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saga juliet

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  1. The day was fine and blue, and the dark stone of the bluff cracked beneath the open sun, steaming in the spray. Sand skittered ghostlike across the abandoned dunes, brushing their ankles. The beach some hundreds of meters away was choked by revelers – a sliver of characteristic bright green denoted Madon’s poor taste in swimming trunks, surrounded by the remainder of the party – but where the three women stood, there were only the wheeling gulls, the rumble of water, and the shadow of the colossus that emerged from the sea ten ship-lengths out from shore. “The hard part is to get to the top without slipping, or drowning, or something along those lines,” Orsola said. “I did suggest a trebuchet...but Olivia told me in no uncertain terms that the plan was stupid.” “It had a provincial charm to it, if the province in question was Isore.” Olivia shaded her eyes. “I could see your fa – ah, Madon – proposing something similar. But while I do believe I could survive a fall, I’m not so confident in my odds on being catapaulted into a cliff face.” The Mourning Pillar – how Owend had referred to it in passing, as they had talked in preparation for the festival – rose a hundred meters out of the water, surrounded by sheer rock on each side. The prize lay, as if it were part of an obstacle course, at the very top. The question became how to reach it. “Well, if you’ve brought the shard like I asked, Eve, the wind should be dispelled, and maybe some kind of seal will be unlocked once we’re up there.” “Oh?” Olivia stepped to the edge of the bluff and extended her hand. Sure enough, the wind seemed to weaken. The gulls, too, had long dispersed, in search of better thermals elsewhere. Something occurred to her. “When you say ‘shard’, is that…?” Then she shook her head. “Time enough for that later. If there is no wind, then can we not simply fly over? I recall that the Lieutenant’s pegasus is quite unused at the moment...”
  2. In speaking to Rolliam, an idea had begun to take form in that girl’s whirlwind mind, intermixed as it was at that time with frustration at the slow-creeping past and premonitions of a slow-creeping future. So much time had been wasted, she felt. So much that could have happened and yet didn’t. While the war dragged on, she had been crawling across the dirt, or locked up in any of a number of prisons for the spirit. Places where she’d been fed apple pie, or given a warm bed with plenty of books, but deserts of choice nonetheless. Rolliam had recognized this, and so hoped to reassure her but only served to incense her own frustrations. Yet in this… The Knight’s entrance was sudden, but not unexpected, although Lily did not have the presence of mind to assemble herself until he sat. Then she sheathed her rapier and sat, too, and waited to be addressed. Beholding him made her queasy. When Roland had taken her to the throne room earlier, the Knight had been seated across from the empty throne, as if wishing to be reminded of his victory – that there was Exarch no more, Isore no more. He had done it. The enormity of his body had nothing to do with the enormity of what he had been responsible for, and nor was there any symbol of that within him. His helm had no light within it, no glint on the eye, and everywhere it turned it cast a vacant stare. Silence stretched between them. Perhaps it was that he, too, was waiting to be addressed. She had the sensation that one of them ought to have been making demands, and cursed the Wizards for stranding her in this desert – in which nobody had any demands and all were mystified at their own presences. She fumbled this emotion and quiet and it shattered, as a porcelain dropped upon tile, when the Knight pulled a chain from beneath his chestplate. At the end of the chain was an amber stone, not so much unlike her own. It depicted the scaled body of a serpent, and four hollows indicated that it was no snake nor wyrm, but a dragon, severed from its four legs as well as its head and tail. A shard of the emblem. Lily lifted her own, which had been tied off around her hand by its leather strap. The two stones shimmered and – had she imagined it? – brightened in one another’s presence. It was as if they, rather than their bearers, were to address one another. The idea which had been taking form now came to fruition. As the stones addressed one another, as the Knight did not address her but her stone, so she addressed the stone he himself clasped. They would be reunited, she thought. One way or another. So was the potency of this thought that all other thought was obliterated. No longer did she dwell on the ruined city, nor the hand that the man before her had in its destruction. Suddenly, those things seemed trivial. She rested a hand on her rapier for courage, took a deep shuddering breath, and calmed herself. But the visions that flickered through the back of her mind, of prying the dragonstone now held in a warm hand from a pair of cold ones, was a promise in search of a promisee. The Knight was the first to break the silence. “So...the Wizards entrusted you with one of the shards they held. And with that in hand, they sent you into my care.” “One of my shards,” Lily said, then looked down, embarrassed at her ardor. “Otherwise, that’s the rub of it.” “...We did come to an arrangement, of sorts.” The shard slid back beneath his chestplate. She could hear it swing, tapping against the inside of the metal. “I would help ensure that Erasmia would not meet a calamitous demise, and offer my aid in gathering together and destroying the pieces of the Emblem. In exchange, they would send you to me with one of the shards, and offer future support in my endeavors against the Dragon Cult.” “An arrangement,” she repeated. “I suppose they would be wanting for allies, cooped up as they are in their ivory towers. And if you were willing to accept such a poor exchange – an odyssey in exchange for a girl – then you must be a generous man indeed.” The Knight seemed to break into a grin...though she was unsure how that impression came upon her.