The Sovereign Gods

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Acacia: Diplomatic Force

The fire died during the middle of the night. Acacia fed it bits and pieces of kindling to keep it smoldering long enough for the sun to start peeking over the horizon. She watched Baerister sleep on his stomach, the side of his face pressed into the dirt. But for the most part of the night, he stared wide-awake into the campfire, beyond the ashes into thoughts that Acacia couldn’t even begin to fathom. She didn’t bother to ask him either. In his own time, he would choose to tell her what dark thoughts were rolling around in his skull. Or so she hoped.

The moment the sky began to lighten, Baerister rolled up off the ground and dusted himself off.

Acacia got to her feet as well. She gathered the bag of meats and cheese then held it out to Baerister. “Eat something while I get Ir’vaqur saddled.”

He eyed it for a moment then turned his attention to the campfire. He kicked dirt over the ashes, smothering whatever fire still lingered there.

“You have to eat something. We can’t help others until we take care of ourselves.”

He whipped around, snatching the bag from her hand and throwing it across the small clearing. “Yunoiya might already be dead!” He sucked down a sharp breath, the anger that twisted his expression softened. His brows caved under the grief that surfaced. “Forgive me, itellu.”

“Multitasking.” She slapped a hand into his arm. “We can ride to town and eat at the same time.”

Baerister bowed his head in agreement.

She had the horse saddled while Baerister gathered their gear. They both agreed to leave the cart at Yunoiya’s cottage for the time being. In town, they couldn’t be sure how things would turn out and a cart would only hinder Ir’vaqur during their escape. Acacia might have even left Hirain if she thought the dragon would stay put. But after the events of last night, she learned how stubborn he could really be.

She hoisted the dragon into the saddle first and then herself. Baerister climbed on behind her. They hurried down the worn dirt road towards town. She only pushed the gelding as fast as she thought best considering all the weight he had to carry.

Despite the tragic events, the weather was warm for an early morning. The sun was bright and the morning mist kept them cool. She might have enjoyed herself if Yunoiya’s life wasn’t on the line.

Baerister’s head pressed down onto her shoulder, his breath rolling across the curve of her collarbone. “Am I cursed,” he whispered. “Cursed to bring tragedy wherever I go?” He lowered his chin and pressed his forehead into her shoulder, his arms around her pulling her back firmly into his chest.

Acacia’s mind was whirling. The heat burning her face kept her from responding. She tried to put any thoughts of intimacy out of her mind. Baerister was clearly upset about losing Yunoiya. But it was difficult to do so when the feathers on his head brushed across her cheek and sent a thrilling jolt of energy down her spine.

“I brought tragedy to even you who risked your life to save me...”

She cleared her throat and locked her eyes on the road ahead. “You didn’t bring tragedy to me.” Acacia patted his hand, feeling how cold his fingers were, how cold he must have been during the night. “It’s been an adventure but... not tragic.” She pressed her hand flat over his and tried to warm his fingers a little.

Baerister moved his head again, the side of his face pressed into her neck. “Your people called you a traitor. You were almost forced to kill a friend to protect me. You do not see this as tragic?”

Was he teasing her, she wondered. The blush in her cheeks was starting to sting her eyes. He had to know how intimate he was being with her but then, she thought back to their ride from Ta’nes to Amitra. He had held onto her then so... why was she suddenly feeling the embarrassment?

She tried to keep her tone even as she retorted, “Bad things happen as well as good.”

“What good has come of our meeting?”

“I’ve been able to see Amitra. With someone who makes excellent company.” She peered over at him, as best she could with his head posted on her shoulder the way it was. “I’m glad I decided to save you. I’m glad I came with you.” Acacia returned her attention back to the road but she could guess his expression was softening in the way his hold loosened ever so slightly.

“As am I, itellu.”

~:~

They returned to town but took a different path to avoid the bustle of the market. They left Ir’vaqur at the town stables then marched through the town square in search of Paladins or a jailhouse. They were lucky to find both on the far side of the square past what appeared to be the town hall and mayor’s house.

“Is that a Paladin?” she asked Baerister as they approached a knight clad in silver plate mail with a shield about just as tall.

His voice wavered, “It is. Careful, itellu. They can’t be trusted.”

She eyed Hirain as he hissed and grumbled. They made eye contact and she felt like the dragon was confirming her assumptions. This knight had been there. He reeked of smoke and charred wood.

“Excuse me.” Acacia quickened her pace until she could grab the knight by the elbow.

He spun around and even though he wore a helmet, she could see the wrinkle between his eyes as he scrunched his nose in disgust. “Don’t touch me, commoner.”

She shoved her shoulders back and laid her arm over the hilt of her sword. “You arrested a woman yesterday. Yunoiya. I want to see her immediately.”

He scoffed. He turned squarely at her and growled, “Who are you to order a Paladin around?”

“Who are you to burn down a woman’s house and steal her horse?”

“The Witch commited a crime. By way of the King’s orders, she must be arrested and put to death.”

