The day of her meeting with Sparagmos found her trying to gather some strength with a visit to Father.
Alba walked into the family graveyard, running deep into the core of the castle. Unlike some other European families who would find eternal rest in an abbey or a church, the Malcastria bloodline had always been entombed in the same place.
Tall windows of stained glass threw their flame-like blades of colors onto the polished marble. Just like the Catacombs, the entire room seemed carved from a single piece of stone, seamlessly coming out of the rest of the Cittadella.
No matter how hard you could look, you would not find a single nook or cranny that suggested it had been tampered by human hands. Made by Witches, that’s how the legends had it.
But now she was dealing with memories, not tales. She started to walk down the spiral staircase that proceeded like a whirlpool into the depths of the Cittadella. Every ten steps there was a thick marble arch and an iron door. The ones closest to the entrance were empty, but she did not have to descend much to find Father. As she stood before the entrance, heavy iron key in her hand, she let her gaze move towards the end of the spiral, into the darkness. There waited her ancestors. Thirteen centuries of Malcastria.
She wouldn’t be the last one.
She entered the crypt, briefly signing herself. His sarcophagus welcomed her in utter silence and the cool air of the crypt. It was fashioned after a tall man just slipped into a peaceful slumber: Alexios Malcastria’s once-blue eyes were not closed forever. His sharp face and long, straight nose was so much like her own, even though there was a certain curve to her lips and to her eyes that was dissimilar from Father’s.
“Good morning Father,” she welcomed him back, by the same words she used to say every morning. Her heart ached and her breath hitched in her throat as she walked up to him, setting her hand on the cold stone.
Father’s relief kept his hands crossed over his chest. His head surrounded by the crest of Eridania: seven moons growing from the first quarter to the full moon over his brow. She brushed it with her fingers and a wavering smile appeared on her lips.
“I am almost there. And I yet I feel so lacking.” She brought her eyes to look at the bust of a woman sitting on a shelf just next to the sarcophagus.
They couldn’t give her a tomb of her own, but her mother never seemed to mind. Every time she went here to visit her, she had always seen the same gentle smile on those granite lips.
She was so unlike her father – her beauty was soft and welcoming, so different from the sheer traits of a Malcastria. Augusta Visentin’s bust showed the gentle curve of her face, of her wavy hair calling down to her shoulders.
“I am trying to do my best. I will meet with Duke Sparagmos soon. I have doubts about his so called… honest curiosity. I am afraid this is just a ruse and he will bring war upon us. Please give me strength enough to withstand the storm.”
A pause. What else? Father would understand if he was here. Mother… she had never actually met her, but she wanted to believe she’d be just as supportive.
“I want you two to know I am almost there. I just need to solve the last mystery. Take the Witch out of her hiding place. I will show everyone Father was right. That there is someone we can count on yet. I will-“
Will you be proud?
That was the question that lingered on her lips, one she’d never get a chance to ask again.
And yet, she waited a few more minutes for the answer to come, in the stillness of the crypt.
The marble spoke no answer.
The ceremony started just outside of the throne room. Alba wore her white robe as a Regent, with the crest of Eridania lined in golden trim. She bore a silver diadem.
Not as imposing as the old Crown of Towers would have been, but that was now lost. Maybe one day she might find it again.
Or earn it.
She passed her gloved hands over her brow, making sure every hair was in its proper place. She had asked for a setup that would leave her face clearly visible. She wanted to make sure Sparagmos clearly saw the disdain in her face.
At another time, she might have even refused him audience – but he was an important set piece from an Empire that had been bubbling with revolutions and war for the past year. And one that had made sure to repress every resistance in blood, everywhere from Milan to Bohemia.
And this new Emperor, this Francis Joseph, did not seem like the type to have patience with tiny Principalities barking out loud.
Next to her Andronikos tapped on the floor with the white ceremonial staff.
