Red War P.1
Message 5 on The Critic's Board8 weeks, 2 days until invasion.
It was a late Lockday morning when Laet woke and found his bed empty. It took him a minute to untangle himself from the mess they'd made of the sheets last night. Finally shoving himself free, he stepped out and fell back into a sit on the bed. Those firebreathers had turned out to be a bit much for him after all. Even now his head didn't feel particularly clear.
'Morning, lover,' said a sweetly tuneful voice from across the room. Laet looked up, focused and made out the small, curvy form of Bella. Her name meant beautiful and she was well named, he thought.
Standing in his simple mahogany chair, the hobbit was leaning over his desk to watch the mirror as she methodically lightened her face with that powder of hers. The black curls of her hair had already been teased into curling in sinuous little feathers across her neck and face. She was otherwise as naked as the day she was born and the sight made him forget his hangover.
'Bella...you going out?' he asked. Laet gathered a sheet around him and walked to her. She smiled slightly as his hand caressed her back.
'Mmmhmm,' she agreed, her lips pressed together as she blackened them. 'There's a meeting in the field near the Shrine of Phaedrus in an hour. You want to come?'
'Can't,' he sighed, scratching his head. 'I've got the Chaos War paper to work on for Recent History.' Bella grimaced and his face tightened. 'If I'm to be his apprentice, he has to know I take my studies seriously.'
'So seriously you don't have time for anything else,' Bella said sharply.
'We were up all night!' he retorted. 'The last month, I've been too busy with you to even see my friends. You don't see that?'
'I see you wasting your time on things that don't matter.' She shrugged into a light chemise and picked up her favorite corset. The black-dyed leather had been strangely worked with patterns of green lines, like ripples across a pond. Two leather knife sheathes were set directly under the cups and the hilts of Bella's two blades gleamed in the early morning sunlight as she began strapping herself into it.
'Bella,' he said and waited until he had her attention. 'I like you a lot. I like spending time with you. Your meetings are really...worth going to, they are. But I can't just keep studying doctrines of death there, followed by drinking and partying afterwards.'
'Oh yes. Because you're so into history and languages and boring things.' Her gorgeous face, with black hair and lips and bone-white skin suddenly reminded him of a memorial statute. As exquisite as it was cold.
'You told me you liked those things.' The growing pit in his stomach had nothing to do with too much drink the night before.
'I did,' she sighed. 'I do! But as a means to an end! Life leads to death, we've talked about this. What's the point of spending so much time studying living things if it all leads to death anyway? You know a lot. Focus on what's important.'
'The Zaalites you spend time with...they're fascinating to study and listen to but they're just one group. How do you even know what else is out there?'
'None of it means anything when we're all going to die,' Bella said coolly. Her skirts rustled about her as she pulled on the esterhazy circle cloak she wore, slipping her arms into the muslin half-shirt that she wore with it. Faint tinking sounds came from the miniscule silver bells sewn onto the hem of her skirts. 'Death means an end to poetry and pleasure, so those are things we should celebrate now while we can. But death also means an end to suffering and pain. That makes death...a beautiful gift. A precious jewel. To be admired from afar, like a wedding band, before being given one yourself.'
'I never thought I'd hear a hobbit say that,' Laen said, shaking his head. 'Not say it and really believe it. And you do believe it, don't you? These meetings, this isn't an interest...it's a passion. Have you already drank from the skull chalice then? Do you belong to Zaal?'
'What if I did?' she said, turning in a silver-grey and black cloud as the cloak and skirts billowed around her. Standing in his chair, they just about came to eye level.
'I'd say your Mother would cry.' He regretted saying that even as the words sprang from his mouth, but he wouldn't take them back. Even when the pale, pale blue-white of her eyes froze over. She simply stared at him for many moments.
'What do I care if she does?' Bella said at last. But the slowness in her words was telling. Laet failed to keep a smirk off his face and the ice in her eyes dissolved in a flash of rage. 'You know, I thought you were different. But you're just another elf after all, aren't you? Too busy looking at the flowers to see the wildfire coming your way. And Mother can...' she paused, the ugliness of what she wanted to say twisting in her mouth. In the end, the words fell away and smoother ones escaped. 'Mother can please herself and do whatever she wants. It's something she's good at.'
'Rykilde's a Guardian,' Laet hissed between clenched teeth. 'That's not something a selfish person just...does.'
'Oh, a patriot!' snickered Bella. Fingerless black leather gloves creaked as Bella pulled them on and made fists, shifting the dark-green patterns like a current. Her fingernails were painted black, with subtle green waves to match her outfit. Laet pulled his eyes away from her beauty with some effort.
'No, not a patriot. You know better, Bella, or you should.' Laet met her eyes until she looked away. 'But I watched them bleed for us when the Chaos War came to Edelmoed. I was just a child, but I remember seeing the Chaos Beasts howling for blood outside our walls. The Guardians saved us. You do not slap the face of people who put their lives on the line for you.'
