Songfic by Esther Nairn
(music by Sarah Maclachlan)
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Four Months Later
It was a warm, clear summer afternoon. A breeze swooped over tilled fields of wheat and corn, ruffling the plants so that they moved in waves. Birds swooped over the seas of gold and green, chirping to each other of the glory of this beautiful day. Farmers drove their oxen-led carts up and down the straight, dirt paths that separated each field from the next, some bound for the city and others heading to their barns. The air smelled fresh, clean, and natural--a down-to-earth scent that seemed all the more wholesome because of the capital nearby.
Beyond the fields lay the holy city of Saillune, with its pure white buildings and clean, paved streets. The gentle, sloping hills ringing the city a mile away were just tall enough so that onlookers there could only glimpse the rooftops within the white, protective wall surrounding Saillune below. The castle rose above it all majestically, towering over the city with airy splendor, colorful flags waving from the peaks of its many towers. It was in the middle of the main road to the city that Zelgadiss Greywords stopped for the fifth time in the past hour and a half, staring at the castle and wondering just how he was going to bring himself to enter the cityís gates.
"Feh," Zelgadiss muttered, refusing to allow himself to enjoy the beauty of the scene around him. "Iíll bet I wonít even be able to get in." He glanced down at his folded arms, specifically at his blue fingertips that showed through his tan-colored, fingerless gloves, and sighed. It was an unreasonable fear, and he knew it; while it was possible that with one look the guards at Sailluneís main gate would decide he was too "suspicious-looking" to allow inside, there were always other ways to get in. Zel was never one to let trivial details get in his way. No, there was something else stopping him from marching up to the gates and attempting to get inside them with his usual confidence.
Zelgadiss hated to admit it, but he was nervous.
Sighing resignedly, he shrugged his shoulders to adjust the backpack that hung from them, jostling its contents. While he had been in the southern frozen tundra, the book's uncanny warmth had been a godsend, but now that he was in a far milder climate, that warmth had become uncomfortable. He had placed the book in an outermost pocket of his bag, but even there the heat radiated through the bag and its contents, a constant reminder of the bizarre and unsettling events that had led him to return to the holy city. It was that reminder that made him pick up his feet and continue walking toward Saillune. If it weren't for the book, he would have died alone in a cursed cavern, but he knew very well that if it weren't for Ameria and his promise to return to her, he never would have reached out to touch the book's heat in the first place. So he kept walking, each step bringing him closer to Ameria and closer to keeping his promise, all the while trying to squelch the feeling of butterflies in his stomach.
Over an hour later, Zelgadiss found himself barely within the outermost city gates, amid the hustle and bustle of merchants, farmers, and ordinary citizens. The sound of cart wheels, horse's hooves, and people shouting to each other was almost deafening. Merchants lined the wide street, which led straight to the palace at the center of the city, their colorful wares a stark contrast to the sterile white painted walls and chestnut wood doors of most of the buildings. Zel had to shove his way through the throng of people just to get to the side of the road, and even there, the area was packed. Zel used this as a distraction from thinking about Ameria--it took far too much concentration to weave in between people to spare a thought about the meeting that was soon to come. As he threaded his way down the first two blocks of the road, Zel could feel the eyes of the people around him. His hood was up and his mask was covering the lower portion of his face, but no matter what he did, some blue, rocky skin still showed and a few locks of spiky, metallic hair still poked out to reflect the brightly shining sun. He tried to ignore the feeling of claustrophobia that was threatening to seize him and instead looked for a side street to turn off onto.
Then, suddenly, Zel heard the sharp crack of a heavy wooden door banging open against the brick wall of a nearby shop, and he could hear in his mind Ameria's voice all too sharply demanding his execution. The people around him suddenly became the mob from his dream in the frozen cave, carrying him off to certain death while the once innocent and caring princess of Saillune cackled madly, a grotesque caricature of the person he knew. Shaking his head violently, Zel lost his balance, stumbled, and collapsed to the ground, holding one palm to his head. His heart raced and he felt very hot. He looked up, gasping for air, right into the staring face of a small boy who vaguely resembled the stable boy in his dream who had been so afraid of him. His stomach seized and he wrenched himself to his feet abruptly, staggering past the boy without a word toward a quiet-looking side street that branched off the main road some fifteen feet away.
Zel rounded a corner and leaned against the building, his chest heaving and his trembling hands held to his face, too upset to even notice that he had attracted the attention of several townspeople milling around near the intersection. They watched him curiously and some began to whisper among themselves about his appearance. He felt them watching him after a few seconds and peered back at them from between his fingers. He glanced from staring face to staring face, panic growing within him until he felt his chest tighten further and his pulse race. He had to escape those stares! He felt his body moving, though to where, he had no idea. He blindly stumbled to his left until his fingers found a doorknob; shoving the door open, he practically jumped inside and closed it behind him, then leaned against it and exhaled heavily. This was precisely the reaction from people he hated and feared--part of the reason he so desperately sought a cure for himself. Usually, panic attacks like this were a rare occurrence during the day; such horrible experiences were typically relegated to nighttime, when in his dreams he recounted the horrifying experience of being turned into a chimera by his grandfather, the Red Priest Rezo. But, since he came back from the cave, he had had three such attacks during the day, mostly in busy towns when it seemed like a wall of people threatened to crush him. It was a disturbing development.
