Fragments of Innocence
While the severity of their mission made wasting time detrimental, there were still times when it was unavoidable. The fatigue of exploring Zavhert and the freezing cold that went with it left several of them ill prepared to go charging to their next adversary. Since it was getting late and the gray sky was fading to black, they had decided to spend the night at the inn nearest to the city's border. The innkeeper had seemed wary of them, but hadn't objected to paying customers.
That was what left Asbel Lhant awake and anxiously staring up at the ceiling. The room wasn't completely silent, for even in the dead of the night, there was still some activity on the streets. There was also Pascal's snoring; he could still hear it from the girls' room on the other side of the wall. The continual sound of the wind blowing was impossible for him to dismiss, especially when the powerful gusts made the upper floor of the inn shake slightly.
"I'll kill King Richard myself if I have to."
Asbel frowned as he looked over at his sleeping brother. There were times when it was harder to parallel the man Hubert had become to the little brother he remembered. He had finally gone to sleep after he finished plotting strategies and marking their path on the map, but his thoroughness wasn't that much of a surprise. His younger brother's determination should have been impressive, but Asbel found himself worrying more than anything else.
Things were getting more complicated than ever and in spite of how far they had come, the simple question of 'why' was still a mystery. Richard barely seemed like himself; the transition from the peace-loving prince the knight knew so well to the bloodthirsty king he now saw still seemed incomprehensible. He clung to the belief that there was some good reason, but it was getting harder to keep believing.
He knew Sophie was struggling just as much, if not even more. One of her earliest memories was far back when the three of them were naïve children making lofty promises to stay friends far into the uncertain future. It was still painful to think of how far away they all were from that innocent moment from seven years ago.
"I'll kill King Richard myself if I have to."
Asbel sat up and shook his head abruptly to get Hubert's callous words out of his head. He pushed the blanket aside carefully, but the material was so thin and unsuitable for the frigid temperatures that it crinkled quietly. The mattress was too thin to creak as he stood up, but he found himself grateful for that fact as he pulled his boots on. He crept over to the door and grabbed his coat and sword off of the rack as quietly as manageable. He turned the doorknob with deliberate slowness and glanced over his shoulder several times to make sure Hubert and Captain Malik were still asleep before he slipped out.
I'm not going to get any sleep at this rate… it's not even that much colder out with how freezing the room is.
The lobby wasn't any better since the heater had been put out for the night several hours prior. He clicked the scabbard of his sword into place once he was a few feet away from the rooms. The slight noise went undetected as he made his way over to the main entrance of the inn. A moment later, the snow in the cold night wind assaulted his face as he slipped out of the inn lobby. He figured that the temperature must have dropped by at least ten more degrees after nightfall. An involuntary shiver ran up his spine as he gently closed the door behind him.
Well, below freezing wind and snow is one way to get a clear head.
…And numb hands.
He tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat as he trudged away from the inn. The snow was starting to collect on the ground, but the streetlights still gleamed for the military patrols. The weather was slightly less adverse on a street where the tall buildings blocked some of the wind, but it was still anything but pleasant. He looked over to see the town bar still open for business, but frowned when the bartender suddenly slammed the door open. From the snippet of shouting he heard, the man the bartender was throwing out couldn't pay.
Asbel's attention was averted suddenly when he heard a flurry of gunshots. He glanced around before looking up to see the commotion in the sky. The sound cut through the night air like a knife, though the soldiers must have been at least one street away. He looked upward in time to see a low-flying wyvern fall from the sky. The creature's form jerked in the air before it plummeted downward. He could hear the shouting from the next street over, as well as the lurid echo of more gunshots.
Could that really just have been some random monster attack?
There's too much going on for a random coincidence. But… they're probably going to start questioning witnesses.
I need to get out of this area.
He tried to hurry back to the inn, but there wasn't much hurrying that could be done in nearly a foot of snow. His shoes and the hems of his pants were quickly becoming soaked through by the time he decided to duck into one of the alleyways. While it wasn't as brightly lit as the main street and harder to notice, it proved not to be the wisest idea when he reached a waist-high snow drift.
"Damn it…" he grumbled as he gingerly tried to get around it.
