A man came running through the corridor. “Sir Alfred! Sir Alfred!”
“WHAT?” he roared with such a fiery glare it made him look insane.
“You need to come back to the hall, now.”
Alfred waved his hand and continued on his way. “Whatever it is, let Tarania handle it. I want to be left alone.”
“I’m afraid this is beyond Tarania.”
Alfred looked back at him.
“It’s very important. You are needed.”
As Alfred and the man made their way back to the hall in a hurry, the insane ruckus of what was going on in there became clearer.
Earhart met them halfway. He walked next to Alfred and said, grimacing, “I warned you about this. I warned you about this for so long, but you just wouldn’t listen.”
Alfred gave him a push that almost knocked Earhart over and entered the hall only to be welcomed by chaos.
Tarania was on her feet with panic in her eyes.
Madness inhabited the hall. She had lost control and there was such a great roar from the delirious crowd, Alfred couldn’t understand a thing being said.
He roared above their voices, “EVERYONE BE QUIET… What is this? What’s happening here?”
The chatter went down but not completely, and the man who went to get Alfred shouted, “Bring him forward. Come before the earl.”
A man stepped forward with the fresh snow yet to melt off his cloak.
He asked, “Sir Alfred the Toic?”
Alfred waved his arms. “And who are you?”
“I bring the word of our lord, Valdes. He is marching east as we speak to meet Ardent in battle.”
The chatter rose again.
Alfred was shocked to the core.
He slowly made for his throne with Tarania quietly stepping out of his way but keeping her eyes on him with worry. He was so worn out suddenly that he looked sick.
He sat down, wiped his face with his palm and raised his hand for everyone to quiet down.
“I think I need to hear this one more time.”
* * *
Keelin chuckled, “What’s the matter?”
Natir swatted the knife away. “You think it’s funny? Stop joking around.”
“Look at me. Does it look like I’m joking?”
“You want me to kill myself?”
“No, not me. I couldn’t care less if you live or die.” She leaned down near Natir’s face. “It is you who should be wanting this knife right now.”
Keelin looked away and suppressed a laugh then said again, playing the knife in her hand.
“As the story goes, of all the charms Diva has, nothing ever came close to how beautiful her voice is. They say that she can make any man or woman fall madly in love with her with her voice alone. They say that when she sings, the birds stop to listen, and the stone would turn so soft, you could weave silk from it. Well, I don’t know about the stone, but what I do know for certain is that Diva will kill herself before such a day may come when she lets anyone but Alfred hear her voice.”
Natir asked, stunned breathless, “Why?”
Keelin shrugged. “It’s what she wants. There are no reasons behind what the heart desires, it just wants what it wants. And that’s what Diva wants above all else, to reserve the single most beautiful side of her to the man she chose… So, do you understand now?”
“What is it that you want? What is the single thing you can’t bear living without? The one thing that once gone, a disgusting, barren land of nothing but cold emptiness and stench your world would become? Once, you told Alfred that it’s your freedom.”
“And yet here you are, happily throwing it at someone else’s feet like the cheapest thing in the world. So then, if it’s not your freedom, what is it that you really want? Is it your body? Your pride? Respect? Food? Money? Love? How many times have you been deprived of all those things and lived still?”
Natir dropped her face.
“So you do understand me now. You can see for yourself how easy you’ve kept changing your answer when the truth is that there can only be one thing, and it’s easier to erase the mountains off the face of the earth than to erase it from the heart… And now you say that it’s Alfred,” she chuckled, “but the man you think you want more than anything just walked out on you like dirt, and yet, you still won’t take my knife. You feel bad, no doubt, but just not bad enough to be worth dying for, is it…? So now, open your ears, because I will ask you once more time: what is it that you want?”
She looked back at her and panted, “Aina.”
Keelin stared deep into her eyes for a long pause then shook her head. “No.”
“What?” Natir was shocked.
“I’m sorry, but she’s not.”
She grimaced. “I’ll die before anything may happen to her.”
“As would any mother.” She pat Natir’s knee. “Well then, I’ve done you the favor, Natir. You go ahead and believe what you wish.” She headed for the door. “But mark my words: She’s not.”
* * *
Faced with a hard decision, Alfred remained silent and spacing out for a long pause with a mask of gloom on his face.
Alfred looked at them. They all waited to hear the word of their earl. He straightened on his throne and declared, “If Valdes goes to war… We go to war.”
The muttering rose. Earhart and his supporters pat each other’s shoulders and shook hands with glee.
Alfred slowly came down and walked among them. “So… It seems that I was wrong.” His voice was steadily getting stronger. “Ardent did lose his mind after all.”
The men’s chatter rose during the intervals of his speech.
“It seems that he has no intention of settling for what he has gotten and head back home. No. Greed has blinded him… Taking down puny villages with harlots-for-warriors has given him delusions.”
Natir returned to the hall. She was yet clueless as to what was going on and what the men were cheering for.
“And now, he wants more! More OF THE FOOD ON OUR TABLES… Ardent the Agri wants to raid our land. THE LAND OF THE TOIC… Well, he’s forgetting just one thing,” he snatched a cup and jumped on a table and shouted, “HE’S FORGETTING THAT I AM ALFRED. I AM THE EARL OF THE TOIC. AND THE BIRD NEVER PREYED ON THE EAGLE.”
The men roared with cheers.
“And I will not wait for him to come to me. No… I will race to him, for that when war calls, I AM THE IMPATIENT… I am impatient, because only when I’m close to death, that’s when I feel truly alive. I am impatient to put his head and the heads of his men on my spears. I am impatient for the gold I will get from selling their children. And I am impatient to enslave and rape and make whores of the women of the Agri. MEN OF THE TOIC, WE MARCH TO WAR!”
A chill ran down Natir’s spine whilst the deafening cheers erupted from every corner.
“Servants!” Alfred called aloud. “Open my depot wide and refurnish my banquet, and call on every entertainer and woman of the night to come dance and sing and make love in my hall, for tonight I am celebrating with friends, and some of them may soon leave me or I leave them.”
Alfred tossed his cup in the air and jumped down the table, surrounded by spree. He headed through the door where Natir stood and passed by her as if he could not see her. Natir followed him with stunned eyes.
Earhart was full of excitement. He chased after Alfred. “Father—”
All of a sudden, Alfred was overwhelmed with rage. He grabbed Earhart and pushed him against a wall, just out of everyone’s sight.
“You’re getting what you wanted at last,” said Alfred. “You wanted to go to war? Hm? You wanted to know what the Boii’s wars are like? Well then, you better get ready because you’re about to see horrors that will make you shit yourself. And this time, no one will be there to wipe your ass for you.”
Alfred glanced at Natir as though he had only just noticed her; he let go of Earhart and left without saying anything.
Seeing what Alfred was like and watching the guests celebrating like mad men, Natir was left in a baffled state.
It was just a short while ago that everything was resolved in the complete opposite direction. She couldn’t even begin to comprehend how a world could flip upside-down so quickly and right before her eyes.