Most people would say that it took the usurper Kass roughly two years to start and lose a war between the Darigan Citadel and Meridell. Lady Evelyn would be more exact; she would say it took her cousin 750 days to do so--750 slow days to observe a ruler slowly crackle until his realm collapsed.
On the first day, she was uneasy. Galgarroth was appointed Darigan's successor, but in the chaos after the first war, Kass had managed to grab power instead. The Darigan Kacheek didn't care about the legitimacy of the Lord of the Citadel, so long as they knew how to govern.
Kass did not yet know how to be a ruler. He knew how to strategize, size up the enemy, make sure all the logistical routes were sound, make use of intelligence--but he'd never been in command of civilians. Evelyn supposed it didn't matter much; the previous lord did not know much about ruling well either.
After he was appointed Lord of the Citadel, Lady Evelyn managed to catch him in Lord Darigan's old office, then littered with upturned spell-books and alchemical vials and scratches on every surface imaginable. The tattered banner bearing the Darigan crest still hung behind Kass as he greeted her.
Giant fenestrae occupied the northern and southern walls. The northern end exposed the indigence and squalor of the citadel's dark, empty streets filled with beggars and thieves. The southern end brandished the sunny countryside of Meridell far below, as perfectly serene as a painting.
"So you're our new lord, Kassy," she said to her Eyrie cousin. She did not pay attention to the way his eyes seemed to stare past her into three shadowy figures that existed only in his head. "I guess I have to call you by honorifics now. How's it feel?"
"Oddly unsatisfying," replied Lord Kass, his heavy torso lurching forward, his muscular arms supporting his head.
Evelyn smiled slightly. "Well, it is quite a responsibility, especially after the war, my lord." She looked out the northern window, at the sheer mass of buildings in the Citadel, and she was reminded that at least 55% of those buildings housed, on average, two families, that each family had an average 3.12 Neopians, and each Neopian needed at least 75.0 bronze pieces worth of capital a day to sustain themselves.
Kass stayed silent for a while. His eyes darted to the southern wall and back. "I have a plan."
"Oh? That's good to hear--"
"Still in formulation. You'll hear of the details soon enough."
"I expect nothing less." Evelyn gave Kass a short nod of acknowledgement and sent herself off, her long dress trailing behind her.
Her cousin was never open with her, and she didn't expect him to be now, but the promise of a plan set her at ease. For the next twenty-three days, Lady Evelyn retreated back to her personal estate, crunching statistics and numbers, running affairs of business, and playing chess with the occasional acquaintance.
On the 24th day, hearing nothing from Kass started to concern her, and on the 25th, she wandered aimlessly around her estate until she stumbled upon the door to her late husband's study.
For the first time in what felt like a century, Evelyn raised her arm and flicked her wrists at the door to knock. A thick layer of dust stuck to her knuckles. For a while, habit forced her to wait for a sort of response, but then she remembered.
She stood silently for a while. Everything was as it was when he left a few months ago, arranged in his preferred way, waiting for him to come back and finish reading a book, writing a correspondence to his aunt, arrange the shelves he'd been meaning to put in order.
Embedded within the smell of heated paper and old metal was a whiff of the foul-smelling musk he liked to wear. A small pool gathered in Evelyn's eyes, excising a droplet when she failed to constrain the slow trickle of tears.
"Yarald, I wish you'd been smarter than I was," she said, sitting down on the ground to relieve the pressure on her wooden prosthetic leg. Openly going against Darigan was a mistake, but at least she still escaped his wrath with her life, even if she had lost a limb.
Four months--or, more precisely, 123 more days--passed quickly. The citadel stayed stagnant, but below, the leaves of Meridell lit afire with wondrous reds and yellows. Sir Jeran Borodere and the Yellow Knight came to the Citadel to meet formally with their former enemies, and permanent diplomats were established between the two kingdoms. Evelyn and her ilk had managed to strike a trade deal with the West Meridellian Company, bringing with them a needed injection of wealth into the Darigan Citadel.
