The waves rumbled as they churned forward, rhythmically crashing against the stone and dirt before receding quietly to the embrace of the depths – only to emerge once more and repeat their mesmerizing onslaught. The watery assault was not particularly fierce, but its abiding patience and deceptive gentleness would eventually wear down the stones, leaving no evidence that a lighthouse had once stood here proudly to guide ships into the dark harbor.
“Such is why I sought you,” Aerana had explained, her voice hardly carrying above the constant turmoil of the ocean. “For it is a problem and such is your specialty.”
“One could claim that his actions have enflamed the dispute,” the man before her said with a nod that mimicked Aerana’s. “Or invited challenge from the outside.”
“The Empire would not look kindly upon him taking out a contract on one of our own, such is quite true," she agreed. "However, I have little knowledge and fewer resources to devote to this matter, for any of the Empire would be immediately suspect.”
“I see. You have some talent at this; you might have done very well in times when it was a true art.”
Aerana had allowed the ghost of a smile to come to her lips. Tinox Smartgear had often been the point of contact for such clandestine matters of the Empire when his actions were cleared by the Senate as a whole. Much of her knowledge was gleaned from his methods and reports, combined with lessons learned from past mistakes. “I thank you for what I hope is a compliment. However, such has been gained at a price, as much knowledge is,” she replied simply.
He nodded at her. “Knowledge and pain are close friends.”
Her smile dimmed slightly. “Indeed. And yet we shall be thankful for that which we have been able to learn, despite what may have transpired to engender such knowledge.”
“I would, of course, be more than happy to divert resources to discover the source and specifics of this matter.” The man’s businessman-like tone returned as he directed their conversation to the subject at hand.
Aerana remained motionless, a pale statue affixed to the stone platform and wreathed in darkness so that no passing ship or errant flyer would observe that which was not meant to be seen. The breeze, salt-scented and strong, swirled around her, whipping the cloth of her robe to and fro. Myaka stood beside nearby, solemn and silent, with a gauntleted hand resting on the hilt of her sword.
“Knowledge and pain are close friends,” Aerana whispered, her gaze transfixed on the darkness of the sea that surrounded them long after their visitor had departed.
“That brazen little son of a whore,” Katelle swore, breaking the oppressive silence of the room after she had told the Soldiers that she had been unable to call for aid because her guild stone was across the room. As ordered by Zakarnas, the soldiers had filed out of the home and were still searching the nearby area for Tinox Smartgear.
The General’s curse broke whatever momentary paralysis that had gripped Aerana’s limbs and mind in the enveloping silence after the last soldier left. Aerana’s gaze sharpened and she spoke in a deceptively soft tone. “Where was your Guardian stone, Katelle?”
Katelle looked to Aerana, again meeting her gaze squarely. “In my pocket. But don’t you think he’d recognize someone trying to communicate mentally over such an item? I sure as Fel can tell with some people, and Fel knows I’ve been out of practice long enough that I knew it’d show,” Katelle continued. “I wanted to keep him talking so I could maybe maneuver to my guild stone. I wasn’t about to become a blaring signal of the existence of another method of communication.”
“I see,” Aerana replied, her voice sounding distant to her own ears.
Zakarnas looked up at Aerana. “Are you quite alright, Empress?”
Katelle, however, understood the tone and the distance. “You think I’ve betrayed you, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
A faint, sick recognition seemed to slide over Zakarnas’ features. He glanced slowly from Aerana to Katelle.
Aerana closed her eyes. Her pale cheeks colored slightly as she tilted her head back and inhaled deeply, swallowing whatever reply had come immediately to mind. The color faded quickly as she reasserted her gaze on Katelle, once more neutral and impassive.
Katelle straightened slightly, meeting Aerana’s gaze dead on.
“I think that you are no fool, General, for a fool would not have lead the Military for as long as you have. I will not ascribe to you lesser intelligence than you possess.” She paused momentarily before continuing, her voice firm. “Had you wished to contact the Military or myself – Or Zakarnas or Myaka – you would have.”
