There was a storm raging in the skies over Heretoral, the capital city of Infanalis, but in a relatively modest house at the top of a hill in the upper class Vekmar District, the mood was uproariously jolly. The house belonged to General Erelesk Votalin, also known as Emperor Neminatrix IV, and the jolly mood was caused by copious amounts of rich food and alcohol. The Emperor was throwing a party, which was not unusual in and of itself, as Votalin had spent his entire life using food, wine, and other entertainments to cultivate contacts and put his peers in his debt.
It was the ostensible context for this party which made it special. The Emperor’s only daughter, Shala Votalin, was celebrating her marriage to the Governor of Infanalis, Lorgad Hemetal. Princess Shala, at the age of 26, was 21 years younger than Governor Hemetal, which didn’t matter, because this was a purely political marriage. House Hemetal and House Votalin had long been close allies, but the Emperor wanted to cement those ties as he struggled to secure the throne he had claimed. Not to mention, he wanted to make sure that his heir produced an heir, thus hopefully avoiding a repeat of the mess that the Empire was currently in.
Neminatrix was relatively young for a general, in his mid-40s, and was generally considered handsome. He had wavy auburn hair that fell to his shoulders, bright green eyes, and was clean-shaven. He was moderately tall, and physically fit, but not spectacularly so. He had perfect teeth and a winning smile, and he possessed a charisma and an easy grace that made him instantly likable.
Those were his good characteristics. On the other hand, he was also arrogant, narcissistic, and a brutal sadist. These aspects of his personality were well-known, but seldom discussed. People who were too careless with their speech around Neminatrix tended to regret it. Besides, in general, the Emperor was good company and a good leader. As long as you didn’t get on his bad side.
“Friends and family,” Neminatrix said as he stood up from his place at the head of the room. The sounds of merriment slowly faded as people turned their attention to the Emperor. “Thank you all so much for coming to this little gathering in celebration of my beloved daughter and my new son-in-law. Really, I cannot express to you enough the joy that fills my heart at the sight of all of you gathered here. Thank you so much.” The applause that followed was hearty and long, and almost entirely faked. Everyone present knew that this was a marriage of political convenience, and if the Emperor loved his daughter, then love was something best avoided. But there were certain forms that needed to be observed if the Emperor’s pleasure was to be maintained.
“All of you are here because you are important to me, and to my daughter,” Neminatrix continued once the applause ended. “It is good, in dark times such as these, to take a moment and remember what it is that we are fighting for. But we mustn’t forget that we are at war. All of you here know that I am the true Emperor, and that the Imperial Throne is rightfully mine. I greatly appreciate your support in this war, and I look forward to your continued support in the future.” As the Emperor took his seat, a tremendous clap of thunder shook the house, followed closely by thunderous applause from the partygoers. After several minutes, the applause faded, and Governor Hemetal stood up.
“I would like to echo the sentiments expressed by His Majesty,” Hemetal said, giving the Emperor a slight bow. At first sight, one would have thought that the Emperor and the Governor were brothers, but that had more to do with the way they carried themselves than their looks. Hemetal was tall and good-looking, but not quite so much as Neminatrix. He had a full head of perfectly styled, short brown hair, and brown eyes that twinkled when he smiled, which he did often. He was not quite as charismatic as Neminatrix, but neither was he as sadistic. Although House Hemetal and House Votalin were long-time allies, and Lorgad Hemetal was marrying Erelesk Votalin’s daughter, Lorgad and Erelesk had been bitter rivals their entire lives, and their enmity for each other ran deep. They hid it well in public, however.
“I cannot tell you how much of an honor it is to be allowed to wed such a beautiful and vivacious woman as Shala Votalin,” Hemetal continued, gesturing to the woman sitting next to him. An uninformed observer might be forgiven for wondering if Hemetal was actually marrying someone else. The woman by his side was neither beautiful nor vivacious, and it was hard to imagine a groom so head over in heels in love that he might mistake her as such. The princess was a small, mousy woman with a permanently stricken and vacant look on her face. It was well known that her father had taken out the bulk of his aggression and cruelty on her, and it had left her emotionally and mentally crippled.
“House Hemetal and House Votalin have always been like family, and Erelesk Votalin has always been like a father to me,” Hemetal lied. “This marriage is the culmination of a long and fruitful alliance, and, if the One wills, will be the beginning of something much greater. Once Emperor Neminatrix IV has attained his rightful place on the Imperial Throne, House Hemetal will take its rightful place at the forefront of the Empire. And those of you who have supported us will have your just reward.” This caused another round of thunderous applause to break out, and Governor Hemetal sat down with a satisfied smile on his face. Then he leaned over and kissed his new bride, who sat as still as a stone. There was no change of expression on her face, no acknowledgement that her new husband had kissed her, no sign of life whatsoever. And in truth, though her body was still alive, her spirit had died a long time ago.
To be continued…