21. Back to Normal

Extra note: The reason I’m saying that it has been ‘twelve days’ is because I believe the Diplo traveled a little distance away from Elicoor II- enough for a few days travel, but still close enough for it to be the only inhabitable place for the exchange to take place. Talking to the crew gave me reason to believe this (though yes, twelve is an exaggerative stretch). So for the sake of using my creative license, I’m going to say that it took the Dasvanu a day or two to reach them and a few days for the Diplo to get away and return to Elicoor.

Chapter 21

Back to Normal

            Lasselle wasted no time. Now that the war was over, he insisted that Adray continue his investigations to the north. He also made sure to find some other long and near impossible task for the runologist to complete to ensure that he would take a long time in returning home. So Nel decided to see the elder man off when he had to leave for his mission. This was one farewell she didn’t mind making as even she wasn’t immune to the man’s presence. She loved Adray as a second father, but like Clair, she couldn’t tolerate him for a long period of time.

They had a quiet walk together to the gates of Aquios before the runologist faced the spy with a serious expression.

“Nel, there’s something I want to confirm with you. Hold still,” he commanded before his hand traveled up to the sleeve of her left shoulder. The spy froze for a second before she flinched and moved to back away, but a glare from Adray stopped her. It was then that she knew what he wanted to ‘confirm’. She wasn’t sure how he figured it out, but she knew it was pointless to avoid it.

She bit her lip as he slowly pulled up her sleeve. First the scar the Vendeeni gave her was exposed, then the swirling patterns of the water dragon was visible to him. Adray let in a deep breath and closed his eyes as he backed away.

“I thought so,” he muttered, not sounding too surprised that the bridal rune was on her shoulder. “When Albel hinted that he had taken an Aquarian bride, I remembered the time you mentioned seeing the rune. Outside of the Aquarians he had fought on the battlefield, you are the only one he associates with. There would have to be a reason he chose to befriend you and naturally it had to be that.”

That was Adray… He was so dense that obvious clues went over his head, but somehow he was able to piece together small and vague hints in order to find the bigger picture. Nel couldn’t stop herself from looking away in guilt when he inquired as to why she didn’t tell him.

“I didn’t mean to lie to you this entire time,” she admitted before her eyes looked up at him, “When I asked you about the rune, I didn’t know what it was or what it meant. I had thought it was some curse and I didn’t want others to worry about me if that was the case. And after I found out… I was too ashamed to tell anyone else.”

“Did he force himself on you?” the aged runologist inquired with concern.

Nel shook her head. It was embarrassing to tell him the truth, but she quickly picked up from the grave tone in his voice that the answer was very important. “No… it was consensual. I thought it was just going to be a one night stand at the time- I didn’t really understand how serious he was.”

“Oh Nel…” Adray grumbled in disappointment as he tiredly shook his head, “That was reckless of you. How could you allow yourself to sleep with the enemy let alone allow him to mark you? What would your father say if he were alive today?”

“Don’t say that!” she found herself shouting. She didn’t want to imagine her father’s disappointed face or picture him judging her for her stupid actions. “I did have a temporary lapse in judgment, but I am taking responsibility for it.”

“By turning against Aquaria? You do realize that you cannot live with Albel unless you swear loyalty to his kingdom or if he swears loyalty to ours.”

“I’m not turning against Aquaria,” the spy stated firmly as she glared up at the old man. “We agree that our kingdoms come before each other. As long as there is peace, we can be together.”

Adray stared at her for a long while as he thought about her words. “And if war should happen again?”

“We’re resolved to fight each other to the death on the battle field,” she replied in a sure voice. The aged runologist scowled before he let out a frustrated noise and clenched his large fists.

“I should smack you for saying such things!” he growled in an angry tone. “Don’t ever talk about your death like it means nothing! I know it has been hard for you ever since Nevelle’s passing, but I’ve had it with your self-destructive views. I promised your father that if anything happened to him, then I would make sure you lead a happy life in his place. He wanted you to be happy, Nel.”

It was the second time in a short while that Adray got so riled up that he had to lecture her, but she was able to see why he was so upset. He most likely felt that he failed her and her father because of how she was acting. Adray and Clair cared for her deeply and she could only imagine how they felt every time she took on dangerous missions.

“I know he would want me to be happy,” she responded, her voice cracking a little. She thought she could control her emotions a little better, but hearing one word about her father easily made her come undone. She could feel the tears forming at the corner of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. “…but I have to honor his memory or else I would feel that he died in vain.”

“You do no honor to his memory by trying to get yourself killed. Nevelle will always live on within us so long as we stay alive and teach future generations about his bravery and sacrifice. Fighting for your country is all well and good, but you shouldn’t try to seek an early grave. You have your life ahead of you- and you have a man who wants to share his life with you,” he said before he brought his hands up to her shoulders to make her face him. He then brought back the subject at hand by inquiring, “Do you even love Albel? Is it possible for you to be happy with him?”

