12. Hidden Motives

Chapter 12

Hidden Motives

            As Albel had said, there was fresh snow on the trail that was about two feet deep. It wasn’t hard for them to push through it, but they had to be careful not to slip and fall on hidden ice patches. There had been a sudden increase of monsters about on the trail lately, but they all seemed to scatter in fear when they noticed the party. No…it was more like they were afraid of Albel.

As Nel thought back on it, Albel was known to have patrolled the path every day to clear it of monsters. Since he had been in the dungeons recently, it was no wonder why there were more out when the party first passed through yesterday. She was surprised that the creatures seemed to remember who had been slaughtering their kind and avoided him at all costs. There were one or two brave monsters that thought they could take them on, but Albel, Cliff, and Fayt easily dispatched them before Nel could finish chanting a spell or draw a dagger. She ended up traveling in the back with Maria and chose to reserve her strength for the Barr Mountains.

Thanks to the lack of attacks, it didn’t take long for them to reach Kirlsa. But just as soon as they passed the gates, there was a loud noise and a slight rumble before smoke rose in the direction of the mines. Fayt and the others rushed over to the scene while Nel and Albel stayed back. There were two Black Brigade soldiers standing guard near the gates and they had turned from their posts to watch the plume of smoke, but they refused to budge and see what was happening. That gave her reason to believe that this was expected since soldiers would normally leave their posts to investigate anything unexpected.

But it seemed they had another reason for staying. When Albel noticed them, he shook with rage and stormed over to them. This gave the spy yet another opportunity to witness his wicked attitude to his men.

“You there!” he barked at the nearest soldier. The man immediately stood at attention and shook in his armor.

“S-sir!”

“What happened? Since you maggots are just standing there, I assume this was planned,” he said before the soldier stuttered even more.

“N-No sir! W-w-we don’t know what happened…”

The soldier let out a shout as Albel’s claw wrapped around his neck and lifted him into the air. If it weren’t for his armor, he would’ve been easily choked.

The Wicked One’s voice was venomous as he glared at the man he was holding. “You mean to tell me that there could be citizens in danger and you are just standing there?”

“N-no sir! Please have mercy on me! I-I can’t leave my post at this time!” he pleaded, earning a snarl from his former captain. If there was anything Albel despised more than Vox, it was sniveling, spineless soldiers. The majority of Glyphian soldiers comprised of uneducated commoners seeking nothing but glory. It sickened Albel to no end that they were supposed to be the protectors of his country.

Nel could understand his worry, but she didn’t understand why he had to react like that. What good would shaking his subordinates and giving them death threats do? She found it was better to treat others with respect, rather than hurting them both mentally and physically. She was almost tempted to stop him, but another soldier moved to salute calmly to Albel. His stance was cautious, as if he expected an attack from the Wicked One, but he did give off the air that he wasn’t as easily intimidated as his comrade.

“Sir Albel, I can explain the situation to you,” he replied in an even tone before Albel’s eyes traveled over to him. Nel blinked as she realized he knew that voice. He was that same man who encountered Cliff and her at the border when they were delivering the message to the king. The Wicked One opened his claw and allowed the man to plop to the ground in a heap.

When he turned to face the calm soldier, he examined him with a thoughtful expression, “You are not one of the rank soldiers… Why are you guarding with them?”

“I am Kimmel, sir, I am a strategist from the third division and we have been given the orders of defense and free will.”

He then proceeded to explain why he was there and why the Black Brigade couldn’t move from their posts. Apparently, Albel and Woltar had a secret command for their men that enabled them to freely disobey officers from other brigades while the original commander was gone. Woltar gave the order to the Black Brigade so that Vox couldn’t sacrifice Albel’s men in the war and so that they could be the first line of defense should Vox and his brigade fail. It explained a lot about how they acted during the last battle.

Albel let out a sigh and seemed torn from being frustrated or impressed. It seemed he had more patience for his strategists since he wasn’t yelling at or attacking him. …Or maybe he had slight more respect for Kimmel because he wasn’t cowering in fear. He seemed bright enough to know that his captain wasn’t really going to hurt him, but he still had a slight trace of caution.

“I rescind both orders, worm. Give the old man your full cooperation and go investigate the cause of that explosion,” he eventually muttered before he turned away from the soldiers. “I’m not your captain anymore so you might as well work with the Storm Brigade until one of you maggots find another commander.”

Both Kimmel and the other soldier seemed a little sad to hear it (though Nel couldn’t really tell since their faces were well hidden within their helms), but neither one said a word before they saluted to Albel and ran off to the mines. The emotion they expressed still made her pause. Why did they seem upset that Albel wasn’t their captain anymore? Did they really like him as their leader despite how he acted towards them?