“Well, I should hope that virtue does not come with a price.” The moment of jest passed. The Knight leaned forward. “Still, even with as much value as I like to place on honor, there's a point of, ah, contention I hold with this agreement. Namely, the destruction of these stones. Call it reneging on my word if you so please. All I know is that all the information I am privy to leads me believe that that course of action would be ultimately detrimental to Erasmia as a whole." His gaze turned toward Micaiah for a moment, before returning to Lily. "I am willing to work with those old men to an extent, but that is the point where I must draw the line.” “So much for the agreement,” she remarked dryly. “So am I to take it that my coming here was a different sort of convenience? That you’ve entrapped me to protect me – sorry, protect my stone – from the Wizards’ annihilative tendency?” He shook his head. “Of the parties in this deal, you were the one that never had a choice in the matter…you may strike me down, or leave.” How she should have taken satisfaction in such a thing not ten minutes earlier, when the weight upon her was that of war. No more. She would do neither; not when there was a dragonstone so close. “But hear out the proposal I have for you now. Stay with me and my forces, and see the side of Byrn that has not been controlled by the manipulations of Nergal. We are soon about to head out on a mission against partisans in Sparmo, and you’re welcome to join us.” “A generous man indeed.” Following suit, Lily put away her own dragonstone. “If that is truly all you wish, then I should be glad to follow. It’s better than starving in the wilderness.” She laughed bitterly. “Alone, I can hardly do anything. It doesn’t make a difference who my steward happens to be. But if you wish to avert disaster and protect the emblem shards, then I should trust you more than the Wizards.” What she did not ask was the price of entry. It was the Knight’s convenience that her presence must have suited; and this convenience was undoubtedly with regards to the Stone. Was it simply to keep her so that the Wizards would not destroy it? If that were so, then she would be relieved. But when should things be so easy? And finally, there was the matter of the root of his desire to protect the stones. Could they be allies? Could he be made a useful tool just as she would make one of the Exarch? She looked at the woman with the fire-bird upon her shoulder. It was her, of course. The way that the Knight had looked at her was proof enough. “Wait. I would like to talk to her.”
  3. “If that’s the Exarch’s fellow as you say, then it’s just one less man the next time we clash.” Wanker was low, threading twine and baiting hooks and entirely enraptured by it in the towering shade of their catch-boxes. It had been a good day’s work, and it was not over. Fish spilled out of the wooden baskets, flopping feebly. All of the three of them, Wanker especially, fished as if they were feeding a nation. Hell, Princess had eaten nearly so much just the night previous. And they were set to feast again in just a few hours, though Wanker would have preferred to land a king mackerel for the sport of it. “Let’s just get back to it, why don’t we?” He set a finished line aside, wiped away a thin veneer of sweat. It was hot out on the waters that day. Onstade’s festival had been auspiciously dated, a beach celebration on a day that had been hot for a few hundred years. One would be ill-pressed to find a better day for leisure – something that the three of them had not had since the campaign began. The front had stabilized; Isore had been reigned in; and the Glian had ceased their posturing which had demanded continous answer. It had been the Knight’s idea to accompany Innes to his family’s annual reunion during the Summer Festival, and displeased as the archer was, he had to admit that it did them all good. No worries but the shade, the next fish to catch, and the procurement of fine drink. Even the ever tightly-wound Jill had loosened up. Wanker reached into a nearby cooler absentmindedly and felt for a beer as the other two continued musing over the question. He kept feeling and after a little while, declared, “Shit. We’re out of drinks. Quit looking at the clowns, we’ve got a real problem here. Bitch?” No response forthcoming, he looked up. The two were still people-watching. Wanker followed their gazes. The woman produced another sizable demijohn from the box on which she sat, popped it open, and swallowed enough to set a house ablaze in one gulp. “No heart, have you lot?” Wanker talked slowly, furrowing his brow. “We’re hardly at war at the moment – it’s honour at stake here. The right thing to do would be to, ah, save a person in need, even they’re an enemy. Maybe they’ll even grant us a donative from their grace.” Still empty. The man dried off with a towel and snapped his fingers. “Let them aboard.”
  4. She stretches out a hand, and the ceiling seems to crack between her fingers as if she’s digging through to the sky. Lily imagines this to be so. If she were a wizard with the capability to blow out the ceiling, then things would be different than they are, is what she suspects. Jill and Rolliam’s words leave her not with peace but with the insatiable sense that she was being used. If not as a prisoner, nor as a messenger with a message, then? As a tool? Or is she here of her own will? She closes her fist and sits up fast enough that the blood rushes to her head and darkens her vision. “I’m fine,” she says when she hears Rolliam stand up. After a minute of cupping her head and breathing softly, she crawls over to the bedside where the man’s prepared her a pie of consolation. For what? And why’s he smiling at her? He hands her the plate and she stuffs herself with her hands. When there’s nothing left she dumps the crumbs on the ground. “It’ll just blend in with the ashes,” she says when Rolliam stares at her crudeness. It’s his house-keeperly nature, she decides. “Rolliam, I hope you don’t really think the Wizards are all that. They’re imbeciles, a bundle of senile fools who don’t know that they don’t know anything. And I don’t care if they’re about a billion times smarter than you and me.” She goes to the chair and snatches up her rapier, giving it a fair few thrashes. “Good riddance to the Library, it’s just a senior home anyway; out here is where things happen. The rite of passage that others make for me? No – not one bit. I’ll make my own way. I’ll…yes, I’ll find the Exarch, and –” At this, she jabbed the rapier at Rolliam, across the room. “He’ll come to help me, and if the Knight thinks of harming him just as he torched Isore, then he’ll suffer, too.”
