The ale was hearty. The flavor was strong and bold, and it burned on the way down, leaving a pleasant, tingling fire in the pit of his stomach as it hit. The mage easily downing the brew didn’t look to have the sort of constitutions to stomach even a few slow slips, yet the mug was nearly emptied in a few moments.
Home was where the heart was, and the powerful drink made him feel at home. It didn’t exactly evoke pleasant memories like with most men, but he preferred his drinks stiff and strong. It whisked him away from the muggy Varian summer and dragged him back to his icy, barren homeland, where warmth was as scarce as the food, and the people downed ale like water just to keep themselves distracted from their toes blistering and going black from the frost.
The mage pulled away the empty beer stein, licking away the small bits of foam at the top of his lips. He had a boyish face, yet the scholarly aura he gave off wasn’t just because of the pointed hat on his head, the thin spectacles on his face, or the thick bag of books he kept on his lap.
As young and green as he looked, amid that filthy, rowdy, unkempt bar, he didn’t carry himself like a lost, out-of-place child. A seasoned traveler could tell they were kin from a single glance. The mage moved onto his second beer of the afternoon, slurping away the foam at the top and chugging it down without issue.
“Hey, kid… yer in my spot.”
The mage gulped down as much as he could before he gingerly turned to meet the rowdy drunk at his back. Some thick fellow, thick in mind and body, dense muscles and a shining dome the mage couldn’t imagine holding much gray matter.
“Oh? Are you a local?” the boyish mage asked, his voice not deep but carrying a cool, measured tick. Adjusting his spectacles with one gloved hand, he ran his amber eyes across the bar. Everyone here was a rough-and-tumble sort, from their scars to their endless revelry it was clear that each one carried the weight of a hundred battles on their shoulders – they were soldiers of fortune, taking the time to enjoy what very well could be their final days.
“Curious. Like myself, most men here are here for mercenary work. I’d think a local would’ve be out fighting be now, especially one with such a… sturdy frame such as yourself.”
The ugly brute’s face twisted up in disgust, “You calling me a coward, kid?”
“Just curious as to why you aren’t participating in the war, friend.”
The drunken brute snorted, jamming a thick finger into the mage’s chest. Hot, foul breath spilled out from between his yellow teeth as he raved down at the mage.
“What? Why? And throw away my life fightin’ for some stuck up, snobby mage’s war? Some spoiled, rich prick like… you?”
With every one of his venomous words, the drunkard bore further down on the mage, forcing his back into the sharp corner of the bar. But even considering how much the drunkard dwarfed the mage in size, the mage’s only visible reaction was disgust. His only fear was that the horrid stench would cling to his cloak.
“I’d highly advise you back off, friend.” the mage spat through grit teeth, “Or I’ll remove you myself.”
The malicious drunk’s disgusting grin only widened, “Try it, shrimp. We’ll see how many of your fancy spells you can cast when I’m caving your skull in-”
The brute wasn’t just intoxicated on booze, but on his own bluster. He was so certain that the little mage frightened to his wit’s end, just barely holding back tears and pleas for mercy. The drunken bully didn’t even notice the pale hand touching his chest – nor the dull green sphere of magical energy – until the light had consumed him.
In a single instant, that dull light flashed brilliantly, illuminating the entire dank atmosphere of the tavern with neon jade. Upon the moment of detonation, shards of rock and muddy earth appeared within the sphere’s core, blowing away the drunk brute’s tattered tunic and sending him flying away.
The light blinked out the instant the brute flew across the tavern – the imposing bully was out before he even hit the ground. The mage almost smiled as his hand came down.
Then, the dead weight of the drunkard’s limp body slammed right into a passerby. Miraculously, the man managed to stay on his feet… but the mug of ale in his hand splashed right onto his black, sleeveless tunic. The rowdy bar went eerily silent, all eyes on the two of them.
“Oh dear…” the mage hissed, biting his lower lip and waiting for the second detonation. With tensions so undoubtedly high, having to knock out yet another man would likely result in a plain bar brawl. Then the all the damages would likely be pinned on him.
“Sunnva- watch where you’re throwing your garbage, man.”
The mage blinked, staying frozen in his seat. The fellow who had spilled the ale on himself didn’t sound too terribly angry – more peeved than anything. The mage gave him a once over – he was tall, well-built, and rough-faced enough that he didn’t stick out among the other patrons. The only contrivance was the man seemed to be fairly young, only a few years younger than himself, but his hair was the same dark color as old iron.
“O-oh. My apologizes. Allow me to buy you a drink.”
A small smirk crossed the rough man’s lips. He made his way over, setting his claymore against the bar and taking a seat next to the mage. The mercs all over the bar resumed their chatter and song, some sounding relieved that a full fledged brawl hadn’t broken out and other’s sounding disappointed by the limp ending. The mage turned his focus towards the sunken-eyed bartender, dumping out a few coppers from his coin purse.