Though it seemed once again, Nel was able to learn even more about the Black Brigade and its inner workings without having to work for it. Albel didn’t care if she was there to witness him handling his men. Should war come again, he could be at a disadvantage with all of the information she was getting out of him. Of course, knowing what she did about his views, there wasn’t much she could expose that would actually hurt him.

Without word between them, they both walked over to the entrance of the mines where the rest of the party was. The dust was still settling all around the area and there was a small crowd beginning to form. The entrance had caved in, but whatever caused it was small enough not to cause major damage. They had a few haulers outside of the cave and if ordered to, the Storm Brigade could easily remove the rubble in a few hours.

“Well, there goes that plan…” Cliff muttered once Nel reached them.

“I suppose we should go through Arias then…” Maria added as Fayt looked on helplessly at the piles of boulders.

Nel considered their options. It would probably take as much time going through Arias as it would waiting for the rubble to be cleared. If at all possible, she would rather avoid going to Arias with Albel in the group. Truce or no, there were some civilians who knew what he looked like and she wasn’t sure if they would behave themselves upon seeing him. Even though they wouldn’t have a prayer of a chance of actually hurting him, that wouldn’t stop them from trying and Albel had no obligation to spare them unless they were Glyphians like him.

Plus, there was something suspicious about the collapse. She distinctly heard an explosion before the rumble so the rockslide was unnatural. Something told her it was no accident that it happened and she wanted to know who was behind it. If there was someone trying to prevent them from fulfilling their mission, she wanted that person stopped as soon as possible.

“…It probably wouldn’t hurt for us to take a small break. We still need to get supplies- and it’s already close to noon. Might as well eat here and hope that this mess is cleaned up when we meet up again,” Nel suggested as the blue haired girl glanced back at her.

“You think so?” she wondered casually, not quite sold on the idea. Maria didn’t think they were short on time yet, but she wanted to at least reach their destination today and not tomorrow.

“Well, even if we went though here or Arias after a break, we would still make it to the Barr Mountains long before dusk. I suppose there’s no harm,” Fayt finally agreed as he turned away from the mines. With that decided, the party split up with the promise to meet back in an hour.

****************

Nel visited every contact she had in Kirlsa for information on the incident in the mines. The only thing she could learn was that it was obviously intentional. No one saw anyone head towards the area and they were suspecting that the culprit might’ve set something off from inside the mine. This concerned the spy, but until she had proof there was a culprit at all, there was nothing she could do but hope that nothing else would happen before they reached their destination.

She had questioned all of her contacts save for Astor and decided to have everyone listen in on the Black Brigade to see what they could uncover with their investigation. If the culprit was Glyphian, as she was suspecting, then they could probably find out more than her contacts.

When she was done, she decided to go see Astor and catch up on any information on Aquaria or what news Clair might’ve passed on to him. But before she could get there, She found that Albel and Fayt hadn’t gotten very far from where they had separated. The Wicked One seemed to be trying to make his way to Woltar’s mansion but Fayt kept following him and trying to start a conversation with him. As she drew closer to them, she could hear the boy was rambling nervously about swordsmanship.

Nel held in her amused grunt as she realized that he might have developed a crush on Albel the Wicked. As she thought back on it, Fayt had been sneaking glances at him with a slightly red tinted face as they traveled through the Traum Pass. Perhaps she should have been more concerned about it since Albel was obviously not interested in other men. If Fayt developed any more feelings for him, he was only going to be crushed to find that the dark swordsman wouldn’t be able to return them. But she couldn’t deny how cute it was to see the blue haired boy attempt to get Albel to talk to him.

She only decided to intervene when Albel was dangerously close to drawing out his sword in annoyance. By that time, Fayt was trying to get him to talk about his military and any family he might have. He was rapidly falling into dangerous territory and she knew Albel didn’t want to talk about his father. She walked over to Fayt and placed a hand on his shoulder to interrupt him.

“I’m going to visit my cousin. Do you want to come with me?” she offered, hoping that the boy’s interest in Astor was still greater than his developing feelings for Albel.

The blue haired boy was torn as he thought it over. Albel let out an annoyed sigh and stalked off when he saw his opportunity to escape. Fayt watched the Wicked One leave with a dejected look before he replied, “…Yeah, I’ll go with you. I haven’t seen Astor in a long time.”

He didn’t stay sad for long as he started walking in the direction of Astor’s home. Nel knew a visit would cheer him up greatly and maybe help him forget about Albel. She cast one glance in Albel’s direction and found that he had stopped and was glaring back at her. She wondered if he was upset that she prevented a potential bloodbath. But regardless of how he felt about the boy, he was spared from having to deal with him and she couldn’t stop giving him a smug look that said ‘you owe me one’.

