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An Invitation to Ashtan

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 44 Never
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  1. It was pouring.
  2.  
  3. Rain pattered down onto the rooftops of Ashtan, trickling into the gutters and drains along the cobblestone roads, soaking everything in sight. Most people were clustered near storefronts and under awnings, waiting out the downpour, while those fortunate enough to own umbrellas - a luxury - remained relatively dry but still hurried along towards their destination, eager to get out of the wet weather.
  4.  
  5. There was no shelter atop the battlements of the city, but the white Rajamala standing there didn't mind. He was used to the rain, and needed only a hooded cloak to keep himself warm and dry. The giant roc next to him looked less pleased as water ran off his wings in a continuous stream, but nevertheless remained faithfully by his side, occasionally ruffling his feathers in a pointed gesture that the feline blithely ignored.
  6.  
  7. He gazed out over his city, barely able to see in the rain but knowing the blurred shadows of the structures by heart anyway. Fire and Spice. The Ugly Humgii. The Parade of Zarathustra. Over a hundred years now he had lived here, and for three decades of that, as its Overseer.
  8.  
  9. It was chaotic, sprawling, impoverished, decadent, confusing, intriguing.
  10.  
  11. It was home.
  12.  
  13. Recent developments in the world had seen more come to join him in the Bastion from the West. Dissatisfied with their leader and the direction that their city was heading in, some of his former allies had broken away from the purported city of Strength and come north to join Ashtan. To join him.
  14.  
  15. He had a sizable army of some of the best fighters in the realm, now, and he could not help savouring the thought. It was good to be reunited with his team, momentarily torn asunder after the return of Keresis, Goddess of Vengeance. She had not taken kindly to the attempts of the Occultists to drain Her essence while Her attentions were elsewhere, and had banned all forms of Chaos from Mhaldor when She returned to full strength.
  16.  
  17. This had not sat well with many inhabitants of the city, who had long been practitioners of Chaos. A few had trickled away, but such was commonplace with any large change in policy. Most of his allies then had been Mhaldorian, and he'd missed their presences in the subsequent years as they were barred from joining him in battle; but the proclamation seemed to be merely the beginning of a wave of disastrous change, and he'd watched the western city's slow decline with carefully restrained delight.
  18.  
  19. The last straw had apparently come when, for some inexplicable reason, the Lady had been formally recognised as the third Master of Evil. He couldn't quite make sense of it himself - the official story was that it was the will of the long-absent Twin Lords, but Syuven, whom he'd kept in secret contact with, had told him even the Mhaldorians themselves were questioning the credibility of such an order, delivered only by the Tyrannus and without confirmation by the Lords Themselves.
  20.  
  21. It was a mark of how bad the decline was that the fanatically devoted Mhaldorians would even think about doubting the orders of their Masters, purported or not. Whatever the intentions behind the change, however, it had practically gift-wrapped Mhaldor's best and left them on his doorstep for him like Logosmas come early. Following the announcement, the ranks of his army had swelled exponentially as disillusioned Mhaldorians streamed out of the Baelgrim and turned northwards.
  22.  
  23. Darr. Merran. Jerole. Tyreale. Etorak. Jarn. Resha. Durav.
  24.  
  25. One by one, they'd all trickled in. To crown it all, just a year ago, the two mortal leaders of the Twin Lords' orders had turned up at the gates of the Bastion, too. It was almost too good to be true.
  26.  
  27. He, of course, welcomed the return of his former comrades with open arms. For a city that strove so hard to boost flagging numbers, he thought, they didn't seem very good at retaining the citizenry they already had.
  28.  
  29. Tonight, if he played his cards right, he might add yet another to his already significant collection of ex-Mhaldorians.
  30.  
  31. This one would have to be handled carefully, though. It wasn't going to be quite as easy as the others, for whom the potential for efficient bloodshed held enough allure to break their bonds of faith to the Twin Lords.
