There Are Things You Can’t Escape – Final

There Are Things You Can’t Escape – Final

As promised, here’s the final installment of the Things You Can’t Escape story, which I started back in March of 2016. I really can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finish it, but I’m certainly glad I did. I don’t know if this story will ever end up canon in the universe it was devised for, but it was an interesting exercise. As usual, the final product was nothing like what I thought it would be, but turned out about a million times better. If you haven’t already, you can read the first installment here, part two here and part three over here!
. . .

When Adelle first saw the bright pink splash on the indicator that denoted pregnancy, she breathed a sigh of relief. Bearing a child for her spoiled husband would fulfill her half of the contract. She would be free to return to the life she abandoned, to roam the stars as she saw fit, and offer her skills where they could be best put to use.

But by the time the imperial doctors confirmed she was with child, that relief had faded back to dire trepidation. She dared not leave her child to be raised by her foolish husband, or it would be as spoiled and rotten as he was. And that meant she would need to spend the next twenty years serving as a buffer between them.

Twenty more years as the obedient, doting wife in public. Twenty more years of the endless head-butting behind closed doors. Twenty more years trapped in the most gilded cage ever invented so that she could trade her child for freedom just as her own parents had.

And if she took advantage of that opportunity to escape, what kind of monster would it make her?

*   *   *

“Can’t you make that cursed child shut up?”

Adelle clenched her teeth. Rather than spinning to unleash a tirade on her husband, she focused on gently rocking the baby in her arms. His only curse, after all, was being saddled with an impatient and unreasonable father who possessed the emotional capacity of a slug.

“He is a baby,” she retorted, stressing the last word in hopes her husband would realize that he was not. “He’s cutting teeth and he doesn’t understand why that makes him miserable.”

“Well, I don’t understand why it has to make the rest of us miserable too,” the emperor snarled, predictably failing to comprehend the point. “Why haven’t you given him over to an imperial nurse? There are plenty capable of tending to his needs. He need never want for anything, and you and I need never lack another night of sleep.” The disdain in his voice clearly indicated that the latter matter concerned him far more than the former.

“Because he doesn’t need a nurse, or a maid or a nanny. What he needs are his parents. My mother used to tell me stories about how tirelessly she and my father rose from their beds every night to answer our tears and sniffle and how close a bond it forged between us. He isn’t stupid just because he’s a baby. He recognizes the difference between his kin and a stranger.”

The emperor answered with an eye-roll. Because of course the argument was pointless. He never heard anything he didn’t want to hear. “My parents never raised a finger to do any of the childrearing. They were too busy with the responsibility of ruling an entire galaxy as, I will remind you, am I. If being raised by staff caused no harm or hindrance to me, why should you be so concerned about my son?”

“I don’t necessarily want our son following in your footsteps.” But even during moments like these, the child was always his, never theirs, as if she were some common street whore he had only borrowed to make use of her uterus.

Even the legendary status of her parents couldn’t make her good enough for him, even after she managed to charm her way through the court with cleverness and earned the respect of the imperial advisory council with her intelligence. The more she endeared herself to those surrounding him, the more he hated her, as if she were somehow trying to upstage him or usurp his position. Had he finally realized she was as qualified to sit on his throne as he was? More so, because I actually care about the wellbeing of his subjects more than I care about what I’m eating for dinner or which parties I’m attending next week.

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” he demanded, puffing up his pathetic chest as if trying to convince her he could throw a decent punch if his life depended on it. He was active enough to keep fat and flab off his body, but there was no muscle mass lurking beneath his flowing night robe. He hadn’t come close to a single honest day’s work in his life and if anyone ever asked him to try it, he’d drop dead three hours in. Adelle was convinced of this.

“If you think you can steal my child,” he went on, heedless of the exasperation on her face, “and scurry away to some backwater world-“

Please,” Adelle snarled, undercutting him with venom rather than with volume. It wasn’t as if the capacity of her lungs could beat that of her screaming child anyway. “It’s the very fact that he will be emperor one day that concerns me. Our first and greatest teachers are always our parents. And I won’t hear another word of argument on the matter. You can no more steal my child from me and hand him into the care of a wet nurse.” And he must have learned by now that he could not force her to acquiesce to his requests, outside of helping her choose the proper wardrobe for an occasion, which she had never been any good at to begin with.

