Age of Pretense
Fire Emblem: The Sword of Seals and the Blazing Sword
Postmarked June 20, 3005
Petra Outpost, Nabata
205 Helianthe St.
It is absolutely incredible. Everything we have ever dreamed, even the most childish, wistful of them are now approaching reality. I'm sorry that I'm not able to divulge too much information at the moment, as much of our work is still classified (and also, I confess that selfishly I wish to be there to see your reaction personally) But the instant I land in Pherae, I will tell you everything. There are so many stories, like the very ones you used to tell when we were back at the university. Zeke will be most envious. I can't wait to gloat before him. But you really have much to look forward to.
I think of you and Elijah every night. Sometimes I imagine you two by the fireplace, telling tales as I'm sure you have been doing. How I miss my precious redheads. The sunflowers in front of the house must be in bloom too. I miss our red door and the smell of paints.
Well, I am getting sentimental, aren't I? These months at the site have been so long, But you need not worry about me. It has been hot during the day and frigid at night, but it is dry and we are as comfortable as anybody exposed to the desert can possibly be. And for all the blisters and calluses from our work, I still have the softest hands of any man on our team - entirely your doing! Your balms are still a marvel; I'm grateful to have such a talented wife. Our patron has also been most generous in regards to seeing to our living conditions. He will be arriving here tomorrow to verify our work.
Well, that's all for now, it is getting late. Tell Elijah that I love him. And I love you. I'll be home very soon; the next time we talk, it will be in person. Thank you for being so patient. The waiting has paid off at long last.
Chapter Four: In the East
The haze above Bulgar was an amalgamation of smoke, dust, and heat. Although it was late in the year and approaching winter, the smog around the city made the air oily and insufferably thick. But worse than the suffocating heat and unbreathable air was the noise.
"Cherish the moments of quiet," Mother always said, her voice as soft as her skin. "For that is when the gods speak."
But Bulgar screamed and shrieked and puffed so that the only gods who spoke here were that of roaring engines or squealing pipes. Sheno sat on the concrete steps leading into the shop, Teru lying on the ground beside him. The clamoring from inside was matched by the shouts from the street vendors and the horns honking from the street. Distracting, inconstant, unavoidable.
But the Sacaen patiently tolerated it all. A thin sheen of sweat caused his olive skin to gleam and the smell of oil and dung entered his nostrils with every inhalation. Teru was more vocal about his discomfort and panted heavily, lounging in a heap within the shadow cast by the wall. Sheno peeled an apple he had just purchased from one of the stalls. It was a wrinkled, ugly thing with skin like leather. He spun it easily between his deft fingers and a knife blade, allowing the peel to hang down in a single strip.
He offered a slice to Teru first, who was so lethargic that he gazed back at the man with reproachful eyes. The wolfish dog's face was white, but he had aged gracefully and still carried a noble cast in his features. Sheno encouraged him with a gesture and a word to which Teru obeyed. After they shared the rest of the apple, Sheno poured water from a bottle into his hand for the dog to lap up, and then himself drank.
My peace is the rain upon Mother Earth, Sheno quoted from the ancient epic passed down by his people to ease his mind, like the fingers of Father Sky.
Teru's ears pricked up as the door next to the garage creaked open and the stout mechanic stepped out. He was clearly Sacaen in part. His skin and hair was dark, his eyes narrow, but his complexion and facial structure hinted towards a Bernese or Ilian predecessor. Most Bulgarians were of mixed ancestry, and very few associated themselves with any tribe.
His books had reiterated the fact that there were few truly nomadic people groups left on the plains, but it was his travels had made it painfully obvious that he was a minority. Ilian was spoken almost exclusively. Sometimes he would pick out words of the Sacaen tongue in the crowds, but it was always in dialects different from his own. In some ways it was thrilling. In some ways, it made his own world seem so insignificant.
