A/N: Going on the assumption that you take Albel as your eighth party member, ergo you won't have the Crimson Scourge, and all the accompanying scenes that mostly deal with Albel's redemption, etc, etc.
There's a fine line between recreational hatred and arbitrary love. So fine that it might not even be realized, unless the examiner of the aforementioned line is an unaccountably restless thief-class warrior, one Nel Zelpher in name...it wasn't Aquaria making her restless, she realized--it was the swiftness of change. She'd gone from believing that Aquaria and all her retainers were the center of the universe, to believing; knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were but pawns in the interplay of something far greater than what she wanted to imagine.
If only because it diminished her and all she knew, had done and accomplished, had laughed and cried over, to something acknowledged only in retrospection, and even then, one had to squint to catch sight of it.
Nel yawned, stretched, and ruffled her already-tousled red hair, tugging a sheet filched from her bedchambers tighter about her shoulders as she did so, before settling on one of the castle's garden's many benches. It was a delicate luxury, and one that she hadn't indulged herself in ages, but presently she wanted nothing more than to sit and watch the stars the way she had when she was a little girl. Only then, she'd done it from her father's shoulders, as he'd pointed out great constallations to her fascinated, childlike gaze.
Nevelle Zelpher had been a great man before she was conceived--and so when she was born, it was to a legacy of infallible existentialism. She was expected to take after her father, all his courage and strength, and--well, she'd never been one to disappoint. And when he died defending his -their- people, she had accepted it, moved on, and vowed to make him proud. She smiled up at the stars and for but a moment, longed to tell her father of everything she'd done with her life. Impossible, of course, but the mere thought was comfort enough.
"So, I suppose you're here to tell me all about how you hate me, too."
The words weren't exactly anticipated, but that doesn't mean she hadn't been aware of their coming. Call it a precognitive dissonance, perhaps.
"Give your aching ego a rest, Albel the Wicked." She sighed, more annoyed with the interuption than the actual person that had caused it. He'd been there before her, she guessed, or she would have heard him enter. He was standing on the queen's balcony up and behind her, and why he'd chosen that moment to speak, only the gods themselves knew--and they'd always been a rather close-lipped bunch.
Nel closed her eyes, unwilling to allow her anger to overcome her. This place, her holy city, was far too beautiful and calming to be scorched by her rage.
"Why are you here?" she asked curiously, instead, hoping to perhaps throw him off guard or at the very least make him leave. If she accomplished either, she would be remarkably pleased, indeed.
He remained silent, and she smiled briefly and went back to her observation of the divinely patterned heavens.
"Praying to your feeble gods? Insipid worm. They won't help you." She could almost hear the sneer in his voice.
I don't have time for this,she told herself sternly. "Would you be speaking from experience?"
Again, silence. She smiled halfly to herself. Maybe there was more than one way to deal with fire. You could quench it, of course, but if one wanted to be subtle, it could also be redirected. Albel Nox was a hateful, volatile, pathetic man whose lust and thirst for battle was ultimately his own weakness and would be his own downfall. What would become of him when he became too old to fight? If, she mused, he lived long enough to see those days. A pitiable creature that she should not--would not waste her energy getting angry with.
"I'm going to bed," she said somewhat louder than was necessary, though she expected she was talking solely to herself. "Good-night, Albel."
Well, it was at least an answer, even if it was devoid of any pleasantries, however eccentric they might have been coming from someone whom she believed had never said a kind word in his life. Certainly he had heard them from others. From what she had seen, Count Woltar treated him as a fondly as a son, or at least a nephew, and if King Airyglyph's affectionate, verbal resumé meant anything...
Nel smiled again and shook her head in the darkness. Clair would laugh at her for trying to be so reasonable. Let the idiot boy be an idiot boy. She, on the other hand, wanted her sleep.
Sleep could only last so long. It was Clair that woke her up, actually, sneaking about her room as quiet as a mouse. Nel had learned long ago that while she could sleep through skirmishes as near as outside her tent, it was more often the small, barely noticable noises that woke her. The probable assassin's flair for the job, she mused.
"Good-morning," she managed somewhat muzzily as she peeked out from beneath her blankets. The grey-haired woman, startled, nearly dropped the sheaf of documents she was carrying.
