Rook Aries took a moment to admire himself in the mirror. A ghastly thing, decadent silver and gold, the frame almost drowning out the glass within it.
The Margrave of the Long Marches himself cut a fine figure, at least, in a theatrically beaten set of armour. He was a towering man of six and a half foot, broad in the shoulder, square in the jaw, blind in one eye with a long scar through it.
"Reckon we got enough streamed through the gates, boss!" his captain barked. "You ready to scrag the little c-nt yet?"
The little c-nt whined.
"Give him a good kick for me," Aries muttered. "I'm getting ready. Composin' myself."
She obliged. He whined some more, his broken crown wobbling precariously on his battered head. His finery had been wrenched from him, leaving him in a tattered purple tunic, deflated hose, a single sheepskin boot.
"Some f-cking king this is," the captain said, with a derisive snort. "How many people in the northwest, and they pick... what, you? Spat out the arse end of a fancy family tree?"
"Maybe they picked him for the face," observed another officer, this one with one of the king's ermine mantles draped insolently over his armour. "He got it stamped on all his coins."
"Yeah? I'd rather see how it looks on the end of a pike."
At this, the would-be King sputtered, found some defiance. "You can't- you can't! This is treason-"
Aries laughed - a great, booming laugh, and his officers followed suit. "Treason, eh? I like it a hell of a lot better than 'Crownhome'." He wheeled, grabbed the King by his collar, and dragged him out into the overcast skies, in front of the crowds baying for blood. A few royalists in the crowd moaned or gasped, and soldiers in green tabards glanced at the faces, took mental note. Their work wasn't done yet.
Aries let the crowd cheer itself out, cutting them off near the end. "Citizens of the Confederacy of the Long Marches!" he boomed. "I bring the man who called himself your King."
The crowd booed and jeered, getting into the spirit of the occasion. A broad-shouldered, popular boy in the mask of the Margrave got them going further, prowled the stage restlessly, hyped them up. Someone threw a tennis-ball at the King, a smaller figure, bouncing it off his head. A teacher looked over sharply. "Markus!" she hissed, but that just triggered further laughter in the audience.
The boy with the King's misshapen mask got unsteadily to his feet. "It is my birthright that brings me my title. Your def... defiance is not- does not stop that from being the truth."
Aidan Brosque shifted across in his chair, and leaned into his host's ear. "The kid playing the King always gets nervous," he murmured. "If the audience gets too hyped-up, they've been known to storm the stage."
"It's on-brand for the part," observed Triffid Ramsey, glancing across in the way that all parents do, to look for her kid.
A parent in front of them turned around with a severe expression, to reprimand them for the noise- then her eyes widened, and she turned back, face pale. Brosque grinned.
"- for I am King Cornelius, and you w- will bow before me!"
The crowd booed again. A masked plant in the audience stood and turned dramatically, before pointing at the King. "And I am the Artisan, one who crafts for the good of the nation! I name your true name, Arthur Howard - you are no King of mine!"
Another girl, long-boned and red-haired, did a little twirl as she stood from the now-cheering crowd. "And I am the Architect, one who builds up the nation! I name your true name, Arthur Howard - you are no King of mine!"
Another powerfully-built boy, almost a man, stood up - the crowd got even more intense, whipping itself up into a fever. "And I am the Archer, one who slew your henchmen to cleanse the nation! I name your true name, Arthur Howard - you are no King of mine!"
It was all news to Harriet Connell, Ramsey's wife. "Is this a cult thing?" she accidentally said aloud.
"It's just the annual pageant for Liberation Day, love," said Ramsey, soothing tone in her bizarre blend of accents. "The primary school kids do a, uh. I think it's Aries refusing and breaking the crown. Then the high schoolers re-enact the-"
"Well, hardly re-enact, it's a f-cking play for kids, Triff," said Brosque.
"- the king being deposed, and his surrender. They love that, there's a fight and everything. And the college kids do the execution... oh, here she is!"
Kendra Ramsey strode forward, wearing an angular mask in terracotta - the colour of dried, common blood. "And I am the Hangman," she said, gravely. "Not for you the honour of the axe or sword. I will end your life as I have ended countless others - twitching on the end of a rope."
