Xian

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Chapter 2.4: The Main Road.

“I’ve regaled you with bits of general history and sorcerous nonsense. Now, I shall illuminate you on basic economics. Yes, it’s a trivial matter. But it should illuminate other truths. When the Elysians fell, they did not take their trade routes with them, nor did the many roads and trade associations along those routes disappear. And the beneficiary of these holdouts is none other than the Kingdom of Leo, the nation that intersects both Caminus and Yishu.

Leo is the centermost nation between three continents. The Caliph Theocracy to the west and the Shaka Tribes to the south-west discover many exotic magics and philosophies. While the Dantean Republics to the south and the Duchy of Strumhanden to the north provide all manner of fiscal and industrial innovations. All these things and more flow to the rest of the world through Leo, enriching it beyond all other nations. Save for Taiyang, Empire of the Far East…”

********

It had been two days since The Death Knight and her charges had fled from Abram’s grasp. He spent the first ensuring the legality of Skywood’s occupation, and then road from that town into the Aurelian Highway.

Bisecting the kingdom of Leo, and running from west to east with a mile’s width, the Aurelian was almost a nation unto itself. Garrisons of the Royal Mobile Corps, as well as cities sworn to the throne, and the postal services which delivered correspondence and packages throughout the whole of the kingdom, dotted the great road. Some of these holdings functioned as not so discreet checkpoints, inspecting, taxing, or in rare cases “losing” goods. But all in the service of The Crown and its state of course.

The routine brought a chuckle beneath Abram’s helm. “Damming the river with blades and litigation in place of stone and mortar. An effective, if unsubtle tactic.”

No such losses would happen to Abram or Evangeline however. Most of the guards in this part of the Kingdom were well aware of The Silvered Fiend and his party, and unaware of the impending invasion of Ulq. As such, Abram and Evangeline were able to ride and rest along the highway with little disturbance. Those merchants who set up camp across the road, or little trade towns that cropped up along it, had little in the way of worthy stock to offer.

Though Evangeline was able to pick some more effective travel clothes: simple leather armor that had been hardened and reinforced with metal strips, which she now wore. Other than that, none of the shops and traders were of much interest. No, Abram’s first real stop along the highway was a bit more practical.

Not that it changed Evangeline’s mood. “Why didn’t we just pursue them ourselves? Why send the elves? Or better yet, why not just go with the party?”

Abram considered his words. First silence, and then a weary and somewhat defeated sigh escaped him. “Dame Barbara, the Death Knight?”

Evangeline nodded, and Abram continued. “I’m not sure if I can beat her...even with this sword as it is now.”

“Alright. What makes you think that?”

“She’s a far more experienced fighter then I am. And when I shifted tactics and cut into her with five Black Blades at once, she still fought on. Then there are her wings...she’s not just a Death Knight, I suspect that she’s a shepherd of souls: A Death Knight anointed by Divine authority, not just arcane magic.”

Evangeline shook her head, glancing sometimes at the wagons and fellow travelers on the road. She lowered her voice, making sure they could not hear. “That explains a few things...how are you going to empower the sword?”

“An Animus sounds like a good start.”

“Not the Fasces?”

Abram shook his head, and Evangeline took a moment to think on this.

Then she smiled. “You want me to take my contractor’s power.”

“And then together we can bring down the Animus.”

Evangeline seemed happy with the idea. But concern began to creep into her face. So she leaned over from her horse. “You’re not thinking of summoning the demon at the chapter house are you?”

“No other way. We need to bring him down before we get to Ulq. Once we arrive the Animus will most likely watch our movements and Kiernan will deploy countermeasures.”

Evangeline licked her lips, an unsatisfied grin followed. “By countermeasures, you probably mean the rest of the order?”

“I don’t want a civil war in the middle of a siege, particularly when there’s an army of demons embedded in our ranks.”

“Well shit.”

“Indeed.”

The pair rode on a little while longer. They passed by several knights, even a mercenary company with black banners and a stream of silver water passing through it. Finally, they came to a township named Blakesworth. It was quite typical for a town of Leo, and its status as a direct possession of the Crown added little else in the way of distinction. It was composed of brick houses and stone walls that expanded the width of the highway. While its gates controlled traffic through the road.

To be fair, Blakesworth did have two unique features. The first was a subtle one: It’s proximity to the river Leontes, connecting it directly to the Capital of Leo...and the trade routes belonging to the Empire of Taiyang. Thinking on this, Abram noted a wagon carrying barrels of rice wine. The casks of which bore the Imperial Seal of Taiyang: A golden serpentine Dragon breathing blue flames, all contained within a circle of jade.

