Chapter 30: Greater Good and Lesser Evil
The forensics specialists, crime experts, and court persons from town came in disguise and proposed the priests were turning back to their old ways of unicorn sacrifices and found evidence the priests and priestesses were feeding sacrifices of gold to Mother. Many of the priests and priestesses, including Ara, denied this and declared war. (Jason was tried later for stealing and framing the priests but again, this verdict was wishy-washy). War was the most important thing at the moment.
This became a war about wars. The council decided too many smaller problems were creating bigger ones without an overseeing ruler so the unicorn race’s conflict of a successor with Prince Razim or Daphne came to be about Acacia or Jason. The wild unicorns wanted Acacia, going with their preference for Daphne, the conventionalist domesticated unicorns wanted Razim, and thus Jason for his preference to control. It came as a surprise Prince Razim was Jason’s grandfather.
“I was once engaged to your friend’s grandfather,” Daphne took Acacia aside after battle.
Jason wasn’t born evil but he was born from it; he was born sincere but not bred from sincerity and he could have changed except he never wanted help from anyone.
Whether the council was on Jason or Acacia’s side would have depended, for they only oversaw, intercepted, and provided for the battle.
Jason’s army marched strongly from the South and Acacia’s army marched mysteriously from the North. Ondrea returned. He returned not in a different age like Milko, or ready to rush to Acacia’s side. He returned in defeat.
Acacia expected every soldier, even Ondrea, to be vicious but something worse she found—his emotion had been drained. He wasn’t just a rigid soldier, but something made of numb jelly.
Jason has drugged them. I just know it.
Despite Kazimir’s skepticism, she had known him long enough to entrust him with suspicions and when she told him about the unusual silence and uniformity of Jason’s army, Kazimir agreed.
“I’ve studied enough about substances but Jason is far beyond me in alchemy, I admit.”
“I don’t ask to imitate his medicine,” Acacia countered, “but I ask if we could dismantle it.”
“That I don’t know of, either.” Just when Acacia gave up and thought Kazimir was being useless, Daphne stole from behind. They held their breaths.
“I will be the last general, hopefully, my land has ever known.”
Acacia thought she would convince her grandmother that her cousin had been drugged by Jason. Kazimir thought the same thing judging by his knowing glances.
“Grandma, you have tricked death enough. I’m not sure you should do the fighting.”
Kazimir opened his mouth in shock, draining his words. He hated when the script practiced in his head didn’t turn out as planned.
Daphne grabbed Acacia’s soldiers, “If that is what you’re really worried about, then that’s better than what you could be worried about.”
Kazimir tried to interrupt with “um’s and uh’s” but it wasn’t enough. “I’ve noticed Ondrea has been acting even less like himself lately. And I mean the entire army...entirely Jason’s army.”
Daphne didn’t have words except, “They should only fear themselves but I can’t reassure. False confidence would be dangerous.” Acacia’s stomach dropped and twisted. Kazimir felt the blood drain from his arms and legs.
Acacia met everyone on the battlefield. She did not have to wander tirelessly across unknown territory but it was time chasings and plans, routes and orders, stopped changing. War was inevitable. Whether she could end it wasn’t written in tablet, but it couldn’t be ended alone. A sure victory in battle did not make the end of war any more certain. She knew somehow a war would have to end eventually but only once everything and everyone was deprived or desolate.
At vespertide, Daphne summoned Acacia to her pavilion but Acacia hated that she was being summoned alone. The last time this happened was at the principal’s office and the last time Daphne summoned her, it was the worst public incident in millennia (but the bar fight will be remembered later).
Daphne breathed in and closed her eyes in preparation as if she were summoning a great power for another one of her yogic mantra sessions.
“Sit down and gain comfort, Granddaughter. The only way to prepare for battle is to become centered.” Chimes dangling from the tent kicked on with the wind.
“You mean it’s not time for my learning kickflips and sparring? No blocking either?”
“You have already shown me much more. No, instead we will be doing warrior poses. By the way, have you been taking your medicine?”
I haven’t felt so embarrassed and offended in a long time but since we were alone, I let it pass.
“Honestly, they were left behind before I even got to your empire.”
“Good, you won’t be needing those berries. I want you to toss them out of your life.”
Up till then, I haven’t really noticed I missed a dose. Then again, I had other worries to fill but it was the first time I felt full, complete, and confident. Daphne brought it upon herself to go vision seeking so she instructed me to sit cross-legged and listen to the wind spirits and ignore the metallic dirges around us (the chimes and weapon-making).
