✥ E.C. 488 ✥
"Her name is Neiru Rogzé. She's the daughter of one of my cousins from Lucifenia, and her parents are visiting town. Say hello, Neiru."
Neiru did not even nod in acknowledgement of me, merely glancing at me before looking away, clinging a bit tighter to Mother's dress. I stared back at the two, surprised that Mother was allowing her to touch her dress; she had yelled at one of my sisters for doing this. Then again, maybe she was okay with Neiru because they shared some blood.
"Kyle," Mother continued, "you remember what Lucifenia was like, don't you? It has a forest, and a very tall palace. And it's where your bride will come from…"
For a moment, Mother's face darkened, and I could see her jaw subtly clench. Before I could ask if she was okay, I could hear heavy footsteps echoing down the hall, heading for us.
Into the room came the old sorceress that lived in the court. She only ever went by the name Abyss I.R., and she truly was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Her joints creaked with each movement of her legs and hands; even a powerful magician like her was a victim to time, although she did claim to be several centuries old.
"Your Majesty Prim," she began, bowing her head in reverence. "Duke Sfarz has arrived. He has new information about what we discussed last month."
"Right now? But Neiru just…" Mother glanced at Neiru, who stood still and stared at Abyss, and then sighed. "Fine. Kyle, take care of Neiru for today. I have something important to do."
Neiru did not respond, and Mother pried the girl off her, walking after Abyss as she left the room. This triggered something in Neiru, who spoke for the first time since she had arrived here. "But…" She slowly reached out for Mother's retreating figure, her blank expression cracking into fear and desperation. "Your Majesty, I…" Her arm limply fell back to her side, and she stared down at her feet.
I sat up from the couch and approached her. Her parents must have been attending a meeting elsewhere, and she was alone in this foreign country without an adult to look up to.
But then again, I was an adult now. There was more and more pressure for me to learn more about politics, especially with Father's grey hairs and wrinkles increasing day by day, and now that I was betrothed, it would be inappropriate for me to allow a woman into my room.
But Neiru was not a woman – she was a scared little girl who needed something to get her mind off her loneliness.
"Would you like to see my paintings?"
- - -
The scent of turpentine and oil was always lingering in my room, and I could see Neiru's nose scrunch up a bit. I kept the balcony doors open, and she sat on the floor right beside the doorway, breathing in fresh air.
I watched the way the sunlight caught her golden-colored hair. She looked very good in sunny, warm colors, even though her attitude was very cold. I remembered that the nobles of Lucifenia often wore gold clothing, and she certainly had the strong facial profile of an aristocrat.
It took me a minute to realize that I had been staring at Neiru, and I saw that she was now returning the favor, her expression stiff once again. I blushed and looked away, trying to think of how to explain myself. "I'm sorry! It's my artist's eye. I can't help it."
"I mean, sometimes I get caught up in color values and light contrast, and you have some good looks going on, you know?"
"Wait, no, that came out wrong. I didn't mean to stare at you, but I think that if someone painted you, you would look very nice in it."
"…Would you like me to paint you?"
Finally, Neiru nodded. Although it would have been much easier to hold a conversation with a wall than with her, at least she gave some kind of response this time.
The first step was sketching her on paper. Although I had no doubts that she would stay still the entire time I painted, I wanted to have an image in mind before I committed myself to paint. The composition needed to be just right, with enough light to balance it out. Her posture had relaxed quite a bit over time, but her face did not quite match her body.
"Neiru, do you think you can smile a bit?"
She stared at me once more. Neiru seemed to be making an attempt, as I could see the corners of her mouth twitch just a bit, but it was obvious that any result she gave would be awkward.
"…Nevermind, I think I got enough detail."
The light outside was changing as the sun set, bathing Neiru in orange colors. I had to work fast, and after blocking out the composition on a canvas, I worked on Neiru's colors, wanting to capture the golden hues shining all over her.
"Ah, I told you he'd be in here again, Your Majesty."
I turned around, seeing Abyss leaning in through my doorway. Mother towered over the short woman, standing behind her in the hall.
