"I wish to return to my city within the hour, are you ready to depart?" Shalassah asked him the moment he landed the steps. Kal swept his gaze around the room, the familiar room where he had spent so much time in, and though he had no possessions to speak of except for the cloth on his back and the scapula around his neck, he took in the sight with a little sadness. Nothing but the plants and flowers ever belonged to him, and even then, the plants and flowers belonged to the earth. They were reactionary creatures, living and breathing, yet devoid of anything personal.
"I am ready," Kal exclaimed, biting down and turning his eyes back to her. Despite her garb, she looked out of place, and he found it curious that the more he looked at her, the more she resonated a regal aura, that she was doing something completely out of her place and style.
"Then we leave," Shalassah didn't waste a second looking at him, turning and quickly descending the stairs with her guard close behind her.
Kal followed a few paces behind them, through the courtyard and to the Southern Gate where the gatekeeper hardly gave them a second glance.
And just like that, Kal thought as he turned around to look at all that was familiar to him. Just like that, Mono Luthor would be a thing of the past, something to look forward to, impressions that were entirely familiar to him yet so far from his reach. Ahead of him lay a steep winding path leading down the mountain plateau that the monastery sat upon. Conifers and small shrubs lay out sparsely amid the rocky terrain, and the princess's guard held her hand until the path began to smooth into a more manageable pitch. Kal had traversed this path several times over the years in search of new plants, researching the local herbs and plant life, but he never went past the dark tree line that now lay only about two hundred yards in front of him. The princess and her guard had not spoken a word since Father Gensia's unsatisfying meeting, and he couldn't help but feel that his presence stifled them even more. At the beginning, he wished to initiate a conversation, but realizing it was only to assure himself that he was not being a burden, he kept his mouth shut and trudged on behind them, staring at their leather shoe soles.
When they were within fifty yards of the tree line, they stopped.
Shalassah turned around to Kal. "When we return to Morra, you will immediately go your way. Would we chance upon someone on the way, you will tell them that you joined us to assuage your fears of traveling alone to the city. You may never speak of the things that happened today, you will never have met me, and would I find out otherwise, know that I have no shame in calling you a liar and a heretic."
He was taken aback at the severity of her words. His thoughts were a jumble, and he was speechless and could only return her gaze.
"Do you understand?" Shalassah demanded.
"Yes," Kal faltered, avoiding the icy eyes of her guard. Could she really be so cold and malicious? "If you wish me to travel alone to Morra, I will," he said, hoping that perhaps she possessed a small ounce of empathy.
"I would consider it, monk."
He frowned. "I did not wish to be a burden to you, only I pray you honor a dying man's request."
"Are you toying with me, monk?" Shalassah narrowed her eyes. "You and your so-called brothers are the ones who have initiated this mess! I hold you all in contempt, including your sickly Father."
He looked at her in horror as she went on.
"It sickens me that I've wasted my time coming here, to come face to face with a man too cowardly to stand up for what he knows is right. He's dying, and that's one less man to contribute to this civil war. He may be on my side, but he is a waste! Louvaix is laughing at him already, he has been laughing at him, and it makes me ill. Your internal bickering and competitions for menial matters that have no effect upon the minds of men -- you all sicken me. None of you are strong enough to contest your own Holy VicarEven the most unbelieving of us have more common sense and a sense of honor than all of you put together!"
"Are you speaking of the Inquisition?" Kal tried to ignore the dripping hatred in her words.
"What a disgusting act, all in the name of Horafah!" Shalassah spat. Her guard seemed uninterested in the conversation, choosing to absently study the tree line. "Senseless murder and genocide. No wonder our neighbors think we are a backwards and savage empire. My father would stop Louvaix, but the people who could stop Louvaix are too caught up in their so-called righteousness. Louvaix cares not about Horafah nor anything of the faith; he uses it as an excuse to further his power. I know what this all is about, but the Royal Council -- what wastes they are, too -- they parry Louvaix because they fear this Horafah figure. I damn them all, and I damn Horafah! He's been absent for centuries, while man continues to corrupt this empire with drivel and conspiracies and blood."
Kal stood silent. Her words were not far from the truth. The Inquisition was putting a rather dark stain upon the faith of the Dalathould Empire, and the naysayers in the faith were the first victims to the Inquisition. He swallowed and kept his eyes steady upon the princess. "It is true, and I ask your forgiveness in speaking like this, but I fear some of your convictions are misled. Those who oppose Louvaix are shown the guillotine, and," he glanced around though he knew no one was on the mountainside. "I would be shown the guillotine as well. I don't agree with the Holy Vicar but who could question him?"
