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A Cousin's Shame

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A Cousin's Shame 

 

He approached the cells slowly with great dread. His heart beat loudly in his ears, and the palms of his hands sweated. From the darkness, the sound of retreating steps and hushed voices greeted him; he heard terror. Once at the gate, Alphonse raised the torch he carried in front of him. Dozens of huddled forms cramped together in the tiny room, all pressed against each other to the far wall. The Islanders held one another for support or tried to squeeze past to hide in the crowd from the burning light. Men, women, the old and young, trembled before him in soiled clothes of their own waste and blood. 

Alphonse held fast against the stench, and he took in the faces of the captives. Fear, streaming tears, wide eyes set into starved cadaverous faces. 

"Not again! Not so soon, bird!" a weak quivering voice called from the mass. 

Aphra came up from behind Alphonse to stand at his side. A hand covered her mouth and nose as she too took in the sight. Siora followed, her eyes unblinking, mouth hanging agape and hands hanging limp at her sides. 

"Oh, no - no, Asili, what have you done?" murmured Aphra through her hand. She stepped back, not looking away with a tremor in her legs. 

We've arrived in hell, Alphonse thought. 

To his right, Siora faced him with wet eyes. "What are we waiting for? Have we not come to free them? Do it!" she cried in anguish. She grabbed the bars of the cell and shook them futilely as if she could break them down.

Alphonse dug into one of the pockets of his coat for the key to the cell door.  With it in hand, he inserted it into the lock. Siora shouted out words in the Native tongue to her people, who seemed to all breathe in collectively as they saw the door swing open. A shrill cry of defiant iron rang in the air. Gasps of terror responded. Those at the front of the captives raised themselves high as they threw out their arms protectively over their fellows behind them. 

Alphonse made to enter the cell but thought better of it. Better to not frighten them more until realization settled.  "We have come to free you, brothers and sisters! Your people have not forgotten you!" Siora shouted. Her words were met with disbelieving silence.

Do not show fear, do not show emotion. You are Alphonse De Sardet, Legate of the Congregation of Merchants. Be an exemplar of courage, authority, and guidance. Where others falter, I must act. Act damn you! He thought angrily. 

Alphonse entered the cell with his free hand offered out to the crowd. Whimpers and curses started. "We are not here to harm you," he said calmly and slowly. "My companion is right. We have been sent here to rescue you from your torment. Heed her words. Siora, speak to them," 

"Yet you bring a Lion with you, renaigse!" said a man at the forefront. Alphonse took in the man's appearance: the man carried folds of skin around his frame like he had lost a substantial amount of weight from starvation. His green hair hung limp past his shoulders. His right arm held out to protect his fellows ended in a stump at the elbow suffering necrosis. 

Aphra did not react. She remained the same with her hand over her mouth. 

Siora spoke again. Despite the grief in her expression, her tone though loud and wrought with emotion, carried an attempt at comfort. Alphonse moved closer. The one-armed man raised his left fist to strike. When Alphonse stood before him, the man held his fist. Alphonse's torch's fire shed light on the man's countenance: exhaustion and pain etched into a young face scarred by trauma and stress. He breathed heavily.

"You … are On ol menawi?" he asked. 

Siora called out from the cell. "Yes! Hear our words! Look at us!" 

They did. Disbelief turned into understanding. 

"She is a doneigad," 

The man lowered his fist. Alphonse dropped his hand, not expecting it to be taken. The man broke out in tears that he struggled to repress. His body slackened. "En ol Mil Frichtimen has answered our prayers at last," he whimpered with closed flowing eyes.

Alphonse looked down at the man's side. A small face stared at him from behind her protector. A bony hand held the rags she wore from sliding down her diminutive frame. In her mouth, the girl bit on one of her fingers hard enough to draw blood. It was the only digit left of that hand, the others mere uneven stumps. 

I cannot show emotion. Do not show emotion. Where others break, I must stand tall. Do not show emotion. Do not break down. Do not - 

 

For the second time, Alphonse entered hell. He moved ahead of the column through the labyrinth laboratory. From high up above, dim light peered through the tunnel's ceiling.  He exited it soon enough into the laboratory's main area exposed to the sky, from behind his companions spread out. A dozen men and women fell into line at the back, wearing a mixture of Coin Guard armor and Congregation uniforms. Before venturing again into the lair, De Sardet had approached the Congregation's embassy in Hikmet for assistance. He felt the severity of the investigation warranted a second layer of legitimacy to include his fellow diplomats. The Coin Guards were provided from Gov. Burhan's own protection detail at Alphonse's request. 

The strangers gazed around at their surroundings in confusion. The Coin Guards kept their hands at the hilts of their weapons. The Congregation party struggled to remain unbothered. Their faces were twisted with nausea at the horrible stench in the air. 

Alphonse motioned for the most senior among their party to him. A grey-haired elder man in a plumed hat approached him. "Heavens above, Your Excellency, what have we walked into?" he said, wringing his hands together in a fit. 

"Hold yourself together, sir," Alphonse told him. "You will each partner with a Guard and begin investigating the area. Leave no stone unturned." 

"What exactly are we supposed to be looking for?" 

"Evidence of Dr. Asili's experiments. There will be no shortage of that, books, ledgers - the like. If anything you are now witnesses to the aftermath of a great injustice. I cannot overstate how crucial it is that the doctor is found guilty."

The elderly man nodded vigorously, "Yes, of course! The potential here for a diplomatic incident is very dire. Nauts! What were these savants thinking?"

Alphonse narrowed his eyes. "Do not forget the Natives," he said coldly. 


"No, Your Excellency," said the man absentmindedly. "I know our orders concerning the importance of good relations with the Natives. We must capitalize on this and show them the benevolence of the Congregation with our aid." 

Alphonse dismissed him without a word. 

His feet passed over dead grass and packed earth as he moved to explore. Empty half-ruined buildings whispered to him of hidden evils. Death was everywhere, seeped into the ground, and in the walls, even the air carried about it sorrowful testimony to unspeakable depravity. 

Near a small wooden building, Kurt occupied the doorway with his back to the outside. Alphonse went to him. Thinking himself alone, Kurt was heard muttering on his breath, cursing. His fists shook violently. Kurt sent out a kick to some object at his feet. 

"Kurt," 

His head cracked around. Kurt's face was a mask of rage, his teeth were bared. "Come inside, De Sardet," he growled. Alphonse followed him hesitantly inside.

 The building was a single room without windows. Scattered all across the floor haphazardly were various open crates, tools, straw, and such things. Dried blood black as night and thick like a scab covered multiple surfaces. 

Kurt's nostrils flared. "Do you know what this is?" he asked. He did not wait for a reply. "This was a room used for torture. Not experiments - they didn't even bother pretending what happened here was the work for some cure. Look," he pointed. 

At the right wall were fixed four heavy iron manacles. Next to it was a stand carrying an assortment of hammers, pliers, knives of multiple sizes, saws, and other devices Alphonse could not begin to guess as to their function. 

"Do you see any science equipment? People were tortured and killed here for no reason but to satisfy some sadistic bloodlust," Kurt spat.  

"Yes, it seems that in their quest for a cure, they not only abandoned their humanity but dived into degeneracy, Kurt. I doubt they could distinguish between the torture and their research in the end," Alphonse said quietly. He tried not to focus on what he was seeing. 

Kurt hung his head and sighed. "I thought this corruption was limited to Torsten's and this Egon's ilk. Is there anything good left in the Guard worth preserving?"  he asked wearily.

Alphonse said nothing. 

"Let's finish up here and see all the whoresons responsible for this pay," Kurt finished with a flare of venom. 