“I-I don’t know… All I do know is that I don’t hate him and that I see him as a friend. I could see myself being happy with him- even if I don’t develop any deeper feelings for him,” she answered him while trying to resist a few sniffles. She hated being reminded of her father and she didn’t like it when others criticized her lifestyle. It was her life so shouldn’t she have a say in how she wanted to live it?

“You foolish little girl…” he scoffed in a tone that was a mix between fondness and disappointment.

If anyone else had called her that, she would’ve gotten angry and hurt them for it. But for once, Nel had to agree with Adray. She was foolish and she made poor decisions when it came to Albel. And while she came to accept the outcome, she still had to concede that she had a serious problem until she could come to terms with her feelings. If she did want to remain just friends with the Wicked One, then it was going to be rather awkward carrying his child later on in life.

Adray sighed again, allowing most of his anger out with his breath. He then shook his head when he came to a decision before he looked her in the eye. “Alright. I will leave now, but when I return, there better be a signed peace treaty and you better figure out your feelings. That rune on your shoulder means that you’re a member of the clan now. It will be your burden to help bear a new generation and teach them the ways of our ancestors. I hope you understand that.”

“I do,” she reassured him. It was more or less like a typical marriage- love or hate the spouse and bear heirs with them. The only difference was that her marriage with Albel involved some ancient rune that sometimes made her dream of him. And- unlike a normal marriage it was literally ‘till death do you part’.

Adray accepted that and then pulled her into one of his crushing bear hugs. Some of her bones popped a little and if it wasn’t for the fact that he always used that much strength behind his hugs, she would’ve thought he did it on purpose to warn her about future discipline coming her way. Hugs like that seemed to run in the family- Clair’s were just as tight and bone popping, too. When the aged runologist was done, he let go of her and backed away a little.

“Now, you take care of yourself while I’m away. I don’t want to come back to visit your grave. There are a lot of people in Aquaria who love you- do not give them reason to mourn.”

And with that he turned and headed out the gates. Nel watched him go with a passive face, but her inner thoughts were running rampant. What Adray told her did wake her up some. She didn’t really think about others when she went on missions- she only cared about the others on the field (which wasn’t a bad thing). She knew she was getting as popular as her father was and naturally her death would yield the same result his did.

But that wasn’t the real issue- those closest to her were suffering. Now she really understood why Clair was always so worried about her. With the way the Nel didn’t seem to care about her dying, the tactician probably cringed every time a new mission came up. Nel couldn’t reassure her that she would come back home in one piece. But could she really stop what she was doing?

Even if her death had no meaning to her, she was still fighting for the sake of Aquaria. Someone had to risk their life to save others, why not her?

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

It had been eleven days since Fayt and the others left Elicoor. Nel quickly found herself with nothing to do after a week. Even though the queen wanted her to conduct peace talks with Airyglyph, there wasn’t really that much for her to do other than sit in a room with Woltar and negotiate conditions. Airyglyph wasn’t asking for anything too demanding and they were more than willing to concede to Aquaria’s demands.

Most of the initial subjects have been hammered out military-wise. The Storm Brigade would aide the Shield Legion in defending the borders from monsters and the Black Brigade would work in units to help protect and rebuild Arias. At first Nel didn’t think the latter idea was a bright one; after all- it was the Black Brigade that destroyed Arias in the first place.

But the aged warrior assured her that having them show humility in aiding the victims, whose lives they destroyed in the attack, would foster good relations down the line. He expected some animosity, but over time, he hoped the commoners of Arias would grow to accept the Glyphians and learn to forgive them for their crimes.

As for the Dragon Brigade, it was decided that they stay away from Aquaria for some time until relations between the two kingdoms improved. There was also still the issue of a faction that supported Vox’s ideas within the brigade. There were plenty of men who wanted to take over the brigade and launch an attack on Aquaria to avenge Vox. Thankfully, now that the war was officially over, none of the members could walk forward and claim the title of captain- the king would have to choose a new one. But that still left the issue of whom would be trustworthy enough to lead and control the Dragon Brigade. Woltar had told her that traditionally the heir of the Nox clan was always the leader but…

…Speaking of Albel, Nel only saw him once after his departure from Aquios. As she suspected, the queen’s first act of charity to Airyglyph was a prosthetic arm for Albel. The Wicked One accepted the offer under the conditions that the operation took place in Kirlsa and that, of course, Nel amputated him. Three days later, she arrived in the mining town with a team of doctors, runologists, and prosthetic specialist to conduct the surgery.