“Sorry about the ruckus. May I pay reparations for the inconvenience and a fresh drink for this gentleman?”
“Don’t worry about it, kid.” the bartender huffed, already at the keg with a new mug, “Happens here more often than not. Just make sure you drag that dumb bastard out before you leave.”
“Thank you.” the mage said, tipping his pointed hat towards the bartender, his slick brown hair appearing out from under the wide rim.
“Man. I gotta say, Var’s got some good drink, at least.” the gray-haired man sighed, taking a gulp of his mug the instant it reached his hands. Cocking a brow, he swiveled back towards the mage, “Ah. This is some pretty strong stuff. Is this what you were drinking?”
“Oh, yes. I’m originally from Kirgiz. I suppose you can say we enjoy our spirits with a bit of kick.”
“Yeah. Kirgiz is mostly frozen over, right? Even in the cities, I guess you’d freeze to death if you didn’t warm up with something heavy like this.”
Smirking wryly, the mage snorted and adjusted his glasses, “A common misconception, my friend. Alcohol helps you feel warmer, but that’s only because it moves blood and heat closer to the surface of your skin. That, in turn, removes heat from your core, actually leading alcohol to drop your body temperature-”
Stopping himself, the mage looked over to find the gray-haired man totally uninterested, staring blankly ahead and gently sipping his drink.
“Uh… sorry, what was that last part?”
“Oh, never mind. Just me rambling.”
“Thanks for the drink, anyway.”
The mage smiled brightly once more, removing his hat entirely and placing it against his breast in a show of respect, “Why thank you… ah, I don’t believe I caught your name…”
“It’s Aaron. Aaron Axenus.”
“And I’m Ziv Asimov. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Axenus.”
From behind the two, they heard angry mumbling and stomping feet. Sensing the danger, both Ziv and Aaron turned and found a group of six men looming behind them. Each of them looked like bad news in their own unique way, and each looked far from happy.
“Were you the punks that clobbered our friend?” a lanky one asked, forking his thumb over his bony shoulder. There, the large drunkard that Ziv had incapacitated was being lifted back to his feet with the help of a rotund thug and a rough-looking bastard with a thick beard.
“Well, I didn’t.” Aaron hissed, tapping Ziv on the shoulder, “It was this fella. But if ya ask me, your pal had it coming.”
The lanky man’s lips twisted into a furious scowl. With one long arm, he pointed to the door leading out of the tavern, “Let’s take this outside…”
Ziv stared at the challengers with ice in his eyes. He opened his mouth ever so slightly, wanting to say something to dissuade them, but he shut it just as quickly. He highly doubted words would work on them when they were so clearly raring for a fight. Just as he was about to hop from his seat, Ziv felt Aaron’s hand on his shoulder. The larger man pushed himself up, pinching his nose shut with one hand and using the other to down the rest of his drink. Belching right at the lanky man, Aaron slammed his mug right back into the counter and grabbed hold of his claymore.
“Right. Let’s get this over with.”
It was Aaron who boldly paced through the gang of men, making sure to bump more than one of their shoulders on his way out. Blinking in totally shock, Ziv hurriedly grabbed his bag of belongings and scurried after Aaron.
Stepping out into the afternoon sun, Aaron waltzed casually away from the bar, his boots thumping heavily against the cobblestone street below. Ziv was right behind him, tapping the swordsman’s shoulder.
“Y-you know, you don’t have to-”
“Nah. I’ve dealt with enough dumb-asses like those guys. They saw me drinking with you, that’s guilty enough for them. They wouldn’t have let me go without a fight.”
Ziv saw the ruffians pour out from the tavern, most already looking inebriated, all looking enraged. From the grimy and cloudy windows, he saw the faces of curious mercenaries staring on with wide, eager grins. He supposed they were looking forward to seeing just a bit of bloodshed.
“Fair enough.” Ziv grumbled. He set his bag to the side then yanked off his cloak, tossing it into an undignified heap atop of his meager belongings. Underneath, he was smartly dressed in a white dress-shirt, with his tan slacks and vest looking out of place with his well-worn black boots.
Huffing, Aaron violently drew his claymore, letting it’s massive weight come crashing into the street. Lifting it back up, he easily trained it on the lanky fellow, inching closer with short twin blades in each bony hand. His friends weren’t far behind, forming a loose circle around the two young men.
“My girl’d be pissed if I went and killed these dumb bastards. Think you can handle taking them down without killing them?”
Ziv laid a hand across his hat, keeping it in place as he cracked his sore neck, “No, I don’t believe lethal force is required… although I doubt anyone would miss these wastrels.”
The drunk across from Ziv’s face went red. Pulling both hands out of his pockets, he came out with a nasty set of spiked knuckles. He spat a nasty green glob towards Ziv’s feet, but the mage didn’t dignify the thug with a disgusted reaction.
