By Maiji/Mary Huang
The general made no effort to hide his displeasure.
"I find it difficult to believe," he said, his expression irritable, his voice raising with each successive syllable, "that a forgettable little village, whose only other testament prior to the Fall of the Sorcery Globe was having won the Giant Root Vegetable contest at the Festival of Cross for three years running, can raise not one, but two swordsmen without equal."
"You saw them yourself at the Arms before the Frontlines," said one of the emissaries. "And at the Frontlines itself. You tell me if they are what the people say they are."
"They are skilled, there is no question of that." Gloved hands rifled back through pages of notes, of spies' reports and briefings. "Dias Flac's history is ... better-known. His family was born and bred in the village through and through. There was nothing remarkable about him prior to the bandits, which was the catalyst for his single-minded obsession to becoming the formidable opponent he is today. There are, of course, extravagant rumours that cannot be trusted, such as his unaided defeat of the Demon Bird of Lasguss. But for the most part, his story is not improbable, and it can be traced through the continents, through the people he met and the masters under whom he studied along his way."
"And the other man?"
"You've seen the reports!" the general snapped, impatient. "A near-complete question mark."
"He registered as an Arlian for the Arms as well."
"That he did."
More rifling of papers. "The villagers do know him. The mayor has spoken for him in various incidents in the past."
"Indeed. That signifies little, save that he was there, that he came to know the people."
"It all seems to end at Arlia," another scout said.
The general's brow quickly furrowed in thought. "I saw him at the Arms. I spoke with him at the Frontlines." He paused, drew his Lacourian blade, and admired its fine edges in the lamplight.
"A Lacourian sword, a Crossian sword, an Elian sword: they are all different. The make, the shape is different." He flipped the weapon quickly with one hand, catching the hilt easily in a battle stance. "The style of fighting is different."
He sheathed the blade. "You are all warriors in one fashion or another; you are all keen observers. I will not waste my breath telling you the details of what you already know. If you have learned from different masters of different lands, you will naturally begin to blend their techniques. But if you know what to look for, there are things that will always betray where you began.
"He supposedly hails from Arlia, but he does not fight like an Arlian, he does not speak like an Arlian. I do not believe he is a Lacourian, and I have never seen an Elian who wields a sword the way he does.
"Who is he, and is there a reason he should fight for Cross?"
You would like to believe, I am sure, that the fairy tale story of the Prince of Cross and his future Queen began and ended with love: on the head of the string, a desire to be free, freedom to choose, and on the tail end of the string, a happily ever after.
Now, I may have been born a commoner, but I am no fool peasant. I can tell you that all strings have their knots, and this string has at least two. The first knot begins before the rest of the string even does and, quite plainly, it is a complex one that consists of two very simple facts dating from long before the birth of anyone involved. One, that war and expansion are the natural birthright of kingdoms, and two, that Cross and Lacour are kingdoms.
You would be led to believe that all of Expel was a harmonious land until the Sorcery Globe, that halcyon days ended because of it. That could not be further from the truth. This is life! Had it not been for the Fall and rise of the Sorcery Globe and the destruction of El, there would not have been a pressing need for some sort of reconciliation, some sort of temporary dispensing of the traditional rules and instead a focus on a uniting of the royal families to formalize a treaty against a common enemy. And why not, what with the circumstances of the Fall of El, and the unknown, and the approaching monster hordes: with Lacour, Cross would have the military might and protection it sought; with Cross, Lacour would have the land it desired long after the Sorcery Globe was gone.
Even a peasant knows the second knot, the rest of the story. His Royal Highness refused to marry the Lacourian princess, taking instead a commoner; I have heard it said that she is a treasure hunter witch from the village of Mars, but it matters not. Would that there had been the sense to settle some of this not, perhaps, in the church ... but it was too late.
And did I mention, to add, that the union had originally been broached by the Crossians?
The Lacour royal family had been insulted. Publicly.
I understand that the Princess had been nothing but graceful in public, if a bit cold, as only expected from a lady of her breeding. And for Lacour, being the brisk and efficient kingdom it is, such things were put aside in the face of both the Arms and the monster horde at the Frontlines. The Crossian wedding was a slap in the face, to be sure, and I have no doubt it was taken terribly among the royal family - for, in my position, I have witnessed this fire firsthand myself - but I also have no doubt it was only one fish in a sea of many that had long since been spawned.