Even as rumors of foul play surfaced, Kass's popularity soared. Evelyn had not heard of him since he had become Lord of the Darigan Citadel. On the 214th day of Kass's rule, Evelyn received a visitor: a Darigan Aisha sorceress with tangerine curls.
"Hello, Evie," she said quietly as Evelyn's housemaid offered her a steaming cup of tea whose tendrils grew pronounced in the cold of winter. The sorceress's dull green eyes escaped Evelyn's. "It's nice to meet you."
Evelyn could not help but see the child that still lived inside the sorceress. "It's been a while, Chantelle. How
have you been--you know, since--?"
"Good." Her usual answer, even when it was painfully obvious it was not so.
"I'd imagine you have more freedom with him out of the picture."
Chantelle did not like to speak ill of the dead, and especially not Lord Darigan. She stared at the swirls of her tea and gulped down a sip. "You would think so."
Evelyn raised a thin brow. "Really?"
"Morguss is still there."
The two spoke on a variety of topics, from the most fashionable poet of the day to the economy to the types of biscuits they both preferred. Chantelle waited until the topic had shifted to Kass before she said, "Have you noticed anything strange about him?"
"I can't say I've noticed anything about him. Have you?"
"Oh... somewhat," said Chantelle. She raised her shoulders slightly, stretching her too-small robes over her body. "I think his behavior must be because he's stressed, is all."
"So he’s been behaving differently.”
Chantelle's lips morphed into a half-smile. "He's starting to hold rallies in the central square. You should try attending one when you have the time."
Evelyn promised that she would, but many things had taken precedence over such an insignificant promise. On the 193rd day of Lord Kass's reign, news had broken out throughout the citadel that a loyalist to a "proper" successor to the throne had slipped and fell off the citadel. Many cheered the death of that “vile traitor”; only some came to question it; and the rest fell silent, unsure whether it was their place to say anything.
Evelyn knew that the loyalist was disappeared. She wanted to believe it untrue, that her normally reasonable cousin would not stoop to removing those he disagreed with. But facts overcame her personal wishes, so she remembered Chantelle’s remarks that Kass’s behavior had changed.
With an obscure conversation she’d had a few months ago playing in her head, she wrapped an old scarf around her neck so that it hid half her face and donned a heavy surcoat that used to belong to her husband.
A large crowd gathered around a podium in the central square of the citadel, around which two Skeith Guards covered in full armor established themselves. Snowflakes floated down from a storm cloud overhead, their crystalline structures destroyed when they landed on the ashen roads.
It was not long before Evelyn saw her cousin take center stage, decorated in white armor with golden, avian figures at the hems. The crowd’s amorphous chatter slowly took shape into a chant of Kass’s name, and the Eyrie lord smiled.
Evelyn stepped back under the eave of a nearby building, hoping its shadow would be enough to conceal her from the crowd. She’d missed the beginning of Kass’s speech relocating.
“… Our kingdom has recovered greatly from the war--and has entered a newfound time of freedom and prosperity from the tyrant Darigan…”
It was not something Evelyn disagreed with.
“But there are those who would take these gifts away from us, who would still pose a threat to us, those who would take us into another war! In the name of selfishness!”--and the crowd seemed to yell collectively in a state of primal frenzy--“In the name of greed!”--and like a true showman, Kass extended an arm and bowed as a red banner bearing the likeness of Meridell’s king--“In the name of King Skarl!”
The sheer absurdity of these words had shocked Evelyn enough that she did not hear the piercing, hysterical screams of the crowd. Even those non-zealots offered at least weak boos and held up loud, obnoxious signs proclaiming the supremacy of Lord Kass out fear that they would be caught dissenting. “A change in behavior, she says,” she muttered. He’s gone mad.
Kass raised a fist in the air. “And my people, tell me, shall we prostrate ourselves to their every command?”
“No!” the crowd hurled back.
Evelyn shrunk away from the peculiar creature known as the crowd. It was a creature governed not by reason, intellect, or even wise instinct that stood the test of time, but the whims of empty words and loaded questions.
“Shall we let ourselves be attacked?”
