The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 386

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Chapter 386

CAERA DENOIR


The sun was setting behind roiling storm clouds over Central Dominion, the sky’s mood mirroring my own. It had been a tense and dull few days since the Victoriad’s incomprehensible finale.


Highblood Denoir had, expectedly, gone on full alert after the Victoriad. They had immediately withdrawn me from my post at Central Academy and arranged for the entire extended blood to return to our primary estate for an all-hands-on deck meeting. For days, the estate had been swarming with lower-ranking cousins and vassal lords, but Corbett and Lenora were keeping me isolated even from our own blood.


It seemed like they didn’t want anyone else to ascertain the full depth of my connection to Grey until they had laid the appropriate political groundwork.


This suited me just fine. I had been unable to speak with Scythe Seris since the Victoriad, and I hadn’t heard from Grey—not that I expected to—which only led to more and more questions, none of which I had answers for.


I found myself frustrated in a way I hadn’t experienced since I was a freshly awakened teenage girl, forced to hide a power that I simultaneously wished I didn’t have but also wanted to explore and understand. Until I could go to Scythe Seris, however, I saw no better alternative than simply lying low and playing along with my adoptive parents’ wishes.


A boy suddenly appeared in the yards below my window, sprinting with all his might. Not far behind him, a slightly older boy was giving chase, a sling spinning in one hand. With a jerk, he let a projectile fly, but the younger boy dove forward, rolling under it. When he popped back to his feet, he took just enough time to stick his tongue out at his pursuer, then vanished out the other side of the frame, the older boy close on his heels.


I smiled. It was a faint thing, heavy against my cheeks, but it felt good to know that there was someone out there unburdened by everything that was happening. Even if it was only my young cousins, who were both about as intelligent as the average toadstool.


A thunderclap shook the glass of my window pane only a moment before heavy raindrops began to patter against it. The boys began to shout as they were no doubt soaked by the sudden deluge.


Closer at hand, barely audible beneath the noise of the storm, fabric rustled.


Grabbing a silver hairpin from my desk, I spun to my feet and brandished it like a weapon, then sighed and lowered my hand.


My adoptive brother, Lauden, was leaning against the doorframe of my bedroom. His muscular figure filled the doorway in a vaguely threatening way, although the look on his face was more amused than hostile.


He swept his carefully trimmed olive hair to the side, his smile widening. “Your senses are growing dull, little sister. If I were an assassin—”


“Then this pin would be in your eye, and your blood would be on fire,” I said coolly, turning my chin up slightly. “And I would be saved from listening to any of your didactic dithering. What do you—or rather, what do Corbett and Lenora want?”


Lauden held up his hands as a sign of peace. “No need to punish the messenger, Caera. Your tongue is sharper and burns worse than that of a sun-scythe toad. Father would like you to be ready, that is all. We’ll be meeting within the hour.”


I set the pin down and leaned against the desk. “Within the hour. Message received.”


Lauden’s brows rose, but he said nothing else as he turned on his heel and marched out of my rooms.


“Perhaps it is a good thing my brother is an ignorant oaf,” I muttered under my breath as I followed him to the suite door and locked it.


There was a guilty squirming in the region of my stomach; what I was feeling had nothing to do with Lauden, and he had actually—perhaps for the first time in my life—made a genuine effort to be pleasant since the Victoriad. Of course, he also teased me several times about my “boyfriend” Grey, who, as it had turned out, was somewhere above Scythe-level in strength, so it may have been fear spurring his sudden good manners.


Moving to my dressing table, I took a seat on the cushioned stool and gazed at myself in the mirror, my mind lingering on Grey.


“Where is he now?” I asked the mirror, but there was no answer except my own expectant face staring back at me.


The Victoriad had changed everything for Grey and me—maybe even for all of Alacrya. That was yet to be seen, which was in large part the purpose of the meeting I was supposed to be getting ready for. The events of the Victoriad had shown light through a crack in Agrona’s perceived infallibility. His own right hand had been challenged and killed, and when Agrona arrived to show off the power of his new pet mage, they had both been outmaneuvered, failing to capture Grey in what could only be seen as a stunning defeat.


