Disclaimer: SO3 doesn't belong to me, that's all I have to say.
BlueTrillium, you have my undying gratitude for proofreading this chapter for me. I've never met an equally competent beta. I wish I could just hug you. :)
So, my summary hasn't scared you off and you're still willing to give this story a try? Good, I promise you won't regret it!
To Hell and Back
by Lucrecia LeVrai
Albel had never liked his meetings with the king and the other two captains, he considered most of them unnecessary and boring. He would half-heartedly listen to what was being said, and he usually left all the talking to his elders. Not because he was stupid, didn't have any opinions, or felt too insecure to voice them—no, he only kept silent because he couldn't be bothered. Long polemics were not his style. Killing was.
As usual, he was the last one to arrive, and yet he didn't even pause to apologize. He dismissed the king's sigh with a small shrug, ignored Woltar's reproachful gaze, paid even less attention to Vox's displeased frown. The three men couldn't have waited longer than five or ten minutes, anyway, and Albel was known to take even greater liberties with his watch. They must have been all used to it by now.
He swiftly closed the door behind him and took a couple of steps towards the middle of the chamber. The two other captains were already there—standing, not sitting, a clear signal that the meeting was going to be brief, albeit extremely official. Albel felt a twinge of surprise, though he saw no need to get excited, let alone worried. Proving that he was more or less familiar with the concept of court etiquette, he bowed nonchalantly in front of his liege, straightening up only a few seconds later, when Arzei started to speak.
"At last, we can begin." Much to his credit, the king managed to keep all his impatience out of his voice. "Lord Vox, you were the one who insisted that this meeting took place today, as soon as possible. Go ahead, we are listening to what you have to say."
The duke nodded. "Yes, your majesty." He looked around the room, sliding his gaze over the fellow noblemen. His eyes lingered on Albel a bit longer than it was considered polite; the young captain tilted his head to the side, wordlessly returning the unpleasant stare.
"What I am going to say next is of utmost importance," Vox spoke at last, turning back to the unmoving monarch, "and even though it nearly pains me to speak of such shameful things, I am convinced I'm acting in our country's best interests." Arzei frowned, whereas Albel merely rolled his eyes. "Two months ago, as we all know, my men captured a pair of Aquarian spies—the very ones who had been partially responsible for freeing the two infamous prisoners from our dungeon here in the capital. Those spies were then taken to the Keep at Kirlsa, and then left in Sir Shelby's care. I didn't order him to kill them immediately, for I believed we could use them to lure even more enemies into the stronghold. As it turned out, I was right. Sir Shelby set up an ambush, intending to catch all the intruders, and yet he was defeated. As a result, both captives managed to escape, along with their rescuers."
"Lord Vox," Arzei interrupted calmly. "Is there a reason for you to tell us something we already know?"
"Yes, your majesty. My reasons will soon become clear. Allow me to continue."
"Very well." The king nodded.
The captain neither smiled nor bowed. "Thank you, m'lord, for this where the tale gets interesting." He raised one of his hands into the air, as if to make sure he had the men's full attention. "Personally, I was quite shocked to discover that Sir Albel was present at the facility at that time. According to some Black Brigade soldiers, he saw his subordinates fall before his very eyes, and yet he did nothing to help them. Moreover," Vox pressed, ignoring the youth's startled, then absolutely murderous glare, "he let the prisoners get away without even attempting to stop them, even though the odds were clearly in his favor. On top of that, he didn't order his men to give pursuit, obviously not interested in recapturing those spies and their comrades."
"What are you insinuating?" Woltar frowned, without even pretending to sound polite.
"'Insinuating' is hardly the correct term here, Lord Woltar." Vox's gaze was equally cold. "Please, refrain from any rash judgment until you've heard the entire story."
"You…" Meanwhile, the crimson-eyed swordsman was at a loss for words, too furious to speak in a coherent manner. His first thought was to run the insufferable duke through with his katana, the second—return to Kirlsa as soon as possible, in order to impale all those dogs who betrayed him, cooperated with Vox behind his back. "How dare you–"
"Silence, Albel." The king's voice left very little room for argument. "Let us hear everything Duke Vox has to say."
"I won't listen to this nonsense," he snarled, turning on his heel to leave. Unfortunately, Arzei's order stopped him before he could take a single step towards the door.
