“You told him?” Llumin’s hands were buried in her hair, eyes wide.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Myrie protested. “I just thought it looked like there was something wrong with you two, and I had to make sure that there wasn’t anything bad that had happened…!”
“Which means that you told him!” Llumin threw her hands in the air with a strained laugh. “Why did you tell him?”
“He asked, genius! And can you blame him? First he figures out that there’s a mole in his own army, which, by the way, he’s still figuring out how to properly lead, then he realizes that there’s something off about you! You really think he wouldn’t want to make sure he’s not being duped again?”
“Something off…? What on earth would make him think that there’s something off about me?”
“That’s what you’re focusing on? Llumin, I know you’re smart, but sometimes, you make some really stupid choices with your priorities.”
The mesmer’s nostrils flared. “Regardless of my priorities, that information was not yours to tell! I wish you would have asked for my permission first! Did Selana know?”
“Did I know what?”
Llumin whirled around, eyes blazing. “She told Trahearne everything.”
The elementalist’s eyes latched onto the thief. “You what?!”
The mesmer crumpled into a chair. “She told him everything, Selana. Everything about who I really am.”
Myrie stared at her. “I really don’t see why you’re so upset about it,” she said. “It was bound to come out sooner rather than later. I understand that you probably wanted to tell him yourself, but think about it: Does it really change who you are? Your ability to lead?”
“No, you don’t really understand, Myrie,” Llumin said. “There’s a reason my parents kept what they did a secret. To a lot of humans, I’m sacrilege. To other sylvari, I could be seen as an abomination!”
“Those who we’ve met haven’t treated you that way!”
“We’ve been fortunate enough to meet with the more open-minded ones,” she admitted. She took a shuddering breath. “But Myrie, Myrie, you might not know what you’ve done.”
The thief sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “From what I can tell now, though, you’re stuck with a couple of options. You either avoid what’s happened and pretend that nothing’s been said – ”
“That would be impossible!”
“ – or you go forward with your concerns and face your fears. Llumin, you can’t let what others think of you or your heritage define you. Did you let naysayers control whether or not you were able to lead the Pact? Have you let what others have said in the past dictate your life?” Myrie sat across from her and reached out to put a hand on her arm. “Hey,” she said gently. “You can’t let fear run your life.” She smiled. “Trahearne’s a nice guy. I mean, he’s a bit bookish,” she said, ignoring the accusing glare Llumin gave her, “but if I were you, I’d talk to him. You got through a whole bout against an Orrian spy, Llumin, and you know what? If I had to guess, I’d say he trusts you more than ever. I doubt that he doesn’t consider you a friend.” She patted her arm. “Heck,” she grinned, “he might even like you. I mean, you can’t deny that you like him,” Myrie shrugged. “But hey, one mountain after another, right?”
Llumin made a strangled noise that might have been a threat.
Selana uncrossed her arms and sighed. “As rare as the occasion happens,” she said slowly, “I have to agree with Myrie.”
The sylvari turned her dark head. “You really think so?”
“Llumin, I’ve grown up among nobles who’d sell their relatives to Dhuum if they thought it’d give them more political clout. Your honesty isn’t something to be ashamed of. Trahearne’s an ally, and I’d dare say we’re going to need us all to work together as well as we can. If that requires getting through some messy subjects, than that’s what it’ll take. Talk to him. It’ll help smooth things over, and if something does go wrong,” she said, and her voice became eerily calm, “I’ll simply turn him into a living torch as a reminder for any who would dare harm you again.”
Myrie and Llumin stared at her in mute horror.
“Kidding,” Selana sang.
“Flamey-locks, you’ve gotta warn us when you try to be humorous,” Myrie said hoarsely.
Want to pick up where you left off with Traveling Circus? Follow the link here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/18921094/chapters/44918104
Trahearne did not, in fact, call on Llumin that day. He did not call on her the day after, either, or for the next couple after that. It was completely understandable, given the sudden freedom from infiltration and the need to push towards clearing out and fortifying Fort Trinity, just south of Oxbow Isle. While the mesmer fluctuated between annoyance, shame, and fear for what his opinion was, at the same time, she recognized the importance of the Pact’s mission, and did her best to shove her racing thoughts into a corner while she worked.
All things considered, it went quite well.
“Are you quite done dripping candle-wax onto your hand, or are you going to finish sealing the letter before it becomes thoroughly coated?” Nettle’s dry voice broke into Llumin’s thoughts. The mesmer swore briefly and righted the dish before she hurriedly pressed the letter shut and handed it off to a benevolently-patient runner. The necromancer craned her neck and watched as the asura ran off. “Ten seconds,” she said primly. “I think that’s a new record for numbness to hot wax.”
“Why are you here again, Nettle?” Llumin flexed her hand and picked at the flaking wax. She scraped the excess back into the shallow dish and set it over the warmer to melt again.
The necromancer gave an indulgent sigh. “Because I wish to advance science and our understanding of blood magic and its properties, regardless of what anyone else may think.”
Llumin had to physically restrain herself from sending a psychic bolt at the necromancer, though part of her wondered at the other’s expression if she meant to bait it. The pale-skinned sylvari across from her smiled.
“There have been several approaches as to how we might make our move on the land occupied in what will hopefully soon be Fort Trinity,” Nettle said. She reached towards Llumin’s desk and spread a few scrolls out. “Naturally, since we will be in the edges of the Dragon’s domain, we will want to take precautions to keep from having our non-immune allies become puppets should one of them take an unfortunate plummet from some scaffolding or otherwise incur death.”
“Could you possibly speak any more blithely about such a serious subject?”
The necromancer pursed her lips. “Yes, but people do tend to get rather irritated at that point. Anyhow,” she said cheerily, “plans are here, and we need to figure out some form of magical protection against the Dragon’s power. We’ve got a promising lead on some krait orb that a blood witch has been using to keep her people’s sacrifices from becoming vengeful puppets. Judging from reports in the Order of Whispers, the radius can cover a delightfully-wide area, and it should be sufficient to cover multiple floors for an above and below-ground fort. Our engineers and arcane experts have been working themselves into a frenzy working on what magical bases we know to see about making a prototype beacon that would create a protective shield with that as its power source.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Llumin said, reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose with a free hand. She slid the mission-plan towards her and began to skim it. Across from her, she heard Nettle give a hum of surprise.
