Winter, Final Day of the Year of Emperor Seren.

I spent the night at the palace and this morning there is nothing but noise as everyone in the palace gets ready to have a new Emperor at midnight. I made sure I put on jeans and a T-shirt I didn't care much about, just in case they ask for help. I don't want to be wearing something pretty when someone asks me to help repaint a room.

I wandered around for a while, watching everyone working hard, completely in awe with their determination to make the palace gorgeous tonight. Hanging, round, paper lanterns are strung all around the hallways, in every room, and outside in the garden. Various sizes. For some reason there are people cleaning too. As if they don't clean every hour of every day as is.

Finally I walked into the dining room for breakfast, a considerably smaller meal than usual is laid out. Pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Looks like toast is optional. I walk over to the chair I sat in the first night I was here. The food smells marvelous, just like it should.

Three pancakes, slathered in salted butter and organic maple syrup. Four slices of crisp bacon, though not too crispy, a little syrup on each slice. And a good helping of scrambled eggs, a little salt, a little pepper, and a hint of syrup.

"Are you trying to get a sugar rush this early in the morning?" Carth sits down across from me, yawning. He's still in his PJ's, and his hair is a mess. He looks like he hasn't been sleeping well.

"No. I just like maple syrup, real maple syrup. I'm surprised you have some." I set the glass bottle aside, "Are you okay? You don't look like someone who slept well last night."

"I was having nightmares all night of Marx Tower. Mostly of it going up in flames, literally, while I was trying to control it. This is not a good idea. I don't know why you think it is." He groans, pushes his empty plate aside and lays his head down on his arms.

"Because you need a job now that you aren't the Emperor's grandson. I know you'll do just fine. And if Marx Tower does go up in flames, it won't be your fault. Well, it will be because you hired that loony intern, but they will be the ones that set it on fire. Not you."

"Thanks for having such high hopes for me." He chuckles dryly, at least slightly humored.

"You're welcome. Someone needs to have them since you clearly don't. Get something to eat, today is a very big day. And Lance is getting out of the hospital, just in time. Shame he still has to be in a wheelchair though." I frown, slightly, at the thought. "I hope he won't be embarrassed by it."

"Are you kidding?" Carth lifts his head, an eyebrow raised, "He has been flirting with every woman that comes into his room, being the sad hero that hurt his legs so badly he has to be in a wheelchair. He's enjoying it."

"He's-..." I told Favian they did not like me like that! "Oh. Okay." I shrug a bit and finally dig into my sugary breakfast. I'm going to miss the food here.

I'm staying here, at the palace, all day today. To help Lance and the Emperor as needed. I'm still a Voice, even if I don't want to be one anymore. I'll be calling my mother around noon to check up on her then I'll be checking in with the shelter to see how the kitten is. I decided to call her 'Louisa'.

"Mmm..." Carth groans a bit and lays his head back down, "My head hurts. Can you massage it, Louise?"

"No."

"Please?"

"No."

"... I'll give you chocolate."

"... Tempting, but no. I think this is enough sugar for now." I smile at him, he groans again. "Go get some medicine." I roll my eyes, "Baby."

"I'm not a baby. I'm... injured."

"You have seen my arms, right?"

"... No?"

"Oh, geez." I roll my eyes. He chuckles slightly then sighs. Through the rest of breakfast we are silent. After twenty minutes he decided to eat something. I congratulated him for it.

I didn't get to call my mom. Or the shelter. Lance and the Emperor kept me plenty busy. I barely found the time to eat lunch. I was mostly typing my opinions and how I think Xen should change so Lance can read them tomorrow and start working towards a better Xen. It was Emperor Seren's idea.

I nearly lost my head typing. There were so many things to consider and think about before I made my opinion known. Then I started writing rules for Voices and Emperor's alike. They were fairly similar, but they had plenty of differences.

Finally I get to my room, just before dinner. I feel like falling into bed and sleeping, but I know I can't. A young maid comes in five minutes later and helps me into a beautiful blue gown. It was sparkly in a way it isn't garish or too much. It shimmered in just the right way. I can't wait to send a picture to my mother.

