! His father's palace was as eloquent as he remembered it. The way the old man told the story, the Wyvern's Alcazar had been crafted thousands of years prior by alchemists and magi to shelter the emperors of ages past from the wrath of fearsome wyverns. According to the ecclesiasts, the wyverns, tall as mountains and black as the night, could reduce everything in their wake to blood and ash. But the stones of the Alcazar were said to be enchanted, warding the refugees within from the white-hot flames that threatened to consume them.
! Today, the Alcazar stood as black as the wyverns that supposedly existed long before. His father boasted that the clay-brown stones used to erect the palace had been charred black by the unrelenting beasts' flames. Despite their persistent siege, the Alcazar never fell, thanks to the magics that protected it.
! Dimitri Blackdrake scoffed as he tilted his helmed head skyward, examining the colossal structure he once called home. It was as pitch black as the stories said, and as tall as they boasted. Eight towers surrounded the dome-shamed castle, each one a spire piercing through the low-lying early morning clouds. Each tower wore a great wyvern statue like a midnight-colored cape. Each wyvern was different. One wrapped around its tower as it climbed down the cylindrical walls. Another hung upright from the tower, reaching outward with its right leg and roaring. The rearmost tower's wyvern spread its enormous wings horizontally, shielding the Alcazar's rear. The front gates of the palace adorned two wyverns of their own, only these were smaller and engraved into the gates, symmetrical to each other.
! “My Prince, you look homesick,” a rough voice japed jovially as the wyvern-shaped gates spread apart and drew open. Cortez Mercado's crimson armor shimmered and dazzled in the morning sunlight as he made his approach. The man was tall and weathered, though only seven years Dimitri's sire. He kept his sandy brown hair cut short and his beard cropped close. His dull and muddy brown eyes contrasted notably from his shimmering blood-red armor. The man's face was a mask of kindness and warmth, but beyond his eyes, Dimitri had always sensed something cold and serious. The Prince oft wondered what secrets Mercado kept, but he knew better than to ask. He was a loyal and true man, an exemplary knight worthy of his post. Dimitri was always certain she was in good hands.
! “Mercado,” the Prince said warmly. “I had not expected to see you here.”
! “The Emperor's orders,” Cortez explained. “He sent me to fetch you.”
! “And my dear sister? How fares she?”
! “She fares as fair as she always has been, my Prince,” the man beamed proudly. “She is at bath with the handmaids. You know the ones. Tania and the big-bosomed one.”
! “Doreen,” Dimitri laughed. He remembered the women from his last stay in the Alcazar. Tania was a quiet and shy woman, barely of twenty years, while Doreen was well-endowed and full of life, of an age with the Prince. He remembered her most fondly, and silently hoped that she had kept their nights together a secret. He quickly switched the subject back to his sister. “May I go see her?”
! “After you attend to His Grace,” the crimson knight responded. Dimitri noticed the thin long blade that hung from his hip in a burgundy sheathe. Platasangre, Dimitri realized. Dimitri remembered the stories he had heard of the blood-stained blade that Sir Hernand Mercado wielded to slay Cristane Claymore a hundred years before. “Let us go, my Prince. The Emperor ill-receives tardiness.”
! “Right away,” Dimitri nodded as he followed the crimson knight into the gates. The courtyard within was verdant and peaceful, filled with shrubs and tiny streams of water. The greenery was a welcome sight after the prince's trek through the desert. In the center of the courtyard rose the entrance to the Wyvern's Alcazar proper. Fittingly, a stone wyvern's head rose from the ground beneath it, its mouth gaping open, exposing a row of black stone teeth. This served as the Alcazar's entrance, which Cortez and Dimitri strolled through, entering the long hallways of the Alcazar's interior.
! The interior was made of towering, gold-colored walls. The palace's high ceilings were supported by large pillars, each adorning the Blackdrake banners. The morning sunlight shone brightly threw the eastern windows, which were drawn open by the servants. Outside one of the windows, Dimitri spied a pair of maids washing royal garments in a large wooden basin. Neither was Doreen.