“And here I thought the office of Commander was more battle work,” she mused. “I’m glad to see that you actually do look to see about the dangers you’re sending your troops into.”
“I have to,” Llumin said. She failed to keep the irritation from her voice. “Especially after the incident with Labwan, any slip-ups would only further negatively influence those who may still doubt my abilities. I do hope,” she said, voice dropping to a cold whisper, “that you wouldn’t attempt any such sabotage.”
The necromancer rolled her eyes, turned around, and raised her leafy hair from the nape of her neck. An intricate seal glowed with ancient magics, pulsing with the flow of her blood. “Even if I wanted to,” she said, and her voice had become brittle as she lowered her hair and turned back around, “I wouldn’t be able. Gryphon still keeps his tabs on me from wherever he is now.”
“And where is he?” Llumin wondered. “It’s been ages since I’ve heard from him.”
“Last I heard,” Nettle said, “he was somewhere near Lion’s Arch. But that was weeks ago, and he’s likely moved on to whatever the Master of Whispers would have him do next.”
“Commander, reports have just come in from our southern scouts!” Khimma and Klixx skidded in nearly on top of each other, each holding either side of a large diagram.
“We’ve been analyzing enemy movements – ” Klixx said.
“ – And according to our calculations and compared against Trahearne’s field notes – ” Khimma continued.
“ – Which really are quite thorough – ” Klixx remarked.
“ – Given a safety net against draconic corruption, we should be able to move in on Trinity in a manner of weeks!” The asura released the map, sending it rolling into a thin tube between them. Khimma tapped it against Llumin’s desk with a proud beam. “This is incredible, Commander; with all the work the Pact has accomplished, we’re well ahead of the Priory’s initial schedules for invasion!”
“That is good.” Nettle clapped, beaming. “And I’ve just informed Llumin that we have that very net!”
Klixx’s skin paled. “Commander,” he said tautly, “does this ‘net’ of hers require any blood sacrifices?”
“For once, no.” Nettle rolled her eyes. “You’d think I spend all my time in the Whispers’ tents, cackling evilly over some hapless fool in a torture chamber.”
The asura exchanged glances. “You mean you don’t?”
Llumin raised her gaze from Nettle’s document. “It’s actually very sound,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t know the specifics on the magic in that orb, but if you and some of the other Pact members can retrieve it, that would be just what we’d need to push forward. We could probably find a way to replicate it in concentrated bursts to pave our way into the heart of Orr itself, directly to where the Dragon resides.” She paused and glanced up at the sound of another runner, who dashed to her desk, tossed another sealed letter on top of a growing stack, and raced out. Her eye caught the golden seal, and she barely refrained from lunging at it.
“Oooh, I recognize that look,” Khimma giggled.
“Mm-hm,” Klixx hummed, placing his hands behind his back and beaming. “So, what does the grand and lofty Marshal of the Pact have written for his Commander?”
Llumin rolled the letter shut with a snap. “It’s been days since I’ve had any direct communication with Marshal Trahearne. Though I am his most senior Commander, I would prefer to hear his opinions and advice directly from him rather than secondhand from other officers!”
Khimma gave an unconvinced hum and turned back to Klixx. “What’s your bet?”
He squinted an eye shut and scratched his ear. “Two days and ten silver.”
“Ha! I give it one and a gold!”
Klixx’s eyes bulged. “Write that down now and give me that waiver, because I want to collect on that outrageous bid.”
Khimma gave a luxurious sigh and scratched down the wager on a scrap of paper that had started to drift from Llumin’s desk. “You’ll regret not betting higher one of these days,” she said primly. “Really, you underestimate them, I think.”
“I might, but I also don’t want to deplete my already-strained coffers!”
“I beg your pardon!” Llumin’s eyes darted from one asura to the other. “But could you please explain what is going on?”
The asura whirled around, eyes wide. “Why, nothing, Commander,” Khimma wheedled. “Just a friendly bit of betting!”
“On people. On people who sound suspiciously like your Commander and Marshal,” she said evenly. “For what reason I cannot possibly begin to guess.”
Nettle was the first to arch a brow at her. “Well, in that case. Khimma, Klixx, I’m taking both of your bets and making it one night, by tonight, and doubling them.”
Both asura scrabbled for respective writing implements. Llumin’s head throbbed.
“Out! Out, all of you, and await further orders for your units and retrieving that orb!” She slumped in her chair and rubbed her temples. “The next time those lunatics cross my threshold,” she muttered to herself, “I’m going to convince at least one of them that they are moa…”
Scrape, dust, turn, scrape, stand, swing. It was a good rhythm when you got the hang of it, Sylfia thought. The polished heft of Ascalonian stone still worked wonders on Risen and other foes alike, and she was more than happy to keep it as well-maintained as it had kept her. She brushed off another coating of dust and swung it for a final time before she nodded, gave a grunt, and took out an oilcloth.
Another new rhythm began. Dip, wipe, squint, turn, repeat. The pain in her shoulders ebbed with each turn of the cloth over the rough stone of the hammer-head. Her shoulders burned from where Renvari’s swords had pierced through, and her ragged breaths still scraped past her ribcage as the skin beneath her joints and the toughened leaves of her armor prickled with the residual burning pain from the embers of her birth.
More reminders, she thought, of how she had scrabbled for every moment of life out of death’s painful jaws. She gave a sigh and rocked back onto her heels. The pale moon stood like an unblinking eye against the dark skin of the night, freckled with stars. It still unnerved her. This close to Orr, she couldn’t help but imagine the Dragon’s own eye watching, unblinking, as they began their preparations into what had been for centuries its land. What was it like, she wondered, waiting in its rotten hold?
Sylfia had heard the rumors. That Llumin had shelled a unit of Pact troops, only for it to be revealed that the whole thing had been engineered by Zhaitain and its generals. It had nearly killed both her and Selana and had left dozens dead by its deception. As it was, there were still some who questioned Llumin’s capacity to lead as the primary Commander. Was giving her the second-in-command too much to ask? Her age had been a matter of concern, the warrior knew. She was younger than both Nettle and herself, though she supposed that if her human birth-age was brought into consideration, she was technically older.
