Four years had passed.
He had seen the trees change from white to green to red to black and all over again four times. He couldn’t believe how long it had been since the day the Yīnyǐng had separated them all. He had seen the change of what parts of the world they had travelled together, thoroughly worried by it all. Things changed so drastically wherever they turned that he was sure he woke up in a different world every morning.
The blossoms shedded and the fruits of the trees were ripe for the picking. The fourth Summer. While the two vagabonds wandered the world, set on returning home in Destrea, they had enjoyed the trees and what they had to offer: shelter, food, and aromas. Shade was needed in the arid points of southern Venéra, which was at the tip of the Themaikosite Peninsula, where the sun never seemed to set. Since a few months ago, one could say that the two had lost hope of leaving, as their leads kept them walking in circles.
The world was a large place, and there was little probability that they would find Caislín, Chance, and the others. Aloysius and Wynne had been alone against the land and they were growing tired of it.
The tavern in the slums of Venéra was the best place to look for information.
The twilight was ruined by the deafening thunder and the blinding lightning, and the silvery sheets of rain that dumped on the civilians was a weight on everyone’s shoulders. The Summer day created an undesirable, horribly miserable humidity that hung over the men and women attempting to walk here to there.
Inside that tavern, the many patrons rested and idly puffed smoke from their pipes. One groups heartily guzzled down their ale in a warmly lit corner, and at the tending counter, the mustached innkeeper and one grizzly patron had at it in a spirited game of speculation. A fire roared in the hearth opposite of the counter, where a spindly minstrel tuned his fiddle. Sofas and cushions drowned the area.
The one-eyed elder hobbled into the tavern and fearfully scanned the scene. It was usually his atmosphere, but something was very important and the gravitas of a certain figure, solitarily hunched in a darker corner, sipping his coffee, spoke a quiet urgency. He drank at his leisure, but the glint in his green eyes under his dark hood showed he wasn’t one to wait.
The stranger certainly wasn’t a Venéran. He wore a generic black tunic with buckskin lacing, a leather jerkin, belts aplenty on his waist, and a hooded jacket. A waterproof cloak sheltered him, even though he was safe indoors. It meant he wasn’t going to stay for very long. His jaw shifted and the fire had shown a red sheen in his brown beard.
He was the man to whom the Údaen woman told him to relay the information.
The lady he had met outside undid her cloak and pulled back her hood, letting luscious black hair tumble to her slim waist, and her violet eyes twinkled with intelligence. Her dark lips were plush and were swept over with a dab of simple gloss. She was tall and lean with deep brown skin, and she was dressed in black leather pants, high boots, and a flowing grey blouse with wide sleeves. A simple golden chain adorned her neck, displaying that she was unmarried in the Údaen culture. Her gaze was one to melt under, but her eyes showed that she was a dangerous one.
The lady pointed with her chin to the man in the corner, daring him to defy her.
The one-eyed man scuttled to the corner, and the woman followed, and stopped beside the one in the cloak, a hand on his shoulder.
“Signor Episcopo,” the stranger said with a nod, “where is the real map?”
The elder frowned. “Introductions go both ways, Master…”
The stranger shook his head, smirking. “Answer the question.”
Signor Episcopo stammered out a protest, but shut his lips as the stranger no longer looked humored and the woman raised a hateful eyebrow. “What map?”
“You sold us a map, but it’s awry,” the woman said, with a Destrean accent. His blood ran cold at her deep, heavenly, but dangerous voice.
Episcopo squinted at the hooded stranger, who looked up and allowed his face to be illuminated by the dancing light of the flames.
“You’re the Destrean couple from months back,” breathed Episcopo. “Don’t ask me about that map.”
He stood to leave, his heart thumping profusely, but the lady closed him off and the man sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Here’s to annoying you, then,” he said as he leaned in. “Who told you to sell us an awry map?”
Episcopo gulped and sat back down, feeling imprisoned.
“Who told you to give us a voluntarily wrong and forged map?” growled the man, coming close to Episcopo’s face. “It’s important that we know and now. We have to get back to Destrea.”