Kass stretched the fingers of his hands in front of him and moved his hands downwards, prompting the crowd to quiet down. “Then, what is the verdict of the people?”
Evelyn had not journeyed far enough away to hear the distant echo of their verdict: war.
By the 194th day, the newly renamed Kass Citadel announced a treaty of friendship with Meridell, a treaty that declared peace between the two kingdoms for one thousand years.
Evelyn decided that he had become nothing more than a more unhinged Darigan, a madman who believed attacking poor peasants below would somehow restore the citadel to prosperity. At least Darigan had the orb as a rallying cry; Kass had the excuse of imagined slights and threats. He could not be allowed to go on like this much longer.
On the the 200th day, Evelyn met with Adviser Galgarroth--well, former Adviser Galgarroth. He had been locked in his own living quarters for 100 days under heavy guard. He paced around his bed, occasionally brushing against the walls and reciting a classic poem aloud, like a caged bird. When he saw Lady Evelyn, he stood still and curious.
"I haven't seen you in a long time," he said, his voice dipping. "How are you?"
"All right. And you?"
"I could be better."
"Clearly. I'm just here to deliver this, from your sister."
The Darigan Kacheek handed Galgarroth a small, unremarkable locket with only a micro-portrait of Lord Darigan inside. At least, that's what security had determined before allowing Evelyn to deliver it. Galgarroth turned the silver locket in his palm and felt the small, patterned edges with the tips of his finger. "Is that all?"
"She wishes you well."
On the 215th day, Evelyn found a letter hidden behind invisible ink and a cypher on her desk:
You were right. He cannot be allowed to stay.
Overcome evil with good.
KASS ALMS 435 in 400 at 11 BUT 500
The numbers were codes sometimes used in the Darigan military, for actions, alerts, or even subjects. 435 stood for request for supply that was needed in 400 days at the eleventh district of the citadel, and 500 stood for intelligence breach. They meant to stage a coup and replace Kass with one of his generals--General Alms Ranid.
The last number, 432, referred to Master Vex. Evelyn narrowed her eyes. Now that was someone she never wanted to hear from again.
A day later, Master Vex received a message by Crokabek: 001. Approved.
On the 270th day, Evelyn saw Chantelle in her study and started another pleasant conversation with her. One topic led to the other, and Chantelle decided to take a small detour.
“Evie,” she said, her voice taking on a dull cadence, “Do you know what the Three are?”
"I can't say I do." A lie.
"They're demons," replied Chantelle. "Well, purported demons, anyway. It's said they whisper in people's ears and encourage them to act on their darkest desires--ambition, greed, vengeance..."
"That sounds rather fanciful. A dumb excuse to explain why people will commit evil actions."
"It does, doesn't it?" Chantelle said. "Have you ever wondered how things might be if they did exist?"
"Much the same. Nobody would need their help."
When Chantelle's visit was over and Evelyn stepped out of her study, she noticed the edge of a white apron sweep into the curve of the hall. Her housemaid wasn't supposed to be there.
On the 284th day, Lady Evelyn discovered a dead drop in her estate's garden where her housemaid had been leaving notes and letters to the castle.
On the 300th day, playing children were reflected in the suspicious eyes of the guardsmen that were now stationed at every corner. Kass had ordered them to patrol the streets in search for Meridellian spies and Darigan dissidents. In other words, it was just as when Lord Darigan once ruled.
On the 363th day, Lady Evelyn invited herself to the castle. She entered her cousin's office just as she had on the first day. The office had been cleaned up. The marble flooring was replaced, and the walls repainted. The southern window remained untouched, and the northern window was removed and replaced with a gigantic portrait of Kass. Behind him, the tattered banner had been replaced with a new one, bearing the sword-and-shield crest of the Kass Citadel.
Kass’s jerky movements as he looked up to her resembled that of a marionette. His otherwise dead eyes were sparked by a minute, restless movement.
"Lord Kass," he corrected.
Evelyn resisted the urge to roll her eyes. He always took himself too seriously. "Right. All blessings and greetings, my lord."
