Episode 6: A Royal Murder

The Multiverse Chronicles

Season One: Episode Six

“A Royal Murder”

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The Multiverse Chronicles: Trials of Blood and Steel - A Man In the Shadows

* * *

Alia ambled along the iron fence of the courtyard of the Charlottenburg Imperial Palace, her slick black boots clicking against the diagonal brick. The night air echoed with raucous laughter, but all the guests were inside, celebrating with the prince and his family. Hours ago, applause had burst forth from the palace’s open doors, after the Kaiser formally announced Alia’s best friend’s engagement to Princess High-and-Mighty from Britannia.

Alia kicked a pebble, sending it across the bricks and clanging against the iron fence. One of the guards—Karl—an older man with more physical prowess than she could ever hope to achieve, gave her a knowing, sad smile before returning his attention to the passing motor carriages.

She sighed and sat on the edge of the fountain at the center of the courtyard. Water trickled behind her, courtesy of the fountain’s statue. Small jets of fire just inside the ring of water danced and flared to a clockwork timer, providing a show for anyone who hadn’t seen the fountain day-after-day in their childhood. The fire cast flickering shadows along the statue of the elder. His copper limbs were buffed and polished of the green tarnish that constantly tried to creep in. In one hand he held a hammer with a sapphire embedded just above the grip, and in the other, a curving rod of metal forming into a sword at the will of his powers. He was the crippled elder of crafting, an ancient patron of those from a by-gone age. His image was common among the Industrial Union, who favored his ingenious pursuits.

But unlike the Britannians, the Prussians didn’t worship their ancestral figures.

Alia twisted her lips, eyeing the partially formed sword in the elder’s hand.

Now that Alfons was marrying the daughter of the Dragon Queen, would he buy into all that nonsense about the Dragon Queen’s right to the throne by way of somehow being the descendant of a dragon?

Would he forget about all the times that he and Alia had come to the fountain in their summer youth, teasing each other about inciting the wrath of a long-dead elder?

She sighed. Alfons might not have been paying attention to what the lower class folk were saying in Britannia, but she had heard the quiet rumors as she paced along the back alleys of her favorite pubs. The Dragon Queen was too quick to anger, too wary of her own treasures to protect her people as the queen of old had in the legends.

Would Cassandra be any different than her mother?

The Prussians were pragmatic. Organized. They didn’t have such ridiculous beliefs about shapeshifting legacies that they could not see a problem staring them down with cold, draconic eyes.

If Cassandra learned something from the Prussians, then perhaps she would be a good queen. Perhaps Alfons really would be happy—

Alia shook her head. She needed to find something else to worry about.

Hoping to clear her mind, she left the fountain where she and Alfons had played.

Silver stars winked behind a thin curtain of deep gray clouds in the dark blue sky, and airships floated high overhead. One lent a hazy, eerie shadow across the waning moon. Gilded arc lamps crackled and buzzed along the pathway.

Once behind the imperial palace, she wandered through the lavish gardens and listened to the gossip of crickets fading into the night.

So much for clearing her mind. She and Alfons had had so many good times at the palace, before he met Cassandra. Many a game of tag had been played along the silver-blue pools and the green beech trees of the garden, and many a game of hide-and-go-seek lost because endearing palace servants would point Alfons in the right direction.

Now she was playing a different game of hide-and-go-seek.

Alfons no longer sought her—or her friendship.

Not really. Not if he was willing to leave her behind for the princess.

Tears formed in Alia’s eyes.

No matter how hard she tried to reason that he and Cassandra were happy together, she could not erase the pain that she had been cast aside like an old blanket.

What would things be like after he left? She obviously couldn’t go with him. The Dragon Queen would replace her as soon as feasibly possible. That, or somehow conscript her into the Royal Guard and enroll her in some Britannian boot camp to replace her “disgraceful” habits with the soulless behavior of an automaton.

She shivered. She could never do that.

Not only was she going to lose her best friend, she was going to be out of a job.

“Alia!”

She stiffened at Prince Alfons’ voice, but kept walking.

Might as well make him work for her attention, given how hard she had to work for his.

 “Alia!” Alfons called again. He increased his gait to reach her. “Is everything all right? Karl said you walked out of the ball just before my father announced our engagement.”

“Everything is fine, Your Highness,” she replied coolly, without the usual inflections of her accent.

Alfons raised a pale eyebrow. “You never say ‘Your Highness’ unless I have made you mad.”

“Sorry,” she retorted. “Must have rubbed off from the Britannians. I’m fine. Really.”

He frowned. His ears and cheeks were still pink from the congratulations of his adoring family, and his short blond hair was slightly tussled from the evening wind. Alia swallowed hard. His elegant uniform fit perfectly across his handsome frame, though Alia knew its show was not meant for her.

“You’re not acting fine,” Alfons noted softly.

If only he used that voice more often—for her—and not for the princess.

“I am sorry,” he continued, “but Cassandra had so much to show us—”

“To show you.” Alia turned her shoulder away from him and peered at the shrubbery beyond the still pond. “Your fiancé values the life of her rat more than she values mine.” She snorted. “Maybe we could have visited. Enjoyed the scenery, the ball, laughed at their weird idea of a ‘dragon’ queen. But you were too busy getting ready to marry a total snob.”

She clenched her fists.

“Hold on—” Alfons winced like a scolded puppy who had been smacked on the nose with a rolled pamphlet. Good for him. A love-sick puppy was exactly how he acted. “Cassandra is kind-hearted, but she grew up in different world. I am certain that–after she becomes accustomed to things here–the two of you will become good friends.”

He smiled hopefully.

