Uniting the Kingdoms (Tinder and Rai'Athar)

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  1. The noon sun had risen to its height in the sky as the carriage made its way along the path. Several members of the Titan Guard surrounded the carriage in a protective formation with extra guards in front and behind followed by group of senior magi from the College. Erin sat by window on right with a book in hand, doing her best to relax as a lady-in-waiting fussed over her clothing. It was the seventh day of their journey from the capital city of Natel to Castle Arx. They’d taken a ship down the coast and from there had chosen to travel by coach. Erin was beginning to grow tired of sitting in these confined spaces for hours on end, though the break from her usual duties was welcomed. This journey had provided her with ample to time to read at her leisure as opposed to rushing around trying to keep the peace between the nobles and see to the needs of the commoners. Had it not been for their destination and her nerves which kept her on edge, she would have almost considered this trip a vacation.

    “My lady,” Rukin Lenox said from his place across from her, “We’ll be arriving presently. I suggest you prepare yourself.” The man looked young for his years. He was still sporting reddish brown hair with only a few wisps of grey appearing at his temples. His figure had seen leaner days, but he was still a strong man. Warm brown eyes lit up his face, masking the clever individual that lay beneath. When men met him for the time, most assumed he was just an overgrown child with well-connected parents. It wasn’t until they’d been speaking to him for a while that they would realize he’d maneuvered them right where he wished them to be.

    Erin laid down her book and sighed, “We’re there already?”

    Rukin smirked, “I remember a different response the first time I made this trip with you. I believe the only thing you said for the last two days of the trip was ‘Are we there yet?’”

    Erin returned his smile despite the tension she felt. She always felt a little jittery before meeting with foreign dignitaries, fearing she wouldn’t be able to convince them to take her seriously because of her age. It was getting easy as she grew, but even now it felt like a battle with each new meeting. Today was different though. This was no simply trade negotiation. She would have welcomed a trade negotiation at the moment; at least then she knew what to expect.

    This meeting should have been simple. Arx had been allies with Natel for years and she’d even met with representatives in the past though only a few times. There were relatively few issues to work out and she had little time for social calls. There was so much riding on this visit though, more than any mere commerce deal. And the only thing she had to do was act the part of a queen. No enemies to win over, no deal to broker, nothing more than honoring a contract that had been drawn up when she was still a baby.

    “Your majesty,” the woman next to her gentle touch her arm, bringing her back to the present, “I apologize, but could you look to the left?”

    Erin complied, realized she’d zoned out for several minutes there. Rukin smiled sympathetically, “There’s no need to be nervous, my lady. These proceedings are mere formalities. Everything had been taken care of ahead of time. All that is needed of you is to accept the young lord’s gifts. Simple as that.”

    “This whole affair is ridiculous,” Raph Drummond grumbled. The magus sat next to Rukin, his rusty brown hair and dull brown eyes making him look twice as old as the eternally young man next to him. He sported a beard as well, handsomely trimmed, but it added years onto his lined face. Despite it all, Raph was not an ugly man. Many of the older women at court spent hours chattering about which lady would be lucky enough to claim him as a lover. His cold, no nonsense demeanor only seemed to encourage their antics.

    Rukin smiled at the man, “Your opinion has been dually noted, Arcane Advisor, and my advice is that you lighten up. We’ve known this day was coming for years now. It was only a matter of when.”

    Raph continued to frown, crossing his arms, “That may be so, but I still don’t see the purpose of all of this nonsense. It’s a waste of time. The nobility just want another reason to throw their coin around to impress one another.”

    “You underestimate the important of events such as these, Drummond,” Rukin replied, fixing his attention back on Erin, “Her majesty understands that this event is the perfect breeding ground for good relations with our allies. If you can impress them at a formal gathering, the next time they come to you with a complaint or other agenda, they’ll remember you more kindly and make the negotiations smoother.”

    “Do you ever think about anything other than playing other people, Lenox?” Raph asked.

    Erin glanced over at the two men, “That’s enough bickering, there’ll be more than enough time for that when we’re in private. I need you both to be focused during this ceremony.”

    “Of course, my lady,” Rukin agreed, settling back as though nothing had happened while Raph looked out the window of the carriage. The two tended to get under each other’s skin, especially in close quarters. They would never expose such dissent in public, but a carriage was hardly public. Erin supposed it was simply their different personalities that did it. Rukin was a wonderful negotiator and one of the friendliest men she knew, but he could also be a little childish at times. Raph kept his focus on his work and interacted with others a little as possible, quickly reminding anyone who believed they deserved his time that he was there to assist his queen, not entertain the nobility.

    Erin focused her eyes on the floor for a moment as the servant next to her asked her to look down. She was fixing her pale blonde hair to be sure it looked perfect for the upcoming meeting. It had been left down for the day, adored with a simple silver diadem with a single opal that hung from the front. The woman, Sarah by name, ran a brush through it once more to keep any knots from forming. Erin wished she stop all the fussing. It only made her more nervous the more the woman pulled at her. Sarah moved from her hair to her dress again, straightening the wine red material to keep it from wrinkling. The bodice wad fitted, as was the style in Natel at the time, with wide sleeves and a modest neckline that extended out to show her shoulders. It had been designed for this day to both enhance her feminine qualities and her self-confidence.

    There was another call from the front of the carriage to announce that they were nearly there. Erin just about cursed out loud, though he face was a mask of peace. Her hands gripped the book in her hands tighter as she worked to calm herself down.

    Rukin seemed to notice again as he sat forward, confidence beaming from his face, “Nothing will go wrong, my lady. Just have a little faith in yourself.”

    “I know, Rukin,” Erin replied, “It’s only foolish nerves. There’s no need to worry about me.”

    Raph glanced her way for a moment before returning to his window gazing. Erin knew it was foolish to worry this much. She needed to be calm now, to think clearly. Personal fears had begun to crop up in her mind despite her best efforts to quiet them. She hadn’t seen Lloyd in years after all and now all of this was happening. This agreement was to help Natel and that had to be her primary focus, but there was a small part of her that wished for something more. Something she didn’t dare give voice to. She’d thought those hopes had died years ago, but now that everything was happening things seemed different.

    Sarah took the book from Erin’s hands, pulling her from her thoughts once more. Today wasn’t about her, though she would be at the center of the attention. She had to represent Natel and cast her own thoughts aside. When all this was over, she could think of herself but not until this deal was secure for Natel. Her hands came together in her lap as she worked away her nerves, finding her confidence by letting go of herself. She didn’t matter, not right now.
    #1 Tinder, Jun 11, 2015
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 1, 2016
  2. Limb-to-limb; blade-to-blade, they were nearly identical. It was the culmination of thousands upon thousands of hours of sparring. Through this deadly dance, they had come to know each other better than brother and sister, more intimately than lovers; they were complementary halves of a single warrior. Ranis powerfully drove her prop sword in a lunging attack towards Lloyd's midsection. “You look distracted!” She yelled. The tip of the wooden blade had glazed past his lower midsection. He barely sidestepped the heavy thrust. The strike would have knocked the wind clear out of him and left a nasty bruise if he hadn't moved in time. It was a well known fact that a trained warrior could easily kill or severely cripple an individual with just a prop sword with a single, well placed blow.

    Ranis was Lloyd's older stepsister. She was a hazel eyed young woman with long dark brown hair and a light brown skinned athletic physique that had a fair amount of muscle. Her long dark brown hair was currently held in a low pony tail by a gray leather hair tie with white stitching. She was beautiful and she knew it but it was a trait she seldom used to her advantage. She was a warrior through and through, lauding frequently in the fact that she was taller than Lloyd by half an inch.

    “There's nothing about you that I find distracting, Ranis” retorted Lloyd nonchalantly, though he was breathing as heavy as she was and sweating just as much as her it not more, but he had noticed that Rains was dressed differently than usual for their sparring sessions. It was customary for a female warrior to wrap her chest firmly to avoid tearing blood vessels and ligaments within with the vigorous movement that were typical of armed and unarmed combat, but not today. The salacious display under Ranis' training garb had little if any effect on Lloyd however. He always thought of her as a man or older brother, and had recently told her this but she didn't take it as well as he had expected. An errant miscalculation on his part. Not to mention, they often bathed together when they were children so there was really nothing that the other felt needed hiding that hadn't already been seen.

    “You wish,” she said after rebuffing several of Lloyd's sweeping strikes, “But I still can't believe my little brother is getting engaged. Do you even know how to please a women?”
    “More than you would know, sister,” Lloyd replied, advancing in on his sister with quick steps in an arcing path to her right side. Ranis shuffled her feet to keep herself squared with her attacker. When Lloyd came into striking range, she suddenly dropped her fighting stance. Lloyd's training sword stopped at the edge of her skull. Any closer and it might have cracked her forehead.