Thinking quickly, he looked up to the system of thick pipes on the back of the building. He grabbed onto a particularly sturdy looking one and began to climb. He winced as the biting cold metal connected with his skin, but still kept going. He managed to use the myriad of piping to get above the snow bank, but it was still rather treacherous. The drift didn't seem so bad after the alley branched off into two others, though it was difficult to see enough in the gloom to be certain.
This was a really bad idea.
Who takes a stroll in a blizzard?
He could feel his fingertips numbing as he gingerly rested his foot on the thin upper ledge of a windowsill. He let go of the pipe as he set his other foot down upon it, but the surface was too icy for him to balance. He scrambled to grab on to another pipe when he felt himself slipping, but the attempt was in vain.
A momentary flash of that sickening sensation of free falling came over him as he tumbled backward. He landed at the base of the snowdrift with a muffled thud. He blinked the snow out of his eyes and grumbled a curse as he tried to pull himself out of the snow. After some floundering, he freed himself from the drift. He flexed his cold fingers but jolted up when he felt another motionless hand under his.
His heartbeat accelerated when he saw a person lying face down in the snow. The sound of shouting soldiers rushing down the street was worrisomely loud, but the firearm-toting men didn't take the time to check the alley. The tall drift obscured them from view; he doubted that the other person could have been there long, for there was only a bit of snow collected on their traveling cloak.
"Hey!" Asbel said loudly. "Can you hear me?"
He scrambled over to the person and rolled them over onto their back, already fearing the worst. Even if the situation was odd, collapsing in the dangerously low temperatures was never anything good. He pushed the hood of their cloak aside to see their face and froze momentarily.
The man's eyes were closed and snowflakes settled on the blonde hair that framed his face, but there was no mistaking the King of Windor for another. Even in the poor light, he looked sickly pale. Asbel's mind started to reel as he reached out and shook the unconscious king abruptly.
How did he end up like this? Did the soldiers attack him?
"Richard!" he shouted, the concern of being inconspicuous absent from his thoughts.
The king's head lolled against his shoulder as Asbel pulled him up into a sitting position. Although he couldn't be certain, Windor's king didn't seem too badly injured. Regardless, the situation didn't seem entirely real; it was nightmarishly unlikely and worrisome all at once.
"Richard, wake the hell-"
Before he could finish, there was a flicker of movement in the king's eyes. They fluttered halfway open, but didn't focus. Despite everything that had happened in the recent days, a relieved smile still pulled at the corners of Asbel's mouth.
"Why are you…?" Richard trailed off, his voice hoarse and barely above a whisper.
"We need to get you inside first," Asbel said, despite the dozen or two questions lining up to be asked. "Try to stand up, I'll help you."
Asbel pulled the king's arm around his shoulders without a second thought. Richard's hand was freezing and his knees buckled after barely a step forward. The knight was undeterred as they tried again, letting his friend lean against him heavily. Asbel's own thoughts of how miserably cold he was when climbing the pipes were as far from his mind as they could have been.
The first step was slow and unsteady, but they were fortunate to be out of the deepest part of the snow. Richard kept his gaze upon the ground, but for a moment it seemed as though a faint crimson glow shrouded his left eye. Asbel dismissed it as a trick of his mind from the bitter cold, though nothing seemed right. The king felt completely cold as they trudged toward the alley's crossroad, but what mattered was that he was still alive.
He must've still been riding one of those monsters and got shot down…
"I'm sorry," Richard muttered hollowly, breaking the silence between them.
Asbel glanced at him, but he didn't look up. He almost sounded like the prince Asbel remembered rather than the king they had ended up fighting, but it was impossible to be certain so soon.
"We'll talk later, let's just get inside. Everyone else is still back at the inn," Asbel added thoughtlessly.
"No," he disagreed quickly. "Down the other road… to the right, there's another."
"Another inn?" Asbel finished skeptically.
The king only nodded in response. Asbel was about to object, but closed his mouth before any words came out. It only took the memory of one-
"I'll kill King Richard myself if I have to."
"Alright," Asbel agreed reluctantly.
Their progression down the alley was slow, which left the knight with more than enough time with his thoughts. He knew that Sophie would be upset that she wasn't involved, but there wasn't much that he could do about it. Asbel knew all too well that Hubert only saw the king as the man who led the attack on his old hometown of Lhant, then stole the power source from his second home in Yu Liberte. As much as he wanted to trust his brother unconditionally, those words planted the seeds of doubt Hubert himself always spoke of.