But not every Alacryan would understand what had happened. And even if they did, most could be made to forget amidst the threat of war with the other asuras, or would simply continue to toe the line for fear of the Vritra.


Cowards, I thought, watching my lip tense into a frown.


Taken by a sudden reckless impulse, I unclasped the medallion that I always wore around my neck and set it down hard on the dressing table. In the mirror, my horns simply appeared, no longer hidden by the medallion’s illusory powers. I pulled my lips back from my teeth and snarled at the mirror.


Now that would be quite the look for this evening’s meeting, I mused before letting the expression fade. The face left behind was cold, almost forlorn. Lonely.


I was so tired of hiding who I was. Of being isolated from the people around me. Grey had been something to me that I’d never had before: a peer, a confidant. A friend.


I pictured again his regretful gaze in the moments before he vanished. He didn’t want to leave me behind, I assured myself, but…


How well did I really know him?


Sighing, I took up the amulet and reclasped it behind my neck. In the mirror, the horns disappeared in a blink. Reaching tentatively up, I ran my hand along the invisible horns, feeling the curves, grooves, and points. Just because I couldn’t see them, that didn’t mean they were really gone.


With practiced efficiency, I prepared for the meeting. Lenora wished for my face to be painted, and Corbett had already picked out a gown for me. They expected me to appear graceful and elegant, but non-threatening. Many a highblood had devoured itself tail first in less dire circumstances than what the Denoirs now faced.


And as an outsider—an adoptive Vritra-blood—my entire life had been a double-edged blade for the Denoirs. As much as I was a point of pride and potential empowerment, any misstep either with or from me could just as easily lead to their ruin. Thus the tight leash I had been kept on my entire life, which only grew tighter by the day.


I had just finished pinning up my hair when there was a light knock on my door.


Standing, I twisted the gold gown around me, watching the light glint off blue gems that matched my hair, which I had folded into a slightly messy twist and fixed with a gold-and-ruby pin that doubled as a blade if necessary. I didn’t expect to be attacked in my own home, but…one could never be too careful.


Slipping into a stately walk, I crossed the room and opened the door. Nessa was waiting outside with Arian. Nessa clicked her tongue, her eyes narrowing critically at my hair.


Her fingers twitched as she said, “Lady Caera, Highlord and Lady Denoir request your presence in the parlor.”


“By all means,” I said, and she turned and began marching down the hall. I fell into step behind her, and heard Arian’s soft footfalls behind me.


We crossed paths with only a few other Denoirs on the way to the parlor. Each of them stopped whatever they were doing to give me a shallow bow, but I could feel their eyes burning into my back once I’d gone past. There was curiosity there, but also fear, frustration, and even outright hostility.


They may not know what my relationship with the mysterious Grey had been, but they knew it was a beacon drawing unwanted attention to Highblood Denoir. While other bloods—high, named, or otherwise—were excitedly gossiping about recent events, the Denoirs were on high alert, uncertain if they—we—would survive.


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Although I was certain the Denoirs would place the blame on me, in reality it was Corbett and Lenora’s insistence on involving the highblood in Scythe Seris’s business that had led to this point. Inviting Grey for dinner, meeting with him in public, asking endless questions about him around Cargidan and Central Academy…they had tried to draw connections between themselves and Grey. And they had succeeded, which put the entire blood at risk.


Not that I’d fault them for that. Whatever their reasoning, they’d given Grey a chance, even protection during the trial. It almost made me dread what was to come. I hadn’t been able to read Corbett’s mood at all over the last few days.


Instead of entering the parlor through the main doors, Nessa took us down a servants’ stairs and in through a shadowed alcove. Corbett, Lenora, and Lauden were already there, as was Corbett’s brother, Arden. Teagen and a woman I didn’t know—one of Arden’s guards, I assumed—were flanking the parlor doors.