“Hey! Say that again, you little prick!”
The mage kept his lips shut tight. That silence was like oil on the fire of the thug’s drunken, aimless rage. He sprinted forward, and with a roar, swung one of his spiked knuckles right at Ziv’s temple. The mage dodged to the side, raising his hands as the drunk bent forward and raised his opposite fist for another blow.
Ziv thrust his right hand to meet the drunk’s left fist. Between the two of them, a shining orange shield appeared from thin air. The spiked knuckles collided with the shield, breaking upon impact. The shock didn’t hit the drunk until the shield shattered just as quickly as it appeared, sending a rain of glittering orange dust raining and vanishing before it the ground. While the drunk was still reeling, Ziv forced his palm into his chest.
A violent wind stirred right against the drunk’s torso. He cried, tried to escape, but the emerald tornado still sent him flying yards away, bouncing roughly down the street and skidding to a stop with more than a few broken bones.
Ziv heard the clack of boots against pavement from behind, then the clash of steel. He peeked over his shoulder to find Aaron locking blades with the lanky man armed with twin swords. Aaron boldly looked over his shoulder to Ziv in turn, his casual attitude infuriating the lanky man.
“Hey, you ain’t too shabby.” Aaron grunted to Ziv, laying his hand across the flat of his blade and applying a bit more pressure. Locked in a clash, the lanky man whimpered as he felt his twin blades give way and buckle under the claymore’s weight, “You said you from Kirgiz, right?”
Ziv, a bit blown back by how unconcerned by the angry drunkards Aaron seemed, answered his question regardless, “Originally, yes. I’ve spent a good few years studying at a university here in Var.”
Aaron finally smashed through the lanky man’s blades. As the drunken man stared agape at his lost weapons, Aaron took the opportunity to smash his knee into his foe’s unprotected gut. The lanky man coughed, kneeling over and crumbling to the ground.
“That right?” Aaron huffed, tossing the bulk of his blade over his shoulders, cold blue eyes locked on the three thugs currently working up the nerve to charge him.
“Believe it or not.” Ziv said, blasting a simple bolt of mana at the feet of an encroaching thug, “So, what brings you to Zeist? This may not be at the heart of the civil war, but it’s too close for any common travelers to flock to. I suppose you’re another mercenary?”
“Nah.” Aaron answered quickly, swinging his claymore and slicing a fat attacker’s rusty maul in two, “I’m here on… other business. What about you? No offense, but you don’t really look the soldier-o’-fortune type.”
Ziv grumbled, putting both wrists together and blowing away a charging drunk with another gust of viridian wind, “I don’t believe now the most opportune moment to relay my life stories. Besides, I don’t want to bore you with the details. Long story short, my university is kaput and I’ve decided to sign up for some mercenary work down here to refill my coin purse.”
“Well, I ain’t here with these mercs, but I’m no stranger to dirty work. Shit, my friends and I went through hell to get a ride over here.” Aaron huffed, slamming the pommel of his claymore into the back of the lanky man’s neck, planting him back into the street, “Alright. Lets cut the chatter and get serious.”
The fight was brief and furious, and a joy to all the rowdy onlookers. In the end, only Aaron and Ziv were left on their feet. In the middle of a circle of the drunken ruffian’s beaten and broken bodies, the two young men squatted close to the ground, back-to-back, sucking back in their lost breath and licking their wounds.
Aaron grumbled, his tongue escaping his mouth to lick away the blood leaking from his busted lip. With his sheathed claymore leaned against one shoulder, he used his free hand to bend his bloody nose back into place, a deep and gruff shout rumbling in his throat, one he just barely managed to hold in.
“Fuck. Those bastards didn’t know when to quit…” Aaron spat, blowing clumps of dark blood out from his nostrils.
“You’re telling me…” Ziv panted. Finally catching his breath, he raised his injured right hand. Biting down on the middle finger of his glove, he pulled it off to examine the damage – his thumb had been bent out of his socket. Gritting his teeth down on the glove while it was still in his mouth, he grabbed hold of his broken thumb and yanked until it went back into place with an audible, gut-wrenching pop. Still, he managed to suppress his cries as well as Aaron.
An impressed Aaron looked over his shoulder, meeting Ziv with a wide grin.
“Hehehe. You weren’t too shabby there for a baby-faced mage. You get into bar brawls often?”
“I’ll try and take that as a compliment. And I’ve been in a few, though they’re not exactly my ideal way to kill an evening.” Ziv grumbled dryly, “No, no. Relaxing by a toasty fire with a tall glass of whiskey and a good read are more my style.”
“A few, huh? I thought you said you went to some fancy magic university?” Aaron laughed. He used his claymore as a crutch to prop himself back to his beaten, blood-covered boots.