  5. “Grievances?” Hand to the heart. Drop of a jaw, round like that of a pufferfish deflating itself. Innes had been ever fond of the ambiguous flourish. “No, no, never. Perish the thought.” Behind the helm the Ebon Knight was raising his eyebrow. It could not be seen behind the helmet but Innes knew it to be there. From afar the man appeared mysterious enough, but strip away the armor of distance and armor was no real bulwark at all. The Knight laughed just as easy as everyone else, and had the same tolerance of Innes’ bullshit as everyone else. Maybe even a little more. It was in the way his body moved, sure as marble. The archer knew the limits to which the Knight would entertain him. The archer had an affinity for moods, and for attuning himself to the temperament of the people he met. By the account of most, that was exactly the problem. The man was the sort who’d drive a priest to sin, and a monk to distraction. “It’s fine talk of politics, sir, a subject of which you have the utmost command – and perhaps more of than the dickless jesters currently directing the war – but I do wonder if the darling Exarch would be willing to play that game of give and take and love and hate.” Innes stacked his feet on an unoccupied corner of the mess table. “Practically speaking, I don’t think he’d be in much the mindset, on account of him having just lost a slightly different game of ‘avoiding the rape of my country’ to your very own self.” Innes picked up a paper, cast an unseeing eye over it – some drivel about Glian troop movements. “Well, you are right, conditionally. Should he fall into darling Jill’s honeypot, the Empire would suffer a great and unexpected loss. But that would be your making the very same mistake that we so often accuse the Princesses of making – treating all others as pawns. The Exarch’s got a heart of his own, and we’ve quite thoroughly enjoyed shitting on most of it.” He gestured to the smashed statues, the arrow-filled portraits. Then, thinking better of it, he waved the report in his hand towards the open window. “Alright, maybe most of the shitting and enjoying was my doing. But the point stands. He’s no excess of love for Byrn. And certainly no excess of love for his armor-doppelganger. There’s little use in putting forth the effort to think of such impossible futures now.” He picked up a stale seed from the old snack-tray which lay precariously balanced atop two other stacks of parchments, flicked it at the bird which made itself comfortable on the Ebon Knight’s shoulder. “Surely, priestess, whatever mad smoke-and-mirrors future you’ve conjured for us, still relies on our efforts to bring it about. The future in which we swim in women and sip coconut-wine on the North Shore of Glia and Jill gets the dicking she’s needed for, oh, twenty-five-odd-years now, will not come by us merely dreaming of it.” He shrugged. “That’s about my angle, sir. No grievances, simply a caution against having our head in the clouds. The Glian’s been a thousand years overdue for a good ass-kicking and we’ll be the ones to do it, but they haven’t rode out those thousand years on nothing. And this new breed of extra-nasties aren’t going to make it easy. Best not to think of warm and fuzzy futures and holding out for hope.”
  6. Somehow, she had been expecting adversity, so when the time came and she found none, Lily didn’t have much to do but to stand there and feel all the tension drain out of her. They were in Madon’s old chambers now, almost pristine, even while the remainder of the palace – and indeed, the city proper – lay in shambles. The grand arched windows, taking up the whole height of the wall, were open to evening, and the curtains blew with dust like awaiting spectres, standing guard over the aestival overlook. Soldiers worked to restore the buildings they had burnt; the armories locked, and the locks already rusting with disuse, as they wielded hammer and rope to reassemble the city. Isore would not fall again…so they hoped. Jill locked the door once Lily had planted herself onto the bed, which had laid in disuse for months. The girl did not show any intention of moving. “Innes,” she said suddenly. “That’s his name…right? That man who stood behind the knight in shining armor.” Her voice lacked the cadence of a joke. She wasn’t sure if it was anything but a jest, herself. Then she produced the dragonstone. It swung a pendulum in her hands. Counting seconds. “I’ve made it all the way to the Ebon Knight and now I don’t know anything. I don’t know if I am a prisoner or I am merely a message.” Suddenly, all the camaraderie she felt for the brothers had vanished. The younger brother sat stiff-backed against the wall, at guard. They had been tasked to protect her on her travels, and so in doing so they were companions. Now the task was complete. Rolliam defaulted, as they all did, to awaiting orders and, in the absence of them, doing absolutely nothing. What he thought of, he didn’t dare give voice to them. Not because he might be punished for it, but because it was simply not the thing to do. “Rolliam. Talk to me. Tell me what I’m here for. You and your brother spent an awful long time keeping me company. I feel like I spent so many weeks asking, “are we there yet?”, and now we’re here and I’ve got just no idea. What about you, lady knight? What am I doing under the burned roof of Isore, with those who burned it?”
