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gor mu

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  1. Many, many springs ago, the Night King, Aguru, ruled the skies unchallenged. He took the shape of a spectacled bear, whose black fur was made of darkness whole, with bright spots that made up the stars, and his head was crowned by a silver diadem, adorned by a lone pearl that mortals know as "the moon". Aguru was born during the first eon of the Earth's creation, as the divine offspring of Naga’ir, the life-bringer. Arcane tales maintain that Aguru was the first being to walk the Earth, but having grown tired of life on the ground, he jumped up to the sky and submerged the new-born Earth into perpetual darkness. Aguru may have been the first being to walk the Earth, but he was not the last. From Naga'ir's warmth many other beings came into existence: the animals that inhabit the land, seas and skies, the trees and plants that spurt from the fertile soil and make the Earth green, and of course, the humans, who in ancient times had not yet been stripped of their immortality. During these times, there lived a young man by the name of Sahhasho. Sahhasho was a skilled hunter, famed for his prowess with the longbow. He was also known for his beauty, with his long dark hair not unlike the Night King’s fur. So great were his skill and his beauty that the Night King himself couldn’t help but falling in love with him. To be with Sahhasho, Aguru shed his usual form, choosing instead the appearance of a man, with skin like the night sky and eyes as bright as stars. In time, Sahhasho became enthralled with the beauty of Aguru’s human form, and he too fell in love with the Night King. From that moment on, the Night King and the human started seeing each other atop Surbari, the mother of all mountains, the point where the land kisses the sky. Aguru entertained Sahhasho with tales from the long-gone days of the primordial gods, and granted him gifts only divine beings could provide, while Sahhasho gave Aguru the comfort of human warmth and wit, and presented to him the pelts of the wild tigers he would shoot down with his bow. One day, Darmo, Lord of Fire, took notice of the young Earth. As ruler of the lands belonging to the gods, he declared Earth to be his rightful territory as well, and sent his daughter Vesro to claim it in his name. Darmo gave Vesro his left eye, and armed her with a sword of fire, that she could use to fend off those who would cast doubt on Darmo's claim to the land. Vesro landed on the highest peak of the Surbari mountain, and unveiled Darmo's eye, which cast its magnificent light upon every corner of the Earth. Never before had any of the Earth's creatures seen such a powerful light, so warm and so full of life. Fruit sprouted from every tree, and the water in the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers became so hot it nearly boiled. Enraged, for he considered Earth to be his own realm, Aguru challenged Vesro to a duel to settle once and for all whose claim would stand. But Vesro was a skilful fighter, and armed with her flaming sword, she had Aguru clearly outmatched; Aguru's claws and fangs were not enough to make front to the powerful Lord Darmo's daughter. She struck over a hundred blows, and each weakened the Night King further. They duelled for a hundred years, but finally, Aguru fell to his knees. Vasro readied to strike the final blow, but at the last moment, Sahhasho's arrow deflected her blade. The human had known that interfering in a gods’ duel would end not go unpunished, but he could not sit idle and watch his lover be slain. Vasro was deeply offended at the insolent intrusion, but before she could swing her sword in Sahhasho's direction, a reinvigorated Aguru shielded the human and pushed back against Darmo’s daughter with newfound strength. The Night King’s wounds healed with primordial manna, and arming himself with Sahhasho’s bow, he was now on equal footing against Vasro’s sword. Aguru and Vasro have been entangled in their divine duel ever since, fighting for control over the skies and the land. Vasro holds advantage by day, when Darmo's eye shines bright with divine fire. At night, Aguru takes the upper hand, and his dark fur covers the celestial dome. Every month, for one night, Aguru and Sahhasho meet atop Surbari, the mother of all mountains, and the shining pearl that crowns the Aguru’s head becomes a full moon again, for the Night King is only content by his lover's side.
  2. gor mu

    VIII. The warrior

    Thank you! Dialogues are the most fun parts to write for me, haha!
  3. Thank you so much! Hope you stick around and keep reading!
  4. gor mu

    X. The sword

    Tistan holds the advantage here, as they're both playing on his field (figuratively and literally!) They'll both have to bend eventually, though. Thanks for commeting, as always!
  5. gor mu