The maid helps my hair into a beautiful crown braid, barely making it all the way around my head. I decide to not put on any make-up. I feel beautiful enough, I didn't need anything on my face. I put on a healthy lip balm with a slight pink tint to it though, I feel I could do that much at least.

The maid has me pose a few different ways for the pictures. She has me sitting on the bed elegantly, standing in a thoughtful pose, and smiling and blushing at the camera in the tablet. She sends the pictures quickly to my mother then leads me to the garden, where the festivities are taking place.

I gasped when I saw how many people arrived. I recognized a few of them from End, a nurse from Goms, and some people I've seen around Whit. There are hundreds of people here in the garden, drinking and being merry. Oh, I remember that person from Cern, he was standing outside Daniel's cube... or... where it was anyway.

I stumble down the stairs when I feel someone bump into my shoulder from behind. Time to get moving. I wander through the crowd, trying not to bump into anyone. Everyone is already talking to someone, or in a group of people. I don't feel like pushing myself to talk to people I don't really know.

I could stand to have a glass of champagne, it's a special day, right? I'm allowed to. I look around for a server. I don't see anyone serving. Where did they get these glasses, then? I continue to walk, frowning a bit, looking for a buffet. Though I can't really imagine they set out a buffet.

"Louise." I feel someone gently grab my wrist and stop me from moving. I look back and I smile at Carth. Finally. Someone I know.
"Hello, Carth!" I think I'm being over enthusiastic, but I've never been to a party like this before. It's good to see someone I know.

"You look lost." He chuckles and gently leads me out of the throngs of people to a considerably less crowded area with tables and- Servers with champagne! And we get the choice of regular or pink!

"I was looking for the champagne, actually. Thank you for saving me. I was completely lost." I laugh a bit as he leads me to the server.

"I was waiting for you to get some, anyway. I wasn't sure if you would drink it or not." He picks up a regularly colored one and I take a pink one, "Or which color you wanted, apparently." He chuckles. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you." My cheeks burn and I take a sip of the bubbling liquid in my glass flute. I can't stop my smile from spreading.

"I take it you've never been to one of these before."

"That obvious?"

"Unfortunately. But I'm glad you're doing alright so far. You haven't made a mess, you haven't broken anything, and you haven't made a complete fool of yourself." He grins and takes a sip of his own liquid.

"Talking from experience?"

"We had an ice swan for grandfathers coronation last year. I tripped and fell right into it. It shattered, badly, and the beak of the swan- Well. Let's say it managed to get into my pants."

"NO!" I inhale sharply and cover my mouth, trying to hide my grin.

"Yes. Most embarrassing moment of my life. I'm surprised you haven't heard of it."

"I didn't know that was you!" I start laughing, I can't help how amusing that story is, especially to hear it straight from the source.

"It was. I guess my grandfather hid my name well in the tabloids and news. It was all people could talk about-"

"For months! I thought it would get annoying but every time I heard it on the news I laughed! I- I'm sorry!" I turn away from him, laughing harder. My free hand wraps itself around my stomach, it's starting to hurt from my laughter.

"It's fine." He chuckles, "But I'm not sure you are. Are you sure you should be drinking?" He's teasing, I can tell from his tone.

"YES. I'm... Fine!" I giggle and try to calm down but hearing the story from him it's just... It's even funnier than when the serious news people told it. And I thought that was the funniest way to hear the story.

"Okay. You can calm down now." He places his hand on my shoulder.

I hand him my glass flute as I quickly find a chair. I sink down into it and try to calm down, however his comments and the fact he touched me is having the opposite effect. I'm laughing even harder. I'm sure my face is bright red now, I think I'm starting to tear up. I don't think his unfortunate accident should be this funny but I can't stop laughing.

"What did you do to her, Carth?" I hear Lance's voice get closer, he sounds amused and worried.

"I told her what happened last year and she won't stop laughing at my unfortunate accident."

"You told her...- That was you?" I hear Lance start laughing now.

