Ingrid and the woman from her mercenary group face off. Across the table, the two men with axes nonchalantly reach for their weapons. The archer stands slowly, hemming her between himself and the other woman. Ingrid's blue eyes sweep over them, sizing them up. The Rukh flutter about her head in an almost mocking dance. I feel the need to bang my head back against the wall behind me.
"Back off," she says warningly, gripping her daggers tightly.
The woman smirks. I get the feeling that there's some tension running between them that goes back a ways.
"I don't think so. You see, there's a big bounty on your head."
Everyone within earshot turns quickly at the mention of a bounty. The archer sighs. Apparently, announcing this wasn't part of the plan.
"Hilde…" he begins.
The woman cuts him off.
"I'm done playing around with this," she looks back to Ingrid, eyes hard, "I'll bet your government problems were caused when you ran away. Right, princess?"
Everyone goes still and silent. I could have heard a pin drop in the room. I almost slam my head down on the table. I just wanted to eat some dinner and go to bed, not get involved in this sort of thing. Not with royalty again.
Fuck my life, fuck the Rukh, and fuck her….
Ingrid's gone very still as well. Judging by the look on her face, Hilde hit the nail on the head. The woman continues, either not noticing the attention on them or not caring.
"Your uncle's put out a big reward for whoever returns you to him. He's just worried sick about his poor little runaway niece," she spits to the side, "I'm not sure why, though. You turned traitor when you abandoned your duty."
Oh, fuck them too.
Patriotic, violent mercenaries who seem to believe that bringing her back to her uncle alive doesn't mean they can't rough her up a bit for running away and abandoning her position. I take a quick look around. It seems that everyone else in here shares the same mindset. Plus, they want that bounty.
Ingrid's hands tighten on her daggers and her eyes narrow. Behind her, the archer slowly moves his hands towards her, looking unnerved by the attention they're getting.
"Where did you get the idea that I'm our runaway princess?"
Hilde glances at one of the axe-wielding men. He reaches into a pouch on his belt and withdraws a piece of parchment. He holds it up for Ingrid to see. From my vantage point, I can see that it's a wanted poster with a portrait on it. I glance between the picture and Ingrid. They really do look uncannily alike.
"This was in the last town we passed through. You're a bit of a unique person, Ingrid, I mean, Princess Keary. With your mother being a foreigner and all. Not too many people match this description," the man rumbles in a deep bass voice.
Ingrid's, or rather, Keary's narrowed eyes are as cold as ice and filled with anger. She's feeling cornered, that much is obvious. If she really is this princess, something drove her to run away, knowing that discovery would warrant this reaction from her people. Something that caused her to give up being royalty and become a lowly thief instead, acting under an alias. Something that would make her abandon who seems to be a loving relative. Something big that's keeping her from returning.
"I'm not going to just let you take me back," she says firmly.
Hilde gives a nasty smile.
"You don't have a choice, princess."
The archer's hands clamp down on Keary's arms just as she attempts to draw her daggers. Guess that's my cue. I stand quickly, drawing the attention of everyone watching this display, and level the staff at Hilde, who seems to be the one most intent on doing Keary harm. Her eyes meet mine, and, perceiving a threat, she begins to draw her sword.
I squeeze my eyes shut as a blinding light flashes from the orb at the top of the staff. I hear a number of cries and groans as everyone who was looking at me is affected by the spell. I open my eyes and take advantage of their blindness, dodging around my table. It will last only as long as it takes them to recover, which means I need to move fast. My aim is to escape with the princess, not start a brawl. I don't want to fight everyone in here.
A sharp shout that suddenly jumps a number of octaves sounds from the group and I see that the princess has used my distraction to wrench a hand free and send a fist into the archer's groin. He doubles over, holding himself, and she quickly twists the other hand free. She then grips his wrist and throws him over her shoulder and into Hilde. I'm rather impressed. She's the smallest person I've seen since I arrived in this country and that was a very nice throw. With the way clear, she staggers towards the door, still feeling the effects of the flash spell.
A few of the others in the tavern have recovered a bit faster than I hoped. One of the large men stands from his table to block her way, stepping into her path and looking down at her. His pupils are still contracted from my spell, but, he can see well enough to try and capture his prey. I know I can't make it in time if I try to dodge around the tables. I quickly pick out another way and wince.