He stayed like this for a minute, his eyes closed and his fists balled as he fought to control himself, barely even aware that he had found himself in a dimly lit, clean but somewhat shabby-looking tavern. A sudden shout made him jump. "Hey Greg!" a female voice called out. "We got a customer!"
A woman Zel guessed to be in her late twenties had appeared behind the bar, wiping her hands off on an apron layered over her simple, homespun dress. She was stout and muscular from many years of hard work. Her skin was ruddy and sun-beaten and her eyes twinkled with intelligence and worldly wisdom. She turned and glanced at a doorway covered by a curtain behind the bar as a male voice called back, "A customer? At this hour?"
"Yeah! Just wandered in!" she called back, then turned to Zel and smiled at him. "Take a table. Iíll be right with ya."
Zel stepped away from the door cautiously, wondering when the woman would notice his appearance and chase him out of her tavern. She simply bent down behind the bar and grabbed a slip of paper and a graphite stick, humming to herself. The desire to leave before she panicked at the sight of him and the desire to have a strong cup of coffee warred within him until the coffee won out. Zel wearily slipped off his backpack and took a seat at a corner booth. He plunked his elbows down on the rough, wooden table and buried his face in his hands as the adrenaline begin to drain out of him, leaving him feeling vulnerable and shaky.
The woman approached the table once she had found a fresh check under the bar and lifted an eyebrow at his apparent despair. "Hey--what can I get for ya, hon?" she asked.
Zel jumped a little, startled again at the sound of her smooth, alto voice. He let his hands drop and looked up at her, then down at the table and muttered, "Coffee."
The woman nodded and scribbled on her check. "Coffee, and...?"
"Just coffee," Zel said without looking up.
She looked at him curiously. "Hmmmmm..." she intoned, and was about to ask him what was wrong when she was interrupted by a shout from behind the door near the bar.
"Maude! Can ya get over here and lend me a hand with this keg?" Greg called out.
With a sigh, Maude said, "Sorry, Iíll be right back," and headed back toward the bar.
Zelgadiss watched her retreating back for a moment until she disappeared through the curtain-covered doorway behind the bar. Raising a still trembling hand, he ran it through his wiry hair, inadvertently pulling out a strand that caught against the rough rocks that stuck out from his wrist. Growling at the length of silvery wire, he discarded it under the table, his hand brushing against the flap of the front pocket of his backpack. The pocket flipped open, revealing the warm, glowing book inside it. He had opened the thick tome only a few times since retrieving it from the cursed cave, but each time his inspections turned up no valuable information. He couldn't even begin to guess at the language in which it was written; as well versed as he was in all common and several uncommon tongues used in magic, he could find no similarity between the ancient script and anything he knew. The amulets within it were even more baffling. He hadn't dared to remove them from the false pages of the book--he knew better than to play with magical things without reading the instructions first. The smooth red jewels had maintained their glow and warmth all the way up the continent, though he couldn't figure out why or how. If the priests and priestesses of Saillune couldn't find out what they were for, he didn't know who could.
Wincing against that disquieting thought, he wondered just what he would do if they couldn't help him. Would he be forced to give up on this lead, to abandon the book and begin searching again for another lead to his cure? It would probably mean that he would have to return south to the land beyond the old Mazoku barrier, since he was thoroughly convinced he had followed up on every viable lead in the north of the continent already. With a heavy sigh, he buried his face in his hands again. It was so hard to believe, after all his years of endless searching, that he would ever become sick of traveling. He had been so consumed with the idea of finding a cure that he had never stopped to think about what he'd do if he actually found it, much less if he simply stopped looking for one. He couldn't just let it go--he'd been searching for more than five years and had turned up nothing but dead ends and trouble in the form of Lina and company. Yet the idea of staying put for a while was tantalizing. He sighed into his hands once more. Maybe he was just getting old, but his close call back at the cave had affected him in ways he hadn't even realized until now and he was starting to feel just a little tired of constantly risking his life for a cure that hadn't turned up after so much effort. He heard footsteps to his left, interrupting his thoughts, and he looked up just as Maude returned, carrying a small tray in one hand. His coffee sat on the tray, steaming hot, next to a little cup of cream and a bowl containing a few hardened lumps of sugar.
"We make our coffee strong--you have to in a tavern," Maude said with a laugh as she picked up the mug off her tray and placed it down on the table in front of him. Grabbing the cup of milk, she said, "Wouldja like cream with that, or--"
"Just black, thanks," Zel interrupted as he slid his finger into the ceramic handle on the coffee mug. He looked away as he took a sip, hoping that Maude would realize he wanted to be left alone. She apparently didn't, he realized ruefully after a minute of holding the cup and brooding. Instead, she looked down at him, studying him openly as she placed one hand on her hip and curled up the tray in her other arm.
"Just black, hmmm?" she repeated, almost to herself. She leaned forward a little, scrutinizing him further. Zel sweatdropped and held up the cup in the line of sight between her face and his, looking to the right and hoping she would catch the hint now. "So...what's eatin' ya, hon?" she said finally, purposely ignoring his body language.
