9. Alliance

Chapter 9

Alliance

            The sun was beginning to rise just as Cliff and Nel approached the Airyglyph border within the Kirlsa/Aire Hills. Somehow Nel was able to awaken early enough to keep up with the tight schedule that she relayed to Cliff the other day. While she didn’t want to admit it, it seemed that she was able to sleep better when her body was sated. But she didn’t want to call Albel every night to help her achieve that. When the ordeal with the Vendeeni was over, she was going to need to find a lot of missions to distract herself with. The busier she was, the less she would think of and desire him.

The war zone had long since been cleaned up and all traces of the slaughter were long gone. But the memory of that nightmare still reigned in her head. Nel glanced over to Cliff and nodded to him as a signal to stay on his guard. Until a real treaty was established, they were still on enemy ground. Airyglyph had no obligation not to attack them.

The soldier encampment had been pushed back all the way to the Kirlsa gates. The spy couldn’t tell if they had done so out of fear of the new enemy or if they didn’t want to see the land where they had lost so many comrades. Nel made her lum slow down to a trot as her eyes swept over the small garrison. There were many tents and soldiers closer to the town, but it seemed they only had a small party standing watch to warn everyone of a possible attack. It was only a small group consisting of a few members from each brigade and they were already tensing at the sight of them.

The Aquarian let out a sigh before she and Cliff dismounted their beasts and carefully walked over to the nearest soldier as peacefully as they could. Nel stood straight before she raised her right hand and placed it over her chest as a sign of respect to the other side. It was a common military gesture observed by both sides and it was generally used to open discussions between opposing parties.

“I am Nel Zelpher of Aquaria and I-”

She was cut off when the soldier let out a terrified scream, followed by his companion beside him. Before the spy could even blink, the two men fled and mounted their dragons nearby. Then they flew off in the direction of the mountains were the Dragon Brigade headquarters were supposed to be. Nel blinked a few times before she glanced at Cliff in confusion. What just happened?

The blonde man let out a small chuckle before he muttered, “O-kay, that was unexpected.”

The spy had to check to make sure she didn’t accidentally make a threatening gesture before she wondered if she had used the wrong tone when announcing herself. She was trying her best to act diplomatic, but apparently she did something wrong. But before either one could inquire to the other of what happened, a man in thick black armor approached them and returned Nel’s gesture of respect. He was a member of the Black Brigade, one of Albel’s men. Nel noted that the man was shaking in his armor and had a slight stutter to his speech, but he was trying to be brave before them.

“I am the temporary leader of this unit. What do you want, Aquarian?” he wondered in a rather weak tone for someone who was supposed to be in charge.

Nel decided to try again, “I have come bearing a message to your king. Aquaria wishes for a temporary alliance with the Kingdom of Airyglyph in order to combat the enemy in the sky- those celestial ships that attacked a few days ago. This man with me-Cliff Fittir- is here to explain the situation to His Majesty.”

The soldier visibly relaxed upon hearing her words. “You mean to say that those weapons were not from your country?”

Suddenly it became clear why the Dragon Brigade members acted the way they did and why the soldier in front of them was so scared. They were still under the belief that the celestial ships were weapons from her country. Even the spy was still scared of the power the Vendeeni possessed so she couldn’t blame them for feeling that way. …Though she couldn’t fathom how trained soldiers would scream and run away like that. That was just disgraceful.

“No,” she responded as she shook her head, “They are no allies of ours. It’s difficult to explain who and what they are, but we have also suffered heavy casualties because of them. Our only hope to combat these new enemies is to combine forces- our runological weapons and your ability to fly- your air dragons.”

The Black Brigade knight listened to her words and seemed to think it over. He then nodded, “I understand. But unfortunately, I do not have the authority to let you pass or see our king.”

“Hey now, don’t you understand that your country could be wiped out if you don’t cooperate!?” Cliff shouted as he slammed his fist into the palm of his hand in an attempt to intimidate the man. Nel touched his shoulder and shook her head to calm him down. She could already tell the soldier wasn’t trying to hinder them. He was only stating the limitations of his authority.

“Do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to turn you away. I merely wish to ask you to wait here as I discuss this with my comrades. I shall ask a member of the Storm Brigade to send for Lord Woltar. He will have the authority that I lack.”