The Artisan, Architect and Archer dragged the would-be King to the wooden gallows, the Hangman put the noose around his neck, the Margrave announced his death sentence, the Hangman pulled a satisfyingly heavy lever and the King obligingly jumped into a hole under the gallows, seemingly into oblivion, though the rope's slackness betrayed his safety.
At that, the crowd went f-cking wild.
After the pageant came the feast, here represented by the usual low-tier catering for school events like these. Aidan Brosque wasn't especially bothered - he was a man happy with gristle in his pies and instant gravy on his chips, despite the millions he'd earned from his career.
"Gotta say, your daughter's a natural Nepharim," he admired. "Must be popular, too, to get the part."
"I'm amazed she finds the time to be well-liked, with how much time the academy demands from her," Harriet said.
"It is what it is," said Brosque philosophically. "They get more schooling these days, anyway. It's probably for the best. If you didn't make it, in my day... and of course, most don't."
"I'm surprised to see you so progressive," said Ramsey drily.
Brosque's nose twitched. "Eh? Look, I know I look like some hard-Nephxit knuckle-dragger, but I ain't. Nobody wants to see kids f-cked out of an honest living by the machine. Least of all..."
Footsteps came racing over, feet belonging to a long-legged, coltish girl, last spotted in a terracotta mask. Ramsey's hard face softened, Harriet's soft face glowed. "Kendra," they both said.
"You saw me, right?" she said, in a thick Schottic brogue that made Harriet give Brosque a meaningfully smug glance. "So weird! But kind of thrilling, too. You know, for a moment I was so there. Like I was really pulling that lever... wait, why are you here?"
Brosque looked the picture of innocence, grabbing another couple of sausage rolls from the buffet. "I'd better let you get on with things. You've got my number... Ramsey."
A couple of hours later, they were home. Kendra had been nudged off to her room after further assurances that, yes, they were all proud of her, with the understanding she was going to stay cooped up there until passing out after midnight. That left her mothers free to break out the moderately good wine and to discuss why, precisely, the national manager of the Cormorants had rocked up to their daughter's college.
"It's just absurd. All this talk of being Nepharim," said Harriet, wine elegantly perched between her fingers. She knew nothing about Nephara and cared little for football; it was part of her appeal, in Ramsey's eyes. "How long has she spent in this country?"
"A year," said Ramsey.
"Barely even that. She almost spent as much time in my womb. for Christ's sake. Can't say more Schottic than that, even leaving aside the fifteen years that came after..."
"She's learning how to be Nepharim now," said Ramsey firmly.
"I... look, I didn't expect to be abroad, let alone so soon-"
"But you took the job."
"My career comes first. Alissar have done right by me, I intend to do right by them. And..." Ramsey checked herself, sighed. "No, sorry. I'm... I know it's hard on you. You're managing, right?"
"I am." Harriet smiled tightly. It hurt being reminded of where the money came from in this relationship, the prestige, but... that pragmatism was as Nepharim as regicide. And Triff raking in the cash was how she got to stay home, with part-time interior decoration work spicing up her days. The slow pace of her life suited her - a slowly rounding waistline was testament to that - and Kendra was at an age where she needed guidance and oversight, not a constant, steady hand. "Thriving, really. New country, new challenges... I think I needed it. It's just this whole thing with Nepharim heritage. I didn't think you cared so much, frankly."
"I didn't, either," Ramsey admitted. "The country reminded me. My father was... hardly unknown in Schottia, but here? He's practically a God. It weighs on me, and the same burden falls on Kendra."
"All these youth managers keep sniffing around her. Have they talked to you, too?"
"Is she... actually good enough?"
"I think so. Remember, I was never capped at any level. And the choice is hers, at the end of the day. It's... an informed choice, now. If she feels Schottic to her core, who am I to intervene?"
That took Harriet aback. "Really? You aren't going to insist on Nephara, even with this new... heritage factor? Your role as footballing royalty here, and all."
Ramsey chuckled, and refilled both their glasses. "Really, Harriet, if today's taught the two of you anything, it should be what Nephara does to its royalty..."