    X. The sword

    X The sword “We have to be quick,” Tistan Dresaceri murmured in an agitated huff, like a doomed man’s prayer to an impious god. By now, Aaru was nearly certain the young lord was only talking to himself. He was never closer than two steps in front of Aaru, leading the way through the winding galleries of the manse with an unforgiving pace. I’m going to need your help with something. Tistan had barely waited for Aaru’s confused nod of approval before taking off in a sprint, urging him to stay close behind. ‘We have to be quick’, he’d said, and since then Aaru had heard the young lord assert the same thing twice. “Where are we going?” Aaru asked as he trailed behind, no longer willing to put up with Tistan’s secretive behavior. Tistan stopped and turned back to him with an irritated expression on his face. “We’re going out. I’m going to see someone, and I need you to come with me,” he explained, matter-of-factly. “Can you wield a sword?” A sword? Aaru stammered. “Yes, but why-” Tistan cut him short with a hand on his forearm, squeezing softly, amber eyes intensely fixed on him. When he spoke, his words bore just enough weight to dispel Aaru’s uncertainty: “No harm will come to you. That, I promise.” Tistan resumed his pace and Aaru had to take a moment before following, slightly taken aback by the young lord’s reassurance. I promise. A warm sting lingered where their skins had met. Aaru’s heart raced as he took in Tistan’s words. They were going outside, into the city, away from this labyrinthine monster of a fortress that Tistan called home. He briefly wondered if the someone they were going to see was that Castas, of whom Tistan had spoken with such benevolence and sadness. It wasn’t lost on Aaru how his master had masters of his own, and how with all his riches and prestige, the young lord was still not free to do as he willed. It hardly mattered. He had to stay focused. The one wearing the collar was him, not Tistan. He’d already appeared to gain the lordling’s trust, and now he was being armed and taken out into the city. Aaru would have more than a chance to finally make his escape. If Tistan didn’t own the key to his freedom, Aaru would have to forge it himself. They took a set of spiraling stairs downwards, and Aaru instantly recognized the lower floors where he’d been taken when he first arrived. Unlike the airy, sunlit hallways above, down here the only source of light were sparse torches hanging from the walls, and each step they took caused a dull, reverberating echo. The enormity of this place never ceased to amaze him. Finally, Tistan took a halt before a large wooden door and briefly turned to him. “You’ll… probably need to change,” he panted absently. With an effortful push on the gate, they entered what appeared to be a dark, spacious armory. Aaru allowed himself a small grin. He was ready to ditch the silky pants. “The guards aren’t around at this hour, but we don’t have much time. Grab whatever you want.” Tistan pointed towards a tall stand with swords and spears of different sizes and shapes. Most of them were of the typical Vahay style: straight, long and heavy, and probably made for someone twice his size. Aaru scanned the stand for a moment and finally settled for the smallest blade he could find, a double-edge that was still somehow longer than his entire arm. He inspected it up-close and felt its weight on his hand; it’d been a while since he’d been properly armed. “These are the smallest I could find,” Tistan said as he emerged once again with a bundle of folded clothes on his hands: a short, simple tunic, a pair of brown woolen pants, a belt from which to hang his blade, and sandals with long skin laces. He spared them a look and shrugged. They were not the ksarqu and kebrang he was used to wear, but it was certainly an improvement from the translucent silks he’d donned since his arrival. He began to undo the safe of his ornate sterling belt, but stopped himself when he remembered Tistan’s presence, and an awkward, warm itch began crawling up his neck. The lordling seemed to realize it too, and made an understanding face before turning his back on Aaru to give him some privacy. From what he’d gathered so far, the Sunset folk were normally unbothered by most forms of nudity, and even their usual garments tended to show more skin than what they covered. Aaru added it to the ever-growing list of differences between their peoples. He’d nearly finished tying the laces of his sandal when the echoing sound of hurried steps coming from the corridor made them both turn toward the door. Instinctively, he jumped straight into sparring position, his hand settling on the hilt of his blade, but Tistan shook his head to indicate him to lower his guard. The steps stopped before the door, and for a moment silence reigned over again. A single drop of sweat rolled down Aaru’s forehead. The door opened. “Your grace!” Taodie’s voice came out in a high-pitched gasp, followed by his own sigh of relief as her image emerged where he’d been ready to see a helmeted head. The woman entered and made sure no one had followed her before closing the door. Could it be that she was in on whatever Tistan was planning? Aaru would have not found it odd. Taodie made an incredulous face and waved her arms. “Your grace, what are you doing here?” Tistan’s response was a blank expression and icy silence, which only appeared to fuel her desperation. Perhaps the woman wasn’t in on it after all, which would have explained why Tistan had turned to him in the first place “Lady Verise has ordered the guards not to let you out of the manse, they’re looking for you all over,” she squealed, and a dry laugh escaped Tistan’s lips. Then she pointed a finger in Aaru’s direction. “And by all the gods, what is he doing with a sword on his hand?!” Tistan remained silent for a moment, as if mulling over what to answer, or wondering if he would speak at all. Aaru could practically see the warring thoughts inside Tistan’s head. Finally, he stated simply: “The Sealord is dead.” Taodie’s eyes widened and from her mouth came a low whisper that Aaru couldn’t quite understand. The lordling shot a quick glance at Aaru and bit his lip. “Taodie, I need to go… somewhere,” he announced vaguely The woman opened her mouth, but said nothing. She, too, was hesitant. It occurred to Aaru that he still didn’t quite understand the scope of what they were getting into. Still, Taodie appeared to have made a choice of her own: “What do you need me to do?” It was agreed Taodie would distract the guards by claiming he was in the opposite side of the manse, while they took a concealed exit beneath the surface, which had apparently been Tistan’s original plan. When it was time for her to separate from them, she gave Aaru a hug and whispered in his ear: ‘keep him safe’. A gnarling feeling of guilt settled in the pit of his stomach, which he quickly tried to dismiss, reminding himself he had a mission of its own. It didn’t work much, though, and the feeling stayed there. Now just the two of them again, they returned to the dark passageway from which they’d come. At one point, the torches in the walls became so far in between that Tistan had to take one in his hand in order to see what was in front of them. Eventually they reached a small, musty room not unlike the one where Aaru had been confined before, which appeared to house nothing but empty wine barrels and broken wooden planks. There, hidden behind a ragged, discolored tapestry, was a heavy iron gate with a relief of the three-headed woman that Aaru had seen in the mural at the baths. Her three faces had placid expressions, and the central one was crowned with an upward-facing crescent moon. “This manse has belonged to those of my line for nearly two centuries,” Tistan explained upon revealing the gate, addressing him for the first time since they’d left the armory. “It was built by Brache Dresaceri, as a gift to his daughter. She had this exit made, though no one is sure why. These days it’s been completely abandoned. It leads to Lochardo’s Alley.” From his robe, Tistan produced a large key, which appeared to be as old as the door itself, and crafted in the same metal. “I’ve found myself in gratitude to Ornai Dresaceri more than once,” he shrugged, before inserting the key and budging the door open. For a brief moment, Aaru was blinded by the shining sunlight in his eyes, which were by then already accustomed to the dim fires of the torches. When his sight was back, he was met by a narrow street, bordered from both sides by tall walls of the same pale sandstone with which most of the city’s buildings appeared to be made. A series of stone arches extended from the walls on each side, giving the impression that the entire thoroughfare was a sort of sunlit tunnel, and providing a little shade from the unforgiving midday sun. A couple of passersby gave them odd glances, but went on their way directing them a word. Tistan looked around for a moment and sighed in relief. “There’s still movement in the streets, so the news haven’t filtered down to the people yet. Hopefully the swords haven’t blocked the inner gates either,” he said, his lips curving upwards only slightly. “Remember, if anyone asks, you’re just my guard.” Aaru nodded, though he did wonder whether it was all that uncommon for companions to act as bodyguards. Was he not keeping Tistan company right then? Perhaps his translation of the word was off, but then again, his knowledge of the city’s culture was deeply limited. He’d never met a man from Corienor before setting foot here, as the Sunset men who ventured to the ports of the Smoking Sea were usually from the eastern ends of the Vahay dominion. It was midday, and from where they were Aaru could not tell where exactly the sea was, so he had no way to know in which direction they were going. Although Tistan seemed to know his way around more than well enough, Aaru still disliked the feeling of not knowing where he was or where he was headed. Tistan’s silence was hardly helpful either, but still not uncomfortable enough for him to ask on initiative. Aaru noticed most of the buildings in the area were large and ornate, and there was no shortage of statues and trees growing behind stony walls. The people they saw in the street walked with the same dignified air and spoke in the same regal tone as Tistan, and when they passed by, they only looked at him, as if Aaru were completely invisible. Some of them appeared to recognize the lordling, and bowed slightly when they saw him, but Tistan either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Tistan had not lied when he said this part of the city had a sword on every corner. Unlike the ones in the manse, the guards out here had no collars, and they wore bronze helmets engraved with a sun. They bore longswords and some of them even had spears, and unlike the folks in silks they did seem to notice Aaru, eyeing him with nasty stares. Was it the marks or the golden collar? He wasn’t sure, though he didn’t want to know either. Eventually, the narrow alley disembogued into a wide street filled with colorful tents, from which merchants loudly announced their trades and spoke of numbers and offers. Some of them sold flowers or fruits, and a couple offered jewels and pottery. You can do it now. Aaru scanned the area for any quick exits, and his heart began pounding too fast for his liking. He didn’t want to make a scene. Tistan stopped for a moment and turned to him. “The Old Quarter is over there,” he pointed towards one end of the street. “Stick close to me and keep your eyes open. The swords don’t have as much of a presence there; you’ve got gold around your neck and I wear my name in my sleeve, so we ought to be careful.” Aaru nodded wordlessly and tried to keep his nerves from showing. They continued walking until