Still seated next to Katelle, Zakarnas began to look physically ill.
Katelle opened her mouth to speak but Aerana raised a hand, forestalling the blond-haired woman. Katelle’s mouth closed and the General continued to watch Aerana silently. “Before you seek to defend yourself, know this: I possess the ability to open up the Guardian stone that you carry so that all might hear what the stone hears.” Aerana emphasized the word, giving Katelle a blank look. “I would not have you seek to make a fool of yourself by weaving more words.” The Empress lowered her hand to her side, falling silent once more.
Katelle showed no signs of backing down. “I never harbored the idea that you couldn’t,” she shot back. “You’re right, I am not fool. But am I supposed to truly bank on Tinox Smartgear’s pity for a pregnant woman to ensure my safety, or that of my child, should I get caught trying to reach out to someone before I was certain I could do so safely? You know me better than that, Aerana. Do you think – do ANY of you think – I would truly try to subvert you?” Katelle looked at each occupant in the room.
No one answered Katelle’s question.
Aerana broke the silence by speaking up sadly. “Yet I was the one that opened up the stone. To do such would not have distracted you such that Tinox would have noticed. We would have noted matters earlier, had you done so, rather than waiting on my concern to prompt me to do such.” A distant, but firm, tone laced the words.
“You put too much faith in my ability to utilize the mental functions of either stone in such a way after being so long out of practice.”
“Mmm.” Was all Aerana murmured in reply.
“I did not say anything to Tinox Smartgear that I would not have said straight to your face, Aerana,” Katelle tried again.
Aerana took a slow breath, inhaling and exhaling in the heavy silence of the room while Katelle raised her chin slightly, eyes locked on the mage. “Yet does the fact that you would say such to my face authorize you to speak to one who seeks out my weaknesses? Who said only a few nights ago that he would seek those who know me?” Aerana’s voice softened. “Betrayal requires not only the betrayal of an Empress by a General, Katelle,” she concluded, using Katelle’s name as a reminder of the friendship they had once shared.
Katelle twitched, as if struck.
“Empress?” Myaka inquired softly, gently interrupting Aerana’s torturous journey down the labyrinth of memories. Aerana turned her head slowly, blinking away the remnants of last night’s conversation. She centered her attention on the Guardian’s earnest features, still seeing traces of the sharp pain of Katelle’s betrayal in Myaka’s weary brown eyes.
“It is alright, I…” Myaka had paused a moment as Aerana leaned heavily against the wall. The darkness of the corridor surrounded them, veiling the less obvious signs of their sorrow at that night’s events. “Cracks show, and some need time to repair.” It was rare to hear emotion color the warrior’s normally composed words.
“And shall they repair, Myaka? Shall time soothe that which burns so deeply now, quelling the embers and reviving a trust that lies shattered?” Aerana asked softly, her voice wavering as her composure slipped again.
“I…I don’t know,” Myaka admitted. “I…she was my friend, my sister.”
Aerana nodded slowly at the words, her gaze drifting aimlessly around the shadows that clung to the walls of her residence. “Though I claim no such familial title with Katelle, there were few who held my regard as she doe—once did.” Aerana pressed her lips together after correcting herself. She looked away from the shadows and towards Myaka for a long moment before repeating the question spoken earlier that evening in the General’s home. “…Did I err in my assessment, Myaka?”
“I can’t reconcile it,” the Guardian stated slowly. “She knows how to open the stones herself. She should have done so. But,” Myaka shook her head, her voice trailing off. “I trusted her. Maybe this is akin to playing a part, as she spoke of before?”
“What part is it that she plays in engaging in such actions, Myaka?” Aerana asked.
“A part to keep her and the Captain above suspicion,” Myaka replied weakly. “But, the Captain did not side with her?” The Guardian’s question was almost a plea for Aerana to come up with a plausible explanation for the discrepancy.