  7. The pair of horses went across the plain. Their hooves plowed ditches through the same ash that had been turned a hundred times over and despite this, the lieutenant always had a new story to tell her. He did not possess a talent for histrionics, nor were the contents of the stories themselves particularly interesting. In the present time, however, where inconstancy was a method of waging war and routine was found only in the scripture chorus of the endless drumming march, Rue had begun to find their evening rides together to be the only thing that did not disappoint her. They rode together, and he stuck close to her left to the west, hunched low into his horse as the sun set far beyond them both. She had become somewhat fond of the lieutenant’s silhouette. Every so often, they would pass beneath the shadow of the some peak of Egon’s, and the lieutenant, struck by some solemn post-monition of the past, would swing his arms wide and gesture to some stone formation which had parted around the imaginary aspect of trees, or left the impressions of huts unscathed in a plain of flood basalt, and he would tell her about all the many dead villages buried beneath the ashlands. “Ridenium, Iakotho, Coridaelos,” he said. “I knew all of those places. Spent a fair few summers wintering with my aunt who lived around here, a hamlet called Eleuthiera. She cleared out before Egon blew, bless her.” He pointed out a crevasse in the mountains, where he’d gotten lost with a gaggle of troublemakers and wild children he’d called playmates, and had to overnight in cave full of glittering gems. The lieutenant still nursed snatches of memories from childhood enough to orient himself in time. “You might think that was a long time ago, but I came back just a few years ago to help my auntie pack up and I could still find just about every tree there was right where I remembered it. It was all the same, sleepy, for so long. Totally unchanged.” He was still amazed. “And then everything was suddenly different. Natural results for messing with the powers that be, I guess. No disrespect intended, ma’am.” “Oh, I wish I had the guts and the brawn to pull something like that off.” Then she thought better of herself. “No, don’t take that seriously. I don’t have something like that and I hope I never will.” “Well, ma’am, long as you’re on our side I can say that I don’t mind it.” A cool shade blew over them. Above, a mighty spar of rock jut out from Egon’s wounded flank. “Theory is that rocks and the shape of the earth are determined by small, constant things, like the force of wind and water, but I just can’t buy it. Nothing changes, and then when the gods put a whim to it, everything does.” “Uniformitarianism,” she said. She shrugged off the man’s stare. “One of my old friends did landscapes. Very...enthusiastic about the workings of nature and earth. He ended up off the deep end in geology at the academy.” “You went to an academy? I’d thought that you were a rough and tumble sort of character, ma’am.” Surprised? Amused? They all knew of her as Crowley’s apprentice, so under the table there must’ve been rumour concerning where he’d found her. Coupled with her characteristic scruffiness and lack of grace...impressions were difficult things to change, particularly when they were true. She leaned into the mane of her horse, hiding her face. “I...well, that’s just a memory.” It had come up unbidden. It wasn’t a part of her now. “Uniformitarianism,” she said again. “The theory of wind and water, as you called it.” “Sure. Well, so much for little steps. One eruption,” he snapped a finger. “And just like that, an end of an era of peace. Now Caigh Ayrd’s a deathtrap on the best of days. Towns all smoked to a crisp and Magmin crawling across the countryside burning everything they touch. Wicked beasts, they are.” “Looks peaceful enough. That’s hardly deathtrap material.” “Well, we just about cleared them out between the Leggies and us.” The lieutenant pointed out a crumbled pillar of basalt. “Hard to tell, but that used to be one right there. Gave us a little trouble a few days ago. Private Dance got burned a little trying to cut off a horn to take home.” “They sounded pretty terrifying?” The lieutenant broke into a laugh. “Them’s just the stories. A dozen good men and good steel can take one, no problem. But they’re mighty intimidating in peacetime to ordinary adventurers and the like.” “How come Andelusia doesn’t come and clear them out for good then? Isn’t Oakenshield Town on fire half the time on account of these?” The lieutenant shrugged. “Mountain keeps spewing them out. There’s no real stopping it. And there are always other enemies to fight. This business with the Leggies. Peacekeeping on the rough side of Corinth. The army’s stretched thin enough as is. It’s too bad about Caigh Ayrd, but…” He spat into the ground. It was black with ash. He gave her a smile twisted by the ashen wind into a snarl, and she saw soot-blackened teeth. She must have had the same. “All honest, ma’am, there’s nothing left of what I remember here. It’s a shithole. Can’t grow crops, no wood left unburned. Just dead land. Ask me, Oakenshield ought to get out of here instead of throwing their little boys into the furnace over and over again. But the civvies can be stubborn, eh?” He shrugged. “Guess that’s all wind-and-water, then. If there’s anything that’ll put an end to the magmin, it’s for this land to heal over time. No grand strokes are gonna solve Misral’s problems.” Wind and water. Slow changes. Rue kept her eyes right ahead as they rode up the mountainside. Dark, billowing pillars rose from the war camps carpeting the valley, unintentional smoke signals carving shadowy relief into the eventide light that spilled over the tips of the mountains. For now, they were a part of the skyline, but they wouldn’t last. Nothing here would be changed permanently by their presence, for better or for worse. Crowley was waiting at the center of a disc of flattened volcanic rock. Whether or not it had been flat before the Oathblade had gone there the first time was anyone’s guess. Orenmir was no Guzon. But Crowley, the man, was as enigmatic as the wind and water. In the center of the disc was his usual perch, a small boulder which doubled as a bench rising from the otherwise featureless rock. The man was sitting there now, nodding to her as she dismounted. The lieutenant saluted, then vanished into the jags that surrounded the clearing which struck into the air like bristling quills, nearly enclosing the area. The damage that had been done to this former plateau had been enormous; hidden thus by cracked lava which had dried shards of glass, Crowley seemed to favor the place as his own escape from the larger world. It was a little outside the Corinthian warcamp, but in generally friendly territory. Still, the lieutenant