There has to be a good reason for all of this.
I know there is, and this is my chance to find out.
It felt like a small eternity before they reached the end of the alley. Though they were in an area of the city which Asbel lacked the time to explore earlier in the day, he still caught sight of the inn sign on the far side of the road. Despite the late hour, there were still lights on inside.
"We'll be there soon," Asbel announced as he adjusted his grip on the king's hand. "I just want to wait a moment for those guards to pass."
Richard lifted his head to get a better look at the soldiers on patrol before turning his gaze toward Asbel. "I can't feel your hand at all."
Asbel was silent for a long moment before responding. "Well, you shouldn't have been traveling in a blizzard."
"I suppose I deserved to have my ride shot out of the sky," he remarked darkly.
"…The soldiers are gone, let's keep going," Asbel said as they departed from the shadows.
He seems more like he used to be… sort of.
But something still isn't right.
The wind was twice as merciless out on the main road. Asbel squinted to keep the wind-driven flakes from biting into eyes as he distantly wondered why anyone lived in the frozen purgatory of Fendel. Even when they reached the door of the inn, he still wasn't able to come up with a good reason.
A bell made a cacophonous noise when Asbel pushed the door open. The hands on the clock pointed to midnight, but he barely noticed; it was just a relief to be out of the icy winds and another step closer toward answers. The innkeeper certainly did notice though, for a flustered looking woman in a nightgown came storming into the lobby with a frown.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" she demanded before she noticed the state of the visitors. Her expression changed to one of surprise at the pitiable state of the two Windorians.
"We're sorry to intrude so late at night, but do you still have any rooms open?" Asbel asked, trying to sound polite.
"Yes," she said, looking at Richard critically. "Does this one need a doctor to be called?"
"No," Richard said as he pulled away and stumbled into one of the lobby chairs.
The innkeeper looked almost as skeptical as Asbel while she scurried over to the counter. "One night is four hundred Gald, come get your key."
"There should still be some coins in the pocket of my cloak," Richard said tiredly, though he made a point to look away. "I can't really move my hands," he added quietly.
Asbel brushed some of the snow away to find the pocket. "It's still here," he said lamely.
The knight walked over to the counter with a handful of Gald coins, though a few snowflakes had found their way between them. The innkeeper waited with the key, though she was still examining the king closely. For once, Asbel was glad for the fact that Richard's name was known better than his face.
"Please make sure the eleth heater is on," Asbel said as he set the coins down on the counter.
"Of course," she said as she held the key out to him.
He grabbed the handle of the cold, tarnished key, but the innkeeper didn't let go of it immediately. He looked up at her with a degree of suspicion in his eyes, but her expression was serious.
"You might want to reconsider about getting a doctor for your girlfriend over there."
Asbel stared lamely for a moment before he realized what she was saying. "Ah, no, it's…"
"You don't have to lie, I see that long, pretty hair," the woman said knowledgably, before lowering her voice. "But really, young man, be careful staying out so late. There have been rumors flying around that Bloody Richard from Windor is in Fendel now."
"…Thanks," Asbel said as she finally let go of the key.
She hurried off to the heater room while Asbel went back over to his friend. There was still nothing about the situation that felt right; Richard's face was hidden behind the hood of his cloak, but there was little doubt that he'd heard the innkeeper's comment as well. Though the warmth of the lobby was a reprieve from the harsh weather outside, the snow melting on his clothes made it impossible to completely find sanctuary indoors.
"Come on, the room is on the second floor," Asbel said as he reached out to the king.
His light amber eyes were a shade darker than usual and void of the hopeful glint of gold that once stood out so much. He seemed reluctant to be reliant on someone else for help and stayed silent as Asbel helped him back to his feet. Snow fell carelessly upon the carpet as he guided him toward the stairs. It was a relief that the innkeeper hadn't been too prying, but it wasn't entirely surprisingly that one wouldn't expect to see the king of Windor ill, frostbitten, and helped stumbling into an inn.
The army isn't even trying to help him now. If this goes on, someone's going to try stealing the throne again.
Silence remained between them until they reached the door into the room. The upper floor was slightly warmer than the lower one, but it was a noticeable step up from the less expensive inn near the outskirts of town. He fumbled with the key for a moment before the door swung open with a loud creak. The room itself was fairly warm as well, but Asbel still went straight toward the eleth heater.