"Nel!" She sounded like a child that had been caught...well, rifling through someone else's possessions. "I didn't mean to wake you, I'm sorry." Her smile softened and she indicated the papers that she held. "I was looking for your recommendations for the--"
"In the second drawer," Nel said with an answering smile, pointing. "I didn't think you would be back in Aquios for a while,"
"Oh..." Clair looked momentarily trapped, and as though to buy herself time, she set her things on Nel's desk and drew up a stool. "Things are so slow lately...the marriage between the King of Airyglyph and our friend Rozaria has calmed things considerably between Airyglyph and Aquaria, and..." she sighed helplessly. "I'm glad the conflict is over, but..."
"You're bored, aren't you?" Nel snorted and fussed with her pillow until it was in a satisfactory position. "I know how you feel. The conflict between our countries has been going on so long..."
"It's hard to know what to do now that it's over?" Clair smiled ruefully. "Yes. As always, Nel, you know me far better than I know myself. Thank you."
The red-head waved a dismissive hand.
"Um...Nel...there is another reason I'm here, actually. You know Albel, correct?"
"Yes. What of him?"
"Well...there are some that believe he is here as a spy. I'm doing all I can, of course, to assure them that he's merely here as a token of goodwill between Airyglyph and Aquaria, but..."
"Having Albel the Wicked in such close proximity with our queen is raising the political red flag, isn't it?" Nel inquired, tilting her head to one side as she propped herself up on an elbow.
"Well, yes. Magistrate Laselle...wants to have him tried for war crimes. He was nowhere near as terrible as Lord Vox, but..." Clair looked somewhat troubled by this. "And some are backing them. The Queen has yet to say anything on the subject--" she paused as Nel snorted out a 'It's beneath her majesty to succumb to petty rumors' and then carried on. "But...Nel, you spent a great deal of time with Albel. What is your opinion?" She folded her hands in her lap and twisted her fingers around in what Nel knew to be a gesture of nervousness.
"He's..." she faltered. She wanted to say something positive about him--he had been a comrade, and yes, a valuable ally. Though that didn't change the fact that he was about as likable as an outbreak of gout. "...Unpredictable," she finished. "But I don't believe that he would jeopardize the relationship between Airyglyph and Aquaria, Clair. I may not know him very well, but he can be an honorable man, when the situation calls for it."
The other woman glanced down. "Thank you again, Nel."
Curiously, Nel studied her old colleague. The amount of stress she was under was showing in everything from the pallor of her skin to the tired little way she seemed to be forging onwards in her life. It was disconcerting, how little time apart had changed them both. "Clair...why do you ask?"
The Crimson Blade's commander smiled quickly. "Nothing much, really. I've just been concerned that...maybe he is here for reasons of subterfuge. He may not have even been sent by the king, but..."
Nel laughed and reached for her friend's hand. "Clair. Albel may be...less than sane, but he is entirely loyal to his king. Put your mind at ease. If you'd like, I'll keep an eye on him."
She heaved a visible sigh of relief. "Would you, Nel? I...I would feel much better if I knew that you were, and I'm sure those that have been...worried...would as well."
"Of course, Clair. Now..."
The other woman got the hint. With a sheepish smile and a reassuring pat of Nel's hand, she gathered the documents that had brought her to the room initially and escaped to analyze them, leaving Nel alone once again.
She didn't go back to sleep immediately, which was what she wanted to do. Instead, she found herself staring blankly at the ceiling of her room. Aquarian finery was no small thing to trifle, that was for sure. And even when she wasn't here, she knew that a maid came around to tidy, straighten and dust at least once a day.
She thought what Albel wondered of it all. Useless trappings, most likely. Airyglyph castle was a cold, functional place where everything served a purpose. Aquaria still knew what it was to appreciate aesthetics.
With a mournful realization that she would be getting no more sleep, she pushed herself out of bed, donned her typical clothing and went to speak with Magistrate Laselle.
...Who promptly denied her an audience. He was busy, he simpered. Far too busy to see one of the (and though Nel didn't like to tout her title, she felt it somewhat necessary in this case) heroes of the known universe. His secretary (and when had the pretentious twit decided his workload was heavy enough to require one?) had stuttered apologetically and asked her if she would please come back again later, etc, etc, ad nauseum.