As now, there is no Sorcery Globe. There is no war against a common enemy. And there is, for all intents and purposes, no El. There is, however, Cross and Lacour. There is land. There is military might.
And as I said, they are kingdoms.
"You don't say," the visitor was saying.
"Oh, of course," the old man replied. His eyes were terrible now, having worsened greatly in the last few years. His hands were gnarled and disobedient, and he could no longer do much of the fine work for which he had been renowned. But he could still feel out the quality of a blade, and he was still very much respected. "Yes, many still talk about that final match."
"Indeed, a memorable Arms for a memorable time."
A hand, not quite a woman's but no longer a child's either, laid down two cups.
"Ah, thank you," the visitor said. "Of course you would know the champion, having forged the Lacour of Lacour. Dias, I think it was."
"Yes, yes. A skilled swordsman indeed. I have yet to see his living equal. Save for the other man."
"I must say, my memory is going. Who was the other fellow ..?"
"Ah, Claude, the younger one."
"I am embarrassed to say I was never good with names. You remember him well?"
"Of course! How could I forget!" Indeed, how could he forget; after nearly being forgotten by the modern age of Lacour, he had regained his reputation in one commanding stroke at a time most critical. His voice grew distant, reminiscing. "Ah, how long has it been since they last ...?" Nearly blind eyes searched, questioningly.
"Over a year, grandpapa."
"Thank you. Yes, over a year since they last visited."
"Both of them?"
"Ah, yes. They were familiar with each other even during the Arms, both Arlians, you know. Good friends then also. I remember, Dias requested that I forge a blade for Claude."
"Oh really? Remarkable. Rare to see nowadays that sort of cameraderie ..."
They chatted some more, about the current quality of fighters and smiths, about the tea, about the weather, the upcoming events: the miniature Arms to tide the populace over for entertainment, while also keeping Lacour's stables of fighting men well-stocked and well-exercised.
The visitor glanced out the window at the sun, and placed his cup down on the table. "Well, I really must be going. May Tria keep your health, Master Gamgee. You as well, Sufia. Good day."
There are those in Lacour who would have known these characters. The former researcher Doctor Jean, whom I had the fortune of meeting during his brilliant tenure at the palace, would have been a perfect place to start, though I doubt his unquestioning cooperation and, in any case, I understand he and his wife had long gone to El. The remaining pieces of the puzzle would mostly be found in Cross, and from all these things I have cobbled together some understanding of what the truth may be.
Now, you would also like to think, or at least, being a Lacourian, you would like to think: Lacour is powerful. Cross is large, and ... powerful, not as much. It is in essence a kingdom built by farmers, as much as Lacour is a kingdom built by sailors, the latter acquiring by force and trade its strength and scholarship. Lacour should by all rights crush the Cross continent for both the impetuosity of its heir and the due expansion of its borders.
And doubtlessly it would have, had it not needed time to recuperate from its own losses. We had lost many of our own men in the Frontlines and on the journey to El with the Hope, not the least of which included the young creator of that remarkable Heraldric beast, Doctor Geeste, as well as his father and mother, two of the best researchers from the Lacour facilities aside from Doctor Jean.
And had it not had to contend with the mystery of the swordsmen of Arlia.
Cross has never been particularly known for its fighters; many of the greatest mercenaries in its employ have loyalties of birth to other lands. One master swordsman is, as the general said, improbable, but not impossible. Two? The stars must have aligned in every favourable manner imaginable. If this were true, what else might lie in store for Lacour? Are there other Arlians unknown to us who could bring catastrophe to our nation's plans? That has been my duty to uncover.
Do not misunderstand me. It is not that I bear any particular ill will to Cross, nor any endearing belief that my nation of birth has a right to more than any other nation. It is simply that I am a Lacourian, and it is simply that it is better to be the conqueror than the conquered.
It is simply that I am a realist.
"It was the queerest thing," she said. "In all my days in Salva, I daresay I never saw anything like it."
"That ... is most incredible," he acknowledged. "Almost ... difficult to believe."