She spoke in an ancient tongue a little like Latin, Greek, and Persian. We practiced focus, calm, and reserve until nightfall. (Day 1, Acct 1, of Phillipi)
Domain seemed to go increasingly desolate, or so Judge Danika confirmed, and impoverished. She wasn’t sure if it were residual from past wars kept secret by her family and newcomers to town or blind pride that shielded some underlying problem as truth clawed itself from the dusty cobs of a ghost town, like an eye forcing itself open.
Marko met Acacia on the battle encampment. Jason and his army now spread far enough from their army, but not so far as clanks of welded metal couldn’t resound and echoes of grunting warriors couldn’t be misunderstood, or at least, mistaken.
Marko told Acacia of the “judges”, code name for the Council of Elders, sudden decision to stay out of the battle and instead oversee the carnage. This made Acacia question whether it was their mark of peace or sick passivity. Obviously, she had no evidence the council and Danika acted as spies but she didn’t like being watched and it was obvious they were chasing her the entire time. They had nothing to hide, now that she knew they weren’t acting as Jason’s allies, but no one ever trusted Daphne since her fake death. They went against Daphne’s wishes by chasing Acacia throughout Acropolis and the Land of Jewels. As for her inheritance, they were unbiased since she never finished court or first semester at Domain Private. Sure, Daphne wasn’t organized and it should have been clear at the beginning where she wanted the inheritance bequeathed. Not to mention she was indecisive, but the line of inheritance was never clear since the small town of Domain was so intertwined. Whether Acacia inherited the kingdom depended on the winning of the first battle, according to her grandmother’s law, but could the judges decide who won? She did not want to win over body count because defense was first on her side.
Would victory by defeating make me a dictator? Is this what Daphne wanted? She gave up her crown but it still belonged to her. I know she doesn’t have immortality and she is no goddess however much I respect her. Why then doesn’t the crown go to my parents? Does the crown skip a generation or have they chosen the same path as Daphne, giving up their right to rule in peace?
Marko was in an animated rant, in the midst of planning a surprise attack. Since the back of the army line stood on the shoreline, more vessels were coming at intermittent times during the battle. Acacia approached Captain, now Commander Marko, “Have the council given any thought to joining our ranks?”
Marko softened his demeanor, perhaps in worry, “I have spoken to them again and their goals are only to remain unbiased. I know what you’re thinking: it’s lazy. But every side has its bias so it’s only the High Priestesses in this land who have the power to judge.”
“Have you spoken to Daphne again? If it’s one person back home that wants to talk to me, it’s my grandma.”
“I cain’t say I don’t enjoy banter—I do enjoy banter, but you’ve been away from her too long. I cain’t have her to meself.” Marko’s expression turned vacant but then he shook himself outside his stupor. “Anyway, she’s over there with the winged helmet and unicorn-haired sweater,” he gestured.
Acacia walked slowly over to her grandmother while she was frantically knitting some last-minute battle sweaters for the oncoming vessels. Acacia hoped she would recognize her grandmother in battle better than she did when they reunited after her fake death (and after she went through some youth transformation curse).
She proceeded cautiously to where Grandmother pitched her felt tent. “Grandma,” she spoke up just enough for Daphne to halt her task mid-stitch. “I missed you...again.”
Daphne perked in fright then relaxed when she recognized Acacia. She moved toward her in an embrace. It wasn’t Acacia who sobbed in fright or reconciliation, but her experienced grandmother, her much too experienced Grandmother. Every year of her life cracked under its own weight and cracked in her wrinkles although her experience added to her strength and apart from everything else, her cynicism. For this, Acacia held on longer. She could not let go of her powerful grasp nor did she want to let go. Suddenly, Acacia wanted to do everything it took to earn Daphne’s crown which presented itself as a gift. She deserved a peaceful retirement and a more peaceful retirement than Conrad’s father who lost the college probably due to Former Mayor, Anton Drought’s corruption.
She had later to investigate the mayor; however, once she finished battle, the Council of Elders would allow her to return to Domain so she could gain permission to search privately for the deed. They had lost the fruit but it wasn’t all they had. She had hopes for her home, but whether or not the Council shared the same involvement back home, she hoped the drama didn’t interfere with battle. Acacia had discussed this privately with Danika after the accusations that she had beyond reasonable motive for stealing weapons. Acacia never did find out if the correct amount were repaid to the judges from each city after the council, but Jason was ordered to give up some coins while wealthy soldiers were ordered to invade Mother’s den to replenish her offerings. It was assumed that each soldier wouldn’t be hurt since each sentry was trained to read Mother’s temperament.
