“I know it sounds strange, but even growing up, my favorite places were near water. I love the trees too, but there’s nothing quite like the sound and smell of rain.” Miranda leaned into Brennus’ right side, smiling for what felt like the first time in weeks. The nerves in her stomach quieted when she smelled the musky wood scent coming from his robes.
Brennus chuckled softly. “I would often drive my teachers crazy because I spent more time looking out the window at the gardens rather than at my textbooks. There’s something calming about nature that I think most of the world does not understand.”
He watched Miranda’s eyelids start to droop as the pendant seemed to acquire a soft glow from within. It wouldn’t be long before the process was complete. Suddenly Miranda sat straight and looked at the moon light peeking out from the darkened clouds.
“How long have we been out here?” Miranda brought a hand to her head. “We should get back. I’m already in enough trouble with the queen as it is.”
“What else are daughters for, but to worry their parents through mischief?” He started to laugh, “I’m sure the king and queen wouldn’t mind if we spent time together. An alliance between our lands would prove useful against potential threats.”
Miranda stood from the ornate marble bench. “What threats?”
Brennus stood as well, pushing a hand through her hair. “I did not want to worry you this quickly, but you have been lied to.”
“What do you mean?” Miranda tried to take a step back but found her legs too heavy to move. Their strength gave way altogether and Miranda collapsed to the ground, grasping at Brennus’ cloak as she fell. “What’s wrong with me?”
Brennus knelt next to Miranda, continuing to stroke her hair. “There are those who would seek to take away the people’s hope. Trinity Knights they call themselves. They would undermine the power entrusted to the temples by bringing lies to the people. They claim that releasing the dark god from his prison would bring death and destruction onto the land.”
Brennus smiled down at Miranda as the pendant grew brighter. “But they’re wrong, don’t you see? Naonet was created by the goddesses to rule us. Like a shepherd to a flock of sheep, you see. When the time is right, Naonet will be released and the world will fall into sweet darkness. Fear not, my love, you will forever be remembered as the bringer of truth and freedom. First, though, you must be prepared.”
Brennus removed the pendant hanging around his neck, placing it on Miranda’s forehead. The stone around her neck flashed with light, making an arc with the stone on her forehead. He placed a hand over the stone on her forehead and began a series of chants. “Lord Naonet, accept part of my soul as a sacrifice. In turn I provide your daughter’s mind.” Out of the corner of his eye, a shadow began slithering towards him. In his mind he heard his lord’s voice.
“Miranda, let me introduce you to your real father.”
Miranda’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her hands began to shake. The light from the pendants dimmed and then exploded with black and red flames. Brennus bit down on his lip to keep the screams trapped in his throat. Somewhere in the distance, Brennus heard rustling and shouts. His grip on his pendant loosened just enough to cut the connection. The rebound of energy hit him square in the chest, knocking him flat on his back. He looked up just in time to see Miranda gasping for breath. When her eyes opened, Brennus saw they were significantly darker. Within her pupils, Brennus could not mistake the glimmer of red.
“My lord,” he whispered as he stood and straightened his robes.
Miranda stood with ease, picking loose leaves from her hair. When she spoke, her voice was deeper and hoarse. “You broke the connection too early. I cannot sustain control for very long. Already my daughter’s body rejects me. It’ll have to do until they find the Goddess Stone. I trust Rolanda has told you the rest of the plan?”
Brennus knelt to one knee. “Yes, my lord. The plans are in place. You will have millions by the morrow.”
There was a soft giggling hidden in the rustle of the trees. Miranda smiled. “My children do get quite lonely. You have done well, considering, but make no mistake. You have yet to fully prove yourself. Give me an army and you will be rewarded.” Miranda turned towards the shouts, getting louder. “This body grows weak. I must retreat for now. Do not fail me tomorrow.”
Brennus rushed to Miranda as she began to fall, placing a kiss on her forehead. Her body was cold as ice in his arms while her head burned with heat. Brennus grabbed his pendant from the ground and tossed it into a nearby mud puddle. He pushed the damp hair from Miranda’s neck and made sure her breathing slowed and her heart returned to a soft, steady beat. He took out a small vial and opened it under her nose, whispering, “I was just so tired. I must have slipped. Sleep and remember. Remember.”
