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Hard Priorities

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Four hours after Pert had departed, night was falling. Callum was still sleeping in Rayla’s lap. She had drifted off into an uneasy rest herself. There was a knock at their flap board and she jerked awake.

 

“Howzit guys”, came the inquiry from outside, “Looks like the snob herder’s coming back and he’s bringing more people this time.”

 

Rayla woke Callum. They then spent some time putting together all of their stuff, anticipating having to make a quick exit.

 

They joined Honsa who gave them an appreciative smirk. “You guys look like you had a bit of a nap.”

 

“So?”, Rayla asked curtly.

 

“Hey, I like sleep. Sleep’s great.”, the ocean elf walked ahead, “You comin’?”

 

Four riders came into view, one of the animals carried Pert and a passenger, the other three were mounted by lone templars.

 

Coming to a stop, Pert got off his stag, helping an old woman off his saddle. The moon elven milites sunk to their left knee as they recognised the person’s regalia. Rayla haltingly did the same, confusing Callum. It hadn’t quite looked like she was doing it fully of her own accord.

 

“Tribune”, the old woman greeted with a warm, maternal voice that was too old for even her and Lessa saluted. Glancing at Rayla, Callum and Azymondias, she continued, “I see you’ve not wasted time and brought with you the subjects of our conundrum. However, I’d like to bring a less… confrontational tone to our meeting. Pert, your soldiers stay here. Tribune, would you be willing to offer up your tent for our gathering?”

 

“Of course, excellency.”

 

Pert grabbed a large bag from his saddle and they walked back.

 

Callum whispered to his girlfriend, “Who is she? What were you doing?”

 

“She is the Interpreter for one of our archdragons”, Rayla replied, “You know how Ezran has a connection to Zym? Archdragons can project themselves into other people’s bodies. It allows them to speak to us. Might be that once Zym’s older, he’ll be able to take over Ez’s body, too.”

 

Callum shuddered. “So, they can take over anyone’s body?”

 

“No, they do need permission. I’ve heard though, once they’re in, they can keep you from takin’ back control.”

 

“That is so creepy.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They arrived at Lessa’s tent and ducked inside. Pert helped clear her round meeting table, making sure to keep her papers in order. Lessa beamed at him. The templar then extracted the contents of the bag. There were eight thick, tightly rolled tubular packages, wrapped in a blue fabric bearing the mark of the ocean. They had labels on them which Callum could not read and were tied together using a golden ribbon.

 

A glance at Rayla made her whisper, “Military rations, but snobby ones. The regular ones come with a green ribbon.”

 

“Be seated”, the interpreter said, spreading her arms. Pert placed a ration and a cup in front of each of them, putting two sets aside. He apparently wasn’t eating. Before standing back from the table, he poured everyone a drink from a massive glass bottle and placed a different type of ration in front of Zym on the ground who dug in immediately.

 

Rayla inspected her tall cup. The drink inside sparkled, smelling of ginger and alcohol. No way she was drinking this. Looking over at Callum, he seemed to have had a similar thought, glancing at his own drink with trepidation.

 

The interpreter prepared her ration, and they followed, politely.

 

There was a rip-cord, tucked into the side of the ration pack. Rayla pulled it with the confidence of a repeat user. Callum imitated her. The package immediately heated. Sunfire magic. They had it in spades, apparently.

 

Unrolling the package, there were three pastries, looking as though they had just been lifted from a baker’s oven. They all bore a sleeve with a rune which Rayla quietly translated as `first`, `main` and `after`.

 

A three course meal, wrapped up for travel. Welp.

 

Seeing how every package had been the same and the Interpreter was eating happily, Rayla cautiously took a bite of the appetiser pastry. It contained a mixture of vegetables and tasted heavenly. This was indeed food fit for snobs.

 

“I see you aren’t quite sure about the drinks?”, Ivine said after a moment, pointedly looking at Rayla, “Distrust is a valuable asset in a moonshadow, Rayla. I will not pressure you, but you have my assurances that I will not be poisoning you. Tonight.”, she chuckled fondly, “I would indeed poison everyone here, seeing as I am drinking and eating the same rations you are.”

 

“That’s not your own body though”, Callum blurted out.