Whether each city was paid in full for military funding didn’t matter to Commander Marko since he announced either side was evenly matched and deplete in military training and weapons.
While still in Daphne’s embrace, and after relaying Marko’s hopeless nonchalance to Daphne, Andelko meekly walked over in utter awe of the former queen. He bowed in respect, whether it was needed or not, and Daphne in return, instead of thanking him, lightly embraced him. Andelko’s smile was a thin line and the usually talkative sailor lost any words.
Chiron and Circinus followed behind him in early triumph. Although the murder and sacrifice of their friends were happening before battle began, seeing Daphne for maybe the first time, if not in centuries (whatever Daphne’s real age), was a small but simple and uncomplicated triumph. Acacia did not want to interrupt the placidity of the moment with war strategies.
“Daphne,” Chiron spoke with awe and respect. “You are our precious daughter and wise queen. You will have much to teach Acacia but she learns quickly.”
“Daphne,” Circinus addressed in similar reverence, “if there is anything left to teach you we will lend it all.”
Daphne, in trying to hold back a tear, kept her mouth line serious and formal. If Acacia, seeing or even hearing about her father crying was frightening, seeing her grandmother cry was haunting. She hadn’t thought the display showed a difference in the openness of relationship as much as it did difference in personality or rank.
The re-reunion didn’t shatter their nerves; rather, it was a release so strategies could be built and minds cleared. The weapons were few. Marko had a stash salvaged from the wreck, but the ambushing vessels from Mother had not arrived. Acacia already had salvaged three gold-alloyed scimitars before the Council made her return the other weapons to that old goose. Alternately, Acacia wished Jason returned all his weapons to Mother. Milko taught Acacia a thing or more about trickery. Andelko knew even more about slides of hands, but Daphne had something more valuable and numerous—knitting needles. Every sentry and soldier had a pair. The clicking and clacking were louder than the hooves of the wild unicorns and the brandishing of swords. In waiting for the ambush vessels, the army worked tirelessly, using Daphne’s instructions to weave, rib, purl, cable, and loop deceptively soft armor.
However, there was more than a pair next to each soldier. Silver needles littered the field like a lost game of pick-a-stick. Someone had to put them away. This gave Acacia an idea.
The needles act as a barrier between the two sides, or at least temporarily. The needles could perhaps stop our army from advancing, but what if they stopped the other side with surprise? It’s not just surprising; it’s a trap. A fire moat, like the one Kazimir told me he barely escaped, surrounded Jason’s tower, gives me an idea. The moat couldn’t go all around, but if I could gather enough unicorn fur from the wild ones I could weave a fence or a web like a cardinal spider nest inside of a dreamcatcher!
Acacia sped excitedly to the most trusted person on her side, Kazimir. She knew he didn’t have experience in trap-setting like she had in the wilderness, but she didn’t want to give the news out too quickly to a higher rank if it sounded like a bad idea.
“How will we gather enough unicorn fur in time? The wild ones are touchy.”
“If it’s anyone who could tame a wild mare or bronco it would be I.”
“And will the traps be hidden or revealed?”
“I have that already figured as well. Of course, we would have time for it to be only in the open, but that comes at an advantage. The army would be taken by surprise! Could we advance past our needle barricade? The peripheries would have to be bare but it would throw off entirely any domesticated strategy.” She spoke with the excited urgency of an eager student.
Kazimir always seemed to have a permanent look of skepticism etched into his lines making him unreadable. Maybe the thought of actually putting his apprenticeship to the test made him frightened or even confused.
“You can overthink it more than I have, Kazimir, but it would never get you into the water.” She learned in her travels to trust an epiphany or revelation. Kazimir never gave into an intuition and this bugged her but she trusted his opinion.
“I’d like to help,” he surprised her.
Every sentry, warrior, and priest representing the wild unicorns on Daphne’s side gathered hay and unicorn fur. Some expert craft persons were gathering fur to create webs (like those of the dreamcatchers) and snares for the enemy to trip or become entangled in. Others forged larger needles from campfire, creating blunts large enough to par with or create even larger traps and encircling fences. Acacia appraised their workmanship but urged that the traps cannot be seen and the fences also must create a distraction for their side. Others gathered hay to lay over the inner traps containing the small needles. For an outsider, it looked like they were tallying away their time, but this also created a distraction. No spy could figure out their strategy because they were so encompassed by the banging and digging and trenching that one would take for welding noise or the usual relatively softer noise of battle.
Circinus and Chiron interrupted from behind and licked Acacia’s hairs when she disappeared in the trenches to secure needles in the ground and lay hay. Not caring who saw, she hugged each of them, giving a precautionary goodbye.