She flushed, her freckles reddening. "Oh, I must appear such the fool! You must think me prone to ... to hallucinations!"
"No, not at all." He shook his head vehemently. "Those were the days of the Sorcery Globe. So many strange and wicked things were happening across Expel. Who could explain what they were seeing?"
Her flush faded slightly, mollified by his empathy. "Well, yes. Yes. It was an awful time. I must say though, it was so long ago. Sometimes I wonder if I simply got caught up in the excitement of it all and imagined everything."
"True enough," he agreed. "Having the mayor's son lose his wits and witnessing that entire kidnapping, a most stressful ordeal that must have been." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I must admit that is the first I have ever heard of it. But then again, I cannot say I'm familiar with Salva. All I know of Salva is jewels and jam. I am quite a fan of the latter, and one day I do hope to try some of Salva's famous wares. If such wares are as good as its performers, it should be quite the worthwhile experience."
"Oh really?" She giggled. "Have you ever had Salva's famous hot pepper jam?"
"No, I cannot say I have," he replied. "Is it any good?"
"It most certainly is!" she answered enthusiastically. "I highly recommend you to visit this particular shop as well."
Several more minutes of friendly exchange later, he rose and tipped his hat to her.
"Well now, I'm afraid I've kept you for much longer than any gentleman should." He made to leave.
"Thank you for the flowers." She smiled at him.
"Not at all, Miss Yuki," he said. "A singer deserves flowers. I did enjoy your performance, and hope to see you in even greater venues."
Now I will admit another thing. It is nearly embarrassing to speak, or to even think, of it - but my mind ploughs forward in its own ways, and I cannot cease its workings. I have my own suspicions about this second place fighter from the Arms of the Sorcery Globe. Why? It is simply in the face of this fact:
I have heard no stories of childhood from even those who would have claimed to know him well. Not a single one.
It is as though the very date of the ... unusual strife in Salva dates the beginning of his existence on Expel. Before that, any stories or connections quickly evaporate like imaginary ghosts, and are easily shown to be mere fancy, or somehow lacking in reality. And, in truth, I have heard other, fragmented iterations of the tale that the singing girl told me, and tales beyond that.
I have not told my commanding officer of these … suspicions. He is liable to dismiss me from this post. They would call me mad, a weak-minded fool, a babe susceptible to bedtime stories and fairy tales. And it is too fascinating for me to lose this chance to find out more.
"It all seems to end in Arlia," the other spy had said.
No. It all seems to begin in Arlia.
The man clasped his hands together and bowed his head. "May Tria keep you and bless you as well, Father Marshall." The light through the stained glass - a rare luxury for a small village like Arlia - fell gently about their feet, draping the interior of the church with patches of gold, red, purple, green, blue.
The priest clasped his hands likewise. "It is always good to see travellers of devout faith."
"And it is always good to see villages of devout faith," the man responded. "And I understand Arlia was always so, unlike many of the others that only began to turn to it during the time of the Sorcery Globe ... or began to turn away from the promise of the Warrior, as some were, lost and drifting. Some doing so too easily, in my mind."
The priest's expression grew stern. "It is not our place to judge the faith of others, my son. We do what we can, when we can. That has always been the Arlian way. Few things can be proven in the physical world, only believed with all your heart."
The man bowed again. "My apologies if I have offended you, Father. I only meant to show my respect for the fortitude of the Arlians."
The priest raised his hand. "I take no offense, my son. I only wish for the world to recognize that strength and truth can come in many forms, and many different faiths. And the shape they take can always surprise us, no matter how devout one may believe oneself to be."
"I think I understand, Father." The man nodded. "Though … it is a slightly different message from what I have heard from most other men of the cloth."
"If I may, Father, I take it … you yourself have been so surprised."
The priest smiled. "You could say that." Before the man could say another word, he continued, "Forgive me, my son. The day grows old, and I'm afraid I have duties to attend to. Please, make yourself at home in our church. Good day, and may your journey be peaceful."
The man watched the retreating form, and when the priest had disappeared into the vestry, he turned his head to gaze silently at the glowing windows. The light burned them brightly, and his face was thoughtful.
"And his father?"