The old merchant looked up, fear in his one eye. “Don’t set foot in Destrea!” he exclaimed, though the rest of the tavern refused to listen. “It’s cursed!”
The woman scoffed. “We’ve heard the shepherd’s lore a thousand times over, Episcopo,” she grumbled, “about Crofton, about the Údaen merce-”
“It’s not lore,” confessed the man with pain on his scarred face. “I should know, I- I was one of the Destreans to flee.”
Both the woman and her companion halted any thoughts of replying and awaited, quietly with hints of horrified surprise, an elaboration.
“That Lord Crofton,” Episcopo said shakily. “After the fall of Vårthjem, it seemed he was ready. He came in with an army and an Údaen mercenary led them. No one stood a good chance. Now, he rules as the Eye. His soldiers are always watching. No one goes in or out. I was lucky, because I risked all life in me and every limb on me to leave his tyrannic rule. I got out miraculously, though my eye stayed in Destrea.” He pointed at his empty socket. “Heh. You’d have to be crazy to go back there.” He shook his head. “Look,” he sighed, “that awry map was my own doing. You’re a lovely couple-”
“We’re not a couple,” interjected the man in the hood.
Episcopo’s brow shot up. “Why, I assumed-” As the woman gave him that glare again, he knew they were off subject. “By your accents I knew you were Destrean. You told your vagabondish episode and I knew you’d be safer if you kept it that way. Never go back to Destrea, y’hear? Not until someone ejects Crofton.”
The stranger and the woman exchanged glances, and the hooded figure slowly nodded. “The rumors were all true,” he breathed, as if he had to catch his breath. “All of them.”
The woman put a soft hand on his shoulder.
“Here’s for your troubles.” The man in the hood stood to full height, an impressive height, and dropped ten silver viecciate on the table. “Thank you.”
Episcopo scooped up the coins and scrambled out as quickly as his two feet would take him.
Aloysius Carmody pulled off his hood, and Wynne O’Úda noticed his hazel eyes sparkled with a thin film of tears. After they had evacuated Vårthjem, he had changed.
They hadn’t seen their companions, being Nóe, Caislín, Chance, Boniface, Anson, Briscoe, Ignatius, Cahir, and Iolo since they were all so violently torn from each other in the panic four years ago. They doubted Cahir, Nóe, or Boniface had survived, as they were so forcefully pushed by the explosions that brought the proud city to rubble and a wispy smoking desecration. They wished with all their hearts that Caislín, their queen, had survived. Since that night, Aloysius had blamed himself. He thought that he had been able to do something, but he was so set on getting himself and Wynne away from all of it that he made himself too late. The former captain of the Destrean army had seemed to grow older, and as he did, farther away.
“So it’s true,” he repeated weakly. “Every bend, every stranger… they all told us.”
Wynne let out a sigh through her nose. “We’re too late.”
Aloysius looked down at her, then they made for the exit. As she clasped her cloak around her shoulders and pulled the hood over her head, he said, “Wynny, I didn’t befriend you for your optimism, but it was something I had held onto so dearly for twelve years.”
Wynne smiled ever so weakly as they braved the rain. “Well, my optimism has since been crippled, and I hope you still love me despite it.”
Aloysius helped her onto his stallion and mounted behind her. “You know me, Wynne,” he whispered. “Now, Sebastian and Seren must be wondering what’s taking us so long.” He looked out into the storm and blew out a shrill whistle. “Hartley! Come here!”
Their red setter hound bounded through the rain, happily attempting to catch drops on his big, red tongue.
“Let’s head back to camp.”
Their camp was humble and only three tents were in their small caravan. As the two rode on and out of town, the rain stopped, and the trees lazily shifted in the breeze that chased away the humidity. The night turned into something that could have been peaceful if they hadn’t received such horrible news about their country.
As the stallion conquered the hill, they saw Sebastian, a small twelve year old, calmly tuning his lute by the fire he had tended. Hartley yipped and jumped into him, and Sebastian smiled and scratched his ears.
“How’s the food?” Aloysius asked, helping Wynne down off the horse. “Passable?”
Bash rolled his brown eyes. “I happen to be a better cook than you, Sius.” He took the pot from the fire and dumped a ladle in the stew he had put together. “You’re just in time.”