they reached a large wall with an arched gate as tall as five men stacked on top of each other. On either side of it, statues of bearded men with stern faces stood imposingly, as if waiting for anyone to act out of place to come alive and serve as wardens of the law. Just under the gate, a small crowd had gathered and blocked the way. Aaru heard Tistan curse under his breath. “They’re starting to block the gate. Stay behind me,” he ordered, before quickening his pace and diving into the mass of bodies. Aaru’s stomach turned. He could do it. He could escape right there: the lordling had his back to him and pandemonium was ensuing. No one would notice him. He was armed. He could do it, why was he hesitating? Why wouldn’t he do it? “Shit.” He followed Tistan right into the crowd. All around them the assembled crowd yelled dissonantly in confusion. Cries of “what is happening?” abounded, mixed with angry curses in words he didn’t understand as they bumped against people to move towards the gate. Tistan nearly escaped Aaru’s sight a couple of times, but the young lord’s bright saffron robe was hard to miss. When they finally reached the gate, they were stopped by a thick cordon of shielded guards blocking the way, as Tistan had feared. On the other side, another crowd was beginning to form. “The quarter is closed!” one of the guards kept yelling, “No one may pass!” With a wave of his hand, Tistan motioned for Aaru to get closer. The young lord approached one of the guards and spoke to him, though with all the noise Aaru couldn’t catch what he’d said. He saw the guard shake his head and motion for him to back away, but the lordling stood firmly planted where he was. Another exchange of words followed, this time louder, and Aaru heard as Tistan raised his voice with indignity. “I am Dresaceri! You will let me through or I’ll have you stripped of all rank!” Some of the onlookers turned at once, and the man made a hesitant face before leaning into the guard beside him. Aaru’s nerves were making the collar feel smaller than usual, and his fist encroached even harder around the hilt of his sword. The two guards exchanged a few words, and after a couple of loaded moments that felt like a whole hour to Aaru, the men parted their shields to let him and Tistan through, earning some insults from those around them. Once at the other side, they slid through the – considerably smaller – group of people that had formed there. The change in scenery was rather jarring. The aptly named Old Quarter was filled with buildings of pale stone and cracked walls. The ground was missing tiles all over, and there were less trees and plants than on the other side. But what impacted Aaru the most was the amount of people, many of them pushing carts or riding horses in all directions; the streets were crammed. The road was even wider here, and on each side there were tenfold more merchant tents, with a much greater variety of products to offer. Off in the distance, a couple of large domes rose up against the sky, one of them golden and shining as if with a light of its own, the other of a vivid turquoise that blended with the cloudless horizon. “Aaru, come on!” Tistan called, already having taken off. Aaru stayed put for a moment, looking back at the crowd they’d just left behind. Taodie’s words resonated in his head: no runaway makes it past the city walls, child. Corienor was a beast Aaru didn’t think he could tame. When he went back to follow Tistan, he did so less begrudgingly than he’d hoped. The young lord was breathing harshly and his hands were shaking, but his pace didn’t slow down in the slightest. At least Aaru wasn’t the only one overtaken with nerves. “Vaelo’s temple down this street,” Tistan said, his voice cracking from exhaustion. “That’s where we’re going. Don’t trail behind.” Aaru noticed most of the people of this quarter didn’t wear the same sort of glossy, colorful silks or the precious metals and jewels that Tistan wore. Indeed, many of them reminded Aaru of the pirates that had taken him here: faces hardened by the wind and skins darkened by the inclement sun. The Sunset men were seafarers first and foremost, and the people here were more like the sailors he’d seen near his own lands before. As they made their way down the ample thoroughfare, the pair earned stares and turned heads, and the lack of guards that Tistan had mentioned didn’t escape Aaru either. Preemptively, Aaru’s hand never left the sword hanging from his hip. After a while, they arrived to a large, hexagonal clear area, centered by a statue in the image of a young man with long hair and a joyful face, bearing a stringed instrument on one hand and a flask of wine on the other. Crowns of flowers were laid at its feet, and a couple of people were knelt on the floor before it, apparently not minding the sun or the heat. Around the statue, and aligned with each of the six points of the clearing, stood tall poles from which golden drapes hung not unlike the sails of a ship. Gold. Everything in this damned city was made of gold. Tistan stopped as when passed in front of the statue and exhaled audibly. “That’s Vaelo, patron of wine and music.” Aaru eyed the figure and the people praying to it on the floor. If there was to be a god for those two things, he thought, it was only fitting he showed a happy face. “And that,” Tistan pointed to a building on the other side of the hexagon, “is his temple.” Aaru sighed, somewhat relieved that they had finally arrived to their destination, but still ticked by the same fact. His hesitance to run away earlier never stopped nagging him for a second, and the voices of the mountains in his dream tortured him as if he were only proving them right. Undeserving. At least he hadn’t needed to use his sword yet. The Temple of Vaelo was a circular grey building of with a low, conical roof made of opaque red tiles. The pillars outside were adorned with dried-up vines and pieces of red, orange and yellow fabric, and the walls were full of relieves showing people in various states of emotional extremity: joy, anger, distress, sadness, all portrayed by the motionless faces like a cyclic story engraved in stone. A set of curved steps stood between them and the entrance, which was flanked by small water fountains and wide open. The latter fact made Aaru do a double take, as the lack of doors was a noticeable deviation from the rest of the buildings he’d seen so far. Before crossing the temple’s threshold, he turned back to face the statue outside and the cityscape. I’m really doing this. The first thing Aaru noticed as they entered the temple was the music; a low tune immersed the entire place in a dream-like state. He couldn’t help but look around to try to find the source of the wondrous sound, but it was nowhere to be found. Light came through a gallery of circular windows in the ceiling. In the center of the complex, elevated on a marble plinth, was what appeared to be a pool upon which small candles floated around. Only a few people pullulated around the place, most of them wearing robes in shades of dark red and brown. One of them, a young girl, instantly noticed them, and approached Tistan with a kind expression. “My gracious lord,” the girl bowed low, “how may I be of service to you?” Tistan sighed and ran a hand through his hair; a habit that Aaru was beginning to notice manifested when the lordling was nervous. “I’m looking for Charie Thebardai. Can you take us to her?” The girl made a surprised face, but nodded nonetheless and motioned for them to follow her across the temple. As they walked, some of the people gave them odd stares, of the same kind they’d received in the streets outside, and a couple of maroon-clad youths, who appeared to serve in the temple, started to whisper among each other, adding fire to Aaru’s uneasy mood. They were guided behind a half-closed door which led to a long, candle-lit room that smelt of ash and dust. Inside it was a maze of wooden stands, holding hundreds of thousands of paper scrolls. Aaru eyed the collection with amazement. He recalled a wandering merchant who visited Bataajhang once, selling scrolls with texts and drawings from both East and West, Aaru had paid them little mind, as he didn’t know how what to make of the symbols scribbled on the dusty paper. Arandaaru, the tongue of the plainsmen, didn’t have a writing system of its own. At the end of the room, a man and a woman, both young and dressed like the girl, sat at a small table. The woman was writing something down with a quill, while the man, who wore a collar around his neck, recited words aloud for her. Neither of them noticed Aaru and Tistan’s intrusion. “Lady Charie,” the girl called, prompting the woman to look up from her task. “A visitor is seeking you.” A visitor, not two. Lady Charie, as she’d been addressed, gave them both the once-over and smiled warmly at Tistan, apparently unsurprised by his presence. Her hair was dark and curly, and tied into a single, thick braid, and her face was beautiful and mysterious. She thanked the girl, who bowed again before leaving, and stood up from her chair. The collared man emulated her, and both bowed before Tistan in a complex choreography of time-wasting formalities. Aaru bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to calm down. “My lord Dresaceri,” the woman greeted. “You grace the house of our patron with your presence.” Tistan nodded curtly. “Thank you, my lady,” he said. “Please do forgive me for being so straightforward, but I’m sure you can imagine why I’m here.” The woman shared a look with the collared man and cleared her throat. “Ardo’s festival begins tomorrow, my lord.” Aaru frowned and waited attentively for Tistan’s response. He truly had no idea what these people were talking about. Tistan exhaled tiredly. “There’s been a… change of plans, I’m afraid. The Sealord has been assassinated. The swords are blocking every gate in the city as we speak.” He paused, as if to allow the woman to process the apparently shocking information, but her response was just a deadpan expression. She turned to Aaru and regarded him with a kind smile, effectively becoming the first person other than Tistan to acknowledge him so far, though when she spoke, she only addressed the young lord. “Come with me, please.” Tistan gave Aaru a questioning look, as if asking if he’d be alright on his own. “I’ll be fine,” he said, trying to conjure all the confidence he could despite not being certain of his own words at all. Tistan nodded and only then did he follow the woman down the hall towards the door from which they’d come, leaving Aaru alone with the collared man. Was he supposed to just wait now? The man sat back down and invited Aaru to occupy the empty seat. “You don’t look too well, friend.” His voice was calm and mellow, and he lacked the regal accent Tistan and Lady Charie spoke with. Only then did Aaru’s noticed the his peculiar appearance: he sported a shaved head, in the fashion of the sentries of Qarajhangaak – not unlike he’d worn himself before his capture – and in deference with the rest of the Sunset men, who favored long manes of wavy hair. His eyes were a dark sort of grey, and upon closer inspection, Aaru saw the skin around his collar had acquired a greenish tint. Copper. He’d never seen a copper collar before. “I’m good,” said Aaru, and then bit his lip. The lie was too evident to hold. The constant tapping of his feet against the floor was enough to tell something was wrong. A thousand thoughts attempted to lead his mind in different directions. It was easy to ignore it all when he was out in the streets trying to keep an eye out for any potential threat, but now that he was supposedly safe and motionless, Aaru felt a short leap away from unraveling. The man looked unconvinced, but didn’t push it any further. Instead, he took the quill on his