  32.  
  33. This one was different.
  34.  
  35. Lost in his musings, he was startled when the subject of his thoughts spoke abruptly, low and silken. "Hail, Overseer."
  36.  
  37. He turned slowly, inclining his head politely to the cloaked figure that seemed to have materialised from thin air.
  38.  
  39. "Ah, Naga Jariel. Welcome."
  40.  
  41. She, in turn, bowed her head low to him, as she had used to when he had walked the streets of Mhaldor freely.
  42.  
  43. The rain was lessening slightly now, and so she drew her hood off her face, revealing a Mhun with pale, angular features, long dark hair somewhat damp from the rain, and - most arrestingly - large, silver-grey eyes.
  44.  
  45. Water trickled down her cheeks and off her chin, but she didn't seem to notice, her face set in its usual expressionless cast even as she gazed at him. "Why have you summoned me here, Overseer?"
  46.  
  47. "Not a summons, Naga Jariel, an invitation - which you accepted, happily enough. However it was merely a precursor to yet another invitation, and your main reason for being here today."
  48.  
  49. She tilted her head, just a fraction. "And that would be?"
  50.  
  51. "I'm sure you already have an idea, but if you wish for me to formally invite you, I'm quite happy to do so." He paused. He had to go carefully now, for if he started off too strong he would lose her interest immediately. "Your talents are not unknown to us, Jariel Xa'fene. While they served Mhaldor well in the past, I am confident that they would flourish even more so in Ashtan. You would make an excellent addition to our citizenry."
  52.  
  53. Her expression remained carefully blank, but something flashed in her eyes. Anger? Sadness? Surprise? He wasn't quite sure.
  54.  
  55. "I thank you for the compliment, Overseer, and am flattered that you think so highly of me. But my path lies with the Masters of Evil. I can swear fealty to no other, for it would be a false oath," she replied.
  56.  
  57. "But what is it you are aiming for, Jariel?" he asked. "Strength? Power? Dominance?"
  58.  
  59. "Yes," she replied simply.
  60.  
  61. He gestured out towards his city, tiny drops of rain spattering on his fur as the drizzle continued. "All that you seek is already here. As devoted as you are to your city - an admirable trait, do not misunderstand me - even you cannot deny that Ashtan is closer to the Twin Lords' version of Strength than Mhaldor is right now."
  62.  
  63. She shook her head a little, but he caught the brief flicker in her grey eyes. "I do not deny that Ashtan is presently the dominant military force in Sapience. But there is more to strength than mere brawn."
  64.  
  65. He recognised the jab artfully hidden in the deceptive silk of her voice, but he chose to ignore it. "Oh, of course," he agreed placidly, wiping a stray trickle of rainwater from his brow. "Military strength? We have that. We are hardly short on scholars as well, having the great Nicatorian Archives and being in such close proximity to the Lucretian Athenaeum. Debaters? Fierane te'Caro is one of the most prominent speakers in the realms, he and his - my - Housemates."
  66.  
  67. He was trying to win her over, but even he couldn't resist a little retaliation. "Even strength in numbers alone, Jariel, we have - being the largest city in Sapience has its perks. I'd be willing to bet that we have more people at any time of the day than Mhaldor has at its peak. You are usually the only person present now, correct?"
  68.  
  69. Her gaze narrowed, and he worried for a moment he'd taken it too far. "Tis not quantity that matters, Overseer, as I think you well know. You can do little with a hundred baby rats, but wreak much destruction with one cat."
  70.  
  71. His fangs gleamed as he smiled, just slightly. "Yes, but even the fiercest cat cannot fend off one, two hundred baby rats. And you know well that I have quite a few cats of my own, now."
  72.  
  73. Right on cue, the squelch of wet leather announced both their presences, one on either side of him. The young Mhun's expression didn't change, but her eyes widened just a little as she gazed at the two new arrivals.
  74.  