The math made her head hurt, and she grimaced. A swig of stale ale from her tankard barely helped dull the pain. She smacked her lips and frowned. Poor choice. Sylfia set her hammer down gently on its head and removed her bow. As she worked on oiling the string, her thoughts continued to wander. She thought of the Dream, and how others had heard of their Wyld Hunts from it. Nettle’s dark mission to taste the blood of every major creature she encountered had come to a standstill with her shackling to the Order of Whispers. Llumin’s quest to take on the Elder Dragons seemed an impossible task in itself. But at least they had those dreams, those quests. What was hers?
She frowned up at the stars again. “Blight you,” she muttered. She set the bow aside and reached for her tankard again. It was empty. “Blight you, too,” she said crossly, and nudged it over with her foot. A jolt of pain jagged its way up her leg at the movement, and she bit on her lip to keep from crying out. Several oaths from the different races flashed through her head then, but she did not shout. A single tear ran down her face and mixed with blood from her split lip. Soon, as it had done before, the pain dulled back to its bearable ache. Sylfia placed shaking hands on her knees and forced herself to stand.
“You’re up late.” Myrie’s calm voice nearly lost the human her eyes; Sylfia barely had the presence of mind to keep from firing her twin arrows.
“Don’t you humans know not to sneak up on warriors at rest?” Sylfia spat.
“I saw you crying,” Myrie said quietly. “There’s been a lot of stress lately.”
“It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before,” the warrior said gruffly.
“It’s pain,” Sylfia said matter-of-factly.
“Well, we’ve all suffered our own losses – ”
“Lissen, I ain’t talkin’ about metaphysical or psychic pain.” She gave a grunt as she rolled her weapons back into their protective sheaths and placed them in her pack. “Those I can deal with. I’m talkin’ about this.” She smacked a fist against her chest. “These half-burned lungs of mine, this charred skin. The feeling of embers in my muscles all the time. Physical pain, Myrie. Real.”
Myrie came into the light and sat down, brow furrowed. “Haven’t you gone to the Menders for this?”
The sylvari gave a dry chuckle. “Mate, this is after the Menders had their look at me. Some days it’s better, others it’s worse. The pain’s part of who I’ve been for a long while.” She gave her knocked-over tankard a sidelong glance. “Alcohol helps.”
“How long, though?” Myrie picked up the tankard and set it on the table, ignoring the warrior’s protest. “Come on, Sylfia, you were off it once.”
“Once,” the sylvari echoed, “before I nearly got burned to death again by Renvari.”
Myrie scratched her head. “That golden sylvari psychopath?”
Sylfia snorted. “Yeah, him. Flirted with me while I was on fire, the maniac.”
The thief shuddered. “I remember.”
The two sat in silence for a moment.
Sylfia shifted her jaw and turned her head. “Why’re you over here, anyway? Don’t you have your own tent with the Pact?”
The thief shrugged. “Can’t sleep.”
The warrior grunted. “I’d offer you some whiskey, but I drank that an hour ago.”
Myrie snickered. “Honestly, Sylfia, I’d expect nothing less.” She stared at the embers of the fire. “Fort Trinity,” she said quietly. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d be heading to Orr back when I was a kid in Divinity’s Reach.”
“Oh?” The warrior hunched over her makeshift box-chair and squinted an eye shut. “Never dreamed of becoming a legendary hero to slay a dragon, eh?”
Myrie smiled. “No, not really.” She sat back. “I dreamed of my dad waking up from his waking nightmare.” She frowned. “Okay, and I dreamed of pushing my cousins’ upturned little noses and perfect curls into the mud, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
Sylfia’s brow rose. “Explain to me what cousins are and why you wanted to sully what sound like ridiculous hairstyles?”
“Some other time.” Myrie waved her hand. “It’s a bit late for any gut-spilling now.”
“Heard that you ended up spilling someone else’s guts earlier.” The sylvari stared into the fire. “Managed to survive the sisters’ wrath, eh?”
“Llumin and Sylfia are surprisingly forgiving,” Myrie said. “Wouldn’t have believed that when I first met the noble.” Shock swept over her features. “Wait, nobody else heard – ?”
“I made a suitably-rowdy commotion in the camp when I figured out what was going on,” Sylfia gestured vaguely. “No worries about Llumin’s secret getting out any further. Nettle won’t tell. She can’t.” She sat up and squinted. “Wait, that almost looks like our dear resident Commander,” she muttered. “What’s she – ?” She half-rose.
Myrie tugged on her arm and she sat heavily back on her box. “I don’t know, but don’t interrupt her, and don’t mention anything about anyone or anything. We’re just chatting, and she’s – ”
“Coming our way, shut up,” Sylfia hissed, fingers fluttering over Myrie’s arm. “I don’t know what that snare of emotions she’s feeling is, but if my second-hand empathy is that potent, just be quiet and let her pass by.”
Llumin strode by the silent Vigil encampment with single-minded determination beneath the moonlit sky. Several books and tomes weighed her pack down, and its straps bit into her shoulders as she walked through the camp. The Order’s silver flame on its maroon background fluttered from its flags in the cool air. Really, she thought, I’d wish that people would use the Pact design that Lyca came up with, but I suppose old loyalties are hard to break.
The more cynical part of her mind pointed out that it was possible that the Orders were warily planning for a future where the Pact would no longer exist. She shook her head and kept walking.
She shouldn’t have been surprised that the Marshal was still awake. She could see the flickering flame of candle-light through the tent-flap as she approached. Her veins glowed a faint lavender in the dim light as she softly cleared her throat.
“Marshal Trahearne,” she whispered, projecting her voice with magic through the opening. “I do hope I’m not interrupting your studies.”
There were muted shuffling noises, a muffled oath of surprise, books on books being moved. “Give me a moment, Commander; I believe I’ve lost track of time again. I can’t find – ”
“Treatise on a Sunken Land? You let me borrow it earlier,” Llumin said. “I’ve come to return it.” She paused as the noises continued. “Are you certain I’m not – ?”
“You’re not interrupting, Commander, please do come in.”
She pulled aside the tent-flap and peeked in. At first, the only thing she could see were books and tall candles; some of the flickering lights rested on dull and dented candleholders; others were melting into thick puddles of wax on ancient tomes protected by thin leather scraps. Over the past few days, his desk had clearly gone from “sitting-spot” to “fortress of books.”