! The walls of the hall were lined with braziers and large eccentric paintings. Dimitri took note of a few of the paintings, which he used to admire as a child. Thanks to the ecclesiasts' teachings and his personal travels, Dimitri understood what they portrayed. One was a brilliant sprawling portrait of the Valleverde, a narrow valley in the southern reaches of the realm. Another painting showed off the red and rocky badlands to the southwest, near Rotierra. Some of the paintings even featured the world beyond Arcanzia. Dimitri recognized the towering crags of the Solocima Massif, the fertile and verdant forests of Illumadia, and even the towering snowcapped fells of Vitrasbaen.
! “So, how fare things in Adrigo?” Cortez asked as they approached the first staircase.
! The prince had hoped not to talk about it until he stood before his father. “Not well, I fear,” he sighed. “The Valleverde is still fertile, yes, but that's not likely to last long.”
! “What do you mean?” the knight asked gravely as they reached the top of the stairs.
! “Vitrasmen raze the fields by night and the common folk refuse to tend them by day. There are riots in the streets of Adrigo every week now, and many ecclesiasts have forsaken the Wyverns and now pray to and teach of the Goddess and the Holy Maiden.”
! “So even the gods themselves have a hand in this war?” Mercado sighed.
! “I hadn't pegged you a godly man,” Dimitri laughed playfully.
! “If I take His Grace's word of it, you haven't pegged much of anything, if you get my saying,” Mercado face grew red with laughter as Dimitri's own turned pale white. Nobody could know about Doreen. How much does Cortez know? “Come on, my Prince, when are you finally going to settle down and take that Blancarosa sweetling for a bride?”
! “Blancarosa?” Dimitri frowned. Surely Cortez wasn't referring to Lord Blancarosa's daughter. Paloma, was it? “What are you talking about?”
! “You mean you don't know?” Mercado gave Dimitri a long look. “His Grace treated with old man Caballos a few months back. Stella was going on about how Blancarosa's daughter was going to be her new sister.”
! That bloody old fool. “If I have to guess, the old man has married me off to get his dirty hands on the Blancarosa fortune. Is that the way of it?”
! Cortez did not answer.
! “A crown for some coin,” Dimitri thought aloud to himself with a mocking laugh. “I guess it's not a bad deal.”
! “She's a pretty lass, that Paloma,” Mercado pointed out as they ascended up the second flight of stairs. “Her hair's supposedly as gold as the sun and her teats the size of winemelons. Perfect fit for my Prince, I'd say.”
! But she's no Doreen. “Yeah. I suppose so.”
! The meaning of his father's summons was becoming apparent to Dimitri. That old fool. He called me from the frontlines for a wedding?
! Dimitri was still furious when Mercado left him and the prince entered the throne room. It was as spacious and empty as he remembered it to be. The dome-shaped ceiling rose forty or fifty feet into the air, supported by a dozen or so tall stone pillars. The only furniture in the room was the throne itself, black as the legendary wyverns. On its back was another wyvern statue, its wings outstretched around the throne.
! The Imperial Paragon of the State of Arcanzia, Lord of Wyvernkin, and Son and Voice of the Gods, as Dimitri's father so sybaritically styled himself, sat upon the Wyvern's Throne. Behind the styles, his name was Sabreus Blackdrake, an intimidating and humorless man of fifty-six years. His once raven black hair which he used to share with Dimitri had become salt and pepper. His eyes had lost their violet glow, fading to a dark and deep purple. His untrimmed beard fell to just below his fat gut, which his black tunic struggled desperately to contain. At least have the decency to dress up when you treat me, you fat fool.
! “My son,” Sabreus bellowed, his voice deep and fearsome. Those not shaken by the emperor's massive size would soon fall to their knees under the weight of his words. “It has been too long.”
! “It has,” Dimitri said coolly.
! “I trust you've been well?” his father asked mockingly. “Swatting Vitrasflies in the verdant lands is warrior's work, is it not?”
! “It was of my understanding that you sent for me to address pressing matters,” Dimitri snapped back. “Not to shower me with petty jibes.”
