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LotE: Echoes of Byrn

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Perhaps, Rolliam's doubts were true; his delayed return held true to his concerns, but this was not expected. The amount of detail and risks the two had to go through was more prone to be part of a book about mighty heroes, than a real incident. But perhaps, most books take their inspiration from some real events, which they twist in beautiful, colorful meanings that enchroach themselves upon the reader's mind, leaving them hooked, asking and looking for more. But anyways, Rolliam took thought to himself how lucky his brother would be to make it alive with a person which had never touched the inwards of war and its horrors. Maybe it was a sign everything would go their way. Who knows...

He came back to reality, just in time to hear his brother's request. He was not busy with anything, except for checking the palace out, but that could be discarded for another time, when they would be truly dismissed from work. Perhaps, that day may never come. He wouldn't have much to help with, when it came to comforting people. Maybe for the fact that he wasn't, really, the right person to help others out with the mental fortitude or the general definition of ranting. It could have been due to his idea of never sharing his feelings, for they were not for anyone to interfere with, thing which he developed during his career of scouting and staying hidden in battle. Or, most likely, he never bothered. He could only shrug and keep doing his thing, without anyone batting an eye, probably, if he were to do his work properly. 

And with that, which he thought of, he followed the two into the hallway. Now, the three of them were heading, most likely, towards the Exarch's personal chambers. He was behind the ladies watching, at times, if Lily seemed to recover. Most likely, she was still in shock after all that's happened and her opposition was normal. Some could say she is more like a prisoner, than an actual person of relevance, but the way she felt was more leaning towards the former, looking for ways to escape this mess she is imagining. But the last detail she is missing is that, even though she might see the Byrn forces as some sort of hellspawns, looking forward to devouring the world as a whole, they are still human, seen as the bad people in the given circumstances, as the Byrn see the other parties as the opposants. Rolliam was aware of that, but he could only feel pity for Lily, as she had to endure this and live with it. Maybe for years to come. 

And so, they stopped at the Exarch's chamber, if that was his, anyways. They ventured inside and he closed the door behind them, letting the two have their talk. He sat down in one of the far corners, watching around the place, with a bag in his lap.

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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?”

Edited by saga juliet

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“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.”

Edited by saga juliet

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“It’s fine talk of politics, sir, a subject of which you have the utmost command – and perhaps more of than the dickless jesters... on account of him having just lost a slightly different game of ‘avoiding the rape of my country’ to your very own self.”

The Ebon Knight's gaze narrowed for a brief moment as he listened to the first part of Innes' response.

"... Am I to take it, Innes, that you think the Exarch will find me more responsible for the fall of Isore than my superiors, who ordered the assault? But you're right, to an extent. I will not deny my role in toppling his city, his nation. And I would not deny this even were I standing before the Exarch himself."

He lapsed back into silence then, allowing for Innes to continue. The arrogant archer... the Knight wondered sometimes why he put up with him. But there was no denying that he quite often had a point, indeed.

“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’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.”

The Knight nodded for a moment.

"I'd liken Jill not to a pawn, but to a more important piece. Perhaps a rook, driving straight forth into the opponent and crashing into their carefully-laid plans. But... hmm. I don't desire to control her every move, of course. And I have no control over the moves of the Exarch. But you do understand if I would like their moves to align with my own plans, correct? I cannot afford to leave everything to the will of the pieces on the board when the Princesses control every piece on their side like pawns, or puppets on a string."

He paused for a moment, watching as Innes flicked the seed to the bird on his shoulder. When had that bird arrived, actually? He looked up, his gaze scanning around the room- and his gaze fell on her just as Innes addressed her without even so much as looking at her.

-----

Spoiler

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The priestess was momentarily taken aback by Innes addressing her. She thought that her approach had gone unnoticed- but no. Of course it hadn't. She recovered her composure, and aimed a patient smile in the archer's direction. There was a glimmer in her golden eyes as she listened to Innes' words, and she moved a stray silver hair out of her line of sight as the archer finished his words to her. She raised an admonishing finger into the air as she responded.

