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Narcissa

[Veelos] As the Crow Flies

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"The water's too rough t'moor off the coast of Platiado; there's a cool gale rolling west, 's made the sea choppy.  The inlet's bound t' be flooded, too, we risk bein' beached too far out, 'n you'll spend twice as much time coverin' the plains.  We'll 'ave to dock in Veelos, due north."  Captain Fowler spoke with a thick, garbled accent, as gravelly as the deep indented scars worn into his face, only briefly seen beneath the scraggly white whispers of his beard.  He was as salty as the waves beneath that carried them, but with eyes just as brightly blue, and a permanent pinch in his brow among too many wrinkles short of an iron.  His well-weathered naval coat was almost bare, save for a few efficient buttons, nowhere near as decorated as a captain of his stature should've been-- he claimed his many scars were medals enough, and told a better testament to his trials, and weren't given as much as they were earned.

Rou considered the map in front of them both within the Captain's stateroom, peering over it with a sour rumple in her expression that rivaled Fowler's, her weight so heavy on her palm it nearly smeared the graphed ink on the brown parchment.  "We'll have to pass through Ellwood, then?" she asked tersely, combing a frustrated hand through her bangs, slightly frizzy from the salt and humidity.

Fowler hesitated before answering.  "Aye, milady."

Umbra's fair lady An'She sighed with a melodramatic deflation of her chest, and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, the swing of her ponytail following suit.  She tapped the map with a finger, rolling her lips as she considered it with a bit more patience than she was known for.  "There's no way about it, then," she finally agreed, the slant of her eyes thin as she chose only to burden them on the parchment, sparing Fowler of the distaste she knew he hadn't earned.  He knew she hadn't wanted to return there-- too many ghosts of the past, too many invisible wounds that would never heal.  Nearly five years had passed (if she'd counted right) but the horrors seen within the Battle of Ellwood wouldn't be something simply forgotten.  Someday, she hoped.  "Set course for Veelos," she said, sliding a small wooden ship across the surface of the map, touching it to the alcove on the southern shore of Orisia.  Someday.

"We should be there about midday.  Once we get in'ta the city, 'll have one o' the boys round up a few of the warding scarves to protect yerselves from the pollen in the Forest," Fowler nodded, and rounded the table with a slight limp, making his way to open the door to the stateroom ahead of Rou to allow her to pass through first.  "You're handlin' the sea much better than the last time," he said, slightly congratulatory, the other half-- almost proud.  "The silphweed workin' for ye?"

Rou couldn't help a private laugh, an indulgence that was perhaps a bit poor in taste.  "It certainly helps that this ship isn't sinking," the An'She thought to herself, before gracing Fowler with her more traditional, tilted smirk. "Well enough, Captain; takes me more time to earn my sea legs than you," she hadn't thanked him, but with the smile he returned, he knew she was grateful, "But if there's any cure for the terrible aftertaste, I'm all ears.  Makes my food taste bitter for a week."  Stepping out ahead of him, Rou shielded her eyes from the bright sun, squinting as she made out the coast not far off the horizon.  "Have you seen the An'She?  Zenahriel?" she asked, curiously, as if she could be asking about anyone else.

"Still in the crow's nest, I think, milady.  Crew says he was up there all night; didn't even return to his stateroom."

Rou angled her hand against her forehead as her gaze drifted up, and he'd told it true, though all she could see were the large black wings, too large to fit in the meager space.  "Thank you, Captain," she finished curtly, though she hadn't bothered paying him another glance, "As you were."

Captain Fowler left to his post with little more than a nod, as Rou considered the stillness of the great feathered appendages sticking out of the crow's nest, but was slightly more relieved at the sight of subtle movement.  She couldn't blame the crew for being wary-- Zenahriel's constant eye and silence was perhaps less a child watching the ants construct their hill, and perhaps more the vulture scanning for the first unlucky soul to perish.  With Rou on board, given her track record, they weren't instilled with much faith.  Her gaze fled downward, only to consider the heart-shaped scar that marred her left breast, rubbing her hand thoughtfully across her collar.  She cleaved her tension with another great sigh, then pivoted on heel to return to her stateroom, to change and gather her things before the ship made port.

-----------------------------

The sun was straight overhead when they'd docked in the marina of Veelos, a wind sweeping through that was humid and sticky, the tropical heat unfaltering in the midday.  Rou wiped her sweat-beaded brow with the back of her forearm as she disembarked down the long plank bridge off the brigantine, uncommon for her to have paid such little mind to the quick-drying stain on her purple sleeve.  She'd started in her burgundy Umbral sorceress' coat, but had no sooner shed it, now carried like a damsel in the arms of a burdened shiphand.  Rou fanned herself with a hand as she stepped out of the way of other crewmen, who were coaxing horses off the deck with a good deal of difficulty.  They'd spend the majority of the remaining daylight assembling the procession, having to navigate the carriages and horses across the archipelago of docks tethered together by floating plank bridges, until ready to depart for the capital city of Versilla.  Rou would have preferred simply to come alone, just her and Zenahriel, but much to her chagrin, she was advised that propriety had to be observed.  In a rare display of patience, Rou had listened, relying on the expertise she'd consulted Zenahriel for.  He'd preferred to fly them there, of course, though that was met with vehement rejection-- she hadn't appreciated the joke, either.