escorted her as precaution, and he was out there now rooting out any spies or legionnaires who’d lost themselves in the mountains. There was little else that demanded his attention at the moment. The Corinthian army had dug down and fortified themselves while the Pact had done the same. Soldiers picked up their swords and mounted up only to posture. Blood was spilled chiefly by the chickens slaughtered for the stewpots of either side. The game was to wait. For the Oathblade and his protégé, it meant a return to more stringent days of training. She was happy to do it. War was best at a distance. She had managed the first battle without needing to kill anyone. Rue had said her fair share of thanks, but they came out empty anyway. It wasn’t something she had cared to repeat. Swinging at rocks, though, she could handle. Every time she did it, she felt even more convinced she wouldn’t have to do it without the training wheels. Rue clasped in her hand a wooden spar, one of the many that they had left lying around the clearing from past days. She looked like she didn’t want to be around. Of course. She’d looked like that for months. It was only starting to lessen now. “Are we gonna start?” @Wade
  8. This has never happened to her before, is her first instinctual thought, and it’d be true but not in the way that anyone ought to think of it. Sand, as far as the foot can carry her, which is not so far, and beyond that, sea. In the distance, across miles of open water, the towers of Onstade aspire in the noonday sun to be nothing more than fragmented dreams and faulty memories. Every time a jolt of pain splits her head, which is often, the images waver, grow mistier. It is not what Owend expects. Therein lies the mystery. She has never blacked out to wake up on a desert island before, is what Owend means. Beside her in the shade of the island’s lone palm lies Tolok, sucking his thumb and turning over in his sleep. He is missing just about all of his clothing, except a set of boxers to save his modesty. Cast over him is Owend’s riding cloak. The man is at peace. Oh – well. She picks at the corner of the fabric. Owend doesn’t know where most of her clothes are, either, but they’re both decent enough to quell any doubts she might’ve had concerning impropriety. More likely, they tried to go midnight swimming. “Shit. Gods-damn, I’d like something to drink.” She put her face into her hands, massaging her temples. It feels like she’s been breathing sand the whole night. Lucky enough that they were both still breathing. But, of course she could lead the both of them through whatever trial they’d decided to embark upon. Even dead drunk, Owend was sharp as a razor. One didn’t make it through Severa’s banquets without such a faculty. She shook him. “Tolok? Hey. It’s morning.” Again, the sort of thing that’s true but not in the usual way. Small little lies keep the dream of normalcy alive. When she picks herself up it feels like she’s been stabbed in the small of the back. The feeling is familiar. Bad sleeping posture, worse beds. The sort of thing that a soldier learns to avoid after the first few hellish nights breaking camp in the woods. Sand doesn’t fit the bill. When she looks at the rock that she passed out on, she finds a wooden box instead. Inside are about three bottles of whiskey. Owend smiles. Sharp as a razor, alright. By the time the boat arrives, she’s in fine mood again, with two left to share.
  9. A long time before they came into Trebula they found the first bodies. Men from the city turned spade and tossed soil atop the piles stacked two or three high. In the shallow ditches, they were all naked, but even so Suzie could tell by the long pale sickle lines scarring their backs and arms and the way that the paleness began at the base of the neck, where the helm began, that they had been soldiers. “That’s no good,” Timothius grumbled from the horse beside her. “They ought to be burning the things.” Things, no help to the living but for the gravediggers’ guilds and the autopsists. Suzie brought her horse around to the far side of the road, keeping distance. Mostly, it was the wearied demeanor of the diggers that she feared to be contagious. The bodies had not started to stink. The battle must have been fresh. Wagons moved up and down the road. Those coming toward carried bodies. The others were stacked high with dented armor. Good steel, all of it. Bloodied, perhaps, but blood nothing more inevitable than rust. Evening hid on the far side of the mountains. The clouds above were illuminated, and the light landed very far away. The air had the feeling of cool water. Stacks of smoke rose from all across the plain, provenance unknown. The girl had never left Corinth and she had not had the imagination to dream of distant places, or distant people. These people looked a little different, and this land had a paleness to the earth that was different, too. Still, they died the same. Suzie didn’t know; was it the Corinthian regulars that squared off against the legions? Or some other mainland-sympathetic force? Maybe it wasn’t that the people here died the same, but that they were killed the same as in those wars in Corinth. A long time before the came into Trebula they found what they were looking for. A mass of tents spread out across torched farmland. Refugees, displaced from other villages in chain as the armies chomped at the bit in the shadow of Tellius’ Rest. It was a miracle that Trebula still stood, she heard Master Salamanca muse. Bearing upon its broken back the weight of a half-dozen other villages, and a tide from the north besides. The people of Thraece had built beautiful buildings in their cities, but now they lived in tents such as these while the fires burned. Timothius was rightly pleased, in the same grim way that doctors in need seem to present themselves. “It’s going to be a cesspool. Hope you’re up to the task, Suzie.” She was pleased, too – not pleased, rather, but thrilled. Daunted? Importance heaped on her as heavy and real as the weight of the medicines upon the mule’s back, pulled along in their caravan. “Always. We’re here to make a difference, aren’t we?” Awful lot of that to be made, she thought privately. @Wade
  10. Mark of interest. A few thoughts, all interrelated: 1. I assume we will not be choosing our partners; will they be random assignment from the pool of contestants? 2. We will be actively competing against our partners, yes? (Insofar as one can compete in light of such fluid criteria). Not that I imagine this poses a particularly strong conflict of interest in practice (ideally, the spirit of the competition is to shine with your partners), but what do you expect of the mechanics of this oddly balanced relationship? One post owes its own strength to the situations and opportunities created by another, after all.
