The sun had disappeared from the skies, hiding behind thick, dark grey clouds that descended upon the high peaks of Noxus Prime. In the city-states of Valoran, this would have just been another foggy day, but in the capital of the Empire of Noxus, the most prolific time of the day was when the clouds grazed the roofs of every house. Down the Ivory Ward district, people laughed and cried, nodded and yelled, sat and ran. Merchants from Ironwater sold their beet wine and those from Rokrund offered the good buyers a taste of their naap soup. The smells mingled just like the people and the travelers, and soon the marketplace was transformed into a single being. Walking past the marketplace would have meant dismembering its new body.
Katarina walked fast, her heeled boots clicking whenever they hit the cobblestones or someone’s feet. She elbowed her way through the crowd, spilling wine and honoring with the hilt of her dagger the men who dared say something in return. She had had enough of busy crowds for the day. Soon after the High Command meeting, she fulfilled other duties related to her position as member of the High Command and League Champion. Rumors from the Western world had it that Noxus was becoming strongly anti-yordle and that the Empire had something to do with the fact that a very important, Demacian ship was reported lost at sea. Usually, Katarina enjoyed playing the game of political banter, especially when city-states and so-called kingdoms tried to bring dishonor upon the Empire. Only this time, there were more important matters to worry about, such as the disappearances of nobles in Noxus and the nexuses found in Kalamanda, so explaining to the League how ludicrous it was to think that Noxus as an Empire despised all tiny and hairy creatures or that Demacians could only blame themselves for what happened to their cargo ship had been a painful experience. Sometimes it felt as if the journalists of the League themselves were trying to create tensions between yordles and humans and between Noxians and Demacians, whilst the League and its Institute should only promote peace.
The auburn-haired woman came to a halt the moment the noise died out and the streets were filled with a lot less people. Her eyes turned a darker shade as she stood at the foot of a fallen Noxian soldier’s memorial. The statue of a man who was bulkier than both General Darius and Captain Garen Crownguard towered over any other construction. The soldier’s face was barely visible. The memorial really represented his fierceness in battle; the armor was nicely carved and the axe the soldier used to brandish was twice his size. Katarina heard many stories about the fallen soldier when she was younger. He was said to have been the man who brutally killed King Jarvan I, ruler of Demacia and enemy of the Empire. Stone stairs at both sides of the statue led to the tomb of the soldier. The irony was that no one was granted access to the tomb.
She promptly started walking down the main street again when a cloaked figure stopped her.
“Katarina Du Couteau.”
It was the Pale Woman. Katarina narrowed her eyes at the sight of her. “LeBlanc,” she greeted back.
The slim woman smirked, her light brown eyes glinting in the darkness. “Please, call me Emilia.”
Katarina resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “What are you doing here? I thought you lived at the Bastion.”
“Advisors are allowed outside the Iron Gates,” LeBlanc countered with another lopsided smile. She never once blinked, Katarina noted.
“My father was an advisor,” the redhead stated, crossing her arms under her chest. “You barely talk.”
“He was,” the Pale Woman emphasized. “You will soon understand that the best advisors are the ones who mostly listen.”
The eldest Du Couteau scoffed and tried to walk past the mysterious whisperer. “Goodbye, LeBlanc.”
“The Grand General needs you, Katarina. Now more than ever.”
Katarina turned around, eyeing the woman with a frown. “The Grand General wouldn’t send you to tell me this in public.”
“My dear,” LeBlanc said as she placed a cold hand on Katarina’s arm, “I have been at Boram Darkwill’s service for more than I can remember. I know what he needs and I know what the Empire needs.”
Taking a step closer to the taller woman, Katarina retorted, “Shouldn’t the Grand General’s needs be the Empire’s needs?”
LeBlanc nodded, laughing quietly. “You are a strong, young woman and these are both qualities that are currently required. It would be of high importance for you to retrieve the remains of the fallen soldier Sion,” she whispered in Katarina’s ear.
The feel of LeBlanc’s breath against her skin caused her to shiver. “Why?”
The Pale Woman turned to stare at the memorial, looking aggravated at the many questions she was asked.
“A good soldier executes the orders they’re given.”
“I am not a soldier,” Katarina reminded her. “I am an assassin of House Du Couteau. There is absolutely nothing I would do without a good reason. Cutthroats and officers take orders. Besides,” she added, “didn’t the Grand General declare that anyone who would try to access the tomb would be sentenced to death?”
LeBlanc looked her straight in the eye, shaking her head at the woman’s confidence. “Do you think that the remains are inside?”
Taken aback, the auburn lady didn’t answer.
