tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 07

Tristan's Tale Pt. 07

byIncomingPornDuck©

Author's Note

Here you go! Part 7, fresh off the press. If Tristan's Tale were a trilogy, this would be the end of Book One. Distribute hype where appropriate.

Thank you to all who've written to me and supported the story. This one's for you.



All characters are over 18 years of age.

~

Three full days of sun, and the blind priests didn't predict nightfall for at least another two. An army swelters under the sun. You can't make an army march on three days of sunlight.

The High Jassan had done it anyway.

His exhausted horse panted as he crested the hill. Beside him, his General kept pace easily, resting comfortably in his saddle. Haffazh's horse had fared better, as the General was made of wind. He weighed less than the black robes that encased his body.

They didn't complain, they didn't eat, and they traveled easily: the Jhinn were truly made for servitude.

"Holiness?" asked Haffazh. The word was barely intelligible through his broken Jassanese.

"What is it?" said the High Jassan. He glanced behind him. The army spread across the flatlands, a mosaic of war. Behind them, the civilians trailed in a disorganized mass. Merchants, mercenaries, whores. Families with no place else to turn. Farmers that had left their barren fields behind.

The army was always in the business of buying and selling. Renting your wagon to the long supply line not only afforded you free passage to safe Eastern lands, but it paid well. Eastern silver was accepted everywhere. Not even the Aarturians would turn it down, and their two kingdoms were at war.

"They must rest," said his General. He, like all Jhinn, always sounded nervous to the High Jassan. Restless.

That was good. Soldiers should not be at ease in his presence, human or not.

"Thank you, Haffazh, for that startling display of intelligence."

They had rested. He'd given them ample time to sleep. But it hadn't been enough, apparently. Nobody ever woke up well rested when the sun was out all night. That was life on the Haerth; you grew up with a fickle sky. But three days? Apparently, this was too much for an army.

But they needed to catch up to the main bulk of his forces if they had any hope of making a proper siege. And they had to do it quickly. The longer the war dragged out, the more unstable his kingdom grew. But at least I'll be at the front. You would have liked that, Father, wouldn't you?

He called a halt, despite the urgency. His jester, just recently caught up, turned tail to relay the message to the drummers. The High Jassan frowned, watching him leave. He wore the typical jester's motley, a colorful coat of many patches. The style had been inspired by the High Jassan's favorite robe. He'd never found the damned thing. Apparently you can flay as many servants as you like and it won't guarantee a confession. Not a useful one, anyway. That had been a lesson well-learned. There were mysteries that couldn't be solved by the whip.

Mysteries like the dying Jhinn. Why had they started living longer as of his great-grandfather's reign? The Jhinn were exceptionally hard to kill in combat; beings of pure air, they only died when they wanted to. Jhinn were notoriously tight lipped on this subject, so it was no surprise that Haffazh couldn't explain why the deaths were longer in coming. "No death," he'd said. "Wind at wind."

Haffazh knew how to handle a sword; that much was evidenced from the fact that he was allowed to carry one. Actual metal, the edge as keen as a crescent moon. A rarity in the Haerth. Despite his swordsmanship, he was as stupid as the rest of the Jhinn. Obviously, something had changed around the time of his great-grandfather to give rise to such long lives. But Haffazh could not say why, only conveying a measure of nervousness about it. But then, the Jhinn were always nervous.

The Droll drummed the Rhythm of Rest. Their constant beat was only noticed when it changed. Normally you barely noticed it; it was your second pulse. Something you grew up with to tell the time. The Rhythm of Rest was as old as the Eastern Kingdoms, one you could recognize by the third strike of the drum. It played at the end of the work day, before curfew, and at funerals. It was a short song, but near the end it slowed down, until the last drumbeat sounded as tired as you felt.

The last note hung for a moment. Then, after a pause, drums repeated the message farther down the line. An army does not halt all at once. But over the next hour, the mosaic would gratefully settle to the ground.

An annoyance. He was at war, and the only thing his advisors preached was rest, more rest. His father hadn't pushed the troops so hard. And the troops, quite frankly, did not support the war.

He sighed. Neither did he. This was all because of the old man. He'd arrived from nowhere, started a war, and vanished. The Ghost, they called him. A stain on his rule. The Wraith he'd sent out had returned empty handed. Of course, that's not what he told the court. But they'd already fashioned their own stories to believe.