"You are a beloved child of Sacae," Mother constantly told him, as only a mother could. She continued to tell him so, even after he had grown and his father had left them. "You are a rare prince among men; the blood of pride is pure in your veins."
"We've finished," the mechanic stated, wiping his sullied hands on an even dirtier rag. Sheno motioned for Teru to stay and followed the man back into the garage.
His father's old motorcycle was propped on its stand, gleaming dully from its metallic parts. The sidecar had been unhitched during the reparations and lay on the ground to one side.
To demonstrate its restored functions, the mechanic twisted on the ignition. The motor healthily roared to life. It had been a sickly, cackling sound earlier that morning that degenerated to a dying sputter as the day wore on.
The two men went to the cramped office on the side of the building where he paid the previously agreed upon price. As he rolled the bike out of the garage, he heard a woman's laughter as flecks of water struck the exposed parts of his arm.
Teru shook himself off, his wet pelt making him seem darker than usual. The woman had stepped back, but the front of her clothes was dappled from the spray. She was clearly Ilian, her milk-fair skin tanning reddish, her hair deep and blue like the sky at twilight. Her lips were dark and prominent on her face and a small stud was pierced over her left nostril.
"Oy, watch it, silly!" She held a metallic bottle in one hand, her nails painted with a purple so dark it looked almost black. Sheno watched as Teru sniffed the stranger's hands, accepting the scent as she pet him between the ears. "Now, here's a handsome fella! Cooled down a bit, eh?" The dog responded by licking the tips of her fingers as she retracted her hands, straightening as she saw Sheno waiting by the door.
"Yours, is he?" she asked with a broad, unapologetic smile."Pardon my interfering- he just looked so unhappy in the heat and I couldn't find it in myself to pass by without doing something." She was wearing a jacket in this scorching weather herself. The blush in her face suggested to Sheno that she was uncomfortable herself.
"Thank you," Sheno replied in his accented Ilian as Teru trotted up to him, still dripping, tongue lolling. The woman tilted to her head to one side, her earrings dangling and catching the light.
"What's his name?"
"Teru." He placed one hand on the furry head, to that familiar spot between the ears where she had just touched him. She crouched down again, offering a hand for the dog to investigate before stroking his chin. Sheno leaned against his handlebars, observing quietly. There was a fairly large-sized duffel bag on the ground beside the woman. She was a traveler too, in all appearances.
"The name's Amaranthe Grimsdottir, but you can call me Randie," she said, looking over at the Sacaen, at his demeanor, his manner of dress. Teru vied for her attention. "And you're a Sacaen plainsman, aren't you? I've met a few. What's your name?"
It was the first time anyone had addressed him so personally in weeks. Although he did not have any reason to, he answered her, glancing up from the dog's face to hers. She did not avert her gaze.
An extended hand. "Awesome. It's nice to meet you."
He returned the gesture without a change of expression. Her hand was cool and contrasted sharply against the dark warmth of his own. There was a short pause as if both people were waiting for the other to say or do something. Teru wagged his tail and barked.
When at last they let go, the woman gave one last pat on top of Teru's head and bent to pick up her things.
"Well, I've got to get going. Maybe I'll see you again one day."
Unlikely. But he politely waved a couple of fingers as she hoisted her bag to her shoulder, smiled brightly and turned to go. Teru took a few steps towards the retreating woman and whined, as if confused about her sudden departure. Sheno spoke to him a word in Kutohl before starting the engine. Teru hesitated a moment before obeying and jumping into the sidecar. He checked his things-his bag, his quiver and books- before starting the engine. And with that, it seemed that the encounter with the woman named Amaranthe Grimsdottir ended as soon as it had begun.
The roads were congested, and with the occasional ruffian darting inconsiderately between objects in traffic, progress was especially slow. All around there were brown faces and legs, walls and signs.