He didn't look up at her, although she did see his brow twitch at her question. "Nothing," he replied dully, acting as disinterested in everything but his coffee as possible.
Maude shifted her weight and clucked her tongue. "Nothing? Then what're you so nervous about?" she asked directly.
That got a reaction. He glanced up at her in both surprise and indignation. She grinned crookedly. They're all the same, she thought to herself as she poked his shoulder with a finger, ignoring the solid texture of his skin through the fabric of his shirt and cloak, and repeated her question. He recovered quickly, returning his gaze to his coffee cup, and said as impassively as he could, "I'm not nervous about anything."
To his annoyance, Maude chuckled good-naturedly. "A nervous wreck and a bald-faced liar. Mm-hmmm..." She trailed off, nodding to herself knowingly. Placing the tray on the table, she folded her arms, leaned forward some more, and said conspiratorially, "It's about a girl, isn't it?"
If she was pleased at his reaction before, she was down right amused now. Zelgadiss's eyes widened and then narrowed quickly as he replaced the coffee mug on the table forcefully. Folding his arms across his chest, he looked away and said hotly, "No, it isn't. And if you butt into people's business like this, it's a wonder you get any business at all. Now please just leave me alone!"
Maude rolled her eyes and chuckled again, shrugging off his rudeness easily. "You don't fool me, sugar. I get dozens like you in here every night." She gestured dubiously at the murky liquid in his cup. "Usually booze calms 'em down, but hey, if coffee works, more power to ya." Her chubby face took on a more reflective look and she said in a quieter tone, "It's always about a girl." Zel turned his head and glowered up at her. Just as he began another string of denials, she looked at him shrewdly and said, "What's her name?"
"Ameria," Zel answered without even thinking, caught off guard. His eyes widened and he froze, unable to even protest as Maude clapped her hands and guffawed in delight. "I...I mean..." He trailed off and looked away quickly as a blush come over his face that he was loathe to show her, immediately worried that she'd guess that he was talking about a very famous Ameria..
"Hey, she's got the same name as the princess!" Maude exclaimed brightly once she stopped laughing, nodding approvingly. "It's pretty, ain't it?"
Zel breathed a tiny sigh of relief, which quickly soured as he was reminded all over again how little he had to offer someone whose blood was as blue as his skin. "Yeah," he agreed miserably, at this point ready to say anything to get Maude to go away.
The plump young woman was persistent, though. "Afraid she doesn't love you back?" she asked, tilting her head to try to see Zel's downturned face.
"I never said love..." came his reply, almost buried in his forearms, which now rested on the tabletop.
Rolling her eyes again, Maude folded her arms across her chest and declared, "I can read you like a book. I said love, and I meant it." As Zel lifted his head and began searching once again for a response, she looked the chimera over appraisingly, taking in his worn clothes and the dark circles that clouded his face. He was bone weary and too thin; he looked as if he hadn't had a decent meal in days. Still, she thought, he'd probably clean up well once he was rested. Lifting her thoughtful expression into a smile, she said slowly, "Well, a handsome guy like you who obviously cares about her...how can she say no?"
Zel's jaw dropped and all sound died in his throat. Powerless to say anything, he could only make a few small attempts at words in the back of his throat, but these sounds were choked off and killed quickly. He could only stare at the tavern woman incredulously, making feeble gestures toward his face or his hands.
Maude continued, completely ignoring Zel's shock. "Oh, donít get me wrong, hon, I noticed that little skin condition of yours," she said casually and smirked. "You donít exactly have the rosiest cheeks of any boy Iíve met--even with all your blushiní."
"I--I'm not--" was all he could manage to say.
"Truth is, it donít matter--youíre still a good lookiní guy," Maude plowed on, cutting Zel off completely. "Besides, if youíre seriously considering this girl, donít you think she should be able to take ya for what you are?"
"I...I..." Zel looked down and away, his jaw moving but unable to say much to counter her. His eyes fell on the backpack next to him and he moved his hand to cover it protectively. At that moment, he felt so mixed up, he wasn't sure what was right. He thought Ameria cared about him, and he thought he felt something for her, although he wasnít sure what it was, exactly. He said so in the letter he sent her. But the cursed cave had changed everything, making him question things about himself he had never stopped to think about before. He pulled his hand away from his backpack and caught a glimpse of the little blue bracelet strapped to his wrist, mostly covered by his sleeve. Pressing his lips closed, he looked up at Maude, still unable to answer, but he didn't need to.
The plump waitress patted his shoulder reassuringly and nodded. "Of course. Now, you think about that over your coffee, and if ya won't be orderin' anythin' else, I'll be back with your check in a few minutes, all right?"
His mind still racing with her unexpectedly wise words, all he could do was nod dumbly in reply. Wordlessly, he retreated back into himself, absently sipping his coffee. After a minute, he grimaced at its taste--Maude was right, it was strong. He reached over to where the little cup of cream was sitting and poured some into the dark liquid, swirling the cup a little to mix the two. He took a sip and then another; the cream took the edge from the strong brew so it was tolerable. By the time Maude returned, bustling through the curtained doorway, her arms full of bottles, Zel had finished off the cup and was standing by the booth, retying the clasp of his cloak. She dumped the bottles on the surface of the bar and wiped her hands off on her apron, digging through her pockets for his check.
