The first year of Vecatian’s reign passed by largely uneventfully. He focused on his duties, doting on his pregnant lover, eagerly awaiting the birth of his first-born child. Suddenly trouble began to stir on the streets of Ifirium. A nobleman named Ergon claimed to have strong family ties to the deceased Emperor Akim. Rumors began to spread that he was the Emperor’s long lost son, fathered by Akim before he became Emperor and that Ergon’s mother had married him prior to dying during the birth. These claims helped him gain supporters among the local peasants. He used his money to sway some of the upper classes with promises of favors and High Council positions under his administration.
Ergon and his followers took to the streets offering gifts and free food to those who joined their cause, claiming to act in the common folk’s best interest unlike their elitist ‘false Emperor’ who favored the nobility. Vecatian made a public declaration to his court stating Ergon is a liar, motivated by greed and a lust for power. There was no real cause for civil unrest and yet Ergon used Vecatian’s rhetoric against him. A couple of months later the situation finally escalated into a full rebellion against the Emperor, with riots and fights breaking out throughout the capital city.
As Ergon gained more supporters, he began to challenge the Emperor’s authority and staged a coup, storming the palace demanding Vecatian’s abdication. They were not able to capture Vecatian nor his family as they were fiercely protected by the imperial guard. General Gekkanon suffered an axe wound to his left arm, shielding the couple from the angry mob, as they fled from their bedroom to the other side of the palace. After the incident, Vecatian become concerned about the safety of his family and increased the level of security at the palace. From that point on, he, Ardia and Bria were never left their rooms without an armed guard.
This left Vecatian with no choice but to call the armed forces to restore the peace by quashing the rebellion, arresting Ergon and his supporters. As some of the imperial army had chosen to side with Ergon, Vecatian wasn’t sure if he could trust them to carry out his orders so he also requested for military aid from Arhia province. The Arhians sent their finest soldiers, Atarai legions to deal with the problem.
Luckily most of the soldiers remained loyal to the Emperor and it wasn’t long until they were able to regain control of the city and put an end to the violence in the streets. Outnumbered by the imperial army, most of the rebels surrendered. Ergon and some of the rebel leaders managed to get away. They remained hidden for days until an imperial army scout spotted them breaking into the temple of the sky god Lord Ifir. There, they barricaded themselves inside the building.
Meanwhile, Vecatian sent spies to investigate if there was any truth to the nobleman’s claims. An investigation was launched at the courthouse and Lady Era-Gragiya’s temple. After a thorough examination of various legal documents regarding Ergon’s heritage, they found no proof that such a marriage had ever taken place. Nor was there any record of any family ties between him and Emperor Akim or any other member of the Erocatien dynasty.
Upon receiving the sufficient evidence to convict the nobleman, the Emperor sent a legion of Arhian Atarai to the site, tasking them with dealing with Ergon and his supporters. Ergon and the rebels were given two options, either surrender and return to the palace to stand trial for treason or die at the hands of the Atarai. Sadly, the majority of the rebels chose not to surrender, resulting in a massacre at the temple gardens. Forty rebels, all Gragiyan citizens were brutally slaughtered by Arhian soldiers, their blood staining the sacred grounds. The temple gate and main door were also damaged as the Atarai had to use a battering ram to force their way through the barricades. Ergon and the other leaders were arrested and escorted back to the palace for their trials and subsequent executions.
Vecatian was present for every treason trial, watching with a stoic look on his face as the judge sentenced each individual to death by beheading. He felt no sympathy for any of them. As gruesome and harsh as the punishment was, the Emperor believed that they deserved it for trying to turn the nation against him. Yet, despite this attitude, it was tough for him to watch the executions, as it meant having to witness the criminals’ families react to the death of their loved one. Ergon’s wife and young daughter whimpered as he was escorted to the chopping block.
As the executioner prepared his axe to strike the final blow, the rebel leader pleaded with the Emperor, asking if he could be buried with his wedding ring so that he may offer it as a gift to the Lady of sorrows.
Vecatian shook his head before yelling,
“No, I deny your request. You’re a traitor not a martyr. You condemned yourself with your actions… You’re a criminal and you have no right for a dignified burial.”
He ordered servants to remove all of Ergon’s jewelry, which was thrown into the crowd. As a group of beggars rushed to snatch the gems, the executioner’s axe struck Ergon’s head, knocking it off his shoulders before falling to the ground.