The men and women who came with her were sworn to secrecy to not reveal to anyone who they had to perform the surgery on or give indication that Albel once had a useless arm. It was more a courtesy to protect the patient, but she figured that Albel wouldn’t really care if people knew if he had a prosthetic arm. He would be more concerned if others knew how he had lost his arm.

Naturally, the Wicked One wasn’t completely cooperative. He stubbornly insisted on how it was going to be carried out. He didn’t want any anesthesia to knock him out or numb him and he wanted his arm to be cut off with either his katana or her daggers. The first request wasn’t too bad, but the second one was a problem. While their weapons were sharp enough to go through bone with enough force, the doctors were concerned about the potential for infection.

And even if they sanitized the blade, there was an issue with getting a clean cut. If Nel angled wrong or missed the area she needed to cut, then there would be complications. They insisted that a saw should be used. The spy eventually made them come to a compromise- she would cut off most of the arm with a sanitized long dagger (as she refused to use her father’s blade for the procedure) and if it wasn’t a clean cut, they could saw and grind it down until the stump was even enough to attach the prosthetic. Either way- Albel was going to be in pain and it was his fault for refusing the anesthesia.

Once they cut off the circulation of blood to his arm, she swiftly cut it off with no trouble. Luckily for Albel, it was even enough to where they didn’t need any further cutting. There was still some scared skin left on the stump, but it wasn’t bad enough to be a health concern. Albel never cried out during the procedure. His body was stiff the entire time as he fought back the pain and his eyes were only focused on her. But once she left the room, others told her that he stared at the severed arm until the operation was done.

Later on that day, she heard the operation was a success and that he was ordered to rest a few days so he could adjust. She tried to see him the next morning- only to find that he foolishly ignored the doctors’ orders. Woltar informed her that he immediately set off on that trip he said he was going to make and that he would be back in as little as five days. See hadn’t seen him since, but she did hear from him once.

He sent a letter to her before he disappeared, but it didn’t reach her until several days later. This was because she was seldom ever still enough for a messenger to catch up with her. It took a Black Brigade strategist to find her and since then he became the ‘official messenger’ to deliver anything to Nel Zelpher. Kimmel was humble enough to admit that he had help from a fellow strategist, by the name of Ives, to determine her movements, but he graciously accepted the role seeing as how it gave him some free time to loaf around in Arias as he waited for her to appear. …Though the spy suspected that he had another reason for taking on the job and it involved a certain tactician…

Albel’s letter was more or less a status report on his new arm and an apology for suddenly leaving. There was nothing mentioned about where he was going or any discussion about what he was trying to accomplish. He didn’t even acknowledge anything related to her or Airyglyph. Nel wasn’t disappointed with his letter- she was just as lousy at writing one herself. At least he took the time to let her know he was still alive.

Unfortunately, that was the only letter she had received from him. She tried not to think about him and focused on work, but she couldn’t ignore it any longer once five days had passed and there was still no sign of him. For some odd reason, she wasn’t too worried about him. Something told her that he was still okay- but apparently there something that was delaying his return. However, there was a steady panic starting to show in Airyglyph when the others began to realize that the Wicked One had been gone for far too long.

With that in mind, Nel decided to give him two more days before she would try to find him herself. For all she knew, he could be training somewhere and lost track of time. For the sake of his kingdom, someone needed to pull him away from his nonsense and drag him back to his duties. The spy refused to be the only one to suffer in Woltar’s presence.

Nel bit back a groan when she had finished her last thought- she was starting to sound like she had been married to Albel for years…

She was in the middle of tying the last Palmira’s flower that she had collected on her way home on Dion’s wishing charm. Now that she had the extra time on her hands, she decided to finally fulfill her promise to honor the two lovers and return the chain to them. She vowed to visit their graves in the morning and say a few prayers for them.

As of late, she had been traveling between the capital and Arias. Clair had taken over as the official diplomat, but Nel still received a few letters here or there from the Count asking for her assistance with a few things. Once her minor task was done, she had nothing to do- and she found that she was going to be bored for quite some time unless she found something else to occupy herself with.

“Why aren’t you in bed, woman?”

Nel almost jumped in her seat. She could only stare wide eyed at what should have been an empty seat across from her. Sure enough, the Wicked One was there, looking very comfortable.

“What are you doing here?” She couldn’t keep the shock out of her tone. She didn’t hear or see him come in- it was like he had appeared out of nowhere.

Albel seemed rather amused as he crossed his arms and stared at her with half-lidded eyes. “You fell asleep thinking about me. Don’t you remember that we’re connected by the Dragon Rune?”

She glanced around to find that everything still looked the same. She must’ve fallen asleep in the chair…

“I didn’t know I’ve fallen asleep,” she admitted before she stared at him, “I’ve tried to contact you this way before, but you never came. Why?”