Nel was considering requesting an audience with her Majesty, if only because she could quell all the nonsense about Albel. Just because she wasn't fond of the boy didn't mean she couldn't deliver a professional courtesy when it was due. Just as she was pacing in annoyance outside Laselle's study, she happened across someone that she hadn't thought to see near this particular walk of life, and in fact the root of most of her current problems.
His red eyes flickered up to her face and he smirked, setting a hand to the hilt of his sword. "What do you want, fool?"
She forestalled the clenching of a fist. "...Why are you here?"
He gave a slight, haughty toss of his head. "Why, haven't you heard? He--" and he paused at this to point his gauntleted hand at Laselle's closed door, "Has a death-wish. I'm only too happy to oblige the maggot."
Nel frowned. "How did you find out?"
"Ah, so you have heard. Or were you one of the ones that petitioned it?" He observed her interestedly, with no apparent touch of malice. "In any case, I'm about to give your foolish government something to fear."
"Albel," Nel ground out in irritation. "Laselle isn't seeing anyone. If you come with me, I was planning on requesting an audience with the queen regarding this...matter."
He sneered at her as she reached for his arm and jerked it out of her grasp.
Nel took a moment to regain her composure. She was having the most delicious fantasy about pushing the annoying twig of a swordsman up against a wall and pinning the blade of one of her short-swords up against something vital.
"I'm trying to help you," she said finally, and without any attempt to curb her exasperation. "I don't like this--it's not justified. And it could have easily been me, were the situations reserved. I'm trying to do you a favor."
He laughed--actually laughed-- although the sound of it was low and harsh like the rasping of a blade over a whetstone. "Do yourself a favor," he said snidely. "And don't do me any. Unless of course you like pain." He smiled at her, terrible and beautiful all at once, and brushed one of his claws past her cheek. Irritatedly, she batted it away.
"Have it your way," she said with a shrug. "If you're still singing the same tune after your head's on the executioner's block, well..."
She turned and would have left, had his next bout of laughter not stopped her. "You think they could kill me? And I thought you were one of the more reasonable of Aquaria's pet maggots. Don't overestimate yourself, fool."
She smiled, acid viciousness. "You seem so fond of it," she murmured softly. "Here I was thinking it was the fashionable thing to do..."
He glared at her, and it was at once deeper and more intimate than any glare should have been. Some small part of her that still clung to innocence and childhood dreams quailed, but the woman knew better. She smiled, turned, and walked away.
No matter what she said to him, it became increasingly important to her that Albel avoid punishment where once she would have rigorously meted it out herself. She wanted little more than the victory of shoving his freedom and continued survival down his throat. And if she hoped he'd choke on it, well...she'd keep that one to herself. However, she wasn't one to seek the queen out in anger, and so she returned to her quarters to calm herself down somewhat.
She'd lost soldiers to Albel the Wicked, she knew--as he had lost soldiers to her. It was rather like that peculiar game played in the Ruins of Mosel and later in Gemity. Warrior kills thief, thief kills symbologist, symbologist kills warrior. Well, if she was the symbologist, and he was the warrior...
Her mind, she thought sourly, had grown far too fond of wandering.
Almost inevitably, thinking of the 4D city made her turn to memories of her comrades. Former comrades, even. But still, in her heart, friends. Fayt, for all his idiosyncracies, Cliff for all his bluster. The seemingly-self-assured Maria...even the woman Mirage, though Nel hadn't ever gotten much of a chance to converse with her, she'd sensed a sort of kindred spirit in the blonde-haired woman. She'd thought fondly of all of them after a time, Albel excluded. But then, no one seemed to think fondly of Albel, except Fayt himself. He had opted to give the 'Glyphian a chance when none of them had wanted to.
Maybe that was the root of his bitterness? Rejection?
Perish the thought. Was he truly that weak? To require acceptance while offering none on his own behalf? Maybe the innocent Fayt was capable of such a thing, but Nel required a little more hard proof before seeking to forge a friendship. Her affection wasn't lightly bestowed upon anyone, and yet...
With a groan that belied her age, she pushed herself out of bed and drifted aimlessly across her room to her desk. In the second drawer to the left, the same one that she had earlier directed Clair towards, there was a small item, very precious in nature. A compact communicator. The same one, actually, that had served Fayt on all his journeys. He'd left it here when he departed Elicoor in Cliff's company, with a bit of a smile, and had made her promise that if she ever needed help with anything --and he'd stressed the 'anything at all' bit-- that she was to contact either Fayt or Cliff immediately.
