Skycloud returned to some semblance of calm.
The people were blissfully unaware of the troubles faced by the Temple. Instead, the public eye was focused on a number of other compelling pieces of news.
First, Arcturus and his chosen commanders were ratified by the Temple. Second, the Polaris family had picked up and left Skycloud, bound for the town which birthed them. The expeditionary force – once under the command of General Skye – was now taking orders from the promising Frost de Winter.
Third was the surprising revelation that Skycloud’s richest merchant family, the Lunae’s, had gone bankrupt. Its vast business empire was dissolved and many of its shops were shuttered. What remained was sold off to other families to try and over losses. Garuda Lunae, the man responsible for his family’s glorious success, had died.
For the common folk of Skycloud, each one of these revelations was worth gossiping over. Even though it was hardly surprising that Arcturus’ appointment as high military commander was confirmed, it was still the first time in the realm’s history that its highest political and military post was handled by the same man.
By right, the Temple had the final say in approving this appointment, and while word was there had been much debate, Arcturus was given command when all was said and done. It all felt very rushed.
However, as far as the people were concerned, this was a good thing. For years Skycloud’s military had suffered setbacks, and this had been inexorably tied to the withering talent of the Polaris family. General Skye had been in his eighties when he fell. While he was a mighty War-God in his youth, no one could deny he’d lost steam over the years. At any rate, a single link couldn’t hold a chain together.
What Skycloud needed was a younger, stronger, more capable leader. They found that in Arcturus Cloude. Not only were his abilities as vaulted as the clouds, he was renowned for his wisdom and adroitly led the greatest demonhunter family in Skycloud’s history. With qualifications like that, he was uniquely suited for the job of keeping their home safe.
The second piece of news also spawned whispers. By leaving Skycloud, the Polaris family was effectively removing themselves from the noble ranks of the city. It also meant they held no more stake in the expeditionary force or its leadership. After such a crushing loss, many suspected it wouldn’t be long before the Polaris family faded into obscurity.
How the mighty have fallen! It was amazing to think that the brilliant Polaris family could lose all its luster overnight. All the citizens sighed over their misfortune.
By comparison, the third piece of news was almost an afterthought. The Lunae family’s patriarch – once the richest man in the realm – was dead. Without his leadership and business acumen, the family had fractured. Now they were merely a collection of lowly merchants, lingering on without any happy prospects in their future.
If that were all it would hardly be news, of course. The day Garuda hanged himself, he’d been visited by the newly minted commander of the Drake Corps. Hammont Seacrest was at the Lunae family manor for half an hour, then left. That night they discovered Garuda dead in his study.
What did the commander, this relatively unknown man, have to do with Garuda’s suicide? It was fodder for many whispered conversations.
Everyone knew about the Lunae family’s relationship with the expeditionary forces. Garuda had bankrolled the army, putting his whole family’s support behind it. But really, it was more accurate to say that Garuda and his people had thrown their support in with the Polaris family.
Vast were the Lunae family coffers, but in the end they were just another merchant family. Ingratiating themselves to the Cloude family earned them no respect. While the Cloude family had lost many of its illustrious members in recent days, it was still the greatest family in all of Skycloud. Why would they soil their reputation by cavorting with merchants?
The Polaris family had been Garuda’s best bet, and he tried to solidify their partnership by contributing wealth. What misfortune, then, that the Polaris family patriarch should fall in battle, taking his family’s lofty position with him – as well as all of Garuda’s investments.
Suspicions were that the pressure of his family’s bankruptcy was too much. Garuda hung himself in shame. Others posited that he was killed by Hammont Seacrest, though offered no reason as to why. Only Skycloud’s richest merchant knew the truth, and he could not share his tale. Now the Lunae family was gone, vanished on the breeze like Garuda’s final death rattle.
Once mighty noble families now in decline, like beautiful foliage turned brown and withered. Halls once crowded with proud representatives now lay empty, from magnificence to poverty.
A golden haired young woman stood in the doorway to her former home and looked across its empty spaces. She stepped inside, drawing her eyes across the familiar scenery. The mighty guards that made her feel safe were gone, the maids who catered to her every whim nowhere to be seen. Only the aging housekeeper approached to greet her.
“Miss, you’ve returned.” The elderly man watched as Claudia Lunae wiped the tears from her face. “The master hasn’t been buried yet. You should go in and say your farewells.”
Claudia nodded, then walked toward the reception hall. She was trailed by a young girl with dazzling blue eyes. The old housekeeper saw her, but voiced no questions.
The richest man’s viewing was surprisingly demure. He was resting in a simple coffin, a rotund body that had been respectfully groomed. Pale fingers were netted over his chest. If it weren’t for his dull flesh and the lack of movement, one might fool themselves into thinking he was merely sleeping.