“Very well, we shall wait,” Nel replied before the soldier saluted to her and then turned on his heel to approach the other knights. Whoever he was, he was rather eloquent and a smooth talker. She briefly wondered if he was supposed to be the new second-in-command of Albel’s brigade. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much information about the top men in his army, save for Shelby and himself. Her main focus was the Dragon Brigade since they were the primary aggressors in the war.

Actually…the man kind of reminded her of a certain tactician back in Arias…

“Heh,” Cliff grunted as the soldiers began conversing amongst themselves. “Hard to believe he was from Albel’s group. I thought they would be all muscles and no brains.”

“Like you?” Nel quipped, unable to resist.

The blonde man shrugged and sighed dramatically, “Why is everyone picking on me? I can think sometimes!”

“Sometimes…” the spy scoffed in good humor as she crossed her arms, “Believe it or not, the Black Brigade is the best when it comes to military strength, but only second best in tact and skill.”

“Second to who? The Dragon Brigade?”

“The Storm Brigade,” she corrected, “The Dragon Brigade only has brute force and a heavy reliance on air dragons. Vox’s men are actually the worst field troops in Airyglyph, but their air dragons are more than enough to cause problems for us. The Black Brigade is the most destructive of the three because of their balance of discipline, strength, and wit.”

In truth, the Black Brigade alone could’ve destroyed the Aquarian army. Their armor was strong enough to withstand most runological attacks and they were all adequately skilled at the sword. It was actually a miracle that they were only called out to fight once. Had Vox not been so insistent on attacking with his brigade, her country might’ve lost to Airyglyph a long time ago. Even though Woltar was still considered the best captain of the three, Albel deserved some credit in leading such a force.

“After seeing that little display, I suppose I’d have to believe that,” he said, referring to the Dragon Brigade members that fled from them. Nel was honestly surprised they reacted that way, but she was certain they would eventually regain their bravado once they figure out that Aquaria wasn’t behind the celestial ships.

“…But even so, the Black Brigade was kind of useless in that last fight. All they did was stand there in a wall formation and ignored orders from the others,” he continued, bringing on a good point.

She was a little confused as to why they did that. She knew that Vox had taken command of them at the time, but she couldn’t imagine he would give the order to just stand there and defend the border. The Black Brigade was more suited for the first march into battle. Had they stayed back because they wanted Albel to lead them? She doubted that… But in the end, she couldn’t complain about it. While it was difficult getting past them to get to Vox, it was better than having to worry about Clair and the others facing them. While she didn’t want to admit it, the Black Brigade could’ve easily slaughtered most of the Aquarian army before the Vendeeni showed up. Perhaps their blunder was a blessing from Apris.

They waited in silence after the Black Brigade soldier returned to announce that Woltar would be coming soon. It wasn’t a very long wait. The old man came out on his lum and listened to Nel as she repeated her reason for being there and Cliff’s purpose in the matter.

“Very well. I, too, agree that we should combine forces. I will escort you to Airyglyph and bring this matter to His Majesty’s attention.”

“We are grateful for your assistance, Lord Woltar,” Nel said with a bow before she and Cliff mounted their lums and followed the aged warrior.

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

“…This is going well,” Nel thought wryly as they traveled through the Traum Mountains side by side with Woltar. She was trapped between Cliff and the old man and had a small company of Storm Brigade members traveling in front and behind them. That in itself didn’t bode well for the spy, but she had to trust that the count was only ensuring their safety.

No, her real problem was the aged warrior. Her keen senses easily caught him discreetly staring at her. He was evaluating her and determining her abilities. She returned the favor by sizing him up with a side glare. She couldn’t afford to start a fight now when they were so close in getting Airyglyph to agree to a truce, but she couldn’t let Woltar think he was intimidating her.

But the aged warrior seemed to have other plans as he smiled warmly. “I must apologize on the boy’s behalf for his absence at the last battle. He did want to attend, but he had other matters he had to address at the time.”

She wasn’t sure what he was trying to pull. She knew he was referring to Albel because he was the only one Woltar referred to as ‘boy’, but why would he think she would care? Or was he just heckling her and Cliff by rubbing it in their noses that he wasn’t there to challenge them?

“Huh? Who’re talking about?” Cliff wondered in a confused tone. Since he was no spy, he didn’t know the reference. Though the she would’ve thought he would catch on because there was only one noted person who was missing from the last battle.

