[FV] In The Box - Peaches

1 year, 3 months ago
3203 3

Part of an anthology taking place ~20 years before present time in Flameverse. Isolated here as the other chapters are a WIP.

Peaches contemplates his position, his life, and the circumstances around him.

Theme Lighter Light Dark Darker Reset
Text Serif Sans Serif Reset
Text Size Reset


Frozen in time, Nereen's sword jutted towards the sky, held up in triumph and authority. The expression on his face - focused, guarded, wary - judged the milling citizens beneath the statue, eyes turned towards the cobble street. With the sun just rising for the morning, his shadow stretched over the square, almost cutting it in half. 

Peaches, of course, was careful to keep to its side.

He freed a hand from his hooded robes and let it gently brush over the plaque at the statue's feet, thumbing over the carved numbers, the years. Pristine, the marble was smooth under his fingers. In years and years, it would age and wear, sanded down by the heavy rains that plagued this country every summer. 

He could still recall, so clearly, boarding up the house's windows, carrying his younger sibling into the attic, playing cards with them as the winds and sleet shook the foundations. And, when the storms cleared, they'd dart out to the river's edge, start scooping buckets of mud-water. Drag them back to the garden, lay down the newly-magical fertilizer. He'd barely understood the process, how the Magninium and water's lives intertwined to replenish the land with vital magic, to give rise to plants and crops. 

But now he could cleanly recite textbooks' worth of passages regarding the cycle. Helion had been so charmed by his memorization.

Peaches cast his stare up, back to Nereen's face. He'd never seen his predecessor in the flesh; the rare few times the Emperor travelled down the river, he'd been busy gathering wood or harvesting or plainly sleeping. And by the time he'd arrived in Canthores, the casket had already been lowered into the royal mausoleum, sealed lovingly. 

He marvelled at the statue's expression, at the subtle tilt of his head, at the way his stare seemed to exude regality. Locked in stone forever, this was his last symbol, his last legacy. And though Peaches had poured over his documents, his notes, his concepts - all of the intricacies of the nation that Nereen had been crafting and adjusting during his reign - he still couldn't quite grasp the man. 

"Do you think the speculation is true?" he asked, quietly, to the figure beside him. "That his ghost was consumed by the Flame?"

"I couldn't say," came the near-silent response, lower than a whisper. "But, I never saw him."

Questions swirled in his mind. Inappropriate ones, ones that didn't matter. Perhaps, if he'd been younger, he'd indulge his curiosity, assail his companion with a dozen intrusive questions - what was it like, do you remember, was it cold, did it hurt, did they cry, did you see them? 

But, when he turned to glance at the flickering ghost next to him, the dredges of the other's exhausted expression stilled all those self-centered fantasies. 

Just as quickly as he laid eyes on Xharde, the ghost vanished - barely tethered to life as it was. When Peaches faced away, he could suddenly feel the other's presence once more, a buzzing in the back of his head, closer to a wasp than a gnat. Threatening, really, rather than annoying. It made his chest skip a beat - but as soon as the flush of anxiety appeared, he willed it back down, swallowed it away.

Sometimes, he feared how easily he'd taken to smothering his feelings. But, if he was going to lead this country - as the Court had bitterly agreed upon - then such things were required. Simple curiosities and questions had become relegated to his own thoughts. 

Indeed. He cast his stare up to Nereen.

"I hope he's well, in the afterlife," Peaches muttered, reaching to thumb over his cloak's clasp. "Though I am sure his regrets number thousands."

He could feel Xharde's nod.

Xharde. God of the world, member of the Ardor, whose dominion had been time itself. Long dead, unbeknownst to any of his devoted followers, who still clutched their idols and charms and sang his praises every Jarusday. And now he, Peaches, stood before those people - inheritor of their Empire, holder of the holy Flames, harbinger of equal unrest and ease.