Wynne kissed his forehead and sat beside him. “It smells good,” she said lightly, despite her dazed expression. “Thank you, Bash.”
“Where’s Starry?” asked the man, putting his cloak up to dry.
Starry was the nickname of his daughter, Seren Carmody. It seemed to be a miracle, an action carried on by the Hand of Protector, that four years ago, Master Pritchard Dacey had evacuated Baric-Tref to escape Crofton, and Seren had stowed away with him. While Seren was still with them, Pritchard had went off in his own way towards the east. The ten year old had flourished and had grown so much.
Sebastian’s eyes widened. “Sius, I promise I kept her inside your tent while it was raining! I promise!”
Aloysius halted him and chuckled. “I didn’t reprimand you, Bash. Where’s Starry?”
He obeyed, and saw his daughter hop down from the trees. Wynne yelped as Seren landed perfectly on her feet, though she did her best to hide the tear in her blue smock. Her curly, deep brown hair was pinned up messily and smudges of dirt covered all the precious freckles that dotted her suntanned face.
Aloysius crouched in front of her, a brow raised. “Why are you covered in dirt, fy merch?” /my daughter/
Seren fidgeted under her father’s gaze. “I snuck out while Sebastian said he was watching me. I promise I didn’t catch cold, I just tripped in the mud.”
Bash gave an indignant start. “Oi!”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Aye, aye, aye,” Aloysius halted them. “Starry, why’d you disobey Bash and I?”
She sighed. “I disobeyed Bash because he was such a stick in the mud and a puss and I disobeyed you because the apples looked so shiny.” She presented her hands, which were hidden behind her back until then, displaying two fat, juicy, red apples. “Don’t they look delicious?”
Aloysius gently took the apples and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Starry. Now go wash up, aye? You’re going to bed early for your disobedience and, in the morning, you’ll mend your smock.”
Seren let out a protesting start. “Dadi!” she complained, “I'm not a little girl in need of a nap!”
“My word is final,” Aloysius said firmly, if not tiredly. He handed Wynne the apples and prodded his daughter towards the wash bowl.
Seren grumbled and disappeared behind the tent, where the washbowl sat. She snuck another face at Bash.
Sebastian smiled at her and looked up at Aloysius, and his expression turned serious. “Destrea?”
The boy had been born in Destrea, to a Sábháiltean father and an Alpenien mother. He grew up on the road, performing with his parents in their circus. He was a gifted acrobat and a minstrel of unsurpassable prowess.
That was before the fire.
Aloysius still saw the fear in his big brown eyes. After their tent was sent to the stars in acrid smoke, Wynne had saved the young boy. It had been three years, and Bash seemed to be recovered. He brought Hartley with him, and the hound found his heart in the two adults.
Aloysius sighed and shook his head. “Our home’s gone, Bash,” he mumbled.
There wasn’t much other than memories still in Destrea for him, for his daughter, Seren, or Wynne. He didn’t know what Sebastian wanted in returning, but if it was hopeless, Aloysius didn’t have a clue as to where they were headed next.
Caislín had woken before the sun rose.
Her husband was a riser even earlier than herself, but as the baby was soon coming, she began to find herself restless. Dawn began to wake on the horizon and the cold air swept into their tent and clutched Caislín by her ankles. She shivered and opened her heavenly blue eyes, and she was reminded as to where she was. She had been having dreams lately of Caer Bryngaer and its warmth and comfort. She had constantly imagined her father, back from the dead, beside her in the throne room. She had been seeing herself back as the Queen of Destrea, that is, before she woke up in a tent in yet another foreign country.
After the fall of Vårthjem, it seemed only days later that the Lord of Crofton Fief invaded Bryngaer and took full control of Destrea. It was disheartening and discouraging, as Caislín was their lost queen, who had been wandering for four years now. She was presumed dead, and she had to ask herself whether she thought that was for the better.
Nevertheless, her body screamed at her to get up and get ready for the day, and so she kicked off the covers and pulled on a simple linen tunic, a wool shawl, and thick bragae trousers tucked into spun socks.