Well, this wasn't exactly an emergency, but it would still be nice to see them. But would it be fair to summon them back for something as selfish as a personal visit? She didn't really have any news to share, unless you wanted to classify Albel's possible trial as 'news'. Come to think of it, that would probably just make Cliff amused and Fayt worried, and as foolish as the boy could sometimes be, she didn't want to worry him unless it became necessary. She set the communicator back in the drawer and slid it shut.
Unexpectedly, the little bit of reminiscience had abated her anger almost completely, to the point where she was left wondering what had annoyed her to begin with. Albel, of course, was the source of her irritation, but...
That was the last straw. She was going to see the queen.
Albel Nox had a secret. Oh, it was nothing dark or heinous (although he had secrets of that ilk as well), but it was a secret nevertheless. You see. Albel loved cats. And cats, despite his efforts to the contrary, seemed to love him as well. He had thought Aquaria a city far too pristine for animals, until of course he'd ventured into the palace kitchens and found, in a small cardboard box near the warmth of the ovens, a litter of the little mongrels. Newborn and ugly as the original sin they were, but that didn't stop him from glaring at anyone who dared question his presence while he snuck scraps of meat to the mother of the bunch.
The rotund cook, a great deal less afraid of him than he would have liked, had told him repeatedly that the poor things were supposed to be drowned, save that no one had the heart to do it. Maybe she kept expecting him to volunteer. It was a little too...parochial for his tastes. Humans he had no problem killing, because in their secret heart, everyone was a sinner, but kittens?
Albel the Wicked was just that--wicked. Wicked did not necessarily equate 'cruel'.
So the last time the chef had dropped the hint as he'd lurked about the kitchen, scowled at scullery girls and brow-beat errand boys into fleeing the room, he'd snorted his disdain at her, packed up the box under one arm and stalked off with it. One girl, the youngest, had asked him tentatively what he was planning on doing the little things, but apparently she couldn't endure more than a handful of seconds of his coldest glare before whimpering and moving out of his way without further comment.
So it was shortly afterwards that he installed the god-awful creatures in his bedroom without any resistance from the palace staff. Of course, that meant he--Sir Albel, had to stoop to cleaning the designated litter-box, but it wasn't like he had anything better to do with his time. And as somewhere along the line, someone had wrestled out of him his word that he wouldn't go and kill anyone, it was as good a pasttime as any. And if the twinkle in the chef's eye as she handed him plates of scraps after meals was any indication that she knew he'd kept the sinister little creatures, she never said it aloud.
Well, maybe he just liked table scraps, damnit. Why couldn't they consider that?
But when he woke up minutes before sunrise, tense and subconsciously dreading the dawn, the annoying way the kittens (no longer newborns, but still just as ugly) had installed themselves in various strategic places across his body was if not a comfort then at least something to cherish. As much as Albel the Wicked cherished anything, anyways.
He didn't even have to be overly kind to the little things, he thought with a scowl as he shoved a kitten off his lap. It hit the floor with a reproachful mewl and cast him a backwards glance before bounding merrily away to join its siblings in some obscure game.
"Happy little maggots," he observed with disdainful fondness as the furry creatures romped and played and otherwise made complete fools out of themselves.
And then came the knock on the door.
Now, Albel had been residing in Aquaria for somewhere around six months and no one, anytime, ever, had dared knock on his door. It wasn't that there was a sign stationed outside with the words 'Caution! Vicious, blood-thirsty man within!' but most had gotten the picture regardless, showing remarkable insight in regards to his presence. That someone would now dare break the sanctity of that unspoken rule made him want to...well, kill something.
After all, it wasn't like he wanted anyone seeing the cats and perhaps getting the wrong idea. He did have a reputation to uphold.
"Sir Albel?" came the tentative voice from beyond the door. He frowned, for it sounded like that Aquarian queen. If she had come in person, he assumed it would be to tell him one of two things--neither of which he would be particularly eager to hear.