 

Ivine laughed brightly, “Ah, yes, I suppose that is a fair point. It’s interesting, Prince Callum, I had not thought you would be so blunt. It is… refreshing. Among my elves, there is a lot of subterfuge and, well...”, she waved a hand at Rayla, “...distrust. It is in their nature.”

 

“Your elves?”, Callum said, “That sounds possessive.”

 

The interpreter smirked, “It was an expression of family. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

As everyone finished their first pastry, Callum noticed how salty it had been. Odd, considering how little salt elves used for lembas. Was this meant to encourage them to drink? Honsa and Lessa certainly did. He frowned.

 

“Any chance we could have some water instead?”, he asked.

 

“I assume you’ve no taste for strong beer?”

 

“Nah”, said Rayla.

 

“I respect your choices. Water, Pert.”

 

The canon guard switched their cups for ones filled with water. After sniffing it, Rayla motioned for him to drink.

 

Rayla bit into her entree, now feeling properly hungry. Gravy. Somroot. Berry sauce. Dipling. Hm... what else? Oh. It was meat. Her eyes narrowed slightly. She’d been a bit weary of eating animals after she’d realized how hypocritical it was to condemn dark magic over a nice steak with diplings. Not that she hated the taste or wanted to abstain from it completely - sometimes the land didn’t offer anything else to eat. Given the choice, she would’ve still preferred a vegetarian dish.

 

“Not to your taste?”, Ivine asked with bemusement, “I am sorry we seem to have made such a contentious selection.”

 

“It’s not that”, Rayla said, swallowing, “I hadn’t expected meat.”

 

“I... see?”

 

“Thank you for the meal”, Rayla said simply, earning an approving smile from the Interpreter.

 

“Och, how I love your Sconi dialect, dear. It is downright adorable”, the old woman cooed, “Thank you for eating with me. I don’t think I would be as accepting in the same situation. I have made your life quite complicated, I would assume.”

 

Rayla shrugged noncommittally, “We knew it was always goin’ to be difficult, bringin’ Azymondias back home. Really, it was mostly bounty hunters who’ve given us trouble so far.”

 

Callum piped up with an annoyed look at her, “Yeah, let’s totally gloss over Helmond trying to stab me. Let’s forget that they sent Torlan to kill his own dad when he decided not to murder us.”

 

Ivine turned to him, apology in her face. “That was not me, nor this interpreter. The person responsible for that upheaval was deposed and exiled. Chalise violated my mate’s trust with her subterfuge. I apologise for the harm she’s caused. That’s sadly the best I can offer.”, to Rayla, she said, “You were saying, about bounty hunters?”

 

Rayla pointed at the wound in her arm, “This is only the smallest gift I received from them.”

 

“I am sorry you’ve had to put this load on your shoulders. The senate appreciates what you are trying to do, but we have wider concerns, beyond Azymondias’ return. Nobody really wants to go to war but our security concerns have increased too much to let the situation continue.”

 

Honsa interjected, scoffing, “Listen to you talk story... aren’t you sorta just making things worse by going to war?”

 

“Honsa, I appreciate your ire - and your accent, oh, what delight! Unfortunately, in politics, there comes a point where each direction is fraught with truly untenable choices. Sometimes war is the most expedient way to reach one’s goals quickly, minimising the overall suffering of the people.”

 

Rayla’s head was spinning. Why did she sound like she had a point?

 

Callum snarled, “There’s always a solution other than murd--”, he stopped, blanching. Was there? Always? Why hadn’t he found one, then?

 

Ivine gave him a sympathetic look. “Idealistic, aren’t you? Reality is cruel to people like yourself.”

 

The prince put down his pastry, sweat forming on his forehead. “I… need to step out for a moment”, he said hoarsely, then got up and walked out.

 

Honsa gave him a worried look.

 

Rayla’s brain hissed at it, but the elf strangled the sour blaze. This situation demanded her attention right now. She would look for him after.

 

Honsa excused herself to go after him.

 

Augh! That should’ve been her!

 

‘Focus, Rayla. This smells fishy. The Interpreter is way too friendly.’, the Assassin reprimanded herself, trying to push her other concerns aside, ‘Plus, she’s a counselor, of course she’s going to check on her patient!’

 

Ivine’s gaze was inquiring, but not unfriendly.

 

Rayla decided to say it.

 

“He’s had a very bad week.”