The Summer in the far reaches of Haea was as cold as a Destrean Winter. She wondered how the natives survived such harsh weather.
As she stood, she felt the baby kick. Caislín drew in a sharp breath and rubbed her belly fondly. She and Finn awaited the child like the warm Spring of Destrea to bring warmth and light into their chilled and disheartened lives.
After she was dressed, Caislín ducked out of their tent and shivered to the outdoor stove. Underneath the snow, in a bag that was sewn to be bear-proof, was all the meat they had left: Finn had been able to hunt despite the cold and had scored a fine pheasant, a moose, and in the lower areas of Haea, some speckled quails. They were down to a leg of the moose to be eaten, one quail, and the pheasant’s wings. Finn had been wise in rationing it, and Caislín been a fair preparer of it. As of this year, no one got sick over her cooking, so she could make it simple and declare she was learning.
Finn advised her to prepare the quail today, as hunting would be fair. She plucked its feathers and cleaned it off with fresh water from the stream nearby. Lightly seasoning it with Haean spices, she put the bird on the stove and lit it.
She felt two hands on her waist and her husband’s lips on her neck.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Finn whispered.
Caislín laughed and turned to him. “Good morning to you, too, Finn,” she said, kissing his cheek. “Hungry?”
Finn sighed and sat back as he looked to the grey sky. “Aye. The hunt was fair. I say we move in an hour.” He looked back down to his wife and smiled. “You know, you’re beautiful.”
The couple, after being separated for two years, had been able to catch up in one. After the fall of Vårthjem, they were so afraid of losing each other - and as Finn said they were very ready, and Caislín knew it, too - they were married. Both being Destreans, it was tradition to be bound on home soil. As Crofton didn’t allow anyone to go in or come out of the kingdom, they were married in the northern province, Powys. In the months and months that came after, Finn wanted so dearly to have children, but Caislín was too discouraged by losing her father on one day and seeing annihilation the next, she wasn’t ready to become a mother. At least the smile came back to her face, and now, they were awaiting their first baby.
Finn had to say that the agonizing wait was worth it.
Caislín took the cooked bird off the stove and, as she straightened up, took in a sharp breath. Her husband looked up curiously.
“You all right?” he asked, taking the quail.
Caislín nodded. “The baby’s kicking again.”
He smiled and laid an ear on her belly. “Aye, aye, he’s kicking hard.”
“‘He’?” she exclaimed, almost indignantly. “How do you know your babe’s a boy?”
Finn shrugged and stood. “If the woman gives birth, be it that at the least the man has some say in what his child will be.” He said so with no seriousness in his eyes, but with a face as straight as a ruler.
“It never works like that, Love,” concluded Caislín, cutting up the bird. “Ha! I’d pity the man who believed it with his whole heart.”
She served them both and sat beside her husband, who then asked Protector for a blessing. “May we be delivered to the land we love,” he said, eyes closed, “and may our friends be safe in Your Hands. Your holy will be done.” He snuck a fun look at his wife, then quickly added, “and please let our child be a boy.”
It earned him a kick in the shin from Caislín, who finished the prayer with him.
“Any week, now,” she whispered, her hand rested on her belly. “Any week now.”
Finn guided their horse through the stream, careful not to splash his wife, who was comfortably seated in the saddle. Tugging the buckskin along by the bridle, he looked back at Caislín and gave her a smile.
It seemed, though he was a grown man, she had seen him mature. Since their reunion only weeks before Vårthjem, he was such a boy that she couldn’t stand to stay in company with him. He began to understand and she fell all the more in love with him.
The two had known each other since he had turned fifteen and became a captain of Destrea’s former royal army, the Solitary. Her father grew fond of the confident yet humble youth, whose gaze had always pierced the princess. Once they had both come of age he asked for her hand so he could court her. Years had gone by and they only grew in strength and love. Then, what was now six years ago, Finn and his brother, Drystan, were both sent to the frontlines against the radical Údaen army, the Turbans. They had both disappeared, and most presumed all of them dead. Then Finn came back. Only, he was changed. Not remembering who he used to be, he was called Chance and was one of the leaders to a crime gang. Nevertheless, the Protector guided them together again, and it took some doing, but Chance began to remember his life before and fell in love with Caislín again. Then, while they were in Vårthjem to request armed forces against the gang Chance was formerly a part of, someone had planted bombs inside the castle, making it fall to rubble, and the two were blessed to be alive and together. They missed their friends, whom they hoped and prayed were still alive was well, but there were no promises.