"You do not need to remain so formally distant with me, Sir Innes. We will be working closely together for the foreseeable future, will we not? Call me Micaiah. With that said... smoke and mirrors are for street magicians. The monks of my temple, or even Sir Zel- the Ebon Knight would attest to the authenticity of my visions. But you are not wrong. We can't afford to drop all matters of the present in order to try and desperately grab hold of a distant future. There are things we can do in the near future to help secure, ah, the idealistic future you describe, but many things can and should be left for a later time. Forgive me if the Knight has been prattling about the future before I even got here, for I shared a particularly strong vision with him just this night past."

The Ebon Knight directed a nod toward Micaiah. Innes might also have been able to discern that, hidden beneath his helm, there was a smile from him also directed at her. But he would be given little time to dwell on this as the Knight's gaze turned and fell heavily upon him.

"As pleasant as a future as we have laid out before us, we must work hard in the present in order to see that future achieved. So let us dawdle no more in dreams for now. Would you go and fetch that Zenithean wind mage? It's high time I gave that lazy bastard some proper work. Oh, and tell Roland he can come in on your way out."

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Meanwhile, in the Exarch's old chambers, Jill watched Lily in silence. What intention did the Wizards have in sending her here to Isore, to the Ebon Knight? And what was the Knight supposed to provide to the Wizards in return? For what she knew of the Wizards, they wouldn't do such a thing as this without some greater purpose in mind. But before Jill could ponder this matter much more deeply, Lily spoke up out of the blue.

“Innes, that’s his name…right? That man who stood behind the knight in shining armor.”

"Yeah, that's Innes. Annoying prick more often than not, but the best shot we have in the force. Why do you ask? Are you familiar with him, somehow?"

She paused for a moment to raise an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Huh. I wouldn't have pegged you as his type, honestly. But hey, I guess you get surprises sometimes."

She lapsed into silence as she watched Lily produce her dragonstone and swing it like a pendulum. Something about it held her gaze, almost to a mesmerizing extent. ... Something about it seemed very familiar. The Ebon Knight, he had a similar stone on a chain around his neck, did he not? It was most often concealed beneath his armor, but she had seen him produce it before. Lily spoke again, allowing to tear her gaze from the stone and re-focus on Lily.

“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.”

Jill winced for a moment sympathetically as Lily spoke these words. Of course the Wizards wouldn't have seen fit to divulge a clear picture of her purpose here. Why would those cryptic old men ever do anything so simple and logically expected? Give the poor girl a vague mission, and then send her right on her merry way. ... She deserved better than this confusion. Jill didn't think her interpersonal skills were the greatest in the world, but she would take a fair shot at calming Lily down, and maybe give a sense of purpose.

...

Lily addressed Rolliam, asking him why she was here. Then she addressed Jill with a question of similar make. The wyvern rider of Byrn turned a glance toward Rolliam, gauging if he would respond to Lily first, or would defer to her to let her speak first.
Whatever the case, she would soon turn to Lily and meet her gaze with her own. She mustered the most comforting expression that she could manage as she began to speak.

"That's a good question. But the answer is not quite so simple. The Wizards have made their move, and sent one of their pieces, that is to say, you, to be used on the Ebon Knight's side of the board. I can't claim to even begin to fathom their intentions. What I can tell you is that you are neither a prisoner nor a mere message. If you were the former, we would most certainly have you in physical chains, or at the least behind bars of firm metal. If you were the latter... why send you when a letter slipped into Roland's saddlebags would have sufficed just the same? And gotten here a good deal quicker, to boot? What possible reason would they have had to give you that stone you hold now? ... Speaking of that stone, the Ebon Knight is certainly going to be interested in seeing it. If you don't mind, I'll slip off for a moment and fetch him here. And you won't have to see Innes again at this moment, as a bonus. Wish I could avoid seeing him so easily..."