hand and started to write on the same scroll that Lady Charie had been using, while reading silently from another paper next to it. “I’m called Gilas,” the man said, without diverting his attention from the paper. “Do you have a name?” “Aaru,” he responded, slightly impressed that the man could stir up conversation, read, and write all at the same time. “That’s quite an odd name you’ve got there. Then again, it could be very common where you come from,” Gilas stated plainly. “Where do you come from, Aaru?” Aaru swallowed spit nervously and toyed with the hilt of his sword. “You ask many questions,” he said. “I come from… far away. East.” Gilas chuckled. “To a Vahay man, everything is ‘East’. But you’re right, I do like to ask questions, Aaru. I like to ask questions to interesting people, and you look like an interesting man.” He finally looked up and gave Aaru a curious stare. “An interesting man who belongs to an even more interesting man.” It took Aaru a good amount of willpower not to draw his sword right then. “I don’t belong to anyone.” The man flashed a sympathetic smile and resumed his writing. “We all belong to someone, Aaru from the East,” he said, “even those without a collar to show for it.” Aaru shot the man a dry look. “And you? Who do you belong to?” Gilas hummed. “I belong to the Unpolluted Vaelo, who quenches thirsts and brings joy to aching hearts. My master is master to a thousand lineages, of freemen and slaves alike,” he recited, as if quoting from a poem, or an ancient hymn. “Did you see his statue outside? Most temples have statues of their gods within their walls, but not the Unpolluted. His image graces every passerby, for he takes in anyone, regardless of their name or patron. My master is kind to me, Aaru. Is your master kind to you?” Aaru looked down. Was there even an answer to that? He didn’t think Tistan was an evil person, not anymore. But Tistan was his master, a man who owned people. Was this not what constituted evil in a person? “Tistan is…” he struggled to find the right words. What was Tistan? “He doesn’t want me, and I don’t want him. We’re stuck with each other,” said Aaru, using the lordling’s own expression. He guessed that was not the right way to respond to Gilas’s question, and the man raised his eyebrow, as if waiting for a follow-up. But when Aaru said nothing, he simply smiled and went back to his scrolls. Aaru decided he didn’t like the copper-collared man. Fortunately, Gilas didn’t say anything else after that. As time passed by, Aaru grew increasingly paranoid, and started to wonder if something had gone wrong with Tistan. As if taking after him, he ran a hand through his hair, which had grown too long for his liking, and breathed out in frustration. Curse you, Tistan Dresaceri. You better come back soon.
  6. With luck you won't have to wait much to see what happens next, hah. As always, thanks for commenting!
  7. IX The abeyant prince Sweat dripped down Tistan’s back as he moved with hurried steps down the ample hallways that led to his mother’s chambers. He huffed audibly as the sting in calves and the heaving pain in his chest all reminded him of his poor physical state. Behind him, Coreio appeared to be unbothered as she kept his pace, her armor making all sorts of clinking and stretching noises as she moved. He wondered how it was that she kept her composure inside her heavy armor, though by now it was hardly surprising to him. Tistan groaned as they made a sharp turn towards a set of spiraling stairs. After spending the night in the Sealord’s villa, Tistan’s mother had returned to the Dresaceri manse early in the morning and summoned him with urgency. ‘Now’, the breathless messenger had relayed, before quickly sustaining those had been Lady Verise’s exact words. Another gasp – this time, much louder – escaped Tistan’s lips as they reached the top of the staircase, and soon he was doubled over, hands on his knees as he tried to inhale as much air as he could through his mouth. In a flash, Coreio was by his side. “Your grace, are you alright?” she asked, placing her hand on his shoulder. Tistan took a moment to catch his breath, and smiled at her, somewhat embarrassed. “I’m good, Coreio,” he waved his hand dismissively. “I haven’t been walking as much as before, that’s all.” He took a deep breath. “Let’s go. We don’t want to keep mother waiting.” Tistan found his mother sitting at her desk by the large balcony, drinking from a silver cup encrusted with amethysts. He could tell it was wine just by her expression. Lady Verise had seen better days: she had dark bags under her eyes and her long hair was loose and tangled. One of her usual collars, a Qoiri boy no older than ten, fanned her with hurry. When she saw Tistan come in, she dismissed the boy and sat up straight. “I was starting to think you would never show up. Did you come all the way from Idrenor?” she snapped. Tistan looked back and nodded at Coreio, who exited the room and closed the door behind her. Whatever was happening was serious. “Mother,” he greeted, his breath still not quite there. “You look terrible.” Lady Verise forced a smile, and Tistan cleared his throat. “What’s so important you had to terrorize the messenger into growing wings?” “That’s fine, joke all you want now,” she said, before drinking from her cup. “We won’t be allowed to laugh for some time. Dechio Taodossi is dead.” Tistan had to do a double take. Had he heard well? “Dechio Taodossi as in, the Sealord?” Lady Verise raised her eyebrow. “Why, do you know any other?” Tistan pinched his nose bridge, an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. “He was poisoned last night.” Poisoned. “Crap,” he said. “This is going to be a mess.” Then, a realization hit him so hard he couldn’t help but voice it out loud. “Oh, damn it, the festival-“ Verise gave him an incredulous look. “In Sadrie’s name, Tistan, I tell you the Sealord has been assassinated and the first thing you think about is the stupid festival?” Tistan didn’t even bother making up an explanation. “There’ll be no festival, there’ll be no nothing. Taodossi was pledged to Ardo, and he died in Ardo’s month. We’ll be lucky if we only get three months of official mourning.” Tistan could’ve laughed. Ardo’s festival was due to start tomorrow. One day left to see Castas, and now their plans were evaporating like a shallow puddle under the hot summer sun. The assassins couldn’t have waited a moon more before ruining it all? His mother continued: “When the swords find out the old bastard was poisoned the whole city will go on lockdown. I reckon a couple of heads will have to roll before we can move freely outside the quarter.” Inside Tistan’s head, the sound of crumbling walls and ships wrecking pounded and drowned everything else. This couldn’t simply be ill-timing; the gods had to be laughing at him right then. “Tistan, listen to me,” Lady Verise placed the cup on the table and stood up to put her arm around Tistan’s waist, leading him to a cushioned divan by a corner. “You need to get ready now. Every step we take will be crucial. I’ve spent the last twenty years preparing you – preparing us – for this moment; doing the work for the both of us…” she ran a hand through her mess of a hair. Tistan had never seen her like this, completely undone. “Now I’m going to need you to do your part.” Tistan shook his head. “Mother, I think you should rest…” he began to stand up, but was stopped by her hand gripping tightly at his wrist. “You’re not going anywhere,” she ordered. Tistan gulped down and sat. “I have carried the weight of our name for nineteen years; I have restored our rank and honored our legacy. We were kings, Tistan. I named you for one, and now it is time that you act the part.” “I have no idea what you’re trying to say,” he deferred nervously. His mother’s hand was still holding his right wrist with a falcon’s grip. Lady Verise sighed exasperatedly. “Sadrie be kind, sometimes I think you got your wits from your father,” she quipped, clearly irritated. “In a month’s time, some poor idiot will have been enthroned to replace the old Taodossi oaf. To which patron god will that poor idiot be pledged?” Tistan didn’t need to reminisce of his childhood lessons to answer that. He remembered the cycle well: Ardo, Tisso, Sadrie, Rago, Coirie. Every Sealord of Corienor was pledged to one of the five higher gods. Once a Sealord died, the successor had to be pledged to the next god in the cycle. It had been the same for over five hundred years. Even so, he hesitated as he answered: “The poor idiot will be pledged… to Tisso?” he asked. Bringer of currents, god of the winds. His mother nodded. “Yes, Tisso. And then?” Tistan sighed dramatically. “Is there a point to this, mother?” She gave him an icy look. “Sadrie. Sadrie goes after Tisso, and then Rago, and then Coirie, and then Ardo again.” She nodded dismissively. “Sadrie, after Tisso. Once the next idiot’s done for, it’ll be our chance, Tistan. Your chance.” Tistan blinked, his mouth agape, and he shuddered at the realization of what his mother was saying. He could practically feel the color being drained from his skin. “That’s… mother, no. It’ll be so long before… and how? The priests bear the crown to give, they pick their own candidates…” he stuttered, trying to find a logical way out from his mother’s suggestion. She shook her head. “Do you really think this city has become the capital of the biggest empire this world has ever seen by leaving the most important decisions to priests?” she said, making use of her typical condescending tone. “Dorine Levias will be the next Sealord. She’s been the unofficial heir to the throne for the past six years or so. She’s the right age, married to the right name, born into an even fitter one. She’s well-liked and known across the Dominion, and her time in the Qoiri vanguard made her popular among the swords. The high priests will be locked in the Wisdom Gardens for a week, give or take, and then they’ll announce their ‘decision’ to the high lords of the city, who by now all either know or suspect what it will be.” Tistan sat in silence, not so much stunned at his mother’s revelations, but rather mortified by the realization of what they meant for him. It was now obvious to him: the parties filled with noblemen, the monthly services in the Moon Temple, the visits to the Sealord’s court. She hadn’t just been parading him as the next Dresaceri nameholder. She was grooming him as a suitable heir-presumptive to the highest position in the Dominion. “I won’t do it,” he heard himself saying, though the words had come out of his mouth before his brain could figure out a better way to say them. Tistan braced himself for the imminent storm. “You will.” Lady Verise’s face contorted into an ugly mask, her eyebrows curving downwards and her lips disappearing into a thin, pursed line. “I have not dedicated my life to you for you to throw this opportunity away like this.” An inexplicable fear had taken hold of him, and when Tistan spoke his voice nearly cracked: “You cannot make me do it, mother, I-“ I don’t want to do it. As if by divine justice, his own words to Aaru were back to haunt him: that’s not how things work. Of course she could make him do it, and of course it didn’t matter if he wanted to or not. Lady Verise stood up and shot him a commanding look, her eyes dark and slanted. “You will do this, Tistan, willingly or otherwise. I have been lenient and permissive; I have allowed you to have it your own way more than once. Now I won’t. You will be the next Sealord of Corienor, Tistan Dresaceri. You owe to your name. You owe it to me.” A threat was left unsaid, but lingered in the air nonetheless. He looked down. There was nothing left to say. Tistan knew what the consequences of refusing to comply were, and he was not willing to face them. He knew nothing was beneath