Llumin set the borrowed tome aside on the only remaining corner of his desk. “You know, Marshal, I do believe I’m experiencing what the humans call deja-vu.”
His green-skinned face finally rose from the papery depths. “If you’re thinking of what I’m thinking, to my recollection, you were the one who was booked in last time.”
Llumin’s brows furrowed in concern at the mess as she set aside a candle. “Somehow I can’t see this being a terribly good setup.”
“I put down leather to protect the older ones, but your illusory flames would still be safer,” he agreed. He descended back into the leatherbound hold.
She concentrated. A blue, clear light floated above her palm. To her delight, it held even as she moved her concentration towards moving books. She knelt by the towers of scrolls, abandoned letters, and sketches. “Some of these are ancient,” she whispered reverently. “Are you certain I can move them?”
“I trust you with the lives of soldiers, Commander,” he said. She could hear the smile in his voice as he turned towards another stack of books. “My tomes are surely no less safe in your capable hands.” He straightened and pulled one of the larger ones aside, creating a path and ushering her into the space that was cleared out. “I apologize if it’s a bit late, but we never did get to discuss strategy over tea.”
She smiled. “I think that circumstances were slightly beyond our means, but I appreciate the thought, nonetheless.”
“To be honest, after all the discussions that have happened recently, I’m quite sick of strategy. Would you mind if we just talked?”
“Not at all.”
“Please, pardon the delay. Help yourself to the tea; the kettle is on the trivet on the desk, and there’s a cup next to it.”
She thanked him and glanced at his desk. It was littered with letters from diplomats and his own hand-written notes. Some had illustrations that were half-complete, showing cats tumbling behind potted ferns. More finished works displayed the horrors of Orrian minions; Risen flesh rendered in sickly gray ink. It was an unfinished portrait that caught her attention.
“Is that me?”
The Marshal nearly choked on his tea.
“I apologize; I forgot to put that away – just another sketch,” he stammered. He quickly set aside his cup, reached around her, and flipped it over; she didn’t understand why he was embarrassed.
“It’s lovely; there’s no reason to apologize!” She half-turned and beamed up at him. “You even got my freckle!”
For a half-second, the Marshal seemed frozen in place; an indescribable look passed over his face as she looked up at him. After a moment, he cleared his throat and stepped back. Llumin suddenly felt very aware of the space he had once filled.
She coughed lightly, took a simple earthen cup from next to the teakettle, and filled it. “It was a clever way to use it in your update on Zhaitan’s generals.”
He gave a grim laugh. “Adding ‘deceased’ seems a bit ironic, considering they’re undead, but I was more than happy to put Labwan’s name in the books.” He self-consciously rubbed the back of his neck, paused, and took a long sip from his earthenware teacup. “I put your portrait down as a reminder to trust your intuition,” he said.
“I’m a mesmer, Trahearne; who’s to say I’m not secretly playing some sort of mind game?” Llumin gave him a teasing smile and wiggled her fingers.
He smiled. “It wouldn’t suit your personality; I’ve known you since before you left the Grove. If there’s anyone I trust, Commander, it is you.”
The mesmer’s eyes widened; she decided to inspect the bottom of her teacup and ignore the sound of blood rushing to her ears. “Oh.”
A weighty silence filled the air; neither of them seemed quite sure how to break it. Llumin took a drink from her cup.
“Rose tea.” Trahearne smiled. “Unless I somehow forgot.”
“You didn’t.” Over the course of their talk, they had managed to make the tent a habitable place again. “Does… does what Myrie said make any difference, Marshal?”
“I’m not sure I follow, Commander.” He took another drink from his cup and set it down on the desk.
“My trustworthiness. Who you knew in the Grove is surely different from who you know now. Now you know that I am … not quite who I say I am.”
Trahearne was silent for a moment, chewing on his thoughts. Finally, he spoke. “Regardless of the circumstances of how you came to be,” he said slowly, “whether you were born from the Dream of Dreams or from the hopes of two desperate humans, you are you. Llumin of the Cycle of Dusk, Dreamer of a land freed from a dragon’s grasp, mesmer, and now Commander of the Pact. My friend,” he said warmly. “You are so much more than what you fear or who you fear to fail or please. Enemies will try to break you, have tried to kill and destroy your honor and reputation. I have lived long enough to tell you that they will do so again.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “But do not lose hope. If you can manage to make a Marshal of a scholar,” he said, “I think you can even kill a dragon.”
“I – ” She swallowed heavily. “Thank you.”
His smile was gentle. “You will always have an ally in me, Llumin, whether we are near or far from the Grove.” He reached a hand towards her face before he paused and pulled back. “Tell me, Commander,” he said, not quite meeting her gaze, “did you like the book?”
She blinked. “Yes; I thought it was well-done. It was one of your first reference materials for your expeditions to Orr, wasn’t it?”
“It was.” He hummed and turned from her towards the desk again. His fingers sprawled over the softened leather cover as he picked it up and ran a hand over the dust-jacket. “I would like you to keep this, Commander,” he said. “A memento of sorts; to remember where both of us have come from.”
Llumin took a half-step back. “Marshal, I couldn’t! What if I – ?”
His knowing laugh warmed and irritated her. “Llumin, you can spend all of your life wondering about the ‘what-ifs.’ Trust me. Take the book.” He pressed it into her arms. “You’ve earned it.”
It suddenly seemed as though she was holding a small world. She mumbled an awed “thank-you” and traced her hands over the worn binding.
“How could I repay you?” she asked, eyes wide.
“It’s a gift,” he said. “You don’t.”
He took a hesitant step towards her as she looked once more at the tome and pressed a quick, small kiss to her cheek. “Good night, Commander,” he murmured. “We can resume talking strategy tomorrow.”
Llumin wasn't quite sure how she made it back to her tent. She vaguely remembered walking out, eyes wide and glowing as brilliant as a torch in the night air with the book clutched tightly to her chest. Her fingers traced the spot where she surely dreamed the legendary Marshal of the Pact, Firstborn Trahearne, had .....
