Under the Bead Tree

DISCLAIMER: Yggdra Unison © Sting. I seek no monetary profit from this writing.

(a desire to save the world from chaos – la pucelle de la flamme)

She ventured inside from the front, and so she didn't realize what the squashed-looking shack actually was until she saw the light filtering through the back wall, which was entirely paneled in stained glass.

The window was a great mural that depicted Paltina on one side, Gill and Aries battling Brongaa on the other, and the great phoenix Mulminams at the center; every part of the picture was made up of smaller panels that depicted various symbols of the Meria religion.

Even so, the chapel was extremely cramped—there were two rows of pews crammed front-to-back so narrowly that the Emperor would only have been able to sit in them with his legs bent at an awkward angle, and the pulpit barely had enough room for one to stand behind it before a deep trough of smooth black-speckled stones divided the wooden floor from the back wall.

It was odd, but it was definitely a special place, and dilapidated as it was Monica felt a little awed to be standing in it. She walked down the aisle slowly and carefully, testing the wood beneath her feet to make sure it wouldn't give way, until she was standing before the altar itself. Her hands went to her belt pouch and fished out the battered silver-and-agate rosary that had been passed down through her family mother to daughter for years.

She was busy wrapping it around her hand so that it would be easy to feed through her fingers as she prayed when she heard footsteps in the grass outside and turned. It was Emperor Gulcasa himself, and he was ducking through the low doorway with curiosity all over his face.

As Monica watched, his gaze traveled the length and breadth of the chapel before finally settling on her and not moving away, as if she were a foreign element in the scenery to be puzzled out. He was staring specifically at her rosary, she realized before he stepped forward.

Even though he had changed out of his plate mail into leather armor with the battle over, the floorboards creaked under his weight as he approached. Monica didn't know what to say.

"Is it all right if I join you?" he asked, gesturing to the prayer beads, and Monica stifled her instinctive reaction to boggle and nodded.

"Of course, Your Majesty."

Instead of taking out a rosary, Gulcasa carefully wrapped her folded hands in his own.

Her heart wanted to leap straight out of her chest, but Monica closed her eyes and tried to shut out the sensation as she passed the beads between thumb and forefinger one by one. It would be disrespectful to this place to not pray, and many different types of out of line to let her actual emperor's body heat and soft touch derail her concentration.

After five minutes that felt like five months, he lifted his hands away. Monica tried to let out a relieved breath without letting it turn into a sigh. Yes, Emperor Gulcasa would be a little easier to handle if he knew what kind of effect he had on virtually everyone, but if he actually picked up on her nervousness things would only become more awkward.

"I don't think I've ever seen Your Majesty pray before," she said, hoping that would be enough explanation for the way she was acting.

He nodded; Monica relaxed. "I never pray on my own behalf—only when I'm not sure I have the power necessary for what needs to be done. We can look after the war damages once things are over, but you can never truly tell what's going to happen in combat. You can never really be sure that nothing will happen to the civilians who live near the battlefield, even if none of the soldiers fighting would intentionally hurt someone unarmed."

And until this war was over, there wasn't much that human hands could do to reduce that risk. So as a man of faith, he was doing everything he could. She understood.

"Anyway, I ran into you at a good time. I've been trying to get someone to look over the western side of this village with me—we think there might have been some artillery damage, but no one's free to check. Would that be all right?"

Monica smiled. "Of course. You only have to ask, Your Majesty."

And as she watched him, Gulcasa smiled back; it softened all the harshness in his stance and his expression. "All right. We should hurry."

When he ducked back out from underneath the sagging doorframe, Monica followed after him, only giving the run-down chapel one curious glance over her shoulder. She did really want to take a closer look at it, but helping the people did come first.

(There were a few collapsed wooden buildings that took more than two pairs of hands to set right, and that took most of the day to accomplish, and so it was not until very early the next morning that Monica went back and discovered the sword hidden beneath the smooth palm-sized stones behind the pulpit.)