"Don't you start too. Yes, that was me. I think I might have broken her."

"Nah. She's tough and stubborn. She will get over it in some time." Lance chuckles, luck must be on his side.

Speaking of sides, mine hurt. I'm hugging myself and I don't think I'm breathing anymore. My throat is starting to hurt a lot too. How dare he make me laugh so much I'm hurting! And possibly dying, I am definitely not breathing anymore.

"Carth, she isn't breathing."

"I'm surprised she isn't on the ground yet."

"I think she's making a very conscious effort not to fall to the ground."

"Lance, there are some people I want you to... What did you do to Louise, Carth?" That sounds like Emperor Seren. He sounds amused.

"I just- I told her what happened last year then this happened."

"You're not allowed to tell people anymore, by order of the future Emperor." Lance claims, I can hear his smile and amusement.

Isn't anyone going to help me breathe?

"Well... Carry on. But I do need you, Lance."

"Fine... I just hope they aren't as uptight as the other people you have introduced me to." I hear them walking away. I can't hear what they are saying though.

"Louise..." I feel Carth's hands on my shoulders. I open my tear filled eyes, he's kneeling in front of me. "You need to calm down before you die. From not breathing. Seriously."

I nod and try to breathe but I can't quite figure out how to laugh and breathe right now. It's either laugh or breathe, I can't do both. I can't remember the last time I laughed like this either. It hurts but feels great at the same time. I wish I could do this more often... Breathing, preferred.

"LOUISE..." I can hear him grinning. He starts shaking me. I inhale sharply when he finishes and focus on calming down. I continue to giggle. "Here." He uses a cloth of some kind and wipes my tears away, "Good thing you aren't wearing make-up. You would look like some kind of weird clown right now."

"N-No- S-s-s-top-" I start laughing again.

"Oh, right, you need to breathe. I keep forgetting that. It would be easier if you were a fish."

"F-F-F-Fi-sh?" I take short breaths, rocking a bit, my breathing shuddering, almost hiccuping.

"I could toss you in water and I wouldn't have to worry about this anymore."

"Y-y-y-you-" I'm not going to stop laughing any time soon.

I was right. It took ten more minutes, which felt like hours, for me to finally be breathing again. Real breaths. It almost hurts to breathe, too. Not my lungs, my throat. Evil laughing.

"Don't you ever do that to me again!" I slap Carth's shoulder. He's sitting down next to me, holding my glass of champagne hostage.

"You're not allowed to drink anymore." He's grinning, teasing me more.

"Give it here." I reach for my glass but he pulls it further away.

"No. I've seen what it does to you, it's literally trying to kill you by making you laugh."

"NO. That's you!" I giggle a bit, I can't help it.

"Is not. I was trying to save you."

"Stop it! Just- give me my pink drink!"

"Only if you say 'abracadabra'."

"What- Why?"

"Well, if you're not going to say it-" He lifts the glass to his lips, to drink my special, pink liquid.

"NO- Abracadabra!" I saw it quickly, blushing bright red.

"There we go." He grins again and hands me the glass.

"God... You're SO..." I don't have the slightest clue what word I want to use for him.

"Thank you." He sips his plain champagne and looks around, people are starting to sit down. "Must be dinner time. I hope you can eat."

"I hope I can too." I smile at him and stay seated. I'm fine where I am.

Slowly every table is filled with up to six people. Mostly friends and family sit together, rarely do I see strangers sit with others that clearly know each other AND they welcome the strangers and actually talk with them. It's weird watching these tables fill. Ours still has just me and Carth. I guess they have a few extra tables, just in case.

"Hey. Were all these people invited?" I look over at Carth.

"No one is invited. People just... show up." He shrugs a bit. "We set as many tables as possible, prepare as much food as we can, and from there we let whoever wants to show up... show up. It's just nicer this way, people don't feel left out and they aren't obligated to come here."

"Oh... I should have come here with my mother ages ago. I thought you had to be invited, everyone is so dressed up and it looks like a ball." I smile a bit, feeling my cheeks flush again. "I can't believe I'm here, in this dress, celebrating a new year with a new Emperor... Someone I legitimately know, no less."