She had offered several times to take the child with her to another palace suite until he was old enough to sleep the night. Empresses often had chambers of their own, and she was more than happy to sequester herself within them. But the emperor seemed aware of how it would affect his reputation if he removed himself from his child singly. The court would judge him, judge their relationship strained and his parenting skills lacking. And much as he hated her, he refused to allow himself to be the least bit looked down on.

Adelle put her back to her worthless husband and deepened her swing as she moved her baby gently back and forth, bending her knees slightly. It seemed to work; the baby’s wails became sniffles, and soon they were nothing more than murmurs. Pleased, she crossed the massive bedroom to the corner where she kept the little crib and lowered the baby into it.

Even as she slid her hands out from beneath the tiny form, she was aware that something was wrong. Not with her child – and thank the gods for that! Something was wrong with the situation, with the room. She was familiar enough with her husband by now to know his sleeping patterns. He would shuffle back to the bed when he was sullen. He would spend several minutes tossing and turning, rolling himself in the blankets one way or another while the massive bed frame creaked beneath him. And if he had fallen asleep, there would be snoring. Loud, ungodly snoring.

Instead there was silence, then the soft squeak of slippered feet pivoting on marble flooring.

Adelle acted instinctively, bunching herself smaller as she stood, making herself less of a target as she threw herself to one side, intending to hit the floor and roll into a ready stance. A sharp stab of pain radiated through her shoulder before she got that far. Instead she stumbled two steps to the side, then whirled and regained her bearings, arms in front of her, ready to defend.

The emperor clutched a bloody knife in his hand, eyes ablaze with outrage and hatred. It must have been aimed for her lungs, and she had diverted it with her movement and quick thinking. But she wasn’t sure how deep the knife had plunged or how heavily she might be bleeding. She was aware only of the rush of blood in her ears, the pounding of her heart and the grinding of her teeth as she watched for any sign of movement, knowing her husband would lunge again at any moment.

Where were the guards? They should be pounding down the door already, melting from the shadows. Unseen until they were needed, available in force as soon as that moment came. Had her husband planned this? Had he bribed her guards to keep them at bay? Or worse?

Not that she was incapable of protecting herself. Even facing a crazed lunatic with a knife, Adelle was confident she could gain the upper hand. She was ready when he moved, ducking beneath the swing of the knife, side-stepping and delivering a sharp kick to the emperor’s knee.

His leg buckled and hit the floor, producing a sharp cry of pain in response. The child in the cradle answered it with a wail of his own, and it tore Adelle’s heart that she couldn’t go to him right then.

Instead she backed away from her husband, once again dropping into a ready stance. But even as he launched himself to his feet, raising the knife in both hands over his head, his mad scream caught in his throat.

He choked and sputtered. His eyes widened. The knife tumbled free of his numb fingers and his hands moved to his chest instead, clutching his heart. His lips moved, trying to find words, but only a high-pitched, strangled whine passed through them. His fingers moved frantically from his chest to his neck, but his lips had already turned blue.

With a final, pitiful sigh, he fell to his knees, slumped forward and lay still.

Adelle drew several deep breaths before she dared move forward. The wailing in the crib increased, the baby clearly aware that something had gone terribly wrong, but Adelle needed to be sure before she took her eyes off the emperor’s unmoving form.

Warily, she crossed the space between them, lowered herself to his side, used two fingers to flip him over, then pressed her hand to his neck. No pulse. His eyes were wide and horrified, even in death. His mouth hung open in shock.

Adelle reached down to shift the emperor’s left hand, twisting it at the wrist until she could see his palm. There was an angry red gash there, as if a new wound had only just begun to scar. She glanced at her left hand and there was a dim red line there as well, though it faded quickly.

She sighed. “I promise to honor and protect you,” she said softly, “until the day death parts us. A promise broken when you tried to kill me.” With a sigh of disgust, she dropped his hand and crossed the room to retrieve her crying child.

By the time she lifted him, she heard footsteps rushing down the hall. Boots thunked and heavy armor chinked as the doors wrenched open, banging off the walls as they permitted those outside entry, causing the baby to sob even louder.

Mariel was the first to reach her, arms flying around her shoulders even as she glanced down at the baby. “Are you all right?” she demanded, breathless. “By the gods, you’re bleeding!”