How had he done it? The High Jassan hadn't known his kingdom was five moons from collapse until it had only taken that long for the Ghost to foster enough infighting and paranoia that when the reports of Aarturian encroachment had begun flooding in, they had found their common enemy and rallied together. It was a display of unity among the fractured Eastern Kingdoms, one that was sure to be sung in songs for thousands of years.

The High Jassan knew better. He knew they'd all been played. Even he who was was the glue that bound the nobles together, the one who mediated all their squabbles, kept the peace amid the wartime tensions...even he had fallen for the old man's tricks, and confided him with information he had shared with no other living soul.

The tents flew up. It had taken practice, but the High Jassan's personal servants were starting to work together flawlessly. His tent was up before everyone else's, and music drifted softly out of it.

Servants dressed in royal blue approached to take his horse. He dismounted, and they swiftly got him out of his armor. They wore the thick white gloves of the servants who had to touch his body, gloves that had been specially blessed by the blind priests.

He stretched his stiff muscles, felt the sweat of the long shirt underneath, and held out his hand. When it was immediately filled with a wineskin, he allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. Efficiency. It was almost better than wine. He drank long, and began to walk, following the sound of the harp to his tent.

He parted the tent flap and entered inside. He threw the wineskin on the floor, and unhooked his belt.

June was naked. She cradled the harp between her legs, eyes downcast. Her hands faltered as he walked in, long fingers touching the delicate strings. He glimpsed her candlelit breasts through the gaps between the strands.

He paused. The thought of taking her appealed to him...but not tonight. As much as he'd hid it from himself, he was exhausted from the forced march. He threw himself onto the bed, face down in the pillows.

She brought the song to an early end, though she did it skillfully. He hadn't even noticed the transition. The room was suddenly quiet. He heard soft, tentative footsteps.

"Speak freely," he said, voice muffled into the pillow.

The footsteps stopped. Then, "How was the march, your Holiness?"

"Hard. I drove us hard, today."

"That is. . .good."

"I hope so. Ancients above, I hope so." He turned over, and regarded her. "Do you know what this war is about?"

She didn't move for a moment. Then she walked softly across the tent to light a candle. Slats of sunlight negotiated their way through the tent's entrance, but the candle flame was welcome in the near-dark. Its light licked her skin, hungry to illuminate. "No, your Holiness."

"Would you believe me if I told you that I didn't either? That I was as in the dark as you?"

She smiled demurely in the candlelight, placing the candle tray on a nightstand. From beneath, the light cast shadow on the tops of her large breasts. "No, your Holiness."

"I suppose you're right. Some things are known to me, yes." He shifted up. "I know, for instance, that you hate me."

She straightened her body, crossed her arms behind her back, and looked at him with unreadable dark eyes.

"I don't blame you," he said. "I would as well, if I were you." He swung his legs over the bed and picked up an envelope from a pile. "This is a letter from home. For you."

Her breath caught. "Holiness?"

"I know you assumed I'd just thrown your letters away. Let the army trample over them. But I didn't. I sent them back, and these are the responses. I haven't read them." He tossed the letters on the far side of the bed. "I'm sorry for not giving them to you sooner. I hadn't yet made up my mind."

She made as if to grab them, but paused. "Holiness, I-"

"Just take them. They're yours. And then take the night off, sleep in the servant's quarters." He laid back down amid the pillows. "I need to be alone tonight."

She bowed her head. "Thank you, Holiness. You are too kind to me."

He said nothing, so June gathered her clothing from a far side of the tent. She dressed, picked up the letters, and left swiftly before he could change his mind. As she parted the tent flap, he noticed a smear of stars in a black sky. Night had fallen. Of course.

The blind priests loved their predictions, and they were right more often than wrong. But they were wrong, sometimes. It was just enough accuracy to make plans around, not enough to stay attached to them. Well, the army would be relieved.

The High Jassan looked at the roof of his tent. He knew why they were fighting. It was, ostensibly, for honor. The Aarturians had attacked, unprovoked. Fields burned, border towns ransacked, lowly princes found dead in their rooms. The Eastern Kingdoms had bonded together in revenge, declaring with fervor that none could withstand the blow of a united Eastern front.