“Lets just they picked me up by on my potential over my merits. My family history isn’t too terribly impressive; and my coin purse is about as dry as a Misirian widow’s cunt.” Ziv replied, placing his hands on his knees and standing up out of his squat in turn.
“Wow. You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Aaron, but I think I have a decent enough grasp on your character. Enough that I can safely doubt that offended your sensibilities, at least.”
Grinning like a loopy fool, Aaron slung his claymore over his back. He took a short moment to crack his sore bones, then waved a short goodbye to Ziv, “Well, it hasn’t been boring at least. Good luck out there, four-eyes.”
“Please wait, Aaron.”
The bandit stopped shortly, looking incredulous, “Urgh. Look man, I already helped you fight all these drunk idiots. If you want to borrow some coin, I ain’t the guy you should be-”
“No, no. Of course not.” Ziv promised him, slipping his glove back on as he stood out of his squat, “Here, allow me to repay your kindness.”
The mage didn’t allow the bandit the opportunity to refuse. Ziv raised his hand, a soft, buttery halo shining around his fingers. Hovering them over Aaron’s chest, Ziv showered him in that light, which swiftly curled around the swordsman as a gentle aura. Aaron looked down at his beaten, bloody palms, elated to find the bumps and bruises shrink back, and the still sticky blood flake away. In the span of only half a minute, Aaron found his sore body rocketing back to full vitality.
Laughing, the bandit bounced up and down on his heels. He still felt his legs burn, the stamina he had expended during the fight not returning, but every recent wound he had suffered was gone.
“Hey, thanks. You know healing magic too?”
Ziv nodded, already in the process of repeating the process on himself, “Well, I’m a so-so on many different branches. But yes, I have learned the basics.”
Around them, the gaggle of beaten drunks began to stir. Aaron and Ziv briefly exchanged glances, both surmising from a quick nod they had far better things to be doing. Ziv scooped up his bag and cloak, tossing both over either shoulder.
“Right. Don’t get stomped out there, bookworm!” Aaron chuckled, already running away to parts Ziv could only guess.
Suddenly finding himself alone, Ziv heard the groaning and pathetic mumbling of the thugs around him and decided to make himself scarce. He paced away briskly, ruminating on the encounter. As he rounded a corner, his let his thoughts slip from his lips.
“What an odd fellow he was.”
Zeist had apparently already been ransacked by passing rebel forces, and the ravages of war were clearly shown on the streets. The tavern and a few shops were the only business open on that side of the entire city. Buildings were burned, boarded, or blasted to oblivion. The slim, tall, red-brick architecture Var was known for looked like nothing more than the crumbling, blood-soaked bones of some great beast from antiquity.
Too Aaron, the sight couldn’t have been more depressing.
He could stomach bloodshed well enough. But the blades had already clashed; the spells were cast and the bodies had been picked off the streets. Now, only a sad, lingering ghost of the teeming city remained.
Outside of a deserted bakery, he caught a glimpse of movement. Just a quick whip of lime-green, then it vanished behind an old trash bin and scurried beneath the bakery’s porch. Curious, Aaron folded his hands into his pockets and sauntered over. He kicked the empty bin away, laying a hand on the hot, peeling wood of the porch and ducking under it.
There, he saw two little figures squatting down in the damp, cool dirt. One was a little cat girl, her plain brown hair offset by her bright green tail and ears. The other was a young boy, trying his damnedest to look larger than he was. Both were matted with muck and were breathing hard and heavy, teary eyes of fear and anger burning right at Aaron.
“Whoa. Calm down, squirt.” the bandit urged, squatting under the porch and advancing with raised hands, “I ain’t gonna hurt you-”
“Get back! I’ll kill you, you bastard!” the boy screamed hoarsely.
With a swift but shaky movement, the boy yanked a rusty pocket knife out from his tattered trousers. The mortified cat girl behind him seemed to muster enough courage to bear her claws. Sighing, Aaron gently drew the first few inches of his claymore. Then, with the other hand, he punched right through the porch’s weak boards above them, letting the children know he could easily destroy their singular advantage of the tight space.
The boy gulped, the cat girl’s tail frizzing up. She moved her claws to his back, and the boy’s shaking hands couldn’t hold his knife any longer. As it fell, he scrambled for something behind him. Aaron cocked his brow as the boy presented and rolled two metal cans to his feet.
“T-there… that’s all we have. J-just… just leave us the hell alone!”
Aaron glanced briefly down at the beaten cans. They were covered up in all manner of dents and scratches. He had heard Var was one of the many countries that had adopted some sort of process to can and preserve all manner of foodstuffs. Evidently, however, there wasn’t an easy way to get them open.
Sighing, Aaron removed his own pocket knife. Unlike the boy’s it was thick and heavy, polished to a sheen and sharpened to a fine point. He stuck the blade’s tip into the first can, prying it open with a loud pop. The dull scent of sweet corn hit his nostrils, and he heard the two children mummer and whine, evidently thinking him cruel enough to eat the last of their food right in front of them. Grunting, he moved onto the second can and popped it open to find a salted tomato soup.