"You will stay. This matter concerns you, after all."
Albel froze, a spiteful remark on the tip of his tongue, just waiting to be uttered. He really wanted to explain just how deeply he cared about 'this matter', and yet he had no other choice but to stay where he was, finally turning around to watch the older knight resume his speech.
"Very well, m'lord." This time, Vox nodded his head in thanks. "And speaking of Kirlsa and of Sir Shelby, I shall perhaps mention here that not only did Sir Albel refuse to summon a medic for his heavily wounded subordinate, but he also personally finished him off. Several witnesses saw that happen."
"Suited him fine," the young captain growled, the fingers of his artificial hand twitching slightly. "You turned him against me, and he–"
"Albel," Arzei leant forward in his seat, "you are to remain silent until Lord Vox is finished, do we make ourselves clear?"
The duke used the short break to continue, "Murdering a fellow nobleman in cold blood is punished by our law, and Sir Albel has to bear full responsibility, but that is beside the point right now. I'll leave it to Shelby's relatives to pursue their rights in court. What I really wanted to say is that eight days ago, yet another suspicious incident took place at the Bequerel Mines. As we know, a group of Aquarians, along with their newly found allies, raided our territory in search for copper. We had been aware of their intentions before they struck, and so I sent my riders to take care of this problem. Not a single one of these riders returned, and I find it almost impossible to believe that they were all defeated. What interests me more, however, is the part that Sir Nox played in these events. Without either informing me, or asking for my permission–"
"I don't need to ask for your permission–"
"–he gathered a small group of soldiers and engaged the enemy on their way to Arias—at least that is what he's been telling us. Alas, the soldiers perished, and he was the only one to return alive. Naturally, the Aquarians managed to escape with their stolen cargo. It must have been their lucky day, for Sir Albel," Vox wasn't even trying to hide his sneer, "let them go for the second time!"
Albel stared at the older man in shock, mixed with blind fury. He didn't really want to believe his own ears, the implication was too absurd to be true. As much as he would like to forget, he could still remember that one battle, the moment he had been forced to drop to his knees, the burning pain in his chest, the humiliation, his own words thrown back into his face, all by that blue-haired maggot– He would've gladly kept fighting, if it hadn't been for that pitying look in the boy's eyes, the look he had hated more than anything, even than himself–
Two days ago, when he had finally returned to Airyglyph, swallowing his pride and admitting defeat before the king had been hard enough. And now… Vox was showing these events in a different, entirely wrong light, suggesting that perhaps the swordsman had fled from the fight, or that there had never been any fight at all. Needless to say, it was making Albel's blood boil.
"Whether intentional or not, such a gross dereliction of duty cannot be tolerated," the duke concluded, finally turning to meet a pair of furious eyes. "What is more, I find it hard, if not impossible to believe that these blunders were only examples of youthful carelessness; no, I believe them deliberate attempts to damage our interests while we're still at war with Aquaria. Your majesty," Vox's expression grew darker, sterner still, "I officially accuse Sir Albel Nox of treason."
A deathly silence fell in the chamber. The duke's words had momentarily left he three other men speechless. Arzei seemed to have frozen in his seat. Woltar, unusually silent from the start, was now gazing at Vox, a grim, thoughtful look on his face.
Albel, on the other hand, was almost shaking with fury.
The king was the first one to recover from his shock, and also the first one to speak. "Lord Vox," he began slowly, finally tearing his eyes away from the youngest captain, "you do realize that it is a very serious charge?"
"Yes, your majesty," the man replied in an assured, self-confident tone, "and I would have never bothered voicing it, had I felt that it was somehow unjustified."
"That's bullshit!" Albel cut in, his voice quivering with rage. "You have no right to call me a traitor!"
"Albel, calm down," Woltar spoke from his corner, without even looking at the young knight. His eyes were still fixed on the duke. "Justified, you say. And what real proof do you have? What reason to bring it up right now, when we are only a few days short of a direct attack against Aquaria?"
"That's exactly why I had to act now, before it was too late," came the cold reply, as the duke had completely ignored Albel's outburst. "We cannot afford to have a traitor in our ranks, especially not at this moment. As I already said, there were witnesses; at least seven soldiers can testify that I am telling you the truth. To me, this man's guilt remains indisputable."