Of course, there was more to it. Everyone wanted more land, better trade, greater power. War made all of that possible. But this assault was on an unprecedented scale. Somehow, it had been floated that the war would end when the Aarturian Lodestone was in Jassanese hands. The idea had stuck, and the Stone had become a focal point for the war.

It had been the Ghost's doing. All of it. There could be no doubt.

There were so many reasons to start a war between the Eastern Kingdoms and Aartur. The Nyssian merchant lords would benefit from the chaos, but they didn't have the army to capitalize on it. Besides, hardly anybody made the trek through the Wastes anymore. It was unlikely that they had sent the Ghost.

There were a thousand reasons for a thousand people to benefit from the war. The fact that he didn't know who was responsible was as frustrating as the fact that nobody else believed him. There was a third party involved. This wasn't just between the two Northern Empires.

But who?

~

"So if I'm Sleeping Beauty, which one of you is Prince Charming?" I asked.

Emmit and Sailor stood above me, smiling. I was stuck in bed, and I was so over it. I'd been drifting in and out of consciousness for a long time, when I woke up in a sparsely decorated recovery room to the sight of my friends.

Emmit wore a thick wool beanie over his mop of brown hair, and the few curls that hung out of it gave his face a boyish appearance. Sailor had abandoned the vest for once, opting for a thick gray cable-knit sweater. They both wore mittens with a lotus flower embroidered on the backs in silvery-white thread. Mittens? Did Caer'Aton have winter?

Sailor gave Emmit an affectionate pat on the shoulder. "Between me and him," said Sailor. "I'm obviously the charming one." He made a face. "That doesn't mean I have to kiss you, does it?"

"You've got it wrong," said Emmit. "We're actually the dwarves, and Prince Charming is on her way. You're Dopey, by the way," he said, nudging Sailor.

"What's that make you, then? Gimli?"

I laughed so hard I started to wheeze. "God damn. I've missed you two. I've been counting the cupboards for fun."

"How many are there?" asked Emmit.

"Thirteen," I replied automatically. "Plus six drawers and four minimalistic paintings of bamboo." I gestured to where they hung on the wall like I was showing off a new rental.

"Wow."

"I wasn't awake often, but when I was, I was bored. So catch me up. How's life? How are-oh my god! Your necklaces!" Or rather, the lack thereof.

They both grinned like loons. "It's not as big an accomplishment as you might think," said Emmit.

"Are you kidding?" I exclaimed. "You got Set! That's fantastic!" That meant they could use the Art to its fullest potential: on other people.

"Almost everybody has it," said Sailor.

"Woah." That was huge. When you showed up in Caer'Aton you got handed a necklace that stopped you from using the Art—and protected you from anyone besides Shae. You were rank zero until you took it off, and not many did. The protection was too useful. "What changed?"

"Well, you ripped your necklace off in the middle of the final round of the Tournament." Sailor rolled his eyes. "Show off."

I shrugged as best I could in my seated posture. "I was going to lose if I didn't."

"Yeah, well, it looked pretty awesome."

"Awesome enough to inspire a few newer members of Lotus to follow suit before you even finished the fight."

I blinked. "Wow. They just ripped them off in the stands?"

"Yeah," said Emmit. "So, you know how you had a bit of a reputation before?"

I let myself flop onto the bed. "Shit."

"In addition to all the new Set people," said Sailor, "we also have a new Odieh."

I immediately sat up again. The suddenness made me dizzy. "What?" Please don't be Derrik, please don't be-

"Yeah, Naima. She's been overseeing your recovery."

Phew. "Wow. So we have a Master Healer, now? Funny. I've never really seen her around Moleh." This was a big change. The Odieh were the most powerful practitioners of the Art, second only to Rinzai and Shae. One Odieh was worth a hundred Set in a fight.

"She was working her ass off in Medical, that's why," said Sailor.

"What's her Chi?" I asked. You got a new one every time you ranked up, which I still had to do. It was high on my priority list of things to do, but I didn't want to think about it. I broke my Chi on Rinzai's, and I was afraid what would happen when I next tried to bring it out. It had a strange tendency to show up as a mental projection of myself that would talk to me. He was already a sarcastic prick, and since he and I were the same thing (and yet, not? Long story...) I did not want to see what broken-me looked like.