! “Loosen up, boy,” the emperor rumbled. “Must everything an emperor says be taken so seriously?”
! “You are the Imperial Paragon. It comes with the title.” As if a man like you could ever be taken seriously.
! “That is so,” his father admitted in words, but not in tone. “I bring you good tidings, my son. Lord Blancarosa has agreed to betroth his sweet Paloma to you. On the morrow, our houses shall be joined and the flames of Arcanzia will glow ever stronger.”
! I knew it. “I presume my consent was unnecessary?”
! “The wyverns have willed it so.” No, you have. His father was said to be a pious man, who spoke with the wyverns' voice, but Dimitri knew him for the hedonistic man he was. Sabreus Blackdrake spoke with Sabreus Blackdrake's voice. Dimitri almost wished he could be there when his father treats with the wyverns in Hell, to answer for his false piety. “The smallfolk sing of the wedding, my men say. You are well-loved by our subjects, my son. Perhaps even half as much as I.”
! You? Loved? Dimitri could hardly force back the laugh. Dimitri knew that the smallfolk hated Sabreus and his reign. Their love for Dimitri was fueled by the hope that he wouldn't be as pathetic a ruler as his self-indulgent and conceited father.
! “Even your sister looks forward to the betrothal, my son,” he continued. “She so sweetly begged Lady Blancarosa to tailor her a radiant dress of violet for her brother's wedding.”
! “And my brother?” Dimitri knew he would pinch a nerve, but he could not help himself. “What does he think of my betrothal?”
! Sabreus Blackdrake's face turned red and his eyes began to flicker. But his words remained calm. “A bastard will think what a bastard will think. That thing is none of your concern, boy, and you will do well to never speak of it again, is that clear?”
! “As you command,” Dimitri replied blankly. Internally, he was smiling. “Do I have your leave to go, Father? Stella has been dying to meet with me, if Cortez has the way of it, and I'm not too willing to keep her waiting.”
! “As you wish,” his father sighed as he rubbed his temples. “Be gone. I shall see you on the morrow. Do not disappoint me, my son. This wedding is important not only to you, but to all of Arcanzia.”
! Important to you, you mean. “I know, father.” Without another word, Dimitri left the throne room behind him and returned to the hall. Cortez was nowhere to be found. He assumed he was back with his sister. Stella, my dear sister. I have returned. Dimitri turned to the left, toward the east wing. His sister's solar was in the easternmost tower, just below his own.
! Dimitri was furious that his father summoned him all the way from Adrigo just so he could marry him off to the Blancarosa fortune. Why it could not wait until after the war, Dimitri did not know. What angered the prince the most however, was the fact that his father had not asked for his consent. Dimitri understood how arranged marriages worked and knew that the wedding would serve his family and the realm itself well. Even so, it still bothered him that he had no say in the matter. And Doreen… What will she say? Dimitri lost himself in thought until a voice beckoned him halfway to his sister's quarters.
! “My Prince, how long has it been?” Chancellor Rodrigo asked dutifully as he approached. The old man was in his sixties, and served the realm well in his thirty years of service, handling legal and financial affairs for the Wyvern's Ecclesia.
! “Too long, Lord Chancellor,” Dimitri beamed with feigned interest. “I trust you've been well?”
! “Indeed,” Rodrigo replied. “The wedding will be most beneficial to the realm, my Prince. We are doing all we can to make sure the ecclesia is ready for you.”
! The wedding again? “Your efforts shan't go unrecognized, Lord Chancellor,” Dimitri responded, attempting to sound sincere. “You've done my family and the realm commendable service.”
! “Your words please me, my Prince,” he said humbly. “The word of the smallfolk is that you would make a fine emperor. I'm hard-pressed to disagree with them.”
! “See to it that they don't have to worry about that for decades. My father is still young and full of life. Do what you can to keep it that way.”
! “As you command, my Prince,” Rodrigo answered. “Now then, about the wedding, the ecclesiasts want your consent on whether or not we—”
! “I grow tired, Lord Chancellor,” Dimitri interrupted with a false smile concealing his annoyance. “Do as you will. I'm rather fond of surprises.”