“Bah…” he muttered before he continued his trek to Woltar’s mansion.

Astor was still the same as always. He was a good host and made sure everyone had some warm tea before they could begin discussing anything. Fayt couldn’t wait to ask how he had been doing since the war ended. The red haired man didn’t say much as he gathered the cups and placed them before his guests. He said he was bored and that he hadn’t received any missions since. He shot Nel a look as if to accuse her for the lack of orders, but she could see the small quirk of his lips behind his military scarf. He was in one of his rare playful moods- something she hadn’t seen since before the war.

When the tea was done and everyone was settled, Fayt decided to ask a question that only spies would be able to answer. He took a sip of tea before he rather timidly glanced from Astor to Nel and inquired, “Out of curiosity, how much do the two of you know about Albel?”

This caused the cousins to glance at each other in slight curiosity before they contemplated their answer. Some part of her actually expected him to ask, but she didn’t think he would ask Astor, too. Was Fayt trying to make him jealous or something?

“Why do you want to know?” she wondered, hoping to figure out his motive for asking.

“Well…” he blushed some before he replied, “…since he’s on our side now, I wanted to get to know him better and make sure he can be trusted. It would be nice if he opened up more and treated us more like allies.”

Nice excuse, Nel thought in amusement before her eyes drifted over to her cousin to gauge his reaction. He didn’t seem jealous, but he did act a bit envious to hear that their former enemy was among their ranks now.

Astor let out a slight chuckle before he rested his elbows on the table and placed his chin on both hands, “I do not know much more than Nel does. Our main focus had been the Dragon Brigade during the war. All I do know is that he is a wicked beauty along with that wicked personality.”

“Astor…” Nel muttered a raised eyebrow. It wasn’t that she was upset to hear that from him. She was just a little stunned that he felt that way about Albel, too. She thought he was too busy to think about men in that way…

“What?” he inquired with a casual shrug. “I still take the time to appreciate male beauty, even during the war. I just don’t have time for relationships.”

Fayt’s eyes widened and he seemed shocked to hear it. While the boy never asked what Astor’s sexuality was, she didn’t think it would be that much of a shock to find out. In her country (and in Airyglyph to a much lesser extent), one either loved men or women. There was nothing unusual about that. The only reason why mixed gender couples would be encouraged was to ensure a new generation would be born through them.

The boy cleared his throat nervously a few times before he finally asked, “A-are you romantically interested in men?”

“Yes,” he answered slowly as he tried to figure out why Fayt was so shocked, “Is that a problem?”

“No! Not at all… It’s just that… Where I’m from, gays aren’t that well received. We-er-they have legal rights and all, but there are those who still shun them because they think it’s wrong.”

Nel couldn’t believe that. Why would anyone shun something they had no control over? Why would falling in love with someone from the same gender be considered wrong? Fayt’s society may be advanced, but they seemed to be as closed minded as Lasselle. The spy also couldn’t help but notice how Fayt worded his explanation. He had to correct himself as if he was afraid to let others know of his preferences. Did that mean…?

“Were you shunned too?” she wondered as the boy glanced down at his tea. For a brief second he acted shocked that she knew what he was, but then he sobered some as he realized that he accidentally dropped enough hints for even Cliff to figure out. …Though little did he know that Cliff figured it out only because he wouldn’t flirt with one particular woman.

“…No. I was always with Sophia so everyone assumed we were together, but she’s only like a sister to me,” he explained, appearing a bit uncomfortable. Even though he wouldn’t come out and say it, she had a feeling he had been suppressing his true feelings for most of his life in fear of being figured out. It was terrible that he had to live like that.

“That is unacceptable!” Astor chided angrily, “No one has the right to judge others based on who they love. You shouldn’t have to hide who you are, Fayt. While you are in my house, you’re free to appreciate men as much as I do and we will never think any less of you.”

There was a moment of stunned silence as his words processed in the boy’s mind. It wasn’t long before a grateful, but shy, smile appeared on his face before he nodded to both Aquarians. “Thank you Astor, Nel.”

Astor smiled back before he returned to the previous subject, “Now what were we discussing? Ah, yes, Albel. Even despite the fact that he was the enemy, there is no changing the fact that he is quite handsome. Wouldn’t you agree, Nel?”

“No comment,” she replied stiffly as she raised her teacup to take a sip. She wanted to believe she could escape Albel by visiting family members, but it seemed he somehow managed to invade that, too. It was one of the extremely rare times the spy was regretting that one of her remaining family members was attracted to men.

Astor smirked some before he gestured Fayt to come closer to him. He then leaned over to his ear and acted to whisper out a conspiracy. “Even though she doesn’t act like it anymore, Nel used to be a regular girl. One of our favorite pastimes was talking about strapping older men when we were young teenagers.”