"So that's what they're calling me now… 'Bloody Richard'," he quoted, sounding regretful and disgusted all at once.
Asbel lingered in front of the heater for a moment longer than necessary. "That's only the first time I heard it… it probably isn't that common yet."
Richard's expression darkened at the thoughtless use of "yet." He kept his left eye tightly shut as he fumbled with the tie of his cloak. The snow that fell to the floor from their clothes was already melting. Asbel brushed the cold, damp hair out of his eyes with a frown.
Asbel walked over and silently helped the king out of his snowy cloak and jacket. While the ill effects of the cold were partially to blame, Richard still looked sickly pale. He looked exhausted, as though he had barely stopped to rest since departing from Strata.
He isn't as out of it as he was before… and he doesn't seem as unstable as he was in Strata.
But how should I ask?
"Well, I know you just nearly froze to death, but gee, I don't know, it'd be nice to know why my best friend turned into a murderous lunatic."
"Oh, and by the way, my little brother wants to kill you."
Like that'd get any answers out of him…
"Still can't feel your hands at all?" Asbel asked lamely as he pulled the icy gloves off of the king's icicle-like fingers.
"There might be another blanket in the closet," Asbel said, but the idle conversation was quickly becoming frustratingly pointless.
"You would think that snow would make for a softer landing," Richard remarked as he tossed his damp shirt aside and examined the bruises on his arm.
Asbel glanced over his shoulder and winced at the sight of the dark bruises covering the king's arm. "Can you move it?"
"I don't think it's broken," he replied, but grimaced when he moved it.
Richard pulled the blanket around his shoulders and leaned against the wall. His head was turned down and he kept his hand over his left eye, though Asbel could see that his fingers were still shaking.
He hastily retrieved the extra blanket from the top shelf and emerged from the closet with a worried expression. There was tension in the air, but it was also overflowing with loneliness and hinging on despair. There were too many questions in desperate need of answers, but finding the starting point was like finding a lost glove in a blizzard.
"Your hands aren't going to stop being numb if you keep that up," the knight commented, distantly thinking that he had spent too much time listening to his comrades' warnings of frostbite.
Richard didn't respond, nor did he move an inch. Maybe the 'my little brother' angle would have been better after all. He was not amused at the thought, but the somewhat tactful approach wasn't helping anything.
Asbel stood at the far side of the room, uncertain of how to cross the invisible wall between them. He certainly couldn't say that nothing was different between them after how drastically the king had changed, but he couldn't exactly consider himself a knight obligated to his king. Richard has already left Windor behind in the wake of discord. Despite his assistance in reclaiming the throne, Asbel hadn't been officially reinstated as a knight.
Not that a title has much weight now anyway.
That battle in Lhant burned too many bridges.
Asbel shook his head slightly to dismiss the thoughts; all of that was second to getting answers.
"You'll probably warm up faster if you lay down," Asbel pointed out, ready to quit with all of the tactfulness.
"No," he said decisively. "I can't."
"Why not?" Asbel questioned, apprehensiveness lurking in his tone.
"I can't," he repeated, his voice unsteady. "I can't let my guard down."
"Then it's about time you start giving some straight answers," the knight retorted.
Richard lifted his head to meet his knight's gaze, though he still kept his left eye hidden. Bright cerulean eyes met a dark, agonized hazel. Nothing of the determined gold color remained.
"Can't you at least tell me why?" Asbel asked, almost sounding brusque.
"I won't be myself when I open my eyes again," he said grimly.
Silence fell between them for an interminable moment. Though at least a dozen more invisible walls shot up between them, the knight still walked across the room to minimize the mutual distance. The king's words still hung in the air, just as dreadful and implausible as they were believable. They already had the same grim resonance as his brother's pledge to kill the king.
"What exactly do you mean? What happened to you at Wallbridge?" he added, the memories of the bloody day stirring up all too quickly.
"It started long before that," Richard said bitterly. "Getting killed was just the breaking point, so to speak."
"How long…?" Asbel asked warily, a twinge of guilt betrayed in his voice.
"Seven years ago," the king sighed. "I'm sure you can guess when."