  11. The world can change so very quickly – beyond anyone’s ability to predict. Who would have expected that upon his first visit to the Walled City, a place so long spoken of with hushed tones – a fixture in the fates and fortunes of every empire in the last thousand years, a city with history – Innes would end up walking up and down the Exarch’s own palace, scuffing dirt and ash down every carpet, stomping on the shattered portraits of an unbroken line of kings, sleeping in his bed? The man wasn’t at all ashamed to admit that he liked it. Nobody had dreamed of this, but the gods had seen fit to make it happen, and he should have everything and that some other man, who once had all this, now had nothing to his name. Sometimes, Innes stopped in the middle of a hall just to admire it. The audacity. He even felt bad for the Exarch. It sent a shiver down his spine to think of it. A city brought to its knees, a king put to flight. So very quickly can the world change. Once, when the duty of watching over this dead city had become too droll, he had even propositioned Jill to amuse himself. “Suppose,” he said, squeezing her shoulder and walking his fingers round the nape of her neck, “the two of us went up to the Exarch’s personal chambers and fucked in his bed. Hm?” Red as smoldering iron, she demanded a duel to the death on the spot. That had amused him proper. She would have won, of course – so he ran, leaving behind coarse laughter like the braying of a monkey. But that was the way of things. Jill, too, was acutely aware of where now they stood, of how easily they trampled over the Exarch’s belongings both physical and ephemeral. She gave such wonderful reactions because she understood that they were capable, really, of destroying what little dignity remained in this city. They had been the axe that had levelled it; and now they were the rope that restrained its last stroke. Innes made sport of filling the portraits with arrows. He shot the eyes out every bust. Those hollow holes watched him as he went through these ashen halls. Seeing a bastard. A bastard who was proud of it. That was an illusion. Honesty masquerades as pride to those who search for sin. Innes was nothing more than a man who was honest with himself. Or a bastard who was honest with himself, anyway. The Ebon Knight may have disapproved, and may even have been disappointed by this tendency in him. But there’s faith in an honest bastard. Innes didn’t hate anyone, nor was he cruel – except perhaps to Jill, on occasion. He was loyal, faithful to his country, zealous in his action, and swift in rising to the occasion. If the next day, they found themselves in reversed positions, fighting alongside the Exarch, he knew that Innes would not have blinked, nor questioned it, nor act any less zealously to support him. If nothing else, you could trust an honest bastard. Even if the bastard pretended to be obstinate. “If the time ever comes for good relations between Isore and Byrn, Jill will be the best one to forge that bond.” Innes sat by the window, watched the two scouts and girl come in. A flicker of familiarity, all too brief; then, forgetting it, he canted his head at the Knight’s gentle rebuke. “Au contraire, sir, if there ever comes a time when Isore must be sacked, and its throne room turned out, and its people destroyed, and its king slain, she shall be the least prepared of them all,” he replied. “Ah. And I wonder when such a time might come about?” Innes scuffed the ground with his boot, kicking up a cloud of ash. He approached the table which the Ebon Knight had appropriated from the war room into the main hall. The man himself had not seemed to move from the table in the past month. Always thinking of war. Always thinking of how to hold the front together while they postured against the Glians in the north, quelled Isorian mainforcers in the south, and established lines in preparation for the great push soon coming. War, day and night. That was the business. And the man still had the mind to think of impossible futures? “Besides, there’s a reason they make sure political marriages are loveless. Peace between nations doesn’t come when both parties are thinking with their cocks.” Innes pulled up a chair. “I do wonder if sitting in his seat has made you sentimental. Or, god forbid, sympathetic. I suppose you may call me simple-minded, but the Exarch is at the moment, our enemy. Perhaps he is not the enemy, but he has fled now to that perfidious country, Glia. No doubt, they shall begin aggressive movements soon. I’m certain they will show us no mercy.” It was all old news. Although the Knight made himself busy, the matters of establishing the front were routine and pedestrian. They all knew when the real uncertainty began to take hold, when the coins were to be tossed. They had been waiting for the day for a long time. And now, the day drew close. The scouts’ arrivals heralded its approach. Innes stood as the doors fell open, bringing the trio in. “Roland. Rolliam.” He nodded to the two scouts. And looked at the third. “Is this the girl spoken of in your reports, Roland?”
