2: A Journey
My room was just as always: spartan in decoration and slightly drafty. The bed in the corner was functional, but not overly comfortable. The dresser, filled with assorted clothing, was a bland pine, rectangular and simple. Other than that, there was a rack that I could hang up may armor, and that was the extent of my furniture that I owned. This was just a place that I slept; it wasn’t home. I sat on the bed and began to loosen the straps that secured the Suryan leather armor that I usually wore.
The Naga obviously wouldn’t accept somebody just off the street, I had to gain their sympathy somehow. I had loosened the straps of the left shoulder, and it fell into my hands. I examined it. The smooth leather, imprinted with a golden star surrounded by a circle, indicated my esteemed rank. I laid it down on the bed. I couldn’t take that with me where I was going.
Slowly and methodically, I continued to remove my armor, piece by piece. I could always pose as a beggar, I supposed. The Naga often take pity on the poor, as it is easy to take advantage of them. People don’t become criminals for fun – or at least, most of them don’t. They do it because they need to. Though we knew they were based in the city, nobody knew where their home base was. Likely, it was hidden through some enchantment. Which meant that I would have to convince somebody to take me there.
I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but I felt confident that I would figure it out once I got out into the city. My armor fully removed, carefully placed just-so on the bed beside me, it was time to don my disguise. I rose to dig through my dresser, searching for a dress that I knew should be in there somewhere. Most peasant women wore a cotton gown similar to the one that I had, if I could find it.
Shoved into the corner, balled up and smelling only somewhat musty, I drew out a cotton gown that should do the trick. I quickly shed my tunic that went under my armor and leggings and threw on the shift over me. After much tugging, it finally fit over my hips and chest. I suppose I’d gotten larger and more muscular since I’d worn this last. That was unsurprising; I trained daily with weapons and physical exercise, honing my body as I would a weapon. I dug a brown cloth corset of sorts out of the dresser and tied it neatly around my torso, securing the dress.
My long, black hair was already in a plait as usual, out of my face and out of my way. I took a deep breath and looked around my room, wondering if I would miss it. I didn’t think that I would. What else would I need? I couldn’t take any obvious weapon, like a sword, though I wished I could. I was an extremely powerful mage, and able to overcome just about any foe, but my magic was costly. The great energy that I expended, even just to reinforce my own physical strength, sapped my mental strength. I couldn’t rely on it, as oftentimes the cost is too great for it to be worth the effort.
It was time to go. I didn’t see a need to use a false name. Fields was a common surname, typically seen in the plains beyond the capital. And, though the royal family and the Suryan Mages all knew my name, it wasn’t as if the rest of the public did. I wasn’t famous by any means, and it should be safe enough for me to go by Larke. It would be easier, in any case. It was such a pain to have to remember to answer to a different name.
I would be Larke Fields, a peasant woman, alone and down on her luck, perhaps even a widow. And, if my late husband had a gambling debt, it would transfer to me. If anyone questioned me on the details, I could just say that he lied to me, kept the specifics from me. I decided that my husband and I had been farmers, which should be easy enough for me fake. Though it’d been fifteen years, I’d been a farmer’s daughter a lifetime ago. I should be able to speak about it convincingly enough.
I walked out of my room, ready for my journey. There was only one more thing left; I would have to inform my second in command, Liss. He would likely still be in the training yard with the recruits, just as he had been earlier today before I’d gone to see the King. I walked along the familiar path, as I had earlier, towards my destination. I would miss this.
As expected, I found him sparring with a recruit who was maybe twelve, not one of the ones I had met this morning. I heard the clacks of the large wooden staffs before they’d even come into sight, and as it always did, the sound made me remember my old training days. It didn’t seem that long ago, although more than a decade had passed before I’d started living here in the palace. Though it was early evening by now, with the sun almost ready to set, the heat of the day had wildly surpassed anyone’s expectations; sweat dripped down my back, making me sticky. I could practically feel the heat radiating from the earth, blanketed by brown, dying grass that covered the practice yard.
“Good stance, but next time, don’t get distracted. Your opponent is going to be taking advantage of your inattention,” said Liss, advising the recruit.
He must have heard me enter, as he ended the bout. “Excellent work. Keep up the practice.”