Lenora’s hand went to Corbett’s arm when she noticed our entrance, interrupting whatever he’d been saying. The pair of them looked me over with the same critical air Nessa had, although with a hundred times more judgment, but Arden didn't give them time to say anything.


Seeing the line of their gaze, he turned around, grinned, and then held out his hands in a gesture of welcome. “Caera, dove!” he said, his voice deeper and slightly more raspy than his brother’s.


“Uncle,” I replied, giving him a courtly curtsy.


I knew well enough to be on my best behavior, including using the preferred titles for my adoptive parents and their many relatives and vassals, but I’d always called Arden “Uncle.” In part because he had insisted on it throughout my childhood—and I hadn’t seen him often enough as I grew into adulthood to break the habit—but also because I knew it irritated Corbett that I didn’t fight back against the familial title the way I did with “Mother” and “Father.”


“What kind of trouble have you gotten us into now, ay little bird?” he chuckled, moving over to give me a stiff one-armed hug.


Despite being Corbett’s younger brother, Arden looked ten years older. He was shorter and heavier, with a pronounced belly and olive hair that was receding away from his temples. But he used these softer features to his advantage, hiding a blade-sharp mind behind his outwardly unimposing features. That, and a potent regalia.


“That remains to be seen,” Corbett said, drawing the words out so they lingered in the air.


My adoptive father wore white and navy, as usual, but his suit had an aggressive, military-style cut, and he wore a single shining pauldron that extended into a narrow gorget that wrapped around his neck. His thin blade hung from his belt as well, making him look like he was prepared to lead a charge into battle.


Lenora, on the other hand, wore a soft, flowing navy gown, billowing out and lending matronly curves to her thin frame.


Sugar and spice, I thought. It was a presentation they had perfected over their long marriage. One intimidating, one welcoming. In reality, they were more hammer and anvil.


I’d never seen them engage in these political mind games with their own blood, however. My pulse quickened. It made me nervous.


“Bring the rest in,” Corbett said next.


Instead of sending one of the servants, Lenora went herself.


Corbett waved for me to join him and Lauden. Arden stood slightly to the side. No other words were exchanged, and I felt like the three men were carefully not looking at me.


Within seconds, Lenora returned, followed by Arden’s wife, Melitta, who entered with their children, Colm and Arno, the two little boys who had been playing so roughly beneath my window. Arno, the younger of the two, still had the grass stains on his clothes.


The three bowed deeply to the Highlord and Lady, and I caught Alden give his sons a wink as they marched by.


Lord Justus Denoir followed. Corbett’s uncle was in his sixties. His hair had gone gray, and there were two gray streaks in his goatee, but he stood straight and strong, carrying himself like the lifelong nobility he was. Corbett and Justus had always had a difficult relationship, as Justus had intended to become highlord when Corbett’s father, Corvus, died, but the deceased highlord had outmaneuvered his brother and set Corbett in his place.


Still, infighting and backstabbing was an inevitable path to see your own highblood crumble, and so the two willful men had kept a forced sort of peace between them for the last fifteen years.


Following Justus was Lady Gemma Denoir, Lenora’s oldest sister. She walked stiffly, like she was carrying a sword in her backside, taking her time entering the room. Her white hair was carefully coiffed and shining with black gemstones that matched her glittering black gown. The effect made her crystalline blue eyes shine like diamonds.


Though Lady Gemma smiled, there was a simpering, frustrating tone to every movement she made, and her bow to the Highlord and Lady was shallower than was proper. When her eyes caught mine, her smile slipped away entirely, her nose wrinkling in disgust, and she simply walked past.


And so it went, for a while. The Denoirs traipsed in by ones and twos, starting with the highest ranking members of the blood and working down to the lowliest vassals. There were others who were also technically considered members of the highblood but who lacked any station within it, and so had not been invited to this meeting.


Finally, when the last of the highblood had been seated and plied with drinks by Lauden, Corbett gestured for me and my adoptive brother to take seats as well. The parlor was just large enough to accommodate such a crowd, but small and private enough to give the meeting a conspiratorial air.