  75. On Taranes's left was a hooded figure, his dark cloak concealing his face from view and hiding all except two clawed hands that protruded from his robes. Despite the lack of identifying features, Taranes knew that the Mhun recognised him - not least because of his very distinctive daemonic stallion next to him, its mane of emerald fire flickering and sputtering in the drizzle as it snorted and pawed the ground.
  76.  
  77. A towering, muscular Tsol'aa stood on his other side, soft rain falling upon his bald head and running down along the path of the crimson tattoos that streaked his scalp. His expression was stern and uncompromising as his icy blue eyes regarded Jariel, and the Mhun met his stare with her own cool gaze for a commendable while. Eventually, though, ice won out over steel and her eyes flicked away.
  78.  
  79. "You recognise them, don't you, Jariel?" Taranes asked, though the question was mostly rhetorical. Of course she did. "Your former Tyrannus, Prophet of Pestilence, Augur of Abbadon, and, I believe, he who bestowed upon you the title you now wear" - she blinked just once at the last words, nearly a flinch, he thought - " - Syuven Jinx, long-time general of Mhaldor."
  80.  
  81. He tilted his head towards the Tsol'aa. "I am sure my other companion needs even less introduction, for I believe you two were closely acquainted." She glanced away, but not before he'd seen the barest hint of colour on her pale cheeks. "Nonetheless, you remember the former Dread Hand, Viceroy, Daemonic Hand, I believe - Tane de Salvor."
  82.  
  83. It was a moment before she responded. "Yes, Overseer, I do recall them. I recall seeing their names scrawled upon the bounty list as permanent traitors to the state, to be slain on sight." He had to give her credit - he wouldn't have heard the slight tremor in her studiously flat voice if he hadn't been listening for it.
  84.  
  85. This time, Tane's deep voice rumbled an answer. "Claim it, then."
  86.  
  87. Her eyes flicked up to Tane. "What?"
  88.  
  89. The Tsol'aa jerked his head at her in a direct invitation. "Claim the bounty. Kill me and Syuven. Do it, right now."
  90.  
  91. For the first time, she looked visibly flustered, one small hand clenching and unclenching upon the hilt of her dirk. "I- I know both you and Gen-" She stumbled over the words, stopping abruptly and taking a deep breath to calm herself. A year now and she was still having trouble not addressing them by title? It seemed old habits did die hard.
  92.  
  93. When next she spoke, her voice had regained its previous steady, emotionless quality.
  94.  
  95. "If this is an attempt to goad me into making an attempt on your life so you have an excuse to kill me, you need not bother. I know both you and-" - the hesitation was shorter this time - "-Syuven could slay me in under a minute. I am a Naga. I am not going to fight you one-on-one - tis not my strength. Tis yours, and twould hardly be advantageous for me to accept."
  96.  
  97. Tane frowned at her, icy eyes narrowing. "Disappointing, Naga."
  98.  
  99. She almost flushed, Taranes could sense it, but she held her chin high - a somewhat futile gesture, as the Tsol'aa towered an entire head taller than her, but proud nonetheless. "You were the one who taught me to use my strengths. In either case, that is a matter of opinion, and once upon a time yours would have carried great weight." Her eyelids lowered just a fraction, mirroring his disdainful stare. "No longer."      
  100.  
  101. Tane growled slightly under his breath, but before he could reply, a smooth voice joined the conversation. "Whose opinions do matter, then?"
  102.  
  103. Jariel turned instinctively to the hooded figure on Taranes's left, her defiance subsiding slightly, though her gaze didn't drop. "Those who stay loyal to what they believe in." Her voice rose a little, just a fraction. "Those whose oaths, once sworn, remain unbroken."
  104.  
  105. "I hereby pledge myself to the Twin Lords in my eternal service to Mhaldor. My blades to purge the weak, my body to protect our land, my mind to spread the teachings of our Masters, and my soul to serve Them in death," Syuven quoted. "We are aware of the oaths we made, Naga Jariel. And we have not broken them."
