The king was in counsel with his advisors, gathered around a handful of large tables that had been grouped together in the center of the throne room. With Esles withdrawn and a plea for truce received, the king needed to decide on what conditions he would impose when the emissary arrived, and how best to distribute his resources when his demands were either met or denied. To that end, he had every competent noble and high-ranking official in the capital huddled together, giving their perspectives on what should be done to secure the kingdom following the war.
All of that was brought to an abrupt halt when the wide doors leading into the throne-room burst open without announcement. “Sarahi!!” King Absol roared the moment his daughter stepped through the open portal, relief and joy flooding his demeanor as he flung his arms open to her in utter disregard for decorum. Deep in his broad chest, his heart leapt at the sight of his stolen daughter once again in his house.
Sarahi had to fight the instinctive urge to rush into those arms. She was every bit as glad to see him as he was to see her...but now, of all times, was not the moment to put decorum aside. At the sound of her name, all the assembled nobles and officials had immediately snapped to attention. The Royal Guard likewise snapped, but to their swords rather than salutes, as the Sha'khari did not enter the room alone: beside her stood her husband. On his other side stood her uncle, whose presence was the only reason the guards had not already attempted to run Oro through. Behind them, patiently silent, stood Nayeli. They had left the twins and Tuli in the foyer (and all three were glad to be excluded from this), along with the kobolds.
“Father,” Sarahi greeted him gently, with a forced smile and gracious nod. It pained her to see the delight slowly wash from his face, replaced by a familiar frown as he lowered his arms. He might have forgotten himself for a moment, but the kingly stature was quick to replace the fatherly one at the sight of the Rabbit beside her, and the memory of the purpose to which he’d given her.
“Your fusking toadie here says you want your daughter back,” Oro grunted, inclining his head toward the General on his left, “Gotta say I’m surprised you’re trying to go back on your word. After all the tripe Princess here keeps spouting, I thought you might be one of those ‘men of honor’ people are always looking for. It’s been a while since I let someone fool me from that angle.”
The King gnashed his teeth, but it was General Gar who instinctively drew his sword, and almost failed to check himself before the blade cut into Sarahi’s stomach as she interposed herself between Oro and the two Lions. “Uncle!” she blurted in momentary shock, having already moved with the intent of getting between Oro and her father, before she realized he was about to strike. But she quickly reclaimed her composure, and could hardly bring herself to be surprised by his reaction, given her familiarity with her family. “General Gar,” she said both more calmly and more formally, “Please stand down. Father,” she turned her eyes stoically to meet the king’s, “Please do not do this. Please. You do not underst—”
“Quiet, Sarahi,” the king hissed. Despite the roiling fury in his eyes and tone of his voice, though, King Absol had not yet reached for the sword on his hip. “She was not part of any promise or oath I made,” the big Lion insisted to the Rabbit.
“But she was the price,” Oro answered right back coldly, stepping around the Sha'khari as if insulted by the idea of needing protection, “And if you want to take it back, I will have what I warned you I would take in exchange. Looks like the value of that has gone up considerably today,” he smirked, looking around at the room full of nobles this time, rather than servants and subjects.
Now Absol’s hand was on the hilt of his sword, though he was still managing to restrain the urge to draw it. “What price would you take,” he hissed through clenched teeth, “In her stead?”
Even Sarahi seemed surprised by the question. The King had always been a good father to her. She never doubted the sincerity of his love, or that he cherished her. But he was a king, and she a princess...and that meant her life could not help but hold a certain political value. Most of that had vanished when she left with Oro. She had been married. She had been deflowered. She was very nearly worthless as royal blood now. So he could only make this demand for personal reasons...for a father’s reasons...and that touched her.
Oro spat, like the thought left a sour taste in his mouth. “How about your crown?”
“As if you had any use for a kingdom,” the King sneered, “I can’t lay that down unless I lay my life with it. That you could have, but I don’t trust you’d be satisfied with it. Now answer me sincerely.”
