Dilandau raised his arms, shoving his way through a cluster of off-duty guards chattering in the antechamber. Dawn had broken, its golden light stinging his tired eyes as he strode past them. Lazy louts, he thought, squaring his shoulders. They're lucky I don't have the time to deal with them. Maybe later.
This part of the tower was built to allow as much sunlight through as possible, and to another might have seemed cheerful. To Dilandau however, the rows of columns, mirrors, gardens and circular levels on the outside of Dornkirk's tower were too bright during the day and painful to his sensitive eyes. Finding himself squinting, he was relieved to step inside the tower proper where the light was more manageable. Folken stood at the base of the stairs, waiting as he always did on these occasions.
"Up so early after traipsing about with the Mystic Moon arrival all night?" he jeered at Folken, brushing past him to take the lead up the first of several sets of winding stairs. "Why isn't she here?" he wondered aloud, then paused. Turning back to glare down at him, he snapped, "You presented her to Dornkirk without me?"
"No," he replied. "The Emperor requested our presence alone."
Good, he continued to himself. I don't want you stealing my glory when all you did was sit in your room and listen to your cats sing while I was out in the forest getting eaten by bugs all night. Though he only asked, "We're invited alone? Is this about the White Dragon?"
"I know as much as you," Folken responded, continuing to climb the steps.
"You're lying. You always know more than what you tell me."
"It is my office to know things."
Though fit, both found themselves needing to take a moment at the top of the stairs to catch their breath, a task made easy by the balcony providing fresh air. Looking away to hide his flushing from exertion, he lifted his arms as if stretching out of boredom. Confident in his display of superiority, Dilandau grabbed the brass handle to the massive oaken door, pulling it open with a loud creak. Light spilled into a great circular room, in the centre of which stood a tree of screens, the largest turning on with a buzz. At the sight of the ancient man's blurry image on screen, he rushed to the back of the room and dropped to one knee.
"Folken," croaked Dornkirk. "My future is changing. Our Ideal Future is coming back into view." As the Emperor spoke, Dilandau held his breath a moment, chancing a glance up at the screen. The old man's image shuddered, static creeping into the image. "I have seen the Black Dragon surrounded by swords, Folken," he rasped. "Dragon-killing swords stand before it!"
"Yes, Emperor. It will be done," Folken replied. He hesitated for a second before adding, "The Black Dragon will be placed with the Dragonslayers immediately."
Dilandau, still on his knees, could not help but ball his free hand into a fist, the effort of staying silent making him shake with indignant fury. It took all his nerve not to sputter in protest, his stomach turning as if he had swallowed a ball of ice. With my Slayers? he raged. I am not a babysitter! I can't be expected to just take this on. I have things to do! A White Dragon to kill!
"I have seen..." murmured the Emperor, trailing off. "Its bones beneath rock... Go now. Go now!" The screen died. Dilandau got to his feet, refusing to meet Folken's gaze and staring at the sliver of light at the bottom of the door instead.
"I can't believe this," he snarled.
"It is Emperor Dornkirk's wish."
"Do you think I'm stupid? I heard. I will do as the Emperor commands, but I don't have to like it!" His voice rose almost to a shriek. Folken's only response was to fold his arms inside his cloak and wait, as if knowing more words were on the way. You smug bastard, one day I'm going to rip out your eyeballs! Glowering, he turned on his heel and stormed to the door, wrenching it open.
"She is in -"
"I know where she is!" he barked, wheeling back around.
"- The residential park at the moment. I had her escorted there, as it is nearby and I had imagined that our business here would be concluded shortly."
"You knew about this, didn't you? You knew I was going to get saddled with this!"
"It is my office to know things," he replied, the faintest note of amusement in his voice making Dilandau grind his teeth as he continued, conceding, "I had prepared for several possibilities, however."
Electing not to reply he started down the long, winding stairs, worries forming with each step. Surrounded by swords...? If she's the object of a prophesy she'll surely be worth the risk... But untrained hands will wreck an Alseides in the blink of an eye. I can't just take her out with us. She'll get us all killed. Still... Before long the door leading outside loomed before him and he paused, allowing himself a moment to prepare for the blazing sunlight outside. If the Emperor wants this to happen, then I will make it happen.
Calling the small green field on the outskirts of the tower's gardens a 'park' was such an exaggeration that years ago when he had first heard it referred to as such, he thought it was a joke. A copse of about five scraggly trees huddled near a mound of planted violets. Behind these lay a large rock, protecting the sad excuse for a garden from the ripping wind, always cold at such high altitudes. Today however the breezes were gentle, and even though he needed to squint to make out the forms on one of the only three benches, he could identify the silhouettes of the newcomer and one of his men, their backs to him. Their voices carried in such a small space.
"- so few in this part of the city because only the military and the most loyal citizens are allowed to live this close to the Emperor. It's a privilege to live here," Gatti was explaining, standing next to the bench and looking down, towards the dark city sprawling out before them. He looked relaxed, his guard down. A mistake, Dilandau thought to himself as he drew closer. The woman sat on the far end of the bench, one leg crossed over the other, clutching some kind of hooded garment close to her body. Her pants - Pants! What kind of lady wears pants? - were of a weird cut he had never seen before, much less on a woman, and they had rips in the legs. How improper. Slipping the hood off her head, that short-cropped stripe of hair was visible. Barbaric. She must have caught sight of him somehow for she turned to face him, falling silent. Gatti snapped to attention, throwing a smart salute that he ignored. A hard look in her eyes told him that she was sizing him up as well. Good. Boorish as you are, you don't look like you'll snap in half at the slightest touch though, so I'll give you that.
