[SL] A Sign of Solis


Authors
Kolo
Published
4 months, 29 days ago
Stats
3016 1

Though the news from Achernar leaves Aure both hopeful and dreading, the Highers bind him to their will, as they always have and will.

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The click of his clock filled the grand room, echoing and closing in around him. Behind him, enormous stained-glass windows bathed the ground in muted colors, their radiance gone in the light of the Moon. Though it was a good Moon, it was still merely a reflection - and, as one of the Land, Aure’s office was built to venerate its ever-partner, the Sun.


The loss of that stalwart glow and warmth had made the appearance of the figure before him all the more chilling. Though he supposed he was not a superstitious man, it was hard to ignore a sign from the Highers such as this. Thankfully, they remained silent, waiting for Aure to settle back into reality and accept his fate.


Of course, he recognized the sigils on their cloak, the intricate carvings brimming with magic. A talented mage, woven enchantments boasting of protection, speed, endurance, power, amplification. The kind of magicks one would need to survive free from the Court’s careful valley.


This was truly a nightmare - one he had long-hoped would never come to pass. Though his gaze was locked onto the mage, his eyes were glazed over, swirling thoughts dominating the emptiness of the room. If he blinked, memories of its earlier bustle, chatter, and wine filled his head - a sharp contrast, like a knife’s edge, to the stillness it held now.


After another moment, the mage stepped forwards. Their impatience flourished in the way they stood, head slight askew, hands clenching and unclenching. They, too, knew the gravity of what they were about to speak. They, too, feared it.


“Aure,” they said, voice firm, but quiet. They spoke not of his titles, neglecting tradition and respect for the ice of honesty.


Aure, king of the material world, herald of the sun, third-born of the Land, advisor of the court, barely tilted his head. He recognized the other’s tone as being one of warning, of threat, of something to fear. Affirmations, if anything else, of what he didn’t want to know.


“I’ve found him.”


-------------------------------------------------


“My dear Titania,” he said, reaching to straighten an askew corner of her coat, “I assure you - may the Sun observe my oath, and see it to be true - that I only seek wealth for our Court from High King Jovia’s ventures.”


At first, she did not speak, and merely turned from him. Aure hid the frown through careful self-control, and let his gaze slide over the palace’s courtyard instead.


Chatter and song filled the air, punctuated by loud offers from vendors and chirping of animals. In the glow of the pre-noon Sun, their Land flourished, and their people celebrated.


“Is it not good?” he gestured to the market, and Titania looked to him once more, “What my work has brought to our people? What life we have forged here, in the Steps? Truly, it stings to think that you see my investments as ill-guided.”


When she still did not speak, Aure let his voice take a quieter tone, and turned from the mortals in a whisper, “Not to say that I disagree that Arsia Collis must be handled with... finesse.”


Now her eyebrow twinged and the slightest hints of a scowl emerged on her graceful features. She turned on heel, retreating into the dark shadows of the palace. Aure took one last glance towards the market before ducking after her, quick steps keeping him only a pace behind.


She led them to a sitting-room - her favored, precisely. Its plush red cushions were well-worn, and would likely need replacing soon. He squirreled the knowledge away - replacements would make an excellent gift if he needed to try her patience with something or another later.


Though the Empress perched in a chair, Aure remained standing, as custom. It was only with her tilt of the head that he sat, primly. He counted himself lucky to consider Titania a friend - and vice-versa - but at times of argument, it was best to defer to rank.


With a wave of her hand, Titania sealed the door, and roused the silencing enchantments on the room. None should eavesdrop. “Aure.”


“High Empress.”


A huff. “So you know the extent of my displeasure, then, slipping into formalities like that.”


“I presume not,” he said, though the cheeky smile betrayed him, “but it softens the barrage, no?”


“Some times,” she replied, and reached for a cup. It filled with a bountiful, dark liquid, as she lifted it to her lips, but did not drink. “Not at these times. When were you planning on telling me?”


Ah, the Empress’ eyes and ears. They were truly immeasurable. “Then you know about Achernar.”


“If I did not, I would be neglecting my duties as Empress.”


“Then you presume my interest in Jovia’s expeditions is to follow Achernar’s findings. Yes?”


Titania leveled him a stare. “I would be a fool not to, Aure.”


He breathed in, a slow breath. It was not to steady himself, but rather, to exhale the tensions borne from uncertainty. The twitch of a shoulder, the flicking his eyes - markers of his fear of Titania’s displeasure. Though she was still irritated, he knew how to work around simpler emotions as such.


“Achernar is still in our Court,” he mused, out loud. Titania watched, a hawk. “As soon as you found out, you must have had suspicions... perhaps even cornered him before he returns to the Mire?”


“I was the one who sent for him.”


Aure’s head snapped towards her, involuntarily betraying him. He stilled his wide eyes a second later, but reached a hand to hold to his forehead. Of course. Sometimes, she still surprised him.


Secrets, then. A game of secrets. Between them, even now? He chided himself for the thoughts, as if he hadn’t been keeping his own for the past week. It did nothing to nurse the wound in his chest.


Perhaps she merely wanted to see his reaction. How he could cope with the news, and in what ways he would bend to it, in isolation. If he’d thought he could get away with anything, it would be a true show of his character.


