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The Aftermath of Betrayal

StoriesbyJurixe Jul 22nd, 2014 273 Never
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  1. Dim, red-tinted light filtered into the cavernous gatehouse of jagged stone through the tiny archer slits, the weak illumination compensated by the flickering torches set at neat intervals within the wall brackets. Clearly a room of utilitarian design, it was bare of adornment, every inch of available space taken up by racks upon racks of all types of weapons imaginable - flails, swords, shields, bows and more. Shards of metal and broken sword hilts lay strewn upon the floor, hastily discarded by soldiers as they scrambled to find serviceable weapons in the heat of battle.
  2.  
  3. Sparse spatters of dried blood upon the stone floor served as stark mementos of the city defense two days past; unusually, however, there was no war raging now - a rare lull in between the never-ending storms of conflict that the city of Evil was forever embroiled in. Most of the soldiers were making full use of the spare time to hunt, work or otherwise rest to prepare for the next battle, and the large, normally crowded gatehouse was empty - or at least, so the slight Mhun thought as she slipped into the quiet room, stopping short in surprise as her gaze fell upon a tall, black-scaled Xoran knight in the far corner, clad in full plate armour.
  4.  
  5. She thought about just leaving, but a lifetime of etiquette training demanded that protocol be observed, and he would have likely heard her anyway; he was a necromancer and had the innate ability to sense life forces, something even she for all her stealth could not hide. It irked her, some days, but she took solace in the fact that the majority of necromancers with lifevision belonged to her city. She bowed her head slightly in his direction, the ends of her dark ponytail brushing down over her neck.
  6.  
  7. "Apologies, Sir." Quiet though her voice was, still it sounded clearly in the silent room, low and silken. "Do I intrude?"
  8.  
  9. He looked up in surprise from the parchment scroll in his hands, his own lamp-like yellow eyes flickering in brief recognition as he focused on her. "Not at all, Minister." He turned back to the scroll in his hand, frowning slightly. "I was wondering about the former Droch Wiranil's departure."
  10.  
  11. She thought of the fluttering bounty poster she'd seen on the city boards earlier, nodding her head slightly. "After the earlier raid went...unfavourably, she refused to continue defending and left to hunt. Next thing I was aware of was her requesting a Crystalism tutor over the market, and no longer a citizen of the city."
  12.  
  13. His frown deepened in displeasure as he tried to recall the incident. "I didn't think twice about it at the time, but I suppose I should have been paying more attention."
  14.  
  15. For one usually indifferent to the comings and goings of no-name slaves, it was unusual for him to take particular issue with this former slave; and so she fell momentarily silent as she sifted through her recollections, calling forth the shreds of information she had on the subject in question. The impression she conjured in her mind was that of a briefly enthusiastic, tempestuous fighter, a convert from Hashan with the soul of a silver Dragon, but not much else of note besides.
  16.  
  17. "She seemed fine during the early stages of the raid, but perhaps she was not strong enough to withstand the constant fighting," she said, shrugging her shoulders in a slight, dismissive gesture, not familiar enough with the woman to really understand his concern. She had seen them sparring in the Colosseum Diabolus a few times, she supposed.
  18.  
  19. He sighed briefly, folding up the parchment. "That is saddening to me. She seemed quite genuine in her devotion to the Lords and her interest in learning the intricacies of combat."
  20.  
  21. She glanced at him, somewhat surprised by the admission. Surely he, of two centuries of experience, should have known that appearances could be feigned? "Unfortunately, Sir, it occurs to me that those who speak the loudest often are the first to crumble under true pressure."
  22.  
  23. His yellow gaze was sombre as he looked over at her, his features half-hidden in shadow from the torchlight. "Very unfortunate indeed. Perhaps I am a worse judge of character than I imagined."
  24.  
  25. The slight Mhun shook her head slightly. "There is no real way for us to tell until they undergo trials of fire, beyond pure instinct. In this case, she failed, as so many have." She pursed her lips. "But I agree, it is disheartening."
  26.  
  27. "Many come and go," he replied, tucking the parchment in a pouch at his side, "but few are so convincing, at least to me."
  28.  
  29. She nodded again, silently wondering what he had seen in the slave to arouse such regret from him. Surely he had experienced more than his fair share of departures, and there had been nothing particularly remarkable about the Droch to her; but then, she reflected, combat was hardly her forte. Perhaps the Droch had made contributions there she had not been privy to - a moot point now, however.
  30.  
  31. His deep voice stirred her from her thoughts as he continued, "Usually, I am not greatly taken aback when such an oathbreaking occurs, but this seems odd to me. I will have to inquire with the Archbishop."
