Chapter 8 – The Victory Celebration
“Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.”
Mother and I arrived at the Imperial Palace by carriage. When we disembarked at a large archway lined with guards, travel-worn and weary, Father was waiting for us. He had the privilege of using a teleportation stone, a war spoil from Ordos, to arrive at the gates of the Imperial Palace. The barrier magic that surrounded the palace wouldn’t have allowed him to go in any further than that, as it was the Emperor’s office by day and the center of government affairs.
One of the guards stepped up, expressionless and tight-lipped in his neatly pressed white and gold uniform. He saluted us before leading us towards the Mabbina Palace, where festivities were held.
“They outdid themselves today,” Mother approved as we entered the large hall.
I nodded in agreement.
The ceiling was covered in chandeliers that twinkled like stars. Stolen treasures from Ordos were displayed all around the room, to be auctioned off to nobles. In the front of the hall, two thrones for the Emperor and Empress were unoccupied. The last time I was here was for the Emperor’s fiftieth birthday a few years ago, and it had been just as grand.
A servant announced our names and titles, and eyes immediately turned to us. In comparison to the guests adorned in bright clothes and accessories that flaunted the latest fashion trends, we were modestly dressed. My green dress complemented my eyes and my only accessory was a turquoise stone that my father had gifted me a few days ago. It had also been a war spoil from Ordos, taken from the tomb of the previous queen herself. Although our knowledge of Ordos was limited, I knew that this stone was commonly found in royal tombs and burial objects, presumably to protect the dead’s journey to the afterlife. As such, it represented divine protection.
“I told you it would look good on you,” Mother commented.
I grinned. The usual tension between us was gone, replaced by the giddy excitement that came with attending social events. We both loved dressing up and being surrounded by crowds. In moments like these, when I was not sword-fighting or causing trouble, we were like best friends who confided in each other rather than strangers. “Can I keep it?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
I hugged her as thanks before scanning the masses with excitement, frequently stopping to greet the people I knew. There were marquesses, counts, viscounts, barons, and their relatives. There were prominent government officials, religious leaders, and commanders. Despite the abundance of people, I knew many of their names and faces by heart. But the star of the show was General Laurent. Even when the Emperor and Empress arrived—fashionably late as usual—he continued to be surrounded by throngs of people.
My parents left me to speak with other guests, and my older brother was nowhere to be seen. I momentarily separated from the other girls and helped myself with refreshments.
My eyes lit up when Jovie bounded towards me; She was Marquess’s daughter from the Western Dukedom and one of my best friends. It had been a few weeks since I last saw her at the chess tournament that Sorcha, another good friend, hosted. “Joive!” I exclaimed. “How have you been?”
She twirled her brown hair around her finger with a bashful smile. “Do you remember the boy I told you about?” When I nodded, she could barely contain her elation. “I’m engaged to him!”
I gasped, grabbing her left hand to marvel at the diamond on her finger. “You’re joking.”
She shook her head. Jovie was one of the lucky ones who was engaged to a boy she liked. The fiance in question was the Eastern Duke’s first son. A part of me wondered how this came to be, but I didn’t want to question her, as if she was unworthy of him. It wasn’t a secret that his status was higher than hers, and there were ungrounded rumors that her father was not actually the Marquess. This union didn’t seem to have a political advantage either. Nevertheless, I was happy for Jovie, whose cheeriness and charm never failed to bring a smile to my face.
“You’re all grown up,” I cooed.
She nudged me with a mischievous smile. “How about you Dione? I bet boys are tripping over their feet to court you.”
I laughed. “You know I’m not interested.”
“You’ve always had high expectations,” she jokingly admonished.
I shrugged. “Not like it matters. I never know if someone is approaching me for my status or because they truly like me.”
Jovie frowned, genuinely confused. “Isn’t your social status part of who you are?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. People knew me as Dione Eferhild, Duke Eferhild’s only daughter. The power of my name came from my father—it came from my last name, and the hundreds of ancestors that came before me. But if I wasn’t his daughter and if I wasn’t an Eferhild, what was left of me? What would become of the girl named Dione?
I sighed and scanned the room, feeling an urge to talk to the only girl who could possibly give me insight. “Where’s Sorcha?”
Jovie immediately sobered up, which was rare for a cheery girl like her. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m only telling you because you’re my best friend and I know that you won’t speak a word about this to other people,” she said. “The Emperor is trying to keep it quiet.”
I nodded reassuringly. My reputation was well known among social circles, so girls from the nobility flocked to me with gossip. Unlike the aloof Princess Esme, I treated everyone with the same magnanimous smile. It made the lesser noble girls feel welcome and put the higher ones on the edge, killing two birds with one stone.
Jovie didn’t hesitate to lean closer to me. “I just found out that Sorcha’s father died a few days ago,” she said in a hushed voice. “He was passing through a busy marketplace on his way home when a masked man killed him. Janus, isn’t it?” She rolled her eyes, and I knew it was because she had a particular dislike for so-called vigilantes. “He spewed some nonsense about the Justice taking bribes.”
My blood ran cold. Sorcha’s father was Justice Conroy Adleiba of the Northern Dukedom. He oversaw the judges in his territory and presided over civil and criminal court cases to uphold, enforce, and interpret the law. The Justice was the fourth victim, after the Counts in the Eastern and Western Dukedom and the Viscount in the Southern, which had been the third victim and the one that I had personally seen with my own eyes.
Was this why I hadn’t seen Janus in a while?
I helped myself to another glass of water, trying to clear my thoughts. I knew Sorcha’s father because I sometimes visited his estate. Sorcha herself often talked about him like a revered mentor rather than a loving father. From what I knew and heard about him, he wasn’t someone who would take bribes.
That could only mean one thing. The seeds of doubt that my friend had planted were beginning to grow. What if Janus was a bad person? What if he wanted to destroy the ruling class of Angati by killing off nobles one by one? And if these ‘what ifs’ were true, what would I do the next time I saw him? I didn’t know if I could keep pretending like before. When I could no longer ignore my conscience, I would have to choose a side eventually. And I knew which one I would choose.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel hesitant. When I had asked him about his past victims, Janus told me about the crimes they committed. He was cold, blunt, and seemingly emotionless, but he listened to my grand dreams and helped me when he didn’t have to, despite his initial skepticism. Besides, he was too good of a teacher for me to easily replace.
I clenched my fists. Nothing made sense.