"Come," he said carelessly, picking up a stray kitten, dropping it back in its confining box and shoving the whole lot under his bed. From nearby he retreived whetstone and knife, and began sharpening it to cover the plaintive mews that emitted from the box every now and then. Obviously, his guests were unhappy with their treatment. Well, that was too bloody bad. He could always drown them.
Romeria opened the door with a grace that accentuated her regal upbringing. Albel had little love for the Aquarian queen, but that didn't mean he didn't respect her.
"Hello, Albel," she began cordially, nodding at him. He didn't bother returning it, nor did she seem ready to reprimand him for its lack. "We are here not because we want to be, but because it has become necessary. Lady Nel tells me that you are aware of the charges some of our council are seeking to bring against you?"
He flipped the knife over and began to sharpen the other side. If this was all she had to say, he'd wear the fine steel down to a nub before the conversation was through.
She smiled at him as one might at a petulant child. "We see by your reaction that you do. We would like to apologize for the rashness of our retainers, Albel. It is not our intention to alienate you in such a manner, however..."
He glared at her somewhat, brushing his errant bangs out of his face with the back of one careless hand. "However?"
"Your king..." she continued quietly. "Has given us permission to do as we see fit in this situation. In essence, he has told us that if we judge it necessary, you can be executed without political repercussion on his behalf."
This surprised him more than it should have. Though he trusted no one, people with power least of all, he had thought at least that his years of service of blood and bone would have held some sway with the erstwhile king. Although now that he had a new bride, perhaps his attentions were focused elsewhere. Hah.
The queen crossed the small chamber he called his own and set her delicate hand atop his gloved one to still it. He would have shaken it off and resumed the knife's sharpening had he not looked up to catch the look in her eyes. "He leaves it to our discretion," she said calmly. "Because he does not believe we would allow such a thing to occur, and in that he is correct. You have, in the recent past, done a great service to Aquaria, and we, as the rightful ruler of this land, are willing to forgive any 'crimes' you may have committed whilst our countries were at war."
He knew there was a catch. This time, he wasn't so slow to twitch his hand away from hers.
"However...there is a great deal of pressure on this incident. Not everyone is as easily convinced of your innocence. Not only that, but...because we cannot yet tell our people of the existence of other worlds, they cannot know the entire story of your heroics." She exhaled and seemed for a moment impossibly older than her timeless appearance otherwise suggested. "They are...good people, but they are not ready for such knowledge."
One of the kittens mewled loudly and in irritation, he drew the blade along the whetstone to the point where it squealed like nails on a chalkboard. The queen's expression did not falter, nor did she scold him for the obviously intentional action.
It occured to him, then, that she was here--the queen of Aquaria, his former enemy--in his room without so much as a single bodyguard nor, anywhere that he could see, any weapons of her own. She knew, surely, that he was 'volatile' and 'not to be trusted', so why had she appeared so? Was this some meagre show of faith?
He would sooner shatter it than allow it to continue.
The queen knelt before him, then, and he was so startled at this development that he forgot any and all thoughts of animosity. She reached for his hand and he gave it without hesitation, perhaps still too bewildered to react within his usual parameters.
"We...are sorry to have to ask this of you, Albel Nox...but it is the only forseeable solution for the present time. Perhaps, eventually, we will be able to tell everyone of how you have worked to save us, even with their hatred upon your shoulders, but in the meantime...we would have you preform a service for us."
He waited, and remembered at the last minute to glare.
"We must ask that you go into ex--"
"Albel!" The door burst open rather suddenly, but not, Albel thought in annoyance, unexpectedly. Twice in one day. Did he need to kill someone, take their head and put it on a pike outside his door to stave off this sudden and flagrant misinterpretation of his image?
Nel looked like her usual self, though her brow was creased in what he took to be anger. She was panting somewhat, and had discarded her scarf somewhere along the way. One of her short-swords was half-way out of its sheath and she looked fit to use it. Instinctively, he jerked away from the queen and flexed the oiled joints of his gauntlet.
"Lady Nel?" Romeria asked as she stood, not to retain any dignity, Albel supposed, but to greet the newcomer.
"I thought..." Nel began warily, glancing past the queen to the crimson-eyed 'Glyphian. "I apologize," she said abruptly, though whether to him or the queen, Albel wasn't quite sure. "I misunderstood the situation, and..."