Passing down deeper into the laboratory, Petrus and Aphra were encountered engaged in an argument. Alphonse moved quickly as the two were drawing the attention of a Congregation diplomat and his Guard. 

Petrus motioned all around the area with his arms, his face contorted angrily. "Do you see now? How much more evidence do you need for your people's evil? I cannot think of any purge in the history of Theleme that can match the blood spilled here!" 

Aphra held her ground. "You lecture me on the standards of morality, Petrus? What of your nation's commitment to spreading the light of your false god no matter the means? I remember the camps and Ordo Luminis," she shot back. 

"Theleme wants to live side by side with the Natives and all nonbelievers. We attempt communication; we can see them as equals! And after the truth of what was discovered about Saint Matheus, this is possible! My faith preaches morality and compassion! Your belief in an abstract idea - a study, has not set any boundaries on the Alliance's commitment to science!" 

Alphonse came between them. His hands at their chests, he separated the two. They turned their angry glares at him only to vanish. "Not now," Alphonse told them sternly. "Remember what we are here to do. Work together for the sake of the people who died here."

"Forgive me," said Petrus abashed. He slouched slightly, looking older than he did. "You are right, my child. It is just that this is all too much. These victims - Oh, by the Illuminous, how many died here? Can we not accept that there are some things man was not meant to know? There exists knowledge not in accordance with the word of God."

"Let us continue, these unclaimed souls can at least be avenged and held up as martyrs for the wickedness of men," Petrus walked away, promising to offer a prayer for the victims. 

When alone, Alphonse turned to Aphra, "Aphra, are you alright?" he asked foolishly. What sort of question was that? 

"Am I alright?" Aphra muttered. "Is any of this alright, Alphonse? Of all the-" 

"I am sorry," 

Aphra pinched the bridge of her nose. "No, I am sorry. You must understand that I have a personal connection to this tragedy. Asili was my master, remember? Some of his underlings were my fellow students. To have associated so closely with madness - I …" she stopped and looked at him pained.  "De Sardet, please tell me I do not have the potential for this. That I could have become complicit in these experiments had I not left Dr. Asili." she gave him a pleading look of utmost desperation. 

He assured her no. Aphra left early when she did so, she was so easily disgusted with the beginning of Dr. Asili's cruelty. She did not have the capacity for such evil. 

Vasco was found in the dungeons, walking past the cells silently. In his hands, Vasco carried a beaten tricorne. He shuddered to think of what his Naut friend must have felt when his people considered each among their number family. How many brothers had he lost here? 

Vasco turned the tricorne in his hands as he stared at it. "So many of us are here, De Sardet. How could the Nauts have been so careless with our own?" 

Simple, Vasco, there are monsters on Teer Fradee, and they outnumber us. They are everywhere. They are insidious and cruel and deceptive. We could not have expected all the evils of Gacane to follow us here to this small island, he thought.

Alphonse went even deeper into this hidden lair of torment. He headed for Asili's personal laboratory. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that Alphonse did not notice that he strayed off the path where he nearly tripped. He caught himself in time, cursing, looking that he had almost fallen into the ravine running parallel to his walk. 

After righting himself, he gazed along the ravines' length: his heart dropped. It was not empty; he recalled the pits that needed to be dug to dispose of the bodies. How did he not notice this his first time here? Were the holes dug because the ravine had been filled to capacity? Blackened, misshapen corpses were piled high in a tangle of limbs. Grinning skulls greeted him in horrifying grimaces. There were just as many who had not been burned, instead, left to rot in the open like spoiled meat food for insects. 

They say En ol Mil Frichtimen is wise and benevolent. If so, why are you allowing your children to suffer these injustices? He wondered bleakly. When have you come to their defense in all this time? Your children are dying, will you stand for it? 

Was this Native god even real? Or merely another fiction like the Illuminous? What had he really witnessed those months ago in Vedleug that still chilled him to his core? In his desperation for a remedy, had he perhaps deluded himself into believing a hoax? Alphonse questioned precisely what he was chasing that cost so much grief. The death of the High King Vinbarr. Constantin's kidnapping. He winced as he thought of his cousin: how poor Constantin was struggling after all his misfortune. Constantin had changed so much since his bonding ritual. Or instead had his already mercurial moods amplified; his periods of whimsy bordered on comical with his bouts of sullenness pushing those away from him—all except Alphonse. 

He is your charge, Alphonse. Take care of Constantin, a familiar voice entered his mind. Cold and impersonal. An emotionless sound that sent shivers down one's spine worse than ice or a wild wind. 

Siora was found not too far up the path, on her knees amidst the sharp rocks, looking into the ravine. He hurried to her side; she did not respond to his approach. Siora merely gazed down the slope at the bodies of her murdered people. A hand brushed at her eyes. Alphonse rued, bringing her back down into the laboratory; he had tried in vain to keep her from coming, but she insisted. Seeing Siora now, he wished he had pressed harder.

"Siora, please don't look at this anymore," he said gently. He crouched down to her level. Siora did not. 

"How can they hate us so much they could treat us worse than animals? What have we done to deserve this?" Siora asked him sorrowfully. Her voice sounded cracked and muted. "And then they hate us more when we dare to defend ourselves. 'Savages,' 'barbarians,' these words sting, Alphonse, just as much as the renaigse's cruel steel," 

He wrapped his arms around her and brought her into his embrace, his chin resting against the top of her head. With her face buried in his chest, Alphonse stared down into the ravine. He was terrified and disgusted, but some part of him willed himself to look. He owed the dead that much at least; to acknowledge them.

Siora spoke into his coat in a wavering voice of grief, "I want these butchers to suffer. I want the volcano to take them. These bodies must be returned to their clans but … it is impossible to tell where they came from. The attempt has to be made still,"  her hands gripped the fabric of his doublet tightly. "Promise me, retribution will be delivered. This place must be torn down stone by stone so Nadaiges can help cure the land of its evil and pain."

He continued to go from body to body. Accepting that each existed. That each was a person stolen from a family, a village, a Naut port. Their flames extinguished before their time. I once admired the savants of the Bridge Alliance, he thought heartbroken. 

"We will make them pay, Siora, I promise," he said, helping her to her feet. His hands rested on her face and with a gloved thumb, wiped a falling tear from her right eye. And you are the stronger of the two of us, he wanted to remind Siora. They touched their foreheads together in a moment of solidarity. 

A gunshot sounded. 

"What-?" Alphonse, still holding Siora, crouched down low to the ground. His head spun in all directions, searching for the source. A second one went off. 

Siora pointed and shouted, "It's coming from there!" Alphonse's attention was turned to a tall building- Dr. Asili's personal laboratory four hundred feet up the path.  

"Who could it be?" he asked. 

"I know a Merchant diplomat and her Guard headed there," Siora said. 

Alphonse pulled out his pistol as he considered a course of action. His eyes darted over the building, searching for any action from the windows. Nothing. 

"De Sardet!" 

Several figures exited out the mouth of a tunnel from behind them. De Sardet saw his companions and two Congregation diplomats with their Guards weapons drawn, barrel towards them. Kurt was in the lead. Not two dozen yards distance between them were two shots fired; one struck the ground upsetting dirt while the other hit a diplomat in the side. The man collapsed, clutching his wound, screaming in pain. His Guard and Petrus separated from the party to tend to him. The rest met them panting lightly. 

"What the hell is going on, Greenblood?" Kurt asked, bewildered. "Whose shooting from the lab?"

