Thursday, August 9, 2007
Since people said they'd read it...
... I will post it here.
What I basically want to know is, does this serve as a good prologue. In other words, does it suck you in?
Thanks for doing this for me! Now, here's The Imperial Guard: the prologue.
There’s no history that’s completely accurate except for the one you see with your own eyes.
So if you’re going to throw a tantrum over historical inaccuracy, I don’t want to hear it. I’d rather you hear about this from someone else, too. But the fact is that there aren’t too many people who know of everything that was involved in Myrrh’s war for independence, and. Well. The rest of them decided it would be amusing to make me write all this out. “Oh, Cat, it would be so much more entertaining if YOU did it!” Assholes.
I’m not that great of an observer. There’s plenty of things I don’t know, as well. And I’m – I’ll admit it – extremely biased. But, since you’re stuck with me, I’ll try to be as factual as humanly possible. Somewhat.
Before I get ahead of myself, I should explain the wonderful system that is Ancient Law. I’m not exactly sure who or what to blame for that, but since before recorded history, the five empires of the Isalix continent have followed it without deviation, and the Myrrh Empire was no exception.
One of the principles of Ancient Law states that the Emperor or Empress should have a small, personal guard of six highly trained soldiers. Besides commanding the army, these six people would serve the ruler exclusively, and they would answer to no one else. They would be expected to lay down their lives for their master, and if that master were to die, they were expected to follow without hesitation.
To a normal person, that kind of life doesn’t exactly sound appealing, does it? Serve the same person your entire life, be ready to die every time some idiot invades, and cut your stomach open whenever your master decides to kick it. But to the people in the Isalix empires, being an Imperial Guardian is a romantic ideal. Aside from the rulers themselves, those six people are the most revered in the empire, and however short their lives may be, they’ll live it out in luxury. Which sort of takes the sting off the life of servitude.
The Myrrh Empire followed that system without incident for hundreds of years. Then things got changed up a little when Emperor Cadon the Eighth got himself killed at a skiing accident at his resort. (The moron tried to pose for a picture and crashed into a tree.) And the only heir he left behind was an illegitimate kid he’d had with an exotic dancer about seventeen years prior.
Which left the retainers in something of a bind. Cadon’s wife was clamoring to take his position. But, once again, Ancient Law dictated that rulers would be determined by bloodline, not marriage, and God forbid anyone go against THAT. So Gwendolyn Doyle, along with her new arranged fiancée, the nobleman Victor Sesseman, became the next Empress of Myrrh.
Whatever issues people had with Gwendolyn, most agreed that her Imperial Guard regiment was one of the most impressive in years. Normally, in the succession process, the guard will pick a child that reflects his best qualities, and that child will be trained specially for the job until his master gets the throne. But, seeing as there wasn’t much time for that, Cadon’s guards picked from some of the most talented young soldiers in the country.
One of those soldiers was a woman named Celeste Kasshen, an aristocrat from one of the oldest noble families in Myrrh. She got pretty famous in her own right: she wasn’t only an extremely competent Second Division Commandant, she was also pretty smoking hot. She was practically considered a living legend.
Hate her yet? You don’t even know the half of it.
My name is Catalin Kasshen. That legend was my cousin.
When I was born, Gwendolyn had been on the throne for ten years, which was about how long the tensions with the neighboring Carmine Empire had been going on. Remember Cadon’s wife? She was a distant relation of Carmine’s Emperor Anwar, sent as a peace gesture. And you can imagine how ticked Anwar was about missing out on that connection. Gwendolyn, being smarter than she looked, distrusted Carmine’s efforts to suck up to her from the start.
But the only way this tension affected the empire at all was that it forced Gwendolyn to lock herself down in her palace; since her guards were expected to die with her, it made her a pretty prime target. But the people living in Myrrh barely even registered that they were on the brink of war. In House Kasshen, at least, Carmine didn’t even exist.
As the children of the head of the family, my older sister Eliade and I were expected to be quiet, courteous, respectful, and play shamelessly on our cousin’s fame. Well, Eliade was. I was three years old, so I was mostly expected to learn to read and write before everyone else my age. At the time, our father claimed that he was still deciding who would succeed him as head of the family. While Eliade was the firstborn, I had two things going for me: I was a boy, and I already distinctly resembled Celeste.
Celeste came to see us pretty often, at my father’s insistence. She preferred Eliade, who was thirteen and could therefore stroke her ego properly, but she played with me a little, too. That is, until I got the least bit disagreeable, then she’d just hand me back to a maid. Celeste didn’t really know how to deal with children.
Once, she did come just for me.
The singing had been going on for a few hours now.
It started very early that morning, a low hum among the stirring of the slowly awakening capital, and slowly built as different tones, different voices, added themselves to it. It was discordant, out of tune, and uncoordinated, some voices were out of step with others. The melody itself was jarring, sliding inconsistently from sharp to flat. And it didn’t even sound to Catalin like they were singing the same words.
He hid himself behind one of the column that adorned the open-air hallway to the servants’ quarters. “No,” he said firmly, peeking around it and glaring before retreating again.
“Catalin, we have to stay inside.” Eliade crossed her arms, attempting to look firm. But something in her tone seemed unsettled. “Father said.”
Catalin ignored her, focusing instead on the strange song. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing in the general direction of the noise.
“I don’t know,” she responded, desperate, “but we have to go back inside. We can’t stay out here.”
“Why not?” Catalin whined, stamping his foot. “I want to!”
“Catalin, I swear…” Eliade strode down the hallway, ready to chase him if she had to, but stopped when one of the maids opened the door behind her.
“Lady Eliade…” the maid swallowed hard. “There’s a visitor for you.”
Eliade turned around sharply. “You were told not to let anyone in.”