A patriarch was gone, and all those who rode his coattails scattered to the winds. Claudia remembered the richest man in Skycloud as larger than life. Now, he was so vulnerable.
Claudia approached the coffin and stood over her father’s remains. She shut her eyes as a wave of sadness swelled within her. She wasn’t sad for her family’s fall from grace. Her melancholy wasn’t even really for her father’s death. She was sad because she never felt close to any of them. Even now this sadness didn’t match the sorrow she felt when Raithe died.
The man she called her father was about as shrewd as one could be, but also gave everyone the impression of being somewhat of a dullard. He was determined to guide his family into the circles of power, even going so far as to use his own daughter as a tool toward that end. Yet despite his deepest wishes and efforts, this was the result.
“Claudia, you’ve come back.”
“Mother. How are you doing?”
Claudia saw a haggard middle-aged woman approach. Her brows tightened when she looked closer. While it’d only been a couple months since the last time she visited, her mother looked to have aged twenty years. Her eyes were lusterless and dull, out of focus, like she wasn’t really present.
Madam Lunae could hardly contain her sorrow. “I can’t see any longer, but… it’s for the best. This world holds too many fatal temptations. Sometimes, being blind is a blessing.”
Claudia reached out to support her mother. That was when she saw two attendants laden with bags. “You’re preparing to leave?”
“Garuda is gone, as is the family. I’ll be returning to my ancestral home and will grow old there, far away from this place.” Madam Lunae reached out to gently caress her daughter’s face. “I know you never had a good relationship with your family, but he was the head of our clan. He was burdened with that responsibility since the day he was born. I know there were some things you will never accept, but I hope you may come to one day understand. Now that he is gone, you are no longer the rich daughter of a wealthy family. Your future is your own.”
Claudia paused for a few seconds, letting her mother’s words hang between them. “How did he die?”
Her mother shook her head but didn’t answer. She didn’t want to talk about it. Instead the two shared a final meal under the roof of their abandoned home, then Claudia escorted her father’s body to the church for it to be buried. When all was said and done, she watched her mother board a carriage and be whisked away from the city.
Azura raised her head and looked up at her. “Sis, I don’t like this… I miss him.”
Claudia gently ruffled the young girl’s hair. “You’re a wastelander. I shouldn’t have brought you somewhere where you don’t belong. Let’s go. We’ll find your teacher.”
In the end, Claudia decided against enrolling Azura in formal demonhunter training. Shortly after arriving in Skycloud, the two left again, returning to the wastelands.
Traveling along the way, they encountered another contingent of soldiers. Claudia instinctively pushed Azura behind her as they approached.
A familiar looking man stepped forward, dressed in the uniform of the Talons of God. Claudia recognized him immediately as Cloudhawk’s former second-in-command, Rio Clifton. “Ah, Miss Claudia, it’s you.”
Claudia gave him a searching look. He was traveling with several hundred people, packed tight and dressed like merchants. They looked to be in a hurry to leave. Since they were traveling in the same direction, Rio brought Claudia and her young charge into the fold.
A one-armed man brought a carriage around to meet them. Claudia and Azura clambered aboard, where they found a woman already inside. She had a head of platinum blonde hair and a well-toned figure. Her beautiful face contrasted with the air of power that hung around her.
Claudia paused when she saw her. “Dawn Polaris?”
“You’re looking for Cloudhawk?” Dawn slowly opened her eyes. Their depths were calm as a lake surface, conspicuously absent was her typical violent bearing. Instead she was the picture of a mature woman. “As it happens, so am I.”
Now Claudia was starting to understand.
This group was what remained of the Polaris family. It was comprised of the family’s young and capable, as well as most of the Talons of God who served at Skye’s whim. With all of them absconding from Skycloud, what did it mean?
Were they defecting? Was that the intention of the Polaris family? What explosive news!
Claudia frowned. “Aren’t you afraid Governor Arcturus will discover what you’re doing?”
“Discover? You think he doesn’t already know?” An alluring and infinitely cold light glimmered behind Dawn’s eyes. “All he needs is an excuse to grind my family into the dirt. He’s happy to watch us leave.”
Claudia didn’t understand. “And yet you still go?”
“It doesn’t matter whether my family takes back its former glory. We are no match for the Cloudes.” Dawn shut her eyes once again. “Those who’ve chosen to leave with me believe Arcturus is responsible for my grandfather’s death. Cloudhawk may have a way to help me settle the score, so we’re off to find him.”
How did it all come to this… ?
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Damn. That's a tectonic shift alright, for the end of book four. Now, book five shall begin. We're tentatively titling it: Heart, Hearth, Home. The original Chinese was - 吾心安处, which literally translates into 'the place where my heart dwells in peace'.