Disclaimer : Sonic the Hedgehog is owned by Sega Corporation. I do not claim ownership of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Adventure, or any characters, locations, or concepts contained therein. I do assert ownership of any characters, locations, or concepts originating within this work.
Thanks to The Great Gonzales for Beta-Reading for me. I really appreciate it.
Chapter 15: Neglect
"Treason against the state is a form of insanity, yes."
Groaning fitfully, Sonic shifted beneath the covers. A gap in the curtains had opened, spilling sunlight across the bed. When the rays spread across his face, his complaints grew louder, and he turned away from it instinctively, burying himself deeper beneath the blankets. Tranquility restored, he fell once more into a calm slumber.
But while his body slept, his mind was filled with strange images.
Beneath the ground, in the cool darkness of the burrow, a beacon of candle-light made its way through the tunnels. Roots weaved themselves through the ceiling, seeking the soft soil on the ground below. Illuminated by this light was a pair of figures, their red fur seeming to smolder in the soft glow of the flame.
Holding the candle high, Tikal glanced back apprehensively at the man behind her, trying to figure out what to make of the stranger.
Guardsman Copan followed silently in her wake, his eyes scanning the alcoves that lined it as he passed by. The silver chain of Captain of the Watch shone about his neck in the sparse light, which was unusual, to say the least, for a man of only twenty-four. Many had protested his lack of seniority, but the Lord Captain himself had insisted on his elevation. It didn't help that he looked even younger than he was; the tips of his spines hung about his jaw-line, whereas the other Captains' were well past their shoulders, and he still seemed to move with the awkwardness of adolescence.
Whatever his outward appearance, it only took a single glance into the guardsman's dark, stony eyes to see he was no child .
As Tikal led her guest down the earthen halls of the burrow, the same thought crossed her mind, and she couldn't help but feel intimidated by his presence. The fact that he was well over four feet tall, when she wasn't four foot herself, didn't help, and neither did the short sword and cestus hanging from his belt. Still, he'd been very polite when he arrived, and overall, he seemed pretty nice. As they neared the door to the study, she gestured for him to wait before knocking quietly. "Father?"
As she stood listening, she heard the sound of crackling parchment from within. "Come."
Unlatching the heavy door, she stepped into the study, where her father sat atop a pile of cushions, reading from a scroll. He glanced up as she entered, and she almost turned away at the emptiness of his expression as he looked at her. "I take it Captain Copan has arrived?"
She nodded. "He has."
"Please let him in."
There was the sound of footfalls behind her, and she turned to see the Copan standing in the doorway. "Lord Captain Pachacamac," he said with a bow.
His face splitting with a grin, her father made to stand. Coming quickly to his side, she reached out and took his arm as he pulled himself up, wobbling slightly as leg struggled to support his weight. Having been pierced by an enemy arrow, the injured limb wasn't strong enough for him to sit or stand unaided. He was much larger than her, and his thickly-muscled frame was difficult to lift, but she'd gotten a great deal of practice over the last month, and she slowly helped him to his feet. Finally he stood erect, and turned to extend a hand to the Copan as he entered the room. The Captain took it gingerly, and he laughed.
"Captain, I can assure you I am not as fragile as you seem to think. You need not act as if I were glass."The younger echidna blushed, and her father nodded in satisfaction as his grip tightened. "Better."
They stood silently for a moment, and then her father cleared his throat and turned to her. "That will be all. You may leave us now."
Nodding politely, she turned and made her way out, closing the door behind her. Or so it seemed. A tiny space remained between the door and the frame, leaving a tiny window into the room. Turning on heel, Tikal let a frown spread across her face as she bent down to peer inside.
By the day, it seemed, her father had become more and more aloof from her. She'd tried to break through the wall he'd erected about himself, but she'd made little progress. And since he'd gotten back from the war…it'd been worse. The way he'd treated her, as if she were some sort of servant to be called on or dismissed at his whim, had been practically unbearable.