! “As you say, my Prince,” the Lord Chancellor answered dutifully as Dimitri walked away. The prince heard the chancellor's footsteps taper off in the other direction. Even the ecclesiasts are making their mark on this wedding. How long has the realm known?
! Dimitri finally found his way to his sister's solar, about halfway up the easternmost tower. The standing guard let him through without question. It's been too long, dear sister.
! “Dimitri!” Stella shouted vigorously as she rushed to her brother's arms, her face melting into his chest. He hadn't even come through the door yet.
! “How I've missed you, dear sister,” Dimitri said lovingly as he placed an armored left hand on her head, running his steel fingers through her raven black locks. When she stepped back, he saw her clearly, just as he remembered her. She was of short stature, but her raven hair was long, nearly to her hips. Her eyes were a dazzling purple, much like his own, only hers were complemented by the long violaceous dress she wore, itself further accentuated with jet black frills. Despite her juvenile appearance, Stella was two years his senior, twenty-six years of age.
! Also in the room, unsurprisingly, was Cortez Mercado, keeping watch over the little princess. Such was his duty, though Dimitri oft wondered how humiliated the man was standing watch over a defenseless girl. Some said Cortez secretly longed to return to the battlefield, cutting down any foe that stood in his way. But Dimitri could never find that bloodthirsty man in Mercado's eyes. All he saw was duty. Duty and something else.
! Dimitri shied back inwardly when he spied the serving girls. Tania was quiet as a mouse, hiding behind a modest violet dress and long brown hair. She was a head shorter than Stella and a mouth quieter, but Dimitri had little interest in her.
! Doreen was just as beautiful as he remembered her. Her long blond hair glowed as gold as the sun and her pale blue eyes shimmered like water. She wore a servant's dress, much like Tania, though hers was a bit more revealing, showcasing her large breasts, which Tania hid behind frills.
! “Leave us,” Dimitri cleared his throat awkwardly as Cortez and the serving girls left the solar. Once they left, Dimitri led Stella over to her elegant canopied bed, itself sprawled with violet sheets. “You seem just as well as I remember you being.”
! “I have been,” Stella grinned. “Sir Cortez has been good to me, and Father does his best to keep me in good company.” Stella's grin faded and her eyes dulled. “Though I've missed you, dear brother.”
! “As have I,” he said with a warm and brotherly tone as he brushed a lock of black hair from his sister's eyes. Mother's eyes, he thought to himself. Not the color, but the shape, the sadness.
! “I've missed you so,” she began to cry as she clung to his arm. “I worry about you every night. As does Salem. He told me that—”
! “Salem?” Dimitri cut her off angrily. “You know that we aren't supposed to go into the dungeons. Father forbids it!”
! “But he's lonely, Dimitri,” she argued, her tone growing more forceful. “As was I.”
! “He's lonely because he's being punished, Stella.”
! “For what crimes?” she challenged.
! For being born, Dimitri nearly said. “He tried to kill you, don't you remember?”
! “We were kids,” she sighed. “That was twenty years ago. Hasn't he suffered enough?”
! Dimitri sighed as well. He could hardly find the words to reason with her. “That is for Father to decide,” he answered coldly. “And if Father has the way of it, he'll rot in there forever.”
! “It's still too cruel,” she said stubbornly.
! I know, he wanted to say. He was not as innocent as he made himself out to be. Dimitri recalled sneaking into the dungeons himself to see his brother on many occasions. He could still remember the anger in Salem's eyes. Or at least what remained of it for the broken man. Perhaps I'll pay him a visit tonight.
! “Look, Stella,” Dimitri changed the subject quickly, loosening a dagger from his hip. “I want to show you something.”
! “What is it?” she asked as her eyes sparkled, her anger forgotten and replaced with excitement and anticipation.
! “It's a dagger,” he explained. “I found it down in Adrigo. It's said to be an ancient dagger crafted centuries ago by the Vitrasmen to slay wyverns. See these jewels? They're real amethysts, straight from the mines of Vitrasbaen. When I first saw them, I thought of you.”