"Neiru, you need to go home now. Abyss will escort you there."
"Alright, Your Majesty Prim." Neiru immediately stood from where she had been sitting, bounding up to Abyss's side. The old woman chuckled at her sudden burst of energy and led her out into the hallway.
"Is Neiru really going back to Lucifenia?" I asked.
"Yes, Kyle. I don't think she'll be back for a long time."
I nodded, biting the inside of my lip, and turned back to my easel. I had the image of Neiru still fresh in my mind, and I could improvise with just the sunset and the open doorway, so I worked on another section of the sky, waiting for the paints on Neiru's figure to dry.
"You're working on another painting," Mother remarked.
"Kyle, you know it's rude not to look at me when you're talking." There was a touch of steel in her voice. "Speaking of manners, your tutor tells me you were skipping his lessons again."
"I wasn't ski–" I corrected myself, turning around to look at her again; she had entered my room. "I was not slacking off on all my classes. I was with Miss Margaret again."
Mother crossed her arms. "I appreciate that you're so interested in art, but you can't shirk your other classes for this. One day you will be the king, and you must be confident and noble when that time comes."
"About that, Mother…" I nervously twirled my brush between my fingers. "What if one of my brothers became the king? Or if one of my sist–"
I was not allowed to finish this thought. "They can't be monarchs. And they aren't your brothers and sisters."
"They're Father's children."
"But they're not my children. I'm the queen consort, and you're my son. You're going to be king."
"But…!" I stared at my feet, trying to collect my thoughts and make an effective counter. "But it is a lot to demand of me, and I don't think I am prepared to–"
"Manners, Kyle. You're being rude again." I looked up in time to see Mother walking to my side. "You'll be a very important man, doing wonderful things. Don't you want to be important, be someone I can be proud of?"
"Of course I want you to be proud of me, Mother! But can't I do other things that'll make you happy? Like paint?"
"Painting? That little hobby? You are royalty. You're supposed to commission artists to paint for you, not get your hands filthy with chemicals like a low-class worker."
"Maybe I'll stop being royalty and be a worker."
It was always something that was bubbling in my head, but it wasn't something I told other people, and certainly not something I would tell Mother. But it just slipped out of my mouth that time.
In an instant, she shoved me aside and lashed out at my easel, knocking it onto the ground, the canvas smearing facedown on my carpet.
"She is poisoning you!" she snarled. "That Margaret is dragging you away from your family and trying to ruin your life! She can't possibly have your best interests in mind – only a mother can do that! Are you trying to tell me you'd rather have that mid-class airhead Margaret as your mother?"
"No! No, leave her out of this, Mother!" I couldn't stand the thought of Margaret getting in trouble over me; she was a wonderful woman who I cared for and respected, and she did not deserve to be dragged into this mess. "It's all me! I want to paint!"
"Oh, so you want to disappoint me yet again, Kyle? Do you want to keep failing me and the citizens of Marlon!? You're driving your dear old father ill with your rebellion, you know!"
"What do you care!? You won't even bury my brothers and sisters in the royal cemetery!"
"They are not your siblings!" Her fury boiling over completely, she picked up my box of paint tubes. "You are my only child," she stormed out to my balcony, "even though you are completely worthless!" And with that, she threw the entire box off the balcony. Even from where I stood, I could hear the crash and splatter of my tools hitting the ground.
I rushed outside, looking over the banister. The stone pathway that lead to the front gates of the castle was decorated with splashes of many colors that spilled out of burst tubes, red and green and white and yellow.
"That's my heart, Kyle. That's what you keep doing to me."
Mother coldly began to walk away. A shudder came over me, and I frantically tried to make some kind of amends with her. "Wait," I reached out for her. "Wait, Mother, please, I didn't–"
"I love you, Kyle, I really do." She kept her back turned to me. "That's why it frustrates me so much that you're willing to waste your life on meaningless pursuits. I already lost my little girl. You remember that, don't you?"
