Chapter 38
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Corvina led Anne up the stairs and into a small drawing room, where she closed the door behind them. It was dark, but Corvina moved quickly to light a few of the oil lamps set up around the room.

While she worked, Anne stood by the doorway awkwardly. "Are Belle and Collette really gonna be okay?"

It took a moment for Corvina to respond. "We're a group that came together out of shared interest, rather than compatible personalities," said Corvina. "A bit of friction every now and then is fairly inevitable. But deep down, those two do like each other. They'll get past their differences, just like they always do."

The lamps lit, Corvina sat down on the sofa, patting the spot next to her for Anne to sit down.

As Anne sat, she was highly aware of just how close she was to Corvina. Alone in this secluded room. With such atmospheric lighting from the lamps. She could feel her heart beating faster in her chest.

"Um, I'm sorry if I was too pushy last time," said Anne. "It's okay if you don't know what you want right away. And if you're willing to be my ally, of course I want your help. It was just the whole 'pledge' thing that I felt a bit weird about..."

Corvina shook her head. "No, I'm sorry, I said some rude things to you as well. I was just... surprised by your response."

"No, that's okay," said Anne.

Corvina turned her head away. "I want to tell you a story, Saintess... Anne. Very few people in the Empire know this story, but I think... it might go some way towards explaining why I'm having a difficult time with the notion of... living for myself. Will you listen?"

"Of course," said Anne.

Corvina was silent for a moment. When she finally spoke again, she was staring off into the middle distance, the flickering lamplight reflecting in her eyes, her expression unreadable. "When I was younger I used to spend a lot more time at the palace—"

A younger Corvina, about 10 years-old, ran, laughing, through the palace gardens. She ducked behind a statue of an old Emperor and stayed there, keeping quiet and still.

Just when she was starting to get bored, an 11 year-old Sebastian stuck his head around the statue and pointed. "Ha, found you!"

"Took you long enough," said Corvina. "Did you find Robert already?"

Sebastian shook his head. They kept searching through the gardens together, checking every possible hiding place, even crawling into bushes and climbing up trees, but they didn't have any luck.

Half an hour later, grumpy, messy, and exhausted, they returned to the gazebo where their tutor was waiting for them with tea.

Robert Marshal, the young son of the Grand Duke, also 11 years-old, was already sitting at the table, calmly sipping his tea while reading a book.

Their tutor was standing by the table, pouring more tea. Viscountess Alodie Lintone was a woman in her late-30s. She had mousy brown hair kept in a neat bun and a gently lined face. She wore fine, but simple clothing. Her overall image was one of refined dignity, with perhaps just a touch too much kindness for a Wyernwolf noble.

"Marshal!" shouted Sebastian, pointing and gawping at him. "Where were you? We looked everywhere for you!"

"I was here," said the future Duke, turning a page in his book.

"Oh dear, look at the two of you," said Viscountess Lintone, running over to fuss over the two royal children, pulling leaves out of their hair and straightening their clothing. "What would your father say if he saw you like this?"

"He doesn't usually say that much when he sees us," said Corvina, while the Viscountess used a handkerchief to wipe some dirt off her nose.

"You were supposed to hide!" said Sebastian, still hung up on the game.

"Well, you didn't find me, did you?" said Robert. "So I guess I win."

"But that's cheating!"

"How is it cheating? I should've been easy to find. If you'd just—"

"Now, now, children," said the Viscountess. "Why don't we all just get along and have our tea? The Emperor is coming by for a special lesson in the afternoon. You have to be prepared by then."

Since the three highest-ranking children in the Empire were all close to each other in age, it had been decided that their early education would be conducted together. After a vigorous selection process, it was decided that Viscountess Lintone, who was unmarried and had no children of her own, would act as their tutor/governess.

Because they were from such important families, they were often isolated from other children, and ignored by their busy parents. And so, over the years, Corvina, Sebastian, Robert, and the Viscountess had became something of a family of their own.

After tea that day, the Viscountess helped the children to dress in their best attire and prepare to meet the Emperor.

They stood at attention on a small lawn near the soldier's quarters, waiting.

"What's Father going to teach us?" asked Sebastian.

"I'm not sure," said Viscountess. "He didn't say. But I'm sure it'll be an important lesson for you all, so you'd better pay attention. If you behave properly and do really well, I'll ask the kitchen about preparing some special treats for tea tomorrow."

Corvina and Sebastian exchanged glances. Their father rarely spoke to them, and when he did, it wasn't usually very pleasant. The promise of special treats wasn't enough to quell their nervousness. Quietly, they held hands.

Finally, the Emperor came out. In those days, Emperor Richard Wyernwolf looked younger—his hair a little fuller, his face a little less lined—but he looked no less imposing. To the children he looked like a giant, hardly more human than the marble statues of past emperors scattered throughout the palace gardens.

Behind the Emperor came several guards and three maids. The maids each carried a golden bird cage on a short stand. Inside of each cage was a songbird, their feathers beautiful, bright jewel-tones. One cage was placed in front of each child, so that the birds were at about their eye level.

The bird placed in front of Corvina as a rich purple in color. It twittered and flapped its wings as it readjusted its stance on its perch, looking at Corvina with a curious head-tilt. Corvina thought it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.

Her studies had been going well lately. The Viscountess had praised an essay she'd written about the first Emperor. Could this be a gift from her father? A reward?

Then the Emperor spoke. "Each of you was born into privilege and power, but that doesn't necessarily mean you know how to use that privilege or wield that power. Weakness can be born into even the most powerful bloodlines. You're all old enough now that it's high time we tested what exactly you're capable of. How you perform today will determine what the rest of your education will look like. There's no point wasting time on the education of a child who won't have what it takes when the time comes."

The Emperor snapped his fingers and the guards stepped forward, handing each of the children a small sheathed dagger. Corvina and Sebastian had to let go of each other's hands to take the weapons, but they were both still trembling with nervousness.

Corvina glanced to the side. Robert took his dagger from the solider with an air of boredom.

"Here's the test," said the Emperor. "I want each of you to open the bird cage in front of you, take the bird out... and kill it."

None of the children moved. Even Robert seemed hesitant. They shared glances with each other, looked at the birds, and at the Viscountess, their tutor. She was normally the quietly cheerful sort, but even she looked shaken by this turn of events.

The Emperor smiled. "Very good," he said. "When you're at the top of the social order there's no reason to blindly follow orders you don't want to follow, not when there's no good reason to. But still, you will often find yourself required to make unpleasant decisions, when something real is at stake."

The Emperor snapped his fingers again.

The guards moved quickly, grabbing Viscountess Lintone and forcing her to her knees. Two guards held her down while a third guard held a sword to her throat.

"Kill the birds," said the Emperor, his tone of voice mild. "Or your tutor will die instead."

Author's Note: 

There seems to have been a recent influx of new readers, so I just wanted to say hello, and thank you so much for reading! I've really been enjoying reading all your comments.

If you'd like, you can follow me on Twitter at @teddy_stonehill for extra tidbits about the story and characters (like a recent discussion on what it would be like if the characters all played poker together) and even the occasional piece of fanart!

Thanks again for reading! Also, sorry about the cliffhanger. See you all Friday! 


Thanks for reading!

If you're feeling impatient you can read up through Chapter 86 now on Tapas.

If you'd like to check out my other novel, The Warmonger Duchess and Her Female Husbandyou can read the first 3 chapters for free on my Patreon.

And if you'd like to follow me on Twitter you can find me at @teddy_stonehill