The Final Lesson:
Elderess Gittel was sitting on her plush, golden throne as she watched the appointment-holders for the day file into the palace. The thrones had been one of the first changes the new Empress instigated…one among many. Apparently her brush with death at the hands of her Elders convinced her that she needed to pay more attention to the comfort of those bound to the same fate as her. So instead of forcing the Elders to stand all day in the main entrance of the palace while they surveyed those entering through the great arched doors, she had large, comfortable thrones built for each of them.
She had also decided to alternate the shifts of the Elders. Instead of having all ten present in the main entrance at all times, they would rotate in and out throughout the day. Gittel much preferred this system, and generally she worked during the morning hours to get her shift out of the way early.
Today was a typical day, the same old people with the same old grievances. All of those who had come to beg help rebuilding homes destroyed by the demons had finally been dealt with. The Holy City was complete again, and the demons were once more in Hueres where they belonged with a signed treaty declaring that they would not attack the Holy City so long as the Demon King Urkthus ruled.
Gittel sighed, a hint of a smile on her lips as she watched a young, blonde-haired woman being led to the throne room. This would probably be the last one before Ariella took her afternoon lunch break.
Her eyes shifted back to the line at the doorway as three more people were led inside, however. They were not led in the direction of the throne room, but instead walked unguarded straight towards the circle of thrones designated to the Elders.
They looked like a family. Gittel stepped down from her throne to greet them, smiling pleasantly at the blonde-haired, dark eyed boy that ran circles around his mother's skirts. She was stunningly beautiful with a charming smile that did not waver, even with her son's impertinence. The man looked a bit nervous, his angelic face cast downward as they approached.
When they stood just before Gittel, he looked up at her. "Mother," he whispered.
Gittel gasped. "Demmi?" she queried, trying to recognize the face she had not seen since her son was just two years old. That fateful night in the throne room his face had been covered in blood and one cheek had been marked by jagged white scars. She looked closely at both of his cheeks. The scars were gone now.
"Lightmaster Kaniel healed me," he murmured, looking down again.
"I'm glad." Gittel walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him. "That you're here," she explicated, "not that your scars have been healed. I wouldn't love you any less if you still had them." She took a step back, then, eyeing the woman and child curiously.
"This is Melosa," Demmi said, introducing her to the young woman. "And this is Ramon, my son."
Gittel's expression softened. She felt a bit awkward greeting Melosa, having heard about the woman from the Empress, but Ramon she welcomed warmly. He was her grandson, after all.
"You came to visit me?" she asked Demmi, trying not to imply anything else with her question. She also knew all about the short love affair between the Empress and her son. If he was daring to show his face in the palace with this woman, then obviously he was not here to see Ariella.
"Yes. Should we wait somewhere?"
"I was just about to be relieved, actually." Gittel glanced to her right and saw that Eitan was walking hurriedly through the entrance. He was trying to make it from one side to the other without being noticed. This was the only flaw with Ariella's plan of alternation. The Elders had to cross through the main entrance to get from their rooms to the kitchens, and often one of the Elders on duty would catch one of those on break while heading for a midday meal and cajole him or her into trading places. It was a constant battle to arrange one's meals where one would not be noticed by the Elders on duty.
"Elder Eitan!" Gittel called with a charming smile.
The man groaned but halted his retreat and walked up to her with slumped shoulders.
"I will return shortly," she assured him, but when he saw Demmi he relaxed and waved her away, assuring her that she should take her time.
Gittel led Demmi, Melosa, and her grandson down the hallway that would take them to the inner courtyard. Ramon was telling her all about his new pet dog, speaking so rapidly that neither Demmi nor Melosa could have hoped to get a word in edgewise. When they reached the inner courtyard, however, the child was quickly diverted.
Melosa instantly gave chase, but Demmi stopped only a few steps through the double doors leading to the outdoor sanctuary and simply stared.
It looked like a jungle.
Before Ariella came to power, the inner courtyard was a magnificently sculpted garden with only a few trees and multi-colored flowers. Now there were trees everywhere, making it more of a forest than a garden. There were still flowers, but they were strewn every with no semblance of order. Vines grew in wild tangles up the walls and hung loosely from the variety of trees.