She pulled her blanket up to her eyes and blushed furiously. Whatever bets the asura and Nettle had made, she thought, trying to think sensibly above the giddy butterflies in her stomach, she would almost certainly never hear the end of it.
Khimma and Klixx refused to look at Nettle as she walked by and held out a single hand towards them, reluctantly parting with their gold in front of Myrie’s disbelieving eyes.
“Don’t ask,” the guardian huffed.
Klixx shook his head dramatically. “Never make a bet with a plant.”
The thief ran a hand down her face. “What are you talking about now?”
Klixx sighed. “I’m not sure why, but Khimma, Nettle, and I all made a bet to see if our local pining salads would finally break free from their fears and pour out their hearts to each other after the whole spy incident. Unfortunately, both Khimma and I bet that it would happen later rather than sooner, and were thus on the losing end of that one…”
Myrie gave him a look. “Break free of their…? Klixx, remind me to suggest avoiding those cheesy romance novels I purloin on occasion. Still – you make bets on others’ love lives?”
“It gets boring in the camp sometimes!” Khimma whined. “We’re away from the Priory’s libraries, and SHU-TY’s been banned from the tent supplies for knotting the anchoring ropes!”
“Regardless, does anyone know where the Marshal and Commander are?”
“They’re with a strike force helping retrieve the krait orb that supposedly nullifies Zhaitan’s corruption. If we get it, we won’t need to worry about our allies dying and becoming minions while in its range.”
“They should have brought me,” Nettle fumed. “I’m the most expert here on blood magic and haemomancy! With my talents – ”
“With all due respect, which is none,” Klixx said politely, “you don’t have the best track record with blood and murderous impulses.”
“It’s entirely possible the Pact didn’t want the krait to get any ideas from you,” Khimma said sweetly. “Besides,” she said, pressing a few buttons on her armored gauntlet, “if we’re going to get moving on that last forward camp to the south, we’d best head out while there’s still light.”
Nettle sneered. “Keep Llumin away from artillery, and I’m sure all will go just fine.”
“Your concern is touching.” Selana’s voice broke into the conversation; the three of them turned around to see the human noble towering ominously over them. “Regardless, of course, of any proximity to explosives.”
“So glad to have you join us,” Nettle beamed. Her smile showed too many teeth to be friendly. “Unfortunately, I cannot stay for long; Lord Radwing has called me to make use of my talents in sourcing out waypoint placements for forward positions in Orr.”
A member of the Priory walked past Nettle and didn’t meet her gaze as he dropped a small satchel of coins into her outstretched hand. Selana watched him leave through narrowed eyes.
“What was that?”
“It appears my bet has spread a bit further than I had thought,” Nettle hummed. She emptied the smaller pouch into the bag at her side. “So far that’s half the camp that’s paid me for their loss.” She slowly weighed her coin-purse in a hand and glanced up at Selana as if suddenly remembering that she was there. “Oh, you didn’t hear? Khimma and Klixx started a bet to see if the Commander or the Marshal would give any indication of their feelings for one another anytime soon. Trahearne’s harder to read than Llumin, but I suspected that with enough nettling – Khimma, don’t you dare make a comment on my name – that something would happen sooner rather than later. Most of the camp, unfortunately, bet for later.”
Myrie’s skin prickled as the firestone over Selana’s forehead burst to a white-hot flame. “How dare you! That is their private issue to resolve; not some … entertainment for you to feast your greedy boredom upon!” The elementalist reached for her scepter and found it missing. Her gaze snapped down to the thief. “Give that back and let me properly teach her a lesson for her impudence!”
“Easy there, Flameylocks!” Myrie held her hands up as she stepped between the necromancer and the elementalist. “I don’t like or agree with it, either, but we do not need this kind of bickering before we go into enemy territory!”
The sylvari and the elementalist stared at each other for a tense moment; Adam rotated in the necromancer’s pale fingers. To Myrie’s surprise, the sylvari was the first to step back.
“You know, I suppose that the thief is correct,” she said quietly. “We can take our blows later if you’re so insistent, but we can have our victory at hand if we press on.”
Selana’s stance was rigid as she accepted her staff back from a hesitant thief. “An unusually-demure statement from you, Nettle, but in this situation, I will take it for an apology.”
The sylvari shrugged. “Take it for what you will.” Her ears twitched. “Ah, the triumphant heroes have returned. A smaller party, it seems, but with the leaders and orb intact.” She turned to smile down at Myrie. “You may want to see what the Marshal wants to speak with you about.”
“He hasn’t said anything – ”
Trahearne’s brisk steps carried him past the group. “Miss Ward, I require your advice on an important manner. Meet me as soon as possible.”
The thief whirled around and blinked. “Um. Sure.” She turned back to Nettle, eyes wide. “Okay, how did you know he was going to do that?”
Nettle gave a vague gesture. “Call it a hunch. I’ve dulled my empathetic sensitivities over time, but my vision and insight aren’t horrible. Besides,” she smiled, “who was the last person he spoke to about his precious Commander?”
Khimma and Klixx attempted to carefully sneak away while Selana’s attention was elsewhere. At the edge of the camp, they heard her voice carried on the faintest of whispers.
“Do not think I have forgotten your involvement in this, asura,” she said quietly. “What you may believe to be a harmless prank may later harm both of them. Do not do this again,” she said, “or I assure you, the repercussions will be dire.”
“Noted! Not happening again,” Klixx muttered quickly. “Khimma and I will be in the Priory’s section of the camp helping tear-down if you need us.”
Myrie wanted to knock on the door, but as it was made of canvas and thus unable to be knocked upon, she satisfied the need to announce herself with a polite clearing of her throat before she stepped in and saluted.
“Looks as though the mission was a success, sir,” she said. “Congratulations.”
He gave her a distracted smile as he piled a set of books into an oversized satchel. “Thank you. Without the orders’ cooperation and the help we received from the prisoners we freed along the way, it would have been impossible.” He rolled up a series of maps and papers with various drawings and notes and put them in a leather tube. “That is, however,” he said quietly, looking just past her, “not why I called you here. Please, sit.”
The thief sat down and glanced around the half-disassembled tent. “Are you sure you don’t want my help packing all this up?”
He gave a good-humored smile. “With all due respect, Miss Ward, Lord Radwing has informed me that you have a tendency towards collecting others’ belongings, even unintentionally. I’d prefer to keep my things as visible as possible.”