“My nation of birth, if my keepers at the Order are to be believed. I can hardly remember any of it though...just a few faces with names...and running away from something.”

Abram shook his head and turned towards the other distinctive feature of Blakesworth: its castle, which had been built by a visiting architect of the Taiyang. The man had studied the styles and structures of many nations and cultures besides his own. So the resulting castle was a unique amalgamation of these lessons.

Its stones were night black and rose to a not so great height. This was not a tall castle of spires touching the sky, but its walls were thick, and what towers it had were wide enough to host devastating pieces of artillery. These pieces ranged from simple trebuchets to the mighty cannons that Taiyang employed. Though Abram knew these to be outdated models from the castles original building over fifty years ago.

The Empire had since developed far more devastating ordinance, but that did not diminish the old guns’ effectiveness. The Castle had three rings of thick walls, with five towers each, and bordered the far right, or east of the city: As if it were waiting for some action from the Empire.

This mighty fortress was not only the residence of the royally appointed mayor, a common-born lady named Helena Seymour, but it was also a chapter house of her husband’s knightly order: The Knights of the Imperial Flame.

“Lucky Bastard.”

The lucky bastard in question was Sir Mark Boleyn. He was a Half-Orc son of a previous wife to the predominantly Orcish Boleyn family, and at his latest stepmother’s behest was fostered off to the Knights of the Imperial Flame. While there, Mark had made quick friends with several of the more humbly born knights, particularly Abram.

As Abram and Evangeline wove their way through the city streets and finally came to the gates of the castle proper, they saw banners of the Imperial Flame hung next to the banners of the Royal Family of Leo: a black lion on a field of royal purple. The gate guards of course recognized the colors on Abram’s tabard, as well as his legendary height and decorated armor. Despite this, they still asked him the customary questions of “What’s your business” and such.

To which Abram replied: “Business of the Mayor and her husband.”

One of the guards, a lean and ambitious looking fellow, did not think Abram’s answer was sufficient. “Oh that’s fine I guess, but we’re the city guard, sir knight...I think you ought to be a bit more upfront with us.”

The man sauntered up in mildly polished chainmail with a tabard of the royal colors, and even tried to put a hand on Abram’s horse, his hand was stopped by an uplifted fist from Abram. The man looked up at the Silvered Fiend, unused to being denied...he saw only Abram’s implacable knife-like eyes staring back at him.

The guard took a none too subtle gulp and waved at the gate operator to open the way to the castle. Abram nodded gratefully, eliciting a smile from Evangeline, and they walked through the gates.

The courtyard was a touch more eastern than what was typical of Leo. There were hedge sculptures of Far Eastern style dragons, coy ponds with floating lilies, and the occasional fallen leaf that glided along the water’s surface. Abram found it quite pretty. But any contemplative appreciation he had for the scenery was cut off by a loud and testosterone-fueled cry from the castle proper.

“Abram!”

Abram smiled beneath his helm and looked up towards the castle steps to see Sir Mark Boleyn: A tall man of lean build, green skin, and blue eyes, all clad in bright silver armor, run towards him with open arms and a big toothy smile. Abram dismounted and casually walked up to the fast-paced half-orc.

Who embraced him and laughed in a grand and excited fashion. “Ha-Ha! It’s good to see you after so many months. I had thought you’d never show again, then I heard about the siege at Stonehause.”

Abram broke the embrace. Curious at this last comment, but keeping his tone friendly and joking. “Keeping tabs on me are you?”

“The way your star is soaring my friend? I can only hope some of that good luck comes to me...wait a moment, is that Evangeline?”

Evangeline had dismounted her horse and was now walking towards the two knights with a wide smile, and outstretched arms. “Come on let’s get it over with.”

Mark Boleyn laughed heartily again and hugged Evangeline tightly, almost bowling her over.

But they both laughed and Mark went on to reminisce. “I remember when we were all stuck fighting bandits for a living. Abram and I dodging arrows while you shot hellfire above us...Oh those were fine and glorious days.”

Evangeline nodded. “Yeah, now you’re fighting for two.”

Mark smiled proudly. “Oh yes. I’ve been with the love of my life, speaking of which.”

Mark turned and bowed in theatrical fashion towards the door he had come through. Beneath that heavy archway, and between those opened steel doors was Helena Seymour. She was a petite woman, barely over five feet tall, with soft features and warm brown eyes that seemed eternally curious.