A somber silence consumed the room, as those gathered realized one by one how deadly serious King Absol was about this negotiation. “Dad,” Sarahi whispered out of sheer shock, and her uncle discreetly took advantage of the opportunity to slide between her and Oro, sword still drawn as if to prevent the Rabbit from laying claim to her again.
But the Rabbit seemed to take that last sentence to heart. His ears twitched thoughtfully, and for once his hateful glare was not (entirely) full of disdain. “That’s fair,” he growled after a moment, “I’ll take it, then: your life, and your crown with it. If you can kill me first, she’s yours again with all promises kept,” he grinned toothily, “We’ll settle this like the predators we are. Fusk, now I’m excited...”
Steel sang as it came free of the sheath, but surprisingly it was neither Oro nor King Absol’s sword. “You,” growled one of the nobles behind the King, as he leveled his sword and widened his stance, “Will never be our king.”
“Silence!” King Absol roared, surprising the entire Court, and gestured fiercely for the well-meaning man to put his weapon away. Returning his glare to the Rabbit, the King slowly lifted the circlet from his head and tossed it onto the tables in the middle of the room. “I accept.”
“WHAT?!” Sarahi shrieked, all thoughts of station and diplomacy lost to her now, “No! You can’t—!”
“Silence!” her father roared again, and surprisingly she obeyed, though mostly out of old habit. Unclasping his cloak and tossing it onto the tables as well, the king added more gently, “That day, you said some very noble, very stupid, and very right things, my daughter. But if royalty can pay such a price for their people, how can any father not pay this one for his daughter? All of you are witness,” he growled at the Court gathered at his back, “By my decree and right as king: to the victor of this duel belongs the princess, the crown, and the kingdom besides.”
“Your Highness...,” one of them tried half-heartedly to protest, full of both fear and awe at the events unfolding before them like a fairy-tale.
But the king scowled at even this pretense of defiance. “Get these out of the way,” he growled, gesturing at the tables. It took a moment for anyone to move, but soon the tables had been pulled away and arranged in a circle around the center of the room, becoming an impromptu arena.
“Oro,” Sarahi grabbed two fists full of his shirt as her uncle moved to join ranks with the nobles across the room, “Don’t do this. Please, I am begging you,” she said sincerely, laying her back half down on the floor so that her head was below his, “I have been stubborn and uncooperative from the first day we met, I know, but I swear—!”
“Shut it,” the Rabbit interrupted sharply, pulling her hands free of his shirt, “You are bound by sacred marriage-oath to my side. You don’t have the power to leave me while I still live, and you can thank the fusking priestess for that. Your fusking dad is your one and only shot at escape. Where’s my thanks for giving it to him?”
Sarahi gnashed her teeth, inwardly cursing his twisted logic, and shook her head fiercely. “But he can’t—”
This time he interrupted her by seizing a fistful of her hair and pulling her head back, looming over her like he might strangle her if she spoke another word. “Kind of heartless to say that where he can hear you in his last moments, don’t you think?” the Rabbit snarled, “Anything else you want to say while you can? Something more encouraging? Anything you want to give him?” He looked her hard in the eyes, and the Sha'khari immediately knew what he was suggesting.
She could decide the outcome herself. She had the weapon her father needed. She could hand it to him, and the entire one-sided advantage Oro had would disappear, given instead to her father. All she had to do was break her vows...and Nayeli’s trust. The Lioness, standing not two steps behind her, remained stoically silent, her expressions hidden behind her veil and her hands hidden in the sleeves of her habit.
Sarahi gripped the scabbard tight in her fist for a second. It was pointless to deny the temptation. The world as a whole would be better off if she made this sacrifice. Nobody in their right mind would hold it against her. Even Nayeli would forgive her, and probably go so far as to comfort her...before the priestess disappeared forever. Sarahi would only have to live with herself after that, having forsaken pride and duty and a faithful friend all in one moment.