“Hold on,” Finn said, “it’s getting steeper over here.”
Caislín nodded and held tight to the stallion’s mane. As the incline grew more drastic, her mind wandered back to the past. So much had happened and she wondered if she coped well enough. She and Finn had been able to put it behind themselves and were able to live, but she knew that someone had to do something about Lord Crofton.
“What’s plaguin’ your mind?” Finn asked quietly. They had come to a flatland and he mounted the stallion, positioning himself behind her. “You look upset.”
As they began to trot, she sighed. “I was thinking about Lord Crofton,” she admitted softly, “and the tiara.”
All those years ago, that one day that began a nightmare was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, when her father was supposed to announce her the queen. That day was the day her father was killed, her crown was stolen, undoubtedly by Crofton and the gang, and a few days later, Finn, under the name of Chance, came back to her, but he hated her.
Finn slowly nodded. “Well,” he said, but said nothing else.
Caislín rubbed her forehead and leaned against him. “The Empress Skadi… my mother…” She frowned. How could she ever get used to saying that?
Also in that week, she found out that her mother was still living, unlike she was told. Everyone had proclaimed that King Eochaid’s wife died in childbirth, but the truth was, his wife was the Empress of Alpene, and she had an explanation. Sadly, Caislín refused to listen. She was so angry and so confused when Skadi said she was her mother that she ran from her and shut her ears tight. While they wandered through Alpene, they heard that the empress was killed in the explosion, and Caislín regretted her actions.
“Aye?” Finn urged.
She closed her eyes and let out a relaxing exhale. “She said something about it. Said that the sapphire was special. If I had listened, if I had cared…” Caislín refrained with difficulty from crying from frustration. “Perhaps I would have done something about Crofton. Perhaps I had been able to do something.”
Finn was quiet for a second as he nodded. She cherished how he listened her with no judgement, and his advice was important to her.
He let out a small chuckle. “It seems to me as if you’re saying you singlehandedly gave Destrea to Crofton.”
Caislín fidgeted. “Perhaps not singlehandedly…” she muttered. “I just can’t shake the feeling that it was my fault that I didn’t know more.”
“It’s not your fault you didn’t know to know,” Finn said simply. “Look, we can always learn more. There’s a library in Úda that we can get to within a week if we’re quick, that should have a whole shelf on the Sapphire.”
Caislín smiled. “You’re merciful, Love.”
He chuckled as they rode across the country.
It didn’t take too long before Finn felt as if they weren’t alone.
Finn turned and scanned the scene around him; they had left the trees in the distance, and an expansive flat land of snow beckoned them south, in the direction of Úda. While this part of the journey left them wide open targets and kept them vulnerable, their advantage was that no one had the element of surprise on them. He kept a quiver strapped to the saddle, between him and his wife. All he had to do was snatch up his bow and a fletch of arrows and they would be defended. If that failed, he had a longsword strapped to his back.
The wind picked up and dragged the snow into dunes reminiscent of the desert sands, creating cover along with hiding places. Caislín didn’t suspect a thing, but his senses were tuned into the feeling that they were being watched.
The sun, only a weak, melted light behind wet, silver clouds, soared above them, and the feeling climbed up and down his chilled spine. Goose skin shocked the back of his uncovered neck, and he shivered. He pulled his wool shirt’s collar up a bit, as his short, cropped hair would do nothing anymore.
“Caislín,” he whispered, “don’t stop. Take the reigns.”
His wife opened her eyes and reluctantly took control of the strong stallion. “What’s wrong?” she said softly.
“Nothing yet,” Finn said quickly, silently dismounting. “Not yet. Keep your eyes open. Don’t panic.”
Caislín slowly nodded. She knew what to do, as they had ridden through harsher areas filled bandits. Finn had said that before, and they lived this far.