  12. A plea for help. Olivia pretended to contemplate it. Orsola was not desperate but she was showing cracks. Pressed from within, responsibility weighed on her like an explosion she struggled to contain within herself. The search for her mother; the shock of knowing her dead father; and whatever else she thought would eventually come to pass, and assuaging dark futures. The girl had the Princess’s sympathy. Not too much of it, and not all of it, but she knew how to felt to be semi-divine. And that was what it was. All of them had some belief that history turned on their dime. Their actions were the important ones. So she understood how difficult it was for Orsola to ask such things from any other. “If you don’t ask for promises, you won’t receive them. Even if they’re willingly given.” Her eyes pointed straight ahead, steely. “They are all under my protection, Orsola. Isore, Dodon, the Valley – even Zenith and Byrn. And everyone within. Madon included. We will give an end to this madness that has taken the Erasmia over. That much, I do promise.” “Armor as protection for the soul...huh?” She reached over, poked Tolok in the chest, made a face. “Well, no armor for your tender heart now, is there?” She didn’t know what else to say. Severa had been right after all; the knight was a simple man. He was simple, but far from simple-minded. Though the list of them dwindled by the hour, he still believed in the good things, and repudiated the bad. Admirable? “Well, your father must have been a brilliant man. A master smith, and he could see the future too.” Owend rested her face on her palms. Tolok was bitter, yet shone, red-faced the way that one was when overcome by the deep shame of spilling one’s heart. Although he tried to keep his eyes flat, emotionless, she could see they were really more overcome with the opposite. Just like about every other man in the world, she knew that he wasn’t really about to cry, nor could he be made to; but this might’ve been the closest he could get. “You’re a good person, aren’t you? No wonder they call you a knight. Even if you never had a lord.” “War is hell, but it’s important to stay frosty, Tolok. There’s still a world out there for people like us –“ Owend grimaced. “Well, for people like you. Though I’d rather not think about myself at the moment.” “Maybe you should take the same advice. We’re here, Tolok, and that’s all. For now, we don’t need to be angels wading through hell the way you think of us. For now, we’re just ordinary people. We can be that way. And we’re allowed to be. We can’t change the world alone, and we can’t change the world now. But once we’re through with it, I think you’ll find that we’ve done our damndest.” She lifted her glass, a sort of half-smile on her lips. “So. Relax a little. Maybe this is a bit too much self-love, but here’s – here’s to us.”
  13. “But this is war for you,” Rolliam shrugged. Resigned? Maybe she could understand. Even now, looking at the Walled City, Lily was filled with a sense of dread, but from far-away, as like thunderclouds on the horizon, or silence at dawn. A feeling that she knew she was supposed to feel, but not really feeling it. It was simply there. A limp corpse from limpid yesterdays. The two brothers reminisced while they took their lunch, laid out theory and conjecture. “It was inexplicable. We had no business winning that battle…” “What if the Glian spies did see them?” “They had received no word. Completely unprepared.” “Sacrifice can be hefty…but a leader is more important than a thousand soldiers with no orders…” If Lily were in sharper mind, if she cared enough to listen to what she heard, there might have been something interesting there. Something like a shadow of politics darkening the sky. But from where she sat, and from this particular vantage, all their words came off as nothing more than trivia. Truths that simply emerged for no reason from the business of war. In chaos, things as improbable as miracle sounded like a simple matter of fact. The brothers weren’t trying to solve a great mystery of their time, nor were they concerned by the boons that the gods gave them. They only knew that these things happened, sometimes, and they would continue to happen. There was nothing more to do with any of that than pray for more miracles to keep them alive. “Yeah. Accidents happen. I read – I read plenty of them. In history, I mean.” She watched the shadow of the city move across the plains. “I guess it doesn’t matter how or why it happened. Isore was always going to fall. And it happened, just like I knew it would. Doesn’t matter what anyone did.” The breeze stirred up the grass. Underneath the only tree for miles, they watched the evening stretch long. Rolliam sighed. “They’re nice people,” Rolliam said. “Really. The squad is a good bunch. That’s all I’ll say. Though it’s up to you to decide.” She would decide for herself. Lily didn’t say that aloud. She wasn’t going to trust the opinion of people like these two. But, as time went on, she wondered if she hadn’t started to understand them.
  14. Five riders made it almost halfway across the valley, and well clear of the final offensive lines of the Novirian army, when the chariot and horse uncoupled and the ash-wall snapped to an end, a dizzying drop from earth to sky. They went thirty seconds more to shake the ash from their bodies, then brought their horses around. At first, triumph. Rue still felt the bitter bulk of the entire wall, the greasy film of suspension as it roiled and tumbled in its pillar of gas, and felt the searing heat of hundreds of bodies marching back and forth without direction, seeking reconnection but finding only an insurmountable divide. Not panic, but stasis. Her skin was coated in flavors of sulfur and carbon. She breathed it, her heart squeezed with blood black as coal. She was one with the ash, and it was vile. This, the taste of triumph. Exhilaration kept her blood pumping. Her knees shook. She tried to call for a halt. She lifted her helm. The air wasn’t fresh, but it was better. She coughed up a mouthful of phlegm, spat. It was black. She held up a hand as she gagged. “W-wait up.” Her horse came to a halt, heeding its rider. “Let’s just rest here.” The riders watched her struggle. One dipped their head, offered: “It was a neat trick, Oathsworn, but we’ve got to rendezvous with the mainforcers.” The voice was identifiably female and, resonant through the steel slats of her helm, not entirely identifiably human. Garbled, slurred by the acoustics of metal. A soldier’s voice. “The battle awaits.” “Yes, b-but…” Rue felt herself shrink, her characteristic sullenness draining like bile down her throat. Crowley