"What do you want?"
"It's almost been a year, and you still haven't gotten back to me."
Kass's voice was tinged with irritation. "Is that really why you've come here?"
"Family's important," replied Evelyn. "It's incumbent on me to determine your condition."
"I've been busy."
Not too busy to keep tabs on me. "As you should be. Don't exhaust yourself."
The 364th day of Kass's rule was declared a holiday. Festivals and celebrations sprung up all across the Citadel, and impassioned speakers yelled for hours about the glory of Lord Kass. The creature known as the crowd stained the streets; laughter erupted into furor, and then dissolved again into silence; impromptu declarations of war milled through audiences; swords were raised to the sky.
On the 380th day, Evelyn had a nightmare. She was running away from a shadow that pursued her through thick smoke, toward the silhouette of a Gelert knight spotlighted by a thin trail of moonlight. She never neared any closer to him no matter how much she ran, and at some point, through panicked gasps of breath, the earth faerie from Meridell appeared before her.
She raised her hands laterally to block Lady Evelyn's path. Behind the faerie, the silhouette of the Gelert knight dissolved as black specks into the smoke, and Evelyn had a sort of vague realization it was Yarald.
The pursuing shadow neared Evelyn and surrounded her. For a few moments, she could see nothing but black and the glistening teeth of a smile.
She was responsible, wasn't she? a voice crept from aside. Without seeing the Gelert floating behind her, Evelyn knew the speaker to be Revenge.
And it was at this point that Evelyn realized the sheer absurdity of the situation she was in. With a curt snap of the fingers, she vented away the fog all around her.
“No, she didn’t—Darigan did. He the one who wanted us out of the way, who so dearly wanted his war. He was the one who send him where he was sure to perish.” Evelyn paused, then screamed into the darkness: “And you helped him do it! This is my mind, and my dream: get out!”
The earth faerie in front of her morphed into a ghostly faerie with a burning heart visible through her thick cloak. She was one of the Three, Ambition. You're making a mistake. Nobody in this citadel is fit to rule it properly--you think so, don't you?
Before she could finish her sentence, Evelyn split the earth and let the faerie fall through. "Goodbye."
On the 451st day, forges all across the Kass Citadel spewed foul exhaust as swords entered and exited furnaces. Some of this work was funded by Evelyn, to disabuse any aspersions, real or imagined, cast against her. A long chain of subsidiaries were already hard at work funneling lethal support to the coup effort.
On the 503rd day, Evelyn received a letter from the castle, helpfully informing her that some of her assets were unaccounted for because they were being stolen. Evelyn was forced to do something about it, and within days, she put her laundering to a stop. She was confident that she had provided enough supplies to the coup.
On the 517th day, a brown Aisha dressed in dancer's garb visited Evelyn's estate, but she was not a stranger. It took some staring into her emerald eyes before Evelyn realized that this was Chantelle. Evelyn invited her inside, and the housemaid hovered between them, catering to their every request.
“That’s quite the transformation,” said Lady Evelyn in her usual low, polished accent. “What’s it for?”
“I’m going—I’m going to Meridell, to work as a dancer there.” Seeing Evelyn’s face slightly contort into confusion, she continued, “I know it’s odd, but I’ve always loved dancing, Evie, and… and I can escape from Morguss there.”
Evelyn winced like a concerned mother. “So you’re going to dance in taverns now?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that—it’s the king’s court, see? Kass needed to send a gift of friendship to the Meridellians, and I was the perfect candidate.”
As if that made anything any better. But before she made any observations, Evelyn snapped her fingers and called her maid over. “Oh dear, this is quite the change. I need something to calm my mind, like autumnberry juice.”
“Autumnberry?” squeaked the Acara maid. “That will take a long time. Are you sure I can’t get you anything quicker to prepare?”
“I desire autumnberry juice.”
“Do you want to keep your job or not?”
The maid nodded. With her head pressed down, she skirted out of Evelyn’s quarters. Evelyn leaned forward to Chantelle, and in a hushed voice, she said, “He put you up to this? Chantelle, you’re a powerful sorceress and a great scholar, he wouldn’t send you away to Meridell to become a lowly dancer.”