The feeling only worsened as Finn ducked behind a snow dune, pulling a thick hood over his head. If there were more, then he wouldn’t want someone to pinpoint his face.
Caislín prodded their horse to a trot, and as they casually clopped away, she looked back worriedly towards her husband, who nodded and gestured for her to keep going.
He unsheathed his longsword, and the perfectly kept steel made no sound. It was of Destrean craft, and Caislín recognized it as a Wing Company distributed standard. She was afraid as it resembled Aloysius’ blade, with a faint blue tint to the otherwise polished, whitish silver metal. Stamped on the blade was its Gwceff forge name: Câny’Gwynt - Song of Wind. He had found it pawned in a merchant’s shop in Venéra and thought nothing of it, but then it returned to them in Gaiel, where he dueled a mercenary for it. It had served him well, and he prayed it wasn’t going to stop.
“He got off,” mumbled his follower.
Finn made himself small against the dune and opened his ears to the stranger. He heard not hoofsteps through the snow but the sniffing of a dog. He frowned and risked himself a peek.
The hooded man was riding on a wolf double the size of his own horse. Its white fur was groomed and trimmed, and its saddle was high riding and made of dark leather.
The rider was black against the white of the scene and his steed. A hood and scarf covered his face and shadowed his eyes. Obviously, he was uncomfortable with the cold of the north, and Finn knew he was Údaen from the Manhunter sign on his shoulder.
“Shazi, Baqi,” the man called. Two rather average-sized hunting dogs trotted up beside him. “Hunt.”
Finn crawled backwards, staying with the contours of the snowy dunes. The dogs sniffed and followed his trail. He scowled with worry and backtracked a little faster. His heart stopped when his foot slipped on ice and he shuffled, shifting the powder snow.
Shazi and Baqi barked and caught up with him, and Finn wielded Câny’Gwynt and they circled around him, undaunted by the impressive blade. Their teeth were bared and they viciously growled as they closed in on him.
Finn was not afraid of Shazi and Baqi, though he was concerned by their master, who followed them around the dunes until he saw the Destrean man in a grey wool cloak and poncho.
“Who are you?” the Údaen asked as he dismounted his ghostly white growling Manhunter. He failed to unwrap his face, and he shivered as he approached Finn. He patted his short scimitar, wary of his presence. His eyes, the only features visible, were bright hazel. “Where’d you get such a fine blade?”
Finn, seeing that the Údaen was just as careful as he was, showing that he was not looking for a brawl, slowly lowered his sword. The robed man looked relieved and dropped his hand from his own blade.
“I was a Solitary,” the Destrean explained. He sheathed the blade across his back again.
That wasn’t a complete lie. Finn’s memory was still blotted and imperfect, but he had conjured up images of sparring with his brother, Drystan.
The Údaen nodded, impressed. “Explains your impeccable stealth,” he stated, with no sarcasm in his tone. Reluctantly, he unwrapped the scarf from his face and pushed back his hood.
The man was young, about twenty-five or so. His face was rugged and defined, tanned olive, with a rough brown stubble of days past across his face. In the cold, bright air, his eyes pierced Finn, as he was searching him for any sign of hostility. He was also tall, given his gaze was level with his own.
There was something about him that Finn was wary of.
“Who are you?” Finn asked.
The Údaen gave out a quick ‘oh’ and bowed, one hand over his heart. “I am Commander Toryalai Samara of the High Guard of Southern Úda.”
“Gimme yer purse, pretty lady,” laughed the criminal, shooting a hand out for her crossbody bag.
The girl grunted and kicked his shin in an attempt to repel the gang from her. They had surrounded her and pushed her against the wall of a Venéran tavern. They meant nothing but to take her money, though what she had was what she was surviving on.
“Leave me alone!” she screamed as she pushed past the leader of the gang, who howled with pain and held his shin. She clutched the crossbody to her chest and almost broke free of them if it weren’t for the other scoundrel’s impeccable reach. She yelped as he pushed her back against the wall and tugged the bag from her grip.