Vecatian didn’t stick around to see the reaction of Ergon’s family nor for the burial. As soldiers shovelled, Ergon’s remains into a shallow grave marked with a stone slab condemning his actions, the Emperor returned to his chamber where Bria rested.
“That was the last one, it’s over now. We’re safe,” he whispered as he sat on the bed, wrapping his arms around her.
Bria remained silent as she embraced him. Vecatian gently placed a hand on her swollen belly, hoping to feel the baby. Now seven months into the pregnancy, Bria was struggling from back ache due to the excess weight and frequent stomach cramps. At times, back ache was so severe, Bria could barely walk to the other side of the chamber and spent most of her time in bed.
A servant entered the room with some food for the couple, but Vecatian sent him away. Watching the executions and constantly worrying about Bria and the baby, caused him to lose his appetite. Instead, he changed into his nightclothes and climbed into bed.
Vecatian got little sleep that night, as the events of previous week haunted his dreams. It wasn’t the executions of the rebel leaders that disturbed him, but the knowledge that forty rebels had been killed outside Lord Ifir’s temple. As much as he tried to think of something else, each time he closed his eyes, all Vecatian saw was a pile of butchered bodies scattered all over the temple gardens. Once beautiful flowers all stained with blood, as was the sky god’s statue. Unable to sleep, he rose and headed to the corridor where he began to pace back and forth in an attempt to calm himself. Suddenly Vecatian heard Bria screaming and ran back into the room.
“Bria!” he shouted. The sight was so terrifying, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His precious Arhian girl lay in a pool of blood. Vecatian cried for the doctor before rushing her aid.
The royal physician burst into the room. He did his best to help Bria, but it was too late to save the baby. Hours later, Vecatian’s mistress give birth to a stillborn girl.
Streams of tears fell from his cheeks as he watched Bria hold the lifeless body of their tiny daughter, the child he had so eagerly wanted to meet.
“What have we done to deserve such cruelty?” he cried.
“The Erai must be angry and wish to punish us for the damage caused to the sky god’s temple. By ordering soldiers to kill the rebels, you caused blood to be spilled on the sacred grounds,” Bria whimpered still staring at their dead baby.
“If that is so, we must do something to appease them. I will ensure that the all the damages are repaired and site is cleansed and blessed by the priests. But first, we must name and bury our daughter…” he whispered as the doctor approached them with a piece of cloth in his hand.
“Leela,” Bria whispered, clutching on to the baby, reluctant to let her go.
“Bria… I know how difficult this is, but I need you to let Leela go so that the doctor can prepare her for the burial,” Vecatian wrapped his arms around her.
Still sobbing, Bria stroked her deceased daughter’s head, before finally handing the body over to the doctor. The royal physician wrapped it carefully in the cloth before leaving the chamber. Soon after he left, a group handmaids entered with towels and a bowl of hot water.
Bria continued to cry, as the handmaids helped her out of the bloodstained clothes and began to wash her body. Vecatian spent the rest of the day in the room, comforting his lover. Servants brought the meals into their room, but the couple were so overcome with grief, they barely touched their food.
As the preparations for Leela’s funeral were underway, Vecatian went to see his mother, and informed her of the terrible news. Yet, much to his shock, Ardia was unmoved by the revelation. She agreed for Leela to be buried inside the Erocatien family crypt but refused to attend the funeral.
“How can you be so cold and insensitive? Leela was your granddaughter!” Vecatian shouted.
“That child was a bastard, born of that whore of yours. Why should I care what befalls her in the Halls of Makar?”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Leela was my child, your blood…”
Ardia remained silent until Vecatian finally gave up trying to reason with her and left the room.
An hour later, he and Bria descended into the crypt for their daughter’s funeral. They wept as the high priest placed a golden necklace with a diamond stone into Leela’s tiny coffin.
“Farewell little Leela, my beautiful girl. I hope that the grim judge will deem you worthy of a place in Lord Ifir’s sky palace. You will always have a special place in my heart,” Vecatian whispered.
“Farewell Leela…my sweet baby…” Bria whimpered as the servants lowered the coffin into the tomb.
After the ceremony, the bereaved couple remained in the crypt lingering by the grave of their daughter late into the evening.