Here goes nothing…
I jump onto the table that the Rukh had previously sat on and use it as a springboard, leaping from it to another table. My foot strikes with a dull 'thump' and then I push off again. Fortunately, these tables are made of a heavy wood, otherwise, I'm sure they would slide out from under me. Only two more lay between the man and I. He's drawing his sword. Keary looks up at him, blinking furiously. I grit my teeth. The table I land on next is rather crowded. I manage to get a good enough jump to dodge past one of the men sitting there before sliding around the one on the opposite side. As I make the jump, I aim the staff, knowing I won't make it in time.
A thin, intense ray of light fires from the orb and strikes the man. He bellows in pain as a scorched hole appears in his shirt and the affected skin smokes. This spell is as close to heat magic as I'll ever get, however, it's not enough to deter a man his size. Still, it's good enough to buy me the time I need. He turns his attention to me as I make a shaky landing and launch myself for the last time. He readies his sword to swat me out of the air, but, the staff is longer. I let it slide until I can grip it in both hands, towards the bottom. Then, I swing at his head. I hear an audible crack and he staggers. I didn't swing hard, so, I know I haven't permanently injured him, but he's been stunned again.
I make my landing on the table next to Keary, surprising myself.
I hope you were paying attention, brother, because that was possibly the most badass thing I've ever done. And I won't be doing it again.
Very nice. But, you'd better grab her before someone else does.
I slip off the table, glad I haven't twisted my ankle in that little stunt. She looks at me, eyes wide. It seems that others in the tavern are recovering, as I hear quite a few chairs scraping. I jerk my head towards the door.
"Run. Unless you'd rather be turned in."
She glances back before sprinting around one last table and out the door. I follow quickly, not at all eager to get in a further fight.
We emerge onto the street at a dead run, moving quickly away from the tavern. I silently thank the Yambala for their rather intense training methods and my own upkeep of my body that allows me to keep this up. Still, we can't just run. Keary seems to have the same idea.
"Horses!" she calls, "Down the street!"
I follow her as she runs down the street a little ways and stops at a rather run-down stable. Apparently, it doesn't get used very often. It's really more of a rail to tie the animals to with a roof overhead. There are five horses there, all rather nice. Keary immediately goes to one. I choose another, hoping that it doesn't turn out to be undyingly loyal to its master. While I don't like stealing, I like getting beat up by large, angry Varangians even less. I quickly untie the horse and swing onto its bare back, already hearing sounds of pursuit. I quickly wheel the animal around and look over at Keary.
"Do you have somewhere to go?"
She comes up beside me. Her scarf has been pulled down and I can now see her entire face. She's very pretty, with a strong jaw and regal face. Her sharp eyes look at me warily.
"How do I know I can trust you?"
I give a small, humorless smirk in return. We have a tavern full of people after us and she chooses now to ask?
"Without me, I doubt you would have escaped. Aside from that, you don't. But, I have no interest in whatever money you may have on your head."
She looks at me for a moment longer. Then, she gives a grudging nod.
"Alright. I don't have anywhere to go…but we should head north."
I nod in return, glancing at the Rukh that have followed us. They continue to fly about her, clearly marking her.
She kicks her horse lightly and I follow as she rides off down the street.
We come to a stop when neither of us can keep riding anymore. Fortunately, Varang is more hilly than flat, and we find a rather well-hidden spot to rest in a nook between two hills. Exhausted and hungry, we dismount, having nothing but what we brought with us in our flight. I nearly fall into the grass, breathing hard as I take a seat. I learned how to ride when I was living with the Koga, but, I've only rarely had to use the skill since that time, and never in such a frenzied way. I feel Salos run a mental probe over me, checking me for any strained muscles or sore spots that will need attention before riding tomorrow. Upon finding nothing, he gives me the equivalent of a pat on the head.
Your backside will be sore from not using a saddle, but, I think you'll be fine.
I nod slightly, watching as Keary takes a wary seat a few feet away, her eyes on me.
Aside from Salos and I theorizing about our new companion, the ride had been silent. Now, I could tell that was not going to be the case any longer. Keary's eyes held questions. I braced myself.
"Who are you?"