    “Why did you stop?” He lowered his weapon then closed the short distance between them in a single step. Ranis grabbed his wrist, “Run away with me, Lloyd. We can go somewhere far away, away from the insanity that is Arx. You know full well that my mother is only using you for her own ends. She doesn't care for you like I do.”
    Lloyd didn't speak straightaway. He needed time to take in the nonsensicality of Ranis' words. “Even so, do you take me for a coward, Ranis? You seriously cannot expect me to abandon Arx. We both know what will happen if I did that.”
    “But I need you, Lloyd. I... I love you.”
    “I don't love you,” Lloyd said indifferently, averting his gaze from Ranis'.
    “I don't love you,” Ranis repeated resignedly. It wasn't the first time Lloyd has said this to her. This behavior started when his father and their younger brother died. Apparently something in him had died too.

    Quickly taking advantage of Lloyd's lowered guard, Ranis yanked his arm forward --the one she had been holding at the wrist-- and hit him square in the chest with the butt of the prop sword in her other hand. Lloyd buckled over as the air violently rushed out of his lungs. Ranis threw her sword down, following up with a clinch and delivered a knee to his jowl. He stumbled back, trying to regain posture and keep himself from falling but before he could regain any semblance of a decent stance, Ranis shoulder checked him into the wall, hard, knocking the wind out him again. Then she did something entirely unexpected. She drew a small hidden dagger from her pants and placed it at Lloyd's neck. He could feel the blade letting a small trickle of blood down his neck. As well, he could smell the blood from a small cut on the left side of his lower lip that was gifted to him via Ranis' knee.
    “Don't you EVER say that again!” She protested. Lloyd, still a little dazed didn't say anything. He was barely able to stand as he tried to breath deeply to return the air to his lungs. The blade at his neck would have slipped in deeper were it not for Ranis' other hand holding him up by the scruff of his hair. “I...” Lloyd began, but Ranis stopped him, placing her lips onto his and closed her eyes. It was their first real kiss, nothing at all like the kisses they used give each other as children. As it would happen, fate would not let this moment last. A servant walked in the instant their lips touched. Ranis quickly pulled away from Lloyd, dropping the dagger from his neck before turning to face the guard. Lloyd almost immediately fell back against the wall with his hands at his sides.

    The Inika guard noted a hint of red in Ranis' tanned visage. “Why have you interrupted us!?” Ranis voice clearly foretold her displeasure. The servant bowed his head especially low, “My deepest apologies, Lady Ranis. But the Natelian Convoy is nearing arrival. Lady Andiama ordered me here to retrieve Lloyd for the final preparations,”
    “Be gone!” Ranis ordered. “I will bring my little brother to mother, shortly.”
    “Yes, my Lady.” The guard turned around and left Ranis' personal training quarters. When Ranis could no longer hear his footprints, she turned around to a now stern-faced Lloyd who was still sitting with his back leaning against the wall. His left hand was held over the small cut on his neck. “Why are you like this?” Ranis whimpered.
    “I... need you, Ranis” is all Lloyd could muster before tears welled up in his downcast eyes. “If I lost you, I don't know what I would do.” The anguish didn't show in Lloyd's voice or his kinesics, but the steadfast flow of tears that dripped from his chin told a different story. Ranis knelt down to wipe her brother's tears away. She began to softly stroked her fingers through the silvery hair on his head. “It's okay, Lloyd” she reassuringly said, “I promise I'll never leave you. Now lets get you dolled up and looking somewhat presentable for that unworthy Natelian trollop.”

    A few hours later.

    Some cultures had dress clothes but Arxians had functional 'dress armor' that was worn on specific occasions e.g., weddings, duels, funerals, etc. Not only that, it was customary to carry weapons at all times even at formal events. For this event, Lloyd was wearing exquisitely crafted full plate armor that was fitted to perfection. The armor was crafted just for this occasion. He could feel the encumbrance of it's weight but that was all. It's coloration was predominantly a lackluster dark navy blue with golden accents and was accompanied by a masquerade ball mask with a similar color scheme. Anchored to the right side of the mask's hidden band --hidden under Lloyd's silver locks-- and beside the ear was a large golden, roughly wing shaped ornament. Behind him trailed a cape of a weathered coral color. He definitely looked the part of a knight minus the shiny armor. Ranis wore something similar except it had a much shorter cape and her mask had two wings, one on either side of her head. Both he and Ranis carried a rich vanilla scented aroma. The two rode down from Castle Arx alone. Lloyd was riding a solid black horse and Ranis was on a white one. The horses' bridles matched the color scheme of their riders' armor. Their path from the Castle Arx to the city gates was lined by Arxian Royal Guards in gold, white and silver armor regalia. Each guard carried a shield and spear that carried the banner of the royal family. A few steps behind the guards were the people of the city in which Castle Arx resided. The people were eager to catch a glimpse of their young Lord who seldom appeared in public. Together, Lloyd and Ranis leisurely rode to the city gates to wait for the approaching Natelian convoy.

    Several mounted regiments of Arxian Guards could be seen escorting the Natelians. They kept a half-league's distance from them for good measure and finally withdrew when the Natelians arrived at the gates to the city. It was now or never. Lloyd dismounted his black stallion, handing the reins to his horse to Ranis, and began to casually proceed towards Erin's carriage. Andiama forbade him to carry a sword or any other weapon that could visibly be seen. This was done to avoid any foreseeable trouble. As for Ranis, she was permitted to carry a weapon at her side --a curved single edged blade that was currently sheathed. The silver haired lord assumed the one in charge of the Natelian soldiers had given a non-verbal command signal granted that they cleared a path for him as he approached the carriage. Arxian custom dictated that the Lord carry his lady-in-waiting to the Castle in his arms. Not an easy task, but if it could be completed, good omens were to be expected. Denying the offer would be a great way to start off on the wrong foot, yet still permissible. Any gifts would be exchanged after the engagement ceremony was completed.

    The side door to the carriage slowly opened, revealing the faces of those within to Lloyd. One face stood out from the rest, he adamantly gazed into the green eyes of the tanned visage that could belong to none other than the Princess of Natel. “I am Lloyd Aileron; son of the late Mathias Aileron and the late Talim Vordon; stepson to Andiama Inika; stepbrother to Ranis Inika; half-brother to the late Janus Aileron; Lord of Arx” he announced, “If you will allow it, I will carry the lady to the castle.” That came out easier than Lloyd had expected. The bout with Ranis appeared to have calmed his nerves, but it did the exact opposite for his stepmother, Andiama. Andiama, by chance, had some plants on hand with medicinal properties which reduced the swelling in Lloyd's lip. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do to hide the cut there because Lloyd wiped away and refused to wear the cosmetic paint after Ranis laughingly expressed that it made him look like a little girl.
    #2 Rai'Athar, Jun 16, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2015
  3. The carriage came to a stop at the city gates, signaling the beginning of the events. Rukin had briefed her on the ceremonies before they’d come, going over the customs in detail so that she would know how to respond when the time came. Erin liked to know what to expect going into situations like this. As she had discovered earlier in her time as queen, there were few things worse than being caught unawares at a formal event. She took a few deep breaths as they waited for the carriage door to open, steadying herself for what was to come. Rukin smiled as he sat back, completely at ease with the situation, “Test number one. You’ll do fine, my lady.”

    Raph merely grunted his disapproval. He had made his opinion on this tradition quite clear when he’d heard about it. “It leaves the lady too vulnerable,” he’d said as he tried to convince them to refuse. There was no one to keep her safe from an assassination attempt except the prince and other Arxian guards. It was a gesture of trust, one made even clearer by her position as sole heir of the throne. By agreeing this situation, they were placing their future in the Arxian lord’s hands. While Erin had faith in their longtime allies, Raph was more cautious.

    Erin wished she could say assassination attempts were what had her stomach in knots. Her face and outer appearance were that of complete peace and grace as was befitting a queen, but her heart was beating hard and fast. She hadn’t seen Lloyd since they were children and now the first time they saw each other again, she would be carried in his arms throughout the city. Some would have thought it romantic, Erin found it ridiculous. She ought to be able to stand on her own next to him, to prove she was just as capable as he was. It was a matter of principle. If she looked weak, so did Natel. Or so she kept telling herself. Weakness doesn’t impress warriors, vain fears whispered in the back of her mind. She banished the thoughts and focused on setting her personal feelings aside. This was ceremony, nothing more. Rukin had explained it as demonstrating the trust between their countries. It reflected nothing about her personally.

    The door to the carriage swung open, the motion causing her racing heart to miss a beat. The face on the other side was one she recognized though it had been over a decade since she’d seen him. His eyes met hers as he introduced himself. They were the same shade of red that she remembered, but there was something different about them. Time had changed them both into very different people and Erin knew it showed, for her even more so due to the runes running all along her body. They marked her as an animus and as the rightful heir to the Natelian throne. She bore the markings proudly, but for a brief moment she wondered if the people here would think they looked strange.

    She smiled pleasantly while Lloyd spoke, the same expression she used whenever she greeted foreign dignitaries. Politics were a game she was well-versed in. For now all she had to do was play along. “I accept your offer with honor, my lord,” she replied, her voice cool and confident as she rose to exit the carriage.