When Corbett’s chief attendant closed the doors, leaving only members of the highblood and a handful of trusted guards, such as Taegen and Arian, inside the room, the impression deepened.


“As you are all certainly aware,” Corbett began without preamble, “the events of the recent Victoriad are without precedent in the known history of Alacrya.”


Lady Gemma snorted, drawing a raised brow from Lenora.


Despite being the older sister, Gemma was an adoptive member of the blood, taken in after her own husband died, and she carried no position or authority beyond what her relationship with Lenora granted her. There was nearly always an edge of bitterness and one-upmanship between the pair when they were together.


“True enough, Highlord,” one of the older cousins—Dereth or Drothel or something, I’d forgotten—said amicably, but his bushy brows were pinched in a nervous frown, “but what does that have to do with the Denoirs? Are you confirming that there is truth to the rumors that our highblood is somehow entangled with this Acender Grey fellow?” Read first at ""ReadNovelFull.com""


Corbett glanced to where I was lounging back in a thick-cusioned chair, my face hidden behind a glass of bright red wine that I wasn’t drinking. That subtle tic was the only sign of his agitation, however, and when he spoke again, his words came out clear and calm. “Before we speak to Highblood Denoir’s relationship with the man called Grey, first we must share information only very recently acquired.” He gestured to his brother.


Arden stood, clasping his hands behind his back so that his pouchy belly stuck out even farther. “Yes, indeed. Thank you, Brother.” He cleared his throat. “Just yesterday, a large detachment of Alacryan soldiers—thousands of mages, in all—returned from Dicathen.”


Arden was carefully watching the rest of the blood, likely trying to ascertain who else might know whatever he was about to tell us. From the eager way Gemma stared at him, the wine glass in her hand suddenly going still, it was clear she, at least, certainly did.


“All from the homeland of our dwarven allies,” Arden continued. “Darv, for those of you who don’t follow these things. And with a number of Dicathian dwarves in tow.”


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This caused a stir. I shifted forward in my chair slightly and set down my drink, keeping my back straight and my expression poised.


So far, Dicathians had only been brought to Alacrya for public displays of punishment, like those at the Victoriad. There was little other reason for prisoners to be teleported from the other continent, and no “allies” had been offered quarter in our land before. Or if they had, it had been kept very quiet.


“The returned force accounts for nearly seventy percent of the soldiers stationed in a city named Vildorial, the dwarves’ capital,” Arden continued. “And they returned not under order, but because they were defeated.”


A chorus of disbelieving chatter interrupted Arden, some expressing bewilderment, others even calling Arden’s story into question. He scowled, and the Highlord called for quiet.


“Were any members of our highblood present?” Justus asked, his deep baritone ringing like a gong over the lingering remnants of chatter that struggled to die out. “If so, they should have been brought before the entire highblood to explain their cowardice.”


“No,” Arden confirmed, nodding to the older man. He took a moment to compose himself, then continued. “The small force we fielded are staged in a city called Etistin. But…” Arden paused, his gaze now flicking to me in a way that made the small hairs on my neck stand on end. “But I was able to secure several firsthand accounts of what happened there.”


Arden began to pace, cleverly using it as an opportunity to meet the eyes of several different people, somehow making it feel like he was speaking to each of them individually. “The strike on Vildorial came out of nowhere. There hasn’t been any real resistance in Dicathen in months, and the largest cities have already begun transitioning, building newer, larger forges and foundries for the Imbuers.


“And so Vildorial’s peacekeepers had little warning before a small group of Dicathen’s elite warriors—the Lances, I believe they are called—smashed down the gates.”


“Oh, I read all about the Lances!” little Arno piped up, his small voice cutting right through the electrified tension building in the room. There were a couple of surprised chuckles at this, but his mother pulled him close, quieting him.


“I’m afraid I’m not following,” one of the more distant cousins asked, giving Arden an embarrassed smile. “While this is stunning news, what does it have to do with us?”