Cities were odd things. Bulgar gave Sheno the sensation of being swallowed. The buildings were stacked onto each other with thoughtless architecture and scratched the sky with rusty iron shingles and thin pipes of smoke. Power cables were carelessly strung between whatever structures were available. The walls were so high in some parts that the sliver of sky seen between the alleys seemed as thick as a finger. Not that the sky was visible anyhow; the haze gave the city an unpleasant yellow hue that blurred the silhouettes of the buildings lining the streets further on.
Bulgar was the first large destination that Sheno had charted out at the beginning of his journey. There was one thing in particular that he was eager to see in his visit here. With acute attention to detail, he observed everything, in his mind juxtaposing them with the photographs he had seen in a Bernese textbook from his childhood. Sometimes the words in the captions or the surrounded paragraphs came to mind, each word precise. How often he had lost himself in the worlds of the text, in the world beyond his ger, in the history that flowed around his Sacaen community undeterred.
When the Ilians had taken over the Sacae Plains, Bulgar, being the point where the nations converged, had been able to resist the volleying of its northern neighbor and remained autonomous during all the years of Ilia's occupation. However, as the decades passed and Ilian influence was impossible to prevent, business prevailed where politics could not. That much was evident, Sheno could see for himself. As he came towards the eastern edge of the city, where the outskirts gradually lifted to hillside, he could see the pillars of smoke, five- no, six- pouring into the yellow air.
They arrived in the middle of the century, those monstrous assembles of steel and chemicals, long after the Ilia-Sacae War ended. It was a force both welcomed and scorned as labor-and the products of such labor-were in high demand. Both a parasite and the heart of Bulgar, in its prime it had made such promises of a new industrial age.
In some ways, it was true. Sheno watched the milling workers, the packed trucks, the steam. The city was a paradox, with all of its bazaars and technology, orphans and engineers.
What an awesome sight.
Teru barked, but dared not to bound out of his compartment without permission. When Sheno touched the dog's head, both knew that such permission would not be granted.
He had seen enough. As he began to turn, he looked away from the factories responsible for slowly polluting his beloved homeland, and prepared to leave the city.
- o -
Charlotte Fjorsdottir enjoyed her daily tea blend as a part of her morning ritual, and despite the intrusion that had called upon her unexpectedly, today was no exception.
She took in the scent of the Ilian spices, the cloves and other nutty undertones, that enlaced the steam rising from her cup. The frothy film from the whipped milk seemed slow and soft in the mug as she tilted it around leisurely.
The man who had called upon her so suddenly sat calmly in the seat across from her and they shared a complacent silence. He was older, with strong Bernese traits,-a full beard and broad, sweeping features. He was well dressed and gloved, his hands resting on top of the jeweled end of a cane. They were at present in her personal sitting room, his escorts beside him while she was unattended.
"I must confess I was not expecting you," she began in perfect common Elibean, "None of our previous correspondences indicated that you would be coming to New Edessa, ambassador."
"That didn't stop you from knowing that I would be coming," the man replied, and she spotted his smugness instantly. "I think that you were rather surprised that I managed to find a way to obtain your audience on my own initiative. I have my connections as you do, my lady."
Charlotte observed him and smiled widely. Her violet hair was short enough to expose the nape of her neck where an elaborate, wingless dragon was tattooed on her pristine skin, slithering from behind her ear to between her shoulders.
"I would imagine you are here to examine the merchandise referred to in my letter. It is on display upstairs. Would you like to see it now?"
The house reflected the sterile aesthetics of a modern design, all hard corners and black and white surfaces. The geometric lights hung from the ceiling at calculated, varied heights and the stairs jutted out from the wall, resembling the black keys of a piano. If her position in life had not already automatically suggested her wealth, her home did. But as the Bernese man was not himself a stranger to luxury, he was undaunted and admired the interior design with little more than casual respect.
After ascending to the second floor, they came to where the object in question had a whole room to itself. From a distance it glowed like a string of light, straight, perfect.