"Your concern is appreciated, Lady Nel," the queen said gravely, reaching out to touch Nel's cheek. The woman looked flushed, and from more than just the exertion that had brought her to his room. "But not, we think, necessary. Were there any dangers here, we believe that Sir Albel would prove remarkably proficient at defending us,"
Tactfully put, he thought bemusedly, studying anew this foreign queen. It neither insulted Nel nor him. The feat was not lost on Nel, who managed a smile.
"I beg your pardon, your majesty," she said slowly.
"Come in," the queen stepped back and out of the way, and the small room suddenly seemed quite too crowded. "Our conversation is not so private that you would have to leave." She turned her gaze back to Albel and took a bit of a breath. Composing herself, perhaps.
"We must ask," she repeated her earlier sentiments. "That you go into exile. It will not be permanent nor, we hope, uncomfortable. We are fully prepared to provide you with finances and provisions enough to sustain you. Until this controversy has ended, we will make every effort to clear your name. It...is not only for political reasons that we would do this, Albel. You cannot deny that you were a good captain to Airyglyph," a faint little smile highlighted the corners of her lips. "And there are those that would perhaps seek to harm you."
He snorted incredulously. He'd been dealing with people that 'sought to harm him' most of his adult life. He had ways of dealing with people like them, but for her to ask him--ASK, no less, as if he had a choice, for him to retreat from it all? There was a fight brewing, a storm coming, and she wanted him to turn tail and hide? Pah! He would prefer execution over cowardice any day, and he would gladly tell her so.
"Your Majesty?" Nel asked in something that sounded rather like disbelief. "You can't mean..."
"Lady Nel," the queen acknowledged, and as if it had been a command, Nel's mouth snapped shut. "Albel. Please, do not answer us now. This is not something to be rashly decided. There is time yet before the formal complaint is brought before us, and we can delay as necessary until you have decided. If you choose to stand and face the charges, we will support you as we can. But we warn you now that our protection might not be enough." She spared him another slight smile before passing it off to Nel. And then, as gracefully as she had came, she left.
Nel glared at him as though this chance encounter was somehow his fault. And underneath his bed, a kitten mewled.
The redheaded woman clapped a hand over her mouth, stared at him for an incredulous moment, and then burst out laughing. Immediately, his temper flared.
"What are you laughing at, fool?" He hissed with undisguised malice as he stood, reaching for his sword in one smooth movement. Nel continued to giggle helplessly, and she waved a hand at him as though to forestall his imminent thoughts of running her through with the business end of his weapon. In preparation, he grabbed her by the shoulder with his clawed hand and squeezed, just enough to get her attention. Her laughter ground to a halt and she smirked at him--the indolent sort of smirk that he'd spent half his life perfecting. "Shut up! Shut--up!"
"Please tell me," she said in all seriousness, not at all even hinting that she would comply with his blatant order. "That that wasn't you? That little...mew--Oh." As though unaware of the obvious pain that he had to be bringing her, she ducked under his arm and he was surprised into releasing her as she went for an escaped kitten. He'd forgotten the allure those things seemed to hold for women, and was cursing his stupidity as he stood there, cheeks flushed, entirely too angry at being laughed at.
"One of these, then? I didn't know you liked kittens, Albel," she said curiously as she picked up the little fluffball and held it aloft for inspection. "There was a box of them in the kitch--"
"Yes," he snapped irritably, leaning over to pluck the kitten out of her grasp by the scruff of its neck. He dropped it on his bed and it bounced on the impact before snuggling into his woolen blanket. "I noticed."
Nel's smirk softened slightly into a smile. "Are these them, then? I was wondering where they'd gone..."
He scowled at her, but it seemed to only fuel her idiotic expression. He drew back his fist to strike her, and she stared back, unafraid, challenging. He wanted to hit her far more than he'd ever want to hit anyone in his life. But then another captive kitten mewed and he lowered his hand with a sneer. The tension was thrumming between them, as tangible as blood upon a battlefield. Neither one of them seemed willing to break eye contact, and Albel knew that he wouldn't be the first to succumb.
She continued smiling, but she said nothing further; merely bent to scratch the kitten around the ears before turning to leave. She paused in the doorway and tilted her head to one side as though she wanted to say something further, some dramatic denouement, but seemed to think better of it.
It should have been his victory. Instead, it gave him a headache.