The following morning, restoration work to fix the damaged parts of the temple began. In addition to this, Vecatian ordered priests and priestesses from across the empire to come Ifirium and bless the sky god’s temple. Though the gardens had already been washed clean of the blood, the Emperor had the gardeners pour more water and scrub every part of the grounds with vinegar, erasing any trace of the massacre that had occurred. He and Bria left an offering of flowers at the altar of Lord Ifir’s statue in the palace. They prayed for his forgiveness for the temple incident. In addition to this they also whispered a prayer to his daughter, the radiant Lady Vea, the goddess of the moon and dreams asking her to allow him a good night’s sleep once more. Though these cleansing were enough to put an end to his nightmares, it did little to comfort his lover. Ever since the funeral, she wouldn’t allow Vecatian to touch her or sleep in the same bed. A few days later, she moved into the room next door and refused to speak to him.
Vecatian thought things couldn’t get much worse until his mother brought him a bizarre proposition.
“I think it’s time that you chose a bride,” she suggested one day as they sat down for their dinner.
“A bride? Have you gone mad? It’s only been a few days since I buried my daughter and you’re suggesting I should start planning a wedding!” he bellowed, appalled by the idea.
“It’s also been a week since the executions, and the massacre at Lord Ifir’s temple. These events are still fresh in the minds of our subjects. Our people need a distraction, something pleasant and joyful to help them forget the horror of Ergon’s rebellion. I’d say that a wedding is exactly what this family and the empire needs,” Ardia explained.
Vecatian sighed in response before finally digging into his food. Ardia stayed silent for duration of their meal before finally speaking up,
“I believe this is what is best for the good of the empire. You need a wife and an heir…”
Her son didn’t respond, glaring at her as he sipped his wine.
“Now, I’ve selected four girls, all from noble families, each from a different province. I’ve arranged for them to travel here in two weeks time. I hope that you will at least consider choosing one of them as your Ifresija.”
Vecatian sighed again before muttering under his breath, “Fine, if it pleases you, I will consider them.”
“Excellent,” Ardia smiled.
As the potential brides began their journey towards the capital, Vecatian tried to reconcile with his lover. After a few days of avoiding him, Bria finally let him into her room, and they were able to talk.
Vecatian chose not to inform her about of his mother’s plans for his betrothal until closer to the time. Instead, they had some lunch and spoke of their child.
“I miss her so much…My baby…She never had a chance to take a single breath before the Morkrai carried her away from us…” she lamented.
“I know…I miss Leela too… I pray that she is now at peace in the paradise of the sky god’s golden palace. Surely a soul as beautiful and innocent as her would be worthy of such a fate…” Vecatian wrapped his arms around her.
“I hope so…”
That night, she moved back into Vecatian’s chamber, and they finally slept in the same bed again.
As the time of the potential brides’ arrival drew near, one evening as they sat by the fireplace, Vecatian finally told Bria about his mother’s plan.
“I must marry and produce an heir for the sake of the empire, but I promise, this won’t change anything about our relationship. I intend to keep you as my mistress. You are and will remain the only woman I love,” he declared.
“I love you too Vecatian, but you know as well as I do that things will never be the same once you are married. How could I possibly compete with your Ifresiea?”
“You won’t have to. I will only be with her out of duty.”
Bria didn’t answer. She hoped that what he said was true. Yet deep down she worried that he might change his mind once he met and chose his Ifresija.
A morning after their conversation, Bria asked his permission to travel to Arhia to visit her father.
“I don’t want to be here when your potential brides arrive. I would be a distraction. I will only be gone for a few days,” she explained.
Though upset at the thought of being separated from her, Vecatian decided to respect her decision and granted her leave to travel to Naitoria. They bade each other goodbye and kissed before she set off in a horse-drawn carriage that same evening.
The following day, the four bride candidates arrived at the palace. Guestrooms were prepared for each of their girls and their parents. Ardia had arranged them to meet her son at different times on the same day, and requested they wait for the next day before he announced his decision. She devised a series of activities for each date, so that Vecatian had a chance to get to know them a little before making his decision. The first one was a lunch at the main dining room, followed by tea and desserts in the same room, an afternoon stroll in the gardens, and finally an evening of music and reading in the lounge.
As Vecatian got ready for his dates, Ardia walked into his chamber with a handmaid carrying a range of dresses and jewelry.
“Now remember, these girls have come a long way to see you. So please be kind to them even if you decide to reject them,” she showed one of the silken gowns to Vecatian, “I figured it would be a nice gesture to present them with a parting gift, as token of your appreciation of the effort they took to travel all the way here. That way they can leave here with their family dignity intact and we don’t lose the support of their parents.”
“I agree. Dresses and fine jewelry seem like appropriate gifts but what of the Arhian? She’s not permitted to have such things, doing so would be an insult to her culture,” Vecatian pointed out.