“I can hear you,” she sneered, even though she knew it was on purpose. “That was years ago and I don’t have time for such nonsense.”

“Nonsense, she says!” Astor scoffed dramatically as he sat back in his seat. Though it was true. Nel was an average young girl before her father died. While she didn’t take a fancy to dresses and other baubles, she had a few crushes like any other girl that age. Back then she used to date fellow male trainees, though nothing came out of those relationships. It was awkward being in their company outside of the training field and the worst she ever did with them was kiss. But all of that ended when she decided to take over her father’s work.

Fayt smiled some over the information before he decided to add his own opinion. “I think he’s handsome and I bet he’s a nice guy under that gruff attitude of his… but I’m not used to seeing men dress like that. Or rather, I’m not used to seeing it accepted like it is here.”

Nel quirked an eyebrow to that. The people of his planet had something against that kind of attire, too? Was it also wrong for women to wear pants? No, that couldn’t be. Maria was of the same race as he and she wore pants. The Earthling culture was very strange to the Elicoorian.

“Oh? What’s wrong with his clothing? I, for one, like it. He’s not very shy about his body, it seems,” Astor contributed with a wistful smile.

No, Nel silently agreed as images of his delightfully nude body invaded her mind, …but he’s sensitive about his left arm.

“Hmm, what a form he has. Sometimes I wonder if those abs are real,” he continued, earning a thoughtful glance from Fayt.

Nel gripped the handle of her cup and took another sip so that she could refrain from answering that. She knew very well they were real… In fact there was a lot she knew about Albel that they didn’t and she didn’t want to tell them. With her luck, Astor would probably be interested in learning all of the intimate details she had of the Glyphian…

Fayt’s cheeks blushed some as a shy smile appeared on his lips. His eyelids lowered as he found his tea suddenly interesting. “What I wouldn’t give for a strong breeze so I could see what’s under that sarong. I wonder what he wears under it?”

Nel suddenly coughed as the tea went down the wrong pipe. That was the last thing she expected to hear from the boy’s mouth! He had been so polite and courteous that she didn’t think he had it in him to have dirty thoughts like that.

“Oh?” Astor chortled as she calmed down, “Does that mean you know something we don’t?”

He confused her reaction for something else, but unfortunately he wasn’t too far off. While she wasn’t really certain if Albel preferred wearing a loincloth or nothing under his sarong (she had seen him with and without one before), she knew she had to tell the truth before he could find out what she was hiding.

“Why not?” Astor inquired coolly after she told him the real reason behind her reaction. “It’s healthy to be curious about that sort of thing. Don’t tell me you don’t sometimes ponder it? I bet he wears nothing. He strikes me as a proud man who wouldn’t care if anyone caught sight of it.

It was then, to Nel’s inner horror, that she sensed the presence of her subordinates as they started moving about in the room above them. She hadn’t known they were there until now and she realized that they had heard the entire conversation. They quickly scrambled to the stairs, eager to join in. Farleen was the first one down, practically skipping to the nearest seat.

“He’s strikes me as the type of guy who would get aroused at the sight of blood,” she said with a cringe, “I bet he would wear a loincloth to hide it.”

Oh dear Apris, now it was a fan club… If Nel had been drinking when she heard that from Farleen, she would’ve spat it out.

The purple haired woman previously did have a slight crush on the Wicked One until the day he cruelly kicked her aside in Bequerel. She claimed she wasn’t a masochist and lost all interest in him- until now, apparently. Tynave, however, only started to like him more after the same incident. Even though he wasn’t directly responsible for her injuries (in fact, it was the Dragon Brigade lackeys who attacked them), she still liked men who were rough.

The dirty blonde quickly took her seat close to Astor before she excitedly revealed her theories about Albel the Wicked. “I bet he would be into bondage. He’s definitely the type to be a rough lover.”

The spy desperately tried not to think about it, but she couldn’t help but recall the time she was Albel’s hostage. He took full advantage of the fact that she was restrained and practically ravished her. It would’ve almost been rape if he hadn’t made sure she enjoyed it. But she didn’t think he was much of a ‘rough’ lover. He was forceful, yes, but he was also surprisingly considerate…

They continued to animatedly wonder about Albel’s sexuality and even the size of his manhood. Every now and then Astor would try to get her to contribute, but she remained stubborn in her silence. She was beginning to wonder if her cousin knew this was making her uncomfortable and was deliberately encouraging the conversation just to make her squirm. Almost everything that came out of their mouths were questions she knew the answers to or something that brought on a dirty fantasy or memory to her mind.