“Okay, that’s fair.” She leaned back and rested her feet on one of the few clean corners of the desk. “So, what do you need me here for?”
He stared at her shoes until she removed them from his desk. “Thank you. The reason…” he coughed and looked determinedly at the stack of books he reached for, “the reason is a bit embarrassing.” He gestured at her necklace. “That was given to you by someone who cared very deeply for you, wasn’t it? I can sense his presence on it.”
Myrie felt her mouth dry. “How…?” She gave a halfhearted wave. “Necromancer, right. So, you wanted to ask about Quinn’s ring…?’
“No.” He swallowed, and the thief was reminded of a nervous schoolboy dodging a teacher’s prodding questions. She couldn’t help herself after being so thrown off.
“Well, don’t worry, Marshal,” she grinned. “I don’t bite. Pretty sure that’s Nettle’s category. Or the asura.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and sat heavily in his chair opposite of hers.
“I wanted to ask about him. How…” he swallowed and looked nervously at her. “How did he tell you he loved you?”
The question struck Myrie like a blow to the chest. “I’m sorry?”
He blinked, shook his head, and stood at her reaction. “This is foolishness. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have caused you such distress, Miss Ward, it was clearly unprofessional of me to ask about that; you may take your leave – ”
“No! No, I’m… I’m fine, Marshal. It’s just…” She paused. “You know, I really don’t think about it that much. I didn’t think about it when he was alive, and it still hurts to think about it now that he’s dead.” She chewed her lip and tapped her fingers against her thumb absently. “He didn’t really say it, I suppose,” she sighed. ”Quinn only really started to give signs that he liked me for something other than a friend later on in his life.” She sat back and mulled. “He was there even when we didn’t understand each other; even when he was the only one standing for me, I could always count on him having my back. He was a good listener, a great ally for both battle and downtime. Kind, but not a pushover; loyal…” A single green eye squinted shut. “But then again, something tells me that you’re not asking this for simple curiosity. Is this about Llumin?”
She didn’t know when or how he had managed to write as much as he had without her noticing, but her question clearly threw him off. He hurriedly corrected the bottle of ink before it tipped over and cleared his throat as his vibrant glow blushed in the dim light of the tent. “Am I really so easy to read?”
“Well,” Myrie said, leaning forward in her chair and entwining her fingers, “considering the state of the camp, I’d say so.”
“State of the…?” He shook his head. “No matter, I’m sure. I’m… I’m not familiar with social interactions. Not really,” he said sadly.
The thief gave him a curious look. “I would have thought that someone with your age and experience would have better insight into those sorts of things.”
His laugh was humorless. “Necromancy and my Orrian expeditions alienated me from among most of the Firstborn early on and earned me few friends among the Secondborn, either. The Grove isn’t as much of a home to me as other Firstborn, most of whom saw me as a man on a fool’s errand. So, no, social interactions weren’t part of my repertoire upon my returns, usually,” he said. “But that’s another topic for a different day. Returning to the subject at hand,” he said, and turned to put away another set of books into a satchel that looked nearly fit to burst, “that is part of the reason I have difficulty in keeping the few friends I have.” He looked up, hesitated, and swallowed. “The few friends I don’t want to lose,” he said quietly, “and who I fear I may have confused.”
“Who and how did you confuse?”
He sighed and sat heavily across from her, placing his face in his hands. “I kissed her,” he said through his fingers.
“I’m sorry, what?”
His gaze was hollow. “I kissed Llumin as she left, and now I don’t know what to do.”
An echo of realization pinged through Myrie’s memory. “Was that when she left your tent that night last week?”
If the Firstborn wasn’t pale before, he was now. “You saw?”
“I don’t think anyone thought poorly of it – hey, are you all right?”
He rummaged in a bag and pulled out a large, paper-wrapped bottle. “I don’t think too many people know of Orr’s wines, but I think that today calls for a sample.”
Myrie’s brows furrowed. “Um… no disrespect, sir, but haven’t those been submerged and resurrected with the land? I’d think that they’d taste like – ”
The cork’s loud pop interrupted her sentence as he yanked it out and peered morosely into the bottle’s murky depths. Myrie’s eyes stung.
“Grenth’s teeth, is that alcohol or poison?”
“Alcohol,” he said dully, upending it into a wooden cup. He squinted at the blackish drink. “Barely.” He snapped it back and hunched over his desk. “What do I do, Ward? I acted on impulse. I’ve never acted on impulse. And now…” he waved his hands helplessly. “I can’t stop thinking about her. I want – I need – to cleanse Orr. I know it now, but without her help and encouragement – ”
“More like boot to the backside,” Myrie muttered.
“Would I even be here without her?” He shuddered and rested his forehead in his hands. “I can’t let my feelings get in the way of my mission – of the Pact’s mission. But this is the first time I’ve ever felt this way towards anyone. Was I rash?”
The human thief came to the realization that she was not getting paid enough for this, and decided to keep listening anyway as he poured and snapped back another questionable drink from Orr. She sighed and leaned over his desk, palming a few trinkets.
“Okay, look, give that here; drinking away your problems won’t solve anything.” She pried the bottle from his reluctant grasp. “Now, let’s start from the beginning. What happened?”
With more hesitance than she had anticipated, Trahearne told her what had happened. Myrie nodded, asking questions every now and again for clarification. When he was done, he asked her again what her advice was and stared at her with a desperation that the human felt was only slightly exaggerated by the wine he had drunk.
“You want my advice, sir?” She sat back, closed her eyes, and gave him a benevolent smile. “You’re being an idiot.”
He sat back and blinked as if slapped. “Pardon?”
“You’re overthinking things! Look, when you and Llumin and Selana all came down here from wherever-it-was before the fight on Claw Island, even Selana could tell that there was something between you two.”
“Yes! And she hated it!” The thief laughed. “Oh, don’t take it personally; now that you know who and what she really is, you can’t blame her for being protective of her younger sister. And so what if Selana’s a bit dismissive? You’re not trying to impress her, and she’s always been a stick-in-the-mud anyway. My point is,” she said, spreading her hands, “if you love her, you can’t just hedge and dodge telling her forever. And unless Selana’s wrong about what she’s seen, or if you’re trying to mislead Llumin – ”
Myrie felt a jolt of what she didn’t want to admit was cold fear jagging down her spine as the Marshal’s burning yellow-orange eyes fixed on hers. She cleared her throat.