Albel left Aquaria that night. It wasn't that he thought he'd overstayed his welcome, it was that he could no longer tolerate the choke-chain of maggots so far beneath him that they'd somehow managed to become his superiors. His leaving wouldn't be a loss.
The kittens he'd abandoned in the care of the young kitchen maid, and she'd seemed annoyingly delighted that they'd survived a month in his care. He'd taken nothing but what he'd brought or bought himself, and although he was sure he cut a suspicious figure dressed as he was, the palace guards had not attempted to stop him.
At the edge of Aquios, he found out why. Nel was sitting on a low hillock of grass, legs stretched out before her. Her bag was at her side and on her lips was a small, knowing smile.
"You took your time," she said in lieu of a greeting. "Did you have any trouble at the gates?"
He leered at her and kept walking, wrapping his fingers tightly about the hilt of his sword. If she thought for a single minute that he would allow her to follow him, she was sorely mistaken. He had no reservations about spilling her intestines into the chill midnight air and leaving her to die. His vow to refrain from killing people applied only to the cities. Never had the safety of anyone in the surrounding plains been mentioned.
"You shouldn't leave this area," she observed as he picked up his pace.
He stopped, irritated, and tilted his head just enough that she could make out his profile against the backdrop of darkness. "Oh?"
"Cliff will be here shortly," she said with a bemused smirk. "If you want to go off on your own sullen little way, feel free. I just thought that you might be up for an adventure, and..."
Cursing himself for weakness, he faced her. "And?"
"Well. There's not much left here. The war is over--we aren't obsolete, not exactly, but neither are we necessary. There's worlds of possibility just waiting for us. All we have to do," she said, stretching her arms over her head. "Is wait a little while. Cliff said that he was already near-enough that their...gravitic warp engine would get them here without much effort." Though she'd stumbled across the foreign words, all seemed well enough now. She tilted her head at the 'Glyphian swordsman. "Well?"
He curled a lip and turned his back to her again. He did not, however, take another step. "Why are you leaving?"
"Me?" Nel gave the barest of shrugs. "I will always be loyal to her majesty. I have her permission to leave."
"That," Albel said pointedly. "Did not. Answer. My question." His words were an impatient staccato, his tone balanced on the edge of a well-whittled knife.
"Mm?" Nel stood, dusted her gloved hands against her thighs and put her hands on her hips. She seemed inclined to ignore him all together as she focused instead on the skys. "You know, Albel," she said quietly. "For someone as wicked as you claim to be, you're really not half bad. Seriously--kittens?"
His back tensed, and his fingers drummed an impatient tattoo against the tempered steel of his half-drawn sword. Just as he sensed her gathering breath to speak again, he'd whirled around, weapon drawn and pressed against her neck. She didn't, he noted, look at all surprised.
"Killing one's enemies is one thing," she said wryly, tracing a gloved finger along the blade. "But is it truly in your nature to dispose of your allies as well?"
He gave her a disgusted look and pushed the blade along her neck, not at all disappointed to see a thin crimson line appear as if by magic. That was what death was to him. His own form of mythical symbology. He drew lines like living fire over the bodies of those who clung to life and before long, he had drawn their souls from their bodies and screams from their lips. How would Nel Zelpher die, he wondered. Defiant, or compliant? Maybe he would be permitted to find out--
With the flick of one hand, she'd freed one of her blades from its sheath and pressed it to his neck. The curved short-sword was not nearly as impressive as his katana, but the threat was clear. An impasse? Likely not.
"I've tolerated you," Nel said easily, not at all disconcerted about the location of his sword. "Because it was necessary. Because it was decreed by her majesty, and by your king. Without the alliance that your presence brought to us, we would not have had your king's cooperation in the assault against the Vendeeni. You're a good soldier, Albel, but that doesn't stop you from being rather idiotic."
She'd forgotten one thing. He wrapped his gauntleted hand about her blade and with neither repercussions nor damage, pushed it away. She resisted of course, but he took pride in being stronger than her. Before she had time to utilize her remaining blade, he took a step back, out of her range. The sword at her neck became a lover's caress.
"You," he said evenly. "Now owe me your life."
And with that, he slid his weapon until the point was under her chin before swinging it down and away in a violent slash. "Those insipid fools have arrived."