"Your Father Gensia could have," Shalassah replied sharply. "But he is a coward. You could, too, but you are a coward as well. Since Father Gensia refuses to speak to Louvaix, I will have to confront him alone."
"Princess," the guard suddenly exclaimed, concern on his face.
"What?" She turned quickly to him. "It's the only thing left to do. I am the princess, and I have a right to see him. I will do it in front of the Royal Council, and they will have no choice but to address my words. Louvaix in all his pompousness could not deny me, and the public will hear me."
"I would go with you," Kal said softly.
She turned back to him with a cold stare.
"I would speak for my fallen brothers," he said, his heart twisting in apprehension. But these words needed to be said. A rising sentiment of anger had begun welling up during Shalassah's outburst, and a part of him desired to make it known that he was not of that cowardly class of monks.
"You?" Shalassah smirked. "You, a miserable botanist who's spent his life kissing the feet of a dying man?"
"I do not find your opinions very flattering, nor do they suggest anything true. I am a botanist, and I deeply love the man that I've devoted much to, but I have had much time to contemplate the issues of the Inquisition. I've listened to the reflections of Father Gensia, and have heard much from many of their thoughts of Louvaix."
"And who are you to speak for them?"
"I am but one. Many of my brothers may have been slain exclaiming the same words as mine, but who has had the chance to speak to the public? All is kept behind closed doors, only the council of the Seven Righteous Men and the Holy Vicar Louvaix has heard the reasoning of men. The masses may say much, but Louvaix has kept a tight reign upon what is said to them from within. Perhaps if I could speak to more than just the people of my faith..."
Shalassah had kept an eyebrow raised, and she paused for a moment before speaking again. "It would be useless. They'd call you a heretic, and you'd be another corpse for the pyre. Don't," she frowned and stopped. "Don't be so willing to throw your life away."
"I have sworn to serve Horafah in this life, and I would be betraying what is true. I would go with you, because it is true. Louvaix is an imposter."
She tilted her head and stared at him. "An imposter, you say?" She let out a small laugh. "Bold words, monk. Well, you may accompany me to Morra, but perhaps you can incite some others to being a movement to remove Louvaix. That would be constructive. Stop hiding behind your monasteries and fathers and instead preach the truth without getting caught."
"You do not believe in Horafah?"
"Of course not!" She scowled. "I have not seen his hand in anything of this world, and I have never seen it in history. Nor do I believe in that fabled Basith-ilim, they are both contrived and convenient excuses for the faults and events that only man has created for himself."
"Then where did magick come from?" The logic of an unbeliever he found interesting.
"Scientific forces of this planet, perhaps. Who could know for sure? A connection humans once had with the forces in nature. But that's all gone now, unlearned and forgotten from generations of lethargy. No one has seen that in centuries as well, and they could also be fabled excuses and interpretations of things man has done. I believe in what I can see. Now let us go, I cannot be gone long."
Kal nodded, noticing the guard looking at him before turning away to walk alongside the princess.
He hadn't intended to irk the princess. He only wished to dissuade her of the fallacy of her presumptions -- that all his brothers and sisters were part of Louvaix's twisted plan. Was it to start a civil war? He didn't know anything about that, but Louvaix was certainly attempting to cause schism and drastic changes within the faith. For what purposes, he could not project, but it was most certainly inconsistent with the teachings of Horafah. And this disdain Shalassah held for the faith was misled, it was hindering her sensibleness, that much was obvious. He was in no place to influence a princess, let alone a man living on the side of a road, but acquainting her with the limiting power of prejudice would certainly cause her to think along a more logical route. Passion was hollow without insight.
Suddenly feeling more confident in his leave of Mono Luthor, he resumed his step behind the princess and her guard.
"Our ship is just within those trees," Shalassah stated. "It can accommodate three, though it was only made for two. You should be fine."
Ship? Of course. Only the wealthiest of the people could possess such a vehicle. Most were confined to wheeled vehicles, livestock, or even more common, their feet. He had only seen such mechanical vehicles in books and an occasional paper left by a visitor in the monastery. The climb to the monastery was too steep for any vehicle to climb, and these mountains were restricted air space. To finally see one in person, let alone ride in a royal vehicle -- well, that would be something.