Woltar said something else then, something about being reasonable, but Albel was no longer paying attention. Treason? Siding with the enemy? With those pathetic, Aquarian scum? Just what did they think he had been doing for the past three months, if not risking his own life for Airyglyph? Spilling his men's blood for the sake of theirkingdom?
He had devoted his whole adult life to serving Airyglyph, and now this pathetic, cunning man had the audacity to accuse him of treason? Worse still, Arzei was actually willing to listen?
The three men were still talking, arguing about him as if he wasn't there. With a great deal of effort, Albel managed to calm himself down, even though he had had to bite his tongue in the most literal sense. Screaming at the king wouldn't do him much good, he knew, and strangling Vox was unfortunately out of the question, too.
"Well, Albel…" After a while, the king turned his troubled, uneasy eyes to the young warrior. "This is an extremely serious case, as it seems that Lord Vox's words are indeed true. Is there anything you could say to justify your behavior?"
Albel stirred. He had already suppressed his emotions, turned his livid anger into a cold fury. I must be really masochistic to put up with this shit, he thought grimly, looking up from the stone floor.
The king was watching him expectantly, and yet he didn't bother to return the stare. He met Vox's gaze, instead.
His reply had left the three other men in various states of surprise. For a brief moment, even the tall duke managed to look more disbelieving than triumphant. Albel smirked inwardly at the man's dumbstruck expression, but he realized that it might well turn out to be his only victory for today.
"Albel," Woltar frowned, frustration clearly evident in his voice, "this is not the time for a show of your nonchalance!"
"What would you like me to say, then?" The situation was serious, he knew, and yet he couldn't help but shrug. "Am I supposed to find myself an excuse? And if there's none, should I make something up?" Noticing that the old nobleman was already opening his mouth to retort, he quickly silenced him with a stiff, irritated gesture, and then turned towards the unmoving king. "This accusation is ridiculous, and we all know it. Duke Vox surely has his reasons to play such a farce. I have nothing else to say on this matter."
"A farce? Watch your tongue, captain."
Albel ignored the duke's chilly comment, he didn't even spare a glance in the man's direction. He kept his gaze fixed on the king's face, because he realized it was Arzei's turn to speak, and regardless of Vox's personal beliefs, the monarch still happened to be the most important person in the chamber. He was the only person capable of sentencing the young knight to death, anyway.
"You are making this difficult, Albel." Arzei leant forward, possibly trying to appear more intimidating, though he only managed to look worried. "Do you realize the gravity of these charges?"
Unfortunately, he did. Still, if any of them believed that he would actually beg for his life, then they were seriously mistaken. "…Yes."
There was a brief silence, but it seemed that the king wasn't finished with him, not yet.
"Is it true that you allied yourself with Aquaria? Did you cooperate with the enemy?"
"No. That's absurd."
"Did you let the important prisoners escape from the Keep, without even trying to stop them?"
Albel bit his tongue, suppressed a hollow laugh, which threatened to overcome him. A bunch of archaic, silly words, spoken almost a decade ago, kept tugging on the edge of his consciousness. His oath of allegiance. I shall always serve my king, fight to the last drop of blood, protect the innocent, speak nothing but the truth… He couldn't ignore the fact that he had already broken many parts of that vow, so why did he cling to all that was left? Nothing but the truth… was it really worth signing his own death warrant?
"…Yes," he finally said, though it had cost him a lot of effort. "I did."
Vox's triumphant expression was making him sick, not to mention livid with rage. For a brief moment, he fantasized about smashing his steel fist into the man's face, crushing those pouting lips, cutting the cheeks open–
"But did you realize, at that point," Arzei's exasperated voice pulled him out of his daydream, "that your behavior was entirely inappropriate? That releasing those people was equivalent to acting against the interests of our country?"
Albel clenched his teeth. "It wasn't my intention to act against Airyglyph's interests."
"Then why, Albel?" The king pressed his fingertips against his temple, suddenly looking at least a couple of years older. "Why would you do that?"