“Hmm… Yes, I see your point. No elaborate dresses or jewelry….How about flowers in that case?”
“Flowers would be perfect. What are the colors of her house sigil?”
“It’s a white eagle on a black background,” Ardia replied as she browsed from an array of necklaces, trying figure out which one would make best gift.
“White flowers in that case. Oh, and ensure that she meets me in the gardens. That way I can pick them out myself,” Vecatian replied.
“Yes, of course.”
Vecatian helped his mother choose two gifts for the girls: a silken pink gown with pearls and a golden necklace with rubies. Fully prepared, together with the handmaid, they made their way to the throne room.
Ardia and Vecatian sat on their thrones as a servant entered the chamber.
“Your Majesties, I would like to introduce Lady Justina, the daughter of Dux Kernis of Isfienia.”
A dark haired girl dressed in a burgundy silken gown entered the room and bowed to the duo.
“Good afternoon,Your Highness. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Good afternoon Justina, and welcome to Ifirium. I hope your journey went well,” Vecatian greeted her.
“Yes it did, Your Majesty.”
“Excellent. Now I was hoping you would like to join me for lunch.” Vecatian rose from his throne.
“Yes, I would love to Your Majesty.”
Ardia smiled as her son took Justina’s hand, and lead her out of the throne-room, towards the dining hall.
Much to Vecatian’s disappointment, as pretty as she was, the girl from the mountain province of Lavinium wasn’t much of a conversation partner. Justina spoke remarkably little during their meal, nibbling away at her food and politely answering his questions. Vecatian found her presence rather dull.
After the meal, Justina kissed his hand and thanked him before returning to her room. Vecatian stayed in the dining hall and took a sip of his wine as the servant announced the next visitor:
“Your Highness, I would like to introduce Lady Daina, the daughter of Dux Dacian of Maeronium.”
A dark-skinned girl entered, draped in an outfit typical for a noblewoman of the Niralis desert; a long red linen cloak over her beige tunic, her hair hidden under a red, bejewelled headscarf with only her dark brown eyes and a small part of her face visible.
“Good afternoon Your Highness. It’s an honor to meet you,” Daina bowed to the monarch.
“Good afternoon Daina, and welcome to Ifirium. I trust your journey went well,” Vecatian he invited her to sit.
“Yes, it did Your Highness,” she replied, pulling up a chair as the servants arrived with their desserts and tea.
This time Vecatian enjoyed the rendezvous. Daina was not only more talkative than Justina, she also had fascinating stories to tell about her native land. Unfortunately, the Emperor admired these stories more than her beauty.
Once they finished eating, she too kissed his hand and thanked him before heading back to her chamber.
The third date proved to be the most awkward of all. Vecatian entered the gardens to be greeted by not just his potential bride, but also her father.
“Your Highness, I would like to introduce Dux Armus and his daughter Nobelia Lauran of House Armus of Naitoria,” the servant announced.
Just as Vecatian suspected, the Arhian girl wasn’t permitted to travel anywhere without a male escort. The Dux and his daughter bowed to him.
“Good afternoon, Your Highness,” said Dux Armus.
Good afternoon, Your Majesty. It’s an honor to meet you,” Nobelia tilted her head towards him.
Vecatian smiled and greeted them in the same manner as the two girls. They proceeded to stroll through the gardens, Nobelia occasionally stopped to admire some the flowers, whilst her father followed them close behind. Well versed in Arhian customs, Vecatian knew Armus would not leave his daughter alone with him, not even for a second. Yet he tried to make the most of the date, enjoying the pleasant weather and the stunning views. Nobelia was indeed a beauty. Sadly, character wise, she was similar to Justina, very well spoken and polite, but ultimately rather boring company.
After Nobelia and her father left, he spoke with the gardener about which white flowers would make the best gift for Nobelia. He finally settled on a selection of white roses, lilies and dahlias, which he ordered the gardener to cut and prepare a bouquet out of for the following day.
He left the gardens and headed back into the palace, towards the lounge. Vecatian made himself comfortable on the couch as the musicians began to play their instruments. As the sound of lutes, lyres and castanets filled the air, two servants brought a selection of books into the room whilst a third announce his final date.
“Your Highness, I would to introduce Lady Loraila, the daughter of Marchio Clavius of Ifirium.”