"What is this?" Demmi demanded as he took a hesitant step outside.
"Ariella's garden," Gittel replied, amused by his reaction. He looked…pleased. When he didn't say anything more, however, she decided to turn to more important matters. "I trust you are well?"
"Ariella filled me in on what you have been doing since I gave you to your father…"
He frowned and interrupted her. "You gave me to him?"
Gittel sat down on a bench and patted the spot beside her, beckoning him to sit. "I was training under a Lightmaster in Pasetina at the time of your birth. He knew of my affair with your father, but kept it secret because I was like a daughter to him. After you were born, I selfishly kept you to myself. Then I received my summons to the palace to become a true Lightmistress, and the very next day your father showed up, begging me to let him take you back to Hueres to groom you as his successor. I thought I was doing what was best for all of us," she assured him. "You would not have to worry about persecution for being a daimon in Hueres, and as Demon King, you would be given a chance to do something good with your life. Elder Caine ruined all of our plans for you."
"Are you disappointed?" Demmi wondered.
Gittel looked at him and smiled. "Of course not. You are still alive, Demmi. I didn't even have that to cling to over the years, but just knowing that you survived…" Tears filled her eyes, and she somehow managed to choke out, "I am so glad."
Demmi reached out and placed an arm about her shoulders to comfort her. "I am, too."
"These past months…where have you been?" Gittel asked after she recovered herself.
"Here and there," her son replied vaguely. "I went to Kaniel first, and then I thought to visit Ranger Gaspar…she did tell you about him, didn't she?" Gittel nodded. "Anyway, he's retired now. Ironically enough, I was never charged with attacking Abrienda. In fact, when she brought the incident up, Gaspar laughed her out of his office and told everyone she was a lunatic. I spent some time with him, catching up, before I headed off to Losona.
"I was nervous about seeing Ramon. I still wasn't sure how he would react to me, but you should have seen the way his eyes lit up when I walked through that door. I don't think anything could compare with that moment," Demmi said surely. He nodded his head towards the child, who was dragging his feet through the mud, to his mother's absolute dismay. "He's a little imp, isn't he?"
"He's adorable. I am glad you finally met him." She paused, not sure how she should approach the subject that was most pressing to her. Finally, she decided to simply come right out and ask him. "Did you hear about the Mate Ceremony?"
She moved away from him so she could see his reaction. Unfortunately, she could judge nothing from the expression on his face. "I don't keep up much with politics, but some interesting rumors started circulating a while back." The topic seemed to aggravate him. Gittel noticed that his right leg had started to bounce in a fidgety manner. Finally, as if he could not help himself, he asked her, "Are the rumors true?"
Gittel pursed her lips, wondering if she should reply or detain him until Ariella could speak with him in person. It should be her news to impart, after all, no matter how painful the encounter might be. Especially with Melosa and Ramon in attendance…The thought of her dear Ariella suffering any more pain than she had already been forced to endure these past six months forced Gittel to make her decision. "Yes," she said simply, and watched as her son's eyes closed to conceal whatever emotion he was feeling. Remorse? Or perhaps pity?
"Why are you here, Demmi?" she found herself asking him.
"I had to know…I had to…" He couldn't quite seem to find the words, and Gittel watched with interest as his hands clenched and unclenched with frustration. He was still sorting through his thoughts when the sound of a door opening a short distance away caused both his and his mother's heads to turn sharply.
Demmi leapt to his feet the instant the white-and-gold-garbed woman stepped outside, almost as if he could not help himself. Ariella took two steps into the courtyard before she noticed him and ground to a halt. The two people trailing behind her nearly collided with her before they realized she was no longer moving.
"Ariella, what…" Vesna looked up then and caught sight of Demmi. For a moment she looked at him curiously, as if she was trying to recognize him. Then she squealed and ran at him full force, practically throwing herself into his arms. "Demmi! You came to visit!" she cried.
Demmi returned her hug, but then quickly pushed her away and stared in shock at her stomach. "You're pregnant," he noted.
She grinned at him. The small curve of her stomach was barely visible, even beneath the tight black dress that she wore. When Demmi raised an inquiring eyebrow, the daimon woman inclined her head back at the blonde-haired man still standing behind Ariella.