Jill looked towards Lily for a bit more. Waiting for confirmation, or simply consumed by thoughts? Whatever the case, she then turned on her heel and unlocked the chamber doors, striding back out into the palace at large, and toward the Ebon Knight at his table in the battered throne room of Isore.

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“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?"

Rolliam closed his eyes. Not as a response regarding his ignorance of the matter, but as of creating a thought. Existential problems were the issues which would prove fatal during the long run. They can be there, even though one can try and comfort the victim. No one knew when it would come back, hurt and cover the person in branches of thorns, in a grasp comparable to the bigger snakes. Barely any would escape from that, and with scars.

He let Jill speak, so he could find a response fitting to her question. Such a simple, yet intriguing question, that which could be resulting like a war treaty. 
"Life has its own ways." He opened his eyes, with a comforting expression and moved his hair away from the pair. "As Jill said, it could have been easier for any of us to have a mail with the object you are holding. But you are here for a reason. You are important, and not just for us or The Wizards. If they sent you with that stone, while you have no experience in army related work, you must mean something. The Wizards are smart people, which think steps ahead... even though..."
He cleared his throat, trying to get over what he almost just said of the 'High' Wizards. "They think steps ahead of us, so they knew what they were doing. They knew we won't do anything to you. But most importantly... You are trying to find the Exarch, right? During these expeditions, we will have a chance to find him. Think of that as a new chapter in your life. It may be something you won't like going through, but I believe it's a rite of passage, which has already begun." He finished the last note with a simple smile, watching Jill leave the room, then opening his bag, to reveal yet another, small bag, which he unveiled. There was a pie, which he put on a round table close to both Lily and Rolliam.
"Say, Lily. You may probably need more to feel better and refresh your thoughts. Would you like some apple pie?"

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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.”

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Jill swiftly reached the Ebon Knight at his table. She couldn't help but smile for a moment upon seeing that Innes wasn't around. What she did notice, however, was Micaiah- she rested one hand on the Knight's shoulder, and the other on the table, as she leaned forward and looked at the reports in front of the Knight. That orange bird of hers sat on his other shoulder. Jill wondered if she cared about the reports at all, or just wanted an excuse to be close to the Knight. But hey, it wasn't her place to judge, and she wouldn't wonder about it overlong at the moment. She cleared her throat and approached the table, causing both the Knight and the priestess to look up at her.

"Ebon Knight, sir... our guest has something that I think you might want to see. That is, if you're not too busy reading reports and all that?"

The Ebon Knight looked at the table full of reports in front of him for a few moments, before nodding to himself and standing up. He started to make his way over toward the Exarch's old chambers, and Micaiah and Jill both followed after him. At the same time, Roland pushed opened the door to the throne room and stepped in. Noticing the Ebon Knight's departure, he jogged to catch up with him. Roland spoke to the Knight about the idea that had previously struck regarding the fall of Isore, and the possibility of Glian betrayal. Jill, meanwhile, had a whispered conversation with the priestess, probing for details about the relationship between her and the Ebon Knight. Lily and Rolliam would catch a fragment of the former conversation as the group of four came through the door to the chambers.

"... I do think you're right, Roland. Though interference on the Isorian end wouldn't have been impossible, it would have been unlikely given the nature of Isore, and the people's love of the Exarch. And measures would have been taken to ward against interference en-route. So if there was ever a message sent, it would have had to been stopped by one or more people, somewhere on Glia's end. But... that being said, try not to dwell on such thoughts any longer. I won't say they're above your understanding, it's just that it's a losing game to try to discern the politics of the enemy without any form of inside perspective on the matter."

Roland nodded vigorously.

"Understood, sir. I just had that thought rattling around my brain, and had to let it out, you know?"

"Worry not, I understand that feeling well."