"Y-Yes, Mother." I was still very young when it happened, just eight years old. But I had been given a crash course on human reproduction in order to prepare me for the birth of my young sibling, my only full sibling, so I knew what the word "stillborn" meant. Mother was very withdrawn after this happened, not even letting me or Father visit her and having Abyss be the messenger between us, but she eventually emerged from her room and redoubled her efforts to raise me to be strong.
"You're my only child now. That's why I want to make sure you have the best life you can have. But the life of an artist is brutal. You can't live in guaranteed luxury. Your entire livelihood relies on how well you can sell paintings. I've seen too many artists get divorced or lose their houses because they can't get a steady income. If you were king, you wouldn't have to worry about starving to death on the streets. I just don't want you to suffer, dear."
"Yes, Mother. I still like painting better, but…but I don't want to worry you." And it was true; this woman had put so much effort into my education, had given me all the toys and tools I wanted, had dealt with all my awkwardness and my outbursts for fourteen years and going. The least I owed her was some consideration for her feelings. "I'm sorry, I was being irrational, I shouldn't have yelled."
"Then perhaps you should be visiting your etiquette tutor more often." Mother glanced over her shoulder, offering me a soft smile. "And I'm sorry I ruined your paints. I'll search for replacement paints, better ones. I'm sure that whatever you decide will be the right choice for you. I love you, and don't you ever forget that. I'm just looking out for you."
Mother came back to me, taking me into her arms and kissing me. But the embrace ended just as quickly, and muttering something about needing to get in contact with some people, she left the room, stumbling just a second over my fallen canvas.
I knelt down by the canvas and flipped it around. Just as I has suspected, the oils had been smudged, leaving Neiru completely unrecognizable as a human being. The canvas was salvageable with some work from turpentine, but the painting itself was a complete loss. And, to my distress, the image of Neiru sitting near the balcony was now erased from my mind, replaced with the vision of my mother at the balcony, her expression twisted with anger and desperation.
- - -
✥ E.C. 490 ✥
My breath was still in my chest, and I did not dare to exhale, in fear that making any sort of noise would break Duke Sfarz's concentration.
The two of us, along with my parents and his wife and daughter, stood in front of a large audience of banquet attendees. I was finally going public as the man who was named Kachess Crim. Kachess was a newcomer on the painting scene, good but not particularly noteworthy, but until a few days ago, no one knew that he had secretly been the young crown prince.
I had chosen to come forward, and my art was now being analyzed by the duke, who had quite the reputation as an art critic. From the other side of the stage, I could see his daughter and my good friend, Mikina, flash me a reassuring smile.
"…Hmph." The duke seemed to be in the final stages of his study, and his gaze wandered off the painting, to me, then to Mother, then back at me, and then the painting once more. He nodded, then stood up straight, reaching his decision. "It's difficult to say this, and I beg for your forgiveness, Your Majesties, but His Royal Highness Kyle simply does not have any raw talent."
A murmur rippled through the crowd, and I felt my chest heave as I gasped. I couldn't see my parents' reactions from where I stood, but I could see Mikina's heartbroken face and her mother covering her mouth with a hand, staring at her husband. "Dear, no, you mustn't insult–"
"It's…fine," Prim reassured, placing a hand on my shoulder. "Go on, please, I won't be upset."
Duke Sfarz locked eyes with her for a second, before continuing. "The physical texture is very uneven, even for oil paints, and shows a lack of technical knowledge with brushstrokes; I suppose Margaret didn't have enough time to teach him how to handle his tools correctly, if his ineptitude wasn't what sent her to the grave." There were a few scoffs in the crowd, and my face went flush with anger, but the duke just kept going. "There is no sense of any sort of focal point, and the angle is dizzying on the best of days. The palette is overwhelmed with warm colors, and the girl shows little contrast against the field behind her. Mindfulness of hues and light values separates the career artists from the hobby painters. And as good as this is, I think that it's obvious that the man called Kachess Crim was just a hobby painter."