"You're lookin' better," she said cheerfully.
Zel shrugged as he finished tying the bow, leaned over the booth, and grabbed the strap of his backpack. "Coffee always does that."
Smiling, Maude came up to him and, noting the cup of cream contained less than before, said, "Just black, hmmm?" She winked and nudged him with her elbow. "Mark my words, young man, you keep tryin' and never give up, and she'll be yours."
Zel looked away for a second, slinging his backpack across his shoulders and threading his left arm through one of its straps. He nodded slowly. "Thanks." He glanced down at the check and reached into his pocket, drawing out several coins. She held out her hand and he dropped them in her palm. "Keep the change," he said, and started toward the exit.
Maude looked down at her hand, blinked, and her eyes widened. She took a step after him and caught his sleeve. "Not that I'm complainin', but isn't this overtippin' just a little bit for a cup of coffee?"
Zel glanced over his shoulder at her and the corners of his mouth turned upward in just a hint of a smile. "The coffee was just what I needed. Besides, good advice shouldn't be free." With a wave, he turned and walked to the door. Maude followed behind him silently, still taken aback, and stopped near the end of the bar. As Zel turned the handle and opened the door, Greg appeared in the curtained doorway and walked up to Maude, putting his hands on her shoulders. Just before the door swung shut, they watched the chimera pull his hood on and plunge into the crowd on the road toward the palace without a backward glance.
"You always give the same advice every night," Greg, a tall, bearded man, said slowly, leaning forward to rest his chin on the top of his wife's head.
Maude shook herself out of her surprise, closing her hand around the coins, and shrugged. "That's 'cause theyíre all the same--I donít care if heís aimin' to court a common farmerís daughter or the princess, herself."
Greg laughed. "Well I only know about courting a common farmerís daughter," he said affectionately, giving her shoulders a squeeze.
Turning to face him, Maude grinned, amused. "And how many farmerís daughters have you courted?" she said teasingly.
Greg leaned down and kissed her nose, then turned toward the curtained doorway. "Only one. Now come help me with these bottles."
Maude followed behind him, throwing a backward glance at the door through which Zel had just passed. "Good luck, kid. Don't forget what I said," she murmured.
* * *
"I'm sorry," said Deymin Richards, the head of Richards Shipping Incorporated, said, shaking his head and folding his chubby hands in front of him on the table. "I just can't see any way we can afford to dock at Utsumura ports, not with the high rates they want to charge for the use of their new docks when Saillunian goods are involved." He threw a not-so-subtle glance at the thin man seated across the long, wooden table from him.
"Well, I'm sorry," countered Robert Highland, head of the official delegation from Utsumura to Saillune. "I cannot lower the rates. It was a representative from Saillune that destroyed the harbor in the first place, so I'm afraid my colleagues and I cannot afford to be generous to anyone carrying goods to or from the holy city." Several heads on his side of the table nodded in agreement.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" thundered Prince Phil, smacking a hand against the table in front of him. "Let's be reasonable. An independent investigation confirmed that the Kingdom of Saillune had nothing to do with the destruction of the harbor. We have already offered to contact the Golden Dragons to seek repayment for the damage wrought because of one of them. You have refused this offer." Prince Phil, seated at the head of rectangular table, stood up and leaned against it, his height and broad shoulders making him an imposing figure. He looked at the two people to his left, representing Richards Shipping, and at the six-person delegation from Utsumura, his mustached face clearly conveying his frustration. Saillune was a landlocked country, but everyone, including the prince, realized the importance of establishing trade with the world outside the former Mazoku Barrier, especially since the people there had developed such an interest in magic once Lina Inverse and company blazed their way through. Most of the citizens of Saillune who weren't farmers were in the business of researching, producing, or selling magical items for local use or for export. Saillune was renown for its white magic shrines and priests and priestesses, but what kept the city in business were items like holy oils, amulets, and magic instruction books.
"I hear that you've managed to convince the Kingdom of Xoana to lease you a portion of its harbor...although I cannot fathom how, given who runs the place," one of the Utsumura delegates said, adding the last part under his breath with a shudder.
"Well, I hope that they fare better than our city did," commented another one dryly. She pushed back her chair and began to stand while her colleagues started collecting their papers and stuffing them into their briefcases.
"My father just finished telling you that it was not Saillune's fault that your harbor was destroyed. I was there, so unless you want to question my word in the matter, I think you should believe what the investigators found," came a quiet but firm protest from the end of the table opposite Prince Phil.
The people from Utsumura froze in place, exchanging uncertain glances. "Of course, of course, your highness," replied one of the men from Utsumura placatingly, turning to his right. "We mean no offense; it's just that we cannot ignore the fact that our harbor was ruined during an event in which your kingdom was the main sponsor."
There was another pause, broken only by the sound of a chair scraping against the floor. Phil immediately started toward the other end of the table. "Ameria, you shouldnít--"
"I'm fine, Daddy."