"My offer remains, if you would ever wish to have another presence with you to speak to the public," he said, hoping to let her know that his convictions were true.
"Your offer is … considered, but my orders stay," Shalassah replied.
This seemed to end the conversation, and Kal remained silent. He had come down this far on occasion, and he was familiar with the setting. The sun was now bright and blinding to their left, and the tall spruces and firs cast long shadows across their path. They went a ways into the trees, following a cleared pathway through the sandy needle-covered ground. And there, through the thick trunks and dense bushes, Kal glimpsed a gleaming piece of machinery, metallic gold and fuchsia, gilded in more gold, blue-tinted glass and exposed golden gears and wings. To think there were ones ten times the size as this one, that they could fly just as easily if not faster than this. The human mind's capabilities and creativity held Kal in quiet delight. The vehicle became momentarily obstructed by the forest again as they continued to descend the winding trail.
"We have come this far unseen," the princess's guard said. His voice was deep and gruff, but a gentle tone, perhaps even a little tired, emitted from within.
The princess turned to him. "Do not speak like so until we have arrived back at the palace. I am not fond of preemptive assuredness. You, Leucrota, of all people, should know this."
Kal wanted to know who she was hiding from, but now somewhat aware of her stance among the ranks of the elite, he could safely presume that some did not look lightly upon her roguish nature, were they to become aware of it. His curious eyes were hungrily affixed to the place where he last saw the flying vehicle, parked in silence in a convenient location, obscured by the brush from the ground and the draping conifers from above. Had Shalassah maneuvered this here? He wouldn't put it past her. Her command impressed her, as well as her sharp tongue and unassuming appearance. Again, he caught a glimpse of the fuchsia, sparkling pink from the sunlight that streamed through the fir, deep violet where the oblong shape was cast in shadow. And there, only seen for a passing second as the vehicle became hidden behind the scenery again, he saw a man standing beside the ship at its nose. A man dressed in such a fashion that he'd never seen before. Then perhaps he was the pilot, rather than this brooding princess? A slight sentiment of disappointment etched through him, but he brushed it aside quickly. Her beauty both internal and external was alluring, emotions he swore to abstain from. A sudden sense of urgency to be done with the journey surged through him, and he quickened his pace to near the princess and her guard. He kept his eyes averted and attempted to focus his mind upon what needed to be done once he arrived at the city, a city he'd only heard of but never seen with his own mortal eyes.
The princess and her guard stopped in one motion. Kal could barely stop short enough without bumping into them. Their eyes cast in rapt attention in front of them, and Kal raised his eyes to share their sight. The vehicle, not more than five yards long and three in wingspan, sat in a small clearing. Three short but sturdy stilts ejected from the underbelly of it, propping it above the ground, indicating that this vehicle possessed vertical lift. He would have studied the mechanical engineering technology of this world, if only Mono Luthor's library possessed such modern material. But his companions' eyes were turned to the man leaning easily upon the slender nose of the ship, one foot crossing the other and his left hand supporting his head as if in boredom. His curly dark hair was cropped short to his head, a thin scar running parallel from his temple down along his short sideburns. He wore a white light satin blouse underneath an elegant black vest, gilded in silver with silver chains looping from his pockets; a wide belt hung about his narrow girth and from his left side hung a short but boxy case, an object Kal could only interpret as holding a dagger; knee-high trousers with many pockets, some of which bulged with unknown objects, and brown leather boots that reached his knees, of which was also gilded and tipped in silver. A subtle smile crept around his lips, his light brown eyes sparkling even though his face was cast in shadow.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Shalassah said sharply.
The man smiled fully now, picked his head up and retrieved a pocket watch from his breast pocket, raising his eyebrows when he read the time. "It's almost ten, my lady, I would have imagined your visit much shorter than this."
"Who are you!" Shalassah repeated, her voice louder, the fury exploding through.
"Ah, I suppose introductions are in order first, as your lady wishes.” He bowed deeply. “I am called Jacques, from dor Ardzza. Your guard?"
"What are you doing here," her fists were clenched as tightly as her jaw. Her guard had his hand upon his hip, and Kal glanced at him. Sweat covered the man's brow, and Kal himself couldn't help but feel somewhat agitated, though this man in front of them appeared to hold no mortal threat.