She was smiling softly, hearing her husband’s compliment. But became stern as she spoke. “Mark, you promised you’d attend the town meeting with me today.”

“I know I did.”

“It’s happening right now.”

Mark relaxed his fists on his hips and let forth another booming laugh. “Oh come now. You wouldn’t have me leave Abram in the dust, would you? For Baal’s sake, he introduced us!”

Helena rolled her eyes but then turned towards Abram and Evangeline with a polite and welcoming look. “I am sorry we’re not giving you the full treatment on this. It’s just that...well...”

Abram saw Helena’s apprehension, then nodded in understanding. “I can only imagine. Between coordinating with the Imperial Flame, meeting your quotas for the Crown, and managing trade deals with Taiyang...You must have a great deal on your mind.

Helena smiled. “Yes...you wouldn’t happen to bring news from Kiernan, would you?”

Mark turned towards Abram from his wife. His face still jovial but his eyes now curious and anticipatory.

Not knowing how much they already knew; Abram considered his words...and then answered. “I take it that he has put in a few requests?”

Mark and Helena both said yes, and seemed ready to say more. Which prompted Abram to wave his hand dismissively. “We’ll talk about it at dinner, and it ought to be casual, no staff needed.”

Both mistress and master of the house nodded, understanding his meaning. The coming discussion would be in an empty room, where no prying eyes could hear them.

Once that was made clear, Mark’s jovial attitude returned. “Well, you must both be tired. The servants will take you to the guest house, where rooms have already been prepared.”

The Orcish Knight paused for a moment...then continued with a mischievous smile on his face. “Unless of course you only need one?”

Abram sighed in annoyance, having expected this comment but still not wanting it. Evangeline smiled and chuckled a little, hiding her face behind a gloved hand.

But Helena’s eyes widened, and her voice rose to a commanding and furious pitch. “Mark Boleyn how could you!”

“I’m only asking my love-”

“It’s their business you brute.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Oh please, as soon as you and Evangeline are alone you’ll ask her all about it. You’ll be worse than a Caliph Inquisitor.”

“Oh shut up and get in here, the guildsmen are waiting for us...and they brought their dogs.”

Mark laughed his hearty laugh as he walked after his wife and they both disappeared into the castle.

Once they were gone, Abram looked over at Evangeline. “We’ll need two rooms. One for sleeping and the other for summoning.”

Evangeline fixed her captain with an inquisitive look. “We’re telling Mark and Helena about what we’re doing right?”

“Of course. First, we need to settle in, get a feel for the environment and such. It’s been a while since we were last here.”

Evangeline looked about the castle, with a nostalgic look in her black eyes. “Yeah.”

Four servants came up to Abram and Evangeline. They then escorted them to the finely decorated guest house, which was the size and build of a regular-sized townhouse. It was nicely furnished, but not opulently so. Everything from tables to the dressers was the epitome of function over form. But there was the occasional art piece from a town notable or an overseas painter that dotted the wall and added some vibrancy to the space.

Evangeline took a deep breath upon passing through its threshold. “Oh wow, it’s just been cleaned.”

One of the servants who had brought in their gear and spare clothes smiled with some pride. “Oh yes, my lady. We keep everything in proper and working order, it’s a matter of professionalism.”

Abram was pleased. “You do excellent work. I assume our rooms are upstairs?”

The servant returned the smile with a grateful bow. “Oh yes, my lord. But the whole space is available to you. Even the basement, though I must warn you that it can be rather dank and even uncomfortable down there.” ”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I’m afraid to say it’s the one level we just can’t get a hold on. Always spiders or some other pest crawls their way in there. But not to worry, there are no such annoyances in the rest of the house.”

Abram thanked the servants for their work, tipped them generously, and then insisted on carrying the rest of the belongings on his own to the rooms. The servants finally complied, thanking both Evangeline and the Silvered Fiend for their generosity.

Once the servants were out the door and out of earshot, Evangeline picked up her bags and cast a wry grin towards Abram. “I can guess where you wanna go.”

Abram picked up his own bags and began climbing the stairs. “We won’t disturb the rest of the house. And we’ll have the demon trapped underground.”

“But we’ll be trapped with it.”

“Not if we plan carefully.”