his mother when she was determined on getting something – and she already knew his all weak spots. Lady Verise gently took hold of Tistan’s chin, and cupped his face as she made him look up and face her. “Tell me you understand, Tistan.” Her voice was now calm and collected. She was in control again. Tistan’s answer came in the form of a barely audible murmur, but that was enough for her. She knew she’d already won. “I understand.” Even in defeat, the irony was not lost on Tistan Dresaceri, that the future overlord of the greatest slave-trading city in the world was his own mother’s slave. Lady Verise smiled softly and let go of Tistan’s face and returned to her desk, where she poured herself more wine before turning to her son again. “Oh, and Tistan,” she said nonchalant, “I don’t know what sort of games you’ve been playing with your savage, and I couldn’t care less, either. But make sure he doesn’t get the impression that the one wearing the collar is you.” Ω Tistan stormed into his chambers and slammed the wooden door behind him. His eyes darted around the room for the most vulnerable object he could find, and settled for an exquisite vase made of fine tinted glass, with patterns in translucent colors. When had he got that? It’d been a gift from some courtier lord whose name he didn’t care to remember. A future subject. He took it carelessly into his hands, and without sparing another look at it, promptly threw it on the ground with all the strength his arms could muster, rejoicing in the cacophony it produced as it shattered into a thousand pieces against the marbled floor. It was a marvelous sound, loud and aggressive and entirely inappropriate. Tistan had always been a well-behaved child, calm and intellectual. He’d shown an affinity for numbers early on, and so his mother had hired the best tutors the royal court could offer to cultivate this gift. Numbers were easy. They made sense, in a strangely beautiful way; their logic was infallible. When Tistan turned six-and-ten, his mother began entrusting him with minor responsibilities of the family trade. Simple tabs, written on books that were usually handled by mousy accountants so far down the social ladder they never even saw Lady Verise in person. Tistan was content enough to deal with numbers scribbled in dusty pages, though his mother was reluctant to approve of him dealing in nameless tasks. “Coreio!” he called, the name bringing bile to his mouth. He was sure the guard had told his mother about the incident in the balcony. Of course his most trusted sword would betray him with his mother. Who else was working against him? Taodie? Little Edrie? Coreio emerged at once, and answered with a nervous urgency to her voice: “Your grace?” Tistan shot her a cold look. “Bring him to me.” There was no need for names. Moments later, the guard pushed Aaru into the room. Next to Coreio, Tistan’s companion looked like a kid; he was nearly a foot shorter than her. The difference in garments was also rather jarring: Aaru’s wore airy pants and went around barefoot and bare-chested, while Coreio’s armor covered her whole in steel, iron and bronze. Tistan dismissed the guard, who left with some reluctance. He couldn’t trust her anymore. A panicked look took over Aaru’s face as he noticed the broken glass on the ground. He was still standing by the door, looking invariably tense. They hadn’t seen each other since Aaru’s recovery two days before, and surely the slave was under the impression that Tistan was upset with him – which, he was, somewhat. “Come,” he ordered. As usual, Aaru ignored him, choosing to remain petrified by the door, where he’d been placed. His eyes were wide open, staring straight into Tistan’s with intent. “Come,” Tistan repeated, this time letting an edge slip into his voice. Unlike in their past encounters, this time around he lacked the patience to deal with the savage’s insolence. As if tacitly understanding this, Aaru obeyed and breached the gap between them with cautious steps. Now a mere foot from each other, Tistan could notice the stiffness of Aaru’s shoulders, and the way his arms were glued to his sides. A single sweat drop rolled down Aaru’s forehead, then passing by the circular mark on his cheek. Tistan took Aaru’s face in his hand, placing his thumb over the mark. Despite the intrusion, Aaru stayed in place and didn’t flinch back from Tistan’s touch, though his dark eyes remained defiant. Still unbroken. Tistan felt a spark of envy lit up inside him. “What do these mean?” he asked, pressing his thumb lightly against Aaru’s skin. He was tired of waiting for the savage to open up on his own. Aaru was his companion, his collar. Collars didn’t have the right to own anything, not even secrets. To Tistan’s surprise, Aaru responded without much hesitation. “Akshamurqu,” he said. “Bloodmarks. They are the pride of my clan. They were given to me by my father, who was marked by his father in place.” Tistan thought about how even in the confines of the world, a man’s family shaped his life. Aaru bore his ancestors on his skin, and Tistan in his name. He let go of Aaru’s face. “You will never be free again. You need to understand that,” he said, the frustration helplessly taking over his tone. Was he talking to Aaru, or to himself? “You will always wear the collar. You will always be a slave.” Aaru remained stoically composed, somehow unperturbed by Tistan’s provocations. “Will you sell me if I don’t serve you well?” he asked. “I was to be sent to the mines with my people until you claimed me for yourself.” Tistan was mildly outraged. “Do you wish to be sent to the mines, then?” he retorted. “Would you rather mine the gold I don than be showered in it? It can be arranged, if you so fervently despise the attentions and care you have received in my household.” Aaru huffed. “I am caged inside four walls all day, every day. I have not felt the sun in my skin in days. You say I am your companion, but I never keep you company. I don’t do anything. What have you bought me for?” Tistan groaned to himself in irritation. When had the savage become so opinionated? “I didn’t want you,” he countered, raising his voice. “My mother bought you. I don’t need a companion. You’re my punishment for disobeying her orders, and you’re quite frankly great at it!” Unable to hold Aaru’s gaze any longer, Tistan sat down on his bed and stared at the broken glass on the floor. He hated how every single aspect of his life was, in some way, intruded by his mother. His only refuge from her controlling hand had been Castas, and now he had been taken away from him too. My own mother’s slave. Aaru’s brows furrowed. “You cannot free me.” It was a statement, not a question. “You don’t deserve any of this. But you’re stuck with me, and I’m stuck with you,” said Tistan, the sentiment of defeasance settling over him once more. He was not like Aaru. He knew there was no point in resisting; all attempts at fighting back were for naught. Things were the way they were, and there was nothing that Tistan – or let alone, Aaru – could do to change that. Aaru sat down on the bed beside Tistan at a comfortable distance. They remained in silence for a moment, during which neither of them could muster the will to look at each other. A sense of dread fell upon the sun-lit chamber, until Aaru broke the silence. “You say I’m your punishment for disobeying your mother,” he started, a careful tone in his voice. “What did you do?” Tistan sighed, and considered not answering. Any other master would have issued a reprimand for asking out-of-place questions. Tistan Gentle-heart, too soft on collars. “I have a… friend,” Tistan said, trying to find the right words to explain everything. He’d never told anyone the whole truth. “He belongs to a minor family, a disgraced family. His parents did awful things, and his name was deprived of its rank. My mother isn’t too keen on him being around me. She says someone whose name has been disgraced should not be anywhere near someone of our stature,” as he spoke, Tistan could feel the anger simmering deep inside him. “All my life I’ve been surrounded by men and women of noble birth, and all they care about is their rank. They smile at you and sing praises when you face them, but the second you’re out of sight they rip you to shreds. They’re all snakes, drunk on their own venom, fighting to see who can sit on top of whom for just a moment,” his fists clenched the sheets of his bed. “But Castas isn’t like that. He doesn’t have a name or rank to uphold, he’s been stripped of everything for things he didn’t do. He’s the only one who talks to me like a normal person, without trying to see what he can gain from me. And I guess my mother doesn’t like that. She forbade me from talking to him, ever. She warned that I would regret disobeying her,” he laughed sarcastically, the heart-wrenching memories of the near past coming to haunt him like ghosts. “But I still did. I disobeyed her, and I was careless, and I got caught. And she made me regret it with every fiber of my being.” Aaru was staring at him attently. Tistan didn’t have any reason to tell him any of this, but he couldn’t help but indulge in the feeling of release that rushed through him. The weight of a secret was being lifted off his shoulders, even if he felt as powerless and defeated as before. Tistan let out a shaky breath and continued: “After they found us, Castas disappeared. I didn’t hear anything from him for a month, and I couldn’t ask anyone either. I knew my mother had gotten to him, and I came to fear the worst… She bought you for me to ‘distract’ me from him,” he nodded in Aaru’s direction. “I didn’t ask to be born into my name, just as he didn’t ask to be born into his. But I would give it all up if I could.” Without warning, Aaru placed a hand on Tistan’s shoulder and spoke with earnest simplicity: “I’m sorry.” Tistan flashed a weak smile. “Don’t apologize. You had nothing to do with all this.” Aaru didn’t quite return the smile, but a light squeeze on his shoulder told Tistan all he needed to know. It was only his luck that he would find comfort in relaying his grievances to a slave, but at least he was making good use of his companion for once. Then, abruptly, he remembered Charie Thebardai. ‘Should you ever be in need to reach him, the gates to Vaelo’s temple are always open’, she’d said. If Castas had trusted her, could Tistan trust her too? I won’t know unless I try. It’s not like he had anyone else, either. The house of Vaelo was in the Old Quarter, not far from the Lavender Quarter of the Dresaceri manse. Still, by then the swords would have already heard of the Sealord’s assassination, and they would be rushing to block all the gates and bridges in the city. Time was a precious resource of which he had less each passing moment. If he was going to act, he had to be fast. Tistan’s natural caution made him stop and hesitate. Was it worth the trouble? He’d already risked too much at the expense of others, and now the stakes were only higher. Yes. It was worth it. They’d been separated long enough, and Tistan was not letting this slim opportunity go. Perhaps resistance was futile, but if there was no way out of his mother’s plans at least he would allow himself the sufficient subversion to maintain his weakened individuality. Even if it had to be one last time, he would see Castas and he would not allow his mother stop him. Tistan stood up and ran a hand through his hair, which was damp with sweat and caked to his forehead. A play was unfolding inside his head, acted out by courses of action, possible outcomes and odds either for or against him. Time was running out, he needed a plan of his own, and he had no one to trust anymore. No one but… “Aaru,” he finally said, unable to contain the nervous tremble in his voice. “I’m going to need your help with something.”
  8. gor mu