"I have no idea, Kurt," replied Alphonse looking at the building. "We need to get in there, we have two of our own who could very well be injured or worse," 

"Should we wait for reinforcements?" suggested Vasco, who, like Alphonse, held out his pistol. "The rest of the party is well behind but on their way." Kurt added, "The sailor is right. Strength in numbers," 

Alphonse shook his head. The people he brought with him into the lab were his responsibility, and he had no desire to add their lives to the number of bodies present. If they still lived. 

Petrus joined them. Droplets of running crimson blood rolled down his gauntlets. Seeing Alphonse's expression, he quickly said, "Do not worry. He is healed, and the bleeding stopped but still in some pain and shock. I recommended his guard, and he retreat back a safe distance." and Alphonse did see the two in question pull back, his fellow leaning on his protector for support.

"Your Excellency, please," said the remaining diplomat, a slight woman in an ill-fitting uniform. She was crouched with a hand raised protectively over her head. She shook and sweated profusely. "If you have a course of action in mind, could we pursue it then? We are vulnerable standing about in the open."

"Greenblood, you can't just expect us to charge that building can you?" Kurt asked. 

Petrus stepped forward with a bold expression and grim smile set in his weathered features. "My child, if I may?" Alphonse nodded. "Kurt is right, but he forgets a convenient tool we have at our disposal, one that will render any gunfire useless," Petrus snapped his wrists, and magic came alive about his arms. Great spinning ribbons of shadow magic writhed around in dizzying patterns. 

Alphonse returned his smile and stood up, putting away his pistol and did the same. Just as he always felt when he summoned his magic, his body felt aflame with an electric warmth that spread from his center to the rest of him. He felt alive and dangerous, himself a weapon far more lethal than his saber or firearm. 

"Gather around Petrus and me," Alphonse shouted for all to hear. "Stay within our barriers and match our paces. We will march to the lab under the protection of our magic where once inside meet our foe and see to our fellows." 

Together Petrus and he raised their arms high. From their fingertips, protective magic flowed to envelop them all in two large spherical domes three meters high. Alphonse held his arms up, grunting with the effort to maintain it with the necessary concentration. Taking his cue from Petrus, they moved as one. The rest held out their weapons in preparation for combat, Kurt and the second Coin Guard were at the front, large blades in hand under Alphonse's protection. The going was slow. Torturously slow. Alphonse and Petrus sweated freely, and their muscles screamed in protest at the force of will to hold their shields. Alphonse bent forward as if an invisible weight had come to rest upon his back. He clenched his jaw, trying to keep his arms from his quivering.

Not halfway did the gunfire return. The shot cracked loudly from within the darkness of the lab. Though he did not see it, Alphonse could see the lead ball's ripple-like effects against his magical shield from disintegration on contact. 

"Holding in there?" Vasco asked from behind. He did not turn his head but answered, "I will manage," he said hoarsely. 

"Can we move any quicker?" 

Petrus said loudly, almost biting every word, "No, we cannot. The exertion would only sap us of our strength all the faster. Keep moving, Vasco, we will find ourselves at the lab's door soon enough,"

The gunfire stopped. By halfway, Alphonse's arms threatened to fall. A sensation like fire spread through them. Alphonse panted, his sight having failed from sweat stinging his eyes that he kept closed for some small mercy. He only trusted himself to keep his arms raised, willing his magic to hold and to place one put in front of the other. 

"We are nearly there," Siora's voice said at his side. He was silent but nodded his head once to show he heard. Her hand, he guessed, placed itself in the middle of his back. The darkness of his eyelids became dizzying, and he felt himself sway almost drunkenly. 

A pain like an ax coming down on the crown of his head to split it in two struck. Alphonse cried out angrily.  His right foot slipped against something, and he toppled forward, his eyes flashing open to the light. He snapped them shut just as quickly, experiencing small specks of glow in the dark. The ground met him. The left side of his face smacked against the cold earth. 

"We are at the door! Greenblood? Greenblood, are you well?" 

Alphonse was helped up by a pair of strong hands. His blurred vision took in the visages of Kurt, who he could tell by his signature hat. He wiped his arm across his eyes. The doors to the lab stood not five feet in front of him, heavy iron-studded oak. It was slightly ajar, pure darkness inside. Vasco and the female diplomat came up supporting Petrus between them. His head hung limp, and perspiration dripped from his chin. He shook, seeming, ready to collapse and bring his helpers down with him. 

"Petrus?" Alphonse asked, worried. 

The bishop flicked a hand in reply. Grunting, Petrus lifted his head a fraction high and said raggedly, "Our allies inside, Alphonse … we must see to them," 

Alphonse freed himself from Kurt's grip. His party watched expectantly, weapons ready. 

"Petrus, you will hang at the back," he said sternly. Petrus opened his mouth to protest but nodded solemnly before pulling away to stand unsupported. He winced visibly from exhaustion. "Kurt, you will be first in, you soldier," Alphonse pointed to the second Coin Guard. "Will open the doors before following second."

"Vasco, Aphra, and my lady will provide supportive fire while Siora and I follow the Coin Guards. We will go room to room, working our way up, searching for our two missing companions. If whoever we find in there refuses diplomacy - deal with them accordingly," he finished. He unsheathed his saber in his right hand and his pistol in the left. Face still sweaty and limps tired, he tried to exert an air of authority. 

The Coin Guard, on his signal, pushed the doors open wide with a grunt. Kurt, blade raised for a strike, stepped through the doorway and disappeared. The Guard followed. Siora's stone blade came alive with enchanted flames that crackled silently. She and Alphonse headed into the laboratory. Inside, a foul stench of iron and mustiness overwhelmed their noses from such enclosed space. Darkness enveloped much of the room. Kurt and his counterpart wandered warily over the area. Siora raised her sword, letting the flames shed light where she passed it. Taxidermy mounts peered at them like false, empty eyes. Their unblinking stares witness to uncounted atrocities. 

The remaining four entered. Aphra with her rifle at the ready, Vasco like him wielding both blade and pistol, the envoy hanging back behind with a pistol shaking in her grip. Petrus, breathing heavily and perhaps too exhausted to use his magic, carried a simple dagger. "See anything, Your Excellency?" asked a voice in a hushed whisper. Alphonse furrowed his brows, "No, and please practice silence, madam," he replied even quietly. 

Annoyed at the lack of visibility, Alphonse gritted his teeth. Any shots or blows dealt in the dark could be deadly to themselves without light. Reading his mind, Siora moved about lighting torches with the tip of her blade. Just as everywhere, spatters of dried blood covered the floor, tables, and walls. The buzzing of insects was a constant noise, a low maddening drone. 

Alphonse covered his right arm over his nose to block out the smell. The Coin Guards spread out to explore other rooms. A nod signaled them at each closed door to open it cautiously to explore. They were empty of people not dead. 

So, they are upstairs, Alphonse thought. He strained his hearing only to catch nothing coming from the floor above. His fingers tightened around the grip of his saber in trepidation. 

Alphonse took careful steps towards the wooden stairs. He decided against climbing the landing. His companions gathered around him stopping some paces away from him. 

"Whoever is up there, answer me!" Alphonse called out.

Nothing. Alphonse swallowed and took the first step of the stairs. The sound of creaking woods was like thunder in his ears with the tension. He groaned inwardly.  A peek over his shoulder showed everyone looking apprehensively and standing still. Alphonse made it to the landing when he heard a noise.

"The hell is down there?" a rough male voice shouted. "One of mine or more of you fuckers come to take me, eh?"

Alphonse cleared his throat, "I am the Legate De Sardet of the Congregation of Merchants, I've arrived here with a large armed party to investigate -" 

"Sir! It's me, Pvt. Maxwell of the Coin Guard," the voice cut in excited. A sudden cacophony of noises sounded—shouting, the heavy falling of feet, and then a gunshot. 