Nel was about to open her mouth to answer him, but the aged warrior beat her to it.

“I was speaking of a rather…intimate friend of Lady Nel’s,” he responded with a tiny smirk, earning a cold glare from the spy. What was that supposed to mean? Surely he didn’t know what transpired between her and Albel? Albel didn’t …tell him did he? She didn’t want to show any outward emotion, but she couldn’t stop herself from tightening her grip on the reins of her lum.

One of Cliff’s eyebrows rose as a sly smile came to his face, “A…friend? A Glyphian friend? Anyone I know, Nelly?”

She chose to ignore him and focused on the count. “Why would you say that? He is no ally or friend of mine.”

“Is that so?” he muttered noncommittally as his eyes trained forward on the path, “I only assumed that was the nature of your relationship since he asked me to give you an honorable warrior’s death should we have crossed swords on the battlefield.”

“Oh…that kind of friendship,” the blonde muttered, mistaking the true meaning of that statement.

In actuality, a warrior giving an honorable death to another was a sign of great respect and a close comradeship. It was one of the greatest honors next to dying for one’s country. The gesture ensured that the fallen would receive a burial on the land of their birth and die with no regrets. Any valuables on their person would be given to their kin and not be claimed by the enemy. Of course, Cliff was from another world and didn’t share the romantic views of the warrior culture both kingdoms shared so he thought it was a sign of hatred.

Nel was actually touched that Albel would request such a thing. It proved to her that he really did view her as a fellow warrior and not some female enemy for him to seduce. Though if Woltar hadn’t been sending the spy vibes that he was hiding something since they’ve started traveling, she would’ve caught on to the fact that he wasn’t telling her everything about Albel. She could tell what little he did say was the truth and accepted it. While Albel did wish for her to die honorably, he only agreed to it under the condition of if she couldn’t be sent to the dungeons and tortured with him. But the old man decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain the whole truth. It was Albel’s story to tell, after all.

But…she couldn’t let Woltar know that information affected her. She could tell that he was trying to test her for some reason, but she wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. Was he concerned that she and Albel were in a relationship? Or was he trying to see if knowing that would maker her lower her guard? Either way, she felt a little better knowing that he wasn’t really aware of what happened between her and Albel. She believed him when he said that he only ‘assumed’ the nature of the relationship.

“I wonder why he would say such a thing. He doesn’t owe me any kindness,” she replied with a shake of her head as she tried to appear nonchalant.

“I wonder myself,” he retorted in a small grunt, “But for whatever reason, you have caught his eye and earned his respect.”

He wasn’t lying. Hearing all of this made her want to talk to Albel even more and try to figure out his motives and reason behind it. Cliff was lost on the conversation and couldn’t figure out how anyone could respect someone they wanted to kill. Nel didn’t want to explain it to him lest he resume his misconception that she was having a secret affair with the enemy. …Though unfortunately that wasn’t a complete misconception. She didn’t want an affair with Albel, but she couldn’t deny that they had shared a bed together.

They arrived at Airyglyph before they could discuss more. Woltar made them dismount their beasts before the gates of the city and had his men stand guard by the bridge. He then turned to Nel and held out his hand.

“I will deliver your message to His Majesty and give him a brief explanation of the situation. If he decides to hear you, I will come and bring you to him,” he explained as he patiently waited for her to give him the letter. It was then she realized that they were not allowed in the city and were not really guaranteed an audience with the king.

She could see why though. Even though most of Airyglyph didn’t know her by face, they did know her by name. She was the main assassin who murdered most of the nobles who supported the war. Woltar had every right to protect his king by asking them to wait from a distance. For all he knew, it could be an elaborate set up so that Nel could assassinate the king. And while she understood the reasoning behind it, she was a little disappointed that they weren’t going to trust her.

But, trust had to start somewhere- and she couldn’t ignore the fact that Woltar called most of his men into the city, leaving their escape open should something bad happen. There was a certain degree of trust there, she just had to be a bit more patient. Cliff’s jaw hung open as he watched her give the rolled up parchment to the man. Woltar gave a word of thanks before he headed into the city to deliver the message.

“Wait, what? So that’s it? We have to wait here and hope we can see the king? What if that old man doesn’t give him the letter?” the Klausian inquired once Woltar was out of hearing range.