    So far so good, she thought to herself. Her heart was still beating fast enough to make her feel as though she’d been running for her life, but at least she appeared to be calm. Time at court had taught her how to hide her emotions in order to operate among the nobility more effectively. It seemed those skills were coming in handy now. She needed to be confident, not a bundle of nerves giggling like a little girl. She could only pray that he wouldn’t be able to feel her racing heart through the armor he wore. Quite impressive armor she had to admit; it flattered his features perfectly. It looked a little heavy however. Erin was grateful the material of the dress she wore was light. It seemed Rukin had planned for this when he commissioned its creation.
  4. The young Arxian Lord and the Natelian princess had always been on a first name basis when they were children so to be called a Lord by his childhood nemesis felt awkward to say the least. A sarcastic chuckle would have escaped the lips of anyone else in their circumstances, yet in their countenances, Erin appeared indifferent to surrendering herself into Lloyd's arms when she had stepped to the foot of the carriage and he seemed indifferent to carrying her.

    Guardedly, Lloyd had placed one arm behind her knees. The next motion required Erin to allow herself to fall into Lloyd's arms from her elevated position on the carriage step. There was an element of trust involved in this movement. Erin had to trust that Lloyd would catch her, that he would not let her fall. If she fell it would be most embarrassing for both of them, but with no great difficulty, Lloyd gently braced Erin's landing into his arms. His left arm rested under her back and his right arm was under her knees. He mentally noted that Erin was heavier than she used to be for the obvious reason that she grew up. She did feel light in his arms, and could probably stand to gain a few more pounds. As Lloyd turned around with Erin in his arms, he subtly dinged her head off the carriage door. In all likelihood, it would hurt her sense of self more than it would hurt her physically. “Sorry Erin-I mean, my apologies m'Lady” he whispered, a rose colored hue pervading his expression, “You are bigger than when I last remembered.” Lloyd didn't know why he said that. He wasn't supposed to say anything. Now he wanted to hide his face but his hands were preoccupied with carrying her. This was a feeling he had seldom experienced, however, the chink in his emotional armor mended quickly.

    Lloyd steadily began to walk the long walk to the castle, leading the procession at a fare pace. There was absolute quiet in the streets of Arx, not even the birds were chirping. Ranis rode a little behind him and to his left. The training earlier today with her was having negative effects on his constitution as they neared the halfway mark of their journey together. Lloyd did well to hide it, but he was exhausted, and there was no perspiration on him. This was a bad sign. If his face could get any paler, someone would have noticed his current state. They were supposed to take it easy during the training. Lloyd couldn't help but wonder if Ranis planned for this to happen. He certainly wouldn't put it past her. When he looked up towards Ranis from the corner of his eyes, she was eying him. A knowing smile was on her face and she winked at him playfully. In Lloyd's mind, Ranis' gesture confirmed his suspicions. This ritual was hallmark of Arxian culture. As Lord of Arx, if Lloyd were to fail to carry Erin to the gates of the Castle, he would forever be looked upon as feeble Lord by the people of Arx. Ranis' purposeful attempt to undermine this ritual infuriated him, yet he did not let a hint of his ire show outwardly. To Ranis' and probably the processions' surprise, Lloyd's steps began to quicken.
    #4 Rai'Athar, Jun 22, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2015
  5. Erin leaned back as Lloyd scooped her into his arms. Her cheeks had brightened for a moment, but her face otherwise remained composed. After dealing with several years’ worth of the nobility and their nonsense, very little could phase her outward appearance. It was important for her to remain in control in front of others to show others that she was capable despite her age. Girls became flustered when experiencing something new; ladies remained calm. On the outside, Erin appeared to be winning the battle. When they turned, Lloyd forgot to account for the extra length of her head. She hit the side door, prompting a stumbling apology from him. She bit her cheek to keep herself from laughing. After so much time apart, she’d wondered if there would be anything left of the boy she’d known. It seemed he was still there, at least a little.

    She was a little surprised when he mentioned that she’d gotten bigger. Most people she met would say she was small for a woman her age. She had a tendency to miss meals during the day whenever she became wrapped up in her work. Some days when she came to a stopping point, she’d be too tired to do anything other than sleep. It hadn’t exactly allowed her figure to fill out as well as some of the other ladies at court. She still looked feminine, but she lacked the desired curves that other noblewomen coveted. Erin couldn’t say the same of Lloyd. He’d become quite the warrior it seemed. When she’d known him, he never would have been able to pick up. Now she was sure he could throw her over one of the houses they were walking past.

    As they walked, Erin kept a soft smile on her face and averted her gaze from the crowd. She was used to being the center of attention, though never when she was in a man’s arms. It felt like the moment should be private, but very things in a ruler’s life were private. She knew it would be over soon which she was grateful for. There was very little for her to actually do during this ceremony and there was little she loathed more than being useless. She found herself glancing in Lloyd’s direction, keeping an eye on his progress. He picked up his pace a ways down the road, apparently as intent on finishing this ceremony as she was. Erin suspected that his motives for hurrying were likely different than her own. He was beginning to look tired and there was still a ways to go from what she could see. Rukin had explained to Erin the importance of this ceremony to the Arxian culture. From what she’d understood, Lloyd needed to finish this if he wanted to win his people’s approval. She had no idea what happened if he failed to complete this ritual, but it wasn’t likely to be good. There had to be a way for her to help motivate him, but she could think of nothing. Physically walking herself wasn’t allowed and stopping to rest was likely just as frowned upon. The only cards she could play now were psychological. Encouragement would do little, but Erin knew one method that might keep him going strong.

    She lifted her hand from her lap to brush her hair back, using the cover to whisper to Lloyd unobserved. “Don’t push yourself too hard, Lloyd. I could always carry you if you’re tired,” she teased. The moment her hand went down, she smiled at him sweetly as though nothing had happened. Her eyes, however, challenged him to prove her wrong.
  6. Several days ago the light of the sun became progressively irritable to Lloyd and now there was a rigidity in his neck that was unfamiliar to him. The pain in his legs was not like anything he had felt before. Lloyd's heart was beating abnormally fast for this task that, in his mind, should have been one step up from sedentary. His increased heart rate was accompanied by a shortness of breath. Summoning the energy simply to get up in the morning seemed like an impossible chore for him and the drowsiness persisted for many hours afterwards if it desisted at all.

    Notwithstanding the armor and the heat generated from the physical task at hand, oddly, Lloyd still felt a slight chill from within. It wasn't just a feeling. His body temperature reflected this coldness. What little warmth Lloyd could sense emanated from Erin. It was the warmness of her body permeating through his black and gold armor. The strangest thing of all were the tears that were witnessed earlier today by Ranis. Ranis was aghast when she saw the spectacle. She didn't convey it in her voice, but it would have been effortless for Lloyd to see through her guise if he had looked up into her eyes while she was comforting him. The two could never keep secrets from on another for too long. Not surprisingly, Ranis had noted that Lloyd's attention was wandering during their sparring session, but it was not for the reason she believed. Lloyd allowed her to believe in her projection. His second uncharacteristic loss of composure resulted after nicking Erin's head off the carriage door. Lloyd hadn't told anyone about his recent development. Truth be told, he wasn't sure what to make of it which is partly why he somehow came to the conclusion that Ranis had plotted against him.

    No. Ranis wouldn't do that. What's happening to me? Am I.. weak?

    The thorny black vines of doubt began to creep up the walls of the deepest; most guarded fortress of Lloyd's mind. Where most people hid their greatest fears, darkest secrets or most cherished memories, Lloyd appeared to exclusively harbor the emotions known as anger and hate. He was angry at the murder of his parents' but hated them for deciding his fate for him, giving him no other choice but to marry a complete stranger from another land. He was angry at himself at the death of his younger brother Janus, for being powerless to save him, and at the same time he hated himself for being selfish about Janus' death because he could have been the out that Lloyd sought-after from the agreement between Natel and Arx. Lloyd delved deeper into that fortress where the vines could not reach. His pace slowed, yet he walked with a renewed vigor. Lloyd was no strongman, but he was strong enough for a male warrior of his size. Like Ranis, he had an athletic build with a bit more muscle than her since males naturally tend to carry more of it.

    “If we were anywhere else at any other time, I surely would have thrown you onto the cold hard ground” he whispered back through gritted teeth, holding his stoic gaze forward. Undeniably, Lloyd's words were tainted with a cruel malice. He was fully aware of the implications of what he said. This prompted him to tauten his arms under and around the Natelian princess, holding her more firmly against himself to ensure she wouldn't easily be able to do something brash to disrupt the ceremony.
    #6 Rai'Athar, Jul 3, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2015
  7. So that was how it would be. Erin was a little disappointed the prince replied as harshly as he did, but at least it gave her a read on him. She could work with anger. His arms held her tighter after his comment, apparently concerned that she would try to get away from him. The fact that he believed she would do something to jeopardize the ceremony spoke volumes to her about his understanding of the situation. She needed this ceremony to go well just as much as he did. It had taken a great deal of convincing to show the nobility why it was important that she come to Arx to attend this ceremony. They didn’t like their queen leaving the country for something as simple as an engagement, but Erin knew the significance of the event. By attending, she was putting her trust in Arx, and showing them that Natel was ready to reach out and join them. If anything went wrong, the Natelian court would not be happy about it.