  32.  
  33. A flash of unexpected pain lanced through her, his words inadvertently resurrecting bitter memories of the last oathbreaking to catch her off guard. It had been years now, and still the memory lingered as clear as though scarce a day had passed; waking to uproar, staring in disbelief at the familiar faces on the bounty boards, reading over the words on the city newsboards over and over but being unable to comprehend them due to pure, unadulterated shock.
  34.  
  35. Her throat tight, she lowered her gaze to the stone floor, trying to wrestle her emotions under control. "I understand the feeling," she said quietly, not trusting herself to say much more.
  36.  
  37. She heard the clink of his polished armour as he shifted, and felt his keen gaze upon her like a palpable weight upon her shoulders. "Are you alright, Minister?" he asked, his tone careful.
  38.  
  39. Cursing herself for her momentary slip in composure, she took a breath and blinked once before forcing herself to lift her gaze to meet his, hoping fervently that her expression was more implacable than she felt. "I- yes, of course." She hesitated. She likely didn't need to provide explanation, but she knew he would wonder, and that might lead to other questions best left unasked- "Simply...other like cases spring to mind," she offered as vague explanation, her eyes flicking away. Perhaps that would appease him.
  40.  
  41. "Ah, I see. A few too many lost proteges, perhaps?"
  42.  
  43. No such luck.
  44.  
  45. She sighed inwardly, even as she forced her lips to curve upwards into a twisted parody of a smile. Certainly, she had mentored many failures, but no protege would arouse quite the same reaction from her as these..."Not proteges, Sir Tarkan...quite the opposite."
  46.  
  47. A brief pause followed, before eventually a single word left her lips in a whisper, though she hadn't intended it to: "Mentors."
  48.  
  49. He arched his eyebrows in surprise, and she averted her gaze slightly to stare at a point on the wall over his shoulder, unable to meet his eyes. "Even worse, then," he said. "May I ask if there was someone in particular?"
  50.  
  51. She wished fervently now that she hadn't begun this conversation, his innocuous questions dredging up memories she had tried too hard to forget. Without even knowing it, she'd laced her fingers together and began to twist them in agitation, a telltale sign of her discomfort.
  52.  
  53. She'd come too far now to simply end it, though.
  54.  
  55. "You would know them, I think," she said in a quiet tone, a hint of long-suppressed bitterness in her words despite her best efforts. "I...bore his title, for a long time."
  56.  
  57. His eyes flickered in comprehension. "Ah." She'd mentioned no names, but she knew he understood; her ties to the Tyrannus-turned-traitor were well-known. As with so many of influence within the city, she had encouraged the perceived links, but what many were perhaps not aware of was that this particular relationship was, for once, genuine.
  58.  
  59. And it had hurt just as genuinely when she'd woken up to find that link brutally - callously - severed.
  60.  
  61. He took a step towards her. "He was a loyal servant while here," he said to her, and she heard a strange, awkward note in his normally emotionless voice - was it - gentleness...? "His loss is regrettable."
  62.  
  63. She could feel the familiar, overpowering sense of loss and betrayal starting to well up in her, as it always did when she thought about them, and it was taking every ounce of self-control she had to remain composed. "I could not believe- his faith, in the city, always-" She broke off as the fierce emotions threatened to overwhelm her, squeezing her eyes shut as she fought to regain some control.
  64.  
  65. She could feel him looking at her, and some small part of her mind sighed dismally over the spectacle that she must surely be presenting to him at the moment; the larger part of her consciousness, however, was completely preoccupied with attempting to avoid a complete breakdown. Why was she acting like this? She thought angrily, inwardly berating herself for her weakness. It was not as though this was a new occurrence, it had happened a decade ago!
  66.  
  67. "The temptations of Chaos...alas..." That strange, gentle note was still there, and she hated it, hated the sympathy she could hear in his voice, hated the way it seemed to be breaking down every single barrier she'd worked so hard to dam her emotions with. "There is no excuse I can give to exonerate him in your eyes, but what you learned with him was as real as it ever was."
  68.  
  69. She had to remind herself to take a breath, focusing as much as she could on shallow, short gasps, feeling as though as she was teetering on the precipice of control. She should leave, she thought suddenly, she should just turn and go; but she found that her feet refused to respond, rooting her to the spot as she felt herself sink slowly into a quagmire of misery, powerless to stop the descent.
  70.  
  71. Then it happened, an unbelievable gesture she'd never, ever seen or experienced from him, nor even thought him capable of, really; slowly he reached out, one gauntleted hand gripping her shoulder firmly as he looked down at her, offering only an awkward, curt nod.