Mother squeezed my shoulder, trying to comfort me, but I found that I was stuck staring at the ground in shame. She kept on trying to cheer me up, speaking on my behalf. "I'm proud of my son for trying his best, though. I believe a king should be willing to try his hand at any challenges, and I doubt a silly little thing like this will set him back!"
"Oh, don't get me wrong, Your Majesty, your son is a wonderful young man! I'm glad that Marlon will have a king who dabbles in creative ventures!" The duke laughed, walking over to shake our hands in a gesture of goodwill. But even though I returned the gesture, the sick feeling in my stomach would not leave.
- - -
"It was unfair and wrong of him to call you out like that."
Mikina and I hid in one of the guest rooms, away from the banquet. Since her father and my mother were contacting each other often, we got to visit each other quite a lot. Maybe in another world without the Lucifenian princess, I'd have been betrothed to her instead, but I was happy enough to have her as a friend, and I suspected that she had a romantic interest in someone else.
She sat on the couch, unable to break her stiff and ladylike posture. "Why, just last week, he was commenting on how good Kachess was with colors! And that scene was supposed to be warm, wasn't it?"
I nodded. "It was. The model really did look like that, and I wanted to capture the way the sun made her look golden." I had spent so long on that painting, wanting to put Neiru in a new scene, wanting to capture the smile I never saw. It felt like an attack on me and my efforts.
"Exactly. And then everyone laughed about your tutor! That was just mean!" When she saw my expression crumple, she quickly quieted down. "Oh, sorry."
Margaret had found dead in her home over a year ago. Everyone believed that stress and malnutrition had done her in, but she was as healthy and spry as I was when I met with her the day before. I wasn't allowed to attend her funeral, just as I wasn't allowed to attend the funerals of my siblings, and I was starting to wonder if she, like my siblings, had been the victim of foul play. But if that was the case, then why was no one investigating?
"Hey, you two!" I looked over at the archway, realizing that the newcomer was Keel Freesis, a young man who had just inherited his father's merchanting business. I had met him through Mikina, who was now slumping against the couch, cheeks red.
"Keel, no! You know what Father said about you!"
"Relax, if anyone asks, I came to see Kyle." He took a seat in the chair across from us. "You were roasted up there, you know."
"Don't tease me about it," I grumbled.
"Oh, no, I'm not here to do that!" He gave me a genuine grin. "For what it's worth, I think that painting was very nice. And I'm going to help you out here, Kyle. I'll buy that painting off your hands and put it up right in my front lobby. And when people ask who Kachess Crim is, I'll just say that he's none other than the great crown prince of Marlon!"
I groaned. "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing. Kyle, come on." His expression softened slightly. "We're friends, aren't we? And I think that you really are a great artist. I don't want your career to end like this. All I want in return is to see you paint again, because I know it makes you happy."
I did not respond to him for a few seconds, but then nodded. "Then I hope that everyone who asks about the painting will ask because they like it. Thank you, Keel."
"It's no problem at all." His grin returned. "Besides, I want to mess with Duke Sfarz, anyway."
"Keel!" Mikina buried her face in her hands at this admission.
- - -
✥ E.C. 494 ✥
Everybody, everybody was gone.
"…a strong and kind man, who fostered connections with our brothers and sisters across the sea…"
Father was dead. I did not suspect foul play this time. I believed that he met a very natural death through his age. His funeral was that morning, and I tried to see if any of his other children were around, but I could only see Arcatoir Russo, the son of a concubine that Mother banned from the castle. He was not allowed to view the casket up close and was only on the premise because the cemetery needed weeding. I was sure that the two of us were all that remained of Father's children by that time.
"…and while this great country is still in a period of mourning, I believe that this occasion will help us heal the hole in our hearts…"
Keel and Mikina eloped and fled the country. Keel had been caught in some legally grey business acts, and his rivals made it very clear that if he ever returned to Marlon, they would have him assassinated. And Mikina, pregnant out of wedlock, ran away with him in defiance of her father. They sent me a letter two years ago about their new life in Elphegort with their grocery store and their little girl Yukina, but I haven't heard from them since then.