The appearance of the Umbral flag had not gone without notice in the harbor, gathering more than a few curious looks at the brigantine that came bearing allies from its southern neighbor in the Arcane East of Genesaris.  They were familiar with the crest of the great empire of Rafael Bartolome, for the closeness in teased alliance and relation with their sovereign Queen, but these were not the nobles of High Court that might've been favored with a brief glance at the oft reclusive Emperor Sauriel, and they would remain not so blessed.  While it was evident that the twilight-favored Emperor was not aboard, despite the fact that they knew him only by description and reputation, they knew just as little of Rou to identify her on the dock.

The people of Veelos came in a great many shades, tones of skin that deepened with the sun of their fair island, dark and freckled.  Even so, Rou Ji's skin tone was of a unique shade, a caramel tone that lingered somewhere between golden and olive, further foreign by the subtle slant of her eyes, which were elongated by the masterful sweeps of eyeliner that deepened their shade and cast.  In the fair-skinned population of Umbra, Rou was a desert rose, exotic even at first glance; Veelos acknowledged her the same... but with far less spite for her reputation.  The hushed curses of Concubine Queen were nearly silenced among the substantial crowd.  More impressive still was Zenahriel, with his great wings and almost ethereal presence, who the bystanders had never seen the like of, and were truly in awe.

The An'She grimaced uncomfortably, pulling at the collar of her blouse, before vigorously fanning herself again.  "It's positively sweltering out here," she complained, groaning with fatigue, "You'd hardly know it was winter.  I almost miss the snow in Umbra."  Rou was often unaffected by the heat and the cold, as she always ran hot with her control of fire, but her magic had felt off since arriving through the border, an unfortunate side-effect of La'Ruta.  Rou tested her powers with a few flexes of her fingers and slaps to the back of her hands, but flame had simply refused to flicker-- it wasn't gone, she could feel it, but she felt as if someone had taken out her batteries.  Magic was different here, and made her feel awkward and strangely naked.  She grunted through her nose after no success at another attempt, before crossing her arms under her chest, made to accept defeat.  She made a not-so-subtle sidestep to move closer to Zenahriel, indulging in what little shade she could get from the shadow of his wings.

"It'll take them yet awhile to rally the procession, and I doubt her grace will be ready to receive us until after the sun falls," she mentioned to him, casting a sidelong glance upward.  Even from there, they could see into the Commercial District, a marketplace of shops and stands between the pillars of Atitlan gothic architecture; the smell of food, fish, and incense carried all the way; a deep inhale found the An'She's senses both satisfied and wanting.  "I don't imagine you get much chance to see the city-- and given my unfriendly history with the queen, if this doesn't go well, it may well be my last," Rou said, cutting the last bit under her breath.   It was perhaps a little in self-interest, as gathered by the slightly sardonic tone in the mild chuckle that followed, desperate to stave off the heat, and perhaps the growing number of stares gathering in the marina.  Linking her arm with Zenahriel, she hooked him before he'd had time to refuse, though she suspected he was a most pleased victim of her kidnapping.  "What say you and I explore the city while the grunts do the work, hm?  A proper date-- between colleagues, of course."

Captain Fowler, wise to Rou's antics, stopped in his duties with the drop of a wooden chest, and pointed an admonitory finger at Rou.  "Stay out of the Pleasure District," he warned strictly, a scowl rife on his face, like a badger that had been pulled from its nest.  He was one of the few men on earth who could reproach Rou with such a parental nature and live to tell about it, though like a rebellious child, she rarely listened.  Stressing it's importance, he cautioned again.  " 'll not have ye make another mess as last time."

"Pssssh,Rou excused him with an alleviating wave of her hand, and half an apologetic smile.  "How was I supposed to know the wife of the high priest was in the closet, with a thing for harems?" she hissed in a whisper, trying to corral herself and Zenahriel out of the conversation.  The An'She laughed in such strain it nearly squeaked, under the burden of Fowler's protective sheltering-- but trouble attracted to Rou like flies to honey.  "It was one time, and her husband's a prude; I can't be blamed for that, surely."

Fowler bristled with her details, indecency exposed to one of the High Lords of Genesaris, knowing that he would likely have to answer for the transgression, later.  He served his Emperor faithfully, and was entrusted with the most difficult task of keeping his mischievous An'She in line, which seemed more difficult than squeezing a full-sized brigantine into a brandy bottle.  More sternly, gruff and with his patience obviously worn, he growled at her.  "Out."

"No promises, see you later, Fowler--" she rattled off hastily, now pushing Zenahriel with both of her hands pressed against the small of his back into the thick of the crowd, bound for the Commercial District.  She hadn't laughed, too afraid of what Fowler would do to her if she did.

Edited by Narcissa

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Staring down from the crow’s nest of the mast, Zenahriel observed the activity of the ship in silence. He had talked little since their departure from the coast of Genesaris’ northeastern docks, disliking the idea of wasting time and energy required of having a ship sail them to Orisia. Flying, he had disputed, would have been more convenient and easily dealt with, but Rou Ji would have none of it. It seemed, at least, that she and the Black Queen had one thing in common – a fear of heights when surrounded by the great, open sky. He hadn’t understood it, and was terribly unused to the cramped space of a seaship, but he resigned himself to her wishes and quickly made himself scarce.