She'd had enough. If he thought what he was discussing was so important, she wanted to know what it was. And so, in defiance of her better judgment, she leaned in close to look inside.
"–very proper," Copan said. "I must admit, your daughter is a very dutiful girl."
"She sees to her chores quite well, yes," her father replied with a nod. "And she has kept well during the Campaign."
"So I understand. She has resumed her mother's duties in the Library as well, yes?"
For the briefest moment, a flicker of pain crossed her father's face. "Yes," he answered softly, "she has."
At that, Tikal felt a familiar pang of loss, but put it out of her mind. It had been difficult coming to terms with her mother's death, but she only been eight when it happened, and she'd eventually come to accept it. Her father, however, had been her mate for nearly a decade before Tikal was born. After she died, he came apart. Even now, after more than seven years, Tikal wondered if he'd truly recovered.
An awkward silence followed, which Copan broke first. "Ah, I suppose you'll be seeking news from the front."
"Indeed." The annoyance in her father's voice could not have been any more blatant if he'd shouted. "I have to say, I find it quite inconvenient to be so far afield from the battle-lines I'm supposed to be commanding. But come, let us sit."
"Of course, Lord Captain." Copan glanced pointedly at the elder echidna's injured leg. "Will you need any help to-?"
"I am not so helpless for that," her father insisted. "Find yourself a seat, and make yourself comfortable."
Hesitating only a moment, the Captain sat down, watching with acute discomfort as his superior lowered himself with agonizing slowness, groaning occasionally. As she watched, Tikal rolled her eyes. So stubborn, she thought irritably. Eventually, however, he found himself seated once more, taking a moment to clear away the scrolls he'd been reading earlier.
"I do apologize for recalling you so suddenly," he said once he was situated. "I do hope it will not have any unfortunate repercussions."
"The commanders know their duties well, Lord Captain," Copan assured him. "I'm confident in their ability to finish the final phase of the operation."
"It's over then?"
"Almost certainly," he confirmed. "The bulk of their army was defeated in detail outside the Lupine capital, and the rest were in disarray. The Legions had begun a siege of the city when I departed, and it's almost certainly fallen by now. With their capital taken, and their allies along our border conquered, they'll have no choice to surrender."
Her father sighed. "Fools all. They should never have attacked us. And now it seems they weren't even half the threat they appeared to be." He grimaced. "It's going to make it impossible to justify further expeditions to the Imperial Council."
Tikal's eyes widened. Further expeditions? she asked silently. Why would we need-
"Is it really that bad, sir?" Copan asked intently.
"I'm afraid so. The Council has officially declared an end to military operations, effective two months from now." By her father's tone, she expected him to spit on the floor in disgust.
"Fools," Copan hissed. "We're so close. Can't they see what will happen if we let up now?"
Her father snorted. "Oh, they know. Not even they were foolish to believe we were safe after those Lupine barbarians raided our border. That's why they signed off on the expedition to begin with. But they're afraid that if the Legions continue expanding, they won't be able to maintain control."
"Damn those filthy cowards!" There was a scuffle as Copan burst to his feet and began to pace around the room. "They have no idea what they're doing! They think the Lupines are the only one that will take the fight to us? Especially now that we've shown ourselves to be a threat? Their neighbors, any of them, perhaps even all of them, will surely invade the moment our resolve wanes!"
"And what would you suggest, Captain?" her father asked intently.
The Captain stopped in his pacing, then turned to face him. "Take them out now," Copan replied harshly. "Suppress the threat before they can consolidate to challenge us. If we give them time to match our strength, they will surely destroy us."
Neither one spoke for a moment, and Tikal felt her eyes widen with horror. What an absolutely dreadful person! she thought. And to think, he was so polite before.
"For what it's worth, Captain, I agree with you," her father replied, and she swayed unsteadily as the shock of his words threw her for a loop. "But what we believe really doesn't matter, does it? Whatever we know to be true, the will of the Council is absolute, and they will never agree to continue operations."