"…he is young, but he has a golden heart, and I have no doubts in my mind that he will continue his father's legacy…"
One by one, people I cared about were dying or running away. Even my paintings were gone, having been burned last night, supposedly to clear up clutter, although I knew it was really to destroy my last few ties to my dead career. The only constant in my life was my mother, and even she was about to change, turning down the opportunity to rule as queen mother and instead letting me ascend to the throne.
"I'm proud of you, Your Majesty."
I snapped to attention when Mother directly addressed me. She gave me a warm smile as she walked toward me, a crown in her hands. I knelt down at her cue, and she placed it upon my head. When I stood up, she embraced me tightly.
It ended far too soon, and she turned to the crowd gathered in the front yard of the castle, looking down at them from the balcony we stood together on. "All hail Kyle Marlon, king of Marlon!"
"Long live the king!" the crowd of citizens all shouted in unison as they knelt down. "Long live King Marlon!"
I watched my citizens sing my praises and pay their tributes, and my stomach dropped in realization of just how much power I had. All these people and everyone else in the towns around me depended on me. And from where I stood, I could see the over the top of the city skyline and out to the surrounding coastline, a sliver of blue being all that was visible of the ocean before the sky began. And all of this and more was now my domain, my country.
"Long live the king! Long live King Marlon!"
- - -
✥ E.C. 503 ✥
"We've confirmed that the traitors were in a village in Beelzenia. Apparently two of them got married and the rest were attending their wedding."
I nodded, wondering who the couple was. Minage and Sekka were pretty good friends if I recalled correctly, but York and Germaine were even closer. But whoever the newlyweds were, I had no blessings to wish them. "What about the villagers? Did they give any information?"
"No. Apparently none of the traitors actually lived in the village, and they didn't tell anyone where they were going."
"Hmph. Question the inn owners again. Surely they had to sleep somewhere for the night, and we can't be sure that they didn't persuade someone else to work with them."
"I'll send out some soldiers again."
"Thank you, Ney."
Ney's lips twisted into a little smile. She was a rather frightening young lady, but I respected her enthusiasm concerning the military. As the daughter of the Lucifenian hero Mariam Futapie, it was unsurprising that she had great skill in carrying out espionage operations. I was grateful that she didn't inherit her mother's allegiance, however; Mariam fought and died on Riliane's side during the Revolution.
I could feel my hands clench into fists. There had been another so-called hero who worked with the Daughter of Evil. "Any updates on Elluka's status?"
"Abyss continues to claim that she was killed in combat, but my men haven't found any trace of a body yet. Her apprentice has been seen in the Beelzenia royal court, however, and she seems to be getting into the emperor's good graces."
My immediate thought was that I needed to threaten Beelzenia with war so that they could give up the locations of Gumillia and Germaine. Thankfully, it only took another second before I calmed down and reconsidered this plan. Beelzenia was now the second-most powerful country in the world, just below Marlon, and I could not afford to alienate them with threats, even if they were sheltering fugitives.
"I want to send some letters to the emperor, ask him if he really thinks Gumillia is trustworthy. Perhaps he'll change his mind once he hears she and her teacher are murderers. I need to alert him of Germaine and her group as well."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I'll devote some troops to sending that message."
"You've done some good work today, Ney. Dismissed."
She bowed to me and took her leave. With no one around, I took a moment to rest my head in my hands, nursing the dull ache that was beginning to build up.
- - -
I spent the rest of the evening in solitude, turning in early for the night. However, I found that sleep did not come easy to me even when I lay on the bed. Groaning, I sat up and carefully ran a hand across my nightstand, feeling for my glass of water.
When my fingers bumped into the glass, I picked the cup up and took a swig from it, trying unsuccessfully to clear my mind of the thoughts that kept me awake. I could feel my knuckles stiffen as I held the cup, and I wondered if the stress was starting to break down my body; even though Father lived his whole adult life in hedonistic bliss, the strain of leadership was even greater and had ultimately cut his life short.