The two of them walked up to their room, which was more nicely furnished then the lower level and featured a balcony with a view of both the city and the river, and began unpacking. Not many words passed between them as they shuffled through their baggage, for they were busy with their work. Abram conjured four Black Blades, and with a strange chisel with violet gemmed edges, carved new runes into them. As he did so, Evangeline tended to her bandages and brought out a china mask from her bags.

The mask was painted with several shades of green and red, giving the impression of forests and flowers cascading across the lines of the mask, like a river stream. The mask was round and barely fit on Evangeline’s face as she tried it on.

The young warlock extended her hand and made the customary gesture to conjure hellfire next to the mask. Nothing emerged from her hand. She smiled and put the mask into a small satchel. Once that was done, she turned towards Abram, still chiseling runes into his blades.

There was a lazy edge to her voice as she spoke. “Should we bother getting dressed for dinner? I mean we’re going to be fighting right after so...” She inclined her head, looking into the edge of his eyes. “What would you wear to hide your-”

Abram reached into his bag. Then pulled out a cloth mask that would cover up his entire face. It was white with black lines and impressions running along the surface in blade-like patterns. The only exposed parts of the mask were the eyelids. Abram’s customary gaze would still be there for all to see.

This was not lost on Evangeline, who couldn’t help but laugh at how hard Abram was trying to conceal his face. “What about everyone who’s already seen before the helmet? They know what you look like already.”

Abram’s voice was dismissive as he continued his work. “You, Kiernan, and Atma are the only people left alive who do. And besides, when was the last time you saw my face?”

“Years ago.”

“Then you can’t possibly remember it.”

Evangeline didn’t smile, frown, or betray any emotion as she spoke. “Yes I can.”

With that said, she got off her spot on the bed and looked through the large walk-in closet space, closing the door behind her. Abram figured this would be the only opportunity he would get to change in peace, so he took advantage of it.

He dismissed his Black Blades, then stood up and whispered a few incantations. The plate and chain of his armor disappeared while the padded undercoat and all it’s supplements remained. He then whispered a few more words and conjured a robe of western-style and eastern silk. He finished switching out the undercoat for that robe and just finished fastening his cloth mask as Evangeline emerged from the walk-in. Abram smiled beneath his mask.

“You never take a half measure when it comes to dressing do you?”

Evangeline made a face like she was posing for a portrait, all in jest. But that did not take away anything from her current ensemble. The dress was Dantean, made of fine linen and very much in fashion. It was sapphire blue featuring a generous but not overt neckline, with black floral patterns across the bodice and a long double-layered skirt that reached to the floor. Evangeline broke her pose and sauntered over to the vanity across from the bed and next to the balcony entrance.

Abram looked confused. “You do your makeup after you get dressed?”

“I only wear a little bit...and are you telling me how to beautify to myself?”

“Are you going to get the powder and other crap on that dress?”

Evangeline became indignant. “Well guess what “Captain”, all I need to keep it clean is a...is a-”

Evangeline inspected the vanity for something that was evading her. Abram chuckled a little and then conjured a few sheets of cloth. He walked over to Evangeline, who saw his approach from the mirror.

The Silvered Fiend raised the cloths to her. “May I?”

Evangeline shrugged her shoulders. “Sure, go ahead.”

Abram carefully placed the sheets around the base of Evangeline’s neck and spread them out so they’d cover the top torso. Once he was done, he stepped back and nodded. “There you are.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Abram turned back to the bed, sat down on it, and started putting on and lacing up the boots that went with his robe. While he was tying up his boots, he stumbled a little to the other side and stopped for a moment.

He saw Evangeline, who had already quickly and effectively applied her lipstick, brushing her hair. He looked at how it trailed down her neck and along her shoulder to the small of her back. The lady hummed a gentle tune that Abram couldn’t recognize, and looked strangely innocent as she focused on her work. He remembered when he asked Miranda when he was a child sitting beneath that lone tree, why women wore makeup, and why so many of them, except a few knights in the castle he had met, spent so much time “looking pretty.”

For the first time, he could remember, Miranda seemed a little upset. “Why do you think we put so much effort into “looking pretty?”

“To get a date?”

Miranda shook her head and sported an annoyed and embarrassed look. “Some women yes, but a real woman, a genuine woman: “looks pretty” for herself. There’s’ nothing wrong with tending to what you’re proud of.”

“Men don’t do that, or at least not as much.”

“But they still do it. It’s all about pride in appearance and keeping it up. Besides, men are mostly brutes, they can’t help but look good with bit of sweat and swagger.”