"I wonder," Peaches began, the cold metal against his thumbs, "did he see his assailant? Even a glimpse? They said his body was pristine, no struggle, no fight. But that his eyes were wide open, blank, expressionless. Could he solve our mystery with a single word, a name?"

Xharde tilted their head. "Perhaps."

"Is it selfish to wish you'd tell me more?" Peaches half-turned his head, though he knew the other's visage would falter. "Even your assumptions, your half-truths, your imaginings. Is it entitled to ask for these things?"

"No," they replied, "but... even now, I find myself gripped in fear."


"What my peers are capable of. What their goals are. Who this... benefactor is. And - what they might do to you, if they find out of our link. And... it wasn't as if I was all that aware, these centuries."

"It seems, for all their machinations, they have been thwarted at every turn. As I now stand before you."

"Yes," came the hum. "But the identity of that which ascended you - I mull over the options in my head, and I find each one more fearful than the last. Why disrupt Khamdy's attempts so plainly? Why interrupt now, with you of all people? What have they seen in you, that the rest of us clearly fail to?"

Xharde's stare bored into the back of Peaches' head. He smiled dumbly to himself, giving another nod. "Well. I suppose I could offer suggestions, if you treated me to your suppositions of this individual's identity."

"I am concerned of what you may say to the others," Xharde admitted. "I am concerned that your trust in me extends only so long as I am useful to you. I hesitate, too, to pin the blame on any of my peers, without ironclad proof."

In other words, he feared Peaches disrupting a careful balance. Were Khamdy to appear to him again, and he spill this mysterious benefactor's supposed name, and be wrong - or even, if he were right, the results could be the same. War, battle, disasters, fracture, the gods' supposed friendships broken. From what he understood of Khamdy's frenzied rants, he was already on poor terms with the survivors. 

Still. It was maddening! To grasp at the keys of the world, its creation, its tenders, and its fate, and yet be denied at every turn. To know more of this world's foundations than any of his fellow Court, and yet still be unable to answer its greatest questions.

To think of himself, a mere five years ago, and how the boundless stretches of his imagination would yet still fail to picture where he perched, currently. To think that he spoke to gods, that he inherited their godship, that he now ruled this nation as Emperor. And, yet, to still be dissatisfied, to feel cheated, as if his dreams of grandeur hadn't been fulfilled in a single swoop.

Was that the key, then? Was his ambition and curiosity what his benefactor had noted? Or, in their limitless boredom, had they simply decided to spurn Khamdy's attempts to revive Xharde? Even the mere thought of such grand self-importance, to play godmaker simply to dig at their peers - it made a shudder run down his spine. If he were to be a god, then, he would never do such things.

"What do you desire?" asked Xharde. "You've been caught up in all this mess through happenstance, pulled by strings you can't fathom. But, with my Flame, you are a puppet no longer. What do you reach for?"

A good question. And a prying one. Though, it didn't spark distrust - how could it? As if his god would lie to him, as if he were in any position to lie. Less than a ghost, only alive through Peaches' identical Flame rousing his mind. While Xharde's peers might have schemed and squabbled, he had been asleep all those years - asleep, dead, dormant, unaware. He, too, was helpless in this world, grasping at straws. One of those straws, of course, being Peaches' character, apparently excellent enough to attract his benefactor's attention.

Xharde also felt pity for him, or perhaps kinship. If Peaches' understanding was right, after all, he had committed suicide to escape his station and the cycle. If he had to wonder of Xharde's question, the solution was simple: a genuine answer.

So then, the question itself. What did he want? In tandem, images flashed in his mind. 

One: his sibling, sobbing as they sat on the dirt, blood dripping from their mouth and a broken tooth. His mother's hands, wrapped around a cloth, dipping it in a salve their village's Flame had prepared. Pressing it to the wound, and marvelling at how the healing magic worked so effortlessly, so wonderfully. His sibling, reaching to pull on their new tooth. And himself, looking down at his hands, and wondering what it would be like, to have that magic during famines and weak years, during storms and floods, during injuries and accidents.