The recruit, marked by the lack of noted rank on his leather armor, saluted both Liss and I by pressing his palms together in front of his face, and dipping his forehead to meet the tips of his fingers, the standard Suryan salute. After we each returned the gesture, Liss waved the recruit away once more.
Liss looked over to me, his long dreads secured in a thick band, sweat dripping all over his smooth, ebony skin. A wide, easy smile lit his face, exposing sparkling white teeth. He stopped before me and used his wooden staff like a walking stick, propping it on the hard, dry ground. He looked just the same as he did when I’d first met him, although now, bits of gray peppered his magnificent dreads.
“Liss, I need to speak with you,” I said, business-like.
“And, we’re speaking,” he smiled jovially, teasing me as he usually did. He tossed an errant dread, so long that it reached well past his shoulder blades, back over his shoulder.
“I’m to be on an undercover scouting mission for the foreseeable future,” I confided.
He tilted his head to the side, listening carefully. I wished I could take him with me. His magical talent, while not physically powerful like mine, was the ability to discern the truth from lies. It would be of great use in this case, as it had been maybe times before, but I couldn’t. As my second-in-command, he had to remain and lead the Suryan Mages in my absence. He must have felt the truth in my words, as he nodded. In any case, the King had assigned this mission to me. I believed my stature seemed less threatening to those who didn’t know me – people underestimated me, and that was much to my advantage for undercover work.
“I take it that’s all you can share with me,” he questioned, used to our way of things. He’d been on countless missions with me before.
“Yeah, unfortunately. It’s a shame I can’t bring you.”
“Somebody’s got to look after the children,” he laughed, and whether he was referring to his trainees or the royal family, I wasn’t sure.
Either mental visual was amusing, and as he often did, his words elicited a reluctant smile from my lips.
“You’re leaving now?” he asked, his eyes noticing my lack of Suryan armor, affirming his question.
“Yep. Right after this.”
“Need me to come and get you afterwards?” he asked warily.
This was another typical protocol, although not one I would likely have the luxury of. Liss leaned against the staff he had thrust into the ground.
“No, I’ll need to be as discreet as possible, so I’ll have to manage an escape on my own.”
“Shame, that’s always exciting. Like in that Dobridland mission eh?” He smiled again, always the light-hearted one.
I wished I could be that effortlessly happy.
“I hope not – that went horribly! We lost the documents we went in there for,” I reminded him, unable to stop the smallest of grins from lighting on my lips.
Liss always liked to reminisce; he was notorious for telling stories of our accomplishments. Not the classified kind, of course, which often meant that the stories he told were wild exaggerations meant to entertain, occasionally based on a single grain of truth.
“True, but we did have fun blowing things up on the way out,” he said, lost in his memories, a vacant expression on his pleasant face.
“You did, that’s for sure,” I laughed, a full smile now unconstrained on my face.
He stopped to watch my expression as I recalled those memories to surface. I suppose, now that time had passed, it had been at least a little bit enjoyable to destroy those buildings in our escape. They really had exploded ever so nicely.
“You be careful out there, alright?” His tone suddenly serious, all joking aside, he tucked his staff in the crook of his elbow.
His concern for me was touching; after all, he had trained me since I was child – he was the closest thing I’ve had to a father figure all these years in the palace.
“I will, Narcelliss. As long as you keep those children safe,” I joked.
“Hey, you know I hate it when you use my full name. It makes me sound so old. You can leave now,” he joked in return, his face showing exaggerated displeasure as he waved me away.
His reaction made me laugh as it always did. He pulled me in for a close hug, the sweat from his exertion evident when I touched his sticky back, the wooden staff that had been resting against his elbow clattered around and smacked my shoulder as I returned the friendly embrace. I didn’t mind; I wouldn’t be seeing him for a while.
“Until we meet again,” he whispered into my ear.
I wiped my hands on my dress and straightened up to face him. He gave me the serious salute, with military precision and deliberate movements, just as the recruit had done a few minutes ago. The salute signaled that the initiator acknowledged and respected the authority of the person it was directed to. Swallowing a sudden melancholy, I turned back onto the path and embarked on my journey, officially undercover. Something told me I wouldn’t return.