It wasn’t long before Nel was glaring down at her tea, wishing it were ale instead. She felt the desperate need to work up a buzz and forget her surroundings. Fed up, she slammed the teacup down and stood up.

“I apologize, but I can’t take much more of this,” she explained, earning guilty smiles around the table. While she had tuned them out, they were discussing who would be able to handle a violent and dirty relationship with Albel. Astor had just brought up her name as a candidate when she moved. It unintentionally made her sound like she was wholly offended with the thought and made everyone secretly suspect that she might’ve only been protesting because she didn’t want to admit that she liked the thought.

She let out a sigh when all four of them started sniggering like children. “I’m leaving…”

“Wait Lady Nel!” Tynave called out as Farleen stood up.

“Since you’re here, could you visit Lord Woltar in our place?” Farleen wondered before she dug out a scroll and held it in front of her. “Lady Clair was supposed to discuss the terms of the truce with him, but the task fell to us when something else came up.”

The spy accepted the scroll and glanced over the contents. Lasselle wanted confirmation that the political prisoners had been released and that their conditions were being met. Without said confirmation, the alliance wouldn’t be official and a new tension could rise again. Why were her subordinates holding off on fulfilling their mission? This was very important and crucial to the fragile peace between the kingdoms. Nel shook her head and suppressed her disappointment with them.

“Why haven’t you gone to see Lord Woltar immediately? This is extremely urgent,” she chided gently. The girls flinched a little and gave apologetic glances.

“We had every intention of going soon… it’s just…” Farleen started to explain before Tynave took over with a disgusted shiver.

“Old Woltar is so creepy. It’s like he could read our minds.”

Well, she couldn’t blame them for feeling that way… Woltar wasn’t exactly someone she would trust and she already had her fill of being tormented by him. In all honesty, she couldn’t understand how Albel put up with him for so long. But even so, personal feelings didn’t matter so long as war could be prevented. They shouldn’t have let the old man intimidate them.

Astor soon let out a fake cough before he destroyed any sympathy Nel could’ve had for her subordinates. “…They were waiting in hopes you would come along and take the mission.”

Her cousin then let out a cry of pain as Tynave glared and kicked him under the table.

“Shush!” Farleen hissed at him before she turned back to her superior with a false innocent smile.

Nel let out another sigh and shook her head. Tynave and Farleen were her most reliable agents when it came to spying and fighting in the war, but they were rather useless as messengers. …No, perhaps ‘lazy’ was the proper word for it. But they were telling the truth as to why they didn’t want to go.

“I don’t have time to discipline the two of you. I will have Clair review your behavior and decide an appropriate punishment,” the red haired woman stated as she rolled up the scroll and headed for the door, “But I will go in your place, so you don’t have to worry.”

“…Yes, ma’am,” the girls muttered sadly in unison before they turned to glare at Astor. Nel glanced back one last time before leaving to see that her cousin was smirking back at them smugly. Honestly! One would think they were siblings…

************

Dealing with Woltar alone was just as draining the first time she had to do it. She personally had seen the political prisoners freed and was able to verify it in her report. All she really needed to do was confirm that Woltar would ensure the other conditions would be met. Basically, all she needed was his signature on the scroll she received from Farleen. After that, she had to notarize it and send it off to Aquios with one of her other subordinates.

They shared a bit of banter as they both signed the document and Nel warned him that she was on to his manipulative ways in hopes that it would discourage him from trying it again. She really did believe that he was more treacherous than Vox, but she took solace that he wasn’t as driven or power hungry as the late duke. Woltar took her comment in stride and even smiled warmly at her before he pushed the scroll back to her. With the ink dried, the alliance was official. She didn’t see any reason to stay longer than necessary and tried to excuse her self.

For once Woltar was caught off guard by her behavior and tried to stop her. “W-wait a moment. No matter how hurried you may be, there is always time to talk.”

She paused in her steps before she heard him mutter under his breath how she was just as impatient as a certain ‘boy’. Nel coolly faced him as she wondered what else he could possibly want to talk about. She couldn’t imagine he would have anymore use for her now that the war was over and Albel was out of the dungeons.

But she soon found that the aged warrior was attempting to clear the air between them when he inquired, “You have no questions about your father?”

She knew for a long time that it was the Storm Brigade her father encountered all those years ago and that he had been missing ever since that mission. She had a feeling that they were behind it, but she bore no hard feelings. He did it to save the soldiers that were under his command and she admired that. She didn’t delude herself into thinking he was still alive and had long since come to terms with that. What was important was that she was still able to carry out his wishes and fulfill his dreams of an era of peace for Aquaria.