“There. Eat up, ya brats.”
The bandit placed the open cans before the astonished children. They instantly went to work, greedily slurping away their canned food. Having no reason to further torment the poor kids, Aaron didn’t bother to stick around any longer. He crawled out from under the porch, dusting off his knees and swaggering away.
“Yeah, mister! You’re so nice!”
Aaron didn’t bother to look back. He only raised one hand, lazily waving it to the kids before disappearing into a narrow alleyway.
Advancing at his own pace, Aaron stomped through the overgrown weeds until he hit a creaky, unkempt fence. Deciding to make his own shortcut, Aaron yanked out his claymore and smashed right through it, inwardly praying he wasn’t lost and was still heading towards the designated meeting spot.
As the dust and wood settled, mild relief tickled Aaron’s chest. He stepped through the fence, seeing a small resting area at the center of a bunch of burned, blasted shops. There, waddling through a dry and fountain overtaken by weeds and ivy, he saw his old partner Nathan.
The thief had noticed him sooner, looking unimpressed as he rose from the fountain’s bowl, two handfuls of rusty coppers in each hand. Nathan cocked his brow, hopping out and pacing towards Aaron.
“You sure like to make an entrance, don’tcha? Anyway, do you think any of these coins are recoverable? Old trick I learned is to rub ‘em with a little bit of-”
“Forget about the fuckin’ coins, Nathan.” Aaron spat out, throwing himself into a bench overlooking the fountain, folding one leg over a knee and tucking his arms across his chest, “C’mon, spit it out. What’s the word?”
Nathan shook his head and sighed. He dropped the coins, tinny jingling grating against both their ears. The thief took a seat next to the bandit and removed a long, thin cigar from his cloak. He wasted no time in lighting it up and taking a few deep puffs, leaning back into the hot metal frame of the sun-baked bench.
“Sorry, man. There’s only one road to Mount Enthya – the rebels are on one side, and Var’s army is on the other. There’d be no way you could sneak or break through both of the lines… and that’s assuming you could somehow make the run across the dead man’s land without both sides blasting you to death with magic the instant they spot you.”
“Can’t… can’t we just go around them?”
“Going completely around them, with all the canyon’s and slopes and mountains? It’d take about two weeks to navigate if you were being reckless. Be careful, and it’d take a month.” Nathan said, wisps of gray leaving his lips with every gentle word.
Aaron gritted his teeth, pounding a fist into the arm of the bench. It rattled, but refused to buckle. His party had been making so much forward momentum, the sudden and seemingly insurmountable roadblock right at the end of the line seemed like a slap in the face. Douglas was sick and dying; and even if they did obtain the panacea from the old hermit, they still had the return trip to worry about. Douglas wouldn’t last past the end of the summer. Time was a precious commodity they couldn’t afford to piss away.
Chewing his bottom lip, every possibility raced through the bandit’s head. He certainly wasn’t about to give up. Not ever, and certainly not at the defining moment of their journey. Resolution deep and powerful raced through his blood, a fire brimming from the bottom of his gut. He turned to Nathan, knowing full well what he was about to say was borderline madness.
“We’ll have to end it, then.”
The stogie nearly fell from Nathan’s mouth. He chuckled uncomfortably, praying Aaron would follow by writing the insane declaration off as a joke.
“W-what? The civil war?”
Nathan grit his teeth back around the butt of his cigar, gnawing the rough paper until it threatened to give way. Aaron wasn’t just making some ridiculous joke in piss-poor taste.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. So you really think you’re going to end a civil war in time to save your brother?”
“Nathan, I’d bust into the king’s castle and knock up his wife on his fuckin’ throne if thats what it’d take to save Douglas.”
Groaning out small gray cloud, Nathan threw his head back over the bench, yanking out his cigar and furiously tapping off the ash, “For fuck’s sake… how did this maniac ever sucker me into being his friend…”
“I said I’d do anything for my brother, Nathan. And I fuckin’ meant it.” Aaron growled, refusing to budge so much as a centimeter on the admittedly ridiculously resolution.
“There’s no way you’d be able to take down the entire rebellion in time, and you’re insane if you think you can overthrow the kingdom.” Nathan spat out pleas with puffs of cigar-smoke, “Your safest bet would be to just take down Duke Alvo. He’s the figurehead of the entire rebellion. Bring the king his head, and I’m sure he’d help you get past the warzone.”
The two sat silent for a moment. Not bothering to put it out, Nathan yanked the cigar from his lips and lobbed it into the dead fountain.
“You sure about this?”
“Yeah.” Aaron’s reply was short and shaky, but a thin, powerful resolve was clear in his ice-blue eyes.