Aerana drew in a slow breath, shaking her head softly as she remembered the dead, almost mechanical cadence to Zakarnas’ actions that night. Pain flared anew in her heart at the recollection of his frozen gaze and rigid movements. “No, the Captain did not side with her,” Aerana agreed quietly. “And I do not believe she would have put him through such pain. For I know that my order this night caused him such…” She fell silent, unable to continue.
Myaka nodded. “I am not as close to her as the Captain is, but I would have thought she would have warned me too.”
Aerana’s look was tinged with sympathy. “Had such been naught but a play of the General’s, I would have assumed so as well. And because such a warning was not forthcoming, the conclusion is that her conversation with Tinox was in earnest and that she knew not that the Guardian stone had been remotely activated,” Aerana concluded sadly. “Am I remiss in thinking such? For did she not speak with him? And did she not tell him to leave when the Military was enroute?”
“I don’t want it to be true,” Myaka said, settling a resigned look on Aerana. “But I fear it is.”
“And so your own words confirm the fear within my own heart, though in many ways I wish that we were mistaken in such, Guardian. For not only does that threaten the uneasy semblance of peace we have achieved within the Empire, it also heralds the…” Aerana’s voice broke as she looked past Myaka, pain writhing in the depth of her blue eyes. She swallowed. “The end of a friendship once cherished.”
Shared pain stirred in Myaka’s brown eyes. “She told me I would not lose my family. I never thought she would break a promise to me.”
“Are you well, Empress?” Myaka asked again, moving closer to Aerana’s side. The Guardian peered into the darkness warily, ever mindful of her duties, before she glanced back to Aerana.
“I am well, Guardian,” Aerana replied, giving her head a little shake. She tilted her head to the side as she regarded her protector. Despite her alertness and ready stance, Aerana could see hints of weariness undergirded by sorrow in Myaka’s demeanor. Yet such was well hidden.
Despite the futility of the action, Aerana had returned the Guardian’s gentle squeeze, tightening her thin fingers around the cool metal gauntlets. “You are my anchor,” she murmured quietly, her voice still broken by her earlier sorrow. “And I shall be yours. For so long as I am never alone, neither shall you be, Myaka.”
Myaka had nodded. “When all else swirls around us, we have that to ground us.”
“Come, let us return to the residence, Guardian. The hours of night move ever towards morning and there is always much to be done,” Aerana said, gesturing towards the nearby gryphons hidden in the shadows near the wall. Myaka nodded once and moved over to gather the reins, drawing the creatures out. Tomorrow, she would seek out another whose pain resonated sharply with that carried by herself and Myaka.
Aerana’s head had lowered toward Zakarnas, her hand closed tightly around the white and green stones in her palm. “I…” She trailed off before shaking her head. Zakarnas watched her, though his eyes would not meet her gaze as she lifted her head. “No words can be spoken, Captain, for there are none that give voice to the weight of this duty. My pain compares not to your own, I am sure. And such shall never be forgotten.” She sighed, resigned sorrow clear in her features. “I apologize for this path we now walk,” she added quietly.
Zakarnas finally raised his gaze to meet Aerana’s blue eyes. Silently, he straightened and offered a salute before speaking. “I took my vows. And I knew this day could come. I have no regrets.”
Aerana did not look away from Zakarnas, though she did hear Katelle’s indrawn breath. “You oath is one I shall ever treasure.” She raised her hand in a slow salute. “Captain.”
Aerana’s jaw tightened and she swallowed. Mindful of the burdens that bowed his shoulders and the loyalties that undoubtedly tore at him, Aerana had not sought out Captain Ronae’Serrar this day. Yet weighty matters required discussion and, as acting leader of the Military, his attendance was required. Sighing softly, Aerana nodded at Myaka and the two women took flight, leaving behind the alluring call of the sea’s summon.