Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.
Chapter 9 pt 1
The city of Delebeg dominated the desert valley, the towering walls of the city a ruddy red matching the local rock. It straddled a dry riverbed that was dotted with old, long unused docks. The road leading to the tall gates was wide and lined with tall stones. The guards at the gate straightened and nodded in Tier’s direction as they passed through.
Within the walls, the buildings were the same mud brick as the walls, and the dry dusty air made Xin feel like she was about to sneeze. Xin trailed behind the men. People stopped, staring as they went by. Many of them were dressed in loose robes that billowed in the lightest breeze.
In the center of the city, glowing white beneath the unforgiving sun, was a palace. The closer they got to it, the more Xin noticed greenery. She frowned, glancing back. The people were following them from a distance. Xin swallowed, and urged her horse to move faster, closer to Rale and Tier. These people were unnerving.
The road changed as they neared the palace. From brick to carefully laid cobblestones, and those following them stopped at the line where it changed. Neither men seemed to notice. Xin forced her attention on the arched gate. Beyond the gate was a courtyard and on the far end was a set of steps leading up to double doors. At the top of the steps stood a man. Tall, thin and gaunt, his eyes glittered as they neared. Tier raised his hand in greeting and dismounted.
“No fanfare, no announcements nor chalets, just riding up the road. Gods of the great high one, you haven’t changed a bit.” The man’s voice was deep and though he was smiling, it failed to reach his eyes. Xin’s stomach twisted. There was something off about this man, but she wasn’t sure what.
“Hello Lord Chiron, I don’t suppose we could impose on your hospitality?” Tier asked, meeting him half way down the steps. “We’ve been on the old road for a while, and could use a rest.”
“My household would be honored to have you here, your highness.” Chiron said, bowing. “Lord Rale? Is that you under all that dust?”
“It is.” Rale slid off his horse and limped over to Xin’s horse. “It’s a hell of a trek down the mountain.”
“It is.” Chiron laughed. “Why did you take the old road.”
Xin dismounted stepping back as several youths with shaved heads arrived, bowed to them and took the reins from their hands, guiding the horses towards a side archway. Xin watched bemused. She couldn’t tell if they were male or female and their simple clothes didn’t give any hints When she looked back towards the men, Lord Chiron was staring at her, his heavy brows pulled together. His false smile faded.
“I do not recognize you, my lady.” Chiron’s voice was odd. Xin glanced over at Tier, unsure of what to say.
“This is Xin.” Tier motioned her over, resting a hand on her shoulder, he squeezed gently. “A road companion headed for Sandau.”
Xin gave what she hoped was a proper curtsy. The way Chiron was staring at her made her wonder if she’d sprouted horns and hadn’t noticed.
“Still picking up strays along the way, eh?” Chiron looked back at Tier and sneered. He motioned them to follow him up the stairs. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“I believe you said that already.” Rale muttered as he touched Xin’s shoulder. “Come on, this will be unpleasant. Chiron hogs the water for the palace grounds so we might as well take advantage of it.”
“Is that why the people were following us?”
“Chiron isn’t exactly liked. The people here are always short on water.” Rale glanced behind him. “That’s how Chiron keeps them docile.”
“It is. He is.”
“It is going to be a long few days.” Xin murmured.
“Yep.” Rale grimaced and allowed her to go ahead of him into the palace.
They followed Chiron through large open halls and corridors, a maze that Xin feared she’d get lost in if left behind. The forest and finding her way in the mountains were easy. The mere idea of trying to manage these passages by herself made her gut twist. They were nearing another set of doors when Xin felt the heavy pull of water.
She hesitated, glancing around. When the doors opened from without, the moisture hit her. Chiron had led them to an inner courtyard that flaunted his ownership of the water. It was dominated by a large fountain and pool, and around the base was a pond with water lilies. Along the edge of the courtyard, in huge buckets, were fruit laden trees. The moisture tugged at her, calling to her. She wanted to dive into the fountain, to rid herself of the dust and dry air.
She hesitated at the entry, glancing at Tier. He was listening to whatever Chiron was saying.
“We have a situation to the northeast. I must meet with my officials.” Chiron was saying.
He clapped twice and two young women with dark skin and draped in loose, light yellow wraps, hurried over. Behind them, her steps slow and deliberate, her hands clasped in front of her, was an older woman. Her skin not quite as dark, and her wraps though similar style, were a rich orange with embroidery along the edges. One of the robes was pulled halfway over her head, covering her hair from view. She halted and bowed at Chiron.
“You called, my lord?”
“Take care of my guests.” HE turned towards Tier. “Is there anything else, your highness?”
“No. Thank you. We will see you at dinner then.” Tier said, his tone had a touch of steel that Xin hadn’t heard before. She glanced at Rale whose eyebrows arched in surprise though he said nothing.
Lord Chiron spun around and hurried off, his robes swishing as he went. Xin breathed a sigh of relief. The man had an oily aura about him that she didn’t care for. She turned her attention to the women.
The two younger women half knelt, heads lowered. The older woman smiled at them, holding out her hands. Tier bowed, much to Xin’s surprise, and stepped forward, catching the woman in a tight embrace.
“You have been away for far too long, Tier.” she spoke slowly, her accent heavy.
“They usually have me on the other side of the nation.” Tier said turning towards Xin and Rale. “Vieno, these are my traveling companions, you remember Rale?”
“It has been years.” Rale said bowing also.
“Silly boys, you don’t bow to me, my lords.” She looked at Xin. “And who is this lady who travels with you?”
“This is Xin, from the Dhaul region.” Tier hesitated. “She’s traveling with us till we reach Sandau.”