Phil faltered in his steps. The delegates from Utsumura quickly reclaimed their seats, wondering if they hadn't pushed things too far. "Your highness, please don't--" one of them started to say, but Ameria ignored them. Everyone watched as the princess of Saillune slowly rose to her feet. Her dark hair hung limply around her face, which was thin and gaunt and tinged with an unhealthy shade of blue-gray that not even artfully applied makeup could hide. Despite the fact that it was the hottest month of the year and the palace was warm enough to be almost stifling, she was dressed in a long-sleeved, woolen, candy pink dress with matching muffler, insulated gloves, and thick stockings. Over her dress she had on a white fur-lined cardigan, and over that was draped shawl after shawl until she looked as if she was almost buried under wool. She shivered visibly as she stood, supporting herself against the table with one gloved hand and hugging the lengths of fabric against her midsection with the other. The only thing about her that looked normal were her eyes, which were smoldering with indignation despite the cold she alone so obviously felt.
"Sir, I cannot ignore the fact that you are willing to gouge my people for a tragedy that was beyond our control. However," she emphasized as people on both sides of the table opened their mouths, "I don't want to walk away from an agreement that may help my country, however expensive it may prove to be. Everyone knows our exports are a major component of our economy, and any opportunity we have to expand our market is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up. Xoana is a good start--we have plans to build our own ships and dock them there, but it will take years to build up a good fleet, since we're not a seafaring country to begin with." She stopped and took a deep breath, taking her hand away from the table to join the other in holding her layers of wool close to herself. Phil reclaimed his seat, nodding at her every word. If Ameria had been feeling herself, it would have taken a great deal of restraint to keep him from leaping up onto the table and cheering her on. As it was, he grinned and flashed her a thumbs up in encouragement.
"Therefore," Ameria said as regally as she could muster, "I propose this solution. The Kingdom of Saillune will subsidize the port fees incurred at Utsumura ports beyond the usual rate--provided that it receives in return a five-year priority shipping contract with Richards Shipping. That means our shipments come first, before anyone else's." She nodded at Mr. Richards, who immediately exchanged a questioning glance with his advisor, seated next to him. "Of course," Ameria continued, "we will make no secret of this arrangement. Utsumura is the closest port to Saillune, with the exception of Xoana. Those who have the luxury of more choices may find they have no need for its new ports." The delegates from Utsumura looked stunned. Clearly, they hadn't expected this. The opinion of the Kingdom of Saillune was highly respected; bad press from such an influential country was usually disastrous to anyone on its receiving end. There was a murmur of surprise in the room as the delegates from Utsumura began to pull their papers out of their briefcases again.
"I trust that your proposal is endorsed by the Crown Prince?" Mr. Richards asked, his gaze traveling from Ameria to her father with raised eyebrows.
Prince Phil folded his arms across his chest and nodded gravely. "Ameria is an official representative of Saillune's interests. I'm proud to endorse what she offered." He winked at her approvingly. She managed a weak smile back.
"I think we're going to have to take some time to consider this," one of the men on the Utsumura side of the table said slowly. "Perhaps we could reconvene in an hour?" he suggested.
Everyone nodded. Prince Phil rose from the table and crossed the room to Ameria as people quickly filed out of the room, heading for the smaller conference rooms next door. He opened his mouth to tell her to sit down again and rest, but thought better of it and instead beamed at her. "That's my daughter," he said warmly. Leaning forward conspiratorially, he whispered, "I'll bet Utsumura reduces their rate by twenty-five percent."
Ameria's eyebrows shot up. "Twenty-five?" She gave him a wan smile. "I think thirty. Of course they'd still end up ahead, but not by so much. We could try to make them lower it more, just on the principle of the matter, but then I think we'd lose the justification for our priority shipping contract."
Prince Phil nodded in agreement. "That's arguably more important," he said furtively. He needn't have worried about the two delegations hearing him, though; both groups had hurried out of the room as quickly as possible to discuss Ameria's sudden proposal.
"Well," Ameria said after a few moments, readjusting one of the shawls on her arm, "I think I'm going to go rest in the lounge down the hall. We have some time before they decide what to do." Turning, she headed toward the door slowly, visibly trembling with cold as she walked.
"Are you sure you--" Phil started to say, rushing after her with concern.
Ameria stopped and shook her head. "Daddy, how many times do I have to tell you I can do things myself?" she said wearily. Reaching out and patting his arm with one hand, she said as reassuringly as she could, "Really, Daddy, I'm fine." With that, she left the room, sparing a glance over her shoulder as she crossed the threshold to make sure Phil wasn't following her.
As she disappeared through the doorway, Phil brought his hand up to the place on his arm where she had touched him. His skin was cold where her hand had been, despite her gloves, as if she had instead touched him with an ice cube. "No, Ameria...you're not," he said softly, his face full of worry.
* * *
Zelgadiss turned down a crooked, narrow side street and ducked into an alley, using it as a shortcut to the next street over. Because of its distinction as the white magic capital of the world, the center of Saillune was laid out in a six-pointed star with a high, fortified wall around it. The wall was actually two overlapping triangles, so that walls sliced through the city and outer limits geometrically. The walls had a double function--not only did they provide a physical barrier against all attacks, but they formed the matrix of a massive white magic barrier capable of protecting everything within it from magical attack. The palace lay in the direct center of this star, surrounded by a wall of its own; some of the main roads ran from it to the outermost points of the star like spokes on a wheel. But as the city had been built up over the years, buildings were placed and roads planned as was deemed practical at the time. As a result, there were a lot of nooks and crannies and side streets that someone could use to facilitate sneaking into the castle grounds, if that someone knew what he was doing. Fortunately, Zel knew precisely what he was doing.
