Chapter Eight, Part Three

"The emperor needs to know."

"Thousands, you say?"

"A black sea. I wouldn't dare fly closer."

"I suppose they wish to use surprise to their advantage."

"From the mountains? They must be mad if they think they will cross them at this time of year. The cold has settled early this year."

"No ships, aye?"

"None. Perhaps they'll be arriving at a later time. If they have any at all."

"The Sarrphin Kingdom's military is meager. Phaethon's wages are pitiful, his greed is notorious. Half of them may turn back before they've even crossed the first ridge."

Jacques shrugged. "Fathentis still needs to know."

His companion, a tall man, equally well-groomed though of wider girth, wearing something more subtle and elegant than Jacques, shook his head back and forth in weighted thought. "The masons have already been notified. Rangers are being sent out as we speak. The Sarrphins are not familiar with this land, and our mountains are as foreign to them as the nectars of Gravua. No, many will convince themselves out of this foolish plot. They are desert people. Nomadic blood runs deep and overpowers. When they are within three days reach, I will inform Fathentis of their numbers. Our ships would throw them all into the Abyss before they would even catch a glimpse of the city."

"Quite an admirable soliloquy." Jacques' eyes wandered across the dark landscape that lay below him. The moon was reaching its peak, the night air was cold and at their backs. The two men stood side by side atop the highest point of the city, overlooking the southern valley. Tiny dots of light still flickered in the fields, farmers and their livelihood finally settling down for the night only to wake at the first ray of sunlight. A thick wall divided Morra from its green and fertile outskirts. Those who wished for a more quiet life but could not part from the riches to be had from the city lived outside. Those who wished to safe harbor their children from the perversions and vulgarities of the city lived outside. Those who had gathered all their riches from the city and chose to live the remainder of their days with a grassy lawn and some fruit trees lived outside. But for a man like Jacques, the outside was harder than inside. Inside, the walls of the city protected. Outside, the mountain peaks protected, but the southern landscape was open. Exposed. Anyone who wished to besiege Morra would come from the south. It didn't make sense that the Sarrphin Kingdom would decide to cross the mountains from the north. It was suicide. If King Phaethon was with those men, then he was suicidal, too.

"Louvaix has Cengar."

"Cengar?" Jacques raised an eyebrow and turned to his companion. A smile of disbelief crept onto his face. "Well I suppose Fathentis will never see his Ursmades Line."

"He'll have me next, aye."

"You'll snitch on me."

He exploded into laughter, his belly more distended than ever.

Jacques rolled his eyes.

"Come, come, I'll offer to cut my own head off; we'll see what Louvaix has to say about that!"

"You'll be hogtied and tickled till you suffocated."

Again, the man laughed heartily, though not as loudly. "Jacques, would they come to my door, I would first cuttheirheads off, then mine!"

"You're a coward."

"The princess is fine?" He changed the subject quickly, and Jacques was glad for it. Louvaix's schemes always left a bad taste in his mouth, and while he considered himself quite attuned with the twisted mind of the ruthless executioner, Louvaix alluded him time and time again.

"She is being brought to the Baird’s District. She is in safe hands."

"Is she fine?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Pah!" The man spat. "You underestimate her. I've seen her before with my own eyes, she's a feisty one. And most striking, I might add."

Jacques frowned. "She has courage, but she's deceived herself. A walking contradiction. That is all."

"Jacques," the man gripped his shoulder tightly with a meaty hand, fingernails manicured and reflecting the moonlight. "Are you familiar with a good man?"

Jacques looked at him. "I'm surrounded by thieves, Ovado, what is a good man?" He glanced down at the polished nails. "You're as filthy as any of the sods who creep around in dark corners."

Ovado hummed, his eyes glittering. "Find one. You may need him."

"I need no one."

Ovado nodded absently, his hand sliding off Jacques' shoulder. "If I go, Jacques," his voice trailed off.

He frowned. "My mind has not changed, and it will not."

"Louvaix is a crafty one, aye?"