“No, huh?” Oro growled, as if disappointed, as she relaxed her grip and left the Heavenly Sun-Blade sheathed on her hip, “Daddy’s going to be very proud of you in the afterlife, I’m sure.” He released her with a scowl, turning his glare to Nayeli instead. “You’re being alarmingly quiet. Nothing to say about all this?”
“...You are acting far out of character again,” Nayeli answered quietly, “I’m not sure what to do with you like this. Since taking new vows, it’s like our first year all over again: I’m just meeting you for the first time, still trying to understand you...and praying you will not prove to be just the monster everyone besides me sees.”
Oro snorted contemptuously. “I’ll be counting on you to ensure that doesn’t happen, then.” Nayeli blinked at that, and met his eyes as he gave her a pointed look, before pulling his shirt over his head and handing it to her without explanation.
As soon as his chest was bare, Sarahi skittered to her feet and back a step, eyes wide in fresh alarm...and a twinge of disgust she couldn’t quite keep down. “Oro...what are you doing?!” she gasped, staring at the red haze wafting up from his shoulders. She could almost see the individual flecks of scarlet as they peeled away from him, revealing raw, pink flesh underneath.
“Giving your old man half a chance,” Oro chuckled darkly as the crimson fur that was Gorgorond continued to retreat from him, “Take a good look while you can. This is what you married, underneath the demon’s shell: the corpse of a long-dead Rabbit too stubborn to lie down in his grave.” He flashed a disgusting grin at her, showing teeth not only between his lips, but through the hole missing from his left cheek. Above his brow, the scarlet smoke had left behind a patch of white bone, where his skull peeked through the torn skin of his head. He left ear was tattered and ragged, and his right had been torn nearly a third shorter than the left. His tail was gone completely. Every last inch of Oro’s natural body was pitted with scars, except where it sported fresh, shallow wounds. He looked like something had eaten him alive and then spat him back up after an hour or so.
The bright red fur was almost completely gone before he turned to stride into the make-shift arena. The “smoke” he had been exuding drifted above their heads briefly, then slowly descended like a foggy curtain around the perimeter of the room...particularly thick in the doors. Watching his retreating back, Sarahi had to fight a twist in her stomach.
The King was still having a stern word with several of his nobles when Oro stepped into the circle of tables. Seeing him at the ready...and doing a double-take to be sure he was still facing the same Rabbit...King Absol wrapped up his affairs with a growl, and waved them all away as he strode into the ring. “What is this?” the big Lion sneered suspiciously at the scrawny Rabbit’s condition, “Some kind of handicap? You look like you’ve put one foot in the grave already.”
“Yeah,” Oro hissed, teeth grit against the uncomfortable feel of the air on his freshly exposed skin, “Look me in the eye and say that again with your last breath. You’re strong, and proud. I do this sometimes, for men like you,” he growled, pulling himself up to as full a height as he could command, “So they can’t bitch about the injustice of struggling against a demon’s strength, or lie to themselves about losing to anything or anyone except me. This is how I kill you with my own two hands. This is how I break your pride,” he declared, drawing his sword and holding it pointed at the king. “...That said, I don’t actually have a stomach anymore. Or a throat. Or intestines. The heart and lungs are still my own, though, and this is about the best shot you’ll ever get at them, so make the most you fusking can of it.”
“You’re a fool to underestimate me,” the muscular Lion snarled, baring his blade at last. Whatever faults he may have as a king, lack of skill with a sword was not one of them. King Absol had always been very strict about knowing the ways of war from both the strategist and the soldier’s perspective.
They were both a little surprised to be interrupted by Nayeli, pacing quietly into the ring with them. “Your Highness, if I may...?” she said quietly, extending a hand to each of them. Both gave the priestess a dubious look, but accepted her hands. “By The Authority, vested in me,” the priestess intoned, “Make known this oath throughout the land: that here, today, tested by combat, is proven a king.”
Power radiated out from her, perking every ear in the kingdom and turning all eyes, however briefly, toward the castle. Nayeli released their hands and bowed respectfully to the king. “Now it will be known, and none may question it, that whoever wins this duel will be king. Heaven will recognize it. The Order will make no move against this kingdom while you live...and, by extension, neither will the empire.”