“I’m fine,” Adelle insisted. “At least, I will be.”

“And the emperor?” one of the guards demanded, even as he knelt by the man’s side.

“Dead of his own stupidity,” Adelle replied, her voice low and flat.

*   *   *

Adelle hoped she never had to come back here again. The shrine in which her aged uncle slept sent chills up and down her spine. Not that she thought he would have to sleep much longer, now that the end result of his endeavors could be seen.

“And he just fell over dead?” the wizened old emperor gasped, eyes wide with disbelief.

Adelle bowed her head. “My mother was sometimes gifted with foresight. I can’t help wondering if she ever pierced the veil this far. Why else would she have demanded we include the ritual in our wedding?”

“So it was the magic of your blood, then? It was strong enough, though you’re only half Alphalauran royalty?”

“It could have been nothing else. The mark on my hand lingered for most of a day, but there’s no trace of it now. From what I can tell, it stopped his heart as soon as his intent to kill me proved true. That is the nature of it, how it is said to work in the legends.”

“Powerful magic indeed,” the old emperor coughed. “I can’t say that I’m sorry – though I certainly am sorry about the trouble that’s been caused to you.”

Adelle tensed. This was the portion of the conversation she dreaded most. During the few visits she had made to this place since her arrival, her aged uncle had expressed a fondness for her that she hadn’t expected. Perhaps because she was closer to his memories than his great-grandson. She was the daughter of his brother, after all, and he had watched her climb onto his knee many times when she had been small. But she was not the product of his line, not a part of his legacy, and she expected that to anger him when all was said and done.

“I should have been more careful,” he said instead. “I should have tended my great-grandson instead of locking myself away for some future event.”

“But it is fortunate for me that you did,” Adelle insisted. “Everything now hinges on your word. If you declare me guilty of murder-“

“I would never. The evidence is clear for any who wish to see the truth. My great-grandson was selfish and entitled. He ruled with little regard for the consequences of his decisions. I warned him on numerous occasions that it would lead him to ruin. And I told him not to ignore the ritual performed during his wedding. Old magics are often the strongest. It was his folly that he didn’t believe in them.”

Adelle breathed a sigh of relief, but the issue was far from laid to rest. “Even if that is your ruling, there is the matter of succession to be determined. It will be years before my son is old enough to rule. It is not enough to have a simple regent-“

“Regent?” Her aged uncle laughed so hard it turned into a coughing fit. That fit shook him so hard, one of his nurses scurried from the shadows to fuss over him, patting his back and checking his pulse until he shooed her away.

“My dearest Adelle, you are the daughter of an imperial son. You have as much right to rule as your late husband. Perhaps even more. Your father was the eldest.”

“He also abdicated his position in the line of succession,” she insisted with a shake of her head.

“I believe that marrying back into the line reasserted your position well enough. Rule, Adelle, you are suited to it. The line will remain unbroken. Your son will be your successor. Who should be displeased with this outcome?”

It was true, her late husband had few enough supporters by the end. Once the smoke of scandal cleared, the court would barely notice he was missing. Especially since a shift had already begun to take place during his final days. Perhaps it was her growing popularity that had ultimately driven him to pull the knife on her. She’d hate to think he was stupid enough to kill himself over wanting the baby removed from his chambers.

“I never wanted this,” Adelle gasped, suddenly overwhelmed by the new burden that settled on her shoulders. A lump rose in her throat and she could force no words past it, merely shaking her head instead. Her mother had been haunted by the lives she was responsible for – an entire planet who looked to her for advice and protection. Now Adelle needed to provide the same safety and security for an entire galaxy. How could she?

Her uncle leaned forward and set one withered hand on her knee. “It is the curse of blue blood. But you will weather it well, I think. You are your mother’s daughter.” He straightened. “Setting this matter to rights will be my final act. No one will question your right to rule if I decree it.”

Again, Adelle nodded, swallowing hard before she spoke. “I will teach my son as well as you, Father and Mother taught me.” She would have to contact her sister, but she didn’t think that would be a problem. Their relationship had never been strained and there was no one better to prepare her for the road that lay ahead. Listening to a planetary queen she trusted sounded better than trying to feel her way through the imperial council until she got it right.

Her ancient uncle smiled, pride shining in his eyes. “Then the contract we made was well fulfilled.”

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