He gave a shrug. “It only works when we’re both sleeping and I’ve been keeping unusual hours. This is the first time in a while since I’ve slept at night.”

“Where are you?” she continued to interrogate him, determined to get answers from him. They were alone and he didn’t have any illogical reason to keep secrets from her (as he ignored the logical reason to not divulge information to a spy).

“Right now? I’m in Surferio. If that stupid dragon hadn’t left me, I would’ve been home already.”

            It didn’t take much for her to figure out where he had been. There was only one place that would require him to sleep during the day and was accessible through Surferio.

Nel crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at him. “And why did you feel the need to go to the Mosel Dunes of all places? Surely you didn’t go there to train?”

“Of course not,” he growled, sounding a little offended that she would think that. “I mentioned before that I wanted to check up on something.”

“But you never told me what- and you promised that you would be back soon. You do realize that most of Airyglyph is beside themselves with worry about you- some are starting to believe you’re dead,” she informed him to show that his absence was having an impact on his kingdom.

“Hmph. Those maggots should focus more on their own lives,” he muttered before he finally revealed what he had been up to. “When we were fighting those Vendeeni creatures, I noticed that those strange beams of light seemed to have come from somewhere in Mosel. I went to the ruins to see if there was anything there that would’ve caused them, but I didn’t find anything.”

“Huh? But Fayt said that the light came from somewhere else- somewhere far away from our planet,” Nel said as she shook her head. Actually, the boy gave some long and confusing speech about his theories and lack of evidence of the origin, but she summarized it down to that much.

“I know what I saw, Nel,” Albel insisted with a light sneer. “The light hit an airborne enemy and if it had come from something beyond our sky, then I would’ve seen it come from the horizon. I distinctly remembered seeing holes form over the desert region before the beams hit.”

Unfortunately, Nel was within the Thunder Arrow’s control box at the time it had happened. Since she had limited sight through the eyepiece, she didn’t see where the beams had originated. She had no reason to doubt Albel’s story, nor could she obtain proof that he was wrong about what he had seen. The idea of seeing ‘holes’ bothered her, but she wasn’t sure what it meant and waited for him to finish telling her his findings.

“Since I couldn’t travel any further than the ruins, I came back long enough to enlist the Marquis’ help. It took a while before I could convince him to fly me over the desert, but he was concerned over my story as well. We flew over the entire region in three days, but there was nothing there- just sand and dunes.” He then let out a dry laugh. “For an ‘almighty’ beast, he sure does complain a lot. Once we couldn’t find any evidence of anything amiss, he dropped me at the ruins and flew back without me- that overgrown worm…”

            It took all of Nel’s willpower not to chuckle at that. She could easily imagine Crosell and Albel bickering continuously at each other like children. But the fact that he managed to enlist the dragon’s help by himself was a little amazing. She wondered if Albel even realized that.

“Still, there hadn’t been any more appearances of that beam of light so I suppose there’s little point in worrying over it. It’s the off-world maggots’ problem,” he finished with a bored scowl.

Nel had to wonder why he couldn’t tell her this sooner. What he saw was definitely worth investigating and even if his search didn’t yield results, she would’ve rather gone with him than be stuck in a room full of nobles and Glyphian military leaders. But Albel was right- there hadn’t been anything strange going on since Fayt and the others left, so it would only be a waste of time trying to find anything.

“So does that mean you’ll be coming home?” she wondered, mentally berating herself for sounding so hopeful. She wasn’t that desperate to see him again, nor was she really that sure his presence would make anything better if she had to visit Airyglyph again.

But Albel caught the tone and let out a grin. “What’s this? Do you miss me that badly, woman?”

“N-no,” she denied as she glanced at something else in her room, “I’m just bored is all. There’s nothing much for me to do lately.”

Albel laughed at that, earning a glare from her. “Don’t worry, Nel, I’ll be back soon. It wouldn’t do to keep my wife waiting.”

If this weren’t a dream, she would be flushing badly. She decided to save face and change the subject by asking a question she had been curious about for a while.

“Whatever… By the way, Albel, do you know what happened to that gift I showed you the last time you were in my room?”

She inwardly grinned when his made a face at the reference. He knew what she was talking about and didn’t bother to play dumb. Instead he let out a dismissive shrug and tried to look disinterested. “How should I know where that erotic tool of yours went? Maybe a maid took it.”

The spy wanted to laugh in his face. Dream or not, she could easily see the tell tale signs of lying. “You think so? Funny thing- it was missing not long after you left that morning. It’s okay if you took it- there’s no shame in admitting that you like how it feels.”

He blanched at that. “I’m not using it for that. I’m saving it for you.”

“So then you do admit to taking it?”