"Naima hasn't found it yet," said Sailor. "Apparently it's harder when you're an Odieh. There wasn't an announcement or anything, by the way. She just changed seats at meals all of a sudden."

"Classic." They always left things unexplained whenever possible. It was the most frustrating part of this place.

"The temperature's dropped, obviously," continued Emmit, waggling his mittens. "This is my first winter in Caer'Aton." His voice was strangely happy.

As if reading my thoughts, Sailor said, "Yeah, Emmit gets kind of stupid about winter. Don't ask."

"I intend to participate in a snowball fight," said Emmit, grinning.

"And freaking Rinzai walks around Moleh sometimes." Sailor looked at me eagerly. "Did you see his Chi? It melted Clay! It broke your Chi! And he totally helped you kill the Shadow, didn't he? Alice told us he drunkenly visited you. What did he say?"

I tried to remember—but the memory was hazy. "I was still recovering. But I think he just apologized for breaking my Chi, and then said something about me being his new apprentice," I said, mumbling out the last words so they were barely audible.

I laughed. "You should see your faces right now. Your eyes are as wide as dinner plates!"

"His apprentice?" asked Emmit, sputtering.

We talked about that for a little while, but ultimately I had no idea what to expect out of an apprenticeship with Rinzai. Neither did they. We speculated for a while until I bucked up and asked the question I didn't want to ask. "Am I in trouble?"

"For stealing vials from Medical and staying up for 5 days, then popping a potion and hibernating for three weeks?" Emmit rolled his eyes. "You ought to be. But you aren't, as far as I know."

My mouth hung open, slack-jawed. "Three weeks?" I repeated.

"Just about," said Sailor.

"Th-that's insane!" I sputtered. "I only stayed up five days! Jesus Christ, that isn't unheard of is it? People have stayed up that long. You know," I waved my hand vaguely, "people writing their dissertations, prisoners of war."

"Yeah, but they don't do it totally lucid, operating at a hundred percent while training nonstop," said Sailor. "You wore the shit out of your body, man."

"Oh, and Rodrigo and Vanessa also got Set," said Emmit. "That's why they're not here right now."

"What does them getting Set have to do with not being here? Are they in a special class, or something?"

"More like a special bed," said Sailor. Emmit smiled. "We're all on Christmas Break," he explained. "Not that it's Christmas or anything. But it's cold, and classes were put on hiatus for two weeks."

"Why?"

"Rinzai's orders, apparently. But when you ask him about it he gives nonsensical answers. I heard that once he even punched Jules."

"Not that we aren't all still practicing the Art," added Sailor. "Actually, it's even more intense without class. All the restrictions are off, so you end up fighting kind of all the time. Tensions are high between the Clans. But we're only a few days into the break, so you'll still catch most of it if you get your lazy ass out of bed!"

There was a knock at the door. "Or, maybe not," said Sailor.

"That's our cue," said Emmit. "Good luck, Tristan." Luck? With what? He winked at me, and the two left through the door, sliding right past Jade right as she opened it.

"Hel-oh!" she took a startled step back, letting them squeeze past her. They giggled like schoolboys running down the hall. "You didn't have to leave, you know!" she called out.

Sighing, she stepped in. "Boys." She took stock of my quarters. The bare walls, the sterile smell in the air. "This is a nice room, isn't it?"

"As far as places to live while you're in a coma, it's nice enough. Though I've been complaining for ages about the lack of a view." I gestured to her. "Guess they finally got around to fixing that."

She rolled her eyes and leaned against the counter, crossing her arms. "How are you feeling?"

Jade rocked the winter look. She wore a cream colored button coat, cinched at the waist with a slim black belt. Her hair fell in long strands of curling ember-orange beneath a knitted cap. A beautiful scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck, its pale, wintry colors so exceptionally blended that I assumed she'd made the scarf herself. I ached at the sight of her, that she was not already in my arms.

"Wait, are those boots?" I asked, surprised.

She looked down at them. They were plain. Snug looking. "I know. It's gotten cold enough for people to start wearing shoes. I asked you a question, you know."

Seeing her crossed arms, holding her distance leaning against the counter brought back a wave of memories. There was a knot between us, growing larger the longer we left it untouched. Jade and I had been riding the ridiculous high of a new relationship ever since we'd met. And then I'd gone and soured it by telling her I loved her. With no warning. In the middle of having sex.

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