And with that, the Ebon Knight and Roland entered fully into the Exarch's old chambers, followed by Micaiah and Jill. The Knight said nothing more for the moment, instead taking a moment to look at the stone and the rapier in Lily's hand before finding a chair, and pulling it up to face the bed. Micaiah stayed near the Knight's side, while Roland and Jill joined Rolliam alongside the wall.
The silence verged on awkward as the Ebon Knight pulled on the chain around his neck, bringing forth the orange stone that bore resemblance to the body of a dragon. A dragonshard, one of the fragments of the Dragon Emblem. It seemed to glow and resonate in tune with the claw-shaped stone that Lily held in her own hand. Finally, the Ebon Knight broke 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."

He paused for a moment, nothing indicating what expression he might have.

"We did come to an arrangement, of a sorts. I would help ensure that Erasmia would not meet a calamitous demise, and offer my aid in gathering together and eventually destroying the pieces of the Dragon 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."

Lily might have sworn that the Knight broke into a grin at this moment, even though his face and expression were completely concealed by his dark helm.

"But 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."

He leaned back in his chair slightly.

"Now, Lily. Of the parties in this deal, you were the one that never really had a choice in the matter. And that is something I am not content with. So, let me make this clear: You are not my prisoner. If you wish, you can run off and try to track down the Exarch, or whatever you please. I would not hinder your departure, and would order my command to do likewise. Or maybe you hold a great hatred for me for what I have done to Isore, and seek to take revenge? Whether in the name of the Exarch, or to satiate your own wrath? In that case, I sit before you right now, unarmed. One good strike with that rapier, and you would have my life extinguished. I can guarantee that you wouldn't get far afterwards, but perhaps you're willing to give it all for that brief moment of triumph."

The Knight paused to take a breath.

"But... if you're not inclined to run off on your own, or strike me down, then 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 the Isorian partisans in Sparmo, and you are fully welcome to accompany us."

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Rolliam eyed the jab of the rapier with one, single eye. She was just as new to using her sword as a newborn child would be to their surroundings. Though, her words sounded all high and mighty, as a promise- or rather, as a threatening. He only acknowledged it with a head nod, as he didn't want to cause any fuss about it, as she was more stubborn than an average human could be.
"Well, I always thought those wizards may have been some mastermind schemers of some sort. But, if you really say so, that they are just a bunch of seniles... I may just choose to believe what you say." Was his only response to her, only resorting to comment on the wizards.

---
He rose his head, which was, before, pointed to the ground, once he heard them coming from the hallway. Nonetheless, he had expected his brother to take credit for his initial thought, but little did he care about it, anyways. Roland had other scopes in his life to set for, and Rolliam was there to make sure he won't be, unfortunately, killed in action during the scouts or not to have to resort to cold food. 
"But, well, I can say he really wants that great position for the future." He smugged and looked down to the ground, waiting for the door to open, only to raise his head to them, as if he hadn't heard any of the things there were mentioned. So much for hiding things.
As soon as the Knight sat down on a chair and began the conversation with Lily, tension could be felt through every inch of their skin. It may have been from the fact that Lily would be intimidated by his towering presence, or the fact that she may could say one, wrong word and her life could end on the spot, even though they aren't barbarians or executioners to do such thing. He just bowed his head back down, keeping quiet.

"I sit before you right now, unarmed. One good strike with that rapier, and you would have my life extinguished. I can guarantee that you wouldn't get far afterwards, but perhaps you're willing to give it all for that brief moment of triumph." Ah, the negotiator. As far as he could tell, not many had this chance to hear his words, and none have managed to attempt a murder on his life. As surprising as it could get, a great shock, this would be the schemes a leader would use, to show his wish to trust in those who need a clear path ahead. As much as he would have this high ranking, he hadn't forgotten we are still humans. Lovely, Rolliam thought. But one thing was to be corncerned about... Shall she thrust the rapier and strike him down, or will she accept and begin her path to finding the Exarch and, most importantly, saving Erasmia? 

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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.”