The question was almost deadpan in its delivery. She was tired, she knew I was tired, but, she was still too worried about the betrayal of her group to trust me.
"I am Thamina Dioscuri."
It seemed proper to take on the name of our race as my surname, since I am the last survivor.
Keary looks me over, taking in my dirty clothes, partially empty pack, staff, and sword. I'm glad my glamour has held up and hidden my antlers, because her eyes focus on my forehead, where the mark of the third eye sits on my forehead like a strange tattoo. It's remained on my forehead as the same odd bump since I woke up with it in Baba's tent. Few have seen it and known what it means. I've learned to be wary of those who do.
"You're a magician."
It's not a question, but, I nod in affirmation.
Her eyes drop to the katana on my belt and her fair brows furrow. I would have missed the expression in the darkness if it wasn't for my enhanced senses.
"And a swordsman."
Silence falls between us for a moment.
"Where are you from?" she asks.
I cock my head slightly. That's always the hardest question to answer. I give her as close as I can to the truth.
"…Many places. I am a wanderer. I am not from anywhere in particular. When I awoke on the Northern Tenzan Plateau, I had no memory of this world. I do not have a home, though, I have spent a large amount of time in Reim and own a house there. I have traveled the world, but, I do not belong to any nation, kingdom, or empire. I am the last Dioscuri, and, with no others to feel at home with, I do not have one."
How poetic, Salos says with a bittersweet tone, half teasing and half serious.
I ignore him, knowing that I am being watched closely. I have no desire to give him away yet. He's my trump card, and I'd rather keep him unknown for the most part.
Keary relaxes a bit, though, not fully.
"You don't have any connection to the royal families of Varang, Kou, or any of the nations of the Seven Seas Alliance?"
Well, that's rather direct.
And it moves us towards the heart of the issue that she's wrapped up in, Salos muses.
I wish I could cock a brow ironically as I think about that question.
"Well, it depends on what you mean by connection. I've had the fortune, if it could be called that, of meeting Sindria's king and having a rather lengthy conversation with him. I'm sure he would consider us acquaintances, maybe even friends, but," I feel my eye twitch, "I'd rather not take it that far."
Keary's blonde head tilts to the side and her brows furrow in obvious confusion.
"What do you mean? Was he unreasonable? Or perhaps performed some sort of misconduct?"
Ah, such interest. I wonder…Salos is obviously working out the puzzle as I gain information.
"King Sinbad is…an interesting man. He helped me gain information that had been lost in the void of my memory. However…there is a demeanor about him that I find to be annoying. Not only that, but," I can practically feel the shadow that creeps over my face, "He thinks that his charm is irresistible, especially where women are concerned."
I owe Sinbad quite a lot. After the merchant ship I was taking to Sindria managed to make port after the pirate attack, we were greeted by the military. It was our good fortune, or so it seemed at the time, that the king was home at the time and was feeling the need to come and check on us after hearing about the attack. I don't know if he was genuinely concerned or if it was for the sake of appearance. Whatever the case, I was introduced to him as 'the magician who saved us' due to my part in the battle. I do confess that, without my spells and borg, I don't know if we would have won. I didn't expect the king to make anything of it, maybe say thank you and move on.
That's when I learned just what this mark of the third eye means. As soon as he saw it, his expression softened and he took my hand, raising it gently to his lips, saying 'Ah, you must be Thamina. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.'
I was invited to accompany him as a guest of Sindria. Apparently, my master, Shambal Ramal of the Yambala, was an acquaintance and had mentioned me in a few of his correspondences. At first, I was overwhelmed and quite flattered. After all, the king of Sindria is a very handsome man and, I confess, I've never garnered such attention from a man before or since then. He drew me in, like one of Salos's toxic flowers might. Soon, I found myself discussing my experience in Salos's dungeon with him, since, after all, he is a famous dungeon capturer and seemed to understand and sympathize with me. He even managed to get me to disclose my limitations in magic and my ability to see and understand the flow of Rukh. He also told me everything I wanted to know about dungeons, djinn, metal vessels, magi, and even politics and the workings of this world. I stayed in Sindria for a week, caught up in his web. However, despite his kindness, I became wary of him. I realized that he had enticed me to share with him numerous things that I would not have shared normally. For, you see, King Sinbad is a crafty man. I came to realize that he was gauging me, attempting to reason out my threat level and whether or not I was an enemy or potential ally, simultaneously drawing me towards his side.
