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Aletheia's Daughter

Chapter Text

There were things you could get away with when you’d saved the world, or at least your local part of it. For example, you could get away with telling your Queen that she was an idiot. Merel had pretty seriously considered that one. But goodwill only lasted so long, and there were things she wanted more, wanted enough to forego personal satisfaction for a bit.

The word “stand” didn’t really apply to a Naga, but to the extent that it did, Merel stood in the throne room of Queen Silreah of Mardelen. It wasn’t exactly opulent, but it was very large. Twin pools filled most of the chamber. Two statues of Naga women flanked the entryway, serpentine from the waist down; behind them, a colonnade circled around a cushioned throne.

Merel had seen every throne room in the Luxaren isles, and she thought you could tell a lot about a kingdom’s monarch by the way they styled their own. Hotenshin’s throne room was small and cozy. Erdengard’s had a bunch of knight sculptures. Parvian’s had two smaller thrones beside the king’s. And the throne in Mardelen’s was so padded that it could be used as a bed – and maybe had been.

If Merel remembered correctly, the throne in Castle Darkloft had been adorned with teeth the size of swords and accompanied by a pair of sacrificial altars. That was before they’d defeated Darkloft, destroyed her throne, torn down her castle, and had a priest purify the ground for a mile in every direction.

Yeah, a queen with a cushioned throne wasn’t so bad.

Silreah lounged. She was a generation older than Merel, but she wore it well. Her hair was dark as ever, her skin almost-but-not-quite flawless, her scales still a deep violet. Merel might have found her attractive, in another life, but not in this one.

Merel was the only petitioner today, so it was just her, Silreah, and two token guards.

Merel said, “I want free reign of the Archives. With guests.”

It wasn’t a demand Merel expected to go over well. Queen Silreah was happy enough that Darkloft had been defeated and peace reestablished, but she was not good at gratitude. Or forbearance. Or, Merel thought in uncharitable moments, much of anything beyond lounging around her throne looking pretty. More importantly, Silreah could probably guess what Merel wanted out of the archives, and wouldn’t like it.

Silreah didn’t look so pretty with a frown. Her tail visibly twitched in irritation, and she curled it around one leg of the throne, apparently to keep it still.

“What?” she said, “You spent ten years sneaking in, breaking in, or just outright stealing from them and now you want me to open the doors to you? And that human of yours, I suppose. What kind of ruler do you think I am?” Silreah answered.

Which was kind of a good point. Punishment for breaking and entering: A key, so that you could skip the breaking part?

“I’m part of the reason you still have Mardelen to rule,” Merel said. “And for that matter, so is Chisa.” Bitch.

That made Silreah scowl, but it was true. Technically, Merel was a petitioner like any other. No minister, she, nor noblewoman. Just another Naga, asking something of the Naga Queen, to be accepted or rejected as the Queen saw fit. But it changed the calculus somewhat when that queen owed you her people’s lives. So Silreah lashed her tail, and said some things that made Merel grit her teeth…but, eventually, she relented. It wasn’t nearly as much trouble as Merel had expected.

The Archives were hers.


Merel would have left with a spring in her step, if she’d had feet to step with. As it was, she moved with a satisfied curl in her tail that she didn’t bother to suppress.

All these years and now it’s mine! she thought, then chuckled at her own presumption – and then started mentally debating just how much of the contents she could get away with, uh, “borrowing.”

It was just past noon. The main hall beyond the throne room was thronged with people – some petitioners, like her, but mostly officials – all Naga.

Except one. Chisa hovered near one wall, watching the ebb and flow of people, bouncing nervously from one foot to the other. Merel made a beeline for her, and reflected that it wasn’t hard to find one’s wife in a crowd when she was the only person with legs.

Chisa also had green eyes, and brown hair to her chinline. She had a foreign accent, and features that weren’t common in Luxaren, and her face and demeanor made her seem younger than she really was. Merel thought she was cute as hell. But it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to suggest that Merel had married the legs. That had been a year ago, shortly after Darkloft’s fall, but Merel still couldn’t look at Chisa without feeling an upswell of emotion about it; a feeling part mischief, part joy, part triumph.

(Also part memories. There was more than one thing you could get away with when you’d saved the world. For example, you could ask the king of Hotenshin to fund an extravagant wedding and honeymoon. Not that he’d minded at all; he was a romantic to put Merel herself to shame.)

Chisa met Merel’s eyes as she approached, and smiled at the expression on her face. “You g-got what you wanted?” Chisa spoke with an occasional stutter, a verbal tic that got worse when she was nervous. Merel found it alternately endearing and cute.