  72.  
  73. That simple act undid her; random words and fragmented sentences came spilling from her lips as a decade's worth of emotion came rushing to the fore. "How can one claim to still pursue the tenets of Suffering, and- Oppression, yet- abandon-" She broke off and inhaled sharply, but it seemed to do nothing at all for her- "I- he- twas the reason I-"
  74.  
  75. It finally registered dimly that she was rambling and making absolutely no sense at all, and with an effort she forced herself to fall silent, her entire body shaking with the strength of her pent-up feelings as she attempted desperately to salvage what little remained of her composure.
  76.  
  77. His grip on her shoulder was still tight, though not uncomfortable, his luminous gaze still fixed on her, apparently unperturbed by her uncharacteristic behaviour. "It was not all a lie. What you came for, it is still here. It will always be here, but with different faces and names. What you found was real - it was simply the vessel that became corrupted," he said firmly to her.
  78.  
  79. The turbulent maelstrom of emotion raging inside her seemed to subside just fractionally at his calm yet sincere words, banked fury and pain receding somewhat to uncover a tired, long-buried hurt she would rather not have unearthed; a breathless ache in her chest that sapped the energy from her and was just -there- no matter what she did or said.
  80.  
  81. "I...I know," she whispered, barely audible even in the silent gatehouse, blinking a few times as she turned her head quickly to obscure her expression. "I..apologies, Sir, I...I just.." Her throat closed up, and unable to complete the sentence, the Mhun simply shook her head again and fell silent.
  82.  
  83. Concern flickered in his gaze as the tall knight stared down at the Mhun, his hand still clutching her in some kind of attempt at firm reassurance. "I say it with ease, but it is not so easy, as you know better than I. All I can say is that what we take from our teachers is truly ours, and not theirs. What we learn is pure and unadulterated. An enemy might teach your most valuable lesson, and yet, the lesson remains no less true."
  84.  
  85. He looked at her for a long moment. "But these paltry words must not help you," he said quietly. "A betrayal hurts...no matter what."
  86.  
  87. It was that empathy - that deep, unexpected empathy from the last place on Sapience she would have expected - a stoic knight of the Maldaathi, and he the most reserved of them all - that became the last straw. She turned her head away quickly, but it was too late and she knew it; he had seen the single, glistening tear sliding slowly down her pale cheek, the crack in her composure finally too big to hide. Unable to fight the tidal wave of emotion that crashed upon her, all she could do was bow her head and let its force ruthlessly sweep her away, tiny, soundless sobs wracking her trembling frame under his touch.
  88.  
  89. Ten years. Ten years since they had left in the middle of the night, without a word to anyone - or to her. The people she had trusted and looked up to the most in the world, and they had abandoned her without a second thought. She hadn't even had time - to rage, to mourn, to - anything; she'd been scrutinised, whispered about, all expecting her to follow on their heels and there had simply been no -time- for her to waste on her grief.
  90.  
  91. For grief it was, she could deny it to herself no longer; soul-shattering, heartbreaking grief, a black, gaping void in the cavity where she imagined her heart would be, underscored by the wrenching pain of betrayal and fear, the overpowering, all-consuming -fear-, of abandonment. She couldn't understand it, didn't understand it, what sorts of cursed bonds had she forged that caused her such untold misery, an affliction she could not be rid of and that had no known cure. It hurt- worse than any venom, any injury, it -hurt- even more than death; for even death could not erase the memories, could not make her forget, and more than anything the constant flood of recollection tormented her, taunted her, the life she had once believed in now in splinters upon the ground, mere illusion, unwanted images she wished she could just reach up and rip out of her mind to spare herself.
  92.  
  93. Old questions resurfaced to add to her agony, circling round and round in her mind just as they had a decade ago, and finding just as few answers; why? Was it something she had done? Could she have stopped them from leaving? If she had done something differently, might they have stayed? Why had they left her behind, why hadn't they said something to her? Didn't she matter to them at all? Had she not tried hard enough, had she not been worthy?
  94.  
  95. Why had they abandoned her?
  96.  
  97. Paralysed by her inner demons, she couldn't move, watching numbly as one bright tear, then another, fell from her eyes and splashed onto the floor, one dark spot next to another. She didn't know what she looked like to him, now, or what he must think of her; but in that moment, she found that she simply could not bring herself to care.
  98.  
  99. She'd half-expected him to walk away; yet, surprisingly, he hadn't moved, still gripping her shoulder tightly. She dimly recalled how his fingers had clenched a little on her shoulder when the first tear had fallen. "I do apologise for prying, Minister," he said awkwardly. "I do not...mean to stir up painful memories."
