?” Ronan replies without thinking. It is a uncharacteristic slip that he should have known better than to make, though why it matters now he doesn’t know.

“Of course I knew. There was no way you, the master of plots, was going to pass up the opportunity to dispatch the only two people in the region that stand between you and your dream of holding power over the western territories.” Mara answers with a shake of her head. It isn’t remorse but it is disappointment.

The Empress had been worried that King Ronan would see through her ruse. However, he hadn’t and it had in fact been King Darius who had provided greater resistance to the notion of this gathering than the master plotter. Ronan’s arrogance for victory had blinded him to the idea that anyone could be attempting to out-manoeuvre him.

“Your own kingdom isn’t fairing well Mara. You know it and so do I.” Ronan spits angrily as he tries to wriggle free of the tight grips keeping him at bay.

The men that have a hold of him are bigger, younger and stronger than him however and his efforts are for nought.

“It will now. Peace will heal the wounds of all the people in the Three Kingdoms.” Mara responds as she blinks slowly and softly.

“You are a fool!” Ronan spits.

“This traitor will betray you like he betrayed his own king!” Ronan continues as he tries to pull himself closer to Stefan and Empress Mara. He manages a half step but nothing more as his shoulders begin to send painful ripples because of the strain they are being forced to maintain. He won’t be able to mount a response and those restraining him will know that. Not that it matters as death will find him soon. But before death he can sow discord. It’s all he has left and he will do it proudly. Mara will not get the peace she dreams of. Instead, she will forever be looking over her shoulder waiting for this baron to betray her unless she has him killed like everyone else around them. With that Ronan casts his glance at the scene that he is amongst in the longhouse and finds the space is riddled with bodies, many of which are at odds angels with blood having created a pool that spans much of the floor. The blood has already begun the process of attempting to dry, while more is slapped across the walls and furniture of the longhouse. The stench from the dead bodies and blood are already starting to get to the back of Ronan’s throat as its vile aroma fills the now tainted air of this place. He hasn’t been on a battlefield for more than a decade as he had seen fighting as a young man’s game. He is not a young man anymore and in that time has lost the resilience he had once accrued against the odour. He regrets that now.

“If he weren’t my uncle that might be true.” Mara offers honestly.

“WHAT?!?” Ronan shouts in surprise. This has to be a trick he says to himself as there is no way that a royal of Rorchid and a baron of Polaris can be related.

“Lies.” Ronan soon spits.

He sure that this is some form of deception made to make him to question his own merits. As if this is true then it means that the great uncoverer of information has failed to dig up vital knowledge that could have been used against the Rorchid monarchy.

“My sister, Lauren, was Mara’s mother.” Stefan admits in the moments before the mention of his departed sisters name makes him recall memories of her as she had been in her youth. Stefan had been her older brother and the only member of the Vandermire family that knew of his sisters’ life as a queen in Rorchid.

“You invented this to reach a station above where you should be permitted.” Ronan spits as he glares at Stefan.

“No.” Mara declares angrily as her ice blue eyes burn holes in Ronan. The king shifts uncomfortably in response. He tells himself it’s the strain on his shoulders, but that’s a lie. He can feel the Empresses gaze and it almost hurts to have it on him, though he doesn’t know why.

“My mother told me of my uncle, Baron Stefan Vandermire, when I was a child. I met my dear uncle at my mother’s funeral, albeit briefly.” Mara informs as she lowers her head in unison with Stefan.

King Ronan doesn’t believe it, but knows his time is up now as the baron, who he now know’s to be Stefan Vandermire, steps forward.

“No.” Mara orders as she blocks her uncle’s path with her arm.

Ronan can’t help but smile. The Empress does not have a strong enough stomach, he thinks as he stares at the baron before raising an eyebrow in silent query.

“I’ll do this myself.” Mara then announces much to King Ronan’s surprise. But as Stefan goes to hand Mara the dagger that has claimed both of Ronan’s sons’ lives, Mara pulls a dagger of her own. It is silver coated with golden filigree along the cross-guard and down the length of the hilt which has a dragon, the symbol of Rorchid, carved into it.

“Your majesty, Mara, you do not have the stones. You are a woman and an Empress. You are not of strong male stock. You have never fought on the battlefield. Thus you are too weak to dispatch me without the stain on your conscious ruining your mind.” King Ronan says with surety as he is forced to straighten up, so he is face-to-face with Mara.

The Empress leans in to whisper into Ronan’s ear. He knows he could try and fight this and he would if his executioner were male. But she is not and he will not lose his life at her hand, of that he is surer of than anything before in his life. That is why the Empress played dead while her soldiers and this traitor baron, who claims to be her uncle, did the killing.

“I fought on the battlefield. I killed men. And right now you are realising from the tone of my voice that I tell the truth. But it’s too late. Your end is nigh and it will be concluded by my hands.” Mara whispers honestly moments before she plunges the dagger in her left hand up through the base of King Ronan’s jaw and up into his brain.

His eyes are wide Mara notes as she pulls back to see the shocked look that he had on his face in death.

There is not a hint of emotion on Mara’s delicate face as she releases her grip on the hilt of the dagger and steps back. The dead body of King Ronan drops to the unrelenting stone floor of Parastice with a dull wet thud.

Her ice blue eyes drink in the sight of victory, which neither of the kings ever saw coming. She feels relief wash over her to know that she has succeeded and that the war between the Three Kingdoms of the western region will finally be over.

Mara will find Sasha now this is over, and with the handmaiden and uncle at her side they will reforge the Three Kingdoms into what they need to be for the people that call them home. And if the nobles refuse then they too will suffer similar fates to King’s Darius and Ronan, of that there will be no doubt.

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