"A shailor, I 'tink. Ship met an untimely end." The old man hiccupped, wiped his mouth and eyed his mug critically. "Sad shtory, but wun sho comm'n from da days of da Sorcery Globe. Barkeep!" he shouted, waving his arm. "'Nudder drink!"
Later at the inn, the traveler wrote on a long strip of paper wrapped around a carefully-sized rod. He wrote across the strips, efficiently and deliberately.
All these to me point to only one clear answer: His father was a sailor of some sort, perhaps from El, perhaps even a captain. A story both likely and convenient. El has lost many of its citizens' records (and its citizens) from the days before the Fall. One would be hard-pressed to find any man, woman or child from El to corroborate or refute this claim. No record of his mother. She could very well have died during childbirth.
But importantly, not an Arlian.
His report was completed. He unwound the paper, and the letters became meaningless and undecipherable. The man folded the long strip into a tight package and went to a table by the window. On the table was a small pot of jam, nestled in a cloth, and next to it sat a minute cage. Inside the cage, a fittingly small bird strutted along.
He open the cage door, brought out the animal with a trained and steady hand, tied the package to its leg with sure movements, and released it.
He watched the bird circle the inn, then fly westwards, towards the direction it called home. Where that was, a twin rod would be waiting at the other end, a slim dowel of the same diameter as the tool he had used, and the writings would become legible again once the strip of paper was round about it, and the letters were lined up.
His work was done.
Yet for the man, something still felt ... incomplete.
I could not believe my luck.
I caught up with them just as the sun was beginning to set. Their horses were hitched to the trees, and they had the beginnings of a small clearing, making ready for a campfire.
I drew my steed to a stop. "Hoy there," I called. "Would you be willing to share a bit of fire with a fellow traveller? I fear I have little to offer, but 'tis safer in groups in the late evenings."
"Sure," called back one of the figures. "You're welcome to join us."
As I neared, I took in the sight of them, gauging their appearance and mannerisms. I had seen them before, of course, but only from a distance, and that had been a few years ago. Yet I was possessed with a strange sense that, from my work, I knew them more intimately then perhaps even my own family. The taller man, dark and broadshouldered, with his mane of thick, blue hair - that would be Dias. The younger man, his fair hair now just barely long enough to tie into a short tail, would be Claude.
"I am most grateful for your generosity," I said. "Especially considering I am a mere stranger."
"Not at all," Claude said. "We travellers have to stick together."
We exchanged bland introductions, or rather, I introduced myself, and Claude introduced himself and Dias, who ignored us completely. It was all in truth pointless since I already knew who they were (how I knew!), and the name I gave was, of course, useless.
"I'll go find some more wood," Claude said, and headed off. I sat down on a fallen log and rubbed at my arms, feeling a bit of chill from the incoming night. Dias sat opposite, across from me at the selected site for the firepit, still silent.
When Claude's footsteps had faded into the distance, Dias looked at me. It was not a particularly friendly or inviting stare, and my gaze fell somewhat off to the side; I was a bit unnerved, to say the least, being so close to this master swordsman of an opposing nation.
Finally he spoke. His voice was deep and cold. "So you're the nosy little flea that's been following us all this time."
My heart nearly jumped out of my chest, but I still had my wits about me, didn't drop my canteen or choke. I gave my best expression of bewilderment. "P-Pardon?"
"People talk. We have ears." He smiled darkly. I shivered inwardly, remembering that I was not by trade a warrior. Although even if I were, my reaction would likely have been the same. From the (many!) stories I have heard, I imagine even our most expert soldiers would be able to do little good against this master swordsman, much less two.
I continued my baffled act. "I'm afraid I haven't the foggiest what you mean," I said, willing my heart to beat normally.
"Oh, yes," said Dias. "I'm sure you haven't."
"I have no idea what you're on about," I insisted, silently trying to gauge if he actually knew, how he might have known, and if so, why was he taking the trouble to tell me instead of cutting me down?
I comforted myself with the knowledge that my reports after Arlia and Salva had already been passed on, that my relative fortune in meeting up with the swordsmen was more for my own personal interest in a fanciful legend than anything else. "You must have mistaken me for someone else." I put away my canteen.
"I don't make that kind of mistake," he replied shortly.