His keen sense of hearing prevailed against the rush of wind, and word traveled fast among the ship’s crew that they would be docking at Veelos, the city known for a great battle and though greatly repaired, still in the process of reconstructing some of its more scarred areas. Zenahriel had never seen it before. He had been absent during the conflict, but he had heard of the death and chaos that had ensued, and he was not all too sure about visiting such a site now. He also knew that the nearby Ellwood Forest was another area he would very much rather avoid, protection from the sedative air or not.

He knew too, that there was nothing to do about it. Like it or not, he had long committed to the journey and everything it entailed. As they drew close to the Veelos harbor, he spread his wings and fell forward from the crow’s nest, turning his sharp descent into a slow glide that landed him on the ship’s deck. He gave not one glance to those who stared in impressed amazement, turning only to look to the land he had seen only in the depths of night. Already, he felt his power waning as they crossed the vast water, telling him that La’Ruta still ruled here. It was a small, and inconvenient comfort. His abilities were not completely nullified, but they were harder to call upon, made slower and less potent than he liked. He had to remind himself that he had survived being here before.

Steered by skillful hands the ship rocked to a halt at a formerly empty dock. The sun was high and hot, reflecting off the water in bright scorching rays. Curious eyes of all the folks at the harbor met the ship’s crew and their guests, and as he and Rou Ji stepped from the ship those eyes sharpened with both awe and suspicion. Very few had seen the likes of either of them. Even those scant few that might know of Zenahriel viewed him warily, for rumors and gossip – all that they had for information – were not to be trusted. The High Lord did his best to ignore their stares, raising a wing to shield his face from the sun and turning his attention to his companion, the chosen Empress of Umbra. And if they knew, the unwelcome replacement to the Red City’s throne.

Veelos seemed to be in better shape than Zenahriel expected, and while the bright sunlight was uncomfortable it illuminated the city in beautiful golden hues and highlights, and he could already see the modest, becoming architecture, as well as the glitter of souvenirs and various baubles sold at shops and street kiosks arranged neatly in rows and columns down cobblestone paths. Life was lively here, and Zenahriel could not help but pause to admire the activity and cheerful feel the city gave when the night was yet far away.

Rou Ji hooked him by the arm, a gesture he accepted graciously. He spread a wing over her to provide some shade as Captain Fowler gave his fair warnings that off sounding more like threats, though Zenahriel doubted that his warnings to were given for no reason. He gave the captain a single nod of acknowledgment before letting Rou push him into the crowd of people gathered the docks.

Now, they were unusual sight, he with his wings and Rou with her lovely, darker complexion, but the stares did subside as they moved closer to the Commercial District; Orisia had already prided itself in it diversity and welcoming atmosphere to any and all races and species, and two oddities were not enough to warrant much undivided attention for too long. Zenahriel allowed himself to relax slightly, looking to Rou and wondering as he had many times why she was here. She had never once given hint of her plans despite some mild persuasion and after a while, he had given up. He supposed he would know soon enough, but for now, it was high noon, and the Black Queen could not show herself during the daylight hours.

The smell of fish faded, replaced by the scents of fruit and pastries. Everything was being sold beside the streets; fanciful clothing of rare material, bolts of silk and lace, sparkling goldwork, jewelry of silver and other precious stones and metals; there were stalls selling ornate armor and weapons, stalls selling wines and books and foods of all kinds, even one or two stalls selling trained messenger birds flapping noisily against their cages. Merchants called and shouted out their wares, enticing those passing by to take a look and hopefully buy something. There was conversation and haggling and children playing in the roads, with street performers and magicians nearby, and there were games and gambling too, and restaurants never far away.

Zenahriel took it all in, and it was a few moments before he finally spoke to Rou.

“Do you see anything you like, milady?”

Edited by The Hummingbird

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As they ventured further into the marketplace of Veelos, the weather became much fairer, due to the shade of thin fabrics stretched across loosely from one rooftop to another.  They pillowed like clouds in their myriad of colors, most so thin that the sun still shone through them, but was filtered through the opaque crosshatch of threads that provided shade and cool enough to bear the market.  It was thin enough for rain to pass through, or maybe even thick enough for a vampyre to make a quick tour, if it ever saw either.  For now, it was enough to spare them the beating sun off their backs.  It added an artistic flair befitting the craftsmen and vendors of Veelos... and covered the decaying bricks of devastation that had yet to be repaired, the people trying to resume life as normal with little interruption.

The bazaar was teeming with people, a mid-morning bustle that had gathered many, from the niche restaurateurs that haggled over fresh-caught fish, children trading coins for brightly-colored sweets and amusing toys, housewives handling bolts of ornate fabric, platters, or dried handfuls of food that slipped from their fingers, even the token noble who eyed jewelry with an appraiser's eye.  Rou traveled through the market at a slow pace, for the way that she intricately examined items with her hands, every so often with a glance back over her shoulder to assure that she hadn't lost sight of Zenahriel-- though he was quite impossible to miss, standing nearly a head over even the tallest citizens of Veelos as they took care to walk around him, sticking out like a sore thumb.  Often, color was the focal point when spilled in a canvas of black, but with all the roaring, busy colors of the marketplace, the High Lord stood out, with his dusky black hair and wings that shone with a raven blue sheen, noire fabric hanging loosely off his pale skin with intricate embroidery.

“Do you see anything you like, milady?”