Vecatian couldn’t believe his ears nor his eyes when a familiar face entered the room. Loraila was dressed in the same green gown she had worn on the night of his coronation. The moment she saw his face, Loraila forgot everything her mother had ever taught her about good manners and court etiquette. She rushed straight towards the couch and threw her arms around him.
“Lucius…I mean Vecatian…I mean… ermmm…Your Highness…” she finally blurted out as he embraced her.
Vecatian smiled, delighted to see his old friend. Loraila found it difficult to pronounce his name when they were children, and had a habit of addressing by his middle name. He made room for her on the couch.
“It’s great to see you again, Loraila. I still can’t believe you’re here…Hmm…Why don’t we start again, this time using the correct court etiquette? Just act as though we have never met before.”
She nodded and stood up. This time, she bowed and greeted him in a stiff manner. They sat apart from each other, maintaining a former distance. They spent several hours, chatting and browsing through poetry books as the musicians continued to play. At one point she asked one of musicians to lend her his lute and played a little song for the Emperor. Vecatian couldn’t believe his luck and was now set on his choice. There was no doubt in his mind, he wanted Loraila as his Ifresija. At the end of the evening, he bade her goodnight before joining his mother for dinner.
The following morning, after breakfast, all four girls and their parents gathered inside the throne room. As each girl and her family was announced once more, Ardia and her son greeted them in the same formal manner. A handmaid entered with his chosen gifts.
“I would like to thank you all for coming. It was a pleasure to meet all of you but now the time has come for me to choose my bride…” Vecatian watched as the girls nervously stood in anticipation, eagerly awaiting his next words. “I want Lady Loraila to be my Ifresija.”
A polite round of applause lifted as Loraila made her way to the throne. She bowed and kissed his hand. Vecatian rose and grasped her hand as they stood together to face the crowd. Ardia smiled before whispering into his ear,
“What a wonderful choice. Loraila will make a fine bride. Well done!”
The rest of the girls clapped, and attempted to hide their disappointment as they accepted their gifts. Nobelia smiled as Vecatian handed her the bouquet, as did Justina as she received the gown and Daina as she lifted her cloak, allowing the handmaid to drape the new necklace. Delighted with the result, Clavius and Drusilla were embraced Ardia and Vecatian. Once the other girls returned to their rooms and began preparing for their journey back to their home provinces, Vecatian and Loraila spent time together in the swimming pool. Ardia stayed in the throne room with Clavius and Drusilla to discuss the arrangement for the wedding.
“My mother told me about what happened to your daughter. I’m terribly sorry for your loss,” Loraila mentioned as they sat in the couch, wrapped in their towels, after a swim.
“Did you know that you’re the first person other than the priest to offer me condolences?” Vecatian grabbed a bunch of grapes from a bowl.
Loraila shook her head.
Vecatian quickly ate the fruit before replying,
“Well, it’s true. When my father and my cousin died, the entire empire mourned their deaths and everyone offered their condolences but not for my dear Leela. My precious daughter. It’s almost as though the only ones who loved her were I and my mistress Bria…”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. How awful. Speaking of Bria, where is she?”
“She’s not here. She’s in Naitoria visiting her father,” Vecatian answered as he got dressed.
Loraila dried her hair and put her tunic back before replying,
“That’s a shame. I was hoping to meet her. I don’t see any why we can’t all get along. I’ll be your wife and the mother of your heir. But she can remain here as your mistress. I know how much she means to you as the mother of your firstborn.”
“That’s very kind of you my dear. I would like nothing more than to have you both in my life. I can only hope Bria will feel the same way.” She snuggled up beside him.
By the time Bria returned a fortnight later, the royal wedding preparations were underway. Although the Emperor greeted her warmly, Bria was shocked to see how devoted he was to his new bride. Even when Loraila tried her best to be nice to her, she maintained her distance and moved into one of the servants’ rooms on the other side of the corridor, insisting that Vecatian should share his bed with his betrothed.
A few days later, the entire nation cerebrated in the streets as a wedding was held at the palace. A priestess of Lady Era-Gragiya presided over the ceremony, after which Loraila was crowned as the new Ifresija in front of the entire court. Vecatian was overjoyed the moment he kissed his new Empress as the crowds erupted with shouts of “Long live the Ifresija!”
After the feast, Bria returned to her room alone whilst the newlyweds hurried to their chamber. For the first time since their date, Vecatian felt nervous. Although he had slept in the same bed as Loraila for the past few weeks, they hadn’t actually had sex yet and he knew she was a virgin.