“No matter how I might feel personally, I don’t have the right to criticize what you people did, do I?” she countered casually, without a trace of outward emotions. Woltar’s men may have been behind the death of her father, but she couldn’t forget the men she and her subordinates have slain on the battlefield. Nel was well aware that she had most likely taken beloved sons and fathers from the Glyphians. It bothered her, but it was war. That was her mantra that she constantly repeated during the last months of her training. Reminding herself that her father died because of war and his duty to his people deadened her emotions and helped her move on.

The old man gave her an approving glance before a glint came to his eyes and his lips twisted into a grim smile. She wasn’t sure if his next words were his attempt to bait her or test her. “It was I who personally slain your father. Still of a mind to keep your criticisms to yourself?”

Nel was silent for a long while. The only hint of emotion that escaped her was a slight twitch of her hand before she fisted it tightly. It was one thing to acknowledge that her father was dead, but it was another to know the face of his killer. Up until now, she mentally cursed a faceless and nameless soldier in her mind every time she missed her father. She already despised Woltar, but she didn’t think her hatred could grow anymore than it did just then.

But she quickly calmed herself as she repeated her manta. ‘It was war’. She knew if she attacked the aged warrior, then the peace and prosperity that her father died for would’ve gone to waste. She bowed before the Glyphian king for the sake of her kingdom and so she would restrain herself again and give respect to her father’s murderer.

She drew in a deep breath (the act becoming suddenly difficult because of her inner emotions) and raised her chin some before she looked down at the count.

“I stand before you as Nel Zelpher, Crimson Blade, and humble servant of Her Majesty the Queen. I do not intend to let personal feelings influence the fate of our kingdom,” she told him in an even tone. Some part of her wanted to see him frown in disappointment that he couldn’t convince her to lose her temper, but he didn’t seem bothered. She was ready to use anything he could say to fuel her inner ire. One of these days, she swore she was going to find some way to challenge the old man and restore her father’s honor.

But Woltar surprised her when he praised her for her restraint and then pulled out a set of twin daggers that were secured in dark leather with silver-white knots and swirls as decoration. Her breath caught in her throat as she hesitantly picked up one of the blades and examined them. She recognized them immediately. They were the Blades of Ryusen- her father’s swords.

Nel wanted to accuse him of wanting to keep the daggers for himself, but she held her tongue and let him explain himself. On that fateful day, Woltar and Nevelle fought to the death. In the end, Woltar granted him an honorable warrior’s death and vowed to fulfill the Aquarian’s final request: to give his blades to his daughter once she was worthy of wielding them. Now that the daggers were in her possession, the request had been fulfilled and Nevelle Zelpher’s soul could be at peace.

When she first heard her father was missing, she learned of the horrors of torture the Glyphians often did to their prisoners. She thought her father died somewhere in a dungeon in shame- not on the battlefield as a noble warrior. Her father was a fairly important man in the court and would’ve been a valuable hostage. The old man spared him with that swift and painless death. She wasn’t sure if she should be grateful to the man or hold on to her hatred of him.

It was easy for her to accept her father’s daggers and leave as stoically as she came, but once the door to his office was closed, her features betrayed the conflict and confusion that was reigning over her. She wasn’t sure what to feel or think. She already grieved the loss of her father and hoped to one day avenge his death somehow, but now she couldn’t because the man who took his life was honorable and merciful to him. It would only dishonor her father if she continued to loathe the aged warrior…but she couldn’t stop her feelings or change her mind.

Nel already didn’t like Woltar before knowing the truth and it was going to be even harder trying to forgive him despite what he had done. She definitely needed to think on it. With a new destination in mind, she secured the scroll in her belt and held the daggers tightly in her grasp.

***********

She had wandered to the small cemetery since it was secluded and not many people visited it. It was full of unmarked graves and she briefly wondered if her father’s body was buried there. Nel unsheathed one of the blades and examined it. Her eyes reflected on the silvery surface and it revealed her hurt expression.

No matter how long it had been or how she came to terms with his death, she still missed her father greatly. Hearing the truth of how he died brought great relief to her- but it also brought on a fresh wave of grief. She couldn’t help but feel a little sad. She wanted to do something to forget about the pain, but she wasn’t sure what. She couldn’t take up another mission- she was already on one and she had to wait to continue on it.

Her chest felt heavy and she could feel a few tears welling in her eyes, but she forced herself to stay calm. She tried breathing a few times to meditate, but it wasn’t helping. Nel wished she were in Arias so she could talk to Clair. She didn’t mind talking to her about what she was thinking, nor would her surrogate sister judge her if she did ever happen to break down and cry.

Nel gritted her teeth in frustration before she pushed the dagger back into its leather bind. As she was leaving the mansion, Albel happened to cross her path. She gave him a look that told him to leave her alone and she prayed that he would respect that, but his eyes widened at the sight of the Blades of Ryusen in her possession and he ended up following her out. She wondered how much he knew about it and if he was keeping it a secret from her the entire time.