    Lloyd was steadier now, which Erin was grateful for. It would probably be better to maintain a sense of formality with him until they had time to be alone. It had been years since they’d last interacted after all. Once the formalities were over, perhaps they could find time to speak alone and be frank with one another. Erin preferred to speak freely with those she was close with, but she supposed there was more of a gulf between Lloyd and herself than she had first anticipated. It would take time to come to an understanding again. She whispered under her breath, “I’m sorry if I offended you, my lord.”

    It was best to let him feel that she was submitting to him for the moment. Negotiations were all about give and take after all. If she came on too strong, she knew there was a chance she would offend the man. They were equals in rank and that meant that she owed him a measure of respect. Whether he kept that respect or not would be seen in the future. She cursed the silly delusions she’d had before they arrived and forced herself to stay focused on the situation. She was here as Natel’s queen, not to make a social call. Business had to come before her personal concerns.

    Instead of focusing on Lloyd, she turned her attention to the crowd. She could feel the somber atmosphere that had taken over them, leaving them silent as they watched the spectacle. She’d been so caught up in her reunion with Lloyd that she’d forgotten that this was a momentous occasion. These people’s county was preparing to merge with their longtime allies and they were witnessing the first step of that transition first hand. Erin spent so much time worrying about the nobles that she tended to forget that the people had opinions about the national events as well. She wondered what was going through these people’s minds right now. Were they happy about the union or worry that the new government would shake their world to its core? Perhaps she ought to have Rukin send out some people to get a feel for the people later. She wanted to make this transition as smooth as possible for their countries. Understanding the people’s hopes and fears would be a large part of that. It would be hard enough getting the various noble houses to work together and she doubted many would be concerned about the people. She knew the Natelians hope for a stronger ruling line, but the Arxians had hopes for the union as well and she wanted to be sure those hopes were realized.
    #7 Tinder, Jul 10, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
  8. It was as if the weight of it all had reached the breaking point, that the burden on Lloyd's shoulders would soon crush him into nothingness. Unable to withstand it any longer, he obstinately fell to one knee. An expression of complete despair and utter defeat very briefly flashed over his facial features. Lloyd's desire to audibly roar his frustration had been subdued by his tightly clenched teeth. He could taste a hint of fresh blood in his mouth. So this is how it all ends, he thought. Now would be a better time to run than any for the young lord if he were to gather the meager reserve of strength left to him, yet for some reason unknown to him, he stayed his ground. Lloyd had braced himself with his hands in front of the woman's feet, then peered up grudgingly into her lofty green eyes before he carefully withdrew a glistening silver ring from his left gauntlet.

    According to the folktales, this tradition first began among the Arxians of old. Arxian men thought themselves to be mighty warriors that were undefeatable in every way except one: Love. When a Arxian warrior fell in love it was said to be like an arrow taking the strong warrior down by piercing his knee. When he proposed, the Arxian man would symbolically take that arrow and collapse to the wounded knee, surrendering to the only one who could defeat him, the one he loved.

    First Lloyd and Erin, then Ranis, and lastly the Natelian procession had all successfully arrived through Castle Arx's gate and into the courtyard. Ranis had dismounted her steed. A servant quickly arrived to take the horses away as Ranis took her place at the right side of her mother, Andiama. Lady Andiama was wearing a violet stola with a modest veil of the same hue from which her dark brown bangs were visible. A pair of lackluster silver chandelier earrings hung from her ears, and she wore a diadem of matching color. The diadem had the shape of a snake's head affixed at the front. Set in the snake's eyes were yellow topazes, matching the color of Andiama's irises. Behind Andiama were her most trusted guards. At her left was Jagen Nohr, General of the Royal Arxian Guard. The old but rugged white haired man sported a short box beard. Except for a few differences that entailed his rank of General, Jagen's garb matched that of the Royal Guard.

    Finally, Lloyd extended his left hand to the queen to be, “Erin Odella Lillian Breckenridge, I ask thee for your hand in marriage. Do you accept?” The words, how they rolled off his tongue, sounded analogous to a formal invitation to a challenge rather than a marriage proposal.

    Held between his thumb and index, the platinum ring in Lloyd's right hand was set with a brilliant marquise cut Arxite gem. Arxite was found only in Arx as it's namesake suggested, and it was undoubtedly the rarest stone in all of the known world, however, it had no practical applications save for adornment due its gemstone-like properties. It had one very peculiar feature as well. Arxite appeared red in magical light and green in sunlight. Even if the light looked to be the same color, magical light and sunlight as Arxite demonstrated, was not the same.
    #8 Rai'Athar, Jul 20, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
  9. Lloyd ignored her apology, but Erin was far too preoccupied with their approach to notice. The castle was beautiful like a veteran soldier whose face was worn from years of struggling and strife. The stories these stones could tell, she thought as they passed into the courtyard. If there were any time to spare during this visit, she decided to spend it looking through whatever historical accounts the royal library had on castle. She needed to learn more about Arx’s history and the royal castle seemed as good a place to begin as any.

    Arriving at last, Lloyd dropped down to one knee and allowed Erin to stand. They had completed the ritual successfully it seemed. Erin let a soft breath of relief escape her lips, far too soft to be witnessed by anyone other than Lloyd. Judging by his posture, he was not paying her any mind at the moment. The ridged way he knelt someone could have been led to believe that she’d put a knife to his back and demanded he kill his most loyal friend. Once he looked up, she could see the anger in his red eyes. Erin was uncertain how much was directed at her personally and how much was simply pent up frustration about the whole situation. Either way, she kept her expression neutral.

    After Ranis took her place by her mother, Rukin and Raph exited the carriage and stood behind the couple at a respectful distance. Rukin looked like a much younger man than he was with a pleasant smirk on his lips. He wore a bright leather doublet over a clean linen shirt with dark trousers and knee-high boots. The royal Natelan crest, a green flame on a shield topped with a crown surrounded by a coiled basilisk, was present on his chest. He wore a sword at his side, but it was mostly for show to fit into the Arxian culture. He fought with words not steel. With Raph standing next to him, it was like seeing night and day side by side. Raph wore formal magus robes, a dull grey with some gold trim and embroidery to mark his position in the college as well as his position as Arcane Advisor. Heavy leather gloves along with dark leather pants and boots he wore left his entire body aside from his head covered by cloth. This was a common practice for magi to prevent injury during magical practice. Unlike Rukin, Raph frowned as he always did, ever watchful for threats to his queen. Erin prayed he would do nothing to endanger the rest of the ceremony, but she was also glad to have him in sight again. No one made her feel quite as safe as Raph did. He radiated power even as he stood to the side. If anything went wrong, she knew he’d be at her side in a heartbeat.

    She turned her full attention back to Lloyd as he began to speak. He extended his hand and waited for her response. This was the moment of truth. Erin could feel her heart beating like thrush caught in a hunter’s snare. She stood poised, her face a mask of calm as she extended her left hand and placed it in Lloyd’s. In that moment, her personal fears and uncertainties fell away. She had an undeniable air of authority and regality despite her age, one that spoke of an experienced ruler. With a gracious smile, she answered Lloyd’s question, “I accept, my lord.”

    The ring in Lloyd’s hand was a stone she recognized from her magical studies as arxite. Magi had studied it throughout history, but found no use for it outside of its ability to differentiate between natural and magical light. She’d never seen a sample up close and it was truly a sight to behold.
  10. On one end stood Natel and an on the other, Arx. Between them, and turned to their sides, stood Lloyd and Erin. Excluding their hair, their features contrasted starkly. Maybe it was just in his head but the weight of Erin's hand in his was unexpectedly heavy for one that was feeble in appearance. Lloyd's perspective was of a warrior's. He believed that only the strongest deserved to lead, and the stronger one was, the more power one had over his fate. In his thoughts, Erin was far removed from anything that came close to being a warrior. Despite everything, he quickly became cognizant of what appeared to him to be an air of grandiloquence emanating from the smiling Natelian woman looking down on him. It frustrated him that she could still smile after all this; after what he had said to her. This was just one of many reasons why he disliked the politicos and most any who willingly broke bread with them. They were roundabout in their dealings and proper-like in the public eye. Anyone with half a wit knew it was always a different story behind closed doors. According to him, they only cared about furthering their own schemes. He was yet to be proven wrong. With Erin, he knew his words and actions should have made it clear that he didn't want this marriage, yet to his dismay, she still accepted. Ironically, she was his last saving grace from their parents' agreement. He wasn't going to allow himself to become anyone's pawn, not Nalel's or Arx's. Conniving bastards, the whole lot of them. An idea suddenly manifested from the dark recesses of sub-conscious into his conscious. It told him to cast the engagement ring down onto the granite cobblestone and then crush it under the heel of his greave.