The twinge became a steadily burning flame of guilt in an instant. It wasn't difficult to rekindle the regret – his attempt to become a knight to atone for fatally failing one friend only managed to make him repeat the same mistake all over again.
"But now, none of my thoughts are mine anymore," he continued, desperation betrayed in every word. "I can't even think without being spied upon."
Asbel silently sat down beside him on the edge of the bed. There were a thousand things that could have been said, but none of them were readily coming to mind. None of them seemed right; moreover, the grim questions only led in a bloody chain to more questions.
But in one way, he knew that he had been right. He didn't know how he would make the others understand as readily as he did, but it was still some small comfort that it hadn't exactly been the Richard whom he had known since childhood who committed all of the atrocities. The list had only grown and grown since they fought in Lhant.
Asbel reached out and placed his hand over the king's numb hand and pulled it away, but Richard looked away instantly to keep his eyes out of sight. Staring down at the trembling hand he held, Asbel felt all too aware of how treacherous the sea of regret truly was.
What am I supposed to say?
For being the fool who didn't even know what was happening?
That's too insufficient… and pathetic.
"I never have much time when I am myself like this anymore…" Richard trailed off. "I'm usually left to watch all the blood collect on my hands when I can't do anything about it."
"I'll find a way to help you," Asbel said forcefully. "There has to be a way to save you, I know it."
"You're as hopeful as ever," the king murmured with a bitter smile. "Only you could come this far and say something so naïvely kind."
"I'm serious," he retorted. "Just tell me more about what's going on, we'll find a way so you're entirely yourself again. What has been controlling you?"
"I can almost believe you when you say it like that," Richard remarked.
"There's no almost about it," the knight insisted. "If you're still yourself sometimes, there's no reason why you can't go back to the way you were before. I'll help you."
Richard looked up and their eyes met for the first time in too long. The sight of the king's blood colored eye and the faint red glow that it gave off was striking at first, but deep below the red glow, the man he knew was still there. The sight could have been surprising or even revolting, but Asbel smiled reassuringly – it just seemed like the only thing that was right to do.
"I think I can feel your hand now," Richard said quietly.
"Then keeping holding on."
Asbel squeezed the king's hand reassuringly, but he could only weakly return the gesture. Scarcely a moment passed before the ephemeral time of understanding shattered.
Richard's expression contorted into one of agony as he doubled over. He jerked away from Asbel as the crimson glow from his eye intensified sharply. Asbel stared detachedly for scantly a second, almost reluctant to accept that things would go to pieces again so suddenly.
"Hey! What's wrong?" Asbel questioned as he jumped to his feet.
He reached out to place a hand on the king's trembling shoulder, but Richard knocked his hand away before he got any closer. His breathing was rapid and shallow as he tried to stand, but he only wanted to put distance between the two of them.
"Get out of here!" Richard demanded, deliberately keeping his gaze averted.
"Didn't you listen to a word I just said?" Asbel objected, reaching out to the king stubbornly.
"Just go!" he retorted grimly. "I can't fight you right now and I won't be myself in seconds."
Asbel's arm drooped slightly; the sword and scabbard at his side suddenly felt heavier than they should have. The reminiscence of their battle in Lhant was still all too fresh in his memory. Regardless, the idea of running away again felt too cowardly and unknightly.
"Get out of here," he repeated as he staggered backward and leaned against the door for support. "Don't tell anyone we met here."
"You can't keep pushing people away," Asbel shot back. "We can't help you like that."
"Asbel, just don't tell anyone," he said breathlessly.
"I'm not going to abandon you," the knight said determinedly.
The king's demeanor changed as abruptly as a flash of lightning. His arm fell to his side and his expression relaxed, but there was no shadow of relief to be seen. Instead, a feeling of foreboding settled over him as he watched the king stand up straight, suddenly unbothered by the agony that had haunted him barely a few seconds before.
"You mean again?" the king questioned, voice as cold as his pale hands. "You've already abandoned me twice… or maybe more, I can't even remember."
"Richard…" he trailed off.
The guilt of the cruel but true words filled the air. Asbel stared numbly as the man before him regarded him with eyes full of disdain and distrust. His face was the same, but it truly was as though a different person was staring through those familiar eyes.
"You only lived in Barona for seven years and barely tried to contact me," he snapped, hands clenched into fists. "Then you threw your foolish little promise to help me protect Windor away when you betrayed me in Lhant. Do you even remember that day when we were young?"