I lost my temper when I realized his game, and, fueled by both my anger and Salos's, I confronted him. It was at that point that he rendered me unable to hate him completely. He explained that he meant no insult, but, he had to think of what was best for his people, as their king. After all, he said, I was a powerful individual and an anomaly, being able to use both a djinn and magic. He told me that he wanted me to remain in Sindria, that he wouldn't try to exploit me. That I could belong there.
I refused. I didn't want to stay in a place where I was so easily caught up in his game, no matter his reason for playing it. He may be a truly kind man, or perhaps even really care for my well-being, but, I cannot trust him. Despite that, he continued to make gestures of friendship. Even as I readied to depart on the next ship for Balbadd, he took my hand in both of his and very seriously told me that, if I changed my mind, I would always be welcome in Sindria.
Whether I like it or not, I am close to Sinbad. Our long conversations and exchange of information ensured that. His offer looms over me, because, I confess, even though I don't trust him, I know that, if I desired, I could live peacefully under his wing, maybe even belonging. After all, some of his own generals are not truly human. I would be accepted. But that frightens me. I fear that I would begin to trust him, that he would use me and I wouldn't realize it.
No, I shake my head slightly, that man is dangerous.
Keary hums, drawing me back to our conversation.
I watch her keenly, my questions about her again rising to the surface.
"You have asked your questions. But I have my own. Are you truly the princess of this kingdom?"
She stiffens, her lips pursing tightly.
"I think I have a right to know," I tell her gently, "I risked my personal safety to help you escape."
There is a long silence between us. So long that I fear that she may not answer. Then, she sighs and nods.
"Yes, I am Princess Keary of Varang."
I sit back slightly. I had a hunch that this was so, but, to hear it confirmed feels…weighty.
"Well then, princess…it is an honor to meet you."
She gives a wry smile.
"You as well."
I smirk in return, briefly. The Rukh continue to flutter and glide about her, but, I am no longer annoyed at them. I think that I will rather like this girl. There is a hint of spunk within her that I find intriguing.
"Forgive my lack of decorum, but, I prefer to be frank," I continue, "I would like to know what it is I have saved you from. Why were the mercenaries you were with so hateful? Why is there a bounty on your head?"
Keary sighs again, shifting to stretch out her leather-clad legs. She then goes silent, appearing to think.
"…It's a long story."
I settle back, giving her my best unmoving stare, conveying my intention of gaining this information. If the Rukh want me to stick with her, I want to know what I'm getting into.
She nods, as though expecting this. Then, she looks up at the sky. After a long moment, she speaks.
"I ran away after my eighteenth birthday, when my Uncle, the current lord protector of the country, announced that an arrangement had been made. I was to marry either into the royal family of Kou in order to ensure a peaceful alliance rather than a hostile takeover or into the Seven Seas Alliance in order to create an alliance powerful enough to deter Kou."
I frown. I understand now why those in the tavern were so angry. From their perspective, it must seem that she just abandoned her duty. It also explains why her interest in my relations to the three parties she named. However, she doesn't strike me as so cowardly or childish to run away for fear of duty.
"Why?" I ask.
Her face slowly hardens.
"I do not wish to tie our kingdom to any one group when war is on the horizon, much less to the conquering empire that threatens us. I believe that I can protect us without a marital alliance."
She looks at me, eyes blazing in determination and conviction. No, I see now that she is not the type to run away for petty reasons. She firmly believes in her choice.
"On the northernmost sea border of Varang, there is a tower. They say that contained within this tower is a great power, the power of a king. I'm going to use that power to protect my kingdom. That's why I've been training for the past two years, working as a mercenary and thief, honing my skills. I need to defeat that tower."
I feel realization settle in as she speaks. Salos's echoes mine.
"A dungeon," I say aloud, "You want to capture a dungeon."
Keary nods, expression set.
"The 43rd Dungeon, Sabnack."
When she says that, the Rukh around her go into a frenzy, flying and diving about. I watch them as I finally come to understand their intent.
This princess is going into a dungeon.
And I am to accompany her.