The spear looked almost as if it were suspended, its many pronged tip pointing to the ceiling. It was as shiny and translucent as wet ice, but Charlotte had attested to its hardness, having seen that stone, steel, and finally even diamond had difficulty scratching the surface of this magnificent item. She stepped to the aside to allow her client to see it more clearly, though she was not so desensitized by its appearance to not admire it herself.
The man, who had only heard a description of the spear, allowed an expression of pure wonder to spread on his face upon seeing it for the first time. There was a quiet hum about it, as if the crystal was bending the silence around them, resonating mysteriously.
"Have you tested it for its age?" he asked at last, unable to look away. He had to resist from raising his hand to touch it, to grasp that power for himself.
"We have tried. But the item itself is some lattice of a carbon isotope, we think, and so we were unable to get an accurate reading. It is a material unknown to us, but considering where we found it, I assure you that this is what you think it is."
The Bernese ambassador seemed to be placated, but perhaps more by the sight of the weapon than her words. Looking away at last, he regained control over his emotions and they settled the deal, making all of the promises and arrangements necessary.
After the men had left, Charlotte remained in the room and turned. Unnoticed by her visitors, there was another small platform by the opposite wall upon which a pedestal was placed. There was nothing on display there, but she approached it expressionlessly, her hand curled around her empty tea cup.
She was still looking at it when Isaac entered, the cold light from the room glinting off of his one hoop earring, catching her eye. He too had a wingless dragon tattoo, but it started on the back of his hand and curled around his wrist like a bracelet.
"So it is done?" he asked her in Ilian, hands clasped behind his back, eyes darting towards the spear.
"It is done," she acceded in the same language, unmoving, still looking at the empty pedestal. "What news do you bring?"
"Our friend in Lycia has given us the suspected location of sword. I do not trust him." The two statements were logically unrelated, but she, having similar thoughts, followed seamlessly.
"You shouldn't. Neither should you trust our Bernese friend."
"He wishes to speak to you in person. He says that it is of utmost importance." She was surprised at this.
"In person? Well! It seems that my audience is in high demand these days. Perhaps I should work on securing a more threatening reputation, or else at this rate even the Pope will request to have tea with me."
"They are fools. They do not know who they are dealing with."
Charlotte looked at him directly then, amusement lifting her expression.
"Well, I am flattered you think so. What other news?"
"They tracked her as far as Bulgar. I would imagine they will apprehend her by the end of week."
She made no reaction. Isaac came closer, and though she was a tall woman, his mouth came to the level of her ear.
"What will you do, Charlotte?"
She paused for a few seconds, returning her gaze momentarily to the empty pedestal. Then she turned and pressed her cup into his hands, speaking as she made her way to the door.
"Make preparations to investigate the alleged location in Lycia. I will go personally and call upon our audacious fool while I am at it." She stopped at the exit, and turned back. Isaac was unmoving. "As for the other matter... bring her and the bow back here. I will deal with her myself. Even if she is family, the Grace has its laws, and I will abide."
- o -
They were a long way off now. He had seen the mountains from a distance many times before, but he had never been so close as this. This was the final rite, the last frontier, and he would leave his home of twenty and one years for the first time in his life.
It was a little cooler now that they were a few hours from Bulgar. The sky was still angry and overcast with unhealthy clouds, but the wind brought some relief from the sticky, uncomfortably warm air. He was eager to see the blue skies, like the ones of his homeland, but it made him wonder if he would ever see those same skies. Perhaps the rest of the world saw what he saw in Bulgar- he did not know.
Before entering the pass, Sheno unlaced the pouch holding an arc of wood curled so far back on itself that it was almost circular. He bent the ends backward tightly, working quickly to tie the tough hemp cords on each. Teru recognized the gesture and in anticipation, wagged his tail furiously, padding around his master with all the canine happiness he could muster. With expert precision and speed, Sheno finished stringing the bow and tested the tension.