I had been king for almost a decade now, and I had seen wars and revolutions. I traded in my scepter and crown for a sword and mask for a time, donning the name Kachess Crim once more in order to dissolve the reign of the child tyrant Riliane. I worked alongside the woman that all of Lucifenia now hailed as a hero, the swordswoman in red armor, the daughter of the beloved knight Leonhart: Germaine Avadonia.
But I had to be completely honest to myself: My participation in the Revolution would never have happened had I not loved and lost a simple maid who had beautiful green hair and a gentle voice.
I knew Michaela didn't return my love. She still showed me kindness whenever we met, but I knew from our conversations that she had her heart set on someone else. I knew that my initial interest in her was sparked by her resemblence to my first love Margaret, although I quickly fell for her for other reasons. And I knew that some demonic force had gripped my own heart and drove me insane with reckless passion.
When I found her lying dead inside a lonely well in the forest, I knew then that I would stop at nothing to track down the motherless scum that personally killed her and get my revenge. Even with the sinful feelings released me, I still loved her, and my resolve to avenge her only burned brighter.
At first, the Daughter of Evil confessed to the crime. That is to say, the boy who claimed to be the princess, the boy with the same face as hers, had given me a crooked little smile and told me he stabbed Michaela to death. I punched his face in and locked him back up in his cell, leaving him to his fate at the guillotine.
But after the boy was executed, Ney reported that he had lied to me so that I'd be too focused on punishing him to go pursue Riliane, and she told me information about people who conspired to kill Michaela in order to manipulate me. She gave me the names of the immortal sorceress Elluka Clockworker, who had vanished when the Green Hunting began, and her apprentice Gumillia, who fled with her and became one of the few green-haired women to survive the genocide.
They knew that Michaela had been hiding in the well, as they had come upon me cradling Michaela's body and threatened me with violence if I didn't leave the scene immediately, so surely they must have been the ones who told Riliane about her location in the first place.
As for the person who carried out the actual deed…
Ney had evidence that I had been played like a fiddle, in the form of reliable gossip she gleaned from villagers. Because Marlon was a close ally of Lucifenia and I was to be Riliane's groom, there were fears among the growing rebel faction that my country would support Riliane and fight back against the revolts. They needed to ensure that they had Marlon's support, and that meant giving me a motive for turning against Riliane and joining them to take her down. The great hero Germaine had personally killed an innocent woman as a sacrifice for her cause.
I ran my fingers through my hair, feeling the sweat begin to bead on my forehead, and took another gulp of water. I trusted her. I put so much trust in Germaine and worked so hard to convince her group that I genuinely wanted to help them. But was it all an act? I remembered that Germaine said she got the sense that I was on a personal mission and that she had an idea of who I was under my mask. And I knew that they were strong-arming Keel to support them, and they even nearly convinced Michaela's white-haired companion to take up arms; both of them had been very close to her, too, so her death could have also been aimed at them.
What was Germaine's motivation? Did she want to become the new ruler of Lucifenia? I remembered the rebels being very upset when I annexed their country into Marlon. Or maybe she simply wanted to avenge her slain father and was willing to step all over us to get there.
But sometimes I remembered planning and plotting with them. I remembered the shared outrage we felt when we saw the mercenaries attack the barmaid. I remembered Chartette's bravery when she dueled with Mariam herself. And I remembered Germaine's determination to stop her people's suffering, even if it meant losing her own life. Leonhart was a great man, and even though none of his blood flowed in her veins, his spirit did, and Germaine was truly his daughter in every way.
Could someone as righteous as her really have engineered Michaela's death and my involvement in the Revolution?
You are doubting yourself again, Kyle.
That voice, that hideous, terrible, intoxicating voice. I struggled not to look at its source, but my gaze wandered to my dresser, where a handmirror laid.
You are blessed, Kyle, blessed to be alive when so many of your father's bastard children were purged, when so many of your allies in war fell to Riliane's soldiers. And you were always the righteous one, so of course evil people wanted to use you. But this isn't your fault.