“You have authority to declare that?” King Absol asked, still giving her a slightly suspicious look.
“No,” Nayeli confessed without hesitation, “But I have done so anyway, and regardless of what punishment I may merit on account of it. The Order will abide by it. The Matriarch will outlive us all; she can afford to wait a few decades for our time to come to its end.”
“...Then you, at least, have my thanks,” the king nodded. Nayeli bowed, and retired to Sarahi’s side to watch what came next.
Oro’s ears twitched in aggravation as she cleared out. “Fusking priestess, always butting in...”
“Allow me to relieve you of the nuisance and her of the need,” King Absol growled, coming in fast and strong before any more words could be exchanged. The time for action had come. Oro snarled right back, matching him step-for-step, and the pair clashed hard in the middle...
Oro was almost immediately put on the defensive...much to the surprise of his spouses, if no one else. Sarahi kept her tongue tactfully behind her teeth, though she marveled at what she could only call Oro’s madness. He had, by all appearances, genuinely forsaken his chief advantage, and with it much of his usual tactics. If Gorgorond remained withdrawn, he could not eat the blade that impaled the Rabbit, or so Sarahi assumed. Her father, of course, might never have known that trick was possible in the first place...but whether he did or not, he was clearly not letting his guard down on any account.
The Lion was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly stronger than the Rabbit. Each clash of their blades rocked Oro on his heels, and not because King Absol was putting any undue weight into the blows. The difference in their physiques was simply that great. But however much he had been weakened, the speed and grace Sarahi had come to respect in the Rabbit proved to be entirely his own, and in short order he had abandoned any pretense of blocking in favor of evading the cuts and thrusts outright. King Absol skillfully parried any attempt at a return-strike, proving his fighting prowess to be far greater than brute strength and bluster.
“Sarahi,” Nayeli called gently, and the Sha'khari’s eyes jumped to her in a snap. The act forced her to blink, which in turn made her aware of the tension in her eyes, as though they’d been trying to jump out of the sockets as she stared at the fight. “Breathe,” the priestess admonished quietly, taking a deep breath herself by way of example and blowing it out through her veil, “And remember who you are looking at. Your father is an honorable man, but Oro has no pride, and views victory as its own justice. He is not above dirty tricks, as you know well.”
Understanding dawned on her, and the Sha'khari looked at the scarlet haze blocking the doors with new appreciation for the trap that had been laid. “Damn him,” she hissed through her teeth, squeezing her fists and her eyes shut, “I can’t even be surprised anymore. Every time I think I might have misjudged him...”
“Maybe we have,” Nayeli said gently, as though trying to be comforting even though there was no honest comfort to be given, “He is in a very vulnerable state when he does this, which is exceedingly rare. This is only the second time I’ve witnessed it. But the fog is still a death-trap. Each and every fleck is a mouth of Gorgorond. Right now he’s just sealing off any hope of escape, but he can call them back whenever he wills...and they will eat through everything in their path on the way to his body,” she explained somberly, returning her own eyes to the clashing pair, “If he resorts to that, you and I will be the only witnesses to leave this room. Please...brace yourself.”
Sarahi gnashed her teeth, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks despite her best efforts to remain composed...and her hand gripped the hilt of the Heavenly Sun-Blade. “I can’t,” she whispered, “I can’t let him do that. Not for my pride, or your mercy...not for anything. You understand, right?”
Nayeli gave her a quiet, pitying look. “...I do,” she answered softly, looking pointedly at the sword rather than Sarahi, “I told you once before that I would not stop you from attempting to kill him. I will also forgive you if you succeed. But...I want to ask you to trust me,” she pleaded gently, “As I trusted you when I gave that blade to you, and resist drawing it until he has proven his intent. Please.”
“You ask a lot, Nayeli,” the Sha'khari answered, once more eying the deadly duel as the pair began to wear each other down, “I am watching a contest in which I lose, no matter who survives. If neither outcome counts as victory for me...I should at least minimize the loss others will—!!”