  106.  
  107. That simple statement seemed to trigger something in Jariel, grey eyes flaring dark in sudden, uncharacteristic temper. "How can you say that? Yourself and the Dre- Vice- Tane - just decided to abandon Mhaldor with no warning at all, naught but a paltry post to the city boards saying that 'it is time for another to lead the forces of Evil'!- I- you-" Abruptly, she caught herself mid-tirade, closing her eyes and taking another deep, shuddering breath.
  108.  
  109. Tane gave the young Mhun a warning look, but Syuven, when he spoke again, remained unruffled. "I can, and do, because it is true. We pledged to serve the Twin Lords, and so we have. The same does not extend to the Lady Vengeance, though She is afforded Her due courtesy."
  110.  
  111. The Mhun seemed about to reply, but Syuven pressed on. "Under Her reign, Mhaldor has lost its way. The art of war and bloodshed, long a mainstay of Mhaldorian culture, is all but nonexistent save for a few laughable attempts at striking matches in the Ithmias to annoy the dirt-covered savages. Fools and weaklings who should have been long excised from the city and taught true Suffering are coddled and excused instead - even those that manage to invite banishment are, for some inexplicable reason, brought back for no other purpose than to taint the air we breathe." Tane made a low, rumbling sound of resentful agreement deep in his throat at this, one large hand flexing unconsciously at his side.
  112.  
  113. "Tane and I have served Them and Their city for centuries, working our way up from mere slaves to become Their champions. We have had our blood spilled and in turn spilt blood a thousand times over in the name of the Lords. We pledged our lives to Them and so, if They will it, They shall have them. Our faith in Them and Their teachings remains ironclad."
  114.  
  115. Syuven's voice continued to echo almost hypnotically over the ramparts, the falling rain a soft accompaniment to his words. "I cannot say the same for our trust in mortal capabilities, however. The city we left behind is Their city only in name, now. What we discarded was a plague of weakness so deep-seated that there is no hope of salvation, no question of redemption. Apathy runs rampant in the streets and indiscipline is rife in the ranks."
  116.  
  117. His features remained obscured by the dark cloak, but he shifted so that his body was facing Jariel straight on. "You know this, for you have spoken of it often - even to me. I appointed you as the Minister of Cultural Affairs ten years ago. Tell me. How many with true dedication to Evil have you found since then?"
  118.  
  119. It had been the right decision to invite Syuven and Tane to this meeting, Taranes thought, watching Jariel wrestle with her emotions. Loyalty was the Naga's best trait, and though both Syuven and Tane were considered traitors of the highest degree to Mhaldor, it was clear that a part of her - quite a large part, he guessed - still felt strong ties to them she could not easily ignore. Both western legends in their own right, they had taken her under their wings, taught her much of what it meant to be Mhaldorian, and of course there was the whole thing with her and Tane - so it was only natural that they still held such sway over her, perhaps even the real reason why she wasn't yet trying to pepper Syuven full of poisoned arrows.
  120.  
  121. Not that it would do her much good, really, but still.
  122.  
  123. She spoke again, doing a fair job at keeping her composure though the strain was evident. "There are few enough of us in the city at present, due to certain unforeseen departures," she said pointedly. "Twould be foolishly optimistic to expect every slave to be efficient and useful, even in Their city. Those we do have serve well, even if they are young - but then, age is no guarantee of a desire to serve."
  124.  
  125. Tane's deep growl resonated beside Taranes. "No, it isn't. Age, however, is a mark of experience. You berate us for what you perceive as abandonment and betrayal. But you conveniently forget that Syuven and I are over three times your age; we have seen and experienced it all."
  126.  
  127. "We were there when the Lord split Himself asunder; we fought endless battles in the era of landmarking, survived hordes of daemons when the Lords found the city's efforts lacking. We led the long war upon the Shala-Khulia rainforest; we endured tortures you cannot even imagine to prove our dedication."