"Shut up…" I could swear that I could see the outline of the mirror's golden frame glowing dimly in the dark. I wanted to ignore these words, but the unearthly voice was a siren call to me.
Michaela is dead. She died in agony, crumpled at the bottom of a well, hole in her chest. You know who killed her; the evidence was handed to you by one of Riliane's own servants, who turned away from her and instead swore allegiance to Marlon. There's no need to keep second-guessing yourself.
"I…" I knew that Michaela would never find closure if I couldn't avenge her. I needed to keep searching, and my best leads were Germaine and Elluka. I would tear apart Beelzenia if it meant squeezing the answers out of those two.
Seek them, and make them pay. Eye for eye, blood for blood. They will rue the day they crossed the great king of Marlon.
Her death could only have been a personal attack on me. Such an offense would never be forgiven. I may have mourned for Leonhart with Elluka and fought by Germaine's side in combat, but they were never loyal to be to begin with, and I was prepared to show them what Marlon did to backstabbers.
Sleep well, King Kyle, for you have a long journey ahead of you.
Your mother will be so proud of you when you finish.
- - -
✥ E.C. 506 ✥
"Long live the king. Long live King Russo."
Arcatoir sat frozen in place, not touching the crown I had slid across the table. "No. No, Brother, I will not accept this. You're insane."
"I'm not insane. Not anymore, at least." I sighed heavily, every second feeling like another decade. I was so tired.
Everybody had left me yet again. Even Mother was gone now, and so was the sister I never even knew I had. Even the Freesises had to leave Marlon once more and try to rebuild their lives in Elphegort, where they were still hailed as powerful merchants in spite of their absence.
When Yukina finally came back to Marlon with her mother in tow, Mikina just looked absolutely destroyed, like a broken shell of a human. I still hadn't gotten the full story from her, but Yukina told me that Mother had given her a Vessel of Sin, and that was all I needed to know about what she went through.
It was terrifying to know that such demonic artifacts existed in the world. A sword that induced wild passion with no regard for morals or common sense? A set of mirrors that each filled their owners with irrational pride and encouraged conflict with seemingly lesser beings? A wineglass that raised the dead and turned them into mindless soldiers? And all of these existed because of a single act in the past, the Original Sin, and the broken family that nurtured it and set it free.
Broken people who were infected by sin should not have been in any position of power. Mother proved this, Riliane proved this, and I proved this. Despite Elluka's assurances that I was free of all sin, I still had no choice but to step down. I abused my powers to oppress another country. I failed my people.
"I know you said that you don't like to be ambitious because it attracts trouble," I admitted to Arcatoir. "But you're the last relative I have left. And you are a loyal and kind man who knows what it's like to toil in the gardens. The citizens will like you, maybe better than they like me." I lost much of my popularity with my people thanks to the sins of my mother, and while they allowed me to continue ruling, they regarded me as untrustworthy.
"You're asking too much, Brother. Why are you running away?"
A younger me would have protested this accusation, but with what I knew now, I couldn't deny it. "Because I'm tired. I never wanted to be a king, but I didn't have a choice. And when I did become a king, I allowed myself to hurt people over and over and over again. I caused the Green Hunting. I led the Marlon Occupation. I helplessly watched my sister kill my mother. I have no business being a king. But…" I looked Arcatoir right in the eye. "If you truly don't want this, then that's that."
I couldn't force another person onto the throne. If there was one thing I learned from these years of agony and misery, it was that no happiness could be gained from making others suffer my pain.
I took the crown back and stood from the table. The Marlon royal court had been corrupted by Mother's influence, but I knew that a few truly innocent advisors and nobles remained. Surely one of them could take my place. I walked out of the room and into the hallway, creating a list of candidates in my head.
"Kyle!" I stopped walking, letting Arcatoir run after me. "Are you really giving up that easily on me!? Maybe you shouldn't be king if you can't convince a lowly servant to follow your orders!"
I did not face him, but I smiled to myself.