He shot a couple of rabbits, which Teru was eager to fetch. For a month since leaving the reserve, they had been eating whatever game Sheno was able to shoot so as to conserve the little money he had. The world outside was very different, the currency being metal and paper rather than sweat and blisters.
"Must you go?" Mother had asked as he made his final preparations to leave home, but the inflection her voice did not make it sound like a question. She already held the bag with the money between her hands.
"Yes," Sheno had said. She touched the side of his face, the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes creasing.
"Yes," she agreed, "you must."
He might have imagined the sadness and fear in her eyes, but both felt it. The same thought flashed between them, the thought that he, too, would not return.
"I am Sacaen," Sheno reminded Teru quietly as they ate and watched the sun sink into the mountains. He looked back towards the steppelands, towards Mother Earth's green ocean. He thought again of Father Sky's blue smile, and glanced at the the angry clouds in turn. "I will always return."
After dinner, Teru snapped the rabbit's fragile bones between his teeth while Sheno read from the volume of an Ilian encyclopedia. It was a fresh read; he had to part with a few of his own books for the trade, but it was more than worthwhile. He fingered his father's amulet around his neck as he read. It was a coarse, beaded thing that he normally wore concealed under his clothes.
Whenever he felt it, sometimes he thought on the journey of its previous owner, whose love for foreign lands was scorned by his people, a love seemingly inherited by his only son. As Sheno took in each word, each sentence and footnote of the encyclopedia, he was reminded of this fact.
He was halfway through the article on St. Elimine's canonization (the volume pertained to words beginning with the letter c) when Teru bolted up, ears pricked up. A low growl came from his throat, causing Sheno to glance away from his book.
From a distance he could see a figure running across the field. The sun was low, elongating the shadow of the person as she frantically flew down the path towards the mountain pass. Behind her, two other figures, larger and more imposing, caught up to her and subdued her. He was only able to see their silhouettes, but from the pursuers' movements, he could see that they were treating their quarry violently. He could make out shouting, particularly the woman's, as she made her distress known audibly.
Teru bolted towards them without Sheno saying a thing. Odd... He reached for his bow, and when he looked up he was just in time to see one of the men striking the woman with a blunt object. She crumpled to the ground. At this point, the blurry speck that was Teru barked and lunged for the assailant.
Sheno left his things and followed after his dog, stringing an arrow into his bow. The woman was on the ground, arms wrapped around her bag, and the man who had struck her was also on the ground, on his back, his bloodied hands around Teru's maw, trying to keep the brilliant teeth from tearing into his throat. His companion shouted and ran towards them.
When Sheno was close enough to make out the features of the strangers, his eyes focused in on the object the second man had shaken free and pointed towards the dog. When the realization gripped him, his heart lurched unbearably. He ran faster towards the scene and shouted frantically at the dog, ordering him to stand down, to run away, but the shot deafened all other competing sounds in the valley.
The young Sacaen man, like the majority of Elibeans, had never heard a gunshot before. Ever since the Treaty of New Edessa, arms and the technology used to make them had been banned all across the continent. But the moment he heard the sound, he knew. Like thunder on the plains, he thought, but was contained, not free like the thunder.
Teru winced and jumped away, and Sheno froze. But instead of the dog, the armed man was the one that fell. Even in the sanguine light of the sun, the Sacaen was able to see the crimson blossom that dotted his back.
Amazed, Sheno glanced about and he noticed for the first time a fourth person, a mere boy, holding a smoking revolver in his hands, his face stricken. When he saw what he had done, his eyes widened and he dropped the weapon. "Oh fuck!"
The first man, the one Teru had assaulted, scrambled to his feet. Upon realizing what had happened to his companion, pure rage ballooned in his face as he too, drew a revolver. It was unthinkable, because as the man leveled his weapon, Sheno saw that he meant to shoot the boy.
But there was no chance for a second shot to ring in the valley. With the whirring of a bowstring and a flying bolt, an arrow met its mark in the gunman's neck. He had protected it from Teru's jaws in vain.