    The sound of crunching Arxite underfoot resonated in Lloyd's psyche as he looked up at Erin with a cold, unflinching stare. His delay was atypical for the ceremony, so Jagen, pedantic as he was, politely and formally informed his Lord that he could now place the ring onto Erin's finger. The old soldier didn't show it, but he was bothered by the manner in which his Lord had orated his proposal earlier. Lloyd's crimson eyes stirred from Jagen's; to his step mother's; and then to Ranis'. Ranis smiled a bittersweet smile. No, it is not okay. I will never except this, thought Lloyd. When his eyes returned up to Erin's, it was with a severeness that wasn't present when he was looking to his step sister. He apathetically glided the engagement ring onto her finger; although, his eyes concealed nothing of his obdurateness. “You have defeated me,” he concluded matter-of-factly. With that said, the ancient Arxian tradition known as the Gravis Ambulare was complete and the engagement officialized.

    Lloyd easily stood up to his feet with his hand still clutching onto Erin's, albeit weakly. He glanced over to his step mother, signaling her to proceed. His features reclaimed the same stoic appearance they had when he introduced himself to Erin outside her carriage. Lady Andiama stepped forward to less than an arm's length from the newly engaged couple. Her movements were indicative of a noble bearing. The palla that accompanied her long stola billowed gently in the late afternoon breeze that entered through the open gates. At this distance it became evident that her eye shadow and lip color matched the hue of her clothing. Her looks were truly deceiving. Though her skin tone was lighter, she could have passed for Ranis' older sister if she wasn't known for being the leader of an Arxian house.

    “Greetings. I am Andiama Inika, Matriarch of House Inika and advisor to my step son, Lloyd, the Lord of Arx.” She spoke with a calm, even voice. “On the behalf of my son, we welcome you all to Arx. You have traveled far, and for that we give our thanks to those who came here to share and celebrate this grand occasion.” She paused to place a hand on Erin's and her step son's shoulder, “We hope for nothing but prosperity with the impending unification of our kingdoms.” A soft smile was on her lips. “Now, if you could please follow us, we shall make our way to the royal hall. Comfortable seating and refreshments await.” When Andiama ended her laconic greeting, as if on cue, male servants wearing taupe tunics orderly ambled out of the Royal Arixan Garden to attend to the Natelians' needs. Provisions for this day had been made far in advance.

    The courtyard was just beyond the gates of the wall that surrounded close to six-hundred acres of land. Castle Arx was situated in the far left corner. As the Natelian procession was led to the castle, they quickly realized that the majority of the grounds was a veritable rainforest. This was the renowned Arxian Royal Garden. The garden's floor was strewn with ferns and wildflowers of all shapes and sizes. Some of the trees in the garden were as tall as the Arxian castle was high. One tree in particular, located at the center of the castle grounds, stood taller than all the rest. It was approximately four-hundred feet in height. This tree reached much higher than the banners that whispered at the peaks of castle Arx's golden domes. The Arxian's called it Magnafrax. He was older than Arx itself. His leaves were wider than a man's head and the branches that splayed from its trunk were as thick as a horse was long. Many of the trees, Magnafrax included, were covered with moss and the flowers of an assortment of vines. Exotic birds and chirping insects could be heard throughout the natural woodwork. Unlike most gardens, the Arxian royal garden wasn't laid out in a man-made style. Except for the well maintained bridges that went over the many freshwater streams and ponds that irrigated the garden; and the granite cobblestone paths that cut their way through the grounds, nature was allowed to take its course here. The path they took to Castle Arx brought them under the vast foliage of Magnafrax.

    Hand-in-hand, Lloyd had led Erin to the golden Arxian throne in the Royal Hall. The throne along with the blackwood tables that everyone else would sit at were of the low-leg variety. The throne was at least ten meters away from the closest table. Black-and-yellow dyed carpets of the finest wool marked the perimeter of the tables. Arranged around the the edge of the carpets were plush cushions of many colors and sizes. The Arxians had not yet adopted the idea of the chair. There was only one throne present at the top of the twelve steps, but it was wide enough to seat three average size individuals. It was placed near to the back wall where black and gold tapestries carrying Arx's emblem at their centers hung. The beautifully crafted white stone columns that lined the Royal hall --including its high ceiling-- were etched with intricate symmetrical patterns that were actually inlays of pure gold. Light beige marble flooring softly reflected the sunlight entering the hall through the skylights and the large arched windows that lined the walls. When Lloyd and Erin were at the top of the steps, he abruptly pulled his hand free from her grip and sat, or rather, he recklessly dropped down onto the left side of the red velvet cushioning of their throne. The sudden motion caused his bangs to come free over his forehead. He knew he was expected to sit up straight but that didn't stop him from leaning back into a homely reclined slouch. Not to mention, he was supposed to wait for Erin to sit down first. It was common courtesy. Andiama non-verbally reproached him from where she was sitting at a table with Jagen, Rukin, and Raph. A reposeful sigh escaped from her nostrils to express the futility of her actions because she knew that he couldn't have noticed her silent criticism of him through the curtain of silver hair in front of his eyes. Her calm smile momentarily widened. Jagen wore an expression of disappointment.

    When all were seated, what appeared to be servants that entered the Royal Hall were really not. They were a cadre of house slaves dressed in short, rose colored tunics. A mark branded on the back of their right hands indicated they were the property of House Inika. All of them were nubile females of a multitude of ethnicities. The shape of an exotic Arxian flower was crocheted into the lower-half of the first layer of the double-layered silken gauze tunics they wore. Their hair was tied into tight buns. Corded black leather belts hung from their supple waists, accentuating their maidenly forms as well as the motion of their hips as they hurriedly filed into the royal hall enticing the eyes of many free men and women alike. In their hands, they skillfully balanced silver trays that carried fresh food and drink.

    “We are quite aware that Natelians have difficulty stomaching the Arxian cuisine,” Andiama chuckled playfully, “so I would like to make known that, for your convenience, we had the cooks be sparing with our native spices.” The female slaves promptly began delivering food and drink to the tables. It was customary for the slaves to taste a small portion of the provisions. None of them dropped dead, yet. “The House Inika slaves,” Andiama gestured, “are at your disposal. Please, do not hesitate to make use of them.” Andiama was the first to take a bite from the food at her table.

    Ranis, Lloyd's loyal paranymph, was no longer wearing her armor. She entered the Royal Hall wearing a thin long sleeve cotton tunic, the color of which was a weathered black with a hint of red. Red ribbons were tied at her forearms to keep the sleeves from falling over her hands. Over-top her tunic, she wore a fitted light purple vest with silver eyelets that black laces passed through, crisscrossing up the front. The ends of the laces met at the the top and were tucked into the collar of the vest. Her fitted shorts went to the top of her knees, and made of the same material as her tunic and the same color, too. For footwear, she wore dark leather laced sandals. The sandals' laces twined up to her calves. Her clothing was tomboyish; however, it had a diminutive effect on her overall femininity. The curved blade she carried during the Gravis Ambulare was still held at her side in the sheath that was strung to her belt. She commandeered a tray of food from one of the females slaves and started walking towards the throne.

    “And what do you thing you're doing?” Andiama inquired after Ranis as she passed near her table. Ranis stopped. A clever grin formed across her ample lips. “I'm going to serve food to my baby brother and my almost sister-in law,” she promptly downed a piece of curried chicken from the tray she carried, “It's missing some spices. Not enough red pepper, onions and garlic, and no ginger at all --bland for my tastes. Now if you'll excuse me, mother, the guests of honor are waiting.” She pat Jagen on the shoulder, “Cheer up, old man.” Then with a short bow to her mother and the guests at the table, she was off to the throne.
    #10 Rai'Athar, Aug 2, 2015
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2015
  11. Lloyd’s pause could be felt throughout the hall. Erin could see the uncomfortable shifting in the crowd as they waited for their prince to move. Even after the man she recognized as Jagen Nohr prompted Lloyd to continue, he continued his delay. His eyes shifted around the room before returning to her, the anger still emanating from them as he slipped the ring on to her finger. It seemed she’d misjudged his attitude toward her earlier. When he’d helped her from the carriage, she’d thought she’d recognized the boy she known so long ago. She’d been mistaken.

    She kept her smile there, knowing that her own reaction to his actions would largely affect the crowd’s. For the time being, she chose to ignore the slight. This ceremony needed to go well and drawing attention to Lloyd’s faults would only invite trouble. She kept herself calm by focusing on the ceremony as the matriarch of House Inika came forward to conclude the proceedings. She made a mental note to thank Rukin for the lessons he’s given her on Arx’s customs and nobility later that evening. Going into this mess blind would have ended terribly.

    They passed from the hall and moved out into the garden, though Erin would hardly have called it that. It was more like a forest. She glanced around as they walked, though only with her eyes. She couldn’t be seen gawking like a child. There was a unique beauty in the chaos, one that Erin had never seen in a manmade garden before. She was sure she could spend hours among the plants and still not see all the species there. If only the air was not so uncomfortable. Growing up on the coast of the sea, Erin was used to the cool wind coming off the ocean. All of Natel was cooler by comparison due to the higher elevation of the land. This heat was a nice change, but she could not understand how the Arxians lived here. She supposed she may have to learn to like the heat. There was no telling what the living arrangements would look like after the marriage.