  128.  
  129. Taking a step forward, he unbuttoned his white silk shirt, allowing the fabric to fall open and revealing his chest. Gruesomely carved by some serrated weapon into the taut muscles was a single word - "Atrocitas". The flesh around the letters had healed badly or not at all, leaving a mass of dead muscle and terrible scarring that was difficult for even Taranes, who had seen his fair share of wartime injuries, to look at.
  130.  
  131. An almost imperceptible shudder travelled down Jariel's slight frame, but to her credit, she didn't flinch. Instead she allowed her grey gaze to linger on each letter before raising it deliberately to meet Tane's own eyes, a hint of her former defiance - and something else - in their ashen depths.
  132.  
  133. For whatever reason, this seemed to please Tane, and one corner of his lips almost twitched upwards. Raindrops pattered upon his bare chest, tiny rivulets trickling down and over the cruelly scarred lettering, but he ignored them.  
  134.  
  135. "I have told you the story of how I got these scars. You know the price I paid to return to Their service, and what I have achieved since I returned. Do you think I would throw all that away without an excellent reason? The bonds I forge are not easily broken." The gravity in his tone lent the innocent-sounding words a peculiar weight, the Tsol'aa gazing at Jariel with a level of intensity unusual even for him. In contrast, she refused to meet his eyes, staring stubbornly at a point somewhere on his shoulder. His arm twitched, as if to reach out, but he didn't move otherwise.
  136.  
  137. "Syuven and I have led the forces of Evil for longer than you have been alive. But there comes a time when you realise that there is a difference between enduring Suffering in the knowledge that it contributes to something greater, and merely suffering for Suffering's sake. One is a noble sacrifice; the other, a futile exercise."
  138.  
  139. "Mhaldor has become the latter."
  140.  
  141. The young Mhun's features remained blank, but again Taranes was drawn to her eyes. Hurt and anger swirled fluidly in equal parts within them, her body trembling with barely concealed fury.
  142.  
  143. When she spoke, though, her voice was expressionless, even carefully polite.
  144.  
  145. "I realise my years and experience are few - paltry compared to your own, as you have so excellently demonstrated. I do not lead as well as you, fight as well as you, speak or write as well as you. You and the Ge-" - she faltered again, but only for a second - "...Syuven, after all, were part of those who forged Mhaldor into what it is. You taught me and countless other younglings like myself what being a Mhaldorian encompassed, you were the living legends that we all aspired to become."
  146.  
  147. Despite her deferential tone, Taranes sensed a 'but' coming, and he wasn't disappointed.
  148.  
  149. "There is one other thing, however, that separates me from you."
  150.  
  151. Eyes of grey steel narrowed, and her next sentence came out as a barely audible hiss, four words infused with a level of bitter rage so uncharacteristic of her that even he was slightly taken aback.
  152.  
  153. "I am still here."
  154.  
  155. It was like she'd opened the floodgates, Taranes thought, as words after words came pouring out of Jariel.
  156.  
  157. "You and Syuven taught me perseverance, taught me persistence. You taught me to endure, to push and be pushed, to not be satisfied with only being adequate but to be the best. You told me stories of your feats, those of Mhaldor long ago, and those of the heroes you served alongside. You took me on your battles, and I learned how to fight against overwhelming odds and still emerge victorious."
  158.  
  159. Her normally implacable voice trembled with emotion now, but still she kept going. "I will admit that I have had my own doubts and fears about the well-being of the city. But every time I would falter I would think of you - of both of you - and how you had persevered through the countless other trials that must have befallen our city through the decades. It was precisely because of you that I never lost hope, never gave up, because if you could build our city back up to greatness from naught then I could scarcely disappoint you by surrendering at the first hurdle."
  160.  