“Well, then, tell her.” She leaned forward again. “You can’t use me as an in-between whenever you have a crisis about your feelings, Marshal, and if you feel as though they’re getting in the way of the mission, you have to figure this out sooner rather than later. Either do something about it, or set boundaries and let it die. Your choice.” She stood and saluted. “If I may?”
He nodded mutely, resting his chin behind steepled fingers. She paused at the tent’s entrance and sighed.
“If you really, really want my advice,” she said quietly, “take it from someone who didn’t get to make that choice. Take the leap. You’ll regret losing that chance otherwise.”
Llumin didn’t mind the rain or the sound of the cool sand scuffing and squeaking beneath her feet. The Pact was on the move to the last camp before its invasion of Fort Trinity, and any change in scenery towards Orr was, despite any unpleasantness that may have been encountered, preferable. She waved behind her at the caravan and helped point them in the right direction; the Order of Whispers was the one that had helped find the grotto, and Trahearne had promised to tell her some of its history after the rest of the scouting party had moved ahead. There was a secretive happiness to him, she thought, an echo like someone planning a surprise, but with an electric undercurrent of nerves running through him like static. A raindrop swelled overhead on a rocky overhand and splashed coldly onto her nose, causing her to sneeze in surprise. Selana, who brought up the rear of the Order caravan, paused and peered at her in concern.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine, quite fine,” the sylvari replied, blinking and rubbing her nose to shoo away the prickly feeling. “And you?”
The noblewoman crossed her arms and raised a hand at one of the agents’ inquisitive looks, who nodded and trudged out of sight. “I’m as well as can be expected. We’re finally on the edge of Orr, a single step before we go from gnawing at the Dragon’s territory to a long-awaited invasion. This isn’t even all of our forces,” she continued with a grim smile, “and already I can tell you from the scouting parties that we’re poised to make a good headway.”
“Trahearne’s insight into the land has proven itself irreplaceable,” Llumin agreed.
“And with such commanders as you at the Pact’s head,” Selana said with a proud smile, “nobody should be surprised at our progress.”
“Thank you, Selana.” She smiled. “I really can’t state enough how much your presence means to me.”
The human’s smile dimmed. “I only wish you got the chance to know Mom and Dad more, even if it had been as their ghost-forms.”
“I may not have known them well or for very long,” Llumin said softly, bowing her head in respect, “but my heart still misses them.”
The noble reached out and gently grasped her sister’s shoulder. “We’ll meet them again in the Mists,” she said. “They were proud of you even before you knew them.” The noble’s ear twitched, and she turned a flame-colored head towards the grotto’s hidden entrance behind her. “I think that’s the Marshal. I’ll meet you inside.” She gave her a pat on the arm and turned to walk into the cave’s inner sanctum.
“Good to see you, Marshal.” Llumin looked around after greeting him. “Is that everyone?”
“I think so,” he said. He clasped his hands behind his back, stretching slightly to reach over Caladbolg as he walked inside. “I, for one, am more than ready to finish being at the edges of our enemy’s land.”
“As am I.”
There was a moment’s silence as they walked towards the sanctum’s entrance and paused. “Did you know,” he asked, half-turning towards her, “that there’s something special about Augur’s Grotto?”
“I’m not surprised; you’ve been hinting at something for a while now,” she said, tilting her head towards him. “What is it?”
He took her hand and pointed at the glowing chips of crystal in the stone ceiling. “This cave used to hold great significance to ancient Orrians. I’m told star-crossed lovers used to meet here, believing that the fates they saw in the stars outside were mirrored on the crystal inside.” She could see his orchid-purple glow brighten and fade through his dark-green skin as he breathed. His eyes were fixed on the shimmering stones above. “According to my research, some of them believed that if they confessed underneath the stars inside, the gods would bless their relationship, and that they would be in love for eternity.”
He released her hand after a long moment. She absently ran her thumb over where he had touched. “Is that so?” she whispered.
“That’s what the stories said.” He cleared his throat. “You know, Commander, it’s possible that we… we could be star-crossed.”
Her eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. “But that would mean that you would have to love me,” she blurted, “which is – ”
“Obvious?” He sighed, paused, and explained. “The book. The advice, the late-night talks – I kissed you, Llumin; did that mean nothing to you?”
She blushed and couldn’t meet his gaze. “Friends sometimes give each other kisses on the cheek,” she murmured.
“They do, Llumin, sometimes, but I think that you knew how I felt.”
She was quiet for a heartbeat. When she spoke again, her voice was very quiet. “I didn’t want to give myself false hope.” In the glowing light of the caverns around them, her eyes burned like sky-colored flames. “Contrary to what you might think, Trahearne, you do have other admirers. What use would it have been for me to hope for something that may have never existed?”
They had stopped walking and faced each other, their inner light and that from Caladbolg blending in a luminous pool of purple and gold.
“I never noticed anyone else, Llumin,” he said firmly; once more his hand had found hers, though this time it hesitated before it took its gentle hold. “Unfortunate as it may be to anyone foolish enough to fall for me, I love only you.”
Llumin was silent, breath caught in her throat before she returned her gaze to his. “You do?”
“For a very long time, I’m afraid. I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t think… that I was worthy, really.”
Her gaze did not waver from his, mouth slightly agape. “Trahearne,” she said slowly, stunned. “You absolute petal-head, did you ever think that I might have thought the same?”
He drew back his hand as if wounded. “That I was unworthy?”
Llumin threw her hands skyward. “No, you absolutely wonderful man; that I was! Look at you: Leading an army you never thought you were up to par, fighting a war you never wanted to fight – ”
“Do you think I could have done this without you? I was a man on the outskirts of society, an outcast; a fool among his people chasing a dream that no-one really believed could be real. How could I match your bravery, your enthusiasm, your hope? I had nearly lost it, and you helped me remember that there is more to my Wyld Hunt than just loneliness and a grim doom.” He laughed and shook his head. “Of course, I love you, Commander, inspiration, encourager, beautiful, kind-hearted. How could I not?”