- - -
"I'm still going to be in Marlon, so I'll get to visit you sometimes. But I don't know where I'll be most of the time." I shifted position, sitting down on the grass and stretching my legs a bit. "I think everyone will be happier this way."
I was staring down two gravestones. Both were very humble, simpler than even the headstones of the servants buried in the royal cemetery, showing no attempt to celebrate the disgraced diseased.
Mother died with her public image in tatters, as there was no way I could cover up the existence the undead army that rampaged through multiple towns. But I couldn't bring myself to reveal the entire story, of how she made a deal with a wicked and immortal sorceress, how she played with demons of sin to control people around her, how she fostered animosity between the countries of the Evillious region. They all had enough reasons to hate Marlon, and they didn't need to know that Mother was behind every terrible occurrence they had suffered in the past decade or so.
And then there was Ney, who may as well have spawned out of the ether as far as the public knew. The most comfort her memory could have was that she was buried under the surname Marlon, the illegitimate daughter of the queen and an unknown man (for explaining who her father was would have revealed the plot). But she was still known to be the battalion leader who controlled the undead army that terrorized Beelzenia and Marlon, and so she remained without a single mourner among the citizens.
I was the lucky one, because at least I grew up in a fairly normal setting. Ney never had a chance. She was given away by her mother before the umbilical cord fell off and raised by Abyss to be a tool of war, and yet she surely must have known of her connection to me. Her silence around me back when I knew her as a girl named Neiru now made sense, although I still wondered if she envied me for my life, or if she was just happy to be doing work that made Mother happy.
I still loved Mother. I would have just been deluding myself if I claimed otherwise. But it would have also been a lie to say that she was a good mother. She did go through the traumatizing destruction of her relationships with her best friend and her love, but with her own free will, she took away the will of people around her. Maybe she did love her children, but she loved being on top of the world more, and she was willing to walk all over our emotions if it meant getting her way. The hugs, the kisses, the reassurances that she loved me… Where did the truth end and the manipulation begin?
I had felt betrayed once before, when I was told that Germaine had killed Michaela. But being backstabbed by a sister-in-arms was nothing compared to being backstabbed by my own mother, and even worse, Mother did nothing to deny these crimes. In fact, she even seemed to be gloating, telling me how happy she was when it turned out I was very vulnerable to suggestions when corrupted with sin. All the time she spoke, I struggled to search for any hint that she too was possessed by sin, that maybe it was really a demon in Mother's clothing that was taunting me.
And even as Ney succumbed to her own demon and plunged a knife into Mother's chest, there was no hint of remose lingering in her dying breaths. Maybe everything that happened really was Mother's doing.
"Thank you for keeping me alive, even when I made you angry." It was all I could thank my own mother for.
Ney's final words to me echoed constantly in my head, and the events of the dream we shared played again and again, vivid in my memories. She stood before me in the body of a little girl that had been so quiet and stony-faced, but now all the happy emotions she had repressed were laid bare in front of me.
She smiled sadly and said that she needed to disappear from the world because she had done terrible things, and the cruel demon took her hand and led her into the sea, right as a wicked sorceress snuffed out her life in the real world.
But before Ney vanished forever, she made a promise to me:
"But… I think that some day we can be reborn! When we're born again – you, Riliane, and Allen. We can all play together."
Maybe if Ney's wish ever came true, everyone could have a second chance, not just us and her other half-siblings. Michaela, Mikina, Mother, everyone. If we could all be reborn, then I'd hope that we could try again and live in peace, with friends that didn't have to run away and families that didn't implode from the inside out.
"I brought you something, Ney. It's overdue, but better late than never." I knew my gift would not fare well at all in the sunlight, but it would have felt wrong to keep it shaded from the very sun that brought the colors to life. "I hope you don't mind that I took some liberties with the composition!"
I removed the cover protecting the small canvas and propped the painting up against Ney's headstone. In oil was the image of a young girl, no older than six, sitting in the open doorway that led to a balcony. Near her side was her older brother, whose blue hair contrasted defiantly against the golden light of the dusky sky. The girl was smiling.