 

“I am aware. Pert has recounted your report. I feel for the boy but must say I couldn’t believe it when I heard you were a couple.”

 

Rayla nodded, “Well, that’s what we are.”

 

Ivine sat back, mild shock in her mien.

 

“Hundreds of years have gone by, young lady, since I’ve last heard of a mixed  relationship. Good for you.”

 

“Excellency, what bearing does this have on their mission?”, Lessa asked.

 

“None, obviously. I am simply interested. I do love gossip”, she clapped her hands to dust them off after eating the last bite of her entree, “It looks like Honsa has also taken interest, though, hasn’t she?”

 

Lessa frowned. What had she expected? Allowing this seasoned politician with motive to eat with her teenage  targets was asking for trouble.

 

Ivine deployed her mean tactic, and it was working. Rayla quite apparently fumed.

 

“She is my daughter and his counselor, Madame”, Lessa said sternly before Rayla could explode, “he is taking advice from her. A patient, nothing more.”

 

“Of course, of course. Forgive the idle ramblings of an old woman, dear. Shall we wait on them for desert?”

 

Rayla wanted nothing more than to walk outside to check on them. Her mind played scenes of them hugging, kissing. Why was this so hard? Honsa had gone through some effort to appease her, yet here she was, losing her mind at the worst possible time. Considering how implicitly she trusted Callum normally, it seemed outlandish to her that in this one point, she was unable to.

 

She willed her expression to even out and said, “I think that would be nothin’ but fair. While we’re doin’ that, I’d like to know what you’ve decided to do with us.”

 

“You are very blunt for a moonshadow, Rayla. Perhaps it’s your companion’s influence?”

 

“Maybe”, Rayla replied curtly.

 

“Let me see… what did we decide to `do` with you... “, Ivine sat back, rubbing her cheeks, “I believe the answer is; `Nothing`. We’re going to do `nothing` with you.”

 

Rayla blinked. She had expected anything but that. A sneak attack. An offer of help. Not… `nothing`.

 

Lessa’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a very precise way to express yourself, Excellency”

 

“Your sarcasm is quite appreciated, Tribune”, the old woman laughed, “But we’ve no qualms with these young people. They will get neither blessing nor curse from us. However, I will ask you to give Azymondias to us. We’re his kin, we can get him safely to his mother. Your message of peace will still be valid, seeing as you’re handing him over to the leaders of Xadia.”

 

Rayla did not trust this one bit.

 

“The leaders of Xadia, maybe, but not the Queen of Dragons. What do we do if you decide to walk him off a cliff?”

 

Ivine blinked. “Rayla, he’s a dragon, he can fly.”

 

Rayla flared, flushing a sickly pink, “Human expression, I guess! The point still stands, you old hag, I don’t think you’re interested in peace and you getting your fingers on Zym isn’t in the books!”

 

Lessa looked at Rayla critically. She was getting very heated. Were her emotions grabbing her by the horns?

 

“Rayla”, she started, placing a calming hand on her young friend’s shoulder, “You should probably check on Callum. Make sure he’s okay.”

 

“Fine!”, Rayla spat, stabbing a finger in the Interpreter’s direction, “She is not getting that dragon...”, the elf trampled toward the tent’s flap, “...and that one is not getting my guy!”

 

She grabbed Zym who struggled to reach some more morsels of his delicious ration and stomped out.

 

“My, she is quite fired up”, the Interpreter smirked, “The various heats of youth, Lessa. I miss it.”

 

“Excellency, she has a point. They have not made good experiences with the decisions made at Korhal. I understand they are in contact with people at the border.”

 

Ivine’s smirk faded slightly, “Then they may be more well-informed than I. In the course of the senate’s departure, I have withdrawn all my Interpreters from the front lines. That much I owe them.”

 

Outside, Rayla was stomping down the road, swiveling her head. Where was her stupid boyfriend and the infuriating `sistah`?

 

Walking toward Honsa’s tent, she thought she heard them talking. The tent was empty. Rayla rounded it, to find them.

 

Her heart almost exploded.

 

Callum was sitting in front of the oceanwave elf on the ground, his head in Honsa’s hands. Glowing water was swirling around his ears. They were engaged in quiet conversation, him with his eyes closed.

 

They were smiling at each other.

 

Zym squeaked in her vice-like grip.