“This is a test. After so many years of warring with my people, we can’t expect them to trust us instantly. They want to make sure I’m not an agent sent to assassinate anyone. Also, notice how no one is guarding our back. We have the option to run if need be and they might be waiting to see if we take it. If we run, then it’s more proof that we could be up to no good,” she explained, making the man grin.

“I gotcha. So we gotta play by their rules for the time being. …I kinda wish they’d make us wait in the inn or something. The cold is starting to get to me,” he muttered as he started pacing. Cliff didn’t really seem all that cold to her, but she figured that he was just complaining to pass the time.

…But it was rather cold. She didn’t think to bring her cloak since she figured the meeting would be inside and she would only spend no more than two hours in Airyglyph. She knew she could endure the weather long enough to complete her mission and just ignored the chills that crept up her limbs. Instead, she just allowed her mind to drift over to Albel once again.

Woltar mentioned that he had to attend to something at the time of the war. She wasn’t sure if it was related to his ‘missing’ status, but it gave her another clue that something was amiss. He told her to seek him out in Airyglyph, but couldn’t he just as easily come out to see her if he heard that she was nearby? Something inside her figured that wasn’t the case. He was being detained somehow to the point where he couldn’t leave the castle. As a spy, she could easily infiltrate the city right then and seek him out, but she had an obligation to wait there for Woltar to return. Not only that- Cliff was right there and he would be suspicious of why she wanted to sneak in the city so badly.

But, maybe they could stay the night in Airyglyph long enough for her to meet with him… Nel dismissed the idea as soon as it came. She couldn’t afford to waste time with her petty curiosity when the queen was depending on her to return with good news. Furthermore, even if the king believed them and agreed to the truce, that didn’t mean the soldiers and citizens of Airyglyph would also agree. There was no possible way for her to stay the night without risking an attack from a few rebels. While she was confident that she could fight off any opposition, it was better to avoid conflict altogether. She was just going to have to wait for him to come find her…

Almost as soon as she thought that, she noticed movement near the gates on the other side of the bridge.

“Hey, someone’s coming out,” Cliff said before he moved to stand beside Nel. For a moment they thought Woltar was coming back, but there was another person with him.

Nel’s eyes widened as she realized that King Airyglyph himself decided to leave his castle and come meet with them outside. That was unexpected. It seemed that the news on the letter was so shocking that he couldn’t wait for them to come in for an audience. But at the same time, she had to respect the humility and bravery he displayed with his action. Whether he meant to show trust or not, he still came out to meet them when a prideful and arrogant sovereign would just send a messenger on his behalf.

Normally, such a gesture would have her reevaluate the former enemy king, but she couldn’t easily forgive him for what he had done to her country. Ultimately, the decision to wage war was his and she knew he was no puppet. She was well aware of Arzei’s past and the underhanded tricks he pulled to get where he was. He probably knew that Vox was lying to him and yet he obliged him. There could have been a good reason behind the king’s actions, but the spy wasn’t sure if she wanted to know them. She hated him too much to reflect on the possibility.

However, she was able to rein in her emotions enough to bow to him in a respectful manner, but she still refused to kneel, as that was something she would only do for her queen. She couldn’t afford to hate him openly. The success of her mission depended on her and her country couldn’t afford another war. No matter how much she hated him, she had to make peace with him for the sake of her countrymen.

“So you say you can explain this situation?” the king wondered as he glanced over to Cliff and then commanded, “I will hear you now.”

“All right, here it goes…” Cliff began casually before he warned the king and Woltar that most of his story would be difficult to explain…

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

Nel had heard the story before, but even after a second time she still had trouble following it. At least she was able to grasp the concept of other worlds better than the Glyphians, possibly since she was one of the few Elicoorians to have actually seen the enemy and survive. But like her queen, the king decided to believe the story and concede to the fact that they had to discuss the possibility of an alliance.

However, there was still an issue of trust. Arzei wanted to meet with the queen face to face before he would agree to anything. Nel thought that was a fair request, but she wasn’t sure how to make it happen. There were barely any neutral territories that were accessible to both sides and there was no possible way she was going to allow her queen to come here to Airyglyph to speak with him. But it seemed the king had had already thought ahead on it…

“Your queen will meet with me at the hall of the round table in the Ruins of Mosel tomorrow. We will only cooperate if these conditions are met,” he insisted boldly as he looked down at her with a regal gaze. Nel kept a schooled mask on her face as her inner rage churned within her. The Ruins of Mosel were located on the edge of a scorching desert. That place was far too dangerous to bring her sovereign to …but it was also the only place accessible by both parties.