“Forgive me, lady, but…” Trailing off, the maid stepped aside, allowing the visitor out into the hall. Catalin peeked out from behind the column, his eyes traveling up the battered black and gold uniform until they landed on the familiar face.
“Celeste!” For some reason, Eliade didn’t sound happy, like she usually did. “W-What are you…?”
“Eliade.” The clipped voice kept Catalin in his hiding place. “I need to see your brother.”
“Celeste, what are you doing here?” Eliade approached her slowly, like one would a cornered animal. “I heard… I heard that the Empress… shouldn’t you be…?”
“Is Catalin here?” Celeste repeated, an odd, frozen smile stretching her face. “I need to talk to him.”
“Celeste, what’s going on?” Eliade begged. But Celeste didn’t seem to hear her. She was looking around her younger cousin’s shoulder, directly at the line of columns.
Hearing his name called, Catalin tentatively ventured out into the hallway. Finally, he smiled shyly, pleased at being addressed by Celeste directly. “Hi.”
Celeste stepped around Eliade, bending down until she was at his eye level. “I want you to do your cousin a big, big favor. Can you do that for me, honey?”
“Yes,” Catalin answered.
“Good… that’s a good boy. Now…” She reached behind her thick cloud of black hair, her hands looking for something at the nape of her neck. She withdrew a gold pendant on a long, black chain, and reaching forward, put it around Catalin’s neck. “Can you hold onto this for me? And promise never to tell anyone that you have it?”
“Celeste!” Eliade sounded horrified now. “You can’t—”
“You promise, Catalin?” Celeste shut Eliade down without raising her voice, tucking the pendant down Catalin’s shirt. “This is going to be a secret, just between the two of us.”
“Mmmhmm!” Catalin nodded vehemently, sticking out his pinky. “Promise!”
Celeste laughed quietly, wrapping his pinky in hers. “That’s good. Take good care of it.” She kissed him on the cheek, her smile faltering for just a second. “I’m sorry to make you do this for me.”
“Celeste?” Catalin blinked up at her, sensing the small flicker.
“I have to go now, sweetie… I’ll see you soon, okay?” Celeste rose to her feet, immediately turning to leave.
“Where are you going?” Eliade asked, stepping into her path. “They’re going to be looking for you out there!”
“I know that.” Celeste gently moved Eliade aside. “Anwar will be coming to the capital today. I promised I’d greet him.”
That song I heard was a religious hymn called The Prayer of Sending. Most people call it the Melody of the Dead.
It was one of the fastest and deadliest coups in recorded history. The attack on the Empress came from the inside, orchestrated by one of Gwendolyn’s own Imperial Guardians. There was no declaration of war, so the soldiers weren’t mobilized, or even prepared at all. Gwendolyn’s remaining guards were able to take a few Carmine soldiers with them, including two of Anwar’s Guardians, but most were either killed, or killed themselves before anyone else could.
Except Celeste. She hid until Anwar himself arrived in the capital, and attacked him during his coronation. Before she was killed, she threw a knife into Anwar’s left eye.
And while this made her a martyr to the newly subjugated citizens of Myrrh, it wasn’t the smartest idea she’d ever had, seeing as it sent Anwar on the warpath. He decided to stay permanently in Gwendolyn’s old palace, claiming Myrrh needed his “special attention,” and soon after, he made a few rounds around the country to ensure that no one believed he was vulnerable to attack. House Kasshen was his first stop.
The singing had not stopped for days. Sometimes it grew quieter, as if only a few voices were continuing, but then it would grow in strength again, to the point that the sound was overpowering, wherever Catalin was in the house. When Eliade pulled him into the Main Hall’s closet, he could still hear it clearly.
“Ellie—” Catalin whined, squirming in his sister’s grip.
“Shhh!” Eliade hissed, clamping a hand over Catalin’s mouth as the footsteps began to circle the Main Hall. “Catalin, please, you have to be quiet…”
Her voice withered away as the footsteps planted themselves in front of the closet door. “You can come out, young lady. I know you’re in there.”
Eliade pressed Catalin against her tightly, shutting her eyes.
“Eliade, do as he says.” A different, familiar voice this time.
“Father?” Eliade blurted out. Seconds later, the door swung open.
Catalin looked up at the tall, impressive man clad in red and white that stood in front of them, beckoning for Eliade to step out. Though he was middle-aged, he had a dignified handsomeness about him – or at least, he would have, if not for the heavy bandages covering one eye.
“What are you doing here?” Eliade hissed, still holding on to her brother.
“Eliade,” their father snapped. “Do not speak to the Emperor in such a manner.”
“It’s perfectly all right.” Anwar regarded them calmly. “You have very handsome children, Henric. Which of them is to become the head of the Kasshen House?”
Henric paused at length, ignoring the sob of his wife behind him. “The girl.”
Anwar clicked his tongue lightly. “It would not be wise to lie to me, Henric.”
Henric faltered, his gaze falling to the floor. “The boy was to be my successor, Your Highness.”
“Very well then.” Anwar nodded curtly. “Young lady, if you’ll give your brother to me?”
“Get out of our house!” Eliade looked around frantically for someone to back her up, for a guard to draw his sword in her defense.
“Eliade…” Their mother inhaled deeply. “It would be best to do as the Emperor says.”
Catalin began to squirm harder as Eliade’s arms tightened around him. “What are you going to do with him?”
“I assure you, young lady, your brother will come to no harm.” Anwar extended his arms. “But he’ll have to come with me. Now.”
“Ellie… Ellie…” Catalin freed one arm, pointing at Anwar’s bandaged eye. “What’s that?”
With a slight smile, Anwar pulled Catalin out of his sister’s grasp. “Would you like to know, Catalin?”
The singing trickled in through the open front door, disharmonious as ever, and, like a retreating tide, slowly began to recede.