It was satisfying watching his expression clearly betray the fact that he had been caught. Nel didn’t care if he was really using the dildo and she wasn’t surprised to hear his intentions. He did vow to get revenge on her and she was curious to see how he would use it on her.

“Fine, whatever. I have it,” he admitted while trying to sound apathetic. “It doesn’t matter- I will have my way with you soon.”

This time she let her grin show. “I’m waiting.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Albel promised with a smirk. He then pinched the back of his his knee to make himself wake up and faded from her sight. The dream ended soon after.

Nel soon stirred and found that her head was resting on her arms on the table. Her nose caught a whiff of the Palmira’s flowers as she sat up and she was glad that she hadn’t disturbed the chain or crushed the flowers by accident. She glanced around bleary eyed as she tried to regain her senses. So Albel was coming tomorrow? She doubted he would come to see her in Aquios- he would most likely head for Kirlsa first.

The spy stood up and walked over to her bed so she could go back to sleep. She had a lot to do come morning. She was honor bound to visit Dion’s grave and return his wishing charm. But once that was done, she was heading to Arias and hope that she would cross paths with the Wicked One.

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

Annoyingly, she made it to the cemetery close to mid morning. Despite her efforts to get up early, something ended up distracting her. After her little ‘dream meeting’ with Albel, she had another realistic dream that urged her to take action. There was an old legend that if a woman dreamt of being pregnant, then there was a chance that she was expecting. In her dream, Nel appeared to be six months along and she knew who the father was. But for some strange reason, she wasn’t really worried about it- and she was still going on missions despite that.

But considering that she took a risk nearly two weeks ago with Albel, she didn’t want to take chances that the dream was actually a premonition. She ended up going to the doctor to get tested just in case. She earned a few raised eyebrows, but in the end, all tests came back negative.

“You know Lady Nel, those dreams don’t really apply to women who are not sexually active,” the doctor had told her after the spy gave her reason why she wanted the test. “There are other interpretations that say pregnancy in dreams is a sign of change or desire to change oneself.

It was a blessing and an embarrassment to hear the doctor say that. At least she didn’t believe Nel was seeing anyone- and the spy could be sure that the doctor would keep the visit confidential. Still, she couldn’t help but feel like the doctor thought she was naïve. Of course she knew one had to be sexually active to get pregnant. But her explanation about the dream did make a little more sense.

So her dream was telling her that she wanted to change. But how so? Could it have anything to do with the conversation she had with Adray or did it have something to do with Albel? But as much as Nel didn’t want to think about it, she was going to have to move on. Once everything was officially settled between the kingdoms, all she would have left to do was take on minor missions for her country. Her life was the war and she didn’t really think that far ahead to see a possibility of what she would do once it was gone.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She was already at Dion’s grave and she wanted to at least spare a few minutes to pay her respects to him and Ameena. There was a smaller gravestone next to his that bore the woman’s name, but everyone thought it would be wrong to separate the two after they worked so hard to see each other again. They were buried together so that they could spend eternity by each other’s side.

She carefully wrapped the flower chain around Dion’s gravestone before she moved to wrap the rest around Ameena’s. “There. I’m returning your charm to you, Dion. I hope you find eternal happiness with her.”

Nel then said a few prayers quietly to herself before she stood and headed towards the exit. But she paused when she reached the tomb where her father’s casket was. She stared at the pristine white doors for a long while as she debated on going on. Not once had she ever visited her father’s grave, save the funeral.

At first, she was too stubborn to acknowledge that he was dead, but then she figured that there was no point in going. His body wasn’t in there- they had never found it. Come to think of it, Woltar would know where her father was buried. He was honor bound to lay his enemy to rest on his home soil, but obviously the Count couldn’t contact Aquarian officials with Vox trying to control Airyglyph at the time. Her father had to be somewhere just within the border.

But…if she did know where his grave was, would she be able to visit it? It was silly, but the thought of visiting his resting place actually scared her. She felt that she didn’t have any right to face him after all that she had done. She knew deep down that her father didn’t want her to live this lifestyle- the mere fact that she had killed several men wasn’t something to boast about either. Would his spirit be disappointed in her- angry even?

And what would she do if she were to finally see with her own eyes that he was truly dead? She never really had closure other than Woltar’s admission that he was the one to take his life. That was probably the reason she had been unable to move on- she didn’t know what happened to him for so long and she had no clue when or how it happened.

“Lady Nel!” a voice called out, pulling her from her thoughts. The spy quickly rushed out of the cemetery, desperate to focus on something else. By the tone of the voice, it sounded like it was urgent.

“What is it, Farleen?” she inquired once she saw her violet haired subordinate run up to her.

“There’s a new letter waiting for you in Arias. Lady Clair says that it doesn’t appear to be urgent, but that you should address it soon,” she replied as she saluted.