"Introductions," Jacques waved a finger in the eye, closing his eyes and shaking his head. "I'd like to be acquainted with your friends as well, not just yourself."
Shalassah threw her cloak over her head, hurling it angrily at the ground. To Kal's surprise, she was dressed in rather plain clothes underneath, pants and a thin coat, but he took a step back when she quickly withdrew a short sword that was latched to her thigh. She held the short blade in front of her at eye level and pointed the tip at Jacques. He hadn't flinched. The sparkle returned to his eye.
"I command you to state your business!" Shalassah exclaimed.
Leucrota threw his robe off as well, extracting a broad sword that he had hid well underneath the habit. He took a step back though, gripping the broad sword like it were a twig, and Kal edged away even farther.
He sighed, turned his eyes away for the second time and feigned unhappiness. "To be quite honest, my lady, I couldn't be quite sure if Gensia would accompany you, but instead, he's sent a lackey. But it's no matter. Really, I would have liked to known your friends' names, first."
Jacques snapped his fingers and Kal heard a slight rustle from the ground behind him.
Before he could even turn around, two hands gripped his arm and pulled him backwards. Almost tumbling to the ground, he saw that two other figures had surged ahead of him, one tackling the guard, the other deftly avoiding the princess's arcing blade and sending it clattering to the ground. In a second, she too was held bound by her arms from behind.
Jacques stepped forward. "My most humble and sincere apologies," he accented the word 'sincere,' "I only wanted to properly introduce ourselves, but you refused--"
"How dare you insult me like this! Wait till Amphrice hears of this!" She spat in his face and he deftly avoided it. The man holding her twisted her arm and she stifled a cry.
Jacques chuckled. "Your beloved brother, well, he doesn't even know your here, does he? You're clever, my lady, but not clever enough to evade Jacques of dor Ardzza. Come, we're late, and I have other things to do."
Leucrota had been submissive, but suddenly, he threw his accoster from his broad shoulders and the man fell flat on his back. Kal's guard pulled him back from the disruption. On cue, Shalassah struggled but in vain. Leucrota whirled quickly to face his attacker who had lithely jumped back to his feet. Broad sword met a thin long blade and steel rung through the woods. Kal watched helplessly, blood rushing through his chest and head at the unexpected travesty that played before him. Leucrota's size and experience gained upon the younger man and Leucrota threw him upon the ground.
"Leucrota!" Shalassah shrieked, but too late.
Jacques leapt forward, a dagger flashing in each hand. His tall but narrow frame crashed into Leucrota's backside, and in the stillness of the morning, Leucrota bellowed out in pain. Like his former attacker, he threw Jacques off, though Jacques slid back nimbly on his feet. Undistracted, Leucrota lunged at the young man on the ground, broad sword ahead of him.
Shalassah cried out.
The blade plunged deep through the man's side.
Kal gaped at the sight as blood gushed out, crimson streaking across the dirt and spattering upon Leucrota's extended arm. The man's screams echoed from the mountainside.
In one quick stride, Jacques was on top of Leucrota.
Leucrota fell heavily upon the struggling man on the ground. Kal had hardly time to see the blinding swiftness of Jacques.
Leucrota rolled off the body on the ground, gravity causing him to stop flat on his back. There, Kal saw the black line on his throat amidst the crimson stain from his chin now seeping onto his dark tunic. Leucrota’s eyes stared in the morning sky.
He could not take his eyes away, not until he saw Jacques approach the other man who lay gasping in pain, curled in the fetal position.
Jacques was on his knees, bending forward with his face close to the other man's.
"It's a kidney shot, Thosh," Jacques said. "Right through. Skewered, mate."
The man grit his teeth and squinted up at him. He seethed through his teeth. "Make it quick, boss."
Jacques' lips thinned, his brow creasing. A moment passed, then he raised his left hand and swept the tip of the dagger across the man's throat.
Jacques stood up hurriedly, not even looking at the two dead men at his feet. He turned to the guard holding a stunned Shalassah and nodded. "Take the ship, and them." He gestured to the ground, then began walking back towards the princess. He paused as he came to stand next to her. She turned her head away.
Jacques leaned close to her. "Now we're even more late, princess." And he resumed his step.
The man pushed Kal forwards, and taking one last glance at the mangled bodies laying upon the pine needles, he strode quickly after this Jacques.