"Of course I do!" Asbel insisted.
"Then it just doesn't matter anymore?" he challenged, abhorrence reflected in every word.
"I-it wasn't that simple," Asbel retorted, though he had little ground to stand on.
"Nothing is simple black and white, but you've done a fantastic job of proving how your empty little promises are naught by thoughtless lies."
Asbel's gaze fell to the floor in guilt. How can I defend myself when I know he's right? Grasping at mental straws, he blurted out the only truth that was always there.
"I never wanted things to turn out like-"
Asbel's words were literally cut off when he was shoved to the floor. Icy fingers with more strength than they should have possessed closed around his neck like a lethal sider web. The knight's vision blurred momentarily when his head hit the hard, wooden floor. He fought the listlessness as he gasped for breath.
"Traitor," the king hissed, tightening his grip around Asbel's neck. "Why would I believe another of your lies?"
He struggled to pull the hands away from their choking grip, but the attempts were fruitless. Every time he grabbed hold of the kings already bruised wrists, he only tightened his hold around his neck. Asbel thrashed and tried to pull away, but the lack of air was making it nearly impossible. He looked up at the man above him, but he couldn't see any sign of the peace-loving prince.
This isn't really Richard.
Guilt prodded at him as he reached up and grabbed the king's bruised arm. His burning lungs and blurred vision kept the guilt just far enough at bay. He wrapped both hands around the injury as he made another attempt to push his attacker away. The king winced and his grip faltered just enough for Asbel to shove him off.
The gasp of cold hair he inhaled once the crushing pressure was gone almost felt painful, but he still jumped back to his feet. He took a step backward and toward the window, but the king didn't try to pursue him immediately. Asbel kept his hand over the hilt of his sword, but didn't draw the blade; he still didn't want the conflict to escalate any further.
"Richard?" he questioned.
The king's shoulders fell and started to tremble again as his hand flew up to cover his eye instinctively. "Just go. It's an order… from your king."
"I'm not officially your knight," Asbel countered.
A cold, humorless laugh came in response. "I can't fight you again. Just get out of here before…"
He didn't have to finish to make himself understood, but the way he shuddered as his hand fell away from the demonic crimson eye was more than enough of an answer. Asbel automatically took a step closer, but the grim feeling that his presence couldn't help anything grew worse by the second. He didn't want to dwell on it – there were few things worse than being useless to help someone important when they needed it most.
"You can still fight it," Asbel said urgently.
"There's nothing you can do here. Don't you grow tired after you've fought for far too long?"
Reluctantly, Asbel took a step toward the door, keeping his distance from the king. He knew not to turn his back on an adversary, despite how wrong it felt to regard Richard as such. The difference between his friend and whatever possessed him was like day and night, but everything at that moment was an uncertain gray.
"I'm still going to find a way to save you," Asbel said resolutely. "Just hold on until then."
He kept an eye on the one he still couldn't freely call an enemy. He continued toward the door, but stopped when a shaky hand grabbed his wrist. Richard's grip was void of the intensity from mere moments prior, but there was still ominously out of place guardedness between the two of them. The dividing walls were higher and stronger than ever.
"Stay alive," Richard said hollowly.
"…You too," he responded.
The haunting feeling that he was making another grave mistake was as stifling as the hands around his neck had been. Asbel opened the door and stepped outside, distantly wondering if he was going to recall this exact moment with nothing but regret. As he glanced back and the door closed behind him, he was fairly certain that he already knew.
"I'll kill King Richard myself if I have to."
Asbel shook his head abruptly to dismiss the thought, but the quick movement only shot a jolt of pain through his neck. He still didn't feel himself breathing normally by the time he started down the staircase, leaving every step laden with foreboding. Regret was a cruel little master; it always tried to make itself known long before its chain of tragedies was over.
He trudged across the inn's lobby but paused to glance up at the door. The inn was quiet enough to give no indication that anything was amiss. There were too many people who dismissed the king as beyond salvation and condemned him with scornful threats, but the truth was not black and white.
I will find a way to save you, Richard. You're not lost yet.
With a deep breath that was only reminiscently painful, he stepped out into the cold wind. The scornful words of doubt kept trying to creep back into his mind, but they weren't the only words resounding anymore.