Alphonse craned his body as he aimed his gun into the darkness of the second floor. 

"Your Excellency! Hurry, the bastards have me pinned and murdered my charge! One tried to rush me, but I got him. Quickly-" yet another shot was fired. 

This could be a ruse by these intruders to lure me out, Alphonse thought. His heart beat loudly as the seconds stretched. 

"Sir? Sir, please! I cannot hold them much longer," 

Alphonse went up the second set of stairs as quickly as his tired feet would allow. He passed through a slim area of darkness onto the next floor. Dim light greeted him. From halfway across the room, a figure approached a table between them. A second person sat with his back to the table on the ground, a discarded rifle at his side. One of his hands clutched at his left knee, his face beneath his barbute helmet twisted in silent agony. The man started at his arrival, "Your Excellency, careful!" 

The first man was now close enough to be made out, an older rat-faced man in a filthy leather coat. In his hands, he wielded a two-handed ax. He blinked in surprise at Alphonse, and his jaw dropped. 

Alphonse opened his mouth when the intruder shouted, "Oi! It's the fucking Merchant's legate! Come help!" two figures dressed similarly stepped out from different doorways aiming rifles. 

The first turned back to run when Alphonse shot him between the shoulder blades. A small grunt and the man dropped loudly. He did not bother trying so early to summon his magic to defend himself. Instead, Alphonse dived for the safety of the table. Shots fired overhead. 

Pvt. Maxwell winced his left hand, still clutching his knee; it was a ruin of shattered bone, and blood flowed freely, pooling on the floor. "The cavalry behind you, sir?" he asked hoarsely with the slightest hint of sarcasm. 

He ignored the barb. "How do you fare?" the Guard's mouth split into a slight fake grin. "This is but a slight inconvenience," Alphonse did not fail to notice how faint he sounded. 

"Your charge?" 

"Dead ambushed her in one of the rooms ahead. I - I wasn't by her side at the moment, sir—my damned fault. Ah, hell - this pain is too much!" he broke off in a hiss, clenching his eyes and jaw tight. 

Alphonse felt through the pockets of his doublet, searching a potion. He found nothing next going inside his coat. Alphonse cursed his atypical ill-equipped self. Luck blessed him when his fingers felt a vial; he pulled it out to gaze in front of him. The thin glass held a light amber fluid, the contents splashing its sides in action. Magic potion, Alphonse thought. He undid the cork, as he did so, he heard loud footsteps - the source coming from down the stairs. 

"Careful, they are watching the door!" he shouted. "Do not come in!"

"Alphonse?" a voice called. Aphra's Alphonse recognized. 

"Greenblood! How do you fare?" Kurts. 

"Alphonse, tell us what is happening!" Siora. 

He called out loudly as he could, "Please, do not enter!" Alphonse then raised the potion to his lips and drank tipped it into his mouth. A flavor of bad tea tainted his tongue as he swallowed the lukewarm liquid. The effect was immediate: all over his body, a tension made his body go rigid for a moment. He grimaced. It passed before a cold sensation hit his teeth. 

Revitalized but still feeling the aftermath of his last magical act, Alphonse considered his options. He could not use his magic offensively to deal with the enemies, the variables in disposing of them quickly enough, and how much effort vexed him. He could likely exhaust his magic again before combat ended. 

Pvt. Maxwell groaned. 

Alphonse nodded to himself. He bid the man remove his hand from his knee. Maxwell did so, with the draining blood increasing. Alphonse stared down at the wound; the white bone visible, some fragmented shards of bone were on the floor. He shoved aside feelings of nausea but still, his hand hesitated just above the wound. It trembled. Maxwell sagged forward, breathing shallowly. The Coin Guard did not respond to his name. Downstairs, Kurt's voice sounded again. 

"Patience, Kurt!" 

He bit his lower lip. Alphonse planted the palm of his hand on top of the ruined knee and heard a squelch. Despite wearing a glove, Alphonse dared he felt the blood's warmth. Pvt. Maxwell's wounded leg spasmed, and he cried. The sound was high and terrible. The Guard pounded the floor with his fists angrily, hissing profanities. 

Alphonse squeezed the ruined knee to maintain a grip, and Maxwell's shouting grew louder; he threw his head back snarling. He summoned his magic forth, and blue-white sparks flew from his hand soundlessly. Without seeing, Alphonse knew, his spell was cauterizing the blood flow. 

Pvt. Maxwell tilted his head to face him, his eyes barely open. "Sir? I-I feel just a tad better ... I'm not going to die, am I?" he asked under his breath. 

"No.," Alphonse said, not removing his grip. "Not another one of mine will die here," 

He cleared his throat. "You know who I am, but who are you, and what is your purpose?" he shouted.

"You have already claimed the life of one representative of the Congregation of Merchants; a grievous offense, will you add the attempted murder of their legate as well? Speak to me! Let us end this without any further bloodshed, and I will promise leniency. That is more than what you could hope under the circumstances." 

Alphonse waited.

"How many of you are there?" Alphonse pressed. "I have a party downstairs with reinforcements coming shortly!" 

A voice called from the dark, raspy and low, "Leniency he says, boys … quite a silver tongue this one has on him," a hacking chuckle accompanied.

"Hey, boss, he's right there's more of 'em coming - I see 'em!" a second voice muttered. 

Alphonse smiled through the dim. Next to him, Maxwell whistled. 

Multiple voices started talking over one another: angry, excited, and Alphonse thought nervousness. The first voice he supposed belonged to their leader spoke loudly to silence his comrades. 

"Do you like your chances?" Alphonse called. He hoped the new arrivals had the sense to move cautiously and not fire their weapons. It would be disastrous to shatter the minuscule shred of opportunity he sensed now. 

"Do you see yourselves going down in some blaze of glory? And for what? Speak, what is your purpose here!" 

"Maybe we should consider our options here … you can't spend gold in hell, boss … " 

"Better our lives eating porridge in some cell than dead." 

The leader's voice cut through the gossip angrily, "Shut your holes! They can't mean what they say's not after our stunt here!" 

Alphonse cut in, "Have you not heard my name? Surely, tales of my deeds have spread throughout the island, at least. I am nothing if not a man of my word. Lay down your arms, surrender yourselves, and your cooperation will factor into any sentencing in court." 

Footsteps came from below. Alphonse tensed. Who was coming up?

"Alright, alright! We quit, the job ain't worth the coin!" 

It was Kurt supported by the second Coin Guard and Petrus behind. The old man's face was drawn tight, and his arms were raised. Alphonse knew that Petrus had summoned a barrier of magic to support them. His heart went out to the priest as he saw the quivering of his lips and weak expression. The Coin Guards entered with flintlock pistols drawn and pointing ahead ready. 

One by one, they shuffled into the common area, arms raised in surrender. Five men, all in dirty leathers and tough faces, went to their knees before the new arrivals. One, a dark-skinned man pox scarred, spoke, "Satisfied are we?" licking his lips offensively. 

Alphonse got to his feet and stood before their leader. He looked down and did not say a word. Panic took over the man's face, and he said hurriedly, "You said-" 

Alphonse struck him across his left jaw with the cold steel of his gauntlet. He collapsed into one of his fellows and slid to the ground. 

"So I am," he said unsympathetically. "A light kiss from the back of my hand is rather underwhelming but expected and rather deserved considering your actions here, no?"