Two: the capital, awash in its marble and lapis, almost too bright to see for the shine. The chatter of the Flames in the fine carriage as it rolled its way through the winding streets, pulled by two dragonids decorated in fine velvet, finer than even his church clothes he'd hastily thrown on. Sinking into the plush chair, disgusted with himself, the horror of dirtying such a decadent cushion with his mere presence. The door, opened at the steps of the palace, surrounded by well-dressed, beautiful people - and a kneeling priest, who held the crown on a silk pillow, and proclaimed him to be god.

Three: Blackfuse, her face streaked in soot and burns, her dress ripped and ashed, trembling. When she pulled her hands from her chest, the gruesome rot down her arms filled the room with a smell that Gosha and Aceus cringed over, their discipline meaningless in the face of such easy disgust. The flecks of fire at the edges of her Flames' afflictions, her attempts to cleanse herself of its curse. Her stare of amazement and fear as he knelt, undisturbed, and wrapped his hands around hers, letting his magic fill her body and mend bone to blood and blood to flesh, until she stared, stunned, at her outstretched, healthy fingers. 

"Is it greedy," he asked, "to want so many things? Things that I cannot reconcile?"

He could feel Xharde's light laugh. "No. That's what it means to be mortal."

"Yet, I am not quite mortal, no longer."

"You are, still. Give it time, a hundred thousand years, before that way of thinking wears thin. Give it time until you're weighing lives and countries like statistics." Xharde's voice was low, a somber tilt. "As I and my peers learned to do. We were all mortal once, too."

Peaches frowned up at the statue. What he wouldn't give to see Xharde's expression, hold his stare and offer him a grin. When was the last time Xharde had been able to look at another person, to feel the warmth of someone's smile towards him? The isolation, of both his afterlife and his decision to end his life - it must have been chilling. 

Was that the naivety and affection Xharde warned him he would lose? To feel so moved by one person, to wish them health and happiness rather than sorting stacks of mortals like mere cards? It seemed, too, the work of politics - to shift and move on the grand scale, to arrange and alter so far removed from the day-to-day struggles. 

When he looked over Canthores, he saw no farmhands, no laborers. How many here had never so much as planted a single seed? Or, tossed a bit of feed to one of the chickens flocking the streets? Did they even acknowledge that someone was feeding the birds - or was it another inconvenience, to be shrugged off towards the city's metal servants?

"Then, what I want, is to hold onto those feelings," Peaches said, with a definitive nod. "To hold onto the way of mortal thinking. To want more than my station, and to reach for it. To use my abilities to augment the world I was raised in, rather than rise above it."

Xharde's silence spelled many things. Foremost, it spoke of doubt - almost pitying, as if looking down on Peaches. As if saying, I too felt that way, once. And now look upon me, and see what I became. Know that your future will be no different.

"I think you are capable of such," Xharde said, instead. "Not to say that you and I are vastly different, or that your situation has made you particularly unique. But, if there is nothing else to lean back on, your own will and your own hope should suffice. I only hope my peers will not... interfere."

Before Peaches spoke, a chill wind filled the square, his cloak billowing. When he tilted his head, he couldn't sense the ghost's presence any longer. He let out a soft sigh, thumbing the edges of the hood, eyes half-glazed, staring at Nereen's plaque. 

Some part of him dismissed Xharde's fears. If his godly peers were to smite him, they would have done so before he was crowned Emperor. If they hadn't, either they approved, or they simply didn't know. And though the latter seemed blasphemous, it did settle the anxiety in his stomach. If the gods were not omnipotent, omnipresent, then they could be outmaneuvered. He could work around them and their plans, whatever they were. 

And though his understanding of their work was still only a fraction, he knew at least Khamdy's goal: to eradicate this cycle, and start anew once more, with Xharde at his side. For what? He hadn't grasped that, from any of the few he'd talked to. Even Xharde had seemed uncomfortable, when pressed as to why the cycle needed to be continued. 