“I understand the importance of meeting with Her Majesty, but is there no other place that is safer to reach? You have your air dragon, but she would have to cross on foot,” the spy reminded him, earning something of a sympathetic glance.

“If there is such a land we know not of it. However, if Romeria truly wishes for a truce, then this challenge should only be but a small burden to her. We will offer no other option,” he replied curtly. The spy had to stifle an irritated growl.

While she didn’t like the conditions or his kingly arrogance, she couldn’t argue with his logic. It was her country that was requesting assistance and the burden to prove their true intentions rested on them. Airyglyph was only testing to make sure it was safe to trust them. Nel was certain her queen would’ve done the same had the situation been reversed. Though she wished for a little more time. While they could reach ruins in one day, there was no guarantee that Romeria could travel as quickly. Plus, Nel would have to rush back to Aquios before nightfall in order to give her enough time to prepare for the journey.

“…Very well. I will inform my queen as soon as possible. But know this: due to the harsh conditions of the Mosel Dunes, we may not be as punctual as you are-” she warned him, but he cut her off with a nod.

“Worry not, we understand. We shall wait for the course of an entire day and only leave when night falls.”

“I am grateful for your understanding,” Nel replied before she bowed slightly again, “Thank you for seeing us. We shall depart and leave for Aquaria at once to deliver your answer.”

The king nodded before he turned and headed back to his castle. Woltar and a few of his men remained. The old man then approached Nel and Cliff.

“I shall escort you to the border,” he offered before he signaled for someone to bring his lum.

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

In order to make good time, the lum moved at a brisk pace so that they could reach the border by the noon hour. Nel had wanted to rest in Arias long enough to eat, but she knew the situation was too urgent to stop. Not only that, the longer they stayed, the more likely Adray would overhear what was going on and insist on coming. While he would be a welcome escort to the Mosel Dunes, he was too violent for peace negotiations.

But, before she could cross the border, Woltar asked to speak with her in private. Curious about what the old man would want to say to her, she told Cliff to go on without her and wait for her near the entrance to Arias. Woltar then nodded to his soldiers to fall back to the encampment. Once they were alone he gave her a rather conniving look. The spy narrowed her gaze as she wondered what tricks he was up to. He was a master manipulator and wasn’t afraid to use even his own allies to get what he wanted. Though Nel had to wonder what use she could be to him at the moment.

“Aren’t you the least bit curious about where he is?” he inquired in a light tone, catching her off guard. She didn’t need to ask whom he was referring to. She decided to maintain a professional attitude and only feign interest as a spy.

“I’m only curious in the sense that I want to ensure he is not lurking in the shadows and waiting for a chance to attack. Are you really willing to divulge information to an enemy spy?” she countered, making the aged man chuckle over her answer.

“If we form an alliance, then you would no longer be an enemy. However, I thought you should know his whereabouts since you are partially responsible for it.”

“Me?” Nel called out incredulously, surprised to hear such a thing.

“Ever since your encounter at the Bequerel Mines, he has been spending his days in the dungeon. Vox accused him of treason, saying that the boy had let your party go because he sympathized with you,” he revealed staring at her with a critical eye.

So that’s what happened. Now it made sense. Albel was locked away in the dungeons for a crime he didn’t really commit. …But why accuse him of treason? It was true that she was allowed to go free, but it wasn’t like he didn’t try to stop them. He was responsible for the injuries that Tynave and Farleen suffered as they tried to get the load of copper back to Aquaria. And he also trapped the area to knock everyone out. While he had an ulterior motive behind that, it was still a move that could’ve potentially stalled them long enough to have been captured had anyone from his side arrived in time.

Now she understood Woltar’s game and why he was telling her all of this. He was trying to entice her to reveal her side of the story and either prove Albel’s innocence or guilt.

“I see…” she muttered before she sharply faced the old man, “If what you say was true and he wanted to grant me an honorable death in battle, then I do owe him a kindness. I’ll just simply repeat myself: Albel Nox is no ally or friend of mine. He severely injured two of my subordinates and engaged in mortal combat with the Greeton engineers and me. We overpowered and defeated him, but we didn’t kill him because one of the engineers decided to be merciful. …But, you knew that already, didn’t you?”