"Ah, I ... certainly did not mean to imply that you have a poor memory for faces. But I assure you, I have very little acquaintance with yours." And that was completely true. I had never seen either of them in person at quarters this close before this evening.
There was a break in the grass behind us; Claude had returned, his arms full of branches. He looked at us, head turning from one figure to the other. Dias' eyes were closed as he drank from his canteen, his expression calm and unreadable; I still had my bemused face.
"What?" Claude said. "Did you guys have a fight or something?"
"I-" I began.
"I hear Lacour plans on going to war," Dias said, opening his eyes to stare straight at me, then sliding his gaze to look at Claude. My stomach fell; my mouth suddenly seemed full of ash. Again, did he know? How could he know? Was he guessing? Trying to draw me to stumble? My more cowardly instincts screamed at me to get up and run, that they were going to find out all that I had, but I was hardly new to this sort of activity. I implored my body to sit, and instead widened my eyes in appropriate skepticism at this startling revelation.
Claude raised an eyebrow. "Now?" he exclaimed. The tone sounded more exasperated than shocked or angry, as if he had heard this before, as if it were no more extraordinary than if someone had told him that surprise dinner guests were due to arrive just after a small child had hidden all the table settings.
I found my voice. "That is certainly news to me-"
"The timing is perfect," said the older swordsman, now ignoring me completely. "The reconstruction of El has been under way for several years now, and I suspect Lacour has either not committed as many resources to the project as Cross has been led to believe, or most have returned already."
"That's preposterous," I said passionately. "In the wake of such a calamity as that we have all suffered through, it would be - it would be irresponsible! For a nation like Lacour to not realize the damage wrought upon El requires all to lend aid and support-"
"I'm sure it does," said Dias. "I believe it's called, 'taking advantage of the situation'."
There was a mildly disgusted look in Claude's expression. "With the Sorcery Globe gone, back to business as usual."
"Indeed," Dias replied.
"God, I hate politics," said Claude, with a shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes. It was as though I was not even there.
Dias suddenly got to his feet. He brushed some of the dry leaves off of his cloak. "I'm hungry," he said. "I'm going to take a look around. You deal with the fire."
"Sure thing," his partner responded, and pulled some flint out of a small belt pouch. "Hey, wanna give me a hand?" he asked, glancing at me.
"Ah, of course." I made my way over, and assisted him in stoking the fire. It was not long before we had a decent flame going.
"Thanks." Claude smiled at me. It was completely unlike the older swordsman's expression; warm and reassuring, it made me smile mildly in response despite my nerves. One could not help but notice how clear his blue eyes were. He picked up a thin branch and began, in an almost absentminded manner, to strip the leaves from it.
"This is like a game of good cop, bad cop," he said.
"Good ... cop, bad cop?" I said, my confusion this time not an act. I had heard that he did have a strange way of speech about him; it was quite another matter to be hearing it myself.
"It's an interrogation technique where I come from," Claude explained. "The bad cop threatens and terrorizes the suspect. The good cop plays the role of friend and encourages the suspect to give them what they need, because things turn out better that way."
I considered this. The description was familiar. "Ah," I said. "It's like cat and fellow rat."
"Yeah," Claude said, nodding. "I've heard of that."
I bit my tongue; to be so careless! His manner had been so laid back and conversational it felt only natural to reply. And he must have recognized it for a Lacourian term. I wondered why he was telling me this.
"The cat is only pretending to be a cat," I said, since I could not suddenly change the topic without looking suspicious. Or more suspicious, as it would seem.
Claude smiled again; perhaps it was just my imagination, a trick of the shadows from the flickering firelight, but it seemed less warm. "Sure, sometimes," he replied.
And, I mentally added to myself, the fellow rat is rarely one either. Out loud I asked, with a befuddled undertone to my voice, "But what does this have to do with anything?"
"I don't know what Dias said to you, and I'm not going to ask," he said, poking at the fire with the stick. "But I have a pretty good idea." He looked up at me. "He's not a bad person. Just kind of surly, especially on the days when he hasn't had his twelve hours of beauty sleep." He chuckled. "Which is everyday."
"He ... did make some rather ... shocking accusations," I acknowledged. "I ... I'll try not to let it get to me." I must admit that it was becoming quite easy to put on the bewildered act, as I was certainly growing more and more so by the moment. For a second I had thought Claude knew as much as his companion seemed to, but the topic seemed to have changed to a general apology for a grouchy personality.