Outside their private enclave the rain was finally starting to let up. Gathering Miranda in his arms, Brennus carried her past the wall of vines covering the entrance and began to call out for help.
Not even a few seconds passed before two Kaitu guards came barreling around the corner. Their gaze switched from Brennus to Miranda unconscious in his arms. “Sir Garreth! We found her.”
Brennus knew the name well, though he’d never met the man. Son of Sir Caldon and a common tavern wench, the boy was raised as a Trinity Knight and rose through the ranks faster than any man had a right to. When he came around the corner, Brennus did his best not to smile. If only the fool knew what was coming for him.
Garreth ran to Brennus’ side, dropping next to Miranda. “Tell me what happened.”
“An accident is all. We were walking and she collapsed. Looks like exhaustion to me. I would be too if I was used as publicity for supporting the royal family.”
Garreth turned towards the Kaitu guard. “Get her to her room and see to it her parents are informed of her safety.”
Brennus handed Miranda off to one of the Kaitu guard and stood to follow. Garreth placed a hand on his shoulder. “Not you, High Senator. We need to have a nice chat.”
Brennus raised an eye brow. “I’d really like to make sure she’s ok.”
“Healers will see to her.” Garreth indicated one of the stone benches by the fountain. “Please, sit. My name is Sir Garreth of the Ausceran Guard.”
“So far from home, good knight.”
“On temporary loan to the Royal Family.” Garreth kept his face calm. “There’s been a murder.”
“Murder? In the palace? Who?”
Garreth once again motioned for Brennus to sit, which Brennus finally did. “Miranda’s teacher was found dead by a couple of guards. Only when my partner and I arrived, all we found was a robe and a few books.”
Brennus laughed. “Do corpses walk now?”
“Not generally no, that is unless dark magic is involved.”
Brennus felt something in his stomach squirm, but let nothing show on his face. “I wouldn’t know anything of that sort. I follow Zurla.”
“What were you doing out here so late and how did Miranda end up with you?”
Brennus smiled, hearing the knight’s voice betray him. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were jealous. I thought knights weren’t supposed to have feelings, especially for another kingdom’s princess. She is above your station.”
Garreth’s face remained expressionless. “If you’re not going to cooperate…”
Brennus placed his hands palms up in defense. “I didn’t say that. I thought she might like some fresh air. When I came to visit her, she was alone and very lonely. I offered her some company and time must have escaped us because we ended up down here. As for her condition, well just as I said, she simply collapsed.” He paused. “Although she did complain of a headache and seemed awfully tired to me. Too many suitors vying for her attention, perhaps?”
“That’ll be all High Senator. It’s getting late. I’ll have someone escort you to your room.”
Garreth’s gaze challenged him to deny the escort, but Brennus knew this game better than the knight. He bowed his head gracefully. “I will accept your generosity. Good night, Sir Garreth. I will check on Miranda in the morning.”
Brennus followed the guard across the grounds and up the guest entrance to the North Wing guest rooms. When he entered his room, he almost did not notice the feminine figure watching him intently from the bed.
“Is it done?”
“I was… interrupted. The transfer wasn’t able to be completed, but the connection has been established. With the completed stone, he will rise. Is everything set for tomorrow?”
Rolanda smiled, or would have if she had most of her teeth left intact. “Everything has been set. All that remains is the spark. With the leaders gone, everyone will look to the temples for guidance. Already many of them turn in their relatives as seers for extra food rations.”
Brennus frowned. “I think you can hardly call those rations food.”
“They don’t know that.” Rolanda strode over to the window and poured two glasses of wine, holding one out to Brennus. “To our lord and master.”
Brennus took the goblet and drank. The warm liquid burned a path down his throat, wrapping itself around his heart. A sharp pain hit his chest. The goblet clattered to the floor, spilling bright red liquid on the gold carpet. Spasms crashed like a wave over and over through his body. He looked down at his arms as symbols burned themselves into his flesh.
“What? What’s going on?”
“You’re being promoted. Naonet’s first general for the brand new age. You should be honored.”
Rolanda tied a strip of cloth over his mouth to cover the screams, pulling the curtains shut around the room’s windows. As the room grew darker, Rolanda could hear the soft footsteps of Naonet’s children materializing from the darkness. With just enough light to reach the door at the other end of the room, Rolanda quickly ran through it and locked the door behind her, leaving two acolytes to keep watch throughout the night.
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