    As they walked, parts of the palace grounds began to look familiar to Erin. She’d been so young the first time she’d walked these grounds, she was surprised any of it looked familiar, but as they neared the throne room more and more stood out to her. The Royal Hall itself was something she remembered vividly. Upon entering the room, she was transported back to a distant time when she’d entered through the same doors with her father, hiding behind his leg as they were shown around the palace. Everything had been so exciting and terrifying. “Will I be able to play with this prince?” The first chance she’d ever had to be with someone her own age. When she and Lloyd reached the throne, she came back to the present. He dropped down onto the throne like a fallen sack of flour. Erin knew it was a breach of protocol, a sign of disrespect to her. If she had wanted she could have made something of the gesture, but she refused to let the childish play affect her. Instead she calmly took her seat next to him, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. This was going to be a long evening if Lloyd insisted on continuing in this mood. Erin knew there was little she could do without making the slights into more of an issue and so she resigned herself to being as courteous as possible in return. This situation was not a foreign one. She’d begun ruling her kingdom at only fourteen years old, an age that did little to impress foreign dignitaries. They had used her youth as an excuse to be lax with their protocols, treating her as a self-important child if they were being kind. At first she’d been discouraged by the setbacks, but over time she’d learned to take it all in stride. After many more meetings, the other nobility began to accept her as one of their own and treated her accordingly. Admittingly, she hadn’t expected the same treatment from someone in her same situations, but there was nothing she could do other than let her actions speak for her.

    She could see Rukin and Raph out of the corner of her eye once she was seated. Rukin sat between the general and the magus, his own doing no doubt. She could see him chatting nonchalantly with Raph, though Raph said nothing in returned. Rukin was trying to keep the man calm. Beneath his usual grim exterior, Raph was seething. Even Rukin seemed uncomfortable at the moment. Raph had never liked permitting others to slight his queen in the name of diplomacy. Were it up to him, she was sure he would have come up to the throne and demanded an apology from Lloyd. Erin had forced him to swear he would do nothing rash during the day’s events and she was grateful that he had kept his word thus far. How long that trend would continue would likely be determined by how Lloyd chose to act for the remainder of the evening.

    As the meal began, Erin found her eyes drawn to the men and women serving them. She’d nearly forgotten that Arx allowed slavery. It was one topic that Natel and Arx had never agreed on, something that Erin knew would need to be dealt with during the talks about the kingdom’s merger. For now she knew that all she could do was try to see the Arxian’s view of slavery so that her judgement would not be clouded during the talks. Perhaps speaking with someone about the topic later would help to shed more light on it. She would need to hear the people’s opinion on it as well. She would ask Rukin to send out some men among the people tomorrow morning.

    Erin turned her attention to the food. She waited for Lloyd to take a bite first before trying the food, as was Natelian custom. She was thankful that the food had been prepared with her country’s rather bland diet in mind. Due to the lack of good land for growing crops, the Natelian diet had only ever consisted of whatever food they could coax into growing. Seasonings had never been readily available to them and so most were used to eating without them. Many visitors to Natel complained of the cuisine, but it changed nothing. While their food left many wanting, Natel’s spirits were another story. Due to the lack of fresh water, the people had taken to fermenting their drink in order to avoid water sickness. Over the years, men and women had dedicated their lives to brewing spirits. Their efforts created a whole spectrum of drinks from fine wines to strong ales that could put grown miners under the table in minutes. As far as Erin was concerned, few countries could offer better.

    As the room began to erupt in conversation, Erin had found herself struggling to decide what to do. Normally she would have attempted to speak with Lloyd, but considering his actions thus far, she doubted that was wise. The last thing she wanted was for him to overreact to some comment she made. Sitting in silence was rather grating however. It was also difficult to make it look natural. Just as she was about to try and say something, she noticed someone coming towards them. Ranis, Lloyd’s stepsister, was approaching with a tray of food. Erin had never met the girl and knew only the basics about her. Knowing the house she came from however, Erin knew she would need to be on her guard. She smiled pleasantly when Ranis approached, waiting for her to make her intentions known before saying anything.
  12. After Lloyd had completed the Gravis Ambulare by placing the the Arxite ring on Erin's finger, the two temporarily parted ways. Erin returned to her Carriage and Lloyd mounted his horse for the trek through the garden and to the Arxian Castle. Lloyd had accordingly ridden faster and further ahead of the procession due to the reason that he was required to change into something more appropriate for the coming dinner party. It was considered impolite to keep guests waiting, even in Arx. Erstwhile at the castle, Lloyd's steel-plated attire was removed in haste with the assistance of the house Inika slaves. A long black robe awaited him. It was a simple but well sewn, thin cotton robe of contemporary fit that had golden filigree at the collar, cuffs, and placket. The robe's placket concealed its silver fasteners. The ordeal didn't take long, if it had, it wouldn't have made any difference in Lloyd's decision to nonchalantly make his way to the antechamber that connected to the Royal Hall. When he had arrived into the antechamber, it was just as the Natelians did. He had been asked by Jagen Nohr to accompany Erin to the Arxian throne. Although Lloyd did what was asked of him, he seemed reluctant to abide the Arxian General's words.

    Presently, Lloyd was sitting in the Arxian throne with Erin. He hadn't eaten anything since morning. Erin waited for him to take the first morsel but he never did. Lloyd thought it odd that he hadn't worked up an appetite after the day's work. His mind and body had become too weary to linger on any one thought for long, however. Behind his bangs, his eyelids slowly came to a close. When they opened again, Lloyd was no longer in the castle --he was playing in the Arxian Garden with his younger brother Janus and a younger Ranis. “On your mark, get set, go! Last one to Magnafrax is a rotten egg!” Ranis exclaimed. Immediately, Lloyd's foot caught on an exposed root as he took his first stride. “H-hey! Wait for me!” Lloyd called out to them but his siblings didn't stop, they didn't look back either. “Don't leave me!” He tried to get up but the treacherous vines of the garden began wrapping themselves around his body, holding him firmly down. “Ranis! Janus! H-” One of the vines found it's way around his neck, choking off his cry for help. Lloyd struggled with all the might his younger self could summon against the onslaught of the treacherous vines. Only after he had broken free did he notice that the landscape had drastically changed. Lloyd was still standing in the royal garden but it was a shadow of its former glory. Everything was black and dead. Magnfrax lied on the ground. His enormous trunk was snapped. The light of a blood red moon eerily pervaded the misty shroud of darkness around him. “Janus! Ranis! Where are you!?”
    “I'm over here, brother,” said a familiar voice. Lloyd looked in all directions but to no avail. “Where are you, Janus!?”
    “Why couldn't you save me, brother?”
    “I'll save you this time! I promise! Just tell me where you are!”
    “Over here.” Just as Lloyd turned around, his younger brother stabbed a dagger into his chest where the heart should be. Lloyd fell to his knees. His hand was clutching the dagger tightly. Viscous obsidian blood oozed from his wound. “Janus, why?”
    “I forgot that your heart was on the other side, brother”
    “Because. You are weak, brother.”
    “But I'm stronger than before,” Lloyd protested.
    “You'll never be strong enough! I died! And it's all your fault!”
    He pleaded with Janus, “What can I do to fix this?!”
    Their location suddenly changed but the scenery hadn't. Lloyd was standing on top of one of Castle Arx's crumbling domes. It no longer had a golden sheen. “You know what to do, brother.” Still on his knees, Lloyd looked over the side of the dome. Below him writhed an infinite mass of the barbed black vines that haunted his dreams.“What is that?” he asked.
    That is hell, brother," replied Janus, “it's where you belong.”

    Ranis relieved the Inika slave serving Erin and Lloyd. She subsequently sat down legs akimbo with tray in hand where the slave had just been sitting. She was so eager to start chatting that she forgot to introduce herself to Erin. “You two look fabulous together. It's a match made in heaven. I can already tell that you'll have beautiful children. And Lloyd, sit up straight. You're embarrassing mother. Only I'm allowed to do that.” A coquettish smiled graced her lips, “By the way, Erin, I thought I should let you know that Lloyd's probably slept with most if not all of the Inika slaves girls. You should look into having him thoroughly inspected for any sign of disease before the time comes.”
    #12 Rai'Athar, Aug 13, 2015
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2015
  13. Ranis dropped down next to them as carelessly as a newborn foal. She began chattering immediately, not even taking the time to formally introduce herself. Had Erin not known of Ranis beforehand, she would have been at a complete loss. As it was, she listened to Ranis with an attentive smile. The woman seemed friendly, even referring to Erin by her first name, though Erin hardly trusted the words coming from her mouth. In her past experience, anyone who praised another so readily usually had an agenda waiting in the wings. Ranis did not force Erin to wait long to see hers. As soon as she finished praising the engagement and berating Lloyd, she made mention of Lloyd’s previous conquests. So social intimidation is your tactic, Erin noted as she watched her, but what is your goal?