  100.  
  101. His formal use of her title brought her back to reality with a hard jolt. Of course. They were not friends; she did not even know if such a thing existed in his vocabulary, though given the circumstances, perhaps it did not exist in the city at all. They were soldiers, fellow soldiers, and here she was falling to pieces in front of him; how ridiculous he must think her, how weak, and it was the sheer embarrassment of this cold realisation that finally gave her the strength to dam her emotions once more, to force them back into the Pandora's box they had sprung from.
  102.  
  103. She took a few deep breaths, finding the conscious motion awkward and unnatural, as if she were learning to breathe for the first time. "No, Sir," she shakily replied, her voice still slightly choked despite herself. "I- apologise. Tis- not...your burden. I just...must- a weakness, or-" She glanced away again, by now nearly having twisted her gloves off her fingers, the fabric stretched taut and twisted in various impossible knots.
  104.  
  105. "The Lords do not demand that we suffer alone," he said gently, and she both loved and hated him for it. "It would be a strange and inhuman machine whose heart was not pierced by the barbs of betrayal, particularly when so close to home."
  106.  
  107. He needed to stop, she thought miserably. He should stop giving voice to the thoughts buried in the darkest recesses of her mind, he needed to stop saying the exact things she never wanted to think about; he had to -stop- the wretched empathy, stop looking and sounding as though he knew exactly how she felt.
  108.  
  109. Because he probably did, and she didn't want that understanding, she didn't want the pity, she wanted to just -forget-. She wanted to pretend it had never happened, weave a cocoon of lies and illusion around her and sweep it under the rug but -why- was he just not -letting- her-
  110.  
  111. She chuckled, then, a watery, hopeless sound, heavy with remembered pain. "You are making it somewhat difficult to brush this off as I normally do, Sir Tarkan, particularly when every word you say resonates so deeply."
  112.  
  113. Her chest rose slightly as she took a shuddering breath. "But perhaps that was the lie, my lie; for I never forgot, and it still..." Her voice turned hoarse, and she cleared her throat a few times to little effect.
  114.  
  115. "...hurts," she whispered, the barest suggestion of sound. "As though they had just left yesterday. And I do not know why-"
  116.  
  117. She broke off then, tilting her head upwards to halt the tears she could feel gathering in her eyes before turning her head away again, fiercely telling herself not to cry. Tears were a wasted indulgence, a weakness she must learn to conquer; one that she had thought was beneath her until this. What sort of weakling was she, she thought in depressed disgust, to let it overcome her, particularly in front of another soldier - and not just another soldier, but a general of Mhaldor?
  118.  
  119. He laughed then, softly; her brief incredulity was tempered by the familiar notes of bitterness that she heard within, the sound devoid of mirth. "Ah," he said quietly. "In one way or another, lesser or greater, we all must feel betrayal's icy grip." She felt him looking at her, still; she wished he wouldn't look at her.
  120.  
  121. "It is never our enemies who hurt us the most, it is our friends. I am sure you gave your trust, and to have it mutilated in such a way - I can only imagine."
  122.  
  123. Despondently, she hoped he truly only could imagine.
  124.  
  125. "There were many occasions when I felt hopeless in our work for the Lords, may They strike me for saying so," she said quietly, her voice hoarse with the strain of unshed tears. "But it was because of them, because they were pillars, something that people could rely on, could hold on to, that...gave me the strength to continue."
  126.  
  127. "Like yourself," she continued softly, though she didn't look up at him. "And to wake up and find something that I trusted implicitly, aught I had believed in, now -betrayal-, I..." She paused for a long moment, forcing herself to swallow.
  128.  
  129. "I admit it...it hit me...hard. They- say that they still follow the teachings of the Lords, but-" She broke off and flicked her gaze up to him in sudden, irrational fear. "Sir Tarkan, you- I-" Just as suddenly, she realised just how ridiculous her thoughts would sound out loud and wrenched her gaze away, blinking a few times as she fell silent.
  130.  
  131. It was his turn to take a deep breath, now, and she heard the long exhalation as he took his hand from her shoulder, rubbing the scales of his head as if deep in thought. Wonderful, she thought sombrely, he must surely think she was unhinged, now.
  132.  
  133. She unlaced her fingers, pressing two of them to the bridge of her nose as she shut her eyes, the awkward silence stretching. Well, she supposed she couldn't ruin her reputation any more than it already had been.
  134.  
  135. "Apologies, Sir Tarkan. I do not know what came over me to ramble like that - I...I do not seem myself this month," she said quietly. She must be overly fatigued from the fights, she told herself. There could be no other excuse for such a severe breach of social decorum.