  161. "You- you were the cornerstones of Mhaldor. Those that people looked to for guidance and for inspiration when all seemed lost. Do you- do you -understand- the impact it had when Mhaldorians awoke to find their leaders, their figureheads, their -champions- turned traitor in the dark of night and stole away to Ashtan? You, who were supposed to lead us, to be an example to us, to embody in mortal form the teachings of our Lords? Do you know what it -means- to us, when people like you give up?"
  162.  
  163. All through this the rain continued to patter down from the sky, droplets splashing softly, almost apologetically onto the four adventurers gathered on the battlements. The cool water failed to soothe Jariel's fury, though, now a full-blown blaze.
  164.  
  165. "Spin it however you wish, but the fact is -you abandoned us-. When Mhaldor needed your experience, your guidance most, you deserted the city you had helped to build. Your oaths, your promises, your sacrifices - you were heroes but now you are -naught-. All you said and did now means naught because it was the work of an eventual traitor. -Traitors-. The mortal representatives of the Twin Lords, supposed to be the epitome of Strength, meant to lead Their city to glory - in the end, only grand traitors both." She laughed, a rough, awful sound, choked with long-suppressed bitterness and pain.
  166.  
  167. "Cease attempting to twist the truth, for I was a Silver Tongue. I recognise it well. Admit it - you abandoned Mhaldor. You abandoned-"
  168.  
  169. Unconsciously, her grey eyes flicked to Tane, resting on the silver bow-and-arrow brooch pinned to the left side of his shirt.
  170.  
  171. "...abandoned...us," she finished, somewhat lamely. From the brief pause, Taranes was sure that wasn't what she had been going to say.
  172.  
  173. Tane's glacier-like eyes flashed with a familiar rage, and he took a step forward. Her breathing shallow with agitation, Jariel watched him with narrowed eyes as she dropped instinctively into a defensive crouch, one hand going to the hilt of her dirk.
  174.  
  175. A sudden clop-clop-clop sounded upon the wet stones - and then a large dark shape forced itself abruptly in between them, blocking Tane's progress. Syuven's shrouded figure peered down at the two from astride his daemonic steed, expertly reining the restive stallion in to keep him in place.
  176.  
  177. Something like a snarl issued from Tane's lips, his teeth bared slightly. "We're wasting our time, Syuven," he bit out.
  178.  
  179. Another flash of something closely resembling hurt flickered in Jariel's eyes, but she raised her chin. Rainwater trickled down her angular features like tears - perhaps there were even real ones mixed in, but Taranes couldn't tell. He rested one paw on the comforting rectangle of his tarot deck, preparing to intervene if trouble should arise.
  180.  
  181. "If you are attempting to persuade me to join Ashtani ranks, then yes, you are. I was born and bred in Mhaldor. My life, my will, my soul is Theirs, and unlike certain others, I am not so easily swayed from my oaths." Her cutting words only seemed to infuriate the Tsol'aa more as he began to crack his knuckles in a warning.
  182.  
  183. "You know nothing of what you speak-"
  184.  
  185. The dark figure shook his head in reproach at Tane. "No. Leave her." Tane shot Jariel a glare that promised violence, but turned away with a displeased snort, as if deciding she was below his notice for the moment. Syuven shifted in the saddle, now turning his attention to Jariel alone.
  186.  
  187. "We were the best of our time," he said, humility and boastfulness equally absent from his matter-of-fact tone. Syuven wasn't one to downplay his achievements, but neither was he a braggart - to him, it just was. "Mhaldor was a formidable player on the world stage when we were in power. But as all things, she cannot rely on her old guard forever. We have held various leadership positions in the city for too long - a constant shuffle between the same few individuals."
  188.  
  189. "It is time for a new beginning. A new generation, a new legend. Learn to stand alone, forge your own path without having to walk in our shadows. The flame of a candle will always be overshadowed by a raging bonfire - only in the absence of the latter does it have the chance to burn truly bright."
  190.  