He tilted his head to Kurt and said, "Aphra is needed, one of our own is dead and the other severely injured." he then faced the criminals before him. "Speak," 

The Coin Guards quickly fettered their hands in manacles before standing guard back at the first floor, leaving Kurt and one extra to watch over the prisoners. The lanterns were lit, brightening up the room. Before they left, the dead diplomat was pulled into the room and set on the table. A strike from an ax had parted the meat from her shoulder to breast. Alphonse took in how young she was, close in age to himself, probably he guessed. Another wasted life in this pit, he thought bitterly. 

"Lady Joanna Pelletier," said a fellow diplomat sadly. Maxwell shook his head ruefully. 

"Brutes, without honor or mercy," growled another that Alphonse recognized was the one who was shot earlier. The man's hand absentmindedly felt at his healed wound through his ruined bloodstained uniform. A manic look was in his eyes, and his breathing was fast. "Whatever you promised them, Your Excellency, rescind! There is no blow to anyone's reputation in dealing harshly with scum such as these," the prisoners bickered.

"No," said Petrus from a stool in a corner where he rested. "Alive, they are useful, Sir. Testimony, evidence. What brought all of us here, remember, was an investigation into the crimes of Dr. Asili. He is at the center of everything, including them," he indicated to the prisoners with a finger. "These criminals can be used against him in court. The doctor and all involved must be convicted," 

Aphra, who had remained silent, tending to Pvt. Maxwell, sitting down at his side, looked up, "Alphonse, I am afraid I will need the table …" she said without emotion. The wounded Coin Guard stared confused at her, but she avoided his eyes. 

"Doctor?" 

Aphra breathed through her nose, eyes downcast, "This man's leg will need to be amputated." she said. "Though not ideal, this lab is serviceable with the necessary equipment and potions if they can be found." 

I led them all down here, Alphonse thought ashamed. 

Maxwell went pale. His eyes glistened. He tried to speak, but no noise but a pitiful choking sound escaped him. A collective look of pity spread across the room. None could face the wounded Coin Guard, though. Kurt joined Maxwell on one knee on the floor. 

"No. No, please … I can't be a cripple," Maxwell whispered. Kurt placed a hand on one of his shoulders. "I joined the Guard not that long ago … I was officer material, I was told. Oh, god …" his voice trailed off into unintelligible blubbering.  Kurt offered soothing platitudes. 

Alphonse ordered Maxwell to be placed on the table, which he accepted with no resistance. Lady Joanna Pelletier's body was removed to a bench. A sheet was placed over her. Aphra went about the room digging through cupboards and drawers, hands moving blindingly fast for vials, bandages, and such. Soon she had a small collection on the makeshift operating table. Aphra removed her gloves to wash her hands in a basin of water.

Drying them with a cloth, she said to Siora, "Siora, do you believe you could be of assistance here? I will not say no to some outside help, and I admittedly have never had to amputate a limb before." Maxwell cried at the revelation. 

Siora nodded once and joined her side, mimicking her hand washing, "As doneigad of my village, I've treated many illnesses and injuries, but I must confess to having never performed this either. I will lend what skill and magic I have regardless, Aphra." 

Long leather straps were found and used to restrain Maxwell, who shook through it all, whimpering. 

Alphonse had the prisoners, himself, and others not necessary to the surgery removed to the room from where they had emerged. 

"Get a fire going, Siora, will you? I'll see to it a pot is boiling … is there a spoon or something for him to bite down on?" he heard Aphra say professionally. 

"You served well, Private," Kurt said outside the room. His voice was full of comfort and pride. "I'll make sure your superiors know of your performance here. You'll see this isn't an end … get him a drink. No! Not water, fool! A stiff drink," he told his Coin Guard companion. 

Kurt joined them, stepping over a dark puddle of blood - Lady Joanna's blood seeping into the wood at the door's entrance. The room was not large and no different than the rest of the lab, a small desk stood against the sole open window. Books were piled haphazardly into piles that could not fit into the tall bookshelves. Crates were stacked without direction. Indeed, it was very cramped as the prisoners took to their knees again. Their leader muttered under his breath. His cheek had swollen to twice its size and turned purple. 

Alphonse took the only seat available and crossed his arms. He ignored the continuing voices and activity happening outside with all he could muster in dreaded anticipation. One buckled and sputtered, he tripped over his words. At Alphonse's command, the thug started again. 

The group under the leader was a minor criminal element in Hikmet, involved in petty robbery, fixing fights at the local Coin Guard's arena, and extortion. Nothing extraordinary to place above the typical lawbreaking. Indeed, they were recruited for the particular assignment after being caught pummeling a fighter before his scheduled bout in the arena who had not accepted to take a dive. An officer in communication with Dr. Asili, who had a hand in picking his security, had offered them the work of sneaking into the doctor's laboratory to destroy some sensitive material. 

Alphonse's interest rose, with all that he had already seen with his own eyes - the corpses, the victims, what had transpired here that had not been brought to light that was so imperative to be destroyed? 

"What was it that the doctor did not want us finding?" he demanded. 

A high, muffled screech startled them all from outside. Alphonse pretended not to notice. The leader said, "Can't rightly remember - the Coin cunt received the orders from a middle man not the doctor himself, some books - one, I can't remember what it looks like, very important though," he finished with a shrug.

"We shoulda just burned this fucking place down," said another. "Instead of playing a game of finding the treasure - fuck, what timing! Arseholes, all of you!" 

Alphonse could not contain his disgust at the incompetence of the lot. "Had you done that, you would have let us on that Dr. Asili was interfering with the investigation. A risky gambit, not without its appeal, I'll admit." What is the doctor hiding?

"I'll have the name of this Coin Guard officer. He would have been better off sending some soldiers instead of you -"

"Was short on men, he seemed the nervous type too much of a worm to do his own work. Lots of fingers in a lot of pies if ya catch my drift," 

Something about that stuck with Alphonse. Egon? He filed it away mentally for later. It would be so good to make another inroad in that separate case later. 

The story concluded with the prisoners had made the familiar entrance to the lab from outside Hikmet as Alphonse had seen to it the front inside the city was guarded. Going through the specified books proved too burdensome, and in their frustrations, had even started tearing the pages out of books at random and stomping them beneath their feet. Alphonse noticed the mess that littered the floor, the wads of crumpled paper with the unreadable writing. He could not help but wonder. Too caught up in their tantrums, they did not notice that Alphonse's party had arrived. When Lady Joanna and Pvt. Maxwell had entered the building, they froze, in vain hoping to remain undiscovered. When Joanna had stepped into their room, one panicked, attacked her, and caught the attention of Maxwell. Another could not control himself in the chaos and decided to fire at Alphonse from the window as he had tended to Siora. Taking the troublesome fucker out, he had said. 

Aphra came to the doorway. Her eyes wide, her breathing ragged, and blood stained her face, hands, and the apron she had worn. She swayed slightly. Alphonse waited, hopefully. She nodded, "He'll live …" she uttered. Siora came behind her in a similar state. 

"The Bod Airni is in a deep sleep now, and may he remain that way for a while longer," Siora said. "When he awakes, his life shall be changed forever,"

Kurt sighed. "Bless you two," he said. 

"Very well done," said Vasco.

"You have saved a life today, be proud," Petrus said, smiling first to Siora and to Aphra. His smile grew smaller, but he nodded his congratulations. 

Alphonse stood up from the chair. "I thank you so much," he told them. "I want someone to return to the city and inform our embassy and Gov. Burhan of these events. I would like for medical personnel to be escorted back here for Pvt. Maxwell and Lady Joanna Pellitier when that is finished," he said to his fellow diplomats. One was dispatched with their Guard. 