“Alba Malcastria of Eridania asks for passage.” He produced the same necklace of keys and put one in the keyhole. “In the name of the Assembly and people of Eridania and by grace of God, passage is allowed.”
Alba bit the inside of her lip. She did not like this part of the ceremonial. It had been forcibly added under the time of Napoleon’s assault, and even though he had been convicted to leave Eridania alone, the effects of that senseless Revolution had gurgled up the throat of history to reach her here and then.
She hated it. She had a duty towards God, her bloodline and her Principality. Nothing more, nothing less. No so-called Assembly of self-important bourgeois, rich only in silver, would change that.
This notion of ‘democracy’ profoundly irritated her. It was like saying she was not actually a Malcastria.
Then the doors opened, and she walked into the throne room, trying to leave those thoughts behind. She had just to focus on Sparagmos. Doubts and fears did not belong in her heart.
She walked on the velvet carpet that reached from the side door to the throne that stood in the midst of the square room. Unlike the other halls, it had not been renovated into a geometric white space by her father, and mostly left o the Renaissance style of flowery columns and bas-reliefs. They had to celebrate the renewal by Prince Mancuso, when he had to bring Eridania back from the brink of destruction.
She looked at his huge portrait, looming just behind the throne: a tall blonde man with the same severe face and blue eyes as his father. Another person she could not let down.
As she turned to take a seat on the uncomfortable throne (as it was suppose to be, after all), Sparagmos took a step forward and showed her a mocking bow.
He had changed since the last time she had seen him – a few years ago, when Father occupied that same seat.
Sparagmos was the same tall, black-haired and black-eyed man she remembered, but he was if possible a little more hawkish with his sharp nose and clear-cut military mustache. He had dressed in an Austrian officer uniform and held his hat under his arm. She remembered a young man just about ten years older than her, but the man looking at her seemed many years older now. Grey hair crept up around his ears and his skin showed deeply-set wrinkles.
A thick scar ran from his forehead to his left cheek.
She supposed war changed a man, no matter how much heroics he managed to accrue thanks to it.
“His Excellency Duke Karl Heinrich Sparagmos asks for an audience,” Andronikos stated next to her. He carried himself with stately neutrality but she saw the same annoyed look in her eyes she must be showing.
“Conceded,” she replied in a freezing whisper.
The Duke bowed even further and took a few mores steps towards the throne.
“Your Highness is too kind.” His voice was rougher than age might suggest. Maybe he had breathed in too many fumes and black power while serving under Marshal Radetzky. “I am on my way back from a visit to Venice. Marveled by its beauty, I remembered your father’s wife used to live there.” The corners of her lips tightened, but she did not interrupt him. “I am headed to Wien, but I wanted to see if such beauty blooms in the Princess Regent of a Principality that has long been our ally and under our protection.”
Alba tapped with her fingers on the throne’s armrests.
“Our ancestry owes much more to the Malcastria than to the Visentin family, my most kind guest. As for protection, you should know we always mad bus out of our strength. In peace just as in wartime.”
Their own strength – and something that still slept under the Catacombs.
If only she had managed to free the Witch before this meeting! Then she’d truly feel like she’d have something to oppose the hidden threat from Sparagmos’ presence.
“I would never!” He stated. “Please do not interpret my words like that. Nevermore: I would merely ask Her Majesty to visit this Cittadella I heard so much about.”
Something was amiss.
“Did you perhaps take Our country as a tourist spot?”
“Absolutely no, Your Highness. I just like to sate my eyes with its beauty, so that once in Wien I can share it with the entire Court. I am positive my good friend the Emperor will be delighted.“
An icy spike ran through her chest.
She could refuse – and Francis Joseph would hear she was an upstart Princess who rebuked one of his personal friends.
“Noble intent,” she replied with a look as sharp as a knife. But she could at least try to contain the damage. “So much that We will be glad to escort you. We will make sure your report to the Emperor stays close to the truth.”