She could tell by the smug look on his face that he didn’t doubt Albel’s loyalty to his kingdom for one moment. But she had to wonder why he wanted her to say anything. What good was her word and how would it help Albel in anyway?

“I know the boy well and his only real goal is the prosperity of Airyglyph. But Vox came up with rather convincing lies that made even His Majesty doubt the boy’s intentions. In truth, he should have been released now that the only accuser is gone from this world, however…the damage has been done and you are the only witness to prove his innocence,” he explained sounding solemn, but appearing amused.

“I’m not obligated to clear his name. What reason would I have to do so? It’s no fault of mine that your king thinks so lowly of one of his loyal captains,” Nel said tersely with a glare. “Vox can’t prove his guilt anymore so why not let Albel prove his innocence? I’m sure he could pass any task your king can come up with.”

Suddenly Woltar began to laugh deeply before he turned his lum in the direction of Kirlsa. The spy wasn’t sure what she had said that was so funny, but she decided not to ask. She could tell the laughter wasn’t directed at her.

“Forgive me,” the old man eventually replied when he recovered, “I am now beginning to see why the boy is so fond of you. He would have said the same thing if the situation were different. I suppose he would not have appreciated any help either way. I shall not delay you any further, Lady Nel, have a safe journey home.”

Nel watched him for a moment as he rode off on his lum. She wasn’t sure what his last statement meant. Was he not going to help Albel after all? She shook her head and continued on to Arias. It wasn’t her concern anyway. Nel didn’t feel all that guilty that he had been imprisoned. In the end, Albel was the one who gave his king reason to doubt him, so the whole ordeal was his fault. …But she wasn’t completely unsympathetic to his plight.

Vox was the one who put him in that dungeon by telling lies and while she had no idea why the late duke would do such a thing to one of his allies, she knew Albel didn’t really deserve it. It was rather sad that his own king doubted him and she had to wonder why he was still so loyal to his kingdom if they were going to turn against him so easily. It wasn’t too long ago that Nel was terrified of being accused of treason herself, but at least she had a good friend who knew her true character and would defend her if she were ever tried. Apparently Albel had no one.

Come to think of it, he wouldn’t tell her where he was outright. He wanted her to seek him out and find out for herself what became of him. He didn’t ask for her help, nor did he try to make her aware of his incarceration. It seemed he only wanted her to figure it out by her own terms. And suddenly she was able to decipher why. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to know about it, he didn’t want her to think he needed her help. The ordeal was none of her business and she didn’t need to be involved. The only reason he would expect her to come was to have her own questions answered.

It was almost scary, but she completely agreed with his idea. Had she been placed in his position, she wouldn’t want or expect anyone to risk their necks to save her. Maybe Vox was onto something when he compared her to Albel…

Albel didn’t want her help and she didn’t particularly want to help him. He seemed to think he could get out of his imprisonment on his own and she was going to let him do that. She could wait to ask her questions for a little longer. Besides, if he wanted to be an ass to her…well two can play that game.

It wasn’t that she was angry with him, per se, but she wasn’t all that worried anymore knowing that he wasn’t really in some life-threatening situation. She was sure the dungeons weren’t all that comfortable and that he might’ve been tortured for a bit, but he only appeared tired to her, not beaten. He was going to be fine…

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

Nel wasn’t one bit surprised when Romeria announced that she would travel to Mosel and persuade the king herself. In her youth, the queen used to be a rather rebellious and brave woman who would challenge head priestesses and other heads of state. It was because of her bold nature and her bloodline that she was selected to inherit the throne after the last queen. The spy wasn’t all that concerned with her safety since Fayt and the other off-worlders were coming with them. They were more than enough to protect the queen from monsters and any rebels from Airyglyph as they left early the next morning.

Speaking of rebels, it seemed the Dragon Brigade regained their bravery as Nel had suspected. There were several members still under the influence of Vox’s ideals and they wanted to stop them from reaching the meeting place. Thankfully, the queen managed to confirm that Arzei had no knowledge of the coup before Nel and the others annihilated them. So long as the king didn’t arrange it, peace was still possible.

The trek through Mosel Dunes was unbearable, but they managed to bring enough water to survive and make it to the ruins. Thanks to the stone of the structure, the heat of the desert couldn’t bleed in and brought instant relief. But they didn’t have time to rest. It took half of the day to come and they still needed to solve the puzzle to enter the hall.