! She reached out her soft small hand and touched the blade gently. “It's gorgeous,” she whispered in awe. “Is it a keepsake? To remind you of me?”
! “No,” he shook his head as he lay the dagger in her hand. “It's a gift. For you.”
! “For me?” she asked, surprised. “But whatever for?”
! Dimitri rose to his feet and headed for the door. “My Princess, there are enemies to the crown in this city, perhaps some even in this castle. You would do well to stay protected, because there may come a time when Sir Mercado is unable to protect you. You'd also do well to carry it with you as protection the next time you sneak into the dungeons.”
! “But you said not to—”
! “You expect me to believe you'd heed me?” he laughed before clearing his throat. “Just remember that whatever happens, I love you, dear sister. After this wedding, I'm returning to the field. I may not come back alive, so if I don't, remember these words well. And stay strong.”
! “I will,” she promised with a childish grin. “You go make me a sister, and maybe even a niece or nephew. And I love you too, brother.”
! He nodded silently and left the solar and turned to the serving girls who waited outside along with Mercado. “If my father or sister require me, I'll be in my solar. Do send for me.”
! “As you command, my Prince,” Tania answered dutifully. Doreen remained awkwardly silent. Perhaps she's upset about the wedding? He took his leave of them and rose a floor higher in the tower to his unguarded chambers. My room.
! When he opened the door, a small bit of dust spilled out as the early afternoon sun lit the room ablaze with color. It had been too long since he last set foot in his room, but time seemed to have stood still in there. The books remained untouched and his wardrobe still well-kept. His bed had not even been slept in. It seemed only yesterday that he had rose from that bed and marched off to war.
! He removed his scaly black helmet, as well as all of his armor, also black and scaly. Its wyvern motif, of which he was particularly fond, earned him the title of Dimitri the Black Wyvern on the battlefield. Whatever made his enemies cower, he supposed. He went over to his wardrobe and pulled on a dull brown tunic and a pair of cream-colored trousers. He wanted something light to relax in.
! He moved to the bookcase and pulled down a book and lay down in his bed. The Pirates of the Dragon's Eye, the cover read. It was an old book, one of his favorites as a child. He vaguely remembered its plot. Something involving an adventurer and a hoard of treasure. Typical children's fiction. Yet soon, he found himself forty pages in, helplessly grasped by Alphonso's harrowing adventures. The hours melted away as the sun retreated below the horizon. When he turned the last page, the sun faded beneath the western horizon,turning the multi-colored sky a dark blue. As he finished, a light knock came upon the door. Tania and Doreen entered.
! “Ah,” Dimitri greeted them. “Just the ladies I require. Doreen, please fetch me some water for a bath. Tania, could you fetch some supper? I've longed for nearly a year to taste Greckan's lizard and blood carrot stew again.”
! “As you wish,” Tania answered flatly and took her leave, leaving the prince alone with his prize.
! “I've missed you,” Dimitri told Doreen as he rose to his feet and approached her. She took a step back. “Why so cold?”
! “You're a married man,” she sighed bitterly. “Might be that little horse of yours pleases you better.”
! “Come on, Doreen,” he whispered playfully to her, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. “I am not married until tomorrow. Tonight, I long only for you.”
! He planted a kiss on the warm nape of her neck and slid his hand beneath her dress, reaching for her right teat.
! “The bath,” she answered quickly as she broke away from him and left the room. Hard to get, is she? He grinned. She was back a few minutes later with warm water and filled the tub silently. The two of them stood silently for a moment.
! “Would you undress me?” he asked her sternly, but not unkindly.
! “As you command,” she answered sourly.
! She removed his tunic delicately, and his trousers soon after. Afterward, she helped the naked prince into the hot waters of his tub. The water's warmth soothed every ache in his body as Doreen began to scrub his back with the cloth in her hand.
! “That feels nice,” he whispered as she scrubbed his neck. “The water is lovely, dear Doreen. Would you like to join me?”
! “Not tonight,” she answered flatly.