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All eyes in the room turned toward Lily, and then toward Micaiah. The priestess had an intrigued expression cross over her face for a moment, and one might have sworn the red-orange bird on her shoulder narrowed it's beady eyes at the blue-haired girl. Then, the moment passed, and she smiled lightly.

"You would like to talk with me? ... I see. In that case, here is not the place. Come with me."

She turned her gaze toward the Ebon Knight for a moment.

"Zel- Sir Knight. This shouldn't take overly long. But if I have not returned within the hour, then do as you must."

With that, she turned on her heel. Lily followed without uttering another word to the gathered group, though her gaze lingered over Roland and Rolliam for a  moment as she walked by the brothers. A minute or so after the two had departed, the Ebon Knight turned toward the brothers and Jill and chuckled lightly.

"Something tells me that conversation is not just going to be girl talk. Otherwise, they would have invited Jill here along, no?"

He paused and shook his head.

"Doesn't matter how long you've known them, women always remain so mysterious in the end. But that's just how it goes, in the end. Jill, break out the board. Perhaps it is for the better that Lily isn't here when we discuss the finer details of our plans to deal with Sparmo. Rolliam, if you overhear Innes returning while we're still in the midst of discussion, would you go over and guide him here?"


Micaiah and Lily walked through the hallways leading away from the Exarch's chambers. The latter might have wondered where exactly they were going- this was not the way leading into the throne room, but rather in the opposite direction. Yet as she drew in breath to ask, the priestess cut her off with a shushing motion. This wasn't the place to talk- and while the Knight had good security, and the men around were loyal to him, there was always the possibility of a spy, of ears being within the walls. So the two walked in silence, thoughts presumably bouncing around in their heads.

The two of them finally arrived in chambers somewhat reminiscent of the Exarch's. Although, here... there was this pervading sense of slight unease. And the signs were obvious of how these chambers were hardly used, if ever. Layers of dust thick enough to where every footprint was visible. The bird on Micaiah's shoulder let out a chirp, and the priestess turned her gaze to Lily before finally breaking her silence.

"These chambers... A man whose machinations set many current events into motion was killed here. The previous Exarch of Isore, Madon's father, died in these chambers alongside his wife, at the hands of an assassin who was never clearly identified. Words of great import were spoken here before. And if you seek to say similar words now, then let me hear them."

Lily could only wonder at the purpose of the history lesson the priestess had given. All nice for the dramatic effect, but why come here when there were surely other places in the palace equally safe against potential eavesdropping. Regardless, when prompted, she went straight for the point.

"You... you know something, don't you?"

The priestess smiled serenely.

"I know something? Yes, I do know a number of things, as all people do. But you would not have sought words in private unless you thought I knew something others did not, no? What is it, then?"

Lily took a moment to take a breath before continuing her line of questioning.

"The Ebon Knight is oddly aware of the nature of the stones. More so than one might expect from someone in his position. So how else could he know such things, unless somebody were to tell him? Somebody like... you?"

That intrigued expression flashed over Micaiah's face again for a moment. Then, her previous expression returned, the smile widened a bit and a glimmer in her eyes.

"And what do you know of the extent of the archives of Byrn, girl? A man of the Ebon Knight's position would have access to a great deal of materials, and such information as you speak can often be found in the most unexpected places."

"... I cannot discount that possibility, yes. But such information lurking in military records? I'd say they'd be more likely to be found in the likes of a temple."

The priestess' eyes took on an almost predatory gleam as she stepped closer to Lily in a brief flash of motion. But in moments, she had returned to her calm and serene state.

"I suppose you are right, in that regard. In light of your persistence, I will tell you at least this much, Lily. The Ebon Knight... I have known him for a long time now, back even when the title he held now was the dream of a bold, yet inexperienced young man. He often visited the temple in which I resided up until recently, and he was and remains still my fondest friend. And together, in the musty archives of that temple, we somewhere along the way learned of the nature of the stones... Is this an answer that is satisfactory to you?"

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