Claude leaned forward to adjust some of the wood in the fire, and something in his cloak fell to the ground with a light thud. I barely saw a glint reflected from the flames before it landed, and by reflex, I reached over to help him pick it up.
"Don't touch that."
He did not raise his voice at all, but the hush in his words swept over me in such a way that I froze immediately, terrified that my hand would set off something ghastly beyond all imagining. Indeed, my spine stiffened even when he reached over and wrapped his fingers around it, and I held my breath the entire minute he turned the item over in his hands, examining it, before tucking it away somewhere under his cloak.
The Sword of Light? I thought to myself. It was only when I heard him stifle a sound, almost like the beginnings of a laugh, that I realized I had whispered it and he must have overheard me. I looked him in the face; his expression had turned strange.
"No," he said, turning his head away.
"What ... what is it?"
He did not turn his head back to look at me, and I could barely make out his reply, but I thought he said, "Something that's not supposed to be here."
"What does that mean?" I could not help asking.
He didn't reply. After several moments of silence, he said, "What do you think of Arlia?"
What was this? Was he trying to change the conversation, with the goal of imploring me to sympathize for it, to spare it from Lacour's attention? If he did, there was no harm as that was hardly my decision. I did not see what would come of it, were this his ineffectual strategy.
"W-Well, I ..." I paused to consider. What did I think of Arlia? I had, frankly, never really thought of it. That is, I would never even have considered Arlia for anything at all, had it not been an area of interest in my work for Lacour. There were small settlements not unlike it all over the countryside. It wasn't particularly remarkable in any way, shape or form, save for these two men that I had spent the past year and then some of my life investigating with every waking moment.
"I think it is a nice place," I finally answered, somewhat pathetically, but honestly. "Peaceful. Friendly. The villagers are good, faithful, hardworking people. But the same can be said for many of their neighbours."
"You know," said Claude, folding his arms over his knees and staring into the fire. He sighed. "When I ... first arrived in Arlia, I thought it was the prettiest place. All the lush trees, the birds, the stone-and-wood houses built by hand, the little river that ran through the middle of the village ... the beat-up waterwheel that was spinning on the side of the mill ..."
I wasn't quite sure what to make of this. He could have been describing any little farmers' town. And then the significance of his words suddenly hit me. He had just confirmed my report. My conclusion to my superiors was correct, beyond a doubt.
Claude was not an Arlian.
He didn't look at me, but he smiled faintly, fondly, as if in memory of something. "Most people probably just think of it as another backwater village. But ... all of Expel, in a way, is kind of like that. Like Arlia. To me."
I held my breath. I did not quite understand what he was saying, but it sounded in all the world to me like the reminiscing of someone who had been seeing the land from the outside. Perhaps ... someone who had called nothing familiar on Expel. Perhaps I was partly blinded by my private quest to find out more about the supposed Warrior legend, and drawing hasty conclusions in spite of my training, but ...
For some reason, I did not feel it was my place to respond to these thoughts. Fortunately, it seemed he merely wanted - needed? - to talk and was not expecting a response, so my lack of words did not end the conversation.
"I thought, aside from the Sorcery Globe, you guys have such a good thing going, and you don't realize it. That's what made it so great."
He didn't stop smiling, but something in his eyes made his expression suddenly seem ... infinitely sadder.
"I know ..." he said, slowly. "I know I was being naive. I know change is inevitable - conflict is inevitable. Worlds grow up, just like people. That's the nature of civilization." He stared deeply into the heart of the dancing flames, and his eyes narrowed. "You can't expect them to play nicely forever, or blindly believe that they ever did. And I know you can't expect to halt history - or progress. And you shouldn't want to."
As he spoke, his smile had faded, and his expression had turned almost dark, almost ... threatening. "But sometimes, I do. I really do. I wish you would all stay ignorant forever."
"Back," said a deep voice.
Claude blinked, seeming to snap out of his mood, and looked up. "What took you so long?" he asked jovially, his entire countenance apparently having returned to a more usual, lighter self. "I thought you were good."