"Indeed." His eyes turned back to the dark landscape, but he did not look at it. The subject of the Holy Vicar disturbed him more than he liked to admit. Any of his men uprooted by the Inquisition and discovered to belong to his guild was immediately taken to the guillotine. His men were rotten, true, and that was hardly acceptable. No, the choice in victims were random, too varied, impossible to tell the true reason behind his agenda. Cengar, the Builder's guildmaster. It was no doubt that Louvaix did that to spite Fathentis. Louvaix wanted to keep them in a sightless black hole, though his lips said different. Often, he wondered if Louvaix wished to remove Fathentis himself, but that notion was preposterous. As much as the two bickered and disagreed with each other, they always stood side by side. Not that he couldn't imagine the both holding a knife behind their backs while they smiled for the delusional citizens.

"He would rather have your head than mine, though, that is true."

"Hm." Jacques shrugged half-heartedly. "He won't always get what he wants."

"Are you certain the princess is fine?"

He rolled his eyes. "And why not?"

"She is not hurt? We'd really lose our heads if she's found hurt."

"She's most certainly tired, and unharmed. For whatever reason, she hasn't been her wild self with that monk around."

"What monk?" Ovado's face tightened.

"A monk she was bringing back to the city."

"Why did she go to Mono Luthor, anyway?"

"I think she wished to use Father Gensia as a voice. No one would listen to her otherwise."

"She really thinks that she could use that old man to start a movement against Louvaix?"

"They are sworn enemies. Besides, she'd never express herself in front of her brother. Amphrice hasn't searched for her yet, has he?"

"No, no," Ovado trailed off.

"Curious."

"Don't be a fool, Jacques, it's most obvious that she cares more for him that he does her!"

"A pity," Jacques looked back again to the distance.

"If Louvaix found her schemes out, he would have her head!"

"I doubt that."

"She would never."

"Speak against her brother? No."

"The anticipations of a child are sweet as honey. But that honey goes sour, and it leaves a stinging taste in the mouth. I do pity her."

"Always. Are you hungry, Ovado?"

"No. You know, I've fancied the thought that Louvaix is fancying Amphrice."

"I supposed it were the other way around."

"I wonder. Amphrice is more bloodthirsty than that dying old man."

"Louvaix is old, but he is not near dying. Gensia is."

"Gensia is a different man entirely."

"A dying breed."

"These are bad times, Jacques, I don't like it. Aye, I don't like it."

Jacques clasped his hands behind his back, twisting the rings on his fingers. The jade on his left index finger was his favorite, and this one always received the most attention. A cool breeze brushed past him and he decided it would be time to pull out his neckerchief for the oncoming season. The winters were not as biting as those on the northern continent, but nonetheless, his midplane blood was not particularly fond of the icy wind that sliced through his fancy clothes. Appearances before comfort.

A light.

A light at the foot of that cliff. Many lights. He gripped his hands behind him and lowered his brow, squinting at the darkness. The lights moved outwards from the mountain. A gathering of lights.

"Ovado."

"Aye!" The older man absently barked, lost in his own thoughts as he gazed at the horizon.

"Look, before my eyes deceive me. About three miles out at the foot of the East Mountains."

"Heh?" He gyrated forward, peering at the direction where Jacques stared.

"What is that." It was more a statement than a question. He wanted proof. Guarantee.

The lights were fingering out now into straight lines. Even from this distance, they almost looked like flanks of an orderly battalion. And there were still more lights streaming out of the mountain.

"What cave...?"

"There is no cave there."

"Mines?"

For the first time in a very, very long time, his heart skipped a beat.

"What could..." Ovado's face fell. He put his hand over his mouth but it did not cover the disbelief and alarm in his expression. Neither of their eyes moved from that place. The lights continued to accumulate, the formation of it stretching longer. "Jacques, those are torches."

He could not reply.

"Aye, there --" Ovado's throat tightened.

They stood silent for more than the passing of a few minutes. More tiny points of lights emerged, their numbers did not stop.

"Thousands, Jacques." He whispered. "These are very bad times."

Jacques started. "I'm taking the princess to Pabula." He turned and broke out into a run across the city's outer wall. His ship was silent and cold in the courtyard below. Ovado's ship was beside his and would no doubt be flying straight away to the palace.

The End

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