Shaking his head, Nathan stood from his seat. Reaching into his cloak, Nathan produced a small, unassuming package, waggling it Aaron’s way.
“Well, go ahead and try to convince the sluts and purple. Unfortunately for you, I’ve got to get these chemicals delivered.”
Aaron blinked. He had nearly forgotten that Nathan was also on a delivery job. Even knowing that, the idea of him abandoning their quest at such a crucial moment made Aaron’s blood boil.
“You’re shitting me, Nathan. You really gonna flake out on us now of all times?”
Blowing out a low sigh, Nathan shrugged his shoulders, “I can’t feed myself with good will, Aaron. Besides, I’ve got a professional image to keep – I already said I’d deliver this package, and that’s what I’m planning on doing.”
Aaron propped his elbows onto his knees, staring intensely down at the weeds creeping up from cracked pavement below. He was at a loss at what to say; or how to convince Nathan to stay and assist him further.
“Ah… don’t get your panties in a twist, buddy. It’ll only take me a couple of days to get there and back. Hopefully you’ll have given up on your crazy plan by the then.” the thief consoled the bandit, sitting up from the bench.
Deep down, Aaron knew there was nothing to help it. Nathan wasn’t totally heartless, but he was a pragmatist before all else. Even knowing that, Nathan’s promise of returning after the delivery did wonders to set his mind at ease.
“Right. I’m off. Remember, don’t talk to strangers and all that crap.” Nathan chuckled as he departed, leaving Aaron with nothing but a sidewards wave and slick smirk, “And don’t get yourself killed, alright?”
Aaron looked up. Even with the grim odds he currently found stacked against him, he couldn’t help but share the smile.
“Back at ya, Nathan.”
From even a paltry glance, it was clear that Duke Alvo’s stature was just as staggering as his wealth. He was ridiculously tall and broad-shouldered, with a round belly barely held in by his rich purple robes and golden sash. Despite his prestigious size, he still fit comfortably into his lounging couch. Sprawled out, one arm folded over the armrest and the other picking at a bowl of olives at his side, he waited patiently for his esteemed guest.
His meeting room functioned doubly as an indoor garden. His fine furnishings and marble artwork somehow looked perfectly in place among the bright, colorful flora and bubbling spring fountains. The room was crowned with a ginormous sunroof. It was open wide, the bright light dancing off his shaved head and the silvery armor of the guards standing at either of side of his couch. The duke popped yet another olive into his mouth, then used the opposite hand to thoughtfully tug at his short, neat beard, the precious metals and jewels of the rings around each of his fingers glinting in the light with every movement.
Answering his patience, the double doors nearly three yards away from him swung open. In stepped Prince Maximus of Esperia, his gaudy mail as brilliant as his emerald eyes. The prince followed along the white-brick path, all the way up to the pavilion where the duke was relaxing.
Alvo smiled, a grin wide and full of pearly teeth. He could almost sense jealousy on the prince’s face – he wasn’t escorted by the Legion’s Praetorian Guards, but two Legionnaire captains. Evidently, he had done something to upset his father, and the emperor refused to supply him with the Legion’s finest. Their red didn’t quite match up to the glitter of gold, and certainly not to Alvo’s own silver-clad knights. Of course, it was the man that made the soldier, not the mail. Alvo figured the young upstart of a royal would eventually learn that on his own.
“Duke Alvo. A pleasure.” the prince smiled, neatly walking over and bowing respectfully. His guard’s did the same, fully dropping to their knees and temporarily laying down their arms.
“The pleasures all mine, Prince Maximus.” Alvo breathed, motioning one large hand to a cushioned lounge chair across from his couch, “Please, have a seat. I heard you’re practical-minded like your father… if that’s the case, I’ll forgo the pleasantries and cut straight to business.”
Maximus stood with a stiff upper lip for a moment, but eventually lowered himself into the seat. His two soldiers took to his side, mimicking the stances of Alvo’s silver guard across from them.
Alvo hummed, a deep and thoughtful rumble that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from an awakening bear. Laying both hands on the expanse of his belly, Alvo leaned forward, the precious chains around his neck swinging out from his thick nest of chest hair
Maximus stayed right where he was, relaxed with one leg folded over the other. Looping his armor-clad fingers together, he laid them in his lap and regarded Alvo with a hawkish grin. The light of summer continued to beat down through the open sunroof overhead, shining and wavering between the two aristocrats.
“I appreciate frank men, Duke Alvo. Now, convince me – why should I spare you soldiers for your little coup?”
“Put simply, King Oscar is a short-sighted fool. He sees the art of magic and refurbishing relics only as tools to further propagate the military. It was the same with his father, and his grandfather before him. Thanks to our wizards, Var used to be famous for its technological advancements, it’s contributions to medicine and philosophy – but now, all that’s left are fools who see our ways as mere weapons. Tools as simple and unsophisticated as clubs.”