"Food," Rou replied, almost instantly, making a beeline for a cart that turned skewers of food over an open flame, hunks of brown, sizzling meat and bright fruit and vegetables.  They seared with an intoxicating aroma of spices, as the An'She inhaled indulgently, before rustling a few coins from a leather purse and depositing them in the cartkeeper's hands.  "If I have to eat another thing that's been salt-brined in my life, it'll be too soon," she complained, repeating the mantra that had gone unheard by no one among Fowler's crew on the journey to the island.  Orisia hadn't been terribly far, though the weathered Captain's particular choice of cook was a practical sort, who even for the short sail from the mainland had packed for non-spoiling, long-withstanding meals.  Rou was lucky that Fowler had seen fit to bring an extra bounty of Silphweed, an herbal cure for seasickness, or else Rou would've spent the voyage bent over the side of the deck.

With one in each hand, Rou toted them over with a sauntering sway of her hips, offering one in an outstretched hand to Zenahriel.  She'd hardly waited for him to take it before digging in herself, mildly pointed canines ripping at the first hunk of meat, with little thought to propriety.  She was an animal, and she needed to eat; all else seemed secondary.  It was spiced well, in a way she hadn't tasted before, with a lingering sweet and spicy tang of an island fruit, cubed and skewered beneath, along with a juicy slice of an Orisian pepper below.  Humming with satisfaction, Rou returned to her perusal of the market.

Interest captivated by a weaver's stall, Rou licked her fingers to clean them before running her hand down the intricate work of a rug, stretched to display its design.  It displayed a map of the island, as she fingered the rough textile, colors expertly laid into place and piled on top of one another.  The water that compiled the vast canvas of the ocean had a metallic jade thread run throughout, and Rou fingered it admiringly, narrowing the cast of her eyes with an impressed smile.  "To tell you the truth, I didn't want to like this place," she confessed softly, as she kept her eyes on the design, thumbing it fondly, "For what little I've known of the Queen, I might've been overzealous to think that this island would be as drab as I find her."  She was quiet, a rare stroke of caution not often displayed in Rou, who often said what she was thinking without any care for whom was to hear it and be offended.  The An'She appeared to be taking her job seriously-- though treated her true feelings with as much respect as she could muster.   She straightened her back as she rose to her full height, away from her careful consideration of the crafted carpet, and cast a broad look at the market.  "This place... lives.  It thrives, despite all that's befallen it," Rou mused, as her fingers placed themselves gingerly over the spot marked for Veelos, and threaded the path into the forest, which lied not a few malms from where they stood, "One would hardly know, at first glance, that such horrors have yet to be forgotten."

A few children passed between them, casually bumping Rou by the hip-- though she simply swayed, without complaint.  She looked after them, perhaps a bit more pensively, watching them run of into the throngs of the crowd, their squeals of amusement heard long after they were no longer seen.  "They've never seen tragedy.  I find myself... envious of such innocence."  Her gaze turned downward, and her brow pinched into a bitter scowl, "I've done everything to try to make the Carmine Dominion love me, as they do her."  Rou appeared deeply troubled, though beyond that, angry.  The cast in her golden irises was dark, enflamed, burning with a seething fury that had yet to die, though it smoldered insidiously.

With a deep sigh, she ventured a look upward at her companion, resolved, stern.  She looked oddly authoritative, a seriousness that befit the ruler Zenahriel had always thought she could be.  "I've made a terrible mess of things, and I don't want to be the person that shows these children, this island, what calamity looks like.  I don't want to curse Orisia with the same fate that I made to befell Patia," she said, her voice rumbling wistfully, with the tempered patience rarely seen upon the impetuous, thorny flower of a woman.  "I hope that you'll trust in me, my friend-- for what is to come, and then on."

Edited by Narcissa

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Perfectly seasoned with a secret combination of herbs and spices, the roasted lamb also caught Zenahriel’s attention. While he had not scorned the food offered by Fowler’s crew, he had also grown tired of the standard fare; bland cheese, hard biscuits, and dried meat cured with an abundance of sea salt. To drink, there was only water. At first he felt guilty, for most of his flights ended with sumptuous cuisines at various restaurants or, more often of late, whatever fine banquets the local royal palace had to offer. It was easy to become spoiled this way, so he was relieved when he realized Rou was no more thrilled at the meals then he had been.

He took the offered kabab set into the skewered chucks with clean and polite bites. This was not to flaunt his apparent nobility – habits and mannerisms carried over from the mortal’s life he had taken, and Zacharias had been properly raised. In any case, he proceeded to savor the quick meal before discarding the stick in a bin as he followed Rou to the weaver’s display.

Never before had Zenahriel given much notice to Orisian artwork. Most of what he had seen were paintings, and as impressive as they were, they were nothing the masters of the mainland could not match. The depiction of Orisian seaships, coastlines, and various lands and even heroes and the Black Queen herself were well and good… and ordinary. Standard. But here, in the softened daylight, he saw the carpet’s intricate colors, patterns, and designs. Every stitch was perfect in representing the Isle of Summer, and Zenahriel suddenly understood how massive Orisia was. Despite it physically being rather small, it was yet larger than any land he had ever seen. Its true size, and its art, was something that could be replicated nowhere else but here.

These thoughts passed through his mind, and he was so profoundly stricken by the enlightenment that he didn’t even reproach Rou’s remark regarding the “drab” queen. Instead, he too reached out and touched the carpet, feeling the complex stitches under his fingers, sensing the work and dedication that had gone into making such a masterpiece. The work, the dedication, the love.

“I have never seen Orisia in the daylight,” he confessed to Rou. “But I will tell you this; it is remarkable at night, too. That is when I fell in love with this place, before anything else.”