"I think I took exactly as much time as I needed," Dias replied without batting an eye.
"What'd you get?"
He threw down a pair of small hares.
"Alright, meat!" said Claude, and hopped to his feet. While Dias got to work skinning the animals, the younger man searched the leftover branches for straight ones, and pulled out a small knife to sharpen them as needed. He began to plant the sticks into the ground around the shallow firepit.
"Catch," Dias said, and tossed over a hide. Claude caught it with one hand and held it to the flames, singeing the remaining hair off before skewering it and tying it over the sticks to form a makeshift cooking bowl over the fire.
Meanwhile, I found some good rocks for heating in the fire to prepare our meal. I considered Claude's words, turning them over in my mind as I turned the rocks over with my stick. I still didn't quite understand why he said those things, but they sat like stones upon my spirit, sinking my thoughts and dragging them to depths I did not fully wish to explore.
I swallowed. "Ah," I began, quietly, hesitantly, not wanting Dias to hear this conversation. Claude had seemed a friendly enough fellow who, unlike his companion, would not sever my head from my neck if I accidentally did something offensive, but I was a bit worried, especially after his ruminations earlier. At the same time, I was filled with an unbearable desire to know.
"If ..." I said, and he looked over at me. "Ah ..."
"What is it?"
"... if Cross did go to war with Lacour - would you use it?"
"Use what?" he replied patiently.
"The ... object that I did not touch."
He seemed taken aback for a second, then a familiar shadow came into his eyes as he understood. To my surprise, he did not question how I knew - how I guessed - what it could be used for.
"No," he said calmly, meeting my eyes. The blueness that I saw did not blink.
He was pouring water into the hide-bowl now, and I added the heated rocks. The water hissed, sizzling. I pressed, astonished at my own courage, or perhaps stupidity. "No matter what happens?"
He continued considering me silently. "No," he finally said. "I wouldn't."
"I see," I said. And that was that.
We ate. It was strange and uncomfortable. We conversed politely about banal topics as though nothing had happened. Or rather, Claude and I conversed, and Dias ate silently.
Finally, after the food was gone, the other mercenary spoke. "It's late," he said. "Time to turn in."
It was indeed late, I agreed. Perhaps it was the stress of the earlier conversations, but I felt much more tired than I should have been.
"Good night," Claude was saying-
- And the next thing I knew, I was looking up at the fading stars in the dimming, brightening twilight.
My head ached. I turned slightly to my right and saw that the campfire had long since been put out. I sat up and cursed silently - I had never been that fitful a sleeper. Again - how could I have been so careless? Well, at least I was alive and uninjured, that was always a good thing.
I was about to get up and check that all of my possessions were still on me - not that I was carrying any critical, obvious or incriminating items, but still, I should like to know when I have been pilfered - when a hand grabbed me from behind by the collar, hefting me into the air.
"Halp!" I cried reflexively. "Halp- oof!"
I landed unceremoniously in the dirt. I protested at this treatment and was about to get up again, and had rolled over and gotten to my knees when I realized that there was a sword in front of me, and the point of it was entirely too close to my eyeball. I swallowed.
"Be silent, Lacourian cur," Dias said. "Your worthless life is spared; I promised that."
Remarkably, as I took in his words, I had enough presence of mind to realize that Claude was not there.
And that two horses were missing. Mine included in that number.
The next few moments could have been a second, or a lifetime. It certainly felt like a lifetime before he spoke again.
"Go to Hilton," he said. He never took his eyes off me as he spoke, nor did he blink. "Take a ship to Tenue-on-El. Don't set a foot back on Lacour, or Cross." His gaze bore into me, and I had the sense that he was committing every line and shadow of my face to memory. It was a chilling thought.
"If I see you again," he said, "I'll kill you."
He lowered the blade. He closed his eyes.
"Get out of my sight."
Needless to say, I scrambled to my feet, and started to run as quickly as my legs would take me into the depths of the forest.
I soon ceased my flight and found myself leaning against a solid trunk, wheezing and panting hard more from fear than physical exertion. I looked up at the tree I was propped against, and for some reason - the training burned into me, perhaps - instead of continuing to run, I began to climb.