'Whatever,' Bella said, seemingly indifferent. 'I'm tired of this. I'm tired of you. What was I thinking?'
'I...I don't know. You're not the girl I thought I knew.'
Laet thought of the wondrous grove in the elven section of Edelmoed. The beautiful Ladysfinger trees near the shrine to Ianthe. The crystal waters of the Lake of Tears. And in the midsts of such rural splendor, Bella shone like a black emerald before him. A hobbit, yet one who didn't fit in.
There was so much to learn and see and study in this world. At that moment, Laet decided he wanted no part of a woman who couldn't share that desire too. And at that moment, as if sensing the shift in his attitude, Bella's look turned hungry.
Still on the chair, she raised herself on tip-toes, seized his arms and dragged him into a deeply passionate kiss. Bella pressed against him, filling his arms with her softness and still her mouth met his. Her nails caught at his back as she leapt upon him and they didn't even make it to the bed.
The rapping at the door stirred the delicious languor and Bella yawned lazily. Laet glanced at the door and back at her, wariness in his eyes. Not friends he was expecting then, she decided. Probably a few from the meeting, wondering where she was and why she missed it.
Bella stretched as Laet rose to get the door. For all it angered him, the truth was that hadn't sealed herself to Zaal. She wasn't sure she was ready to give any deity that much power over her. After all, it was death that fascinated her, not the Lord who ruled it. She just liked to rile Laet. He was so pretty when he scowled.
She grinned, then giggled at the mental image.
Rolling to her knees, she swept up her discarded circle cloak and straightened all the other clothing that hadn't managed to quite get off. As such, she was far more presentable than Laet was when he opened the door to Mother.
'Bella...' Rykilde said at once, then pausing. Mother's face was a little dark and mostly unreadable from where she stood in the doorway. Bella grinned when she saw Laet blush so hard his chest and shoulders became crimson.
'I didn't think you knew where we lived,' Bella said politely. 'Well, Laet? Are you going to invite her in?'
'Yes, of course Lady Coborel. Please, come in.' Laet's Terrakarn was almost without accent and his bow would have graced the fairest court imaginable. Rolling her eyes was the only way Bella could handle it without pushing her limits.
'That's alright, Laet. You can call me Rykilde.' The hobbit smiled up at the embarrassed elf. 'My, you're a tall one. Bella must like her exercise.'
Laet looked like he might die from embarrassment. For her part, Bella was glad Mother was looking at him because she couldn't keep the scowl on her face. This wasn't how this was supposed to go. She'd run away, hadn't she? From a perfectly good match Mother had set up and then from home. Bella had realized that Mother wouldn't push her and she'd exploited that vulnerability. Mother was supposed to be mad.
Instead, she was snickering at her daughter's illicit interracial lover.
'...madam...Lady...Rykilde,' Laet choked out at last. 'You're welcome to my home.'
'Thank you, Laet. The Sage speaks very well of you. I think I've seen you at Polikis' services?'
'So nice to meet a fellow Ianthean.'
'Mother!' growled Bella, who was more than tired of the small talk. 'What do you want?'
'It's time to go, Bella.' Rykilde's smile slipped from her face. 'You're old enough to join one of the adventuring associations.'
'I am,' Bella said thoughtfully. The last year had slipped by so fast, between her rebellions at home, Mother introducing her to Suturiel, and her running away from home. But she was old enough at last to be trained. To get the professional training she'd always wanted.
'It's time you did,' Mother continued. 'You don't have the spark for magic, we know that. I think I know which you'll choose, though.'
'Yes I do.' Bella paused, reluctant to speak further. At last she forced herself. 'Could I go and get my things from my room?'
'Of course, Bella.' Rykilde smiled at her, an expression that sent alarms through Bella. She had learned as a child that need made slaves of people. That Mother knew she wanted her things gave Mother power over her. Of course she was smiling. She had something her daughter wanted.
'Can we go?' Bella said, doing her best not to growl.
'Yes. Laet, I look forward to seeing you at services tomorrow.' Rykilde's smiling face managed a shining smile out of her elven lover and she rolled her eyes again when he bowed low.
'May Ianthe bless your family and may you always be welcome to my home.' Laet's words had the sound of ritual, one Bella had never bothered to learn. 'Bella,' he said, walking to her and squeezing her arm affectionately. 'I hope I'll see you later?'
'Maybe,' Bella said, and she affected a wide grin. 'I'll stop in at Edelmoed whenever I'm in the area.'
'Good luck to you, Bella. I'm going to miss you.'
How touching. Bella managed a small amount of regret that she wasn't going to miss him at all. Laet had been fun, both interesting and passionate, but he was an elf. And she had no intention of getting serious about him.
Instead, she gave him a serious kiss, putting into it all the passion they'd shared since they'd met. And while he was still breathless from that, she gave him an affectionate squeeze (not on the arm), and walked out the door after Mother.
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17:08, Vaigday, Praxi 5, 165 AD.