Children passed them by, except one, a tiny girl, who stopped and stared at Zenahriel – or rather, stared at his wings. Tentatively she reached out to touch a long pinion. He shifted, and flicked the wingtips. She squealed in a combination of fright and pleasure and raced away. He smiled, though the expression faded quickly as Rou spoke on the unrequited love of the Carmine Dominion, of mistakes long passed, of calamity, of trust.

When she finished, he was smiling again. For he had harbored suspicions that she might cause some kind of trouble here, for the Black Queen. Perhaps not malicious intent, but still deliberate. Now he knew, for sure, that she was not here to cause strife or pain. He still did not know her plans, what she intended here, but it was not to harm Orisia. It was not to make it another Patia.

“Love for a new Empress,” he said, leaning close to Rou to be heard over the crowd, “takes time and trust, which you will earn in over time. They may never love you the way they loved the Queen, but they will love you still, Rou Ji.” He straightened. “I admit my trust in you was unstable at first, but I find it well established now. Just don’t make me fetch you from trouble too often,” he teased.

He ran a hand down the rug before turning, heading toward one of the stalls selling gold and silver crafts. “Now, I must get something for the Queen. It is disrespectful to ask for an audience without a gift,” he explained. “Usually, I bring something from home, but I thought this time she might appreciate something closer to her home.”  

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“... but they will love you still, Rou Ji.”

While Zenahriel's eyes were on her, Rou paid him a handsome smile, perhaps even graced him with a relieved laugh.  He gave her a reprieve from his attention quickly --a mercy she'd found herself being more unconsciously thankful for-- as it disappeared the moment he turned his back.  The dip of her head cast her face in the obscuring shadow of her hair, where no such smiles lingered.  She hadn't the heart to correct him.

Clutching a hand close to her chest, it grasped at her skin, as if trying to will itself of the coil that bound itself around her blackened heart.  Even in so short a time, Zenahriel had become fond of the woman beneath... though the Carmine Dominion's people would not be nearly so patient.  And while Rou had taken an uncharacteristic position in their care by coming to Orisia in such an obscure mission, Rou had never been the type to serve anyone's interests beyond her own.

And her interests would not have Zenahriel's faith in her waver, for the moment.  With a deep inhale, she resumed an air of normalcy, a hand placed on her shifted hip that caught more than one pair of eyes from gawking onlookers.  Little did her new feathered companion know, Rou did, in fact, come bearing gifts of her own, but it was no stretch of the imagination that they might be a bit poorly received.  Knowledge, while a wealthy boon, often wasn't the sweetest to stomach.

"Perhaps you're right," Rou agreed, stepping forward and rummaging through a few of the trinkets, herself.  Her lips rumpled and eyebrows twitched this way and that, as she considered only a few items, gravitating to one rather quickly.  Selection in mind, she waved to the attention of the shopkeep, depositing a few Carmine imperial crowns in her weathered hand, and nodding in gratitude.  She'd turned rather swiftly to Zenahriel, though had been careful not to interrupt him, not wanting to sour the sweet moment of leisure that seemed like it might have been as few and far between for him as it had for her.  With a half-smile, she held out her hand.

"I think it would be better received from you," she confided in him as she opened her palm, displaying a small rattle.  It was sculpted out of mother-of-pearl that shone like the moon on it's bulbous end, the light crafting bright hues of blue, pink, yellow, and purple as it turned, a small chime from within the hollow.  It was smooth, buffed to perfection for such a small thing, no care spared for the young hands it was intended for-- and especially small mouths.  "I can already imagine the look of distrust on her face.  Give this to her for me, would you?  For the..." she paused, her face twisting a little, "... for the babe."  Rou had rarely come across as awkward, and it came as an uncommon color when she spoke of children; they certainly were far from her forte.  "Children like this sort of thing, yes?" she asked, with a dubious wrinkle of her nose, holding the rattle on end by two fingers before depositing it in Zenahriel's hand.  She remembered the child who'd come to inspect Zenahriel's great wings but a moment ago, who'd run away with squeals that mixed anxiety with palpable delight.  She didn't like children, much... though she doubted they liked her much, either.

"Come, I'd like to see as much of the market as possible, before Fowler hunts us down."

------------------------------------------------

On the edge of town, the sun had just begun to sink beneath the distant peaks of Hodenaufer, north over the shimmering auburn waters of Lake Atitlan.  Fowler had assumed a small half the crew with horses and carriages, each baring heavy saddles, toting emblems and banners aplenty at the threshold of the Ellwood Forest.  Rou usually liked the fame that came with pageantry, but not at the cost of her time, the anxiety already causing her hair to stand uncomfortably on the back of her neck.  In this particular case, the grandeur felt like it was more than a little falsely advertised, for the emblems symbolized Rafael, and it was not Rafael who had come to see the Black Queen.  Privately, she wondered if Irene already knew, wondered if she would be denied audience, as well.  Zenahriel's presence was essential.

"A carr'age 'as been prepared fer ye, milady," Fowler gruffed at her in his grizzled tone, sounding wearier than he looked from arranging the entourage.  Always the stalwart captain, he never let his tire betray him.

Rou pointed, seeming a bit confused at the two wagons and carriage.  Though she wasn't keen to press his buttons, it could hardly be handled delicately.  "Pray tell me, Captain, then why are we so burdened?"  The wagons were laden with trunks, strapped down tight, with gargantuan Clydesdale horses towing them.  They were each strapped with bulky cloth muzzles around their snouts, covering mouth and nostrils.