A letter? Nel inwardly groaned as she figured that it could be another request from Woltar about military arrangements. …But if that were so, then why not contact Clair? She had been taking over Nel’s role and had more authority over the military aspects of the budding treaty.

“Thank you, Farleen, I will be on my way,” the spy responded before she dismissed her.

Hopefully stopping by to pick up the letter wouldn’t prove to be too much of a hassle. She was already late and she didn’t want to waste any more time in trying to track down Albel. Though in all honesty, the spy wasn’t sure why she was so determined to find him. She could argue that she was in the mood to be ravaged by him, but it didn’t explain why she was scrounging up topics to discuss with him in her mind. They didn’t really need to talk and yet that was what she was looking forward to that more.

But what surprised her was that she just wanted to see him again. She didn’t care if they didn’t do anything else. Could he actually be right about her missing him?

Ridiculous,” Nel snorted in her mind. Why should she miss him? She didn’t particularly need him for anything and it wasn’t as if she didn’t have other friends to talk to. But despite her thoughts, she was practically running the entire way to Arias. She was eager to see him.

Her subordinates immediately surrounded her as she entered the town and the spy had to raise an eyebrow at their behavior. All of them were torn from hiding silly grins or appearing slightly panicked. All at once they saluted her and asked why she was visiting, acting as if they didn’t know she often came by. She tried with all her might to side step them all and walk over to headquarters, but they were adamant in trying to keep her out.

“What is going on?” she demanded loudly as she glared at the others. “Is there any reason why I cannot see Clair?”

That earned her a sea of giggles and blushes. This was probably the only drawback of a predominately female army- they got their off-duty entertainment from gossip and the secret lives of others. For the first time even known to the Crimson Blade, Clair had let a man into her private chambers and was currently sitting with him. Alone. To anyone who didn’t know the silver haired woman, they would instantly think something steamy was happening. But Nel knew Clair.

Clair wouldn’t take on that kind of relationship- at least not without knowing the partner for quite some time. As far as the spy knew, the tactician hadn’t been seeing anyone… In fact Clair hadn’t dated anyone since she had been promoted. Like Nel, she was too busy focusing on the war- or perhaps she lost interest in having a relationship. Nel wasn’t really sure about her reasons since they never talk about things like that- it seemed irrelevant at the time.

“Lady Clair said that she is playing runic chess with him,” her subordinate stressed, acting like it meant something else.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Nel inquired sharply, knowing very well what the woman was trying to insinuate. The spy believed that everyone misconstrued Clair’s words into some crude euphemism for sex.

Her subordinate flushed a little, wondering if she really had to spell out the meaning to her commander. Nel just shook her head and let out a sigh.

“I suppose this is my fault for not finding proper tasks to occupy your time. Perhaps I should get Tynave to run you through drills to keep you entertained.”

This made all of the girls shout in indignation before they remembered who they were talking to. They then respectfully saluted to their commander and dismissed themselves in record speed so that she wouldn’t have to follow through with her threat. Nel smirked to herself before she made her way to Clair’s chambers. She had to wonder who was the lucky guy that managed to worm his way into her friend’s inner circle. Only close friends were allowed in her room- and Clair didn’t allow herself to have that many.

She soon found her answer after she announced her presence and was allowed entry. At first she didn’t recognize him. All she knew was that he was from the Black Brigade because of his armor. But she remembered his voice when he greeted her. It was Kimmel- her ‘official’ messenger. It was the first time she had ever seen him with his helm off.

He had the typical rugged appearance as most Glyphian men, but it was obvious he wasn’t from any of the noble branches. His hair was blond- cut short to his ears and in a tangled mess from being under the helmet all day. His chin was covered in a beard made of short curly hairs, proving that he was most likely a few years older than Albel since most Glyphian men didn’t start growing facial hair until the late-twenties. His eyes were framed by a pair of glasses that seemed to be made of durable materials so it could survive being stuffed into armor if needed. His eye color was a light grey, but from far away they almost seemed blue.

If Kimmel was here, then the letter must’ve been really important. Nel approached them and found that ‘playing runic chess’ actually meant ‘playing runic chess’. Clair, for once, wasn’t sitting stiffly in her chair. She was actually hunched over the table, tapping a captured black knight beside the board as her eyes scrutinized every detail of the checkered battlefield.

The spy wasn’t sure who was winning, but the board looked like an elaborate mess. Pitting a strategist against a gifted military leader was a bad idea from the beginning and she could only imagine that the game could go on for hours before a winner was decided. Nel wasn’t much of a fan of the game since she could never beat Clair at it. However, Cliff’s analogy using her, Adray, and Albel’s name on the pieces was still stuck in her mind and that made her loathe the game and all knights even more.