    Erin laughed lightly at Ranis’ words, “Thank you for the suggestion, but I’m sure any sort of examination will need to be the lord’s own choice, not mine.” For the moment, she choose to continue hiding her thoughts behind a mask of civility. She couldn’t pretend the news was not disappointing to hear, but she knew the game well enough to avoid reacting to it. She wished such acts were not necessary. Though her common sense told her otherwise, part of her wished she could trust Ranis. She’d never known a woman her own age that she could be open with, but she knew too little of Ranis to relax around her. As for Lloyd’s refusal to eat, she continued to wait despite her growing hunger. Even if Lloyd refused to show her respect, she would show him all the respect she felt his position was due. Sinking to his level would prove nothing. She glanced his way a moment and noted that he had fallen asleep. Did he care about these proceedings at all?

    Instead, she focused back on Ranis and changed the topic, “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Inika. I’ve heard many things about you…”

    Erin blinked, her attention drawn from her thoughts by an odd sensation. For just a moment she could have sworn she felt a pulse of magical energy. She glanced over toward Raph to see if he’d done something, but he sat perfectly still, watching Rukin chat with the general and the queen, an unreadable frown on his face. That was odd. She looked down to the table, taking a breath as she “felt” the air around her. There was nothing out of the ordinary. She looked back to Ranis, attempting a smile to brush off her behavior, “I apologize. Something crossed my mind, but it’s unimportant. What were we speaking of?”
  14. Lloyd was slowly inching closer to the precipice. His mind had been made up. “Where's Ranis?” he asked, turning to face his younger brother.Janus face contorted into a mask of hatred. “Our sister is dead! You killed her like you killed me!” Lloyd was dead set on falling into the void below a moment earlier, but upon hearing Janus' words his resolve had completely diminished and transformed into rage.
    “No. She can't be.” Lloyd stood up. He grabbed Janus by the collar. “You're lying. Tell me where she is,” he demanded. Janus took hold of the dagger that was still embedded in Lloyd's chest. Deep violet lightning arced from his hand and around Lloyd's body. He exhaled quickly and instinctively tightened his gut, gritting his teeth as he fell to his knees again. “You would think to lay a hand on your younger brother?” Janus' voice was filled with sadness of Lloyd's purported perfidy.
    “I'm only trying to help you, brother.” Tears formed in Janus eyes and he began to whimper. “You should have died long ago, brother. You were not meant to be born. If you live, more will die. You are a living curse. When your life ends so will the suffering you have caused everyone.”
    “Give me more time. I will make things right or die trying.”
    “Die you will, brother. Unfortunately, you're on borrowed time already.”
    “Then give me more time...please, Janus.”
    Janus stared deathlike at Lloyd, his mouth forming words but no sound came from them, however, Lloyd could still make out what came forth from his brother's lips: You will regret this, brother.

    “Nothing important,” Ranis replied to Erin's query, “aww, look who's returned to the land of the living”, she motioned to Lloyd when his head stirred, “I was just teasing Erin over here about your exploits with the slaves, but we both know you've never touched a women in your life --at least not in the way I implied earlier. Lloyd's never been one to take it easy on a sparring partner simply because she is a woman.”

    Lloyd brushed the hair away from his forehead. A trembling hand --Lloyd's left hand-- reached for a goblet of water from the tray Ranis was holding up. The goblet trembled in his grip all the way to his lips. Droplets of water cascaded down the sides of his mouth as he drank. As if it was too heavy, the emptied goblet slipped from Lloyd's fingers and fell softly into his lap. Then his hand moved to where he had been stabbed. His fingers clutched tightly onto the flesh of his phantom wound. When Lloyd pulled his hand away from his breast, he gazed at it for a moment. Red fluid that was clearly blood was thinly smeared over his palm. The cuts on his lip and neck, given to him by Ranis during their sparring session, bled sparsely. “I had that dream again,” he said to Ranis. His voice was hollow.
    #14 Rai'Athar, Aug 25, 2015
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2015
  15. Erin let her gaze wander again when Ranis turned her attention to Lloyd. What the hell had the pulse been? Arx wasn’t like Natel; it shouldn’t have pulses of wild magic. The feeling left Erin on edge, her others senses dulled as her sixth sense tried desperately to understand what was happening. The feeling was similar to what happened when an animal sensed an approaching storm. Though nothing physical seemed to alert them, something else kept their nerves on edge. She tried to take her mind back to present, but it was difficult to fight to her instincts.

    Ever since she first discovered her talent for magic, she’d always been sensitive to the movement of magical energy. It was both a blessing and a curse. It had taken her years to learn to ignore the otherworldly feelings and focus on the real world. Even after years of practice she still had problems on occasion when she was around strong magic flow. Her abilities meant she always knew when foreign magic was around her, though tracing it was far more difficult than sensing it. That was the issue she faced at the moment. She knew the magic had been there, but had no idea where it came from or what sort of magic it had been.

    When she brought her eyes back to Lloyd and Ranis, she realized how uneasy Lloyd had become. Had he felt something as well? His hand shook as he took a drink. Perhaps he was still tired from the ceremony earlier. No, that made no sense. He’d been sitting here calmly ever since they’d arrived. There was no reason for him to show his exhaustion now. The cup slipped into his lap as though he’d forgotten it the moment it was drained. Erin focused her attention onto him now, confused by the behavior. She did not hear Ranis’ words about the girls. Something seemed to be wrong with Lloyd, though she had no earthly idea what it could be. He said something about a dream to his sister, seeming almost a world away. That was when she saw the blood.

    “Lloyd, are you bleeding?” She asked turned toward him on the seat, taking his hand gently but firmly to examine it more closely. The blood was not from his hand. Her confusion began to turn to concern for the man. No matter how Lloyd acted, he was still her fiancé and to her that made his wellbeing a priority. She glanced at his face and asked him, “How did this happen?” Her eyes showed a fierce sort of concern. She was ready to take action if the need arose and would not be satisfied until she knew he was in no mortal danger. There was little she could do without information. She knew a few healing spells and was mostly unused to using ordinary magic, but she would make it work if he needed help.
  16. Only for a brief moment, Lloyd had forgotten where he was and that Erin was sitting next to him. An ephemeral emotion of concern washed over Ranis' features.

    “Lloyd and I had a sparring session early on in the day. It was ill-advised for obvious reasons, but I cajoled my little brother into it. I can be very persuasive and our sessions often get very...heated” Ranis explained, a tight-lipped, coy smile flashed across her lips. “Perhaps you'd like me to go easier on you next time, little brother?” She teased Lloyd. Erin's turn was up next. “Our healers did say it wasn't anything life threatening and I vividly remember them advise that the young lord not partake in any heavy physical activity for several days. I imagine that having to carry you can be classified as a heavy physical activity.”

    A storm of rage was welling within Lloyd, but he hid it well. Ranis' worrisome stare, the sound of Erin's doting tone and the way she sympathetically turned towards him and took his hand in hers --it was absolutely maddening. Lloyd didn't want anyone's concern or sympathy, especially from this Natellian aristocrat. His first instinct was to recoil from her, yet he let everything happen without any resistance. Erin's grip was surprisingly firm and warm on his cold, limp hand.

    “What my older sister says is true” Lloyd confirmed as he gently pulled his hand from Erin's grasp. “Carrying you was certainly not an easy task.” Ranis cupped a hand over her mouth and bit her tongue, successfully stifling her laughter. “But I assure you” Lloyd continued, “that I will be fine. I have fought through worse pain.” His eyes never strayed from the empty cup in his lap.

    When Ranis regained her even disposition, she immediately gestured towards a slave woman, indicating to the slave that she bring them a wash pitcher and several hand towels. The slave arrived with haste and placed the amenities at the seat of the throne. Ranis handed off the silver tray she had been holding up --the food and drink upon it had hardly been touched-- before she dismissed the girl.

    Fondly and with great care, Ranis lifted Lloyd's gaze from his lap with her left hand while the other hand began to clean the blood from him, starting with his lip.

    “I owe you both an apology,” Ranis confessed as she was tending to Lloyd. Her voice took on a earnest timbre. “There's little doubt in my mind that the outcome of today's sparring session has left feelings of resentment in my little brother. I feel that he may have unjustly directed his anger at you. Forgive me, please.”