The rest he assigned to continue their findings, to record what they could, in the laboratory building and outside. The prisoners were taken out to be held in a cell. Alphonse left himself and his friends with the odd job of going through the room's collection of books. Siora, unable to read the colonial language, tended to Maxwell. Each with their arms full of heavy books, found their own area to read. Kurt sat next to Maxwell at the table, his mouth working wordlessly, and his face sullen as his eyes went slowly over a book. Vasco skimmed through page after page. Petrus occupied a separate room with its desk, where he began to work. Aphra cleaned herself first before taking to a work table, setting multiple open books in front of her. Her head turned to each in turn, turning a page at random from one as she went. 

Alone, Alphonse took his seat at the desk again but not before being sure to pick up the crumbled pages and books from the floor. He gave them brief glances after straightening them out. He tossed page after page aside. No, what I'm looking for is a journal, something written by Dr. Asili himself, he thought. 

He started from the top of a pile with a worn red leather book, not dissuaded altogether by its unassuming title, Alphonse still flicked through pages of it and similar ones in the event they hid a note or slip of paper inside. He continued, the day shortening by the hour, book after book. He came across something written occasionally by the doctor or an accomplice. 


Alphonse read with the best effort to remain detached. But he found himself trying with every journal and diary he came across. The cold, clinical method of writing wore at him. Worst were the ones written in Asili's hand. Here, he could not afford to speed through the pages but slowly go through sentence after sentence. Occasionally he had to stop as he strained to recall an unfamiliar term or phrase in the medical terminology. The effort required to absorb what he was reading left him feeling incredibly distraught. Dr. Asili's journals included horrible accurate diagrams sketched in bold black ink; there was a disturbingly high degree of minute details he had formed. He had gone so far as to include the Naut tattoo's or Native's markings and branches on the models. 

Dr. Asili wrote without abandon; no detail was too minor, insignificant, or without possible advantage. He showed no empathy to his prisoners, pushing boundaries, testing experiments that seemed illogical, impossible to yield any relevant data concerning a cure for the Malichor. At times it was pure sadism as if he was merely devising new methods to inflict pain. He even went so far as to record instances of abuse he witnessed by his underlings. Alphonse stopped briefly as Asili seemed to have gone off on a tangent to some 'humorous' incident with a prisoner and a pair of Coin Guards involving blunt instruments. He dried his eyes and set the book aside for the moment. 

Alphonse despaired those great, passionate pioneers of progress if Dr. Asili was the very model of the Bridge Alliance's savants. He thought back, trying to remember when his respect and fascination for the Bridge scientists began. 

When he was a child, yes, he remembered. A lonely child stuck in the palace of House D'Orsay, afraid and feared by other children his own age. It all came back to the damnable mark on his face. Unclean, corrupted, ugly. Ugly. The Malichor they all thought once. Back when even after over seven years of the horrible disease spreading Gacane, the most ignorant and superstitious thought the Malichor contagious. The sight of children, grown foolish adults made uneasy by an ugly young boy, stirred pain in Alphonse he long thought buried in those recollections. Outside the palace was dangerous, he was told by his mother - no, not his mother. Princess De Sardet. The Malichor was driving people to riot, murder, even purge those blighted lest they contaminate others. Hysteria held sway in the gutters of Serene. And time did nothing to help. 

Alone, feared, pitied, and the subject of gossip, his escape was books. Fables, tales of adventures, stories of fantasy. World after world, where dragons existed, knights and wizards forged legends, fairies, and prophecies. Those were his comforts, in his darkest moments, in his mind pretending he had been transported by those beautiful illustrations to a paradise where he was the gallant hero, the beloved prince, and powerful wizard. Such was his life until his teaching began. Sir Olivier De Courcillon had come into House D'Orsay to provide both Alphonse and Constantin an education. By then, Alphonse had reread the same stories repeatedly. Though, tiring they were like welcoming nonexistent friends after some time apart opening them again. Sir De Courcillon, bold and confident, had challenged him to pursue the other books in the library. The ones he left untouched, the ponderous thick, and dusty tomes suited for adults. Histories, medical journals, ancient treatises, and genealogy records contained a different sort of wonder for the young imaginative reader with an open mind, Alphonse remembered being told.  Alphonse did, hesitantly at first, but soon diving in, being delighted to discover what was to be his favorite area concerning the far to the north Bridge Alliance and their science. A strange land of multiple fantastic countries united under a splendid blue-green banner where they practiced a different sort of magic—an applicable everyday enterprise of all kinds of knowledge that anyone could wield. To heal, create, build, grow without the aid of a ring or wand was its own appeal for him. Not that Alphonse was ashamed of his magic; on the contrary, he was proud and told he had the potential to be a skilled mage. But the potential in any field of science, of medicine, botany, and even astronomy could reach so many people in a grounded manner that perhaps Alphonse thought excitedly. He could find some form of recognition, respect, and even love. Not thinly-veiled tolerance by being noble-born. 

Alphonse began to arrive early and leave late after lessons with his master. Separating himself from a complaining Constantin and half-forgotten children, he had no interest in being forced to socialize with. Sir De Courcillon, smiling all the while, recommended titles and journals. On the rare occasions he got older, he would even accompany his master outside into the city to visit the Bridge Alliance's embassy. There, alchemists and doctors entertained the young man as he watched over their shoulders, asking questions. Looking back, Alphonse remembered now condescending suggestions that perhaps the young lord of House De Sardet should attend a university in the territories of the Bridge. How his hope had soared! So naive! As he lay in bed some nights imagining those legendary classrooms and lectures by such figures of Bhukan, the eccentric potioneer Amir, Serafeddin, and Dr. Asili … 

All that remained was what he wanted to study. Botany? He couldn't keep a single flower. Zoology? He liked animals well enough, cats mainly, but they were indifferent or else hostile to his presence. No, he would study to be a doctor. Perhaps, help find the cure for the Malichor that had ravaged the continent for so many years now. He did not need to be constrained by birth and limited to court. He was destined for more than balls, functions, signing papers. Posing for portraits and growing fat on expensive wine and rich food while people died outside the palace walls.  

Alphonse went into his lessons harder, inquiring at the Bridge embassy about letters to the universities of Al Saad, Khunastan, Tansia. But it had become apparent that Alphonse had reached his peak in the sciences. Eventually, he reached a point where he became perplexed, confused, and frustrated by his learning. The body so simple from the outside was more complicated than he had realized. The number and names of bones in the human body, the redundant sounding names for so many diseases that could easily be mistaken for another, the function of organs.

And at last the cadavers … Alphonse remembered them. The lifeless bodies, the horrible cloying smell, and the blood. Smelling of copper, and red so red. The mess of offal from dissected corpses of animals. He had practically run out vomiting over his clothes that first and only day in the morgue run by the Bridge. The mocking laughter had stayed with him that night as he sat for supper. He could only stare at his food, his stomach churning. His heart was heavy as he realized his limitations. From the head of the table, Prince D'Orsay had called his name. Alphonse looked up, warily. The Prince set down his goblet and wasted no preamble in addressing the topic at hand. Gossip from the Bridge embassy had made its way to Sir De Courcillon, who relayed the day's events to him. How his face had burned to recall the shameful display … 

"You are the scion of one of the most noble and ancient houses in the Congregation, Alphonse, and you forget your role in society. The fault of your mother and teacher, no doubt, but mine as well. My coin pays Sir De Courcillon, and my usual supervision over your education seems to have waned hearing how well you perform academically. Make no mistake, the lessons you learn are important but not being taught to define you. You will never be a scientist. Nor a doctor. Nor a playwright. Not a historian. But a diplomat, a politician. You will be a creature of the court as determined by your birth."