“It was more Morguss’s idea,” replied Chantelle.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I beg you: please don’t do this. You’ll either die or live to regret it.”
Chantelle turned her head to the side. “I know what I’m getting into but--you know what Kass has become. I can’t really disobey him, and besides--I’m so close to finding a solution. I can’t abandon him now.”
On the 527th day, Chantelle departed for Meridell.
On the 598th day, Kass had launched a few preliminary attacks onto the land below, and the court’s response was nonexistent, leaving local militias and untrained peasants with farming tools to face against the citadel’s professional army. They did not last for long.
On the 615th day, the coup against Kass failed. Kass’s spies had managed to identify the defecting military officials and arrested anyone who might have had the faintest connection to the coup. That “anyone” included Evelyn.
General Alms was shackled, weighed down with his own armaments, and flung off the citadel. Galgarroth was drawn and quartered to the Darigan dungeons, where he claimed responsibility for the “organized theft” from Evelyn’s companies.
Evelyn was let free, but not before many of Kass’s guards were stationed at every corner of her house, and from then on, all she could do was watch. She could only watch as Meridellian villages burned to the ground, as more and more of Kass’s troops swarmed the kingdom. She could only watch as Morguss’s blight spell--so powerful that even Illusen could not counteract it--ravaged the Meridellian countryside.
By Fyora, Chantelle… what have you agreed to? she thought as smog and desolation enveloped her estate, and the war raged below. Inside, time didn’t appear to pass at all, and she spent it reading books and running her own affairs, much like any other regular day.
Once, when her housemaid came to serve breakfast, she started crying. “I’m sorry, Lady Evelyn, he was going to harm--”
“It’s all right,” the Kacheek replied.
On the 670th day, Chantelle’s mesmerizing spell on the court was broken by Lisha of Meridell, and the kingdom started to fight back under the command of Sir Jeran Borodere. It was all too little, too late. No army fielded by Meridell this late could fight back against the disciplined forces of the Citadel.
Their defensive measures, viewed from Evelyn’s estate, even seemed to be a little cartoonish. Hot air balloons and gigantic Turtums ranked among Meridell’s knights and conscripted forces. They seemed to pull up a good resistance, but it was ultimately not good enough.
On the 721st day, a quarrelsome squad had made the mistake of attacking an Usul girl named Sally in the east of Meridell. The girl had been taking care of an injured beast named Mr. Scary, who quickly and efficiently fended off the soldiers. It was then that Mr. Scary remembered who he was: Lord Darigan. Evelyn swore she could have seen a familiar, emaciated gray Korbat fly overhead.
On the 730th day, with no other options available to him, Sir Jeran Borodere had decided to launch a sneak attack on the Citadel. Evelyn watched as the guards locking down on the estate ran to deal with the sudden flood of Meridellian knights on the wealthy districts of the citadel.
With her newfound freedom, Evelyn grabbed her old sword and snuck out of the estate, running to the castle, with an odd notion in her head to put an end to this once and for all. What was the use in covertness when everything was already destroyed?
Jeran himself was engaged in a fight with Kass. They seemed to be evenly matched, until Jeran made a wrong move and found himself hanging for his life on the edge of the citadel. As if it took no effort at all, Kass pushed him off.
He gloated in his victory--he did it. He had done it. He won.
Then Darigan arrived. He fought and pleaded with Kass to stop his madness, to break free of the demons that controlled him. Ultimately, he had to put him down, and the Three turned Kass to ash.
On the 736th day, Darigan brokered a peace treaty with Meridell.
On the 750th day, Darigan had officially crowned himself Lord of the Citadel. He had come back a transformed man, a humble man who had sincerely declared a peace between the Darigan Citadel and Meridell that would last one thousand years.
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed slightly when she’d met Darigan for the first time and had to call him “lord” again. For a few moments Darigan met her gaze, and he knew she would never allow any failure from him.
She did not believe he would live to the promise.