“I get it!” Cliff announced once the display was done showing the clue to the puzzle, “All we need to do is think of it like this: Adray is the Symbologist, Nel is the Thief, and uh…Albel is the Warrior.”

“Why am I a thief?” Nel wondered as she crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.

“Well, you’re more like a ninja, but it’s close enough,” he amended (though she had no clue what a ‘ninja’ was), before he continued to explain how the puzzle worked, “Think of it this way: Nel kicks Adray’s ass, Adray kicks Albel’s ass, and Albel kicks Nel’s ass!”

“What?” the spy roared over the last part before Fayt stepped in to prevent her from attacking Cliff. The Klausian was lucky the queen was out of hearing range so she wasn’t exposed to his vulgar language. At first she was curious as to why he would use Albel’s name for the warrior piece, but then she figured he only did it just to insult her. This could’ve been revenge for her crack about his intelligence.

“He didn’t mean anything by it,” the blue haired boy reassured her before he turned to the blonde man, “So you’re saying this is supposed to be something like Rock, Paper, Scissors?”

“Yeah pretty much,” Cliff nodded as Maria held her fist under her chin as she thought it over.

“I must say this is rather clever of you, Cliff. I’m sure I’m missing something with this ‘Albel’ character, but giving names to the pieces makes it easier to remember.”

“Thank you,” the blonde man said, happy to receive some praise for his cunning.

But Fayt quickly ruined his little victory by shaking his head, “Yeah, sometimes you can come up with good ideas.”

“Hey!”

Nel wanted to add something to that, but decided against it while Cliff’s little joke was still fresh. But thanks to his analogy, it helped them clear the obstacles rather fast. Though Nel had to wince then the white warrior cut through the black thief…

“Thank you for coming Romeria,” the king greeted when they finally made it to the center. “…It’s been a long time.”

The queen also exchanged pleasantries as she took her seat directly across from the king of Airyglyph. They acted so friendly and civil with each other that Nel had to remember that once upon a time they used to be friends. Before he knew he was going to become king, Arzei used to study in Aquaria where he met the future queen and Lady Elena. Nel had no clue how someone could turn against close friends and threaten to invade their country like he did.

But so far, everything was going well until Arzei began chuckling. His eyes held a gleam as if he knew a private joke that the others wouldn’t understand. “What took you so long? I was staring to fear that one of our hard-liners had done something foolish.”

“Don’t play dumb with us!” Nel warned in a growl before she could restrain herself. The bastard knew about the rebels! The spy had to wonder if the king even had a real intention of cooperating since he didn’t bother to warn them about the possibility of an attack. If it weren’t for the fact that he was indeed waiting for them, she would’ve suspected that Arzei was hoping his Dragon Brigade idiots would’ve succeeded and spared him the trouble.

But the king grew serious upon her words and added, “By that, I take it that something did happen. Please accept my deepest apologies.”

Nel silently released her breath as he explained what little knowledge he had of the rebels. She could tell his apology was sincere, as was his beliefs on the matter. He essentially scoffed at the ideals of the few Dragon Brigade members- ideals that Vox himself would’ve suggested if he were still alive. If Arzei didn’t believe in brute force, then why did he allow Vox to raise an army against her people? Just what was the king’s game and what motive did he have behind it?

“A simple plan for simple minds,” Romeria concluded for him, willing to put the incident behind her.

“They do no understand the dire consequences of misjudging this new enemy’s strength. We are facing a much stronger threat this time and cannot afford to exhaust our strength,” Arzei explained, revealing his belief.

Nel fisted her hands and tried not to show her ire. So if he was well aware of analyzing an enemy’s strength before attacking, then that meant he firmly believed his country could’ve taken over hers. …And it could’ve been possible, too, had Albel or Woltar been in charge. But no, Arzei gave power to Vox and listened to him. The king was hard to read and understand. He was no idiot and yet he let an arrogant warmonger hinder his plans and incarcerated a capable man under false charges. Somehow there was a method to the king’s madness, but damned if Nel saw what it was.