    VIII. The warrior

    And thank you for commenting!
  9. gor mu

    VIII. The warrior

    Thank you for such a thorough comment! You've touched two aspects that I worry a lot about when writing. I love describing things in a very detailed way, and sometimes I will have to cut entire paragraphs of descriptions because it just feels excessive, so I'm glad the final cut doesn't feel overcharged with useless details. As for Tistan and Aaru's relationship, I have indeed tried to make it feel natural and not forced, though sometimes I fear it'll be too slow, haha. Again, thank you for the review!
  10. VIII The warrior The familiar voice never stopped ringing in Aaru’s head, always calling for him. Sometimes it called for a brother, and other times it called him by his name. He was too tired to answer, and so he ignored it, even as the calls grew louder and pestered him relentlessly. This time, though, the voice called a different name, and Aaru couldn’t ignore it anymore. “Nirkaa.” He gathered the strength to answer. “That’s not my name.” He wasn’t sure if he’d actually said it out loud, or if he only dreamed of saying it. At that point, he couldn’t know for sure what was real and what wasn’t. He was engulfed in endless nothing – only him, and the voice. “You should not lie to me, brother” the voice chastised. “I remember what mother named you, that night you were born.” The voice was now beginning to sound clearer, as if its source were closer to him. It, because he knew it wasn’t actually Sanaa. Sanaa would not be in a place like this, she couldn’t be. The voice continued: “it was such a cold summer, that one. Snow fell from the sky, like in the winter, and the sun was dark behind thick cloaks of pale clouds. The elders thought Qajequ had fallen upon us. But nothing happened. Mother was so happy when you were born. She loved you so much, Nirkaa.” Aaru was unfazed. He’d heard that story time and time again. This was not Sanaa; he would not entertain the faceless voice with conversation. “That’s not my name,” he repeated, and before the voice could protest again, he quickly added: “anymore.” The voice chuckled. “You’re always running from something, aren’t you, brother?” Aaru remained silent. “You want to believe Bataajhang has made a warrior of you, but you’re still a boy.” Aaru felt something close to outrage, though his mind was as tired as his body, and he didn’t push back with as much bite as he’d wanted to. “I am Aaru of the River, marked in red. I am a son of Khagaru of the River, marked in red,” he replied, but words sounded rehearsed, as if he was trying to convince himself more than the voice. “I am a sentry of Qarajhangaak. I am…” the voice didn’t have the grace to let him finish. “…my little brother,” it interrupted. “A son of Sadru, marked in red, peaceful lies her spirit.” The voice in the darkness was no longer clear and close, and as it spoke it appeared to drift away from him, turning into a dull echo. “You’re still Nirkaa. And you’re still a boy.” After that, the voice said nothing else, and its incessant calls stopped. The oppressing void became quiet, and Aaru was submerged into an inexplicable sadness. He knew the voice wasn’t really his sister, but at least it anchored him to something. Now, in the infinite silence, he was completely lost. He was never fully awake. Sometimes, he could hear other voices, and he knew they weren’t in his head since they spoke the Western tongue he disliked so much, though he could never pick up any words, just dim murmurs in the distance. A couple of times he even opened his eyes: once it was nighttime, and in that occasion he felt a cool breeze graze his sweat-drenched skin. Another time an intruding light shone so bright it could have only been the sun, but his tired eyes were too weak to stay open. A couple of times he was woken by an alarming feeling coming from the pit of his gut, and he’d jolt awake as the contents of his stomach emerged from his mouth and onto himself. He’d been too weak to even try and clean himself, but he’d also been too weak to care. During a couple of those ephemeral returns to the real world, he would open his eyes and be met by a pair of big golden orbs staring at him intently. Tistan Dresaceri would always try to speak to him, but Aaru never had the strength to answer – or the desire, for that matter. The young lord’s handsome face was not the only one he saw, as sometimes the slave woman named Taodie would be there too. He never saw the little girl, Edrie, but for all he knew she could’ve just been standing at the foot of his bed all along. It hardly mattered. Time ceased to be a real concept. Aside from his occasional resurgences to consciousness, he was always submerged in the dark abyss, which could only be a place in which time didn’t exist. Days could be minutes, and hours could be weeks; in his state, he had no way to know for sure. Pockets of consciousness would emerge in the darkness, and during those short lapses he would wonder what had taken over him. He could feel the pounding in his head and the feverish heat that burned through every inch of his being. Was he sick? He’d never experienced sickness like this before. For an instant, the thought of being poisoned crossed his mind. Had the lordling poisoned him in reprimand for daring to raise a hand against him? If this was his punishment, Aaru thought bitterly, he would have preferred to be publicly executed. It was nighttime when Aaru finally came to be. His eyes fluttered open weakly, and for the first time, they didn’t feel as heavy that he needed to close them back right away. The first thing he felt was the thirst; his throat felt as if he’d swallowed a fist of sand. He slowly sat up on his bed, forcing his limbs to comply even as they sent signals of protest across his entire body. He’d been lying down for too long. Now sitting, his head began pounding even harder, and a low whine escaped his lips as he buried his face in his hands. “Go back to sleep, child, you’re too weak” Aaru looked up to his right, where Taodie was sitting on a cushioned stool. She gave him a warm smile. In her hands she held a string of beads. He tried to clear his throat. “Water” he asked, and the woman hurried to a low table by the bedside, which contained a silver pitcher and some cups. As he looked around, Aaru realized he was not in his room. This chamber was much bigger, with a higher ceiling and a large balcony to his front. From his bed, Aaru could see the moon and some stars. Taodie handed him the cup of water and sat back on her chair, watching over him with seemingly genuine concern. Once he was finished, he handed the cup back to her and their eyes met for a brief instant. Her bright blue eyes shone beautifully in the candlelight, which reflected off her abundant jewelry and her collar. Then, another realization hit him, and swiftly, his hands were on his neck. The collar was gone. Taodie noticed the surprise on his face and hummed. “The young lord thought you’d be more comfortable without it,” she explained simply. Aaru frowned. He was certain Tistan was livid at him, or at least upset. Why would he want him to be comfortable? Taodie appeared to notice his confusion, and tried to elaborate: “…he likes you.” Like. The little girl had said the same. Aaru pushed it away and focused on the woman instead. He was in no state to process complicated thoughts. “You’re not from here” Aaru said, more a statement than a question. The woman opened her eyes slightly, as if surprised he would ask her that question – or any question, really. He was ‘not much of a talker’, after all. Taodie hummed and placed the beads down on her lap. “No, I am not,” she finally said. “I come from a land north of here. The Vahay know it as Meralie.” Aaru nodded. He’d never heard of such a place, but he knew there were many lands north of the Sunset Empire that were under the Vahays’ yoke. He wondered if everyone in that place looked the way she did, dark-reddish hair, bright eyes and skins pale like winter spirits, but he didn’t ask that. “Were you always a slave?” he asked instead. He wasn’t sure why he was asking these questions, or why he cared. Perhaps it was the collar around her neck, or her kind and calm demeanor, but he felt he could trust this woman – as much as he could trust a foreigner. Taodie smiled and shook her head. “No, I was taken here when I was a little child.” Aaru tried to imagine what it was like for a small girl to go through what he’d been through, being taken from her home, put in chains and brought to this place where nothing made sense. A child, scared and alone, forced into submission and trained into obedience. Aaru felt completely repulsed by the thought. “Have you ever tried to leave?” Taodie chuckled. “No one gets used to the weight of the collar right away. I did try to go back home.” She made a sad face, and it reminded Aaru of how one would look condescendingly at a small kid that inquired into the matters of adults. “No runaway makes it past the city walls, child. It’s a pointless task.” Aaru opened his mouth to protest, but Taodie stood up before he could speak. The