Her eyes shot wide and she flinched as King Absol knocked Oro’s sword free of his hands and sent it humming through the air to ring against the wall very close to her head. The king’s blade had reversed the stroke and found home in the Rabbit’s belly even before the disarmed weapon hit the ground. They froze there for a second, Oro clutching the king’s wrist as he held the sword steady, and the King looking down on him with a stern sort of pity. “At last,” the Lion sighed, “It is ov—!”
Oro flipped back, kicking up hard with both feet: one into the King’s chin and the other against his sword-hand. “I fusking told you!” the Rabbit snarled as his feet found the ground again, and the surprised king was rocked right onto his tail, empty-handed and vision swimming with stars. “I don’t have a stomach anymore!” The hilt of the king’s sword landed in his hand, with barely a quarter of the blade remaining attached above the guard. Although a gush of blood was pouring from the Rabbit’s belly, it amounted entirely to a flesh-wound, his stomach being the one organ to which Gorgorond was inseparably bound.
Before the king could recover, Oro pounced, driving the big Lion fully to the ground with his knees, and hammering the remains of the sword into his victim’s chest. King Absol gurgled as the wind was driven from his lungs, and they began to fill with the blood gushing from his punctured heart. Oro twisted the hilt for good measure.
“DADDY!” Sarahi screamed, leaping forward to bound to his side. Oro turned as he stood up, intercepting her with both arms around her belly and leaning his full weight into her. Without the demon’s strength it was all he could do just to slow her stride, though, and he couldn’t hope to restrain her for more than a second.
“Do your fusking job!” the Rabbit snarled with a red-hot glare at Nayeli.
“By The Authority, vested in me,” the priestess’ voice filled the room, echoing unnaturally as she stretched out her arms and commanded the attention of all things seen and unseen, “I command Death: stay your hand! I command the broken sword of the king: remove yourself!” The hilt still buried in Absol’s chest wrenched free so hard it struck the ceiling before falling near to the dying Lion’s side. The air filled with a building pressure at every word as Nayeli continued: “I command the wound to close, mend, and be whole again! I command blood to flow and breath to stir in all the ways that bring life to the body! Rise, Absol, King—former King of Nazeen!”
The pressure released with a burst, and King Absol rolled to his feet with a roar...and stood there, hunched and bewildered and breathing hard as his mind tried to wrap around everything that had just happened. Oro let go of Sarahi, who immediately and thoughtlessly flung herself on her father, knocking him down again in a desperate hug. “Fusking finally,” the Rabbit huffed as the color began to return to his skin, flowing down the walls and along the floor carefully in a scarlet stream, “I was starting to think you actually wanted him dead...”
“Well, everything happened so fast you startled me,” Nayeli explained apologetically as she approached, “I can only invoke The Authority so quickly, dear.”
Oro snorted, like that was a weakness she needed to work on, then marched over to the table where the crown and cloak still rested, snatching up the former and twirling it in his fingers. “This,” he announced with a glare at the awe-struck nobles, “Is mine now.” Then he put the circlet between his teeth and gnawed it thoughtfully for a moment, as if deciding whether or not he liked the taste, before tossing it carelessly over his shoulder. “Like I have any use for a fusking kingdom,” the Rabbit sneered, echoing the former king’s words. “You,” he pointed a finger at Absol, just managing to free himself from his daughter’s relieved embrace. Both of the former royalty blinked at him. “Be my steward, peasant,” Oro commanded, “I expect a soft bed, hot meal, and half a pound of flawless gems every time I visit. I don’t care what kind. That is all.”
Having made his one and only royal decree, Oro marched out the door without so much as a backward glance. Nayeli blinked at his retreating back, then at Absol and Sarahi...and gave them a brief but respectful bow. “We’ll just be waiting in the foyer,” she promised the Sha'khari before following their husband, pulling the doors to the throne room closed behind her.