For the first time in his life, Luctus was afraid. Yes, there were times such as that one hunt when he nearly got mauled by a beast had his brother, Lucem, not been there, when he felt the icy grasp of fear. Yes, there was the constant fear of moving a single muscle that may conjure an unfavorable gesture to his exalted father. But never was he so uncertain. The solid grounds felt like thin air as he walked down the aisle, his steps muffled by a newly embroidered carpet. Soldiers with their polished armors flanked both sides, ministers in new silks and golden headpieces a measured step behind the soldiers. Then, as he continued his seemingly dooming path, ministers gave way to other nobles, the relatives, then his mother, magnified with her new status as the Queen Mother. Then his brothers, Lucius and Lucem on either side of him. They all knelt in a show of humility, hands clasped together and held before their lowered heads. All except of the Grand Priest and Priestess, who stood stiffly on the sanctified ground before the steps leading to the throne.
Ah, Lerim and his daughter, Morgain.
Luctus could recognize his mentor and fellow apprentice even when the two were drowned in the tide of traditional cloaks threaded with silver and graced with precious stones. He could almost see the full, white beard that hung from the old man’s face, saturated with wisdom and marred by time. More importantly, he could see her, a perfect porcelain face with bright eyes and heavy lashes that haunted his fantasy, full red lips and a graceful frame with dark locks that ran to her waist. Luctus sighed to himself.
In Lerim the Priest’s hand was the symbol that all bowed to, the crown. Luctus tore his gaze from Morgain’s perfect fingers cupping the ornate bottle for anointment to face the Priest, submitting himself to a half kneel as he began.
“The Land created by our Creator was made for His children, and eventually He put it to His children’s hands to care, govern, and tame. And, He saw that it was good. May His elect make it so it continues to be so: let the Lord’s blessings be poured upon the Chosen, who is fit for the weight of the crown.”
Luctus hid his trepidation as he felt the cold trickle of oil upon his head. Then the Priest and Priestess each pressed a hand upon his head.
Morgain said, “The Lord our God triumphs over tremor, terrors, and temptation; grant your Vessel wisdom and peace.”
“Let him be exalted in longevity, courage, and patience to protect Your children.”
Hands lifted from his head, and a new weight was soon placed upon his head, “Let this ointment and this crown be a testament of the Emperor’s covenant to the Lord that he shall fulfill his duty to rule with the merciful hand of God.”
Their duty done, the two retreated to separate sides of the aisle to gaze into a distance.
Luctus rose to his feet, the proximity of the throne and the last three steps distancing them overwhelmed him. Then he ascended, taking his rightful place upon the golden chair.
“Long Live the Emperor!” was the relentless chant that shook the halls, ringing in Luctus’s ears well into nightfall.
By the end of the day, Luctus was exhausted. He excused himself from the feast thrown in his honor as soon as it was appropriate, dispersing the nobles, some more drunk than the others, to their temporary housings within the lesser wings of the palace. Retreating to his chambers in the heart of the palace, he dressed for bed, but a thought crossed his mind. Instead, he eased himself into a coat of dark silk — a favorite garment nearly qualified as overworn — and set out. He opened the window to allow a breeze brush against him. Yes, maybe he would do just that. With his mind made up, he seated himself on the windowsill, his feet dangling three stories above the ground. Then he leaned forward for the drop, which he slowed with a wave of his hand as he touched the ground again, a rustle of soft, wet grass. He strolled off then, out of the exquisite imperial garden for his mind was not set upon the rarity that it housed, but nostalgia.
It didn’t take him much time to reach his destination in the larger garden separating the imperial quarters from the common wings, where he found the old tree of his childhood and climbed it, almost as effortlessly as though he was walking. How unsightly, for the prince to be climbing a tree like a little monkey, he heard his nurse’s shrill warnings, and realized that he was no longer just a prince as he settled in a sturdy branch level with the second floor. It was so much more welcoming than his throne, and he overlooked the stretch of greenery kissed by the moonlight under the dense cover, the stream a shining snake coiling around planned paths.