If that wasn’t awkward enough, their elaborate coronation robes only exacerbated the problem as they were difficult to remove without any handmaids around to help.
“This is so weird,” he whispered once they had finally managed to undress themselves.
“Yes it is, super awkward. All the attention and the massive crowds. Well, at least we’re alone now.
He wrapped his arms around her.
They kissed and slowly crawled into bed. Vecatian took his time, trying to make sure Loraila was comfortable as he proceeded to make love to her. He tried to gentle, yet he could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t exactly enjoying it. Once he had finished, Vecatian lay on his back whilst Loraila rested her head on his chest.
After catching his breath, he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I hope I didn’t hurt you,” he whispered after catching his breath.
“No, it was fine. Honestly, don’t worry about it. I knew what to expect,” Loraila replied with a smile.
They kissed again before drifting off to sleep.
Once the bleeding stopped, the newly crowned Empress began to enjoy their love making and rarely left her husband’s side. Vecatian too was extremely happy and spent all his free time with her, leaving Bria to wander the palace alone.
One day, Bria finally decided to confront her lover in the corridor as he came out of a High Council meeting.
“I think it’s time for me return to Naitoria with your permission Ifresier,” she abided the court etiquette, addressing him by his title as there were other people in the corridor.
“You wish to return to Naitoria? But why?” Vecatian asked, surprised by her idea.
“Your Highness doesn’t need me anymore. You have a beautiful Empress. She will no doubt make a fine mother to your heir and other children. The whole empire adores her, including Your Highness’s mother. How can I possibly compete with her?” she explained.
“You don’t have to compete with Loraila. Bria, my wife is aware of how I feel about you. She’s not your enemy. In fact, she wants to be your friend. I want you to stay here as my mistress.” He tried to reason with her.
Bria shook her head, “No, I don’t want that. Not anymore. It’s not the same. I’ve seen the way Your Highness looks at her. She’s not one of your duties, you love her…. Please Ifresier, just let me go. I want to go back to Arhia.”
She stormed out of the corridor and ran towards the main doors, opening them before heading into the gardens. Vecatian tried to run after her but Loraila arrived and stopped him.
“Lucius, you can’t force Bria to stay here against her will. Just let her be for now. We can all talk about this later, once she’s calmed down.”
The Emperor reluctantly agreed and, together with Loraila, he headed back to his room.
Meanwhile, Bria delved deeper into the royal gardens, until she suddenly realized she was being followed. She turned to see a man with short, mousy brown hair in his mid-twenties standing near an apple tree. As she came closer, he spoke up in her native dialect.
“Hello Bria, my apologies for startling you like this. Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Larinus and I’m a Senator at the High Council.”
“Hello Senator Larinus. Why are you following me and what exactly do you want?”
“Well, I happened to overhear your conversation with the Ifresier and I may have a solution to your problem…” he began.
“Is that so? And what solution would you suggest?”
“You wish to return to Naitoria, but you’re not sure what awaits you there. As an unmarried girl your life will not be easy in Arhia. So here’s my proposition. The Morkrai took my dear wife and unborn child last year. After many months of mourning their deaths, I’ve had come to terms with my loss and I’ve been hoping to remarry. I wish to ask the Ifresier’s permission to grant you leave and allow me to marry you. That way you will return to Naitoria as my wife. Your father will no doubt approve of this match.”
Bria was silent, intrigued by his suggestion.
“I can assure you I’m an honorable man and I will be faithful to you. I’m not asking you to love me, I know that your heart belong to the Ifresier. All I ask is that you marry me and bear my children. Do this and I will make sure you are treated with respect. I am a wealthy man so you will have servants tending to your every need,” he added.
Bria pondered over his suggestion for a few minutes before replying,
“But why would you possibly want me? Surely there are other more suitable brides for you back in Arhia. I’m a legitimized bastard daughter of a Baron and I’m not even a virgin.”
“I don’t care about your heritage, nor do I mind that you’re not a virgin. I need a wife and a mother for my children. You’re fertile, having given birth to the Ifresier’s child before.”
“That child was stillborn.”
“I know… but it was a child, nonetheless. You’re young and healthy, so you can have more. Marry me and we shall pray to the Queen of the skies, asking her to bless our children so they will not suffer their same fate as their half-sister… Think about it Bria, you’re not going to get a better deal than this.”
Bria held out her hand towards his before responding:
“I accept your offer provided that His Highness grants me leave.”
“Excellent, you won’t regret this.” Larinus took her hand and shook it.