But there was someone else who was also hard to read, the spy noted as her gaze traveled over to the old man beside the king. Woltar was once again staring at her, almost as if he were trying to get her attention. She could see the mirth in his eyes and his lips were tilted ever so slightly upwards. He was clearly up to something, but she wasn’t sure if what he was up to was related to the negotiations. He might wish to further torment her about Albel’s status. He seemed adamant about making her responsible for sending Albel to the dungeons…

Once again, Fayt had to explain the Vendeeni for the king and queen since they still had a hard time grasping the story. She could see Cliff roll his eyes in exasperation as Maria gently shook her head. She resisted the urge to glare at the two. Unlike them, her planet never had any contact with or even knew about aliens. It wasn’t that easy to understand either since the off-worlders had so many terms they never heard of before. But…Nel could see how this was getting tiring for them. They must’ve repeated themselves at least five times already.

They still didn’t understand any better than before, but both sovereigns did know that they had no choice but to join forces. The king agreed to cooperate, but he had a new problem to present: Airyglyph didn’t have an air dragon big enough to carry the Thunder Arrow. But they did know of a great air dragon that could bear the weapon- all they had to do was go tame him. Even Nel had heard of the Marquis before, but she didn’t know much. All she knew was that he was the oldest known air dragon in the region and that no Glyphian was ever able to impress him.

“Do not fear, Arzei. I trust they will be capable,” the queen stated, putting her trust in Nel and the off-worlders.

“I do not doubt you feel that way,” the king said before he sighed and shook his head, “However, our trust is not so easily given.”

“Then what do you propose we do? Did you not consent to joining forces?” Romeria wondered as she stared calmly at her former friend.

“I only request a representative of Airyglyph be included in their party. Then I shall withdraw my objections,” he replied in an amiable tone.

Nel had to agree that would be the best option, but to let a Glyphian in their party… Was there such a thing as a humble Glyphian? Nel wasn’t sure if she could handle having a member of one of the brigades in the party. She would probably strangle them if they so much as uttered ‘Glory to Airyglyph!’

“A just proposal… But who would you have go? Woltar?” the queen wondered, making Nel cringe slightly. Apris no! Anyone but him! The old man was probably capable of turning everyone against each other before the mission could be completed…

“No, Woltar is much too old. I do not have the heart to send him into the Urssa Lava Caves. …I was thinking about sending Albel.”

Almost instantly Nel’s head whipped up to stare at the men in shock. “Albel!?”

“Do you object? I, for one, am quite fond of him,” he replied in amusement before he turned to the queen, “What do you think, Romeria?”

This time Nel caught the wide smirk on the old man’s features. The conversation she had with Woltar came back in full force as she realized that this was Albel’s chance to prove his innocence. So he really was that determined to make her take responsibility. Why did he insist on tormenting her in particular? Had she done something to offend the aged warrior? She must have because she couldn’t see any other reason why he would pick on her like this. Why should he care about forcing a former enemy to help prove someone’s innocence?

Of course, she also couldn’t miss what the king had just said. He was fond of Albel. Either Woltar was lying about the true reason Albel had to remain in the dungeons or that was truly Arzei’s display of ‘fondness’. If the latter, she shuddered to think what the king did to those he hated.

“I personally don’t mind, but…” Fayt began when the queen asked if he minded Albel’s presence.

“It doesn’t matter what we think. The problem’s gonna be what Albel thinks,” Cliff finished for him.

The king nodded and considered the matter settled. He was confident that Albel would agree to working with them and fulfilling the mission. He then told the party that they would be expecting them to come soon. With the meeting over, the queen requested to be escorted to Peterny before they could head over to Airyglyph. The spy knew that Clair received an order to meet with them in Peterny so the queen would have a good bodyguard for her trip home.

“All right,” Fayt said as he glanced at everyone, “Let’s head try to get to Airyglyph today. I know we might arrive late, but it’s better to show good faith that we are cooperating with their request.”

Cliff and Maria nodded in agreement before they headed out. Nel waited for her queen to move before she followed. The spy cast one glance back into the room before leaving and was able to see Woltar and the king exchanging knowing grins to one another. The spy narrowed her eyes as she wondered what the two of them were up to. She couldn’t sense any deception, so she probably didn’t need to worry about a malicious act, but considering Woltar’s devious nature, she did have to worry about something.

But the king was also expressing stark relief and she doubted that it had anything to do with the successful negotiations. At this point, all Nel could do was trust the other side and hope they weren’t planning to betray them later.

To the next chapter

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