  191. "Is that your rationale for leaving us?" Jariel asked bitterly. "You know the state we were in when you left. Half of our experienced leaders - now including you - defected or lost to slumber, with only the young, ignorant slaves and half-decrepit old soldiers left. And this is how you expect us to continue?"
  192.  
  193. "Yes," Syuven replied simply. "Mhaldor thrives under adversity. She has risen against the odds before and she can do it again. Legacies aren't built in a day. She has lost many, yes, but more will come to fill the ranks in time." His hooded face was still turned downwards to the Mhun, whose dark anguish seemed to be fading slightly as she stared up at him. "You said yourself that you have learnt much from Tane and I. You are not without your own influence, young Archai. Step up and take the reins. Put it to use."
  194.  
  195. Behind him, Tane crossed his arms over his chest, his expression unreadable. Taranes frowned slightly. This didn't seem like it was drawing her to Ashtan at all - in fact it seemed like quite the opposite.
  196.  
  197. [What are you doing-]
  198.  
  199. [You'll see.]
  200.  
  201. The white Rajamala frowned again, but shrugged slightly. He'd learnt to trust Syuven over their many years of friendship, and knew he would explain it all in due time.
  202.  
  203. For now he would just have to hope Syuven knew what he was doing.
  204.  
  205. "There are books, old news posts, stories to guide you, and even senile veterans have what you need most - experience. You are not starting over with nothing. You need to convince the citizenry to rally behind the new Lady, and for everyone to pledge their devoted service. Rouse your sleeping leaders to activity or cut them loose. Otherwise you will fail."
  206.  
  207. She stared up at him with eyes turbulent as the stormclouds above, her anger and frustration fading into surprise, then - just briefly - a flicker of deep exhaustion as she bowed her head. The earlier fire in her seemed to be extinguished. "I know. Tis just...difficult."
  208.  
  209. Syuven shrugged, his robes shifting about him. "The way of Strength was meant to be fraught with Suffering and Oppression. If you hoped for an easy path, I suggest heading for Cyrene."
  210.  
  211. His familiar snide jab seemed to have done the trick. Instantly, her eyes flashed and she straightened, glaring up at Syuven through the rain. "I do not. I would rather die a thousand deaths for a goal of worth than subject myself to an existence without meaning, without purpose."
  212.  
  213. There was something like amusement and satisfaction in his voice when he answered. "You probably will, in the course of the next few years. But that is part of being a leader - part of being Mhaldorian. You speak often about overcoming adversity and surpassing trials...now you must put action to words if Mhaldor is to regain its former glory. That has always been the way."
  214.  
  215. As Jariel's gaze flickered downwards, deliberating, Taranes felt Syuven's cool consciousness brush over his own in the recesses of his mind.
  216.  
  217. [Send her home.]
  218.  
  219. [What? Why?]
  220.  
  221. [Just do it, I'll tell you later.]
  222.  
  223. He narrowed his one good emerald eye at Syuven through the continuing drizzle, just a little, before stepping forward. In response, Syuven steered his steed away, its fiery mane and tail flickering as it trotted back towards Tane's stoic, vaguely disapproving bulk.
  224.  
  225. He wasn't sure what to say, so he improvised. "It seems I made a mistake in trying to convince you to abandon Mhaldor, Naga Jariel. Clearly, it was quite a futile effort. Your steadfast loyalty to your city is admirable, though it is a pity your talents are not to benefit Ashtan for the present."
  226.  
  227. A good mix of disappointment and subtle praise, he hoped. Enough to make her feel flattered, but not too over the top.
  228.  
  229. It seemed to work, as the Mhun's lips quirked upwards a fraction at the corners in her trademark not-quite smile. "The effort is appreciated, nonetheless, and the attention flattering. Thank you for inviting me this day, Overseer." Her gaze flicked over to Tane and Syuven, who were both watching her silently, expressionless - or at least Tane was. "Twas...enlightening, as always."