  136.  
  137. He ignored her weak apology, though, his yellow gaze seeming to pierce straight through her. "I can only imagine your pain. To lose one of the sources of your belief. I would say 'trust in Mhaldor and trust in me', but how can you? Better to have known and lost, they say, but sometimes it doesn't seem like it, does it?"
  138.  
  139. She decided she hated him, then, hated him for knowing exactly what she feared the most, naming the paranoia that she excused as part of a Naga's natural defense, forcing her to acknowledge things she would have been so much happier ignoring.
  140.  
  141. But at the same time...it was Tarkan. She couldn't count the numerous times she had fought alongside him on impossible battles, worked together with him on countless city matters, he who had always been calm and collected even when the soldiers were an undisciplined mess or the enemy far outstripped their capabilities. He had been a fixture of the city when she had first set foot here, and though she was Viceroy now, still he remained, serving as faithfully as ever. One of her most enduring memories was fighting alongside him during the defense against the five-city siege in the saga of Bal'met, which he had spearheaded; ninety enemies to their twenty, and he had never said a word, only fought on relentlessly, and because of him so had the rest of Mhaldor. He was as solid as the Baelgrim itself, and she could not think of a Mhaldor without him; if she trusted again, if ever she would let herself, it would be him.
  142.  
  143. Slowly, she lifted her grey eyes to his. "If you tell me to trust you, Sir Tarkan, I will," she said simply. A lie, or not? She wasn't quite sure. She didn't know if she knew how to any more.
  144.  
  145. Nevertheless, he seemed to understand as gold eyes met grey, searching her gaze for the things she could not say. "Trust me, Minister," he said. "But above all, trust yourself. What you have taken from those you knew and loved-" she flinched, but he continued - "- are yours to consider as you will."
  146.  
  147. He paused, and looked intently at her for a moment. "I can say that I will never betray you, but words are meaningless. Nonetheless..." There was a quiet strength, a promise, in his eyes.
  148.  
  149. "I will never betray you."
  150.  
  151. At a momentary loss for words to say, she only nodded slightly, her vision momentarily blurred as she looked up at him. "Words are meaningless," she said eventually, "but the intent behind them is not. I know you cannot see the future, but still - at this moment you mean it, and for that..." She hesitated for a moment.
  152.  
  153. "...thank you."
  154.  
  155. Privately, she knew she could not. Not because she did not think him trustworthy, but for the irrational fear that perhaps those she trusted were cursed; if a former Tyrannus and Dread Hand, serving over two hundred years in the city, could break trust and lose faith that she thought had been unshakeable, what if it happened to him, too?
  156.  
  157. What if, somehow, these departures were all linked to her? For she could see no common element between them beyond simply her involvement.
  158.  
  159. Unrealistic or not, she could not afford that risk - for surely it would send the city into upheaval, to lose yet another longtime general; and her sanity besides.
  160.  
  161. He heard none of these turbulent inner thoughts, however, only giving a quick nod. "Of course."
  162.  
  163. It was only then that she noticed the faint rays of the dying sun filtering through the window, more of the gatehouse cast in shadow and relying ever more heavily on the flickering torchlight to illuminate the stone interior. She was surprised to see how late it had gotten, and immediately felt ashamed of herself. So much could have been accomplished, and here she had just wasted an entire day of his time by rambling about nonsensical, irrelevant issues of the past.
  164.  
  165. "I have taken far too much of your time already, Sir. Sincere apologies. You should...not allow me to ramble such." A corner of her lips quirked upwards ruefully in an attempt at wry humour.
  166.  
  167. "Ah," he said, glancing briefly out of one of the archer slits before turning back to her, "my time is mine to spend as I would, Minister. You have not taken any at all."
  168.  
  169. "I would offer you mine, in exchange, if you desire it."
  170.  
  171. "I am certain I will have need of your time, Minister."
  172.  
  173. Simple, meaningless niceties; somehow they were back to stiff politeness, now, the strange intimacy of before naught but a memory. She welcomed it, however - false pretenses, she could do. "Then tis yours, when you do."
  174.  
  175. He nodded his head, his gaze turning implacable once more. "Likewise." His head jerked up slightly, frowning for a moment, before he turned back to her.
  176.  
  177. "Please excuse me, Minister. I have a recruit to attend to."
  178.  
  179. With that, the Xoran offered her a courtly bow from the waist and strode briskly from the gatehouse, leaving her in the now-empty room, alone save for the deafening silence of her turbulent thoughts.
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