Fowler stretched briefly, hearing an audible click from his spine, and a groan to follow.  "Passin' thra Ellwood i'still dangerous, but 'tis the only way t' the Capital from this route.  Inhalin' th' spores still 'as devastatin' effects, but they can stick t' clothes-- an' the horses as well.  We may all hafta re-outfit erselves 'n Versilla, should we hit a rough bloom."  Taking a mask from one of his lieutenants, he wrapped a gauzy cloth layered over his face, careful to cover all of his beard so that none would seep past.  "B'tween changes o' clothes --more'un if we 'ave reason t' stay longer'un milady expects-- protect've weapons, an' His Majesty's boun'y for the Queen, we're full up."

Rou's face instantly soured, sneering with no little amount of disgust.  "Of course he did," she muttered, not-so-softly under her breath.  Rou shot a look to Zenahriel, though she hadn't expected him to be sympathetic.

"Ye'd best cover up, th' both of yas, and get in'th carr'age.  Leave th' trek t'us, we'll have ye there by nightfall."

"I've had quite my fill of confined carriages, Fowler.  That box of a stateroom was enough-- no offense."  She could tell Fowler was grimacing beneath his mask, though he shrugged anyway.  "Two of this pomp and pageantry can ride in the carriage; there won't be much to parade for in the Forest of Ellwood."  Taking a mask for herself, and passing another to Zenahriel, before wrapping it firmly around her head.  With a muffled order to one of the soldiers, he rushed off to the wagon to rummage through it, before bringing a few effects back to his lady.

Sliding a leather strap over her head, the soldier helped to fasten a few buckles around her bicep, affixing a layered leather pauldron from shoulder to elbow.  Taking initiative herself for the latter, she looped the end of a long leather belt through a ring, a tightly-bound frog holding the sheath of a sword behind her hip.  In a moment's quiet, her head drifted towards the ominous forest, the wind softly lifted her hair, still sporting two of Zenahriel's black feathers.  Resolved, and with a quick nod to Zenahriel, she tread up near the lead.  She wouldn't say as much, though the look in her eyes was one that knew intimately the terrors that still could dwell within Ellwood-- and she trusted no eyes other than her own.

One of the Clydesdales had to shoulder Zenahriel, for his great wings were too massive for a smaller horse, though Rou was content on a grey Umbral thoroughbred, swinging one leg over the flank and planting her rump heavily in the saddle.  Fowler spurred his horse gently to canter up into the lead, allowing the two An'She to follow second.  The creaking of wagon wheels and clomping hooves stirred in a subtle rumble behind.

And thus, the party descended into the quiet, dusky briar...

Edited by Narcissa

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Eyeing the rattle, Zenahriel admired the beauty of even such a small thing as this. He accepted it with a nod, smiling as he gave it a quick shake, the chime emitting a sweet sound before being put away in the satchel he kept as his side. Though it had been many, many years since he had directly dealt with children, he still remembered the daughter of his host, retaining the memories of when she too was but an infant. Yes, children liked “this sort of thing.”

He turned back to the stall, picking up one bauble after the other. The merchant stood off the side, offering suggestions and doing his best to pry as much money from Zenahriel as possible. In the end, the High Lord settled on a circlet, a high-quality ring of gold and cut crystal small enough to fit the queen’s brow. It was elegant and lovingly crafted, and would be a striking addition to her dark hair.

Thereafter, the rest of the market was browsed leisurely and thoroughly. Wordlessly, Zenahriel allowed himself to relax as he walked by Rou’s side, observing the goods of the stalls and the various items sold by hawkers of every race and class. Such was the variety of culture and race here that he almost could blend in despite his height and the wings flowing down his back. Indeed, even those who gave him a second glance were too preoccupied with their own lives that their gaze did not linger too long.

All in all, it was a pleasure to walk in anonymity and comfort. Unfortunately, it did not last long as the sim made a quick journey through the sky. As it began to touch the edge of the horizon in swaths of gold and brilliant shades of red, Fowler appeared, with such a display of grandeur and ostentation carriages that even Zenahriel himself sighed, avoiding the look Rou shot him.

In some things, Zenahriel was a simpler man and hardly sought attention, and traveled lightly. It made for quicker, easier, and stealthier travel, attracting less stares and expressing a humbler attitude. The latter, he found, made others like one better, even from kings and queens who were used to vanity and pompous personalities.

But there was no helping it. Taking up one of the great Clydesdale horses, Zenahriel spoke quietly to the horse, soothing it with his low voice. It nickered, snorting distrust as this strange man whose scent and sight was so different from the regular humans it was used to. The handler had given it the generic name Thunder. Zenahriel patted and caressed the horse until it calmed, and finally mounted it with one bound. The horse shifted under his weight, pawed the earth, and settled. All was ready.

With the sound of clopping hooves, creaking wagon wheels and harsh footfalls, the assembly entered the Ellwood. The cursed ground upon which so many had died, and hunted, and been transformed from great monstrosities to poisonous poppies tainting the air with their slumber-inducing seeds.