"You reached what you could learn in certain areas of study, and despite your passions for the subjects, you will never be able to do more than appreciate them with the interest of a layman. You embarrassed yourself today and with your badgering of the Bridge's savants these years. This will stop immediately. They carry important work and cannot afford distractions by entertaining your foolishness, Alphonse. I do not want to hear another incident of laughter directed at my family, do you understand?" 

Alphonse had never more wanted to disappear than at that moment. The table was silent. A servant refilled Prince D'Orsay's goblet. He sipped it and resumed eating. Princess D'Orsay stared at him, amused, her eyes full of mockery. Constantin had his hands balled into his fists on the tablecloth. He seemed to be fighting with every fiber of his being to not speak on his behalf. To his right, his mother had given a look of deepest sympathy as she placed a hand over his. 

From then, Alphonse stopped writing letters he knew had never once found their way into the hands of the professors in the Bridge Alliance. He dared not visit their embassy for years. The humiliation was so intense. Though sometimes at court, when Bridge diplomats were in attendance for his uncle, Alphonse could not avoid these men, these intellectuals and pioneers. He could do nothing but smile and feign politeness, even as he knew they laughed at him behind their patronizing behavior. 

Prince D'Orsay was right: Alphonse would never be one of them. The best he could achieve was to watch from a distance, a mere spectator as the professionals changed the world. It would have to be enough. And for many years, it was until now. 

The reading was time-consuming, the doctor wrote in tiny, even handsome lettering, that Alphonse sometimes had to strain his eyes to read what the doctor was trying to squeeze into the pages at some points. He suppressed a sigh coming on. How late was it getting? Perhaps it would be necessary to carry these books back to his residence in the city. The idea of spending the night here was too uncomfortable for him. 

I shall finish this diary and see about returning … He thought tiredly. Alphonse turned the page, prepared for more gruesomeness. Between the two new pages was a folded piece of paper. Alphonse picked it up and unfolded it in his hands. It was a thick yellow parchment done in a different handwriting than Dr. Asili's own. He read it.    

Aphra entered behind him, and Alphonse was quick to conceal the paper with his body. He hunched over, hiding it in the book as he closed it. He turned to Aphra, trying to maintain an unbothered air. Aphra had not noticed this as she was too absorbed in a journal she carried in her hands. She looked up, like him drained from the effort of their morbid task. 

"Can you believe what has happened here?" she wondered. "The things they wrote of it's inhumane, Alphonse," Aphra continued on. "I do not deny the enormity of these experiments … disgusting things. But I don't believe I've come across anything unique - I hate to say the word, that stands out from the rest of Dr. Asili's experiments. The thought is terrifying, that something happened here that was so ruthless and … and evil, enough that it needed to be destroyed."

Alphonse was silent. Inside he wanted to shout. But he could not - he was the Legate to the Congregation of Merchants. Some things were expected of him. 

"Alphonse?"

He blinked. "Yes, Aphra?"

Aphra with a determined expression. She said, "I've given thought to your earlier proposal. I believe I will testify against Asili in court. The man I knew is long gone, and the monster in his place needs to answer for his crimes." 

"I'm so glad you've agreed, Aphra," Alphonse answered with a false smile. He got up, the journal in hand. "Now, let's see about collecting as much of this material as possible. We can continue this in the comfort of Hikmet, late as it is. I'll be needing to see Burhan personally, and report the progress we've made." 

The reception room was empty save for a lone Guard outside the governor's office. Alphonse looked out to an open balcony, watching the moonlight against the domes and grand architecture of Hikmet at night. He admired the scenic tranquility wishing to emulate it within himself. His stomach was in knots, his body tense, and his voice betrayed an on edge quality. 

The Coin Guard opened the door to allow him in. Gov. Burhan's office floor was covered in a wool emerald carpet of dizzying geometric shapes. Invaluable pottery decorated in floral patterns rested on every surface. The smell of burning incense was in the air, sweet and smoky. Burhan was seated behind his desk, smoking a pipe from the corner of his mouth. He looked up from a book, expressionless. 

He set aside his pipe. "Your Excellency, De Sardet, I have been awaiting your arrival," he said, without getting up, he motioned for him to take a chair. Alphonse took it silently. "I trust you are unharmed?" 

"One of mine is dead, governor, and two injured. A private has been crippled because of the actions of a band of thugs acting under orders of Dr. Asili. The man will never walk again or serve with the Guard." 

Gov. Burhan remained unperturbed. "Yes. Quite unfortunate, I'm sorry to have heard," he said lightly. De Sardet struggled to suppress anger at the man's indifference. 

"You are unusual for a diplomat, De Sardet," said Gov. Burhan, "you do not confine yourself to court but are right in the middle of happenings, right in the thick of the action. Unorthodox, but you yield results that many cannot produce in their careers. Some may voice their concern or critique that you operate outside your capacity-"

Alphonse cut him off. " Your Excellency, I would rather we cut right to the heart of the matter. I have come to discuss my investigations and share my findings. Gov. Burhan, I am deeply concerned."

Gov. Burhan pursed his lips at the interruption but held his tongue. 

"Despite Dr. Asili's captivity, he has managed to interfere with my work. He has tried to have Nauts who survived his experiments killed to avoid giving testimony. As the prisoners who were apprehended today will say at trial, acting under his orders from a third party, he had tried to destroy evidence that resulted in the death of a representative of the Congregation of Merchants." 

Gov. Burhan said, " The audacity, but regardless of these obstacles, I am sure you have managed to conclude your work?" 

Oh, yes, I have ...

From within his coat, Alphonse produced the journal, opened it to the pages concealing the open note, and slid it across the desk. Gov. Burhan picked up the note lazily. He held it for the better part of a minute before setting it down. 

A spasm of emotions crossed the man's face: incredulity, shock, and anger. A thin gleam of sweat appeared across his brow. 

Wiping it away with a hand, Gov. Burhan fell into the back of his chair. "He poisoned your cousin and you?" he uttered in disbelief. He hunched forward just as quickly. 

"Gov. Burhan, I will be frank. Your competence and sincerity are in question. You have proven I cannot trust you by past behavior. You were aware of Dr. Asili's lab by your own admission, even if you did not have the full details. Or so you claim."

"I have an entire city to manage," Burhan argued. "in our mission to catalog all the new knowledge to gain on Teer Fradee and make progress towards a cure for the Malichor, I have allowed our scientists a significant amount of leeway. You cannot possibly believe I was complicit in this!" 

"I am not convinced," Alphonse said coolly. 

"No. This must be a fabrication - faked! You forged this to place yourselves in a position to reap bountiful reparations and squeeze as much from our coffers as your money-grubbing hands can!"

"Don't be absurd, Burhan," Alphonse snapped. " that is Dr. Asili's handwriting! The testimony of the prisoners will add credence, what reason would they have had in the laboratory, remember?"

"Those imbeciles didn't even know what they were looking for!" said Gov. Burhan angrily. He jabbed a finger at Alphonse. "All this trouble, and for what? To satisfy the petty vengeance of those savages? Dr. Asili is one of the most accomplished sages of our nation, the entire continent, and you would take him away and all the potential out of-" 

Alphonse felt his opinion of the Bridge slip even further. There would be no pleading with the governor's emotions or humanity. The man was too prejudiced. All that was left was for Alphonse was the political route. 