“What proof do you have that she even used magic?”

“She’s a Mage. Whether magic was used or not, isn’t the issue at hand.”

“So all it takes is pointing a finger at someone and calling them a Mage? That doesn’t sound like justice to me.”

“Move along. Or you’ll be arrested as an accomplice to a traitor. Maybe, even, you’re a traitor yourself committing treasonous acts.”

Acacia shoved a finger into the Paladin’s chest but before she could add another remark, Baerister wrapped his fingers around her hand and tenderly squeezed. She looked at the Arpaeian and found him giving her a single nod.

He kept his hold on her hand as he brought it to his side. He pulled from the confines of his robes the medallion that Yunoiya had given to him yesterday. “My name is Baerister, descendant of Matriarch Takalu. You have arrested a member of my household and I demand her release immediately.”

Before the knight could say anything or even look at the medallion, another Paladin approached him. He was older, a thin gray beard and sun-burned skin. His voice was raspy as he gave the order to his subordinate, “Return to the others, soldier.”

The Paladin’s jaw clenched but, after a final glare at Acacia, he marched into the jailhouse.

“Lord... Baerister, was it?” The veteran knight rolled his shoulders. “Our treaty with your people is firm and I admit I don’t want to quarrel with you. But our laws stand firm.”

“So does the law of the treaty. You can not arrest a royal member of our house. You must hand them over to the Arpaeian military.” His head tilted slightly as if to prompt the old man’s confirmation. “And seeing that magic is not a crime, the Arpaeian military will release her.”

“Indeed,” the Paladin agreed. He stepped forward, though, chin high as he peered down his nose at the taller Arpaeian. “You can’t save every Mage that comes through here.”

Baerister didn’t flinch or even bat an eye. “Just the one is fine.”

The old man chewed the inside of his cheek as he turned to the jailhouse and called out to one of the knights. “Bring me the Witch from yesterday. Unharmed.”

Yesterday, Acacia wondered. How many other people had they arrested?

Her voice held steady as she added, “I want to see all of them.”

The Paladin looked at her, registering her presence for the first time. “You’ve no authority here. Go back across your border and stay where you belong.” He swept his attention back to Baerister then marched to the jailhouse door.

One of the knights, a young teenager at best, was bringing someone at his side. Her hair was in disarray, a mess falling before her weathered face. It had only been one night and yet she looked as if she had aged ten years or so. Her clothes were smudged with soot and the edge of her dress was burnt.

Baerister rushed forward and gathered Yunoiya close. He stared fiercely at the youth and spat something in the Arpaeian language. The young man recoiled at the sound looking too naive to really understand the situation. And yet, Acacia reasoned, she too had been young when her father trained her to hate Arpaeians. Hatred, it seems, poisons every country.

Baerister helped ease the old woman across the town square to the edge of a fountain. “Rest for a moment.”

She grumbled in a high toned voice, “I’ve been resting. What do you think people do in prison?” She scoffed and chuckled. “Dance about delightfully?”

“Well, she still has her snark,” Acacia teased.

Hirain clawed at her dress, rubbing the side of his head into her legs.

“Yes, yes.” Yunoiya reached down and patted him. “I’ve missed you as well, old friend.” Then, as if she decided something, she straightened and raked back her gray hair until it was smooth. With a flick of her fingers, her hair coiled up together into a bun on the top of her head. She looked at her reflection in the fountain’s water then nodded approvingly.

“Yunoiya,” Acacia pleaded quietly. “I think we all need a moment to rest.”

“There’s something I must do first.” Yunoiya hobbled towards the town gates. “I’ve a few things back home I need to get.”

“Yunoiya,” sighed Baerister. “The cottage burned...”

“Yes, I know, dear.” She waved her hand at him as if it didn’t really matter. “I was there, you know.”

The potioness swaggered into view as if she had been quietly watching from her post. “Let me offer you my assistance, Yunoiya.” Mizuki flourished her hand towards a horse and cart. She sucked a deep breath through her smoking pipe and let it puff out in a ring of smoke. “With all these Paladins running about, darling, I find myself wanting to leave town.”

“Delightful timing,” the old healer cooed.

“You should go ahead of me. I’ll get Ir’vaqur from the stables,” Acacia told them.

Hirain hissed, his head bobbing between Yunoiya and Acacia as if he weren’t sure who to go with.

Acacia chuckled and kneeled down. “Go with Yunoiya and Baerister. I’ll see you at the cottage.”

“Come on.” Yunoiya waved him along. “Cart’s big enough for us all.”

The dragon hesitated but with a flick of his tail, he shuffled behind the healer.

Baerister as well took his time. He patted her on the arm and whispered under his breath, “Thank you.”

Acacia patted his arm in return before marching off to the stables. She felt a strange loneliness creep up on her. How many days had it been since she left Ta’nes on a wild journey to a foreign land to help an even more foreign stranger?

But it was worth it, she considered. Quite worth it.

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