“There is a memorial similar to this one in Demacia City, a mausoleum in memory of King Jarvan I.”
Katarina started laughing maniacally. “You want me to rob the Demacian capital? Why don’t you just push me over the balconies of the Hall of Pride?” Dark green eyes glanced at the memorial one last time before she dismissed the Pale Woman’s request. “If my Grand General wants me to risk my life and the lives of my men, he shall order me in person, like he did my father. Goodnight, LeBlanc.”
“It’s a trap,” Talon concluded even before she had the chance to finish.
“I already know that,” Katarina snapped as she removed the towel that held her wet hair up. “Send the eldest daughter of the missing General Du Couteau into the lion’s den,” she said with a snort. “Not that I couldn’t retrieve said remains,” Katarina assured him, “but she could easily pay someone to rat me out and feed me alive to King Jarvan III’s justice.”
Talon stopped toying with the unsharpened blade he found on Katarina’s bedside and raised his eyebrows at the ceiling. “Would you actually mind some Demacian justice?” he asked out loud.
Katarina, who was busy grimacing at the sight of her dark roots while combing her hair, didn’t fully listen to him. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” her adoptive brother sighed. There was no reason for her to suspect that he had followed her into the Howling Marsh forest. “Your only destination should be Kalamanda, when the time comes. There is no need for you to risk your life. I will go to Demacia myself.”
Dropping her comb, Katarina moved from her vanity chair to the bed where Talon was lying down. Sitting with crossed legs, she forced her brother to sit up and look at her. His shoulder-length hair was completely disheveled.
“What did you find?” she whispered in a serious tone.
“A merchant from Grannit told me he escorted a beggar to the Demacian border around the time Marcus disappeared.”
Katarina’s dark eyebrows shot up. “And?” She shook her head.
“A beggar with a trimmed, auburn beard,” Talon emphasized by knocking his fingers on Katarina’s forehead as if to check if her brain was still working.
She stood up and began rummaging through her large closet. “Ridiculous. What would my father do in Demacia? There is not even a bridge to hide under.”
The brown-haired male stood up as well, leaning against the closet as she pretended to look for something inside. “How would you know?”
“I’ve been there.”
Grabbing her by the arm, Talon forced her to look at him. “When?”
Katarina pushed him away, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know, ten years ago? Maybe more. My father…” She paused, gazing outside the window. “My father,” she whispered, “brought me there. When the Queen died.”
Slowly, the eldest Du Couteau sat back on bed. “It could… It could make sense. Perhaps he did travel there again,” she conceded, looking softly at Talon.
“Kat,” her father’s ward whispered, kneeling in front of her and looking for something in her lost stare, “do you remember where you stayed, when you were there? Did Marcus know anyone? Why did you go to Demacia City when the wife of King Jarvan III died?”
The auburn assassin shrugged, pulling at the skin around her nails. “I was young. I just remember a ceremony at the Grand Plaza, and really it was nothing. We stayed only for that.”
Talon asked her another question, but her mind was already elsewhere. Green eyes stared at the blinking lights outside her mansion. All she could hear was the melody the orchestra performed at the Grand Plaza and she could feel her father’s skin against hers as he held her hand tight so that she wouldn’t wander off and get lost in the crowd that had gathered for the last farewell to their Queen.
The procession had just left the Temple of the Lightbringers, the Demacian people gathering around the young men that carried the large coffin on their shoulders. It was at least six feet long, completely made of gold and petricite. Deep blue ribbons made of silk adorned the front, grazing the emblem of the Lightshields, a winged sword topped with a crown. The crowd of Demacians that gathered around the procession and followed the young soldiers all the way to the Hall of Valor wept and left flowers on top of the coffin. It was a beautiful Spring day, petals and colorful leaves fell from the trees as the wind blew softly and the sun shone high in the sky. Behind the procession, the royal orchestra walked and performed a deep, instrumental melody that caused more tears among the people and the family members who waited patiently at the entrance of the Hall of Valor. The entire city cried in silence, and the Plaza that stood between the temple and the cemetery was just a stage. Dozens of young men and women marched behind the procession, clad in their armors from head to toe.
A young, dark-haired girl with greenish eyes tugged at her father’s sleeve to let her go as the military slowly left the Grand Plaza.
“I want to see where they go,” the thirteen-year-old complained.
Her father sighed, letting go of her hand. “Don’t climb on trees, Kæty.”
The girl only answered by sticking her tongue out at him.
She ran to keep up with the marching soldiers’ pace, not even apologizing as she bumped into several Demacian citizens who cried for the loss of their Queen. Somewhere during her little adventure, she lost her black cloak, and she only stopped pushing and elbowing people when the music came to an end. She found herself in the middle of a tall crowd. She couldn’t see anything.