Miranda smiled a bit, then a sudden realization dawned on her and she blushed a bit. “Or so I’ve heard, from...other people, who weren’t me...or other angels.”

The young Abram had considered this, and beneath his still new arcane helm, he asked: “What about me? Do you think I look good?”

Miranda looked suddenly mournful and pitying, she turned a little from her seated position, facing Abram directly. Her tone changed from instructional to soft, and matronly. “Abram...we need to talk about, well...about what’s happening, or I guess...what’s not going to happen between us...It wouldn’t be right.”

In the present, Abram banished these memories from his mind, remembering what had brought them up. From every stroke, from the soft hum that escaped her lips, and the gentle smile they were curled in, Evangeline seemed every bit what Miranda had told him a woman ought to be like.

She took pride in herself and showed it off to everyone. She was driven by confidence, tempered by experience, and made beautiful by sincerity. He realized that Evangeline was looking into a mirror while doing this, and brought his gaze back down to his boot, not wanting to seem perverse.

There was a pause, a silence as she stopped brushing, and Abram stopped as well, not wanting to look around. He finally looked up and saw Evangeline staring at his reflection in the mirror.

She asked with all seriousness: “Abram...why are terrified of me?”

Abram struggled to understand her words. “Afraid of you?” He snapped from his trance and gained an understanding of her words. “My outburst at Skywood…”

“Why are you scared of that? Of me getting hurt?”

He looked into the reflection of her eyes, his voice sinking into the whispers of a buried youth. “You know why, you’re my only true friend in the world. I trust you more than anyone else, I respect you more than anyone else.” He became very conscious of a wide look in his eyes, as if the words he was saying caused him pain, it did not stop him. “There’s so much more I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

Evangeline turned from the mirror and met his gaze. “Abram, I’ve been waiting to say this for a long time now. Ever since we were kids-“

“It’s because I love you.”

The words were so liberating that Abram wondered if he had truly said them, for he suddenly felt lighter and invigorated. “I’m terrified of you getting hurt because I’ve lost so much in my life…we both have. But now we have us, and I was scared that if I went for anything more than what we’ve had, that somehow fate or some other stupidity would end it all.”

Evangeline was nearly unreadable, some combination of confusion, sadness, and maybe joy. “Why say all this? What’s changed?”

He walked from the bed, standing next to her, and somehow beating back every impulse to shift in his steps. Instead, he stood his ground with every word he said. “I realized something…I realized that I love the feeling of your hand in mine. Of your voice in my ear, of your frustrating defiance, and even the faces you make when you’re annoyed or happy.

He took off his mask, exposing his face the first time since Miranda’s death. His features were a mix of Eastern and Western, possessing most of their ideals, such as wide eyes, fine cheekbones, and a sculpted chin. There were only a few hints of fault, such as his bigger nose. Though such features humanized him more than anything else. I love you, and everything about you. And I love that you’re in my life.”

There was a lengthy silence, with Evangeline hosting a stony expression after hearing all of this. Then her face softened, the light of the sunset reflected in her eyes, and a wry smile came upon her lips. “So? What are you going to do about that?”

“Right now? I’m very certain that I want to kiss you.”

“Well then, Take your best shot, Sir Abram.”

He leaned in, kissed her gently upon the lips...then just as quickly pulled back. He saw the surprise in her eyes and saw his own reflected in them. Then he smiled, leaned in, and kissed her again. This time passionately, deeply. He felt her hands across his cheek, upon his chest, felt their warmth, and the invitation to go further. He reached up to hold her hand even as he kissed her, and opened his eyes in no small amount of sobering fright. He felt the scars and wounds across her petite hands. He lifted his lips from hers, their parting far more reluctant than their union.

He wrapped her hands in his and looked into her eyes with a mournful gait. “We have plenty of work ahead before we can have our peace. And people who are waiting for us.”

Evangeline let out an annoyed sigh, feeling quite dejected, but knowing that Abram was right. She smiled weakly. “Yeah, I guess so.”

He lifted his head, walked to the door of the room and opened it, then offered a hand to her. “Shall we?”

“It only took two burned castles and a demonic apocalypse to get here...but yeah, lets.”

She took his hand and let him gently lift her up from her seat by the vanity. Then the two of them walked for the door, Evangeline smiled and then a startled look came across her face. “Wait, your mask!”

Abram’s reply was instant: “I don’t need it right now.”

She smiled again, this time with pride, and he returned it. With that done, they left that room, descended the staircase, and went out for dinner.

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