…unlike Vox, I take no joy in trouncing weaklings…
His own words rang in his ears, as if they had been spoken but a moment ago, and yet the image that followed didn't quite fit his personal definition of weakness. It was that woman's face, her pale skin, elegant cheekbones, scarlet hair and a perfect body to match. Nel Zelpher, right? That Aquarian wench who had voluntarily walked into Shelby's trap, risked her life for a pair of worthless subordinates. How foolish it had been, how reckless… so reckless, in fact, that he couldn't help but admire it. She was entirely different from those frozen Airyglyph beauties, women he met in court, statues without a spark of life in them. He had seen fire in her eyes, and it hadn't been enough–
If he had fought her at that time, there was no chance in hell she could have won, even with those two blasted men by her side. She would have fallen to his blade, and then? He would've either had to kill her himself, or she would have been captured, thrown into a dungeon, left at a mercy of a man like Vox… The mere thought of it made Albel shudder in uncontrollable anger and revulsion.
Naturally, he couldn't tell the king any of this. He had let the prisoners go, because he found that particular wench attractive, hadn't wanted to see her suffer at some torturer's hands? Bah, it sounded utterly ridiculous, even to his own ears. He knew he would only make a fool of himself, and so he stubbornly pressed his lips together, remained silent in spite of Arzei's growing displeasure.
"How are we supposed to understand your lack of reply? Do you confess to being a traitor?"
"You are not making it any easier, Albel," the monarch eventually lost his patience, clearly frustrated with the knight's uncooperativeness. Albel didn't lower his head, he kept staring at the older man. For a brief moment, he thought he saw a flicker of hesitation in the king's eyes, but he knew better than to delude himself—the verdict had already fallen. "We have no other choice but to treat Lord Vox's accusation with utmost seriousness. The ultimate penalty for treason is death–"
It took him a moment to realize what was going on, though. Arzei's words were reaching him through a thick haze of disbelief and denial.
He would die over something as stupid as this…?
"–however, we are still inclined to believe that perhaps no ill will, but your typical lack of forethought is to blame for your actions. Until we have the time to investigate it further, you will remain imprisoned, awaiting your trial."
Once again, Albel wanted to laugh. A trial? Didn't this fool see that it was all set up, that Vox would only be satisfied with his death? That these charges were nothing but an excuse to get rid of an irritating rival?
"Your majesty," as if on cue, the duke spoke, "we are currently at war, and we do not have time for long procedures. I can already see that my words have sown the seeds of doubt in your mind, so why do you hesitate? Is it some misplaced sympathy that tells you to spare this man's life?"
"He is a nobleman, Vox, and we can't sentence him to death straight away, like some common criminal. At the very least, he deserves a fair trial."
"Lord Woltar is right," Arzei spoke, silencing both knights with a gesture. "According to the law, as long as Albel claims that he is innocent, he remains innocent. There will be no execution, however, I have no choice but to imprison him." He shook his head. "Guards!"
Two soldiers entered the chamber, swiftly, yet obviously not in a hurry, because the king's tone had been calm. They stopped by the door, bowed with a clanking of armor, and then froze in anticipation. Arzei turned his gaze to the slender captain.
"Your sword, Albel."
The order actually had to be repeated, before these words could fully register in Albel's brain. Ever so slowly, he let his good hand drop to the hilt, clenched his fingers around its smooth texture. Somewhere behind his back, the guards shifted uncomfortably, probably sensing what was going on. Albel smirked. These maggots had every right to feel afraid. If he didn't surrender his arms peacefully, chose to fight his way out, instead… Well, it would mean some people's guts decorating the floor in next to no time, and generally the biggest slaughter this castle had ever seen. Everyone in the chamber was perfectly aware of that—even Vox, who did nothing to hide his own fingers, currently tracing the hilt of his sword.
Stifling a cold laugh for hell only knew what time today, Albel unfastened the weapon from his waist, weighed the sheathed blade in his hand. And then, in one precise, deliberate movement, he flung the sword at Arzei's feet. It hit the floor with a sharp clang, stopping but a few inches away from the throne. Everyone—everyone except Vox and Albel, that is—breathed a more or less noticeable sigh of relief.
"There goes my proof of loyalty," the young captain announced coldly, turning away from the silent king. He took no pleasure from watching the torn expression on the man's face, and he most certainly didn't want anyone to see the look in his own eyes, when Arzei finally gave his order.
To Be Continued…
Author's Notes: I've made Albel into such an honorable knight, really. *rolls eyes* Now, what do you think, is this fic even worth continuing?