Alia scoffed. “Keep dreaming. If you weren’t so blinded by love, you would have seen how prude those Britannians were. Even the gear-jammed guards. Besides, once you’re married, it won’t matter. You know as well as I do that Her Majesty will insist that the two of you return to Britannia. I’ve seen the way the queen looks at me. You’ll get a new set of bodyguards who’ll stand all prim and proper.” She mimicked their accent and straitened her posture, arms straight at her side. “You’ll forget me.”

“Alia…” Alfons sighed. “You are more to me than a bodyguard. You are like my sister, an older sister who has always looked after me. I am not going to forget you.”

Alia’s posture drooped.

Sister?

She knew he was trying to be endearing, but sister was not the person she wanted to be. She licked her lips and let out a breath. “I guess it doesn’t really matter. You’re leaving either way.”

“You could come with us.” Alfons smiled hopefully. “It would be nice to have a friendly face at my side.”

“Oh really? That sounds great!” Alia said in a sarcastically enthusiastic tone. “You want to take me to a foreign land so that I can watch you and your snobby wife live a happily-ever-after from the sidelines?”

“Well…” Alfons stammered.

“Well, what?” Alia’s cheeks flushed hot with anger.

Alfons stared at Alia for a moment, then sighed. He placed his hand on her shoulder, started to say something, and then stopped. “Goodnight Alia. I will see you in the morning. I… I hope you change your mind.”

Alia snorted. “Goodnight, Your Highness.”

Alfons bit his lip, then quickly turned on his heel and hurried toward the palace lights. Alia waited until he was out of sight, then flopped on the ground beside the pool.

She exhaled slowly. Would it be any better if he and Cassandra stayed here?

She doubted that.

It would be better if he didn’t marry Cassandra at all.

A soft crunch of a twig caused her to jump. A figure stood in the shadows, just behind the trees.

How had she not noticed him before? If he was a threat to Alfons—

“Miss Behringer?” the man asked, his voice softly inflected with a Frankish accent.

She narrowed her eyes. “That’s me.”

“Good. I’d like to speak with you. Privately.”

“What do you want?”

“I have a concern regarding the engagement. You are close to the prince, are you not? You’re his bodyguard?”

Alia held her breath, then nodded. “I am. What do you have to say?”

A glimmer of light passed over the man’s face, and he smiled. “Follow me.” He gestured to the thick of trees and strode into the darkness, his cape snapping at his feet.

She frowned. If he knew of a threat to the prince, she should hear him out. And if he was the threat, then she needed to know.

After a moment, she slipped into the trees behind him.

* * *

The Multiverse Chronicles: Trials of Blood and Steel - The Intruder

* * *

Within the palace, in a fair-sized chamber, Princess Cassandra removed a red-tinted, brass tiara from her silky hair. She peered at her reflection in the mirror and smiled. This palace had so many mirrors. Perhaps she would tell Mother of these when she returned. And the Prussians had the finest porcelain…

She tilted her head this way and that, examining herself. Her eyelids were dark and baggy, the effects of a long day. She doubted Alfons would mind. The long day had been happy—perhaps one of the happiest days she could remember—outside of the day her mother had revealed that she considered Cassandra fit for the future throne.

But really, did that compare to the way her charming prince held her in his arms?

He held her light and carefree, as if she were one of the fragile porcelain statuettes in the Prussians’ beautiful porcelain cabinet. At the same time, he held her firm—with dignity—as though he understood the power at her disposal. That she could shapeshift into a fearsome dragon.

Well… she would someday.

She hadn’t quite managed an adult dragon. But one of the young dragons, yes. She had made her parents quite proud that day.

Cassandra allowed herself a moment to relax and grin with pure, unadulterated joy. She had to be guarded in public, but not while she was alone. Not around Alfons, either. He had looked so happy in the palace’s strange, oval ballroom, dancing in her arms…

She let out a sigh, arms tingling with delight, then picked up a sterling silver brush from the vanity. The brush slid easily through her hair as her thoughts drifted to her future life, to their future children, to growing old together—

A light flashed in her peripheral vision.

Cassandra spun around, brush caught midway through her hair.

Odd. Something didn’t feel… right.

But nothing was there to have caused the flash. Could the electricity have malfunctioned?

She glanced to the foot of her bed, where her pet rat rested. No, Henry wouldn’t have chewed on the wires. Perhaps something else had caused one of the Prussian’s electric lights to malfunction.

She shrugged and turned back to the mirror, then froze.

In her reflection, a figure stood behind her. A cold spike of adrenaline pulsed through her muscles. The intruder was a blue-uniformed Prussian—that low-class bodyguard Alfons insisted on keeping nearby.

Cassandra turned to face her intruder, chin held high. “What are you doing in my room? How dare you enter without my permission!” She stood, forcibly placing the hairbrush on the dressing table. The nerve! “Leave immediately.”

The rat perked up from the bed and twisted his head back and forth as he looked at the guard. The princess frowned. The way he looked at her…

Something was very wrong.

The bodyguard drew a gun from her holster, and without a second’s pause, her finger pulled the trigger.

Pain flared in Cassandra’s chest. She gasped, trying to remember her training, trying to shift and defend herself, but the bullet hit too close to its mark. She collapsed. Her sightless eyes stared at the elaborate ceiling, its life-like portrait of the joyous elders above mocking her in death.

The rat squeaked, racing down the side of the bed. Footsteps and shouts approached. The bodyguard glanced at the door, and then fled into the hallway.

Two Britannian guards closed in behind her, their rifles raised.

The bodyguard skidded around the corner.

The guards cursed and followed, but when they reached the corner, the bodyguard was gone.

The murderer had vanished.

* * *

The adventure continues in the next episode, where when word is sent to the queen of the royal murder and the prince finds himself in the unlikeliest of places…

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