“I got everything,” Merel said. She grabbed Chisa’s hands and swung them back and forth. “A key to the archives and permission in Silreah’s own hand to look through anything I want. She hated all of it but she can’t do a thing, everybody knows we saved Luxaren. She’s probably afraid I’ll start a coup or something.”

“You wouldn’t do that!”

“Hell no. I don’t want her paperwork!”

Chisa laughed and gave her a hug. “I’m glad everything worked out.”

“Come on, let’s go downstairs right now, I want to show you around!”

They descended to the lower levels of Mardelen castle, Chisa with some difficulty. The ramps were pretty steep. Merel made a mental note to try and browbeat Silreah into putting in courtesy stairs for visiting humans – after she’d had a chance to cool down some.

“You might have to win another argument b-before you can actually get in,” Chisa said as they got down to the bottom.

“Huh?”

“L-look who it is.”

“Oh.”

Merel knew most of the Archive guards on sight. The man at the door today was more familiar than most, though: long, better built than most guys if you liked that sort of thing, deep red hair uncommon among Naga…and a searing glare that Merel would have insisted she totally didn’t deserve, except that she didn’t have pants to set on fire.

“Davis!” she said, with unfeigned cheerfulness.

“Merel,” he replied. “Funny thing. While you were gone, there’s been a remarkable drop in how many scrolls and codices go missing. Suddenly I am afraid that will stop.

“It’s good to see you, too. I have something for you.” Merel handed him Silreah’s scroll.

Davis glowered at her, but he took it, opened it, and read. She watched with not-inconsiderable satisfaction as his expression grew steadily more apoplectic.

“She can’t be serious!” he said at last.

Merel waved the Archives key at him. “She is totally serious and I win!” Chisa elbowed her in the side. “Ow!”

“Not nice,” Chisa said.

Davis scowled. “Apparently our dear Queen has gone mad.”

“Oh, you know she was always mad. Seriously, Davis, this makes your life easier. I might borrow some stuff, but I’m not going to steal anything because I don’t need to anymore.”

“I’m still counting it all when you’re done.”

“Sure, if you want.”

He gave her the scroll back and waved her by. “Well, go on, before I accidentally spill ink on that order and drop your key down a grate.”

“You’re so sweet!”

Merel unlocked the door and led Chisa through into the marble arcade that separated the archives from Mardelen proper.

“You know, he didn’t look twice at me, or call you a freak or a-anything,” Chisa said once they were alone.

“Oh, sure, Davis is all right about humans. He’s big on people minding their own business. He doesn’t care that I hang out with humans, he just thinks of the archives as his business, that I’m trying to mind.”

“That’s…k-kind of understandable?”

“Heh heh. I suppose I might’ve earned that. But he just runs the place and sometimes watches the door. I don’t think he’s even read anything in here. I’m not sure anyone has except me in years.”

“Is that why it looks so…well…”

Merel looked around at the arcade. The marbling was beautifully done…but pitted and cracked. Statues of rulers lined one wall…some broken and unreplaced. A rug lined the hall, well swept and clean, but old stains marked the workmanship, and the edges were frayed. Merel looked down, paid momentary attention to its design, stylized images of ancient history, more like what you’d find on a tapestry than a rug. The artist had stitched their sigil into one corner; the stitching, she noticed as she passed over it, was damaged and unreadable.

It was the same inside, she knew. The architecture spoke truth louder than words: This place had been built by a people that considered knowledge a great treasure, and then passed down through generations that did not. Once upon a time Silreah might have changed that. But she’d looked into the past, found that she didn’t like what rested in those shadows, and looked away.

“No,” Merel said sadly, “this is older than that.” She rested her hand on the inner door – more of a gate, really, large and lined in decorative bronze – and hesitated. I won’t look away. I’ll bring in the light.

“Is something w-wrong?”

Silreah. Humans. Me.

Heather.

I’m going to finish what you started, Heather. I was a good student, right?

“Just…old memories,” Merel said. “I haven’t come in this way since I was a kid.”

“I thought you sneaked in all the time?”

“Yeah…through the aqueduct. The grates are supposed to keep people out but the grate locks suck. You can get anywhere in Mardelen through the aqueducts if you know what you’re doing. Nobody ever figured it out.”

“Hee!”

“Anyway, yeah, it’s been a really long time since I saw this door from this side. Long time coming.”

Chisa took her other hand. “You ready?”

Hell yes.”

She pulled the gate open and glided through.