“The attack on Vildorial was led by a man with golden eyes,” Arden said slowly. “Who, it appears, could walk through lightning and conjure purple flames from his hands.”


The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Whatever the rest of the blood’s reaction, I didn’t hear it over the sudden pressure in my ears.


It was a simple description, but there was only one man on either continent who fit it.


“Grey,” I mouthed noiselessly.


Like a single stone that falls and begins an avalanche, this piece of information tumbled into place amidst everything else I knew about Grey. The strange questions in the Relictombs, his lack of basic knowledge despite being so powerful, his unusual magic, his lack of blood connections, Scythe Seris’s interest in him, the fact that he’d fought in the war but never talked about it…the pieces of information all came crashing down around me.


But it didn’t make sense. Grey couldn’t be a Dicathian…could he? Scythe Seris knew him, apparently trusted him, and that alone was enough for me to do the same. But should it be? I asked myself, suddenly wary.


“You’ve destroyed us.” Justus’s voice thundered over the tumult, bringing the scene around me back into focus. He was staring at Corbett, his finger pointing accusingly. “You’ve always been too greedy and power hungry, Corbett, clinging to Scythe Seris Vritra like a bloodworm ever since she was forced on our highblood,” he ground out, his accusing finger momentarily turning in my direction.


The parlor fell quiet.


Though some may have agreed with him, no one had the spine to join in his accusations, and in fact, those sitting closest to him scooted away, as if worried he might spontaneously combust.


“And if Ascender Grey returns, Uncle?” Corbett asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Would you prefer we were on bad footing with a man capable of felling two Scythes?”


“But what actually ties us to this man, Grey?” the same cousin from before asked into the silence, again feigning embarrassment.


Lenora had wrapped her arm around Corbett’s waist, and together, they looked defiantly out at their blood. Read first at ""ReadNovelFull.com""


“We were made aware of Scythe Seris Vritra’s intense interest in Ascender Grey some time ago,” she said pleasantly, her tone as simple and non-confrontational as if she were discussing the weather, “and so we made inroads to establishing a relationship with the man. He kept himself rather apart from the normal social circles of Cargidan, but through a happy accident had already made the acquaintance of our daughter, Caera.”


I stiffened slightly as all eyes jumped to me, then just as quickly away. Only the red-faced Justus let his gaze linger, his brows lowering angrily as I gazed back at him, refusing to be intimidated.


“Couldn’t it be that this ‘accidental acquaintance’ was really Grey worming his way into Highblood Denoir’s good graces?” Justus asked, standing and copying Ardent by pacing around and looking not at Corbett but the rest of our blood. “Taking advantage of us in order to place himself at the Victoriad, in a position to weaken the leaders of the war in Dicathen and embarrass the High Sovereign?” Only then did Justus look at Corbett, a disappointed sneer marring his face. “An act that, by aiding him, you have made us all accomplice to?”


“I can assure you that isn’t the case,” I said before Corbett could respond. When all eyes yet again turned to me, I paused to take a slow sip from my glass, gathering my thoughts. “It is fundamentally impossible for our meeting to have been by design, considering we were in the Relictombs at the time, and I was the one who initiated that contact, not Grey.”


Justus opened his mouth to counter me, but I spoke over him, keeping my tone calm but firm. “And before you embarrass yourself by making accusations about either my or Scythe Seris Vritra’s intentions regarding Grey, know that my parents’ assumption was entirely correct. She saw his power—the same power you all saw for yourselves at the Victoriad, and grew interested, that is all.”


I felt Corbett’s gaze on me, but didn’t look away from Justus. Although his features were rigid and angry, I could see the fear in the jittery back-and-forth movements of his eyes.


The room devolved into several layers of loud conversation, each voice fighting to be heard over every other.


“I mean, he did defeat a Scythe, it makes sense—”


“—should throw ourselves at the High Sovereign’s mercy—”


“—be a counter attack? Perhaps we could save face by joining—”


“—pure fire, and to escape the Victoriad apparently unscathed—”


“—does this mean for Highblood Denoir, Highlord?”