"Do you or do you not understand the gravity of the situation the Bridge is facing, Burhan?" He said in a raised voice. "I will try to explain it in a manner you will understand: Once word of this spreads across the island and finds its way to Gacane, the consequences will be astronomical. The Nauts could enact sanctions, refuse to transport cargo for the Alliance. You are already at war with the Natives, even right now, the survivors of Dr. Asili tell the tales of the horrific abuse they suffered. This will only inflame them even further. And once the Congregation learns, we will be forced to act against you. I will admit we are not a martial power, but we have the resources, coin, and political clout to be a formidable enemy. You cannot afford another one when you have Theleme and the Natives to contend with. The Nauts will be the nail in your coffin here on Teer Fradee!

Alphonse leaned forward, teeth bared, "Do you want a war, Burhan?

The Bridger's mouth worked silently, his features contorted in a fury. Alphonse took back the note and journal. Placing them back in his coat, he said, "I do not," 

"What?" Burhan managed, suspicious now. 

"I do not want to see any more blood spilled on account of a lunatic and his pet monsters. We and I mean everyone - the colonists and Natives do not need it. Gov. Burhan, you are in a precarious situation now. You will face retaliation and censure, there will be no avoiding that, but the best you can do is minimize the fallout. The Bridge can only accomplish that by satisfying the wounded parties." 

"It is either that or contend with the full fury of Prince D'Orsay should this come out,"

"What are your suggestions?" asked Gov. Burhan, a shade now subdued. 

Alphonse hesitated. What he was doing now would haunt him forever. He was plunging himself into dangerous waters. 

"I do not have suggestions," said Alphonse. "I have demands that you will meet, and in return, I will keep the existence of this note secret. No one will ever know my cousin, and I were infected with the Malichor,"

"What-"

Alphonse held up a hand. "Silence. Dr. Asili will be found guilty and executed. As to how the Nauts and Natives will want their justice, I leave that to them. Any assistance as an intermediary, I can offer, is yours to accept. You will allow the Native victims safe entry into Hikmet to testify. The corpses will be returned to their people."

"Before that, you personally and a select number of your court will venture into the doctor's laboratory to see with your own eyes the horrors that went on there. I can only hope that seeing all that death first hand will give you pause in your future conduct regarding your experiments. If not, I demand the creation of an agency with the sole purpose of supervising all of the Alliance's projects. Any work will need to be proposed to it before being carried out. Finally, I wish that you cease your war with the Natives. I have connections among them, and I will try to bring you together at the negotiation table to bring an end to hostilities." 

In the end, Gov. Burhan was on his feet, his hands on his desk shaking with fury. "Anything else, Your Excellency? You ask for so much," he spat.

"And I have given as much. As I said, you cannot afford the consequences of the Congregation."

"You will keep this a secret from your governor? Your own cousin?" asked Gov. Burhan. 

"I will not risk him acting in haste," Alphonse admitted. "Only the two of us, not including Dr. Asili and his accomplices know." 

"What a shocking display of distrust, one might even say tr-" started Burhan mockingly. 

It's true I do not

"Tread carefully, do not think for a moment I will not set contingencies in place that will see this information coming to light. I will not be caught unawares by your deceit anymore."

"You play a dangerous game, De Sardet," Gov. Burhan muttered. 

"Try me and see if you can handle Prince D'Orsay, himself, see then how you will quiver at his demands for justice,"  

Gov. Burhan bridled. "Like it or not, you are now my creature, Burhan," finished Alphonse. He got to his feet, feeling the journal through his doublet. "I will call upon you tomorrow."

Alphonse spun on his feet and was at the door when he was stopped. 

"Thirty years," 

"Pardon?"

Gov. Burhan walked in front of his desk. His hands on his sides. "Thirty years, that is how long the Malichor has blighted Gacane. No one can say precisely how many lives we have lost. Tens of thousands, indeed. More. How many of those victims were women and children? How many families have been erased from memory?"

"We are faced with the greatest threat to Mankind in history, and we teeter on the edge. What sacrifices we are forced to make, what crimes, as you would call them, we commit are necessary, some would say even required if we are to survive. Compare the hundreds against the continent's future generations - are these victims' lost lives so valuable now? Will you truly halt any progress Dr. Asili has made with this trial and your talk of this agency? What gives you the right, De Sardet, you could probably be destroying the potential for a cure!"

"I will find one, Burhan, I have a lead," Alphonse said unconvincingly.

"Tell me, De Sardet, where do your loyalties lie?" asked Burhan. "You defy your country's stance of neutrality time and time again. You show such favoritism to the savages. Why? Do you sympathize with them? I see such similarities," the last bit hit Alphonse. It dripped with hostility. 

How many truly knew the truth about him? The colonization of the island had been ongoing for fifteen years. Much time to learn about its people. How many made the connection with the mark? When he first arrived on Teer Fradee, how many had already guessed at first glance and said nothing? Indeed, Burhan must have when they first met. 

Alphonse stared down at himself. Time and the elements of his travels in the wilderness, all the fighting had torn and faded his uniform. The golden brocade was no longer bright. Stubborn stains had refused to leave despite washing. Multiple holes were present on his clothes and cape. The fur lining of his cape was sparse and rough. His armor was dented and dull, rusting even in some places. And colorful strips of Native cloth, gifts from Siora and Slan, red had been stitched into his uniform, holding it together at some places crudely by his own hands. 

Am I the Legate, or am I a Native? Both or neither? I do not know, but I allow others to paint me as one or the other. 

"Good day, Governor,"

He walked the streets back to his residence, avoiding people, keeping to the shadows. His head bowed. What had he done? What was he failing to do? It was not right to hide this cruel truth from Constantin. His chest ached badly then, and Alphonse struggled to undo his cravat feeling it was restricting him. 

Constantin was not in his right mind; he tried to rationalize. Ever since the binding, Constantin had changed. Once he was willful, he was defiant, and Alphonse found his influence over him waning. Appeals to their friendship were being tested by the day. The love remained, but Constantin had let himself be unfettered, no longer pliable or willing to listen to reason. He was almost a child again, wrestling for his own independence, and Alphonse feared. What would Constantin do if he discovered his poisoning? He could not be trusted now that he wielded such authority and power. It was his fault. Poison! Attempts on the life of nobles of the Congregation were not new, least of all the heir to House D'Orsay. How many times did Constantin escape death as a boy? But they were no longer in the safety of the D'Orsay palace. 

Such a naive mistake. Why? Why us? He thought bitterly. Even on this island, we cannot escape the treachery of Gacane. We are still pawns in other games. We are still so powerless ...  

Take care of Constantin, said Prince D'Orsay. Words he had heard time and time again. He is your charge ...

I am the Legate of the Congregation of Merchants, I cannot break, I must stand tall. He told himself. Repeating the same words, he often told himself in moments of self-doubt or weakness. A practice designed to comfort and give him strength. How often he practiced it since he arrived on Teer Fradee. He was weak and a liar. Another snake of the courts of the Congregation to use his own cousin's misfortune in a political move. 

But then what would have Prince D'Orsay done in his place? Wasn't one of Alphonse's objectives here to establish peace between the different factions? 

No, it was to advance the interests of the Congregation. His work with the Natives and the others were secondary or a step in that plan. Or so, it was in the beginning.

I give so much to the Natives, but it is right ... it is only right.

The gambit he had played had the danger to blow in his face if it was discovered. 

He never wanted to be held more than in that instant. Alphonse's knees gave out, and he collapsed with his back against a brick wall. He slid to his rear, brought his knees to his chest, and locked his arms. He wanted to be touched and comforted. He wanted Siora to kiss him. He wanted his aunt Slan. Princess De Sardet to soothe him. He wanted his birth mother, Arelwin. He wished for Constantin to return to his regular joyous self. 

He wept and wept.