The boy let out a string of colorful language. Though his own mind was reeling with what had just happened, Sheno's gentle instincts urged him to check on the woman first. He came to her side quickly, putting down his bow to lift her up. And if the evening's events had not already been extraordinary, his surprise was doubled when he recognized her.
Teru winced and licked Amaranthe Grimdottir's face. She moaned, but did not stir otherwise. He checked her head, noticing a large bump rising from the top of her cranium. At this point the boy, having seemingly recovered, was suddenly at the woman's side, pulling at her sleeve, calling her name desperately. The dog whined, and Sheno put a hand on Teru's head and praised him, his loyalty and courage. The owner was still trembling, and the dog, sensing his trepidation, licked the side of his jaw affectionately.
"She will be fine," Sheno told the boy, and rose to his feet while carrying her in his arms. His eyes passed over the two bodies, a grimace passed over his face. It was dark now; there was little he could do except give the proper respects to the dead in the morning.
The boy and the dog followed behind him, the former barraging him alternately with questions and curses when Sheno failed to answer those questions. In fact, the rest of the night carried on in that fashion. The Ilian boy, for Sheno was certain that he was Ilian, did a fine job of exploiting his impertinence and ingratitude while the Sacaen maintained a steady silence. To be honest, his grasp on the Ilian language was not good enough to follow the youngster's rapid, unfamiliar words.
He revived the fire and spoke not a word. Though he was curious about the nature of the two Ilians' relationship, he was content to wait, preferring to speak to her when she awoke rather than try to decipher the boy's crude Ilian. But while he was resolved to tolerate the unfavorable company, Teru was not so lenient and constantly growled, invoking Sheno's reprehension.
When he gave the boy the leftover rabbit, the Sacaens were rewarded with approximately five minutes of silence. Once the last morsel was swallowed however, the demands resumed. Even after the boy had cursed himself to exhaustion and fell asleep beside the equally strained Teru, there was no chance for a quiet evening of reading. The thoughts swirling in Sheno's mind prevented him from doing anything else but replay the night's events in his head.
When he finally decided to prepare for bed, he moved to put out the fire. Once he got to his feet, he noticed a gleam from the corner of his eye. There, Amaranthe's duffel bag was partially unzipped, and an object poked out of the opening. Sheno may have been an inquisitive person, but he was seldom intrusive. Yet, there was something so familiar about the sight, something that made him feel like what he was seeing was of utmost importance that he found himself squatting down to investigate further.
The corner of a bow was protruding from the bag. What more, it was the most magnificent Sacaen bow he had ever seen. The wood had a satin glow, like burnished bronze in the firelight. The handle was carved buffalo horn, and the leather lining the inside of the arc was decorated with traditional Sacaen design, each colored thread gleaming in perfect triangular arrangements. He almost reached out to touch it, but remembered himself.
Amaranthe stirred. She was perspiring from the side of her face, but the discomfort did not rouse her. It was a balmy night, even after sunset, and she was wearing that same jacket he had seen her wearing in Bulgar.
Leaving the bow alone, he gingerly he began to take the coat off of her, intending to cover her with a more comfortable horse blanket instead. When the dancing flames illuminated her skin, they revealed a bare shoulder. Not quite bare he realized, because there was an elaborate tattoo stretched across it. A dragon-wingless and hauntingly beautiful. When he felt that he had seen too much, he spread the blanket over her.
What a strange thing- that a true Sacaen would save the lives of two Ilians. But as bizarre as it was, it was unmerited, because this act of grace forced upon him was not of his own election. He never had blood on his hands like this- at this thought, he remembered well the expression of the man he had killed. But as he thought longer on it, he came to the conclusion that even if he had the choice, he would not have changed what had happened-what he had done.
As he stared up at dark expanse, he listened to the crackling of the fire and the singing insects. Then he thanked Father Sky and Mother Earth and closed his eyes.
- o -