had been easy to ignore. Maybe that was because she had thought it was safe to do so. Now, it seemed like she’d been playing the wrong game all this time. Maybe she should’ve given up the Oathblade when she could. Even thinking that seemed like a bad joke, though, and that was because this was triumphant. She had done something. She had put a halt to the magic, at least for a little. Surely that was worth something. Even so, she couldn’t raise an objection. These people were beyond her. They weren’t recognizable as people, only her superiors, even if they did take her orders. Crowley seemed weak in comparison. Working up the courage to argue her case took too long. “Eager to get killing? Don’t take yourself so seriously. We’re in no hurry to get back.” A second rider, this one male, piped up. “The Novirians will skewer us if we linger overmuch.” “They’re Novirians. They don’t have the brain cells to break formation.” “We’ll be needed in the charge,” the first protested. “Like hell. The Devil’s with them. That isn’t a charge, it’s plausible deniability.” “That’s enough, Pyure,” a third rider said with a sharp look at Rue. Another woman. Then, to the first: “We’re here to protect the Oathsworn, nothing more. If she remains, we remain with her.” The woman seemed to be the authoritative presence, as the others fell quiet afterwards, aside from a few mumbled yes, Captain’s. The woman’s flat voice made it clear that she wasn’t catering to the Oathsworn out of generosity. Of all of them, she seemed most attentive to mere duty. Rue didn’t care whether or not she was viewed as a burden, but she was grateful that they did their jobs. They went into a stand of broken trees and meandered up a hill. The captain pulled them to an outcrop, pointed a finger. Pyure pulled his horse back from the ledge so Rue could catch up. There they watched what they’d wrought. Where the field had once been Novirian maniples arranged in neat boxes, it now underwent a transformation marked by a sweeping edge of Corinthian white, which went across the field a magician’s hand, leaving behind trampled chaos. She could hardly take her eyes away. She felt herself grow cold. The first rider, the eager one, clapped Rue’s shoulder. “Looks like ordinary madness down there. Without the magi battering them, we might cinch this without losing a sister.” Rue laughed along nervously. From this distance, she couldn’t really see anything, and maybe that made it easy to feel as if she’d done something great. But the maniples collapsed one after another, falling into retreat. After the silvery wave passed them over, hardly any motion was left at all. The four riders gave up a cheer. This, the taste of triumph. Bitter, greasy, sulphurous, something began to slough off of her. The ash wall began to collapse. It was not visible at first, and it would not vanish for long minutes more. Still, all the same, she felt the control slip her grasp. Guzon stirred. It was sufficient. They seemed content enough to sit and watch the carnage. Every so often, the captain would look over at her, as if she were a ghost that would vanish in smoke if not looked at and reaffirmed at any moment. Rue worked up the courage one of those times. She told her that the spell failed. “So much for that trick,” the captain muttered. “Tack up. We’ll ride out to meet the general, then. If we hurry, we’ll get to them before the Novirians start taking potshots.”
  15. “Camaraderie?” She laughed. Of course, Tolok was right. He was a free spirit. From the point of view of an outsider the duty soldiers had for one another might have consituted friendship. But that wasn’t quite right. That was family; indeed, an unbreakable string. But it wasn’t tied to much. Family, you didn’t have to like. Family, you didn’t talk of dreams or anxieties with, you didn’t entrust with your heart because a family was not forged from common spirits but rather duty. You protected each other, died for each other, because you were family. Nothing much else. The waitress stopped by. Owend ordered for the two of them, looking to Tolok to ask what he wanted. Her accent changed when she spoke to the waitress. Consonants rolled, vowels reverberated in her throat. There were a few words that the man couldn’t quite catch there. Although everything was written the same way as classical Glian, the speech went beyond him. “My mother was from Onstade,” Owend explained. “When I was in Academy everyone made fun of my provincial accent. But being able to speak the dialect does come in handy when I’m back here. Came here pretty often in my childhood. Though, if you’re going to ask, I’ll tell you that I had lots of friends when I was a child. Had lots of smitten little boys and girls fawning over me…” Owend grinned. “Is that what you expect me to say? Because it’s certainly true enough. Just like anyone’s glorious cherry-colored youth. But you know, things happen. Now I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize me, Lieutenant in the knighthood, and I wouldn’t recognize them, either. I think you were right, actually – camaraderie is a big part of friendship. Just a part, though. But how much camaraderie could you expect after one kiddie summer splashing about on the beach? I think people use that word, friend, too lightly. I think –” Owend paused, thought better of her rant. “Well, what about you? Being the ‘free spirit’ you are, you must have made some friends along the way.” “Nobody out of the ordinary, like all of you.” Darling man, he meant it too. “Oh, come off it. They’re a spectacular bunch, but...well, I take offense to being lumped in with that lot. I think I’m pretty ordinary, myself,” Owend laughed. “We might not be as strong as them, but we can aspire to be better, to help them however we can.” Maybe Tolok had a better sense of what it meant to cross the barrier between ordinary and super-ordinary. Not her, no. She was just an ordinary lass, her. Maybe that was why the future so daunted her. Owend gave him a funny look. “Tolok. I don’t mean to spoil the moment, but...could I ask what you’re doing here?” She held up a glass, watched the waitress fill it back up with wine. “This whole war business. I’m sure that if you weren’t tied down like so – having the Exarch, or now the Princess, tell you where to go and what to do – you probably could’ve made plenty of progress on your own...priorities. Is it just a matter of convenience?” Owend rest her chin on her fingertips. “Though I can’t imagine what’s so convenient about it. You’re from Dodon, too, aren’t you? Not exactly the sort of person I’d expect to be fired up about Isorian injustice.”
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