"Are you so willing to accede to the will of those power-hungry fools?" Copan snapped. "Sir, you of all people should know what the savages beyond our borders are capable of."
Her father stiffened, and Tikal saw something raw and ugly burning in his eyes as he looked up at the other man, appearing only for a brief instance. Abruptly, he turned away. "Yes," he said quietly. "I do know."
"And yet you will abide this insanity?" Copan pressed.
"Will you?" her father replied quickly.
Copan stared at him for a moment, eyes as hard as flint. "No," he said finally. "I will not sit idly by while the Council destroys our county. And if my words condemn me here, then so be it."
Silence filled the room, and Tikal held her breath. This man is dangerous, she realized. He's as good as admitted he intends to commit treason! Slowly, began to back away from the door, preparing to run for help.
What came next stopped her in her tracks.
"To the contrary, Captain," her father said. "That was exactly what I wanted to hear."
Copan seemed taken aback for a moment. "What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously.
Her father smiled coldly. "You're not the only one who feels this way, Captain," he said grimly. "And I've known this was coming for some time. So I decided to make some 'preparations,' should the Imperial Council and I find ourselves at an impasse."
Tikal's head was spinning. Preparations? What did he mean by that?
Taking a seat once more, Copan gazed appraisingly at her father, eyes narrowed. "And the council remains unaware of your 'preparations?' "
"Of course they know." Her father laughed at Copan's saucer-wide gaze. "Come now, Captain, you didn't expect them to be so accommodating, did you? In fact, the only reason they haven't denounced me is because our campaign has made me something of a hero, and they aren't willing to confront me openly until that popularity dies down."
"But how does that help us- uh, I mean you?" Copan protested, blushing when his superior chuckled at his misspeaking before moving on.
"Well, as it just so happens, the Council is concerned that I meant to take some preemptive action against them before they can have me removed, so they've recalled the Third and Fourth Legions, under the command of Lord Chavin, to reinforce the city guards, should I attempt to call the army to assist me in my insane venture."
Despite her horror, Tikal found herself blinking. She'd heard that name before. Her father and Lord Chavin had been bitter rivals for years, ever since he had been appointed the position of Lord Captain before him, despite having less experience.
"Of course," her father went on with the same cold smile, "everyone knows for a fact that Chavin and I despise each other with a passion. A belief I've encouraged on many an occasion."
"What people don't know, however, is that he and I have long since come to an understanding. Which will make it something of a surprise when, after he has taken the Council into protective custody following a 'failed assassination attempt' by dissident Lupines, he allows me to assume the role of interim governor, until the crisis is averted."
"At which time," he concluded, "I will need someone of the proper temperament to assume my former position…"
Silence ruled as he trailed off, and Copan gazed intensely at the man before him.
"So what do you say, Captain…or should I say Lord Captain?"
The two Captains issued forth from the room some time later, chatting amongst themselves like old friends. They turned down the tunnel, but stopped at the sound of footsteps behind them. Turning, they saw Tikal, bearing a tray of fresh fruit. "I thought you might be hungry," she said, smiling.
Murmuring a polite refusal, Copan returned to the conversation. Her father said nothing, merely taking the candle she held from her with a nod before continuing down the passage. In a few moments, they were out of sight, nothing more than a speck of light fading into the dark.
Echidnas have excellent night vision, so she was able to make her way back to the pantry without dropping too much along the way. But as she neared the cooler, her steps began to falter. The tray began to tremble, spilling its contents on the ground. When she reached the counter, she set the platter down, empty.
Then her legs gave way beneath her, and she buried her face in her hands as she allowed her tears to fall at last.
Well, this has been a long time coming. I'm sorry to say I got a little side-tracked writing another story.
For all my readers, I'm sorry to make you wait. The next chapter should be ready next Wednesday.