! “Then when?” he asked her as he grabbed her wrist firmly yet gently. “Doreen, you know I didn't agree to this betrothal. You know that my heart yearns only for you.” That was the truth of it. Had his father not married him off, Dimitri would love Doreen forever. But now he would belong to Paloma Blancarosa and it would not do for a married man, a married prince no less, to bed with a lowly servant. The thought of losing Doreen pained him.
! “Does it now?” she asked, her tone hinting at playfulness. There we go, he cheered inwardly. “Aren't you confusing your heart for your cock?”
! “My cock speaks with the voice of my heart,” he laughed as he helped her out of her clothes and into the warm water. Tomorrow, Dimitri would belong to another. But tonight, he would give himself to Doreen.
! “What if Tania comes and sees us?” Doreen asked worriedly as she covered her breasts with her hands
! “She won't be back without that stew,” Dimitri assured her as he pulled her arms apart and toward him. “And it takes hours to prepare, my dear.”
! Doreen gasped silently as Dimitri found her under the water. His instincts took hold of him as the two of them kissed and hugged and copulated for what seemed like the entire night. When the ecstasy finally subsided, Dimitri found himself getting dressed again, this time in a forest green tunic and matching trousers.
! “Thanks for the bath, my servant,” Dimitri japed as Doreen helped him pull on the tunic.
! “Thanks for the fuck, my Prince,” she jibed back.
! Dimitri laughed as his forbidden fruit walked away and found her own clothes. She had been his since his thirteenth birthday. She had asked him to take her that night, ranting about how she had always dreamed of laying with a prince, even once. At first, Dimitri had been appalled by her request, but his own curiosity got the better of him. After that, Dimitri could not handle only one taste of his forbidden fruit, and soon as she ripened into a woman and he into a man, his urge for more intensified. At one time, she would give herself to him every night and he would take her willingly.
! Yet, they had both always known the ramifications of their relationship. He was heir to the realm and she was a common serving wench. Were their love to become common knowledge, an outrage would explode amongst common man and noble alike. Both of them would be ruined.
! As Doreen finished putting her dress back on, a knock came upon the door. “Ah, come in, Tania,” Dimitri replied. Was that Tania's knock though? The knock was heavy and loud, unlike Tania's soft raps.
! Sir Lucian Argonis and Sir Mikhail Nochez entered the room. Both were tall and proud knights, men of Dimitri's company who traveled with him from Adrigo back to Arcanzia.
! “What brings you here, good knights?” Dimitri asked them as he rose to his feet.
! “A wyvernwing from Adrigo, my Prince,” Sir Argonis stated solemnly. “Word has come that Brahm Brunhjart has passed on. His son and daughter have left Solocima to attend to the funeral in Osvarden.”
! Flabbergasted, Dimitri's jaw dropped. “Do you speak true?” That was a surprise. General Brunhjart was dead? “Are you certain?” Dimitri could hardly believe it. “Who holds Solocima?”
! “Claymore does, it would seem,” Sir Nochez replied.
! The time was ripe, Dimitri realized. With Brunhjart dead and his children away, the time to take Solocima is now! “Doreen, fetch me my armor,” he ordered quickly.
! “My Prince, what are you—?” Doreen began to ask.
! “I'm winning the Massif,” Dimitri said firmly, his resolve apparent. “Rally the men, Sir Argonis. Take as many new recruits as you can, as well. I plan to leave before the sun rises.”
! “So suddenly?” Sir Argonis questioned.
! “And what of the wedding, my Prince?” Sir Nochez added.
! “There's time enough for marriage after victory,” Dimitri responded. “And now is the best shot we have of ending this war.”
! “What will His Grace say?” Sir Argonis questioned anxiously.
! “My father will say what he says,” the prince grinned smugly as he placed his famous black helmet back on his head. “After this victory, he'll sing along with the rest of them the song about the Black Wyvern's victory.”
! “And what of Lord Blancarosa?” Sir Nochez persisted. “He'll take this as a humiliating slight, he will.”
! Good for him, Dimitri smirked inwardly. “Let him take it as he will. Right now, we march.”
! Dimitri left Arcanzia shortly after midnight, as his father, sister, and bride-to-be slept unknowingly.