    Lloyd remained silent as Ranis tended to him.
  17. [BCOLOR=transparent]Collaborative Post[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]A hint of annoyance sparked in Erin’s eyes as she listened to Ranis’ report. A sparing match right before a ceremony that would determine the fate of nations. And she was to marry this boy and rule two nations with him. The comment that followed was no more welcome. She knew Ranis was trying to get a rise out of her, but Erin could feel her patience wearing. She could handle politicians for hours if necessary. This felt like she was talking with a pair of children. Spending time with children had never been a part of her life. She’d barely spent time with her peers.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Lloyd pulled away, backing up his sister’s story, confirming her earlier joke about carrying Erin. Erin laid her hands back in her lap. In the back of her mind, she made a note to find a way to pay the pair back for their comments. She didn’t know how, but she would find a way. Perhaps later once she’d retired to her chambers.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Ranis’ confession took her by surprise. Erin had to admit she hadn’t been expecting that sort of honesty. Not after the sort of talk that had been going on so far. She glanced sideways toward Lloyd, noting that he made no attempt to deny his annoyance with her. Good, they were both annoyed with each other and it had barely been a few hours. Apparently some things really didn’t change. She could remember a time when she would have answered him in kind, but that sort of freedom was no longer available to them.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Instead she did her best to keep her face pleasant and her voice level, “There’s nothing to forgive. I’m sure you were only doing what you thought was best for your brother.” [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]And yourself[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent], she added internally, [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]whatever your game is[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]. “I’m sorry my lord had to strain himself on my behalf. It was quite an impressive feat. You must be quite the warrior to be able to spar with a man like your brother.” She could think of little else to say on the matter. She could have gone on about any number of other subjects for hours, but a warrior’s training was completely foreign to her.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Ranis smiled smugly, “Why thank you, I am quite the warrior. Your flattery almost made me blush. Can we keep her, little brother?” Her left hand retracted from Lloyd's chin when she finished cleaning the blood from his lip and neck. Once again, Lloyd's gaze fell back to his lap. He did not respond to Ranis' query. She then proceeded to clean the blood from his hand. No attempt to resist was offered by Lloyd.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“He's still sour” Ranis concluded. “So, you know that Lloyd and I like to spar. In our more younger days we used to play together in the Royal Garden, we even bathed together. There isn't anyone in this world that knows [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]my[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent] little brother as well as I do. If you ever have any questions about him, be sure to ask me. You and I are practically family now. But first, I'd like to ask you a question, Erin. What does a girl like [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]you[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent] do for fun?”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Erin kept her expression calm but she could feel the bite behind those words. Ranis seemed intent on making her claim to Lloyd known. She called Erin family, but she’d learned long ago how to recognize a door being shut in her face. Ranis was as willing to include her in their family as the nobility had been when she was first named queen. Erin’s first reaction was to remind her who was being wed to that brother of hers, but she kept her comments to herself. Competing would not impress Lloyd or anyone in the court. It would make her look petty and weak. Weakness was not something could afford to show right.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The next question was one she’d been dreading. Neither of them would like the answer she had. While perhaps Ranis would. She’d considered lying to them, but she would only be ridiculed later when they found out the truth. “I read if I have the time,” she replied calmly, fighting the meek edge that always seemed to creep into her voice when she had to discuss herself, “Usually books on magical theory or history.” [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]Or fictitious tales when no one else is watching[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent], she included silently. [/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Lloyd and I used to read stories of heroes traveling the worlds; doing good deeds; slaying fantastical beasts; and rescuing fair maidens. We even made a game of it and played it in the garden. Oft times, we forced Lloyd to play the fair maiden since he adamantly refused to play the villain.”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Lloyd wasn't too keen with Ranis on sharing details about his personal life with outsiders, but he felt compelled to say a few words of his own. “You never took it easy on me when I played the hero. You never let me save Janus” he said.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“That's because in Arxian fictional literature the hero often dies in an act of ultimate selflessness” Ranis rebuked. A hint of defensiveness was present in her tone and body language, “I also was not going to be beaten by you. Besides, I was a good a villain as they come. After I defeated you, I never delivered the death blow. All I did was make you and Janus my personal servants.” She smiled contently[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Yet you always let Janus defeat you when he played the villain.” There was some bitterness in Lloyd's voice.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Ranis turned her attention to Erin, “Lloyd never once won a game of heroes and villains. If I were him, I would still be bothered by it.” Having finished with the cleaning of Lloyd's hand, Ranis offered a clean, damp hand cloth to Erin.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Seeing the red on her hands for the first time, Erin took the cloth and began to rub away the blood. She remembered Janus, though just barely. She knew who he was well enough, but her actual memories of the boy were slim to none. Her visits to Arx in the past were dominated by her rivalry with Lloyd. She’d thought to compete with him back then, to beat him at his own games and prove she was stronger. Janus had been there, though she could only picture his face. Even that image was blurred, like a dream in the early morning hours.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]It seemed silly to her that Lloyd would still be upset about a childhood game, but she was beginning to understand that many of his concerns were foolish. He was meant to rule a nation, yet he hardly seemed capable of getting through a simple ceremony with help from others to keep his moods in check. She turned her attention away from her complaints and focused on civility. “I’m sure you’ve done much to teach him about disappointment,” she replied, returning the towel to Ranis, “Tell me, how has your mother been doing, Lady Inika?”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“He still has much to learn” Ranis quickly retorted, then she winked at Erin. “How my mother is doing?” She asked incredulously. “Are you serious? Wake up and smell the wildflowers, princess. If you take a good look around you will notice that we're not in a Natellian courtroom. You know what, never mind. I'll go find out for you. You two love birds play nice while I'm gone. Okay?” With that said, Ranis got up and left for her mother's table. Before she sat down next to the Lady Inika, she had ordered a servant lady carrying fresh food and drink to tend to Erin and Lloyd's needs.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Lloyd straightened himself up, chin now level with the ground and with the crown of his head held high. Only very slightly, he turned his gaze towards Erin. “I'm sure you already know all this, but the power structure in Arx is not as it was when our parents made their agreement.” The awkward silence that Ranis had left in her wake had been broken. “Our union greatly favours Natel and house Vordon's political agendas. Most of the Arxian houses are are not pleased with this since House Vordon is no longer a dominant player in Arx's affairs. In any case, as per Rukin's request, we have arranged a meeting with the leader of house Vordon tomorrow. House Stel will also be present.”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Erin watched Ranis go. Bullying through protocol would not win her any friends. Erin had learned that lesson the hard way long ago. Truth was a two-edged sword in the court. It may help cut through the usual foolishness of courtly manners, but that speed would be lost when the time came to win favors from those same people. Even as the ruler of a nation, Keeva knew she could do little without the approval of her court. They would rebel if she did nothing to keep them pacified. That was one struggled she wished to avoid.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She noticed Lloyd lifting himself up from his slouched position. She glanced his way, surprised to hear him speak of the political situation. [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]So he has been keeping up[/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent], she noted, pleased to hear that much. She replied quietly, “I’m aware of the strain this has placed on relations with your Houses. It will not be easy to convince them of the benefits of this union, but that is what we must do. Believe me when I say it has taken time to convince my own people of the benefit.” Her voice was honest, though her face was still a pleasant mask, a smile hiding the severity of their conversation. “Thank you for arranging the meeting. Hopefully it will be the first step towards an understanding between our nations.”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Lloyd was well aware of the terms and obligations of their contract --he would forfeit his right to the throne, and with no other Royal heirs, Arx would undoubtedly fall into a violent power struggle if he did not abide by what was ordained within it. “I often wonder if Natel had a part to play in the murder of my younger brother. It's no secret that his untimely death was rather convenient for you and your court. If he were still alive, we would not be sitting here.”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Erin could hardly believe what she heard. He couldn’t really think... Her anger sparked. “Watch your tongue,” Erin snapped back at him, sending a glare his way, “My father never would have ordered the death of a child.” She remembered hearing about the death of the boy. That had been right before one of the last times she met with Lloyd at the funeral. Her father had been visible moved to hear of the deaths, insisting on going himself to the funeral to mourn their passing. It seemed that day had affected Lloyd quite a bit. He was far from being the boy she once knew, more so than she’d anticipated. She sighed, collecting herself before saying in a calmer voice, “I’m sorry for what happened to your family. But no matter what you think of my country or myself, just know that we had nothing to do with it.” She knew the pain of losing a family member. She could not fault him for still feeling it.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Lloyd didn't know what was more foolish of Erin: to think she knew everything that her country did; or to think that he would believe anything that came from her lips. “The repercussions of an annulment are not so grave for Natel as they are for Arx. You can still follow your own path instead of the path your parents forced you on. You can still find some measure of true happiness --something that you will not find here. With me, the prospect of parenthood is also an impossibility...because I would rather drive a blunted dagger slowly into my skull than to lay with you.” Not a hint of malice was present in Lloyd's voice, rather his demeanor and the inflection of his words remained nonchalant and monotonous as ever.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Erin stood abruptly, green eyes afire. She turned away from Lloyd and replied with a distinct edge in her voice, “Excuse me, my lord.” She walked calmly as she could manage to one of the nearby passageways leading back outside, muttering an excuse to a servant that she “needed some air.” Anything to get away and clear the red haze that had overtaken her rational thoughts. His words might have stung had she not already been angered with him. The pain was burned up in the fire of her rage. She knew herself well enough to leave the room for a time. If she did not get herself back under control, she would do something both of them would regret; or perhaps only she would regret. For someone who had more to lose, Lloyd wasn’t acting like it. She clenched her hands into fists, breathing to bring her emotions back under control. It wasn’t working. She wanted to punch something. More like someone, but she knew better than that. [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]Breath, [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]she told herself, [/BCOLOR][BCOLOR=transparent]focus on your center. This will all be over soon.[/BCOLOR]
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