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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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