Maximus cocked a brow, “You’re accusing him of being a warmonger? With all due respect, you’ve plunged this country into the worst civil conflict it’s ever seen.”
“Ah. I must respectfully correct you, prince. It was his family that converted our university’s into barracks, our hospitals into forts. Nearly every able bodied man is a soldier, and the rest are left to suffer and rot in poverty. It was no coincidence that so many flocked to me when I started the rebellion. If I were a spark, it was Oscar and his wretched bloodline that spread the powder across the country.”
“I see.” Maximus breathed, still not looking particularly convinced, “Any particular reason why King Oscar is trying to bolster his forces? Last time I checked, Var hasn’t made any significant moves to expand their borders in recent memory.”
“And that, dear prince, is why it’s so unforgivable.” Alvo breathed, wagging a fat finger Maximus’s way, “No one can even give a solid reason as to why he lets our culture and people suffer for the sake of pursuing some vague notion of absolute might. Perhaps they’re simply paranoid of being invaded by you Esperians.”
Maximus dipped further back into his chair. All ten of his fingertips thoughtfully tapped against their counterparts. A smirk played across the prince’s thin lips.
“Ooh. I’m flattered. One last question before I make my decision, Alvo – what is your stance on monsters, and what would be there future in this new Var you envision?”
Alvo’s grin shrunk back into the curly recesses of his beard. His jovial brown eyes hardening, he set his hands atop his knees and glared with a startling coldness.
“I have no stance, my prince. I’m fat and old; I’m on my way out. The people’s wills are there own. I simply wish to free of them from Oscar’s chains and allow them to make their own decisions.”
“The people are fools, Alvo. Easily charmed. Letting them flit about to do as they please is a ridiculous as an idea as letting sheep lead themselves through a valley. The wolves will spring on them, shepherd or not.”
The duke no longer looked so jovial, “I believe my people are tad more capable than sheep, Prince Maximus. I’m sorry if you don’t feel the same.”
The prince only laughed at his upturned brow, “Hmm. Perhaps. We’ll see when the time comes. To be perfectly frank with you, my father had already ordered me to lend you aid. I was just curious to see what kind of man you are. While we may not see completely eye-to-eye, I can at least respect a man who stands for his people.”
Alvo’s belly shook with his throaty chuckles. He extended his meaty sword arm towards the prince, “Likewise, your highness. I trust we’ll get along swimmingly?”
The prince smiled right back, slick and excited, “The Grand Legion of Esperia may be the most powerful military force in the land, but any ruler that’d put overwhelming might before the good of the people is one that needs to be swiftly and properly usurped.”
They clasped hands, fat and bulk against armor and lean muscle, both shaking the other vigorously before pulling away. Each of the noble’s pairs of guards stood rigid, like statues in a courtroom, overlooking a momentous proceeding unfolding before them.
“Thank you, Prince Maximus. I’m looking forward to your support.”
“And I look forward to providing it, Duke Alvo.”
Hours after the meeting, Maximus stood on a balcony atop Duke Alvo’s tallest tower. He folded his arms, the orange rays of the setting sun dancing across his gold-trimmed mail as he watched it vanish into the mountainous horizon. The cool wind’s of the incoming night whistled by, setting both his cape and long, silky hair fluttering. The prince took in a deep huff of that western wind, cleansing his pallet, washing away the bitter taste of false pleasantries he was forced to vomit out in front of the duke.
His pride was as solid and unshakable as one of the many mountains laid out before him, yet he routinely found himself swallowing it and forcing to act as a pleasant, mewling, agreeable little fawn for the sake of his father and his empire. All the while, monsters continued to fester and swell all around the globe. It made him absolutely sick. He fancied himself a warrior, not a diplomat.
And above all, that bandit who had disgraced him was still out running free.
A stormy fervor festered in his green eyes, Maximus leaned against the marble railing. The duke’s castle was oddly shaped; only a few stories but topped with ten grand towers jutting out from its body. At the center of it all was the intricate glass done that rested above his precious indoor garden.
It nearly made Maximus sick. His golden armor and gilded weapons may have been seen as gaudy by some, but they were still unarguably effective in their purpose and didn’t completely sacrifice function for flare. It was a vacation home, not a castle. It would be difficult to defend, from it’s location lying flat in a plain to it’s minimalist approach to outward barriers. With only a single thin wall preventing entry, it wouldn’t be a difficult task for the king’s men to flood the halls.
“A nation of nothing but mages… they’re so invested in unwrapping the mysteries of life they fail to see what lies just ahead of them. What fools.”
“Hey, hey~! Mages aren’t anything to sneeze at, dear prince~”
Maximus nearly jumped off the balcony and plummeted to an end that would’ve been as tragically untimely as it was disgustingly messy.. Heart racing, he slammed his back against the railing, hand already gripping the handle of his saber. Behind him, appearing out of the shadows, was the jester dressed in black and red, his bells jingling obnoxiously. How he was able to creep around with them on unnerved the prince to no end.