Grateful that this part of town was much less crowded than the areas near the marketplace, Zel wove his way through the city until he found the place he was looking for. He took off his backpack and slipped sideways down a gap between two buildings across the street from the wall surrounding the palace, holding the bag at his side. If he were any bigger than he was, he wouldn't have fit; as it was, he grazed his back against the walls. He gritted his teeth at the scraping sound of stone on brick and hoped he hadn't torn his cloak. It was already ragged enough as it was due to the rigors of months of travel.
When he reached the end of the gap, he paused and stuck his head out a little. No one was around--good. Across the street was a little-known side gate leading to the palace grounds typically used by merchants and farmers who sold consumables for use in the castle. Now, all he had to do was wait. He glanced at the wall in front of him and grimaced--it wouldn't be a very comfortable wait, sandwiched between two sturdy brick buildings. Trying to keep his mind off of the claustrophobic feelings his position, he listened for traffic approaching the gate.
He was in luck. Not more than ten minutes later, Zelgadiss could hear the rattling of cartwheels along the unevenly paved road. He peeked out of his hiding place as the cart passed him and the driver steered it toward the gate. The cart was laden down with what looked like crates of produce covered by a thick sheet of tarpaulin. Glancing around again to make sure no one was watching, Zel slipped out of the gap and dashed toward the cart. The driver of the cart dismounted from his horse and knocked on the heavy wooden doors in front of him. A small section of the door slid away to reveal the face of a Saillunian guard. The driver spoke to the man for a minute, holding up the contract that allowed him inside the palace gates, but Zel didn't see any of this; in a matter of seconds, he lifted the tarpaulin covering the cart and slid underneath it, pulling it down so it looked as if it hadn't been disturbed.
As long as the guards stayed true to form, he reasoned, no one would come around to actually inspect what the driver was bringing inside. He knew Saillune well enough from his last visit, when Kanzel and Mazenda almost succeeded in overthrowing the holy city, to know what passed for security around the castle. The palace guardsmen put up a good front and the military itself was formidable, but everyone knew that Saillune itself hadn't seen a real attack in well over three hundred years. Guard duty was one of the most boring tasks for the soldiers who lived and trained at court and, as a result, security was more than a little lax.
Zel heard the creaking of tall, heavy wooden doors and felt a jolt as the cart began to move beyond them. Sure enough, the driver was allowed inside without any inspection. The cart turned to the left; judging by its contents, which Zel ascertained to be apples as soon as he dove inside it, its destination would be the palace kitchens. Perfect. He had gotten to know the Saillunian royal kitchens well the last time he was in town; when they weren't busy trying to find out who had murdered Prince Phil or battling renegade Mazoku, Lina and Gourry had spent all their time there, often dragging him along in a mostly vain attempt to force something other than coffee down his throat. No one would be anywhere near that entrance at this time of day, he knew, except for the person receiving the delivery. He should be able to slip past the kitchen staff with no trouble.
Twenty minutes later, Zel felt the cart began to slow down. This was the most dangerous part--he had no idea if anyone was out there to notice the stowaway in this afternoon's apple delivery, nor did he have much time before the driver came around to pull the tarp off the crates. The cart came to a full stop and Zel felt it wobble slightly as the driver dismounted. He held his breath but exhaled in relief a few seconds later when the door to the kitchen opened and the driver asked for a drink before the cart was unloaded. As soon as the man was admitted inside, Zel lifted the edge of the thick, beige canvas and peeked out.
No one seemed to be there, so he lifted it a little more, poked his head out, and glanced around. The kitchens faced the orchards and gardens, so to his left there was a small orchard partially enclosed by a high wall; to his right was another high wall and a path that led off to a garden. A dirt path that led to the exterior of the palace wall stretched out in front of him, but it was as deserted as the rest of the area seemed to be. Feeling confident that his plan had worked, Zel slid out from under the tarpaulin and jumped off the cart, replacing the canvas sheet on top of the apple crates exactly as it was before. Slinging his backpack onto his shoulders, he began to walk around the cart toward the palace when something heavy fell onto his shoulder.
Caught off guard, Zel was whipped around to face a tall, burly Saillunian guard who looked quite displeased to catch a trespasser on the palace grounds. "What do you think you're doing?!" the man demanded, his hand on his sword hilt, ready to draw it. Just then, a few more guards rushed up from the direction of the orchards, none of them as big as this man, but each of them powerful enough to cause trouble.
With a grimace, Zel held his hands up in a gesture of innocence and said, "I don't suppose you'd believe I'm with the owner of this cart..."
The leader shook his head, his hand still resting on Zel's shoulder. "Not with the way I saw you hiding under that canvas," he replied, nodding toward the cart.
Zel's grimace turned into a smirk and he slapped his right hand on top of the guard's. "Then don't take this personally, but Mono Volt!" With that, a powerful shock of electricity shot into the other man's body, sending him crumpling to the ground.