"It is amazing, isn't it? I'm beyond happy you're here." He takes my hand in his. I blush a bit more. Favian might have been right about Carth.

"Me too." I smile at him, leaving my hand in his. Maybe it's a friendly gesture.

I look up at the stage. Holograms are going to perform. They are going to perform the play they always do, when Xen won a civil war and the Emperor and Voices came to be. My mother and I watch it every year on the projector, a news channel is always here every year to record it anew.

"This is your first time seeing it in real life, right?"

"Yes."

"You're going to love it."

The music starts playing. It's slow and desolate. It chills me every time I hear it. Gun shots and people screaming. The night sky is bare of any pixels as I wait to see how gorgeous the holograms are in person. Then I see a light flash. A hologram of Emperor Druid, the very first Emperor after the war ended, appears. The crowd cheers happily.

"Oo!" It's so crisp and beautiful! It's always been slightly fuzzy through a camera but this is gorgeous. He doesn't look real but he looks amazing.

"I know!" Carth calls back to me, the music is getting louder.

Emperor Druid, with a sweep of his hand, ends all of the pain and suffering. The war ended because of a treaty he made with all of Xen, with Whit, Cern, Goms, and End. To have one ultimate ruler and four suitable people from each county help him decide what is best for Xen. Of course they can't have it be a boring show, so they leave it with a sweeping of his hand over the crowd.

The hologram changes to an image of a map of Xen, then it moves so we see Emperor Druid with the first four Voices. They all very serious, considering where to place the territory lines. Then the hologram moves again and shows the map, the lines moving, placing where we know the territory lines are today.

"If you don't want your mother injured you will come with me at once." My entire body freezes. It's a woman's voice. Vaguely familiar.

I pull my hand from Carth and stand up. I follow the woman further into the garden. Carth didn't seem to notice that I left. I see light on the floor, fireworks starting to go off. I follow her to a much darker part of the garden. It's still nice to look at it but it seems... a little scary.

"Louise." That voice I definitely know. I watch as she holds up a screen, Sir Marx grinning at me.

"You're dead. You can't be... You..." My heart is beating rapidly.

"Luckily my wife is smart enough to keep me alive. She knows she needs me. You know Lance's mother, correct?"

"M-Mother?" I look up at the woman. It's the secretary. The one that hardly says anything. The one that has her hair in a bun and is wearing the same clothing the two other times I've seen her.

"Yes. She is supposed to be dead, and I suppose in many ways she still is, but that will be fixed soon. I see you gave the Emperor's throne to my son. While I applaud you for doing that, that is not what I wanted you to do."

"I- Y-"

"Yes, yes. I'm supposed to be dead. Please get over that. Because, clearly, I am not. Just like his mother isn't. Speaking of those that aren't dead, neither is Ryder or Daniel. They are confined right now, it takes a while to properly reanimate to thinking conditions."

"... W-What do you want from me?"

"Actually, I don't want anything else from you. You've failed to listen to my orders, Louise. That makes me very unhappy."

I hear cheering in the background. I should be there, cheering on a new year with a new Emperor. Instead I'm conversing with a man who should be dead, in front of a woman who should definitely be dead. I'm going insane. I must be. This has to be a nightmare.

"Oh, darling. Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt your mother. She's dying, it wouldn't have the effect I need to ripple across this country."

"So... what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to kill you."

"LOUISE!"

"LADY!

"LOUISA!"

I hear three voices shout my name. Carth, Favian, and Lance. Who realized I was missing and thought that was a bad thing? Favian, probably. What is he doing here? Should he even be allowed over here?

I watch as Lance's mother drops the tablet. She lifts her arm, her face never changing from serious and unfeeling, showing me a weapon-bracelet. I stare at her, trying to process the fact she is undead and will murder me. If I would just... move.

But it's too late. It feels like slow motion and also like lightning speed. I hear the click. I hear the weapon fire. And at the last second I see the thing that will kill me. About 17 centimeters from my forehead is a metal arrow-head.