"Edward?" Demmi demanded incredulously. "I would have thought his seed would be too disgusted with a daimon egg to create a baby."
Instead of being insulted, Edward smiled at his comment. "Miracles do happen."
Demmi's eyes focused on Ariella, then, and for a moment the two simply stood and stared at one another. She looked much different from the scraggily young woman who had stumbled into the throne room six months ago. In fact, she looked so regal on this day that it almost seemed like she was glowing.
Gittel frowned. No, she really was glowing.
She was about to comment on it, too, when Melosa came barreling down the path in pursuit of Ramon. They both stopped just beside Demmi, looking with awe at the young Empress.
"Empress Ariella," Melosa murmured and curtsied respectfully. Ramon just stared at her with his mouth wide open.
Ariella looked at them both, taken aback by their sudden appearance. When her eyes returned to Demmi, they were filled with tears of pain. She looked both hurt and betrayed, and without a word, she turned and ran back into the palace.
As Demmi gave chase, Edward and Vesna's eyes fixed accusingly on Melosa.
"Did I do something wrong?" the young woman asked innocently as she looked at the two of them. When she turned to Gittel and saw that even she could not hold back her scathing glare, her eyes widened in realization. "You think…" She laughed nervously. "You don't understand. Ramon wanted to see the Holy City. He's never been here before, you see, and since Demmi was going anyway, we decided to tag along. I'm married." When the glares darkened, she quickly added, "To someone else."
Gittel turned to look at Edward and Vesna. "If they aren't together, do you suppose he came back to see Ariella after all?" she asked them.
"With his son's mother in tow?" Edward remarked skeptically.
Vesna looked at him with a raised eyebrow as if to imply it was entirely possible, and then she turned to Gittel with the same expression.
The older woman just shook her head. "My son, it would seem, is an idiot."
"Riyka, will you stop running from me? Please?"
Ariella did not even pause. He had not stopped pursuing her, even up the stairs and into the hallway that housed the royal bedchambers. She was almost to her room, almost to safety…"My name is Ariella," she snapped, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice, "and I am not running from you. I am simply trying to avoid a potentially violent situation."
"It's not what you think!" Demmi cried when she reached the door to her room and practically kicked it open.
He followed her inside, the blasted idiot.
"I didn't bring her here to upset you," he insisted.
Being careful to keep the Scepter hidden behind her, Ariella turned to face him, her eyes on fire. "Didn't you?"
"Of course not! She came with Ramon to see the palace. I meant to see you alone. I didn't expect you to show up while we were visiting with my mother," he said quickly. "Melosa has been married for five years now to a Gorman named Richard."
"What did you want to see me about? And be quick. My lunch break will be over soon," Ariella said peevishly. She didn't want him to see how relieved she was that Melosa was not with him because they had rekindled their old affair. That Melosa was married! Not only that, but obviously Demmi had known she was married so he must not have even considered trying to win her back.
Then Demmi looked at her, and Ariella saw something in his eyes that she had never seen before.
"I just wanted to…see you," he said quietly.
"Do not lie to me Demmi," she snapped. "You heard the rumors, and you came to see for yourself it they were true." When he looked down at his feet, she felt a wave of fresh pain. Blessed Light, he had come to torment her. When she first saw him, her reaction had been pure, unadulterated joy at the thought that he'd returned to her. Finally he'd been pulled back to her, whether of his own volition or by the powers of Light he'd been resisting for months now. But no, he'd come back only to confirm the rumors that began after her public address two months after the Mate Ceremony. Rumors that would free him from all responsibility to her.
"My mother says it is all true," he whispered.
"Not all true," she argued, which made him raise his head to look at her curiously. Aggravated, she tried to explain the situation to him as briskly and clearly as possible. "When I performed the Mate Ceremony, the light did not point at anyone in the crowd, but shot straight up into the sky. No one seemed to know what that meant, though your mother seemed to believe it was a sign that my mate was not in the Holy City that day, and the Light was beckoning to him. She assured me he would arrive within a matter of weeks, that no one could resist the pull of his chosen mate for any longer. When two months passed and no one arrived, I was forced to address the public. There were growing concerns that I would not have a mate and that the future of the Empire was doomed. So I told them that the powers of Light had not chosen a mate for me because the Empire's future was already secured."