It was a pleasant sight, to be sure. Despite its unkind reputation, the Ellwood was still beautiful. The green of the trees and overgrowing plant life shone of health and vigor, undisturbed by the intrusions of men and beast. The colorful poppies, some a brilliant pink and yellow, flourished in great abundance, though upon growing close to them everyone made sure to cover their faces with filtering masks and kerchiefs. It was almost a pleasant ride, but Zenahriel disliked the soundless environment, the unnatural quiet of the wood that lacked the skitter of squirrels or chirping of birds. Where before it had been a thriving paradise of wildlife, now it was not a land that welcomed life at all.

They came upon a cabin, abandoned when the tragedy had struck. It was wrecked, completely in shambles, the door hanging off its hinges and the windows broken. Who knew what lay inside? Not far from its grounds, lay a dusty, dirty doll, no doubt the plaything of a child who lived, and perhaps died, here.

“I pray no such a tragedy will happen to Umbra,” Zenahriel murmured. “it has stood strong against the Whispernight, but there are horrors in the world worse even than that.” He looked around cautiously, his eyes sweeping across trees and thorny bushes and poppies, endless poppies. “Keep a close watch about you, my Empress,” he said gravely. “My brother did his best to purify this place, but some things find way to survive nonetheless.”

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The party creaked along at a mild pace, wary and vigilant.  The road itself was only slightly visible, a sunken path that was only just deep enough and unbarred by trees, but still mottled with thick green moss that was kicked up by hooves, and crushed by the wheels of the heavy wagon.  No head remained still, as a dozen pairs of eyes swiveled in survey, like a parliament of owls, keen to every swaying branch that the breeze waved in the subtle wind.  Not one dared to speak, not wishing to distract from the path ahead.

The quiet was deafening, and their trek seemed almost an interruption to the since undisturbed silence.  No fauna to speak of, even birds had not dared enter here, above the canopies of the leaves.  Without bees and pollinators, some of the plants had taken to wither away, drying into grey, spindly husks, only to be overtaken by the creeping weeds that spread their spores in a foul musk.  The poppies were indeed beautiful, even in their deceptively alluring colors, golden as the sun, red as the lips on a rosy maiden, violet like the depths of space, with deep black centers like the vast, star-speckled abyss.  But the deeper they tread into the forest, the greater they came in number, and the thicker the mist, tinted in a hazardous green, almost so thick it seemed nearly impossible to see twenty steps ahead.  What little remained was wreckage, in the form of the few wood shanties of hunters or the sporadic family, abandoned caravans and the long-gone carcasses of horses or steers, mementos only left in the form of dried skeletons.  Not all of them were beasts.

From beneath her layers of scarves, her muted golden eyes darted routinely back and forth, rocked gently by the easy step of her horse.  Spores had already stuck fast to her clothing, particularly around her mouth, filtered by the linen where she would breathe in, and then out again.  Early into their journey, every head in the party snapped to the sound of every misstep, a twig broken along the path, or a snort from a horse, keen to every bit as they adjusted.  They were on edge for nearly an hour, maybe even perhaps two, the sun deep into the depths of its slumber and making it even more difficult to see.  Most of the party had lit torches, and Rou carried a fireball aloft in her raised palm, for light-- it hadn't helped much.

The constancy had made them idle, lax and adjusted to their surroundings, so much so that they hadn't noticed the uneven keel of a dip in the dirt-and-moss path, sending the first wagon down with a hard thump.  It spooked nearly every soldier, no matter his years or salt earned in the Emperor's military, but it was Rou who found herself principally disturbed.  There was no masking the gasp even behind the muffling of her mask, but her horse reared as well, leaning back on two feet until she had slid unceremoniously from her saddle and landing painfully on her back.  Her steed had dislodged it's coverings, taking in gulping breaths of the spores, and increasing in panic.  It stomped, frantic, unable to see, and the commotion caused the other horses to stir, no matter how stiffly their riders held onto to their reigns.  Rou narrowly escaped a few misplaced hooves, rustling up a cloud of spores until Fowler made quick work to come fetch her.  With his horse out of formation, Rou's steed took to his madness, and raced off the path and into the dark.

He held his torch to the ground, sounding like a worried parent more than the commanding officer.  "Milady!" he shouted, " 're ye alright?  Dunnae breathe!"  His cautions were secondary, and vaulted himself off his horse (though that might've seemed like a graying feat if not for the urgency) brushing the billows of green dust and mist away in wafts, as if trying to unbury her from the blight.

Rou sat up with eyes wide, the palm of her hand cemented to her scarves, over her mouth, as Fowler's torch illuminated her face.  Her sable hair was thick with mildew-green spores, as if it had begun to mold, having peeled the overgrowth off the ground and onto her back.  She panted as she recovered from panic, unable to heed the Captain's warning, though with the linen bundled safely around her mouth, had not corrupted her lungs.  Each soldier blew out a heavy sigh of relief, some still struggling to right their horses from the shock.

His hand extended, Rou gripped it to bring herself to her feet, and dusted off what she could.  Her heart still beat a mile a minute, and she could do little to form words, but it was the tempered training of Fowler's expertise that gruffed orders to gather the party back to attention.  Realizing her horse had run off, and leaving them a ride short, Rou looked apprehensively back at the carriage.  Despite the momentary trauma, the carriage seemed even less pleasant than before.