The girl was a bright and beautiful young Themaikosite lady, who dressed in a casual blue high class garment. Black gladiator sandals were strapped up to her covered knees and a headband of interlocked golden chains adorned her long, black hair. Her eyes, a heavenly deep brown, were wide with fear and anger, and they were accentuated by thick lashes.
“We’ll leave ye be when yeh give us the purse!” growled the leader, fed up with her. He drew closer. “What d’ye have in there?”
“I’d advise you to leave her alone.”
The gang of four whirled around and saw a strong young man, an Údaen, block them off from the mouth of the alleyway. He was dressed simply in a breezy white linen shirt with the long sleeves rolled to his elbows, grey trousers, and leather boots. Because of the heat of the Summer, his black hair was cropped to his head with a few curls spread across his olive face. In one hand he gripped a sturdy walnut staff.
They saw why.
He was blind.
His face was blank and his eyes were far away. They were once blue, but they were now clouded and unfocused.
“He’s helpless,” Murtagh whispered to his leader, Grosvenor. “There’s no honor in picking off of him.”
Grosvenor growled. “He’s arrogant,” he hissed, pointing at him. A smug smile came across the tall blind man’s face. “I don’t like him.”
Eustachi cracked his knuckles. “I’d like to punch his face in. Finish up his scarred face.”
Araz snickered. “I’ll help.”
The girl, now not their problem, carefully tiptoed from behind the gang and stood beside the blind man. She whispered to him and gave him the bag. The man smiled and nodded, though he did not face her.
“Toula, wait for me,” the man said.
The girl sat at the mouth of the alleyway and watched intently.
Grosvenor guffawed. “Girlie, you think that this will be entertaining?” he hollered. “To watch a blind man die?”
She grinned. “It’s entertaining to see the arrogant find their place-” She pointed to the cobblestone. “Face down on the ground.”
Grosvenor shook his head at her and noticed that the blind man hefted up his staff and waited. “If I lose,” the man stated, “then take my bag. If I win, withhold from sacking for a year.”
The gang scoffed. “What a narcissist,” Eustachi huffed.
He didn’t notice until too late that the blind man was upon him. With no time to even yelp, the staff cracked down on his temple and Eustachi fell unconscious. Murtagh smacked his own forehead with frustration.
The stranger, who, to the extent of their knowledge, was still blind, huffed and stood back to full, impressive height. His presence had a strong, leading gravitas to it and his hard expression screamed his disapproval.
“If you want to stay away from me,” he said harshly, “then make as silent as your grave.”
Grosvenor wasn’t about to listen to a blind peasant. He shifted his knife into his hand and slashed out towards the man’s chest. He saw nothing but suddenly felt his own ribs explode with white-hot pain. He could hardly even gasp for breath as he fell on his back. He knew immediately that his ribs were broken.
The man set his walnut staff’s butt end firmly on the ground again. “What did I just say?” he inquired impatiently with a little shake of the head and a frustrated hand motion. “Now, the other one…” He opened up to the alley again and gripped his staff easily.
Murtagh put down his weapons and put his shaking hands in the air. “Who are you?” he asked quietly.
The Údaen smirked and faced him, though his eyes didn’t set on him. He was glad they didn’t; his clouded eyes were frightening.
“Just a peasant,” he said with a shrug. “No, that’s not the question. Go.”
Murtagh scrambled to his feet and wailed as he sprinted aimlessly away.
Nóe slowly shuffled back to Toula, who waited at the mouth of the alley. Since he had started getting used to walking without sight, he had gotten better, though he was still uncertain of the ground ahead of him.
Toula had been with him the entire episode. She had blossomed from a fiery fourteen year old into a levelheaded young woman, now that she had the responsibility of taking care of Nóe.
She took his free arm and guided him towards the town. “Where are we going today?” she asked.
Nóe chewed his lip. “We need to be on the path to Destrea,” he answered. “We’re in Baressi, as north as we can get in Venéra. We’re only five hundred miles southeast of Anglesey.”
Toula sighed. “Nóe, we’ve heard from just about anyone living that Destrea no longer exists as it used to.” Her words didn’t stop him, so she halted him by stepping in front of him and softly pushing him back. “I don’t know what you’re looking for there, but Emperor Crofton won’t let you have it.”