“I’m no lady.” Xin said quickly. Vieno’s eyebrows arched and she smiled before turning towards Rale.
“Fatira will take you to your quarters to clean up and rest. Dinner is at sunset.”
One of the younger women stood, curtsied, and strode off towards a side door in the courtyard. After a moment’s hesitation, Rale followed. As the door closed behind him, a youth burst through running towards them, sliding to a stop, his eyes wide.
“Your highness,” he bowed, gasping for breath. “Lord Chiron request your presence in the meeting hall.” He looked up. “The officials insisted.”
“Chiron is always impatient.” Vieno said.
Tier turned towards Xin, eying her for a long moment. “Vieno,”
“Go on, highness, before Chiron loses his temper. I’ll make sure Lady Xin is comfortable.” Vieno gave a bow and then a shooing motion.
Xin watched him walk away with the servant and turned to face Vieno.
“You look very tired, young woman. Come with me.” Vieno smiled warmly, turned and walked back the way she’d come. Xin took a deep breath and followed the elegant woman.
“He does not usually travel with others.” Vieno was saying as she made a final adjustment to the dress she’d insisted Xin wear.
“So I have gathered.” Xin shifted, uncomfortable. The dress was a set of loose pieces of fabric, secured by just a few stitches here and there. They flowed around her with each step, yet were so light weight she felt as though she wore nothing. Secured at her shoulders, the dress left her arms bare, gathered at her waist the skirts covered her legs to her ankles which Vieno had insisted be decorated with thin golden chains.
“He is an awful lair.” Vieno said directly. “You were not planning to go to Sandau.”
“He is an awful liar.” Xin agreed laughing. “But yes, I have family in Sandau.” She resisted the urge to twirl in the dress and met Vieno’s gaze. The older woman’s eyes narrowed.
“I will believe you, if you insist.” She said finally. “Come, sit, your hair needs fixing.”
Xin slowly reached up, clasping both hands over her bun.
“I won’t cut it, girl. Pull out the hair stick and let’s see it.” Vieno moved the chair closer.
Xin swallowed and did so. Her hair fell out of the bun and Vieno nodded. “You take good care of it. Good. Now sit.”
“Lady Vieno, this dress, the anklets, it’s all much too fine for me.”
“You are a guest, and you travel with an Imperial Prince. You need to look the part. Besides, I saw the way he looked at you, I know you aren’t blind, you saw it too.”
“He is an Imperial Prince. I am nothing.” Xin said as she sat. “It wouldn’t be,” she floundered her cheeks heating up.
“He does not think you are nothing.” Vieno began to carefully comb through Xin’s hair. “Things could happen.” She chuckled. “He is not a bad looking man.”
“No, he’s not.” Xin agreed, annoyed when the woman chuckled. “Still, what would be the point? When we get to Sandau we will go our separate ways.” She couldn’t think about returning to Nekar. Despite what he said, she couldn’t trust Seeress.
“He is a lonely man.” Vieno said and set the comb to one side and began to do something with Xin’s hair that involved pulling, lifting and twisting. “He came to Delebeg as a young boy, left a man and in all that time he was alone. Even now, second in command of the Imperial Army in the East, he is alone. Few friends,”
“What about Rale?” Xin asked.
“They are cousins and happen to get along.” Vieno did something and Xin cringed, pain shooting through her scalp. “Sorry. Tier does his duty and that’s it. You are good for him.”
“That’s all he lives for, he said as much.” Xin said softly.
“You have given him something else to think of besides duty.” Vieno stepped back and nodded with a smile. “Look in the mirror girl.”
Xin hesitated and stepped in front of the body length piece of metal and stared. The woman standing in the mirror couldn’t be her, could it? She smoothed the skirt over her front and blinked when the reflection did the same. Vieno had twisted her hair into a myriad of braids that looped and draped, working in a string of pearls which stood out against her dark hair.
“Would it be so awful to be with him? Even for a short period of time?” Vieno asked gently.
Xin couldn’t answer. She stared at the mirror, not really seeing her reflection. Tier had been in her thoughts, invading her sleep. It was stupid. What if the Seeress decided to have her put to death? He would be the one to do it.
“He does his duty. He serves the Empire, the Seeress,”
“He is on a mission for the Seeress.” Xin looked at the older woman. Vieno frowned.
“I did not know that.” She shook her head. “That is a death sentence.”
“So I’ve heard.” Xin looked down. “It wouldn’t,” she couldn’t continue.
“This is not good.” Vieno tightened something on the dress. “It is a death sentence to be asked to do her work. Especially outside the Empire.”
“Surely some have survived, I would think if anyone could, he would!”
“Indeed.” But Vieno was still frowning. “What has she asked him to do? No, I’ll ask him myself.”
“If it’s a death sentence, and everyone is afraid of her, why,”
“Do we still follow her?” Vieno took a deep breath. “Because the alternative is much worse.”
“Is it?” Xin shook her head.
“Hush.” Vieno lowered her voice. “There are some things one doesn’t discuss, she can find things out at a great distance, and there are many mice within the palace walls.”
Xin turned meeting the woman’s dark eyes. They studied each other.
“Be careful what you say, and to whom. Dhaul is relaxed, less a part of the empire than a tributary. Words, the wrong ones, in front of the wrong person, can get you killed.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Xin murmured.
“There are some things you should be aware of, customs you must adhere to.” Vieno said. “All eyes will be on you.”
The rest of chapter 9 will be posted Tues, July 22th. Sorry y’all, it was just way too long.
If you’re enjoying it, please share, spread the word, I’d appreciate it.
Want more to read? Check out J.A. Marlow’s Summer Crash serial!
Thanks for reading.
(c) 2014 Necia Phoenix