“Ah, Nel, we have some fortunate news,” the grey haired woman said, appearing more interested in the game than with her. Something told the spy that Clair was actually attempting to tease her, but she was too busy keeping an eye on the thief Kimmel was contemplating on moving. “Albel has returned.”

“Oh? Is that so?” The spy was disappointed that her attempt to act like she didn’t care went ignored. But at least Clair didn’t pick up on the fact that she wasn’t surprised to hear the news. “So what brings you here, Kimmel? Another letter from Woltar?”

“Actually, no. Lord Albel sent the message,” he replied as he absent-mindedly reached for the small scroll. His eyes never left the chessboard and Nel had to wonder why they were both being so absorbed in it. What was so important about winning a silly strategy game?

Nel allowed herself to be surprised that Albel sent another letter. Hopefully it wasn’t a sign that he was leaving again without seeing her. She unrolled the letter and found that it only had one line.

“Meet me at the facility.”

            This was definitely a letter from Albel- written in as few words as possible, just like the last one. Thankfully it didn’t take much for her to figure out where he was talking about. The Kirlsa Training Facility was the only ‘facility’ she knew about and it was the place where he used to lead his brigade. It wouldn’t surprise her any if he had some kind of attachment to that place.

“Hmph… Why did he waste the paper for just five words?” she mused out loud. Suddenly their eyes were on her before they glanced at each other.

“Only five? Perhaps it was a love letter after all…” Clair whispered to the strategist, knowing that Nel could still hear her. “…‘I love you, Nel Zelpher’ is five words.”

The spy whirled around to face her long time friend in shock. They were guessing the contents of the letter and Clair was making it known to a stranger that something could be going on between her and Albel. …Though to be fair, Kimmel wasn’t much of a stranger to Clair these days. And he seemed to be the one who started that conversation as he shook his head and admitted that he was ‘only joking’ when he had said that. She felt a little better knowing that Clair hadn’t really betrayed her, but she was still a little disturbed that they were speculating it.

“It isn’t his style to say such things. It’s more likely ‘I will kill you, maggot’, though he would rather announce it to one’s face than through a letter,” Kimmel replied as he chose to move his knight instead. He soon grimaced when Clair gave him a grin and captured his knight with her runologist piece.

The strategist seemed to know Albel’s mannerisms exceedingly well. Nel supposed that he had to, considering that he had had to deal with the temperamental warrior during the war. In fact, she recalled that he was the only soldier (that she knew of) who could approach the Wicked One without stammering or wetting himself.

Kimmel soon seemed to realize that he was being backed into a corner in his game against Clair and looked through all possible options that could still win him a victory. He never had lost a game of chess before and he was determined that this wouldn’t be the first time. An idea soon came to him as his eyes wandered over to Nel.

“Lady Nel, do you intend to send a reply?” he wondered, sounding as business-like as he could muster.

The spy glanced at him before she shook her head, “No need. I will see him in person soon enough…”

She ignored the knowing grin on Clair’s face and grew curious when Kimmel’s features showed some relief. She thought he was dreading the thought of seeing Albel again, but it turned out that her answer played into his quickly devised exit strategy.

“Ah, if that is the case, then I must be off. My unit is not stationed here this week so I should return to them.”

Clair saw right through his act. “Running away, are you?”

He kept a cheerful smile on his face to hide the fact that he had been caught. “I’d prefer calling it a tactical retreat. Knowing when to execute such a move ensures victory at a later time.”

He then stood and walked over to her bed, where his helmet had been gently placed. The Crimson Blades watched his every move as he headed for the door. Kimmel paused for a moment before he turned back to the tactician with a rather flirtatious grin.

“I will admit, that you are the first to have trapped me so thoroughly, perhaps next time, I will either see through your wiles or be captured completely,” he said before he bowed and then nodded to Nel. “Until next time, Lady Clair, Lady Nel.”

The spy knew his words had a double meaning, but she wasn’t in any mood to reflect on it or wonder if he was referring to the game or to Clair. She instead called him a coward under her breath as he left and then turned to face her friend. She was shocked to find a fond smirk on her face and found that the tactician thought Kimmel’s retreat was very amusing.

Now the knowing look was on Nel’s face. Did Clair actually…like him? Come to think of it, she always had a thing for men with beards. But Adray wasn’t going to approve- he still didn’t like Glyphians and she wasn’t sure if Kimmel had the ‘spirit’ that Adray admired so much. Of course, Clair didn’t really care much for her father’s opinion to begin with.

“Nel, wipe that grin off your face,” the grey haired woman said warningly. “There is nothing going on between Kimmel and I.”