Then he heard them, beyond the murmuring creek and frogs and owl and leaves, laughter in a musical tone. He first attributed it to some adventurous fairy, but saw otherwise.
A lithe figure clad in thin silks that accentuated her feminine figure caught the splatter of moonlight, entering his field of vision with her hand pulling in a contrasting masculine frame, dull in comparison to her luminance. Luctus shifted in his perch.
“…so scared that I might mess up the oath,” the musical tone chimed, seating herself and her companion upon a boulder merely steps away from Luctus’s position.
“It’s unlike anyone would question you and your father’s prayers, anyway,” His soothing voice brushed by her ear after he nuzzled her bare neck; she chuckled as though she was delighted by his forwardness, though Luctus was puzzled as he could only see debauchery while holding his breath in denial.
“You know, this is the first time I have ever made up a prayer: it’s always been that words are placed in my mouth,” She continued to file her complaint, resting her head upon a firm shoulder. “It was as though…as though God didn’t smile upon it.”
“…Perhaps God was busy paying others attention and blessing them instead?”
“Me.” She laughed, shifting so that she was comfortably leaning back into her lover’s embrace.
“What makes you think that?”
“Because, I am the happiest man in this world, and I think it is only because of Him.”
She knew what he was getting to, and in fear that the spell would be broken when he uttered it aloud, she turned her head so she could claim his lips in hers.
Luctus wanted to cut himself: the kiss lasted eternities and the Emperor planned a possible escape.
Then the lovers parted, finally: she cupped his face in her porcelain hands and sighed, “Why can’t you be the Emperor, it seems more fitting.”
The blasphemous phrase froze Luctus.
“Don’t speak like that, we cannot always have what we desire and I should respect my father’s decision.”
“But, shouldn’t we have what we deserve?” The words cut so much deeper when fallen from her full lips. “You are the better candidate, the empire knows that.”
“Except my late father, may he rest in peace,” with that he withdrew from her and lifted her off the boulder. “Don’t you think my brother had enough attention today?”
“Ah, you have been jealous. Who knew?”
“Enough of that divisive speech, lest someone hear you,” he adopted a joking tone to hide the accuracy of her sarcastic diagnosis.
“They wouldn’t dare to touch the Grand Priestess.” She turned from him and crossed her arms in feigned haughtiness.
“Perhaps,” for a moment the night was just filled with its own harmony and the cracks of Luctus’s balled fists and the pounding of his heart within his head.
Almost suddenly, “Morgain.”
“Your ruined the serenity,” He accused her with an embrace from behind, pressing a kiss into the crook of her neck. “I was going to ask…you know that I love you, right?”
“Of course. I don’t think the night is any less serene than before now that you have admitted your inevitable jealousy…”
“Shhh none of that now,” his breath clearly tickled her and she turned to face him instead.
There was a rustle as he lowered himself in a similar manner as his brother a few hours before, though he had the honor to hold her hand as he knelt on one knee,” Another question, that is.”
Luctus didn’t notice thin skin that came off from his palms as his nails dug into them.
“…Will you…marry me?”
She shifted, still uncomfortable with her love’s unchanging willingness to humble himself for her and overwhelmed with happiness, “Why bother asking?!” She pulled him back onto his feet, embracing him tightly and muffled sweet talk with his chest. Luctus realized for the first time that his hands bled.
“What of father? Did he approve?”
“Of course, he even gave his blessings and nearly strangled me.”
Luctus ripped his eyes away as the couple kissed again, their happy chuckles and Morgain’s admiration for Lucem’s simple handiwork now tainting her porcelain hand became distant. A pure silvery shine, Luctus saw before he turned away, a simple silver trinket the perch for a jadeite, a symbol that Luctus would learn to loathe.
Oh, his heart burnt so, and the iron of the blood he tasted upon his lips prevented Luctus from understanding the tears that fell. Deep within, a voice began to chant for more blood.