Acacia’s front stood ready with their magical unicorn sweaters that were as silky as they were armor. The sweaters could be seen over the traps which made Jason laugh. The fur had healing properties. The battle began in unexpected silence. A firebird circled overhead, creating a moat, but the moat shielded only Jason, Kazimir, and Acacia from the battle. It even trapped them together.
Acacia spit accusations at Jason in the middle of a ring of fire forged from the firebird. Kazimir once again was the designated middle-ground.
“Jason, this war is about loving the sight of tears, human or unicorn,” she cried. Kazimir crouched between them, trying to wriggle out of the way with hope of escaping the fire. “It isn’t even about you!”
Jason admitted he loved the sight and feeling of tears and expounded as if his confession wasn’t enough. It was no place to put forth his diary, but besides the ashes and acrid flame, Acacia thought she saw real tears.
She expected Jason to hurl a comeback or Kazimir to politely jump in or each of them to attempt an escape plan as if they were trapped back in Jason’s fortress; or eons ago when they played spy but Jason, instead, explained the bitter truth as to why he liked witnessing people cry, opening himself up not just to scimitar scars but psychoanalysis.
“It started with seeing me cry, sometimes staring at myself in the mirror wondering if it would end, but then I saw my father cry. It was kind of a relief. When people cried it meant I could help them; but then I could no longer. It was beyond my means; however, seeing people cry gave me a sense of relief. It meant I was no longer alone, but then my pain became transferable. I needed to be alone!”
There’s a time and place for everything, Acacia thought, but she decided to release the insults burning in her insides hoping to end the violence the ring of fire made them blind to.
“You have digressed into even more of the child I once knew! Except this is no longer fun...it’s intentional!” Sweat beaded down her forehead. The ring of fire did not cool her fury. “Wow, you never will change.”
“But I brought you here and if it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have discovered Daphne’s secrets. What makes you better than me, friend?”
These weren’t the exact words steaming in Acacia’s mind, but they struck her with guilt for Jason and made her look around in search of Daphne’s help. Jason didn’t care about any soul or any part of his soul unearthed or hidden and didn’t care anymore to treasure it.
She received a flashback from elementary school of Jason and Acacia alone on his estate, in the second-floor room filled with books and dreary files. Jason found a stash hidden under the floorboards of old family photos. Then was his realization his estate also belonged to his ancestors. It made the house more haunting but more mystical. Acacia would try to find more stashes with him whenever his parents were away, sometimes only finding weird coins and gross crumbs but they would make up stories from a stash of toys found under the floorboards (old stuffed animals Jason never wanted to be thrown out), some silly stories like ones from Professor Mallard except ones with a beginning and an end. Then they would go off and play hide-and-seek and make gooey desserts they normally wouldn’t be allowed to eat like marshmallow fluff and gummy bear parfait.
There was something in his new self which resembled Jason but the older Janus thought himself to be privileged...or maybe inversely, too far gone to associate with his old friends in a humane way.
“You led me on a wild goose chase. But more importantly, the sacrifices need to stop. You are past pleasing everyone. I know I wasn’t popular but I was there to hear your grievances and to give advice. I wasn’t just a goofy kid. Here I am now.”
“You aren’t pleased I brought Daphne here? How I tried to help you? It isn’t you who must face what she’s done. It’s Daphne, not your queen, but your grandmother that needs to be answered for!” he roared.
And with that, Acacia lunged at him with a sharpened knitting needle but before she drove the needle into his heart, she fell to her knees at Jason’s feet and started to choke. She struck again, leaving a lash on Jason’s face and leaving him twisting in pain. She twisted her own face as she tried to hold back tears, but it didn’t matter: if tears were his cooling of the battlefield, then they were his to keep. She then composed herself, hardening her jaw, and slanted her gaze upwards. Jason smiled and laughed in relief as she turned her gaze toward his piercing eyes, glaring in the fire, but before she could completely lift her gaze and stand, a firebird swooped under her legs, knocking Jason backward, and throwing Acacia over the ring.
“No, it wasn’t Daphne that brought you here. You brought Daphne to exile and I know who you are!” She wailed one last time into the air.
She landed with a thud and a mouthful of sod. She craned back toward the ring of fire but couldn’t see anything through the thick inferno. Whether he was dead or alive, it wasn’t her decision and it wasn’t the first time she regretted the firebird’s decision, but a simple bird had to be innocent of intention. She was more innocent because of the firebird’s saving but Jason’s pain and sin were transferable.
Is that all I had for him?