conversation was over. She placed a hand on his forehead, and it felt warm and dry on Aaru’s skin. Her usual smile was back. “Your fever is down. Berisso will want to see you,” she declared. She picked up her beads and pocketed them inside her robe. “The young lord has taken an interest in you, child. The sooner you accept what you are now, the easier it will be – and then you will realize just how fortunate you are.” Taodie returned after a while with an old man with a beak nose and golden feathers hanging from his ears. Without speaking a word or laying a hand on him, the man examined Aaru closely. It was only when the old man posed his eyes on his chest that Aaru noticed the purple-tinted rash that had settled there. In the dim candlelight he couldn’t see it very well, but it was definitely there. When had he got that? Once the man’s examination was over, he nodded at Taodie and left on his own. When the two of them were alone again, Taodie took Aaru’s hands on her own and squeezed. “Blessed Sadrie is good, child. You’ll be fine,” she assured enthusiastically. Aaru was not sure what Taodie meant, but he nodded at her regardless. “You should get some rest now, it’s well past midnight.” Aaru didn’t sleep at all that night. Even as his eyelids grew heavy and the dull smell of incense made him drowsy, his eyes remained open until dawn. He was terrified of falling asleep and not waking up, of returning to the half-conscious state in which he had been before. Instead, he thought. He thought of his brothers and sisters, who had been captured with him. Did they sleep wrapped in perfumed silks, or were they delivered the promise of servitude in the mines? He thought of Taodie, as a young girl, taken from her home and sold to the slavers. And he thought of Tistan Dresaceri, who liked him, but insisted on making a slave of him. Aaru decided Tistan was a strange man, which was fitting, as he came from a strange city. Sunrise found Aaru standing by the balcony, staring numbly at the sky. Even as the sun started to cross the threshold of the horizon, the firmament was painted in a myriad of saturated colors, and not a cloud in sight. From his spot, Aaru could see the whole city: armies of colorful roofs, tents and labyrinthine thoroughfares. Down by the port, countless ships were docked and many others moved slowly in and out the harbor. He wondered if one of those ships was the one that had taken him here, and realized bitterly that many of them were probably bringing people from foreign lands to be sold to the slavers. Were any of them from the plains of the Yuu? He hoped not. Beyond the ships was the open sea, upon which the sun’s reflection was a turbulent path of light in the water. The conversation with Taodie echoed in his head. ‘No runaway makes it past the city walls’, she’d said. How many had tried, though? He knew Taodie had, and she had failed. He’d failed, too, and he was supposed to be a trained warrior. Not a boy. Maybe escaping was impossible, after all. Still, he would catch his brain making little plans, scouting escape routes or thinking of which table centerpiece was most fit to be used as a weapon. He was far from ready to give up. “You’re up early,” Tistan’s familiar voice made Aaru turn away from the spectacle in the sky, and from his own reveries. In the warm sunlight, Tistan’s spotless skin seemed to glow on its own, and his amber eyes beamed like molten gold. He wore a mint green robe that left half of his chest exposed, adorned with bronze coins that hung from the borders of the fabric, and a matching belt made of the same coins loosely surrounded his waist. The untamed curls were crowned by a diadem not unlike the one he’d worn the other day in the gardens. How long had it been since that day? Aaru could not tell. Tistan approached him slowly, walking to his side and reclining slightly against the marble balustrade, an unreadable expression on his face. Out of reflex, the thought of pushing Tistan down the balcony – it was a good three stories before he’d hit the ground –crossed Aaru’s mind, but he quickly dismissed the idea. “My physician says you’ve had a swift recovery,” stated Tistan in a rather formal tone. Avoiding eye contact, Aaru returned his attention to the ongoing sunrise. Staying silent was by now his default response, like a wild animal playing dead and hoping his assailants get bored and leave. But Tistan Dresaceri was just as stubborn as he was, and apparently much better rested. “Do you know what happened to you?” he asked, and then proceeded to interpret Aaru’s silence as a negative. “You were sick with a fever.” Without thinking it, Aaru raised his hand to his own chest, where the ugly-colored rash was beginning to dissipate. A fever, was it? Like mother. The two said nothing after that, and eventually Tistan turned his attention to the sky as well. But ignoring Tistan was getting harder by the second. The lordling’s presence was like an itch, and Taodie’s words resonated in Aaru’s head once again: ‘he likes you’. Like. Aaru didn’t understand how one could like someone one owned. Finally, with a curse on his lips, Aaru turned to face the other man and spoke: “Why have you not killed me?” Tistan gave him a strange look, as if surprised that he’d spoken on initiative, and frowned. “Why would I want to kill you?” Aaru struggled to find the right words, suddenly less proficient in the language. “I raised my hand against you. Slaves who do that are executed – arms and legs in the plaza-” he stammered, sighing in exasperation. He hated these people’s impossible tongue. “Why,” he restarted as he stared straight into Tistan’s eyes, “have you not killed me?” Tistan’s frown turned into a passive expression. “I don’t want to harm you. You’re my companion now; it is my responsibility to look after your wellbeing.” Aaru groaned to himself. How could Tistan not understand the contradicting nature of his words? “I don’t want to be your companion.” Tistan’s mouth opened, but no words came out. He made a puzzled face, as if genuinely perplexed by what Aaru had said, and it dawned in Aaru that slaves probably never relied their personal desires to their masters, their reluctance to wear the collar. Tistan’s slaves would surely have all been well trained and obedient, so it would not be often that the young lord heard such complaints from his serfdom. Aaru decided to push it. “I don’t want to be your slave. I want to go home.” Tistan blinked. “You can’t.” It was not a command, but an observation. Still, Aaru was having none of it. “You say you want me to be at comfortable in your house. You say you want me to be at ease. You do not understand, and you do not listen. I do not belong here. I do not belong to you,” he could have screamed, but his voice was firm as he took a step closer to Tistan. “All your gold and silver, it cannot buy me. I am free.” Tistan shook his head. “You were free, and now you are not. You cannot liberate yourself out of sheer will, Aaru. That’s not how things work. Gold and silver bought you, and now you are mine.” Another step and Aaru was inches away from Tistan. The young lord appeared collected, but Aaru could see the uncertainty in Tistan’s eyes and the sweat drop falling down his forehead. For the first time since he’d arrived to this damned city, Aaru felt like a warrior, like himself. “Am I less of a man? Or can I buy you too, Tistan Dresaceri?” Aaru hissed, and to Tistan’s credit, he didn’t flinch even as Aaru took a fist of his silky drape. They held each other’s gazes for a moment. Aaru could feel his own heart trying to jump out of his chest. Tistan was the first to speak, and close as they were, Aaru could smell the lemon balm in his breath. “Coreio,” he called, and in his peripheral view Aaru saw the guard woman emerge into the balcony. “My companion appears to have fully recovered. See to it that he is collared again.” When the woman placed her hands on Aaru’s shoulders to separate him from Tistan, Aaru didn’t resist. He didn’t resist when he was taken from the room and led to his previous quarters, nor did he resist when the collar was put around his neck again, or when his door was closed and he was caged like an animal in the gaudiest cage ever made. He knew now that sort of resistance was futile. Yes, he was a warrior, but two fists couldn’t defeat a hundred blades; whatever fight he put up, he would be easily overpowered. It was true that no plan he came up with would be good enough to get past this city’s defenses; this was, after all, a city made to keep slaves in. That’s not how things work. But there had to be other ways to get out. Only fools bumped against the same rock twice, and Aaru had bumped against the same rock more than once. Now he had to change his strategy. Taodie’s words kept ringing in his head, much like Sanaa’s voice in the dark, only now he knew what to make of them. He likes you. Would Tistan like him enough to set him free? Perhaps not yet, but Aaru had seen the doubt in the young lord’s amber eyes, the weak spot in the middle of combat. Aaru’s best weapon was himself. And he had just figured a way to use it.
  11. gor mu