And it was there, from the trees, that I watched him mount his steed, turn the beast around, could imagine him digging in his heels with a harsh command (though I was, of course, too far to actually see or hear such details), and be gone.
Despite my circumstances, I noted - out of habit - that he was travelling towards the north. The direction of Cross Castle.
I do believe I then took some time to consider my options. It did not take me long to reach my decision. I do not know how long it took to get to the next town, only that it was too long.
I am not betraying my kingdom, I thought, as I counted out the fol for the horse, which turned out to be easy enough - all I still had. How kind of them to leave exactly the price for a third-rate used beast of burden. Once I got to the port and sold the horse and the rest of my gear, I would have about enough left over for a ship's single passage fare.
But I was past the point of caring; I only needed to get to Hilton as quickly as possible. Days later, my hands ceased shaking anymore unless I thought too much about that night. I am not betraying my kingdom; I am going to El. I am going to assist the people who still need to rebuild their homes and their lives.
In the background to my whirlwind of thoughts, two voices echoed in my skull, over and over. It was many, many nights before I finally stopped hearing them in my dreams, and to stop seeing the dark crimson eyes and the clear blue eyes that accompanied each of them.
If I see you again, I'll kill you.
No. I wouldn't.
Though I think I would trust the younger man more and the older man less, I also think I believe Dias' words more than I do Claude's. For you see, there are loyalties that go beyond birth and birthright, as a certain prince would agree.
I am no zealot for my nation. But even without my return, and even were my full report to never arrive, I have no doubt Lacour will swiftly draw the conclusion that the two swordsmen are anomalies, and that Arlia is hardly capable of raising and sustaining warriors to fear. Lacour is a nation that moves with speed and decisiveness; that I know. I did not succeed in finding out all I wished for my commanding officer, and I have not had contact with them since the last day I spent in Salva, but I am certain my conclusions are correct. I was one of the best in my line of work, after all. At the same time ...
I know enough to know that Arlia is where a master swordsman was born, and to believe in my heart of hearts that there was where the Warrior began.
I also know two other things, which I will never reveal to another breathing thing, but from my interactions I have the suspicion at least two, at least independently, have already figured them out: why it was so critical for the generals to understand if and how Arlia was turning out such skilled fighters, and why, in time, it may not matter.
Arlia's location at the southern point of the continent, its relative immediacy to the coast, its proximity to the resources of the mining town, makes it the perfect site for the surprise first wave of the Lacour army, perfect to become a phoenix, to be destroyed and then reborn as a base for an invading army.
And more than that: that what was built once can be built again. And that no two warriors, if they are mere warriors, can be a match for the most advanced Heraldric weapon Expel has ever seen. The Hope may be lying in the depths of the oceans, but its plans are most certainly not. The laboratory has long been again a flurry of activity with its own reconstruction efforts. Given a few more months, or less ...
I would not want to be near any field, battle or not, on either of the two continents should that village begin to fall to flame and sword.
I will go to El, which at least will not be touched again by the hand of war for some time, and travel to Eluria-on-El. Perhaps I will find Doctor Jean there, and perhaps I might find work as a scholar of sorts until it is over, however long that may last.
I imagine it is only beginning.
Author's Notes: Leon was alive in All Aboard, but not here. These things have a generally consistent continuity, but not always depending on what I'm trying to focus on. Did you recognize all the NPCs I dragged into this? The only other nugget that might be easy to overlook is the comment about Dias' unaided defeat of Xine, which is another one of my jabs at how poorly done Star Ocean EX was. (I will be complaining about it forever.)
When I started to write The Beginnings a long time ago, I had been reading a lot of historical fiction, particularly about the time of Alexander the Great. This story takes many liberal assumptions with Expel, but I have tried to keep it as "realistic" as possible within both the basic relationships of the characters and the kingdoms, as well as within the confines of my assumptions.
In today's developed world, we are so used to the idea of our existing nations and our fixed borders; for the majority of us, war is the exception, not the rule. But for a medieval society, this was hardly the case. I doubt that eternal peace would follow the end of the Sorcery Globe, and I am also skeptical that Expel was necessarily a peaceful place before its arrival. I tried to get this across without beating it over the head too much.
The "object" can be the phase gun or the Void Matter, your choice.
The next few wends will also focus around this idea ...