Having reached an agreement, they spent a few minutes walking through the gardens before bidding each other goodbye and going their separate ways. As a horse-drawn carriage arrived to take Larinus into the city, Bria agreed to meet him at the palace the following morning.
The next day, Larinus showed up at the palace shortly after Bria had finished her breakfast with Vecatian, Loraila and Ardia. He bowed to the royal family before explaining his proposition. Vecatian listened carefully whilst sipping some apple juice. Once the Senator had finished speaking, he turned to face his mistress:
“Is this what you really want Bria?Do you wish to marry this man and return with him to Arhia? I know that things have been difficult for you lately since the wedding. I’m sorry about that and I was hoping we could work this out. Is there anything I can do to make you reconsider and stay here with me and Loraila?”
“No, Your Highness, there’s nothing you can do to make me stay. I wish to have a normal life outside of the palace with a husband and family of my own. I want to marry Senator Larinus, with your permission of course. Please just let me go.” she replied.
“I’m sorry that it’s come to this, but very well. If that is your wish, you have my permission provided the wedding takes place here in Ifirium.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty. I will make the necessary arrangements for Bria’s family to travel here.” Larinus extended his hand to Bria.
“Good. Also, I would like you to have the Erocatien summer villa as your wedding gift,” Vecatian added.
This prompted his mother to speak.
“Vecatian, that house has been with our family for generations. You can’t just give it away like that!”
“Why not? It’s been sitting empty for years now. It’s not like we have any use for it now, that we live the palace. I’d say if it’s the perfect gift for the couple. I will hire new servants to tend to it. This way you two will have a place to stay here in Ifirium when the High Council is in session.”
“What a wonderful gift, Your Majesty. Thank you,” the Senator replied.
“Thank Your Highness,” Bria bowed her head to her lover.
This concluded the matter, and preparations for Bria’s wedding began the same day. A messenger was sent to deliver the news to Baron Reinis. After hearing the news, Flora hired a tailor make an Arhian wedding gown for her adopted daughter, an embroidered dress bearing the family colors, turquoise to match Reinis’ coat of arms. Arhian tradition also stipulated for the bride to receive a family heirloom as a parting gift from her mother. Larisa had died of a fever when Bria was only a few years old. Flora questioned the servants who raised the girl if Larisa had left anything of value for her daughter. She discovered the woman had little possessions and nothing of real value.
“Fair enough. I’ll provide the heirloom in that case. I’m her adopted mother after all,” Flora told her husband, before heading to their room.
She soon returned with a wooden box and opened it, revealing a silver necklace with an emerald stone.
“This belonged to my mother. She asked me to keep it and give it to my daughter or granddaughter some day.”
“That’s a fine gift,” Reinis replied.
Once everything was ready, the Baron and Flora set off towards Ifirium. Welcomed at the palace, they spent one night there. Bria was thrilled to see the dress and the necklace. Following morning, the wedding took place at the temple of Lady Era-Gragiya in central Ifirium with the Emperor and Empress as witnesses. Bria played her part well as she said her vows and kissed Larinus after the priestess’ blessing.
After the ceremony, the Emperor invited everyone for a feast at the palace.
“Congratulations to both of you,” Vecatian raised a goblet of wine to the newly-weds. Loraila also congratulated them.
The couple thanked them then Bria spoke up:
“Thank you Your Majesties. I am very grateful for everything you have done for me and Larinus.”
“It’s the least I can do for you my dear. I wish you and your husband all the best. You will always have a special place in my heart and I won’t forget the time we spent together,” Vecatian replied.
“Thank you. I too cherish the time I spent with Your Majesty. I wish and your Ifresiea good fortune. May the Erai grant you a long and happy life together.”
“Thank you, Bria. I hope you will be happy with your husband. I want you to know I never saw you as my rival. I only wished to be your friend,” said Loraila.
“I know Your Highness and I appreciate your honest friendship.”
The feast continued until the early hours of the morning. The couples and their families slept through the morning before meeting for breakfast, whilst the handmaids began to pack Bria’s belongings for the journey to Naitoria.
By the afternoon both horse-drawn carriages were ready. As the servants started to load her luggage into the carriage, Bria met Vecatian and Loraila in the courtyard.
“I guess this is goodbye,” he whispered as Bria’s father and Flora entered their own carriage.
“Yes it is. Goodbye Vecatian and thank you for everything,” she replied extending her arms for a hug.
They embraced and kissed.