“I didn’t indicate as such… Though I would tell that to the other soldiers- they think you were doing something other than playing runic chess in here,” the spy commented in an innocent tone. Clair let out a tired sigh at that. She whole reason she invited the Black Brigade strategist into her chambers was so that she could have a conversation with him in private. The fact that she was talking to anyone on a personal level (other than Nel, of course) piqued everyone’s curiosity and they wanted to eavesdrop on her.

“It is truly unfortunate that our troops have nothing better to do with their newfound free time,” Clair replied, raising her tone a little for anyone who could be listening out in the halls. “Perhaps I should find more tasks for them to do.”

The spy chuckled and mentioned that she made a similar threat not too long ago before she helpfully suggested that they assist the Black Brigade with the rebuilding efforts. But no matter how tired a solder was, gossip would still prevail. But eventually, word got out later that Albel the Wicked left a letter for Nel and that she left for Kirlsa not long after. It created new rumors that Nel could be having some kind of relationship started to surface.

Nel didn’t particularly care what they speculated and left it be. She knew they didn’t have proof and that all they could do was just talk. So long as such rumors couldn’t reach her majesty’s ears, there was nothing to worry about. However, to the spy’s dismay and embarrassment, the latest gossip ended up creating a saying about Glyphians, perhaps to help counter what they said about Aquarians- ‘Forget the Storm and the Dragon Brigade. It’s the Black Brigade you want to sleep with.’

They say that because that was what it seemed like the Crimson Blades were doing. But the spy was sorely disappointed that they had to have a saying at all- hearing the Glyphian slogans were embarrassing enough. Albel would probably gleefully remind her about it should she ever insult the sayings of his people again.

To the Twenty-Second Chapter (Dying Words)

5 thoughts on “21. Back to Normal

  1. cheshirewolf says:

    Alright, I think I’ve capslocked and key-smashed enough about this, but still…SDFKDAFLKSDF. I actually rather enjoy filler sometimes (even if it’s just because I tend to sing songs about it to the tune of “Thriller”), though this forwarded the subplots in many other ways, including our beloved Clair romance–a.k.a. Operation Get Clair Laid. I also loved the beginning with Adray going into fatherly mode over Nel, which is a side of him you rarely see aside from the frustrating half that tries to force potential husbands on Clair. Likewise, Nel’s musings over her own dad added some rare elaboration on her feelings about Nevelle and his untimely death. Also, WHAT IS UP IVES? HOW’S YOU DOIN’? I can imagine everyone else—like your other betas and AFF readers—reading that part and wondering, “Who the hell is that guy?” Puppy Chow is going to be pissed if he ever learns that another guy managed to gain entrance to Clair’s private chambers (randy double entendre kinda sorta admittedly intended), as it’s already hilarious how significant an occasion his presence obviously is by the reactions of Nel and the other soldiers. I don’t think Logan will come close to beating Clair at chess, though, so he can rest easy knowing that his skill with strategy outmatches that of her oddball of a former lover. Now I want to draw both Logan and Kimmel in a sort of comparison study, but I’m about as good at visual arts as I am at not writing stories that reference philosophers, which is to say that I fail so, so hard at it. XD

    • Sadly, I caught the naughty ‘private chambers’ before I realized that you meant the clean version XD

      I don’t know why, but Ives is my favorite from your fic.He’s a strategist, he’s in the army for apparently reasons the others can’t know about- and he’s an uncle (a better one than Vox)! As soon as I find time (and as soon as I get the last theme done) I’m planning to attempt drawing a head shot of Kimmel. If you can get me various references of what you envisioned Logan’s hairstyle, beard style, nose shape, and eye shape to be, I can make an attempt to draw him, too.

  2. cheshirewolf says:

    I was actually worried that–supposing you knew what the movie ‘Ravenous’ was or at least looked it up– I was setting Ives up to look like the obvious bad guy who was doing everything, (*spoiler:* He’s not.) which I guess would make him an effective red herring when combined with the fact that he’s been placed at Chiron for reasons he won’t discuss. My mental image of him even began to resemble Robert Carlyle, though. XD

    Heh, though I’m excited about the Kimmel drawing, I don’t want to force you to draw Logan. I did find a picture that resembles him rather well, to the point where I feel a small spark of recognition every time I scroll by it in my folder, though perhaps without the receding hairline and the eyes that are somewhat too squinty. I’ll send it to you, but only bother with it if you’re bored or otherwise unoccupied.

  3. cheshirewolf says:

    Actually, I just found a better Logan-esque pic on Tumblr. It’s better if only for his facial expression (which is that sort of melancholy vibe he gives off) and messier look, though this guy’s hair is more like Kimmel’s dirty blond than Logan’s lighter shade. http://i871.photobucket.com/albums/ab280/Televised_Onryo/tumblr_lv36r3QMvL1qf1jd4.png

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