He kept his distance at least, but he refused to stay out of her sight. He followed her all the way the tiny cemetery and leaned against the wall, close to the entrance. He seemed content to just observe her, but she didn’t want his presence. She didn’t want to cry in front of him.

“Please go…I want to be alone,” she muttered as she shook her head. She struggled to keep her voice from breaking so she wouldn’t reveal her state.

“No,” he replied as he pushed away from the wall and took a few steps inside, “I don’t feel comfortable leaving you alone with those swords.”

She stiffened at his hidden accusation. Did he really think she was going to…? Nel was about to turn and face him, but stopped herself at the last second so he couldn’t see her face.

“Just what are you implying?” she sneered angrily as her hands tightened around the sheaths of the daggers, “I’m not suicidal.”

“Feh, could’ve fooled me,” he retorted as he continued to approach her. She almost growled at his response and briefly thought about attacking him, but she refused to budge. She allowed him to walk up to her to the point where his chest was almost pressing against her back.

“I’ve observed you long enough to know that you secretly want to die. Why else do you take on those dangerous missions? Half of them you’re lucky to still be alive, the rest you have me to thank for,” he continued in a quiet tone that so low she wouldn’t have heard him if he wasn’t so close. “I doubt you take them on because you think you’re some immortal goddess.”

“What would you know!?” she growled as her face twisted in fury. “I want to carry on what my father did for my country so I take the missions he would’ve taken! He saved ten lives by sacrificing his own and I want to do my part in protecting the lives of my comrades.”

But Albel had a startling counter to that. His voice was harsh, but at the same time, strangely calm. “While my knowledge of your father is limited, I know for a fact that he didn’t intentionally take foolish missions to put his life in danger. He didn’t go seeking them, he just improvised if dangerous situations happen to manifest. You, however, select hopeless missions deliberately. You hide it well, but it’s still there. You’re a death seeker.”

Her jaw clenched in anger and she felt the urge to yell at him. What did he know about her father? While it was true that she didn’t mind dying for her country, that didn’t mean she was suicidal. She didn’t want to run herself through with her blade, nor did she constantly think about her own death. She merely accepted it as a possible outcome for the greater good.

…But there was a tiny part of her that knew she was just in denial. Albel wasn’t that far off in his assessment. She didn’t just want to be like her father- she wanted to die like her father. She wanted to find him in Apris’ Kingdom and face him as a hero and a proud warrior…not as some pathetic little girl who couldn’t live without him. But the last thing she wanted to do was admit that to herself…or to Albel for that matter. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being partly right. Instead, she focused on his supposed knowledge of her father. He had to have been bluffing and was trying to manipulate her into thinking he knew what he was talking about.

“…And how do you know so much about him?” she finally wondered as her breathing returned to normal. Albel had long since wrapped his arms around her and she felt him tense up some at her question. For a moment she thought she was about to claim a grim victory in calling his bluff, but then she discovered that he was actually getting uncomfortable for a different reason.

He was silent for a long while before he finally admitted, “…I inherited old letters your father had written.”

He just left it at that and refused to elaborate. It didn’t take much for her to follow the clues and figure out that the bit of information involved his own father- the very thing he didn’t want to discuss with her. She recalled in the back of her mind that conversation she had with Adray before the final battle. He mentioned that her father and Albel’s father became friends and wrote to each other, so it would make sense that the old letters would come into his possession after his father’s death.

She bowed her head some when he rested his against hers. Albel knew what it was like to lose a father, too. She couldn’t really argue with him when he wasn’t really taunting or judging her. He most likely done a few things he wasn’t proud of in his grief. Then again, he probably didn’t care that she was this way so long as she didn’t get her secret wish. Without the fear of dying, she wasn’t afraid to face any challenge that was placed before her. One could say that he was even attracted to that chilling quality of hers.

“You have my word that I won’t take my life. I refuse to leave Aquaria at her darkest hour,” she vowed after a long sigh. If that was all he was worried about, she hoped to reassure him of her goals and convince him to leave her be for now. “…So please, let me be alone for a while.”

“Why?” He scoffed against her hair, “So you can grieve? You’re five years too late for that. What’s the point in dwelling on it now?”

“How dare you!” she hissed, her anger returning in full force. She was actually humiliated that he figured it out and tried to justify her desire to grieve, “I only want to pay my respects to my father. Is that really so wrong?”

“Tears are no way to show respect. Poor, pathetic Aquarian, you don’t have the comfort of a mission to help distract you. You only want to cry because you have no choice but to think about it,” he said to her mockingly. But then his tone changed a little and seemed to have a trace of understanding before he added, “You simply want something to help you forget your living nightmare. That’s why you work so hard.”