“Goodbye Bria. Have a safe journey and please stay in touch,” Loraila spoke quietly as she give Bria a hug.
“Goodbye, Your Highness. I promise I’ll to write to both of you.”
Larinus entered the courtyard. As he neared, Bria turned and took his hand.
“Goodbye Your Majesties.” The Senator tipped his head in a formal bow.
Bria followed him into the carriage. The gates were swung and drivers cracked their whips and both carriages set off towards Arhia. Loraila and Vecatian remained in the courtyard, waving to the couple before heading back to the palace.
The couples kept in touch and regularly sent letters to each other. Less than a year after the wedding, Vecatian received a letter from Bria with news that she had recently given birth to the Senator’s first child, a healthy boy whom they named Rasmus. The Emperor wrote back, congratulating the couple before sharing news of his own. Loraila too was with child and her first pregnancy was going well.
One early spring evening, on the ninth of March, Loraila successfully delivered Vecatian’s heir. The tiny auburn haired baby Prince was named Vecatian II after his father. This time Ardia’s reaction befitted a new grandmother.
“Oh look at him…he’s perfect! Such a handsome little boy. The Ifrey Prisis. Well done my dear,” she whispered to Loraila, watching her breastfeed the newborn.
Vecatian merely smiled in response. He waited until his mother left once their son fell asleep inside his cradle, before whispering to his wife,
“Can you believe that woman? When Leela died, she didn’t even bat an eyelid and refused to attend her funeral. Now I have a legitimate son and she’s suddenly acting like a doting grandmother…”
“Oh Lucius, let it go. There’s no point starting a fight over this. Just think of our son,” Loraila glanced at their sleeping baby.
“I am thinking about him and our future children. I won’t let my mother spoil them rotten. As my heir, Vecatian can’t go around acting like a spoiled brat. He needs to know what it means to be the Ifresir,” the Emperor commented before rising.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to speak to someone about our son’s education. Don’t worry I’ll be back soon. I’ll see you later.” He kissed her.
“See you later,” Loraila replied before rolling on to her side, keen to catch up on sleep.
Vecatian left the chamber and made his way towards the lounge. There he summoned a servant and tasked him with fetching General Gekkanon. A few minutes later, the head of the imperial guard entered the lounge.
After bowing to the Emperor, he asked, “You wished to see me Ifresir?”
“Yes Gekkanon, as you have probably heard by now, my wife has just delivered a healthy son,” Vecatian announced.
“Yes I have, congratulations Your Highness!”
“Thank you. I am very grateful for everything you have done for my family. You have been a very loyal servant,” he continued.
“Thank you Your Majesty. I was only doing my duty, fulfilling the oath I swore to protect you,” said Gekkanon.
“Nonetheless, I cannot thank you enough for your service. This family owes you a great debt and now I have one more important task for you. I would like you to become my son’s mentor and advisor. Not only will you train him in combat, but you will also oversee his education. You will be responsible for choosing best tutors to ensure little Vecatian has a good knowledge of history, mathematics, geography, the arts as well as politics and court etiquette. You will ensure that by the time he succeeds me as Ifresir, he is ready for his new responsibilities.”
“I would be honored to serve as the Ifrey Prisis’ mentor, Your Majesty,” Gekkanon replied.
“Excellent. That will be all. Thank you Gekkanon. You may leave now,” Vecatian dismissed him with a wave.
Gekkanon bowed again before leaving the room. The Emperor returned to his chamber to find both his wife and little Vecatian still asleep. He climbed into bed and wrapped his arms around Loraila before dozing off.
Two weeks after the birth, baby Vecatian II was placed into a bath filled with laurel leaves and bathed before being wrapped in a purple robe. Loraila took him in her arms, and together with her husband, they marched to the throne room where the entire court gathered. Ardia greeted them with a warm hug as they sat on their thrones. The couple rose from the seats. Loraila held up the baby for the crowds to see whilst Vecatian proclaimed loudly,
“The radiant Queen of the skies has blessed our family recently. I am proud to introduce to you my son and heir, the Ifrey Prisis – Vecatian Assilion Erocatien.”
The crowd reacted with a massive round of applause, followed by shouts of “Long live the Ifrey Prisis!”
The couple looked on with smiles of their faces. Ardia too was overjoyed. Her son had accomplished something which his cousin Akim failed to do, to ensure that the Erocatien dynasty would not die out. Vecatian II would succeed his father as the new Ifresir, the empire’s golden boy.
Emperor Vecatian art by Catharine Bowen