  230.  
  231. He had a sudden idea. Reaching into a glimmering drawstring bag at his side, he pulled out a black, silk-lined tarot deck. It was one of his favourite designs. He glanced at it with a flicker of regret, before offering it to the surprised Mhun.
  232.  
  233. "You may decline my offer today, Jariel. But if the time ever comes that you change your mind...this will help you."
  234.  
  235. Jariel furrowed her brow slightly, shaking her head. "Thank you, Overseer, but I will not need it."
  236.  
  237. "Then there is no harm in accepting a gift, surely," he replied smoothly. "At the very least, it is rare. Consider it...a memento of our conversation."
  238.  
  239. She eyed him warily for a moment, before hesitantly reaching out and closing her fingers over the deck, fingertips brushing the pad of his paw lightly. "I...thank you, then, Overseer. Though I maintain twill not be used."
  240.  
  241. Taranes waved it away, giving a nonchalant shrug. "You never know," he said enigmatically.
  242.  
  243. Jariel slipped the deck into her satchel, patting it carefully through the leather to make sure it was secure. "Perhaps, but I frankly doubt it. My gratitude, nonetheless - both for the token and the...reunion, of sorts." With that, Jariel bowed her head to all present and drew up her hood, swiftly melting into the embrace of the shadows.
  244.  
  245. The rain had all but stopped now, weak shafts of sunlight filtering through the layer of thinning cloud above Ashtan, making the puddles upon the battlements glitter and sparkle. Taranes sensed Jariel's departure from the vicinity of his city, and dropped the formal facade as he turned to Syuven. "Mind telling me what that was all about?" he demanded. "None of that was part of the plan at all."
  246.  
  247. Blue eyes gleamed as Tane glanced over at Syuven's hooded form, then turned his gaze to Taranes. "Your plan wouldn't have worked, Taranes." He stripped off his now completely soaked shirt, wadding it up in a large hand and turning away. Only Taranes noticed the brief second he took to detach something silver and glimmering from the silk, slipping it discreetly into his trouser pocket before he stuffed the wet bundle unceremoniously into his pack.
  248.  
  249. Taranes frowned at the Tsol'aa's back. "What? Why not?"
  250.  
  251. Syuven swung lightly off his imposing stallion, landing on the rain-soaked battlements with barely a splash. "Because she has to come to us willingly."
  252.  
  253. "Right. I believe that was the point of trying to convince her." The white Rajamala was getting a little irritated now.
  254.  
  255. "I know. But you saw - she still believes in Mhaldor, is still completely devoted to the city even though they're mostly a bunch of lackwits and idlers these days. The more you press her, through word or through action, the more she will feel compelled to defend Mhaldor and remain loyal."
  256.  
  257. "She will not come to us until she expends all her will and effort into 'saving' the city, and then eventually comes to see the truth that we realised years ago - that ultimately, her efforts are futile. She must discover this on her own if you wish to properly gain her allegiance. No bribe, no threat you can make will match the absolute finality of true disenchantment when it comes from within."
  258.  
  259. Taranes sighed, but nodded his head. Syuven was right. A thought occurred to him.
  260.  
  261. "What if she does manage to turn things around, though?"
  262.  
  263. Tane chuckled hollowly, a deep, rumbling sound. "The Lords Themselves would have a hard time salvaging anything from that cesspool now. Looking at the worthless maggots left in Mhaldor, I doubt you have to worry. More likely than not, she'll burn herself out trying to overextend herself to cover everyone else's shortcomings and turn bitter. Just like the rest of us." He snorted.
  264.  
  265. "She may be able to effect some change for a while, but it won't last. Not with this current Mhaldor, unfortunately." Syuven reached up and stroked the side of his stallion's neck absently, the emerald cast of its mane revealing thin lips pulled into a slight, knowing smirk. "Never fear, Taranes."
  266.  
  267. "She will come."
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