Spotting a tall tree at the entrance of the Hall of Valor, as Demacians called it, she swiftly climbed with feline agility, just like her father taught her. Dark eyebrows shot up as she noticed a giant, bulky man on a pedestal with a boy standing beside him, a boy who seemed younger than her and whose face and eyes were red and swollen. His bright blue eyes reflected the skies above them and he glared at his father the moment he spoke. Kæty gulped, finally catching her breath, and stared intently at the royal family, hoping to hear the speech the King was about to pronounce.
“Pssh,” someone called from the bottom of the tree. “Hey, you.”
Glaring down, the young girl noticed that a boy who was way older than her was signaling her to climb down. “You cannot be there, young lady.”
Kæty took in his blue eyes and military haircut, although she could see from there that his chestnut hair still rebelled against the mandatory cut. His jaw was square and he was extremely tall for his age. Surely if he reached out with his arm he could grab her ankle and force her to come down.
“I don’t take orders. Piss off.”
“Kæty,” another voice chimed in – her father’s.
Her attitude instantly disappeared, and she shamefully climbed down, inwardly blaming them both for missing the King’s speech.
“Forgive my daughter’s manners,” her father told the young soldier. “She doesn’t quite understand what being a lady means.”
The young man’s look softened and he backed off in a heartbeat. “My sister is the same. Five feet tall of blonde attitude. Please excuse me,” he replied before walking away.
The moment Kæty grabbed her father’s hand, she mumbled a tiny apology. Surprisingly enough, the auburn-haired man shrugged it off, his emerald green eyes looking in the distance and eyeing the coffin that was being brought inside the Hall of Valor. Kæty noticed a hint of sadness in his eyes, and suddenly, her father looked older than he was. The lines of his face were more pronounced, and his jaw was set straight.
“Papa,” she whispered. “Why are we here? Who was the Queen?”
“Lady Catherine of House Spiritmight,” he answered simply, ignoring the meaning of his daughter’s question.
Her eyes widened upon hearing the full name of the fallen Queen, her stare traveling from her father’s saddened face to the crying prince who just entered the Hall. Kæty stood still, never looking away from the boy’s jet-black hair.
“Is he like me then?” she asked. “His mother is gone too.”
“Yes, Katarina. He is like you.”
The streets of Demacia City were empty as the bells of the temple rang nine times. The citizens were safe in their homes or had just found shelter in the guarded taverns of the capital. The frigid wind blew harshly that night. The royal guards patrolled the Citadel of Dawn while the new military recruits joined their older commanders behind the fortress walls. The only man who could be seen walking out was Garen Crownguard since the Crownguard Palace stood at the entrance of the city. His Crown Prince hadn’t requested his presence within the royal keep, while his mother had summoned him. He told himself that his duties at the Citadel could wait but it wasn’t exactly the truth.
The investigation on the disappearance of the DSS Excursion had led nowhere, thanks to the League’s decision-making and to the ‘help’ they sent his way, namely League Champion Kayle. The Demacian Council had approved this cooperation, and with him spending more time around journalists and at the harbor, people began whispering about a future demotion. He hoped that this wasn’t what Lilia Crownguard wanted to talk to him about. Ever since he was born, she constantly reminded him that he was the son of two highly regarded officials of the legislative body of the Demacian government and that there was no room for failure. Their lineage was too strong for that, or so she hoped.
Upon arriving home, Garen was surprised to notice that all the maids and stewards had been sent to their respective homes. Lilia liked her comfort more than she liked her children at times, so this wasn’t a good sign. Garen walked past the majestic gardens where grass sculptures were kept trimmed and crystal fountains shone in the moonlight. The back entrance to the gardens led directly to his own private chambers. Garen hoped to take a relaxing stone bath before having to speak with his mother.
Garen took his time climbing the two-hundred stairs that led to his chambers, petricite torches lighting the path. His long blue cloak grazed the ground and the noise his armor made echoed through the walls. Paintings of his ancestors looked down upon him and he purposely chose to ignore them. All honorable men they were, from the warriors of High Silvermere to his father Pieter, first of his name, and they were all judging him from where they stood.
“Monarchy, Honor and Joy,” a deep, female voice reached his ears as he opened the doors to his room. “Welcome home, Garen.”
“Mother,” he greeted her, bowing his head. “I was hoping to meet you later for supper,” he whispered before kissing Lilia’s forehead.