Corbett focused on Melitta, Arden’s wife. “A good question, Melitta, thank you.” Slowly, the room around him quieted again. “We would not be meeting like this if the situation did not present some danger to our highblood, but Lenora and I believe there is opportunity here as well. For—”


“Of course you do,” Justus muttered, loud enough for all to hear.


A muscle near Corbett’s eye twitched, but he kept going. “For the moment, outwardly we will take no action, only biding our time and watching,” Corbett said, focusing on Justus. “If there is an official inquiry into Highblood Denoir, rest assured that we have only extended what welcome and courtesy was due to a potent ascender and member of Caera’s team.”


“Foolishness,” Lady Gemma said, leaning farther back in her chair and swirling her wine glass. Her predatory gaze lingered on Arden. “What about the counter attack already being prepared? Do we plan to participate? To make up for your failure of judgment?”


Corbett and Lenora exchanged a glance. “We’ve determined it is best to maintain our current strategy in Dicathen,” Corbett answered.


Justus scoffed. “This only makes us look more guilty.” Read first at ""ReadNovelFull.com""


“No inquisitor, not even the Scythes themselves, will find a hint of wrong-doing in Highblood Denoir’s actions,” Lenora insisted. “But change is on the wind, Denoirs.” Lenora gazed around the room, masterfully letting her expression vacillate between a small frown and conspiratorial smile. “And, as we all know, sometimes the wind blows hard from the mountains. We’ll need sure footing to weather it.”


I blinked, unsure I had understood Lenora’s words properly. It almost sounded as if she were endorsing Grey and Scythe Seris if there were some kind of power struggle between them and the High Sovereign…


The rest of the blood was quiet and thoughtful. Little Arno caught my eye as I surreptitiously scanned the room, gave me a big smile, and waved.


Justus stood, his shoulders back, chest out, chin held high. His steady eyes cut into Corbett and Lenora like daggers. “I’m afraid this line of thinking is untenable with the continued well-being of this highblood. Highlord Corbett Denoir…I am forced to officially request you step down from your position. Beg mercy of the Scythes—Scythe Seris Vritra herself, if you must. Assure them that your mistakes are your own, and that leadership of Highblood Denoir will rest in steadier hands. I will—”


The words hissed into silence as Justus jerked his sword free of its sheath. Taegen was by Lenora’s side in an instant, Arian rushing to stand over me, the bare steel of his thin blade glinting in the soft light as he looked frantically in every direction at once.


“There won’t be any need for that at the moment,” a calm voice said, drawing all eyes to the shadows of the servants’ entrance.


A gray-skinned man in dark leather armor stepped out of the shadows. He was quite handsome, with an undeniable strength despite how he suppressed his mana.


I stood as everyone else—everyone except Justus—went to a knee, bowing deeply before Cylrit, retainer to Scythe Seris and the dominion of Sehz-Clar. His scarlet eyes met mine, and I felt a bolt like lightning pass between us. He could only be there for me. Finally, Scythe Seris was rescuing me from these long, dreary days of tedium and tension.


“Do as the highlord and lady command,” Cylrit said to Justus, who had somehow managed to go pale and flushed at the same time. “Highblood Denoir should take no action at this time. Lady Caera is to come with me.”


“W-what do you mean?” Lenora stammered, her mask of absolute control and confidence cracking. “Caera is—”


Read first at ""ReadNovelFull.com""


“Let them take her,” Justus said, very carefully resheathing his sword and taking a knee. “Please, Lord Cylrit, with your approval, I would—” Cylrit smiled, a subtle, dangerous thing, and Justus’s mouth snapped shut.


“Lord Denoir,” the retainer said slowly, enunciating each syllable carefully. “Do as you are commanded. Or things may go poorly for you.”


The last of the color left Justus’s face, and a muscle in his jaw pulsed.


Like that, Cylrit seemed to dismiss them all entirely. To me, he gave a softer smile and held out his arm. “Please, Lady Caera. Scythe Seris is expecting us.” Read first at ""ReadNovelFull.com""


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