By the Tail of the Manticore

Chapter One

The Vacant Throne

Piazza Lucrezia, Cadrigrano,
Kingdom-Electorate of Dagomarca, Volscina
December 7th, 2023

A thousand banners snapped and fluttered in the winter breeze, each proudly displaying its own unique pattern of heraldry. They hung from the eaves of the Palazzo Imperiale’s central dome, each flag a jewel picked from across the Empire and set into the building’s crown. Elio almost fancied he could pick out the scarlet crest of Alcogna, but the veritable forest of flags robbed each other of any distinguishability. Having spent most of his life within the grounds of the Alcognese ducal estate, it was beginning to dawn on him that he didn’t exactly get out much, though if he was being honest with himself he’d never anticipated that he’d ever be compelled to in the first place. Unlike his elder brother, Elio was a secondary heir, and until his father’s recent abdication he had little to no responsibility in the realm of state. Like so many things, however, that had changed with his brother’s elevation to dukedom. Donato was now the Duke of Alcogna, and Elio his chosen representative to the Dieta Imperiale. It wasn’t that he resented his brother’s choice exactly, but he couldn’t help but feel that nepotism had beaten out experience under the guise of tradition.

A tactful cough from behind him interrupted Elio’s train of thought, “My lord, I do not wish to intrude on your introspection, but if we linger here any longer you will not make it to your seat before the Diet convenes.”

Elio sighed, turning to face his new personal bodyguard. Raul Darozani was a tall, intimidating man, and since their first encounter Elio had thought his angular features cut to the image of classical nobility far more sharply than his own more elegant countenance. Raul was, of course, correct about the risk of delaying things any longer, and Elio had no wish to be seen coming in late to his first official appearance in the capacity of Alcognese representative, but he couldn’t help but feel reminding one’s master of his obligations was not part of a bodyguard’s duties. Besides, while Raul always maintained a tone of even politeness, Elio got the impression that it was more out of obligation than any sense of genuine respect. He had been a captain in the Alcognese Ducal Guard prior to his reassignment, and while it was technically both an honor and a promotion, Elio suspected that he was still bitter about losing his previous command.

“We’d best get moving then,” Elio said, turning back towards the open doors of the Palazzo Imperiale. Sparing him only a nod in response, Raul fell into step a short distance behind and to the right of his charge, the customary position for a royal warden throughout the Volscine Empire of old. Though it was a habit Elio had observed multiple times before, such a guard position hadn’t been standard practice in Alcogna for at least two hundred years, and he had yet to figure out where exactly his bodyguard had picked up the quirk.

They proceeded in step through the high-arched gate of the Palazzo, the echoes of their footsteps mingling with those of hundreds of other representatives and minor officials as they crossed the marble-tiled entrance hall. Elio stopped near the base of a wide, sweeping staircase, hesitating at the bottom step.

“Raul?” he said, making an effort to hide his discomfort behind a mask of false confidence, “Why don’t you ring up the house while you’re waiting. Ask Lauro to have supper prepared by the time we get back.”

“Of course, my lord.” his bodyguard acceded.

Elio shot him an awkward smile of thanks, painfully aware that Raul could see right through his facade of bravado. He’d always been a terrible liar—something Donato should have considered before condemning him to a life of politics—and he could only pray that he wouldn’t similarly embarrass himself before the empress. His trepidation was more than a simple case of nerves; Empress Ilde Estra hailed from Brevento, the historical rival of Alcogna. While relations between the two states had stabilized during the age of the Volscine Confederation, Elio’s father reignited the old rivalry when he ran against Ilde Estra for the Imperial Throne in 2015. His loss had dredged up feelings of bitterness towards Brevento that traced back hundreds of years, and Elio had no wish to become the target of those sentiments by disappointing his subjects on the grandest stage in Volscina.

He reached the top of the stairs, steadied himself on the handrail, and took a moment to calm himself. Cursing his own nervousness, Elio forced himself to walk forward, to push through the gathering crowd of delegates and minor nobility, and to walk out onto the second-story balcony that seated the College of Princes. Half in a daze he found his seat, one row down from the entrance and directly across from the College of Electors. He took his seat, soon joined on his left by a portly middle-aged gentleman with a golden half-laurel clipped to his graying hair. The older man busied himself with straightening his collar, then stopped, appearing to only have just noticed Elio’s presence. He half turned in his seat, extending a white-gloved hand accompanied by a smile of seemingly genuine embarrassment.

“My apologies, I don’t believe we’ve met before.” he said, hand drooping somewhat as Elio failed to reciprocate, “I am Lord Brancazio Serondaro, here on behalf of the Barony of Larona—I take it you must be the Marchese di Alcogna? It’s truly a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Elio nodded, bemused, and reached out to catch Brancazio’s proffered handshake before it fell completely, “You’ve heard of me? I didn’t realize my reputation preceded me so.”

“Well,” Brancazio chuckled, “I do make a habit of reading up on my closest colleagues in the Diet, and I think you’ll find that Larona and Alcogna have largely been in agreement regarding past subjects of debate.”

Though Brancazio evidently held Alcogna in some position of high regard, Elio himself could only smile awkwardly as he desperately tried to remember anything at all about the Barony of Larona. He seemed to recall it was somewhere near the border with Cavellan, but couldn’t for the life of him think of anything worthy of comment. A sudden tolling of bells spared him the embarrassment, each note cutting through the clamor of the Diet chamber until only an expectant hush remained. Elio allowed himself a silent sigh of relief as Brancazio leaned back in his seat, his colleague’s chattiness temporarily curbed by the call for silence. He paused, frowned to himself, and then turned back to Elio, hissing something under his breath.

“Call it my sight going with my age, but this session’s about to start and I’m noticing a distinct absence in the monarch department.”

He had a point—while the raised dais that seated the College of Electors was almost filled to capacity, the empress’ second-story box above it held only an empty throne.

“That’s not unusual though, is it?” Elio whispered back, watching as Realm-Chancellor Nosce approached the podium at the head of the electoral dais.

Brancazio shrugged, ignoring a disapproving glance from the delegate to his left, “Not terribly unusual, no, but considering today’s topic of debate concerns her own state, it is somewhat unexpected.”

It wasn’t something Elio had considered, but Brancazio had a point. He recalled that the purpose of the current meeting was to discuss the leveling of sanctions on the Company of the Manticore, a condottieri regiment gone rogue. Half of their command structure was already in custody for acts of politically motivated domestic terrorism, and there were widespread concerns that the entire company had fallen to extremism. As one of the more privileged militia regiments founded during the War of Seven Emperors, they had historically held close ties to the ruler of their state of origin. While their conduct had been nothing short of maverick since before the Civil War, the fact that their home state was none other than Brevento raised a few questions that no one was eager to ask. Elio certainly didn’t envy Nosce’s position. In the empress’ absence he was the primary representative of the Imperial Throne, and by extent partially in representation of Brevento.

“Representatives of the Empire of Volscina,” began the chancellor, pausing momentarily to adjust his microphone, “I hereby declare that the Imperial Diet is now in session. We convene today to address the proposal raised by the honorable delegate from Dagomarca. Regarding their involvement in the acts of terrorism that took place in San Orazio last month, a request has been put forward to temporarily suspend the condottieri status of the Company of the Manticore to better facilitate a full Imperial investigation of their ranks.”

Elio leaned back into his seat, eyes drifting around the chamber as the session began. He knew he had an important role in the Diet, but he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy for Raul. At least all his bodyguard had to do was make a call and stand around for the next few hours.