“C-Chicot! What in the seven hells are you doing here?!”
“Oh, my sweet prince~ Chicot is always right here~”
With one of his elongated fingers wreathed in blackened wool, Chicot prodded the prince’s breastplate, right above his heart. Still reeling from the jester’s sudden appearance, the prince couldn’t muster enough rage to bisect the fool before he pulled away.
“I’ll ask you again – what sort of disease rotted your brain to the point you had believed it wise to follow me all the way out here?”
The fool chattered out a low, shrill laugh. He danced about, bell’s jingling, dropping to a single knee and prostrating himself before Maximus.
“What if I told it was out of love, dear prince?”
The young royal answered by drawing his saber and lashing it out at the fool’s neck in a move that was swift as it was seamless. Yet somehow, in that single second that it took the blade to travel from its scabbard to Chicot’s neck, the fool had yipped and threw himself back, arms spinning about like a windmill’s blades.
“Yikes! You nearly took Chicot’s head from his shoulders, you did… after I came all this way just to help you, even! To even think of it! What a cruel, surly prince!”
Maximus said nothing. He swung again. With an obnoxious jingle, Chicot fell to his back. Snarling, the prince raised his saber above his head and swung down at the clown’s belly. Chortling like it was all some silly game, Chicot scooted back at a nearly inhuman speed, the blade’s wicked edge meeting only the masonry of the balcony deck.
Maximus wordlessly pulled his blade back, watching with furious eyes as Chicot did a handstand then flipped onto the balcony railing with an ease and grace that suggested countless hours of practice. Stone-faced, Maximus advanced, intending to knock the fool over and reduce him to a messy stain over Alvo’s ceiling.
“Wait, wait! Won’t you give Chicot just a minute or two to explain himself?!”
“No.” Maximus spat bluntly, “Your last mistake was coming here, Chicot. Father won’t find your body so far from home.”
Maximus raised his blade once more, taking a defensive stance in case Chicot decided to spring at him. The possibility of him casting a spell wasn’t lost on the prince. Though he was prepared for an attack, he was poised to spring and slice Chicot into ribbons at a moment’s notice. He raised his sword higher, it’s immaculately-polished blade perfectly catching the final rays of the setting sun. He inched forward, his greaves scraping against the balcony, the howl of the wind making the statue-still Chicot’s bells go jingling for what the prince intended to be the last time.
“The bandit is here.”
Maximus froze, eyes wide, blade nearly dropping.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know. The degenerate who dared to spit in your face… to disgrace you and escape with his life… to embarrass you in front of the emperor.”
The young royal’s breath was caught in his throat like a heavy stone, “What in the world are you getting at, you walking freakshow?”
“If you wish, dear prince, Chicot could offer you some valuable aid~” the jester replied sweetly. He hopped off the railing and twirled about, landing into a single-kneed crouch, arms spread wide. Maximus couldn’t have been certain if he was prostrating himself or if it was some kind of showman’s gesture. Either way, he wasn’t pleased.
“Get this into your thick skull, clown…” Maximus breathed, rage seething through his grit teeth, “I neither want nor need your assistance. You’ll find me in my grave before I ever conspire with you and your dark arts…”
“Hehehe~ what a stubborn boy. Oh well, I’m sure you’ll be seeing things Chicot’s way soon enough~”
With a merry little shrug suggesting he wasn’t at all upset by the prince’s harsh dejection, Chicot bounced into the air, his bells spinning and ringing like wind chimes, then fell right off the balcony. Though he couldn’t have held a greater disdain for Chicot, the jester’s sudden, sporadic suicide blew the prince back, leaving him staring at the railing with widen eyes.
Rushing over when he caught his bearings, Maximum slammed his palms into the railing, peering down to check the splatter – but there wasn’t anything. No sign of Chicot anywhere. An intrusive sickness filled the prince’s gut. He slowly backed away, suddenly spotting a black and red figure perched atop the roof of a nearby tower, dancing about and slapping his ass down at him.
Maximus stormed back to his quarters without saying another word. He had no clue what sort of demented angle Chicot was playing at, but he had no intention of assisting him. In fact, Maximus decided right then and there to completely ignore whatever mad ramblings slipped past the jester’s lips.
Even with that promise to himself, the revelation that the gray-haired bandit who had made a fool at him began pervading his every thought, just like his last visit to the castle. Even the bitter shame of sucking up and partnering with Alvo didn’t bother him anymore. If Chicot wasn’t fibbing, than Maximus figured his trip was about to become far more fulfilling. For whatever reason, the more he thought on it, the more it seemed to cement itself as a fated truth in his heart. He could picture it clearly and completely, the bandit’s dead body slipping off his stained blade.
The prince just couldn’t stop the wicked smile creeping across his face.