Nel shook with rage as his words struck true. It felt like he was taunting her for being so weak. Had she not already been in a bad mood, she would’ve realized that he was baiting her on purpose and that his comments weren’t meant to insult her. It was too easy for her to take offense to anything he could say and some part of him welcomed that. After all, she wasn’t thinking anymore- and thinking about it was the cause of her depression.

Before she could stop herself, she pushed away from Albel and swung her fist as she turned to face him. His good hand caught her wrist before she could land a blow to his jaw and he grinned down at her with a wicked gleam in his eyes. His stance and demeanor clearly showed that he wanted to fight and she was more than willing to oblige him. But she knew it was coming and the Wicked One didn’t like being predictable.

He tightened his grip on her and hovered over her face. “But don’t fret, my little death seeker, I will make you forget everything.”

He captured her lips in a chaste kiss, testing to see if she would resist him. When he was able to confirm that she was too stunned to act, he yanked her forward and pressed her against the nearest wall. The Blades of Ryusen fell unto the ground where she previously stood and was temporarily forgotten by its new owner. Albel lifted her body a little and supported her bottom on the arm of his claw as her legs automatically wrapped around his waist. He growled in approval of her unconscious action before he roughly claimed her mouth again.

By the time Nel was able to come to her senses, she was already actively participating. Her hands fisted in his hair and her tongue met his as he slipped past her lips. Albel’s free hand was nestled against the back of her neck to keep her from pulling away, but it proved to be unnecessary as her tight grip on him made sure he was the one who was going to be kept in place. He let her take control for a while as she pushed back his tongue and started exploring his mouth. But he soon retained dominance with a smirk and fought against her until their little duel was in his favor.

He wanted to keep her frustrated and focused only on him- and it was working. Nel’s mind was quiet and her worries were temporarily quelled. For the span of the next ten minutes, there was no Aquaria, no Airyglyph, and no Vendeeni. It was just him and her in a heated void. They broke for air only twice when breathing through the nose wasn’t enough anymore. During those breaks, she stared into his feral eyes as he watched her closely.

By the time their lips met for a fourth time, she realized that she needed this and was a little grateful that he followed her against her wishes. Her anger, her pain, and her despair were all gone. Their kissing was becoming less heated and more sensual as she started calming down more and it wasn’t long before she was once again aware of her surroundings. She could hear the people of the town move about outside of the cemetery and even heard the familiar clanking of armor. She soon realized that the noise was coming their way before she finally started pushing against him to make him let go.

He released her with no protest and faced the entrance of the cemetery just as a Black Brigade soldier appeared. Nel quickly faced another direction so the newcomer wouldn’t see her face. She was certain her lips were bruised from the intensity of their kisses and silently worked on a healing spell to hide the evidence.

“Sir Albel, I bring news that might interest you,” the soldier announced. His composed demeanor and smooth voice revealed to Nel that it was Kimmel again. He was probably sent because he was so good with speaking to the Wicked One without invoking too much of his ire.

Albel didn’t sound all too pleased to have been interrupted from his little fun, but he regarded the man with a slight nod and decided to hear what he had to say. He knew that his strategists knew better than to disturb him unless they had a very good reason to. “Bah… Speak quickly, worm, and then be on your way.”

“Yes, sir… We have evidence to believe that members of the Dragon Brigade were behind the explosion, but we are not sure if they are apart of a small faction or if the entire brigade is backing them. Even with Vox’s passing, there are still a few stubborn members that wish for the deaths of you and your companions,” he started before he fell into his strategist role, “Though I have no right in saying this, I recommend avoiding the mines and heading through Arias instead. It would be harder for them to ambush if that is what they seek to do.”

Nel wasn’t too surprised to hear it. She was hoping that the rebels would end with Schweimer, but that was obviously asking for too much. The spy picked up the fallen blades as Kimmel spoke and worked on replacing them with her current pair. The Blades of Ryusen were hers now and she should fight with them. By the time she was done, Albel dismissed the soldier and he quickly turned on his heel and left. They were alone again, but it didn’t feel right to pick up where they left off.

But that was fine. She felt a lot better now and she was ready to continue on.

“We better go tell Fayt and the others,” she suggested to him as she turned to face him. Albel grunted in reply.

She wasn’t sure why, but she paused before she passed by him. She felt that she had to say something to tell him how grateful she was for his distraction, but she couldn’t think of the right words. So instead, she placed a hand on his chest, leaned up on her tiptoes, and quickly kissed him on the lips. She then quickly turned away from him, not wanting to see his reaction, and walked away at a brisk pace. He followed not too far behind her.

To the Thirteenth Chapter (Pain and Comfort)

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