The blonde woman cupped her son’s cheek before taking both his hands in hers. “I know. But I must return to the Citadel of Dawn tonight,” she explained. “And the matters we must discuss cannot be heard or misheard.” Moving to the side, she gestured Garen to follow her into his private living room. “Sit with me.”
Garen ignored the way his mother eyed the simplicity and plainness of his chambers. He barely decorated anything, since he was never home. Duty called more often than family, so the white walls and blue curtains were enough for his short visits home.
“Garen, my son,” Lilia began, sitting next to him. “I will be very straightforward with you. The Demacian Council speaks highly of you and of our family.”
She knows, he thought. She knows about the Howling Marsh. His heart sank to his stomach.
“It’s been a while since your father died after battle,” she reminded him with a coldness in her voice that was unusual of her. “And it’s been several years since your uncle perished to the Noxians.”
Garen looked away, blinking back the wetness in his eyes at the mention of his uncle.
“Your uncle never had children.”
“I know exactly where this is going,” he interrupted her, shaking his head.
“Good,” she said firmly, the lines on her forehead standing out. “I very well know that everyone speaks of peace in every corner of Valoran but,” she paused, sighing, “you and I know better. And I want you to think of your family. Of your inheritance. Of your lineage,” she punctuated.
His blue eyes looked back at her, taking in her tired and worried expression. Her blonde hair was mostly grey now, and the golden uniform she wore only made her look older. “Mother. I will have to leave soon. What kind of engagement would that be, if I have to leave my future bride the moment I meet her?” he tried to reason, his thumb caressing the palm of his mother’s hand.
Leaving out a deep sigh, Lilia stood up and began pacing in front of him. “This is exactly why the Demacian Council believes that it would be in our best interest to have you marry the Laurents’ daughter. You both meet for daily duties, and know each other. A quick engagement wouldn’t be too hard.”
Garen blinked a couple times. “Fiora Laurent, of all people? Mother,” he contested, standing up himself, “have you forgotten the way she offended our family by refusing to marry your sister’s son, and how her father attempted to drug me before our duel?” Shaking his head repeatedly, Garen decided, “Forgive me, Mother. This is not something I will accept.”
“You cannot judge a woman for her father’s sins,” Lilia scolded her son, raising her voice. “Besides, you must have misunderstood my terms. They’re not for you to accept,” she declared.
Her son looked away, his lips forming a thin line before he bit his tongue. “I will leave for Kalamanda within the next few days, Mother.”
“You are thirty-five. Whether it is before or after your duties in Shurima, you will put an engagement cloak on Fiora Laurent’s shoulders.”
“If anything,” he whispered to himself, “this is something we should have discussed with Luxanna too.”
Lilia was already at the doors of his chambers. “You don’t have a sister, Garen. How many times will I have to remind you of that?”
Garen’s fist smashed into the nearest wall the moment the doors were slammed.
LeBlanc’s heels clicked against the floor as she exited Darkwill’s resting chambers. The Eternal General had been out for hours but she had wanted to make sure that he would sleep peacefully, since he usually lamented pain and unknown illnesses. As the Pale Woman walked into the Iron Room where the High Command generally held their meetings, she reached out for her staff at the back of the Grand General’s chair.
“You can show yourself,” she told the darkness.
An old, skinny figure appeared to her side, the only sounds that could be heard being the crowing of the raven perched on the man’s shoulder.
“Master Tactician,” she greeted him in a bored tone.
“Tell me what she said, Evaine,” he commanded as he came to stand right in front of her.
LeBlanc let her eyes travel down his gold and green uniform, her only thoughts being related to the ways she could get rid of the obnoxious creature that sat on his shoulder. Ravens only brought death.
Checking her long fingernails, the Grand General’s advisor replied, “She said no.”
“You heard me, Jericho.” Sitting on top of the Iron Table, she continued, “The girl’s loyalty to House Du Couteau and Darkwill is… heartwarming.”
The Master Tactician rolled his eyes at the woman before he flicked his fingers at Beatrice, who immediately flew into the darkness and outside of the Immortal Bastion.
“So, this is it,” he complained. “She said no and the remains stay where they are.”
LeBlanc smiled at the balding man in front of her, biting back a laugh. “That’s not what I said.”
She held her golden staff in front of her and between their bodies, until the amethyst crystals that hovered at the center of her weapon glowed a bright, blinding light. The Master Tactician groaned, covering his face with one of his large, wrinkled hands. When the light was gone, so was Evaine.
Before him stood a small, red-haired assassin. Smiling in approval, the old man placed both his hands on the petite woman’s shoulders.
“Much better,” he acknowledged, before bending down to brush his lips against the Deceiver’s.