She had forgotten how to breathe again. “Oh.”
He stepped back slowly and looked at the ground. “If I was wrong, I apologize – ”
“Trahearne.” Llumin’s voice was shaking but resolute. “If you had been paying any attention, you would have heard that I love you, too.”
Confusion, realization, and joy flooded over his face. He was beautiful, she thought, when he smiled like that. He stepped towards her and drew her to him, and there, in the glittering lights of the false stars above, his glow melded with hers, and he kissed her. In the Orrian cave, with the murmurs of the camp inside and the hiss of the rain outside, she tasted kiwi and tea on his lips, and felt as though something in her chest finally fell into place. She broke apart slowly and beamed up at him as they both fell into a fit of giggles.
“Someone will see!” she finally said, and buried her face in his chest.
“Let them.” Another kiss, gentle on her forehead. She shook her head, lavender glowing through her skin.
“We have a mission, Marshal,” she said. His hands ran down her arms as she stepped back. “And I’m sure the troops are wondering where we are.”
“I was certain I told them to wait for us.” He pursed his lips, squinted, and sighed. “Then again, I suppose I’ll have to catch my heart again and focus, hm? We have unpleasant business to discuss deeper in that grotto.” Another smile split his face. “Even though I think I’d much rather stay in this tunnel with you and focus on nicer things.”
“Well, it’s always better with friends by your side.”
“And being in the presence of the one you love.”
Her face flushed. “And being in the presence of the one you love.” She squeezed his hand and whispered conspiratorially. “Was the legend true?”
His golden eyes crinkled. “Of course. We’re star-crossed now.”
Her smile faltered, and she sighed. “We’ll need that luck to defeat the dragon.”
“And cleanse its land.” He rubbed the back of his neck and gave a tired grimace. “Are you certain you don’t want to stay here for a while?”
She drew herself up primly. “A wise woman once said that there is a difference between what one wants to do and what one must do: That is duty.”
He stared at her a moment longer. “No-one said that.”
She raised her chin at him. “I did, just now. And Selana told me before. Come on, let’s talk strategy before they figure out how to get to Orr without us.” She took a few steps and paused. “I suppose,” she said, clearing her throat, “that we’ll still have to be professional about this, though I am glad to have it out in the open.”
He frowned. “You know, I’m not sure I want to remain professional,” he said. His smile returned as he casually leaned on a stalagmite. “I’d much rather kiss you, I think.”
She could feel the same butterflies in her chest that he did. “Marshal!”
He sighed dramatically. “But a wise woman did once tell me about duty, and for her,” he bowed and gestured towards the cave’s entrance, “I think I can oblige.”
The set-up for the march was nearly complete. Though the plot in the grotto had gone well, all within agreed that the Orrian ambush shortly after the Marshal and Commander’s arrival made discussions rather tense, and resolved to quickly shut down or cripple Zhaitan’s minion production sometime in the near future. The Pact agreed to set out a few supply camps as bait for Zhaitain’s forces to draw some of them away from the main invasion force. After that, a strike force would be set in and the orb would be set up, weakening the occupying forces, while the Pact invaders would rush at the fort from above and below the sea. Charr submarines would provide the naval power they needed, while a combination of asuran and sylvari transports would provide the tanks required to give them time to wedge their way into the door.
“Khimma and Klixx are still our resident experts on rewiring and using rogue magic,” Selana said, setting up two short pegs on the battlefield and sliding them through the massive gates of the model fort. “If we can protect them and the other Priory arcanists, that will make our occupation that much easier.”
“What about the camps on the side?” Llumin pointed at the lumber mills just outside the fort. “Are we really so willing to sacrifice our men for this? There has to be another way.”
“We’re not sacrificing them,” the Vigil representative snarled. “Those Whispers louts have got fighting dirty down to a science. We’ve got trapdoors by the main hubs that will shunt our troops off when they’re at the required point if the fighting gets too hairy. With the magic safety keys we’ll have embedded into their armor, we’ll ensure that only our troops will be fired back into the safety of our force; the trapdoors will be locked otherwise.”
“And if the Dragon alters its attack?” Trahearne’s face was grim.
He sat back and crossed his arms with a sigh. “Well, we’re all tired of settling for scraps. Even if it takes all we’ve got, we’re ready to pay that price. It won’t be a sacrifice. It’ll be an honor.”
A Priory charr cast the map a nervous look. “What’s our latest from Nettle? Is she still with Gryphon scouting ahead for new waypoints?”
Selana’s lips thinned. “You don’t need a dowsing rod to tell we’re in the thick of the Dragon’s magic, soldier.”
Traherane sighed, frowning. “Believe me when I say that this will be a hive of activity we’re bursting into. Everything must be planned very carefully.”
The soldier grimaced. “If this fails…”
“We won’t fail.” Llumin’s voice was firm as she looked from one member of the table to another. “That the Dragon sent that ambush here only confirmed what we’ve been suspecting for ages: It is not invincible, and it knows it. Its ambushes cannot continue, though. Are there any suggestions for figuring out how to halt its production line for minions?”
“We could retrace where they come from; have Nettle or someone else track the Orrians to where the Dragon is raiding tombs for its soldiers.”
“Too risky; we still need her abilities to settle further into Orr, and if she dies or is compromised, that’s a loss that will slow us down.”
The table was quiet for a moment. Trahearne finally spoke.
“There are … other abominations the Dragon has made. Terrible creatures; enormous eyes that let the Dragon see all they see. If we can capture and kill one of them, we could reverse the flow of necromancy through it and see what it has.”
“Use its spy for our own purposes,” Selana realized. “But where would we get an eye from a dragon?”
Trahearne straightened. “Something tells me that our invasion will have the Dragon’s full attention. If it sends an Eye, we’ll take it from there. The airships are complete enough to allow for test flights; if we capture and review what the Eye has seen from there, the Dragon’s sight will be more difficult for it to track should something go wrong. Once it reveals where its minions are made, we can send in forces to break them down and continue a more aggressive approach into Orr.”
“A rough plan,” the Vigil muttered, “but for now, it’s all we’ve got. We’ll rally our troops and begin mobilization immediately.” He saluted. “Until then, we’ll see you at Fort Trinity, Marshal.”