    VII. The gentle heir

    Thank you! Tistan's dream is somewhat prophetic, or rather it gives indication of what will come in the next chapters. Stay tuned!
  12. gor mu

    VII. The gentle heir

    Thank you so much! Thank you! Dialogues are always tricky to write, especially when you're trying to keep things interesting.
  13. VII The gentle heir “Purpurine,” the physician, Berisso, assured nonchalantly; “without a doubt”. His venous hand left Aaru’s forehead as he returned his attention to Tistan. “It’s in its early stages, so the characteristic rash is yet to surge. But it’ll develop soon.” “Purpurine” Tistan repeated to himself, eyeing the unconscious man who lay on his bed. Aaru’s bare, sweat-soaked chest rose and fell in violent motions, as if breathing was the hardest task in the world. The old man nodded. “I’m sure my lord is familiar with the disease...” Tistan hummed in annoyed assent. Everyone knew the purpurine fever. It was deemed a commoners’ illness, as it was rarely contracted by the highborn. Folk wisdom had it that noble blood was immune to the fever, but physicians had known for ages now that the disease was most easily contracted near the brown waters of the Aoro and the Lagro, the two rivers that flanked Corienor and crossed the city’s most precarious quarters. The highborn were only immune for as long as they stayed away from the two rivers’ filthy banks, which they typically did. The symptoms were mildest when the fever was contracted in childhood: vomits, high temperatures, and a distinctive crimson-violet rash, but it was far from a concern for parents of newborns and infants. For a grown man, however, purpurine was no laughing matter. “Will he make it?” asked Tistan, shifting his weight from one foot to another in slight discomfort as he fanned himself impatiently. The heat was unbearable. The old physician ran a hand through his bald head, making the golden feathers that hung from his ears sway from side to side, and made a quizzical face. “There’s no way to be certain this early on, my grace. He’s still young and appears to be in good shape, all in all, but foreigners are less prepared to fight the fever. The disease is not found so far east.” Tistan pressed his hand against Aaru’s forehead, as the physician had done before. It was so hot one could’ve easily cooked an egg on it. Berisso cleared his throat and continued speaking. “The fever’s cycle usually lasts a couple of days, never more than a week. This night and the next will be critical, but if he’s still breathing come sunrise, we can be hopeful for survival.” Tistan’s hand wandered down the slave’s face, lightly caressing the circular face marks on his cheeks. “Then make sure he’s still breathing come sunrise” he ordered, fully aware poor Berisso was not in control of such things, but making him responsible regardless. “My chambers are airier than his, so he can stay here for the time being if that’ll help.” Berisso bowed low as his master turned to leave, but before Tistan could reach for the door, the physician cleared his throat and spoke up in a hesitant tone: “My lord, please do forgive me if I’m out of place…” the man trailed off for a moment under Tistan’s annoyed glare. “There appears to be some sort of… bruising, around your grace’s neck.” Instinctively, Tistan took his hand to his throat, which was still somewhat sore from Aaru’s attack. Damn it. He’d almost forgotten about that. The young lord held the physician’s gaze in distrust. Though Berisso had been in the household’s service since before Tistan was even born, he knew the old man was entirely loyal to his mother, and would not dare hold a secret from her, not even if Tistan ordered it. If word got to Lady Verise that Aaru had raised a hand against Tistan, purpurine would be the least of the slave’s concerns. Making an undignified face, Tistan raised his voice authoritatively in his best Verise Dresaceri impression. “Yes, Berisso, you are out of place.” The physician opened his mouth like a fish and bowed in subservience. “But if your misplaced curiosity bothers you so, you may rest assured that no pain has been inflected upon me without it being my rightful prerogative.” Not wanting to stay behind and dismiss the physician’s apologies, Tistan stormed off in pretend-outrage. That, he figured, would suffice to cover for Aaru’s ungrateful ass, even if it was at the expense of looking like a masochist in front of the house physician. Maybe the savage was a misbehaved little shit, but Tistan didn’t feel like slitting his throat yet. Tistan sighed deeply as he walked away, his steps somewhat frantic in honest concern. “Sadrie,” he prayed to himself, “you better not let him die tonight.” Ω Hours later, three Dresaceris sat at the long wooden table in the manse’s ornate dining hall. Statues of ancestors dead generations ago looked on, their bored stone faces apparently unimpressed as their gentle descendants dined quietly. Tistan was across from his lord father, who was visibly uncomfortable as per usual, while Lady Verise occupied the place of honor at the head of the table. A servant fanned the trio with impractically ornate flabella that, in reality, did little to placate the merciless summer heat that didn’t seem to relent even as the sun went down outside. Tistan watched disinterestedly as little Edrie finished pouring spiced wine on his father’s silver cup. Lady Verise shot an ugly glare at the slave girl, who scurried off as soon as the cup was full. It was the first time in weeks that Tistan saw his father, as these days Lord Egassio’s illness typically confined him to the comfort of his own bedchamber, away from his wife and only son. It was an arrangement everyone agreed to, as there was little amity between the elder Dresaceri and the rest of his immediate family. Still, family dinners were an undying tradition that Lady Verise was determined to maintain, even if they took place once every fortnight – or a month. Lady Verise was the first to speak up, once the assorted plates of food had been laid out on the table: “My dearest son,” she addressed in a dramatic tone, “I’ve heard your savage has fallen ill. Purpurine, is it?” Lord Egassio turned to his son with a puzzled look painted on his face. “Ah, that’s right!” Tistan’s mother pretended to be surprised, “my beloved Egassio, you have not yet heard of our son’s newest acquisition!” Tistan forced a smile and drank from his cup before facing his father. “Mother has been gracious enough to gift me a companion from Aose Dardio’s ranks, father” elaborated Tistan. He wasn’t quite sure how to explain the whole ‘savage’ part, but Lady Verise soon took charge of that herself. “Can you believe our son, Egassio? He’s chosen for himself an untrained mongrel from the far east, with a painted face and all” said Lady Verise, stressing ‘untrained mongrel’ with an irritated edge in her voice. Lord Egassio produced a short, guttural laugh, and for a moment Tistan thought his father was going to choke on the olive he was passing down. “Well, it was about damn time, if you ask me!” Egassio’s laughter boomed across the terrace, and both mother and son grimaced at the man’s informal tone. For a nobleman, Egassio Dresaceri held little regard for the formalities of the highborn. “Here I was, thinking our son would end up throwing himself at the sea over the Savesi boy.” Tistan flinched and turned away from his father, taking a swig from his cup. He was not getting drunk fast enough. Tistan had known it was a matter of time before either of his parents brought Castas up, but being prepared didn’t make it hurt any less. If Lord Egassio noticed his son’s discomfort, he made no sign of it. “I propose a toast to our Tistan’s first companion!” the man raised his cup high and drank from it, not bothering to wait for his wife or son to follow through. Lady Verise glared at her husband with icy eyes. She was not amused. “Have you chosen a name for the savage yet?” she asked Tistan, doing her best to ignore the elder man’s antics. Tistan looked down and toyed with the boiled quail egg on his plate, resisting the urge to scrub the itch on his neck, no doubt produced by the thick skin-colored paste Taodie had given him to cover the bruises. “His name is Aaru” answered Tistan with a low voice. Lady Verise raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips disapprovingly. Across him, his father’s face contorted into a coy smirk. “Aaru?” the name sounded even stranger coming from his mother’s lips. “You’re going to let the savage keep his savage name?” Tistan shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Oh Verise, are you really surprised?” Lord Egassio interjected. “He’s always had a soft spot for collars, our little Tistan Gentle-heart.” Tistan frowned at the resurgence of a nickname he thought had long been left behind, and sunk deeper into his chair. This was turning into a particularly unbearable evening. Fortunately, Lady Verise was not in the mood to humor her husband. “Enough of that, though,” Tistan’s mother clasped her hands. “You met with Sissane today. What news did he bring?” Thankful for the change of topic, Tistan regained his composure as he began relaying what the middleman had told him in the gardens earlier that day. The newly enthroned sealord of Allabor had re-opened the city’s port, and done away with all levies imposed on the family’s produce as a ‘sign of gratitude’ for the Dresaceris’ help in putting him in power. It was not uncommon for rich, landholding families of the Capital to meddle with internal affairs of other cities in the Dominion, and often entire cities became satellite states where a couple of rich families from Corienor controlled all business. While not as drastic a change had taken place in Allabor, Lady Verise could now rest assured she wouldn’t encounter any problems in selling her wine and silks in the northern city now that the new sealord owed his position to her. Tistan couldn’t help but smile as he delivered his report, shooting quick glances at his father, who was growing visibly bored by the minute. As the nameholder of the family, Lady Verise was in charge of managing all of the house’s commercial affairs, though she delegated some of her minor responsibilities to Tistan, who was expected to become nameholder when she died. Tistan’s father was nothing but a by-stander in this dynamic. Since he belonged to a lower-ranking family than his wife, he’d had to give up his name upon marriage, and had no right to the Dresaceri treasure. Lord Egassio’s sole task was to give his wife an heir – which he had done fairly well, in Tistan’s opinion – and stand by her side in some court events, but his illness had rendered him unable to perform the latter, so by now the man was virtually useless for both Tistan and his mother. Though they had never spoken much about it, Tistan could imagine this was the main reason his father was not so fond of him – or his mother. Thankfully for the young lord, Sissane’s auspicious news delighted Lady Verise so much, she didn’t mention Aaru or Castas for the rest of the dinner. As for Lord Egassio, he remained silent all night, which Tistan appreciated as well. By the time dinner was over, the moon was high in the sky and candlelight lit the labyrinthine halls of the manse. Back in his chamber, Tistan stood by the open balcony, basking on what little breeze came his way. The only sound around was that of Aaru’s harsh breathing on his bed. Up in the sky, a complete host of stars shone intermittently, commanded by the bright silver disk of the moon, which was beginning to wane. Tistan huffed anxiously as he thought of how long he still had to wait before Ardo’s festival. Less than a week, he reminded himself. Too long. It had already been too long. That night, Tistan Dresaceri dreamed in monochrome: red hair, red marks, and red eyes, all swirling around him menacingly like a pack of angry wolves. He saw a gentlewoman getting ready for her wedding, and a sailor flinging himself at the sea. He dreamed of a firebird, rising in the east like a defiant sun, and an ocean of blood that swallowed it whole. He woke up with the taste of salt in his mouth.
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