"Those are exactly the rumors I heard," Demmi confirmed, his eyes trailing down to stare with a great deal of intensity at her stomach. Her loose-fitting gown concealed her own growing bulge, but she was every bit as pregnant as Vesna.
"Except Gittel was right. The Scepter did choose a mate for me. He just did not choose me in return," she said quietly as she pulled the Scepter from behind her back. It was surrounded with a pale white light, a thin beam of which shone directly against Demmi's chest. He looked down at the beam with furrowed brows, comprehension slow to dawn. When it finally did, his eyes snapped back to hers.
"Apparently the Scepter does not discriminate," she said, knowing instinctively that he was referring to his mixed-blood background.
When he took a hesitant step towards her, Ariella immediately stepped back, her thighs pressing against the soft mattress of her bed. "No, Demmi. You made your decision when you walked away from me six months ago."
"But that was before I knew," he said, his hands shaking as he reached out towards her, towards the Scepter that was drawing him in and obviously muddling his thought processes. If the Scepter were not affecting him, surely he would not be looking at her with such raw emotion. "Demmi, please." Her voice cracked over the words as her eyes filled with tears. He was still approaching her with unabashed determination, and she had nowhere else to run. "Don't do this. Don't bind yourself to this place out of duty or honor or even pity. I couldn't stand to know that I had ruined your life and your happiness."
"You are my happiness," he immediately argued. "I've been damned miserable without you."
"Only because the Scepter was trying to pull you back to me. But I can fix that. All you need to do is refuse me. Tell the Scepter that you deny me as your mate, and it will not bother you anymore."
He looked at her, his head shaking slowly from side to side. "Deny you?" he said quietly. "I could sooner stop breathing."
She was so shocked by his words, she didn't think to step away as he continued to approach her. When his hand touched the Scepter, she tried to yank it away from him, but some invisible force held her hand in place as the light swelled and grew, encircling Demmi's wrist.
"Say the words, Riyka," he beckoned, engulfed with light.
"Why?" she whispered hoarsely.
He looked at her, his eyes full of gentle emotion even though his face was set with steely resolve. "Because I want you to." Demmi pressed one scarred finger beneath her chin and forced her to look up at him. "Because I want you." He swooped down to press a light, chaste kiss against her lips, his free arm circling around her to pull her against him, her pregnant belly pressing into his abdomen. "Now say the words. Bind me to you."
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Ariella looked at the Scepter that she and Demmi both clutched, she in her human hand, he with his scarred demon hand. "I, Ariella Anise Isabella Galaté, do take thee, Demmitrius, as my sacredly bound husband. May the Scepter bless our marriage with happiness, children, and love. May you stay forever by my side, marked eternally by the Light's favor." As the last word slipped past her lips, the mark glowing around Demmi's wrist sizzled and then died, leaving in its wake an intricate mark burned into his scarred skin.
"And I take thee as my wife, binding myself to you with my love. Forever," Demmi replied, and Ariella's eyes burned as a similar mark imprinted itself on her wrist.
"You knew the words?" she whispered incredulously.
"I wanted to know what would happen. Kaniel told me…I had hoped…" He cut off what he was about to say, obviously in pain. "I couldn't bear to lose you to another man, to know that you loved another. It tormented me for months, knowing that you would pledge your heart and your life to someone else. That was why I left, Riyka. Because I was too much of a coward to stay."
Sniffling, Ariella wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his chest. "My name is Ariella now, Demmi," she reminded him, for she knew he did not want words of comfort or sympathy.
"You will always be Riyka to me. My slave, my princess…my love. I love you, princess shrew. I have always loved you. I will love you forever."
Her chest tightened with emotion, and she wondered how she could have ever doubted that he would one day belong to her. Surely a love this powerful could not have been denied forever, even when it involved two such obstinate people.
When she finally looked back up at him, she was smiling through her tears.
"I love you too, daimon. Forever."
And for the first time in the history of the Galatéan Empire, a daimon became the Empress's consort. What the Elders tried to destroy changed into something new, something different, but the Empire did not crumble.
In fact, the Light burned brighter than ever.