Zel didn't wait around for the other guards' reactions. He was off in a flash in the opposite direction from them, hissing a string of curses under his breath in several arcane languages. He heard shouting behind him and ran even faster. With his chimeric speed, there was no way they'd be able to keep up with him, but it only took one to sound the alarm throughout the entire palace. He had to get inside and find Ameria before half the Saillunian military cornered him somewhere on the palace grounds. Thinking quickly, he ran through a mental list of all the entrances he knew of from his previous visit to Saillune. There was one that faced the rose gardens not too far away. It was more heavily trafficked, but somehow he'd find a way in. He sped past a group of guards to his left; immediately they began to give chase as well. He put out another burst of speed and kept going, cursing his luck once again. This was not going as well as he had hoped it would.
* * *
Ameria made her way slowly down a carpeted hallway, holding her shawls closed in front of her and shivering the whole time, until she stopped in front of a tall, wooden door. She reached out, turned the brass handle, and stepped inside a high-ceilinged drawing room that faced the rose gardens just outside the palace. One wall was almost entirely taken up by windows; afternoon sunlight streamed in and she was grateful for the extra warmth, if not so much the light. Squinting a little against the brightness, she crossed the room toward a large armchair facing the windows. She noticed her feet were dragging and she seemed to have even less energy than she usually did, and grimaced. "I wonder if I shouldn't call for Francis," she said under her breath, but shook her head. "No, I wouldn't want to disturb him. He has enough work to do at the shrine." The head priest of Cephied and top-ranked holy man of the holy city of Saillune was an expert in healing magic and herbal remedies and was doubling as her doctor since she first began to experience this bizarre set of symptoms. He often took time out of his work training the novitiates to the priesthood to come visit her and attempt to relieve her symptoms as much as he could, and she didn't want to interrupt him more than she had to.
Abruptly, her body convulsed into shivers as powerful as a seizure, and she stumbled into a small table near the armchair. Her eyes widened as she fought to gain control of herself--unbelievably, the cold was getting even worse than it ever had before. She struggled to swallow and put a trembling hand to her throat, finding it difficult even to breathe as every muscle in her body succumbed to the shivering. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably, so she clenched her jaw and half collapsed against the table, willing her body to calm down and stop shaking. She was too busy doing this to notice the guardsmen chasing the blue streak that flashed past her window.
A minute or so later, Ameria pushed herself away from the table and attempted to stand unaided, but collapsed against it once again as her body gave way to another round of convulsive shivers. She tried not to panic as she again attempted to regain control of herself, frantically wondering why her symptoms seemed to have worsened so suddenly. She glanced to her left--a cord was protruding from the wall about five feet up from the floor so that the end of it dangled around arm level. If she could get to it, she could ring for someone to help her. Lifting herself up as best as she could, she pushed against the table once again.
The princess halted in place, though, when she heard shouting coming from somewhere down the hallway outside the drawing room. "What's going on?" she murmured, although, with her teeth chattering as much as they were, no one but she would have been able to understand the question. Suddenly, the door to the room flew open and someone burst inside, then closed the door quickly but silently.
Zelgadiss heard the click of the latch against the doorframe and exhaled heavily. He wouldn't be able to stay here long, but at least he could catch his breath and figure out where to go next. He listened at the door for a second, convinced he had given the guards the slip as he heard their voices fade in the opposite direction from which he had come. So, it came as quite a surprise when he heard someone behind him gasp sharply.
For the first time in months, Ameria almost forgot about the cold that had overtaken her body when she saw who had entered the room. Her jaw dropped and she pinched her left hand through her glove to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. "Ze-Zel...gadiss...san," she whispered shakily, her voice full of disbelief and astonishment.
At the sound of his name, the chimera whirled around, immediately on guard. It took him a split second to realize that the person standing--no, half leaning against a table--partway across the room from him, dressed in a pink winter dress and layers of wool shawls was the princess of Saillune. "A-Ameria?" he said dumbly. Immediately, his brow creased in concern and he started across the room to her, the palace guards forgotten. "What's going on? Why are you dressed like that? Are you sick?" The second he took a step toward her, she staggered back against the table, barely strong enough to keep herself from falling down completely.
"I'm--I--" Ameria started to say, but just then, the door to the drawing room flew back on its hinges and banged against the wall. Instantly, twenty-five Saillunian guardsmen poured inside, shouting and grabbing for Zelgadiss. Cries of "Stop him!" and "He's after the princess!" filled the room as the men threw all their strength into subduing the chimera, who automatically began to fight, throwing them off of him as quickly as they came. After a few seconds, the guards wised up to Zel's strength and attacked him at once, piling themselves against him until they got a sufficiently strong collective grip on him to slam him into a wall face first. They tried to secure his wrists behind his backpack with handcuffs, but each time, he broke free of them before they could close the metal bands.
"No, stop, stop!" Ameria cried, her voice completely inaudible over the commotion. Wrenching herself away from the table that was her only support with strength provided solely by adrenaline, she grabbed hold of one of the guardsmen and yanked on his arm, forcing his attention. "Stop it, please! Let him go!" she yelled so he could hear her.
Apparently, some of the other men heard her, and the room began to quiet down. Ameria, still gripping the guard's forearm for support, tried to look stern. "I order you to stop!" she said firmly and loudly enough that this time, they could all hear.
Everyone fell silent. "But--your highness--" one of the guards started to say, but was interrupted by the little princess.