Nóe took her hand in his and sheepishly shook his head. “I want to know if my brother is still there,” he said softly. “And after that, we find the queen. I feel the need to help her, after all that I had done.”
Toula’s brow furrowed. “You have nothing to prove to the queen,” she protested, “we do well together under no authority but our own.”
Nóe smiled and walked past her. “I say we choose the next path.”
Toula let out a sad laugh. “We don’t know what path we’re taking.”
He patted her hand and nodded. “The path becomes a road very, very soon,” he told her.
She reluctantly wrapped her arm in his, knowing that he was right. Ever since she had come to know the man, he was levelheaded and calm. He surprised her all the time. What didn’t surprise her was how wise he sounded as he recited the proverb. While she was his eyes, he was her prudence. Toula had always been passionate and hot headed, and to have a voice of reason was relieving.
Toula smiled and led him. “Then to Destrea we go,” she stated.
Nóe hugged her from the side and they began walking again.
Only a few tens of miles away, in the Elevato Palace, Princess Ambra Luana Biancardi screamed with annoyance.
“Leave me alone!” she shrieked at Achille, who bowed to his young princess, who was known for her tantrums. “I said I don’t want to leave Elevato!”
“B-b-but, Your Majesty,” stammered the heavy man, “it’s mandatory.”
“How come Mother never told me of this Ruby, if she meant to pass it onto me?” she pouted. “I’ve heard this all four years ago, and it was all a false alarm! There was nothing! Why would it be important now?”
“Because Destrea is in need,” explained Achille. “Their Sapphire has fallen into enemy hands, and it is imperative that no more are stolen. We have to lock them and hide them.”
The girl took her tiara from her blonde head and expected Achille to take it from her to take the journey. When he pulled his hands away from her, she rolled her blue eyes. “Honestly, it’s not cursed!” she huffed.
“It may not be cursed,” blubbered Achille, “but I will never be able to touch it.”
Ambra shifted her gaze to her handmaiden, a tall, middle-aged Údaen slave.
Even if Destrea’s nation was able to emancipate all their slaves, Venéra was wealthy because of their slave-trading business.
This certain woman was taken from Nahrin, now twelve years ago, where it was said that the strongest Údaens were born. She was poised and regal, despite her meaningless rank, and she was humbled by everything she did. No matter her chore, someone had to punish her. The woman, whose Venéran slave name was Celeste, kept her mouth shut and refused to speak unless she was ordered to. Her violet eyes were cast to the floor and her black hair was messily pinned up.
“Do you believe in all of these myths, Celeste?” Ambra asked, more as a quiz. She wished the slave to feel too stupid to say that she believed them, and she wanted her to feel guilty lying to the princess in saying that she didn’t.
Celeste refused to look up, but she slowly nodded. “I believe them in my heart and soul, as I’ve seen the splendor and beauty of all four Eyes together. As relics of Princess Mahin Darya, they are found to be precious signs of a mother’s love in Úda. On their own they are harmless to the Keepers, but when they are paired with the book of Mahin Darya’s son’s life, the Book of Alqudama, they, together, display to the world the highest power.” She silently filed from the room.
“Celeste!” Ambra hissed.
Reluctantly, the woman returned, eyes cast to the floor.
“And why do you believe such… such… gobbledegook?” The princess indignantly placed her crown, inlaid with a single ruby, back on her head.
Celeste bowed, though she showed no true remorse for her statement. “It is my belief, Your Majesty, for no reason other than I know it’s true.”
With that, she walked away.
Sequel to Since The Day You Left, taking place four years later. Aloysius' daughter WILL be explained. Caislin is now 26, Chance, 28 | Aloysius, 28 | Wynne, 24 | Noe, 19 | Toula, 18 | Breixo, 30 | Arlo, 16 (that was the craziest) | so on and so forth. New characters: Toula | Sebastian | Celeste | Ren | Ambra Luana | Seren | Hartley (Aloysius and Wynne's tracking hound). Seren's nickname is 'Starry' because her name, Seren, means 'in the stars' in Welsh.