As a child, he'd always been told it was simple - a natural process, as easy to grasp as gravity. Though no force compelled it to exist, it existed, it happened, and all mortal lives must abide by its rules. So such was the cycle.

But the fear in the gods' tones and wariness when he probed told him a different story. And their eagerness to reinstate Xharde meant that it was no natural process, but one that required consent and intent - from the deities themselves. So, why? What were they so desperately running from, or trying to craft? And how, over the scope of so much time, had they failed to achieve this? How incompetent could his gods be, if Xharde's numbers and recollection were to be believed?

It would make even the most pious soul wail in desperation, the news they'd heaped onto him. And yet, tantalizingly, pieces of the puzzle were firmly out of his grasp. Dangled, like carrots on sticks - promised to him with the pledge of his assistance and word to theirs. Just like politics.

Suppose, Helion's training was more useful than he'd imagined.

He hummed, glancing to his right at the sound of footfalls and whispers.

Gosha, his personal guard. 

She beelined to him, her furrowed brow a clear signal of her extreme displeasure. Too disciplined - and respectful - to show her anger further, she stiffly came to a halt in front of him, lifting a fist to her chest in a salute. When he smiled up at her, it seemed to soothe that anger, and her face returned to controlled sternness. 

Her presence alone had caught the attention of the bystanders, who now stared and chittered behind their hands. Peaches reached up, pulling the hood from his cloak down. Gasps filled the city square, and one or two people kneeled. He turned their way, giving as gentle a smile as he could muster. They, of course, couldn't see, heads to the cobble. Unfortunately expected.

"My Emperor," Gosha said, her voice low. "You must return to the palace at once."

She brimmed with frustrations that she could not voice in his presence. He could imagine quite a few - how dare he disappear without warning, how dare he leave without her, how dare he put himself at risk. Anger and resentment, levied onto him. He could picture her, bitterly hissing her displeasure to her peers at serving the fool peasant-king. No matter or care given to the steps he'd taken to remain safe, the few people he informed of his location. 

But that was alright. It was understandable she was worried. And, perhaps in time, she could appreciate the privacy he'd claimed by leaving her at the palace, considering the citizens' trepidation that her presence brought. And, if he were in her place, hatred of the fool peasant-king would likely poison his senses, as well. 

It was strange. Not quite funny, though it teetered on that border - that the people here, in the glimmering capital, were so similar to those of his village. They were more careful, almost more anxious, tiptoeing into politeness and respect and gestures and shows of such, like peacocks. Gosha did not respect him, nor worry for his safety - merely, she was occupied with concern over the nation's well-being, and the disaster it would wrought if the Ardor-blessed Emperor found a fate as gruesome as Nereen's. The salute she gave and the coolness of her expression were only in response to his status, and not to him. 

It would take time, effort, energy, decisions, to earn that respect. Heirs were given it by virtue of their selection in the first place - handpicked by the Emperor, they were already exemplary in some fashion, already primed for leadership and rule. They carried authority like a mantle, looking down lovingly but distantly on their populace, as Nereen did. And, of course, they shed their previous selves - the ones not wholly fitted for Emperor, the foundations of which buried themselves into the mud and silt, and disappeared under the pressure of court.

It took his breath away, to wonder how deeply that court must hate him. 

"Of course," Peaches said, voice even. That was all he could say. 

With a quick step, he laced his hands behind his back. Gosha followed, a half second behind him, one of her hands on her blade's hilt. Freshly to her station, she too was ruled by paranoia, hands twitching, waiting for the assassin to strike once more. But only citizens milled around them, bowing in deference, one or two reaching for him. 

He kept his gaze forwards, the smile locked.

The palace, rising above the other spiralling towers and buildings around the square, was lit solely by the beacon Blue Flame above one of its towers. But in a moment, the first sun - Alveta - would peek above its spire, and cast a brilliant yellow glow over its radiance and onto beautiful Canthores below.

Maybe, one day, he would live up to all its majesty.