"But nothing," Ameria snapped, using her free hand to point in Zel's direction. "This is--" Her throat suddenly caught as Zelgadiss wrenched his arms away from the guards and turned around slowly to look at her, a sudden expression of--fear?--when he saw the look on her face. Why is he afraid? she wondered, but had no time to think about it. "This is Zelgadiss Greywords, a personal friend of mine."
Perplexed, the same man who had spoken before, who was apparently the highest-ranking guard among them by the insignias on the left side of his chest, spoke again. "Your highness, we caught this man trying breaking into the palace. He snuck in through a side gate with a shipment of apples from outside of town. We have no idea if he really is who you say he is and what he is doing here."
Ameria shook her head, her dark hair swinging limply around her face as she did so. "I don't care what he did, he's still a friend of mine and he has permission to come and go from this castle as he pleases, by my father's orders," she replied, trying desperately to keep herself from shaking with cold as she spoke. Her voice was wavering enough as it was.
"Then why did he try to sneak in?" asked another guard pointedly, glaring in Zel's direction. Ameria looked at him expectantly, wondering the answer to that question herself.
Zel glanced around uncomfortably as all eyes fell on him. "I wanted to speak to her privately, that's all. I don't like having to be formally announced," he said simply, unwilling to divulge anything more. He watched Ameria's reaction to this carefully--she seemed neither displeased nor pleased by it. Her face was tired and worn and had a blue-gray tinge that he didn't like; clearly, something was gravely wrong with her. Impatient for the guards to leave so he could ask her exactly what was going on, he waved a hand and said, "Look, I didn't do anything wrong--Ameria already said I can come here any time."
"You injured one of my men," pointed out the guard who seemed to be the leader of the group. "At least you should--"
But Zelgadiss wasn't listening. "Ameria?" he interrupted, taking a step forward as the dark-haired girl suddenly shook her head as if to clear it, wavering in her stance unsteadily. "Are you all right?"
"I'm...fine," Ameria murmured. In truth, she knew she wasn't--the burst of adrenaline that had allowed her to stand on her own had faded already, leaving her even shakier than she was before. Her shawls had slipped down in all the confusion, and she felt her shoulders practically convulsing with cold. She put out a hand to grab the table behind her for support, missed, and tried again. This time, she found it, and just in time--the world before her eyes was beginning to waver, confusing her balance. Voices began to blur together as everyone started toward her in concern, but only one stood out: Zelgadiss's frantic tone. She closed her eyes against the increasingly confusing picture in front of her as the sound of blurred voices was drowned out by a rushing, roaring sound in her ears. Powerless to do anything about it, she felt her legs give way and her back smack against something solid and hard that felt like an arm. She opened her eyes a little; the last thing she saw before she blacked out was Zelgadiss's panicked face as he frantically shouted her name.
And you thought poor Zel had it bad in the last story. I derive perverse enjoyment out of making life difficult for my favorite characters, and I guess it shows. ^^;;; I hadn't originally intended to do anything dastardly to Ameria, but I got the idea while in the shower (for some reason, I come up with my best ideas while I'm washing my hair. Go figure...) and ran with it. Truthfully, it saved the story--it was just so, I dunno, dead until I came up with this plot twist, and I was about to give up on it for a while. I didn't want to, after the feedback I got for "Full of Grace", which was overwhelmingly positive, but I just didn't have the desire to write more. Now I do--I've put a lot more thought and planning into the storyline, which is what I sorely needed to do, and I'm looking forward to writing the rest. Thanks to Xanthix and Akane for their help on this one.
By the way, this is not the way I recommend writing a story--starting in the middle ("Dante's Prayer"), going back and writing the beginning ("I Love You"), and coming up with the rest of the plot as you write and the ideas strike you. ^^;;; I'm fortunate that all my ideas have been pretty consistent with each other and have formed a coherent story line, but most of the time authors absolutely must plan out their stories for them to turn out well at all. My Mom always said "write your first and last chapter first, and then fill in the rest". Always listen to your Mom.
One thing I'd like to make clear is that I made up a lot of what I'd call "filler" in the Slayers universe. We really don't hear too much about Saillune in the anime, and since I haven't read the novels, I don't have much else to go on besides imagination and what I know of political science to describe Saillune and its business and politics. I think I let some of my business school and contract law background slip in the section about Ameria's proposed deal. ^^;;; I made up a lot of details about the city and the palace, as well as things like trade relationships. I think it adds depth to the story, just like such details add depth to the Star Wars books and the Lord of the Rings epic. It all makes sense to me--a land that has seen nothing of magic would probably be curious about it once they got over the shock, and a place like Saillune wouldn't survive without a bustling economy that capitalizes on its holy and magical reputation. Just don't go spreading around these details as canon, okay? I donít want to be accused of rewriting Slayers, is all. ^_^
I don't want to spoil what comes next, but I will say this: Zel talks to a couple people in the next chapter who explain a lot of what's going on with Ameria. Unfortunately, one of those people doesn't really include Ameria, herself. It should be interesting, but if you're looking for more action, you'll have to wait a couple chapters, sorry. The next chapter will have to be put on hold until I finish another chapter of Slayers Balance, but hopefully that won't be too long. Until then, thanks for reading!
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