"Gatti, we are returning to the Barracks," he announced. Gatti's hesitation would be imperceptible to anyone else, and Dilandau shot him a venomous look. "Now."
"At once, Sir," he muttered, already at his side. "The Stratego ordered me to escort Brielle, I cannot lea-"
"I said, we are returning to the Barracks. Don't make me repeat myself. I hate repeating myself." Deciding to be polite, he quelled the instinct to whack Gatti across the face for his insolence.
"Good morning," she said, picking herself up off the bench. Detecting a note of sarcasm in her voice, he glowered at her as he replied,
"And to you."
Brielle and Gatti's being quiet on the transport back to the barracks was at first a welcome relief,but as they drew closer, anxiety began twisting in his stomach once again. Leaning forward on his knees, he studied her for a moment as she looked out the window, his conviction wavering. I still can't believe this. Can she even be trusted? I'm supposed to just give her a sword and I barely know her name! It's offensive. It's stupid. 'Black Dragon' or not, my men are good as they are. Giving an audible sigh he straightened up, crossing his arms and joining her in watching the dank, stony scenery go by. It's no use complaining, is it? She's one of mine, now. The Emperor always knows something we don't.
Shifting his focus to Gatti, the memory of his arrival just last year came to mind. Out of the group, he was the only one who could hold a sword properly, and not even well at that. He turned out alright, he thought even as their gazes met and he narrowed his eyes, making him look away. Still, the thought of his rapid improvement was comforting. I won't have much time to get her up and running with the rest of them, though. That pissant Van could break cover at any minute. She'd better start tomorrow, doing drills.
"Have you had some bad news?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts. It took a moment to register that the question was being directed at him. "I'm just making conversation," she explained, crossing her legs. "You look like someone kicked your dog."
"Do you have any experience in combat?" he asked, ignoring her inquiry.
"That's... an odd question. I did some karate when I was a kid, and I've had a couple scraps on the schoolyard I guess, but nothing I'd call combat experience," she said with nervous laughter before asking, "why?"
"Mmm." He grunted in response.
"Uh, okay... Right, so... Seeing as I guess I live here, now, and I seem to be involved in whatever's going on, I thought maybe I should get to know-"
"You thought what, that we could all just hold hands and be friends?" he snapped. Brielle looked taken aback as he continued, "we're at war, in case Gatti here hasn't done a good enough job explaining that to you already."
"I was going to say, 'what the situation is,' before you interrupted, but yeah, you know, keep yelling at me."
"You petulant little -"
"Brat?" She hissed, finished his sentence for him, eyes flashing. "Yeah, don't worry," she continued, "we at least seem to think alike." Her shoulders sank as the anger left her - or perhaps she just muzzled it. Lifting her hand in a signal of concession she sighed, "I don't want to fight you. I just want to know what's going on. We don't have to be friends. In fact, it would be great if we could just keep to ourselves in future as much as we can."
"Hmph," he grunted. "We'll see."
"I haven't eaten since I got here. Will there be some kind of food?"
"That's not my concern," was his terse reply. Wait. Yes it is. "I'll... you'll get something."
"... Thank you." She looked suspicious.
The carriage screeched along the rails. Gloom settled in, and realising now he was able to stop squinting, relief washed over him at the understanding that they were now underground again. At the first tremors of the car coming to a stop in the dark barracks station, he was already on his feet. Finally.
All three sets of footfalls echoing in the long, torch-lit hall, he paused in front of the Armoury, causing Gatti to nearly step into him. Shooting him a glare over his pauldron he ordered, "Go in there and get her a uniform."
"S-Sir!" Jumping to obey, Gatti then slipped past him into the room, disappearing into the many rows of racks and stacked equipment.
"I'll need her for sizing, Sir!" he called from somewhere amongst the shuffling of leather and clink of metal against metal.
"Go," he said with the slightest nod towards the doorway. Snapping out of some kind of reverie, she protested,
"A uniform? You can't be serious - I'm not a soldier. I don't need one."
"You are now, and you do," he answered, refusing to deign to look at her.
"What? No. This is ridiculous, I don't know how to fight!"
"You will learn," he snarled, "or you will die trying. Get in there and get fitted before you make me angry. Stop complaining. I don't have time for it."
"Putting me in the army? Holy hell, who the fuck is in charge here?" she muttered, moving to step past him. His arm shot up, pinning her shoulder against the doorjamb before she had the time to blink. The urge to slap her felt almost overpowering, gnawing at him, but his fingers clamped down instead.
"I am in charge, and you'll refer to me as 'Commander' or 'Sir,'" he snapped, his eyes boring into hers. When her own narrowed in response, refusing to quail under his gaze, rage welled up inside his gut.
"Let go of me."
"Gatti, get over here," he growled.
Seeing her falter, fear peeking through the cracks in her resolve, a smile curled at the corners of his lips. I know just how to get to you. As Gatti approached, he let go of her shoulder, striking him across the face with an open hand instead. The crack of his leather-clad palm against flesh was satisfying as ever, and the stifled whimper it elicited music to his ears. She gasped.
"Now get in there and get fitted."
"Fuck you, you-"
Starting towards Gatti a second time, she changed her curse mid-word as he raised his arm.
"Stop!" she cried. He smirked.
"Okay, okay," she said, choking on the words, holding her hands up. "Okay, please don't hit him, I'll do what you say. I'm going."
"'I'm going,' what?" he asked, though it was more statement than question.
"Sir," she replied, and swallowed. "I'll go get fitted, Sir."
"That's better," he replied, his voice dripping with condescending sweetness as he looked on. She stared at Gatti's reddening cheek, whispering something apologetic-sounding to him as they moved to the pile of armour parts. Much better.