Approaching cautiously, with her hand reaching for Thunder's flank, Rou craned her head to look up at Zenahriel.  She was breathing more steadily now, but warily averted her eyes to check the distance, often.  "Let me ride with you?" she asked, reaching up a hand to be helped to seat behind him.  Fowler had to handle the soldiers, and her companion's mount was the only one that could comfortably manage two, a large Clydesdale that was built like a mountain.  Even if she had to spend the rest of the trip buried in Zenahriel's wings, that seemed a comfort by comparison.

Edited by Narcissa

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Screaming, Rou Ji’s horse galloped away into forest, becoming lost among the trees. Sooner or later, if not made prey by monsters dwelling within the Ellwood, then an endless sleep brought on by the spores would claim it. The other horses reared and whinnied, tossing their heads as they danced uneasily along the path. The soldiers worked hard to compose them, chastising their steeds or patting their necks and speaking calming words, all of which did little to still the mounts until they calmed of their own accord.

Accustomed to the chaos of battle and having been ridden through the streets of a war-torn city, Thunder was easier to tend. Startled, it reared but once and then calmed, snorting as if in annoyance, pawing the roads with its heavy hooves. Zenahriel pulled back on the reins, swinging the horse over to Rou. He was relieved to see she was unhurt, if stained by grass and covered with dirt and spores. Too many times Zenahriel heard of tales where broken bones were the least of the would-be rider’s injuries.

“One moment,” he said when she asked to ride with him. Behind him, his wings spread their magnificent length, casting an imposing shadow along the forest floor. All at once, his wings scattered, breaking apart like glass. Black feathers whirled around horse and rider before dissipating into thick mist that itself vanished altogether. Zenahriel liked having his wings apparent, but they would make a second rider crowded and uncomfortable.  He reached down then, grasping her hand and pulling her up behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her as the crew finished checking the wagon for damages. It was unharmed, though the same couldn’t be said of Rou’s pride. “No more mishaps, O’ Empress,” Zenahriel teased. He clicked his tongue, nudging Thunder back into formation and into a stately trot. Fowler and his crew followed suit, the former wearing a worried and frustrated scowl on his face. He didn’t like not being in control.

The rest of the journey through the forest passed without another accident, though after the first mishap most were stiff and paid more attention than they had starting out. The darkness of night grew, the shadows so thick they seemed to swallow the torchlight and fire Rou summoned for their eyes. Only Zenahriel and a mercenary mage had little trouble seeing. Most blinked, startled when the forest suddenly opened up, revealing the grand castle of Orisia. The hardest part of the journey was over.

Built of glorious white stone and marble, the castle was a marvel of architectural brilliance. Ellwood trees brushed their gleaming surface, lending nature’s touch to the artificial construct. Towers and spires reached high into the sky, decorated with stained glass windows embedded in smooth parapets. Other buildings that made up the castle were domed, like religious temples, but all of the variation on build and style came together in harmonious design. The lights of the castle were lit, as most inhabitants were awake only at this hour if they sought audience with the nocturnal Queen.

Zenahriel found himself less enthused being here than before. He wondered what his former lover would think, him bringing Rou of Umbra here for a formal meeting. He breathed a sigh, but replaced it with a smile. “Well,” he said with false cheer as they commenced the ride into castle grounds, “here we are. All of you, behave.”

Gardens filled with fountains and statues rose around them, all of the carvings as beautiful as the castle itself. Nymphs and dancing faeries poured water from bowls as young heroes posed with marble swords, sharp as the real steel. Guards patrolled these grounds, and it was not long before several came forward.

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Rou squinted to protect herself from an imagined wind as his wings shattered like an illusion, her hand instinctively over her scarves to keep the layers in place.  When her golden eyes peered over the thick woven fabric, Zenahriel was as much a man, though it seemed hard even to call him that.  Alabaster skin was highlighted in the darkness, even as the canopy of the forest was so thick that only select beams of moonlight could pass through.  As Thunder shuffled slightly in idle, he moved more directly into one of the rays, casting him with an otherworldly blue hue that made it seem as if the no-longer-winged man were simply a specter, pooling black eyes showing her the abyss, reaching to bring her into the shade.  For Rou, and the things she'd seen in Ellwood forest-- ghosts were everywhere.

His fingers wrapped around her forearm assured that he had not been a shade, lifting her with ease up to his height, Rou regaining some matter of her wits enough to sweep her leg over the flank of his horse to stride.  Landing heavy and awkward on the back of the saddle for little room between the two of them, she wrapped an arm around Zenahriel's torso to secure herself, cheek nearly buried between his shoulder blades.  Through extension, he could feel every swivel of her head, her heart beating steadily against his back-- while she might have appeared calmed and observant, Zenahriel would have the intimate knowledge that she was anything but.  While no monsters loomed to the destruction of the party, Rou might've argued that the haunting visions that plagued her memory were worse.  With a hand held out far (so as not to burn her riding companion) Rou's palm offered a small flame to cleave the darkness... and to keep the ghosts at bay.

Long hours passed, the entourage creeping along slowly, as the shadows of trees extended long beyond them.  Rou even chanced to yawn, a good time or thrice, and though tire tugged ceaselessly at her eyes, she did not dare to sleep.  The soldiers of Fowler's company did the same, knowing that their captain would have some indelicate words and choice punishment for them if they'd become lax in their duty.  When the forest opened, thinning into extinction, the palpable sensation across the party was relief.

But for Rou, looking onward at the task ahead, knew she was about to creep into the depths of the Lion's Den...

 

[to be continued in And Lo, the Harlot Did Rap on the Queen's Door...]

Edited by Narcissa

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