Still. For such a sensitive subject, it stung.


“How long did you know about Plata, then?” he asked, quietly.


“Only a few days before you,” Titania spoke, in her ever-blunt tone. She was not a woman who lied in words - rather, lies wove around her, lost in the words she didn’t speak, in the omissions she cleverly plucked. “Arsia Collis himself sent word ahead.”


Best to speak honestly, and bring forth those truths as succinctly as he could.


“You were not pleased by my support of Jovia.”


Titania now drank, averting her eyes. After a moment, thoughts collected, she spoke in a calmer - almost gentle - tone. “I speak not as your Empress, Aure. Not now. But as a friend.”


He nodded, head still in hand. The weight boring down on his shoulders at the memory of that name - poison on the tongue.


“Those who have abandoned the Courts - no. Let me begin over.” Titania shook her head, dispelling her false start. “Let me speak honestly. With Sylviana’s disappearance fresh in the Courts, even now, seeking your brother would be a death song for you, politically and religiously.”


Religiously. The word that choked his throat. “You convened with the Highers?”


“I did. I knelt in our Shrine of Solis, and asked his guidance. He filled my head with visions of Sylviana, Arsia’s knife in her guts. A reminder of the delicate balance we strike.”


Aure didn’t speak.


“Perhaps, if the circumstances were different, I could give you my blessing, so long as Plata returned to our fold. But in this fog, it would be another blemish on all Courts. To banish Sylviana, to have all eyes watching us carefully, and to welcome a Courtless with open arms... I fear the scrutiny it would bring the Land, you, and I.”


“I understand,” he said, voice dripping in resignation. Truly, he did.


The circumstances....


In his heart of hearts, he muttered a curse on Sylviana’s name. To the depths with her! To the edges of their tattered oceans! For her crowing of the crushing weight of the Courts, she’d lacked the foresight to imagine how her impudence might shake the lives of the ‘family’ she professed to protect.


...Of course, she had no way to know that Plata would be slipping through his fingers, even now. But he cursed her all the same, and let the tiny candle of frustration build.


“I will not ask you to rescind your support of Jovia,” Titania said, setting her cup down. It emptied. “In truth, I believe there is something to be found outside our Valley, and I wish to see the fruits of his journeys, too. But if he does discover Plata, then I must ask you... to let me handle a confrontation, if any.”


“I understand,” he said, again, the words nails through his fingers.


“Then take a vow of subservience.”


Instinctually, he bared his teeth. A vow? Did she trust him so little, to bind him in the ways of old magic?


But he sealed his jaw, and dutifully offered his arm. There was no arguing, not truly, with the Empress, in these ways.


Titania’s hand was firm against his.


“I, High King Aure, take this vow,” he toned, not meeting her eyes, “I pledge subservience and deference, in the binding contract you shall forge. I bend to your will and heed it, in these matters we have spoken of. In this, I place my magic.”


As he spoke the words, magic brimmed in his arm. They etched themselves into his flesh - the twinge of the slightest burn - carving out Titania’s demands. As the symbols solidified, he whispered his truename, and they alighted in white-hot, painless fire.


“I, High Empress Titania, take this vow. To submission you are pledged, to hold deference in this regard ‘til the contract is fulfilled. If this oath be broken, by spell or by curse, then let the Moon claim you for a year and half its months, and bend you to pledge to its will.”


She whispered her truename, and the words on her arm raged. Aure stared, dully. He supposed - at least the punishment she’d ascribed was not too harsh. A year and a half visiting the Sea or Mire was not the soul-breaking punishment it could have been.


And with her command - “I now seal this vow!” - magic surged and snaked down both their arms, plunging into the back of each other’s hands.


The pain rose to a crescendo, for a brief second, as the contract was written in each’s soul - before dissipating entirely, leaving Aure gasping. In some ways, it was almost refreshing.


He blinked the spots from his eyes, and slumped back against the chair. A glance to his arm - the words were gone, of course. He traced over the singed fur where they’d marked him, and let out a long, whistling breath.


Titania stripped him of his right to see Plata. So it was, and so it would be. He did not look up as she rose from her chair, wordless. The air was heavy with the taste of blood.


She left him be, gliding out of the room. As it unlocked, her enchantments around it fell into pieces. When the door swung shut, he could faintly hear the chatter of the palace servants.


None bothered him when he curled to weep.


-------------------------------------------------


Stibi clicked the two cores together again. This time, they produced a flurry of sparks - several of which caught the kindling. In elated glee, he scooped up the twigs and grasses, and slipped them gently into the burner’s recesses. A quick prayer, and sweet-smelling smoke filled the room.


Aure lazily sipped from his chalice, half-draped over the luxurious couch, half-undressed. His jacket clung to him by only an arm, and his hair was a damnable nest. He watched in idle interest as Stibi stored the cores underneath the incense burner, in a drawer, and then turned to face him, beaming.


He offered a lopsided smile in turn, and downed the rest of his drink. When he resurfaced, Stibi was staring at him, the smile lessened, his hands kneading his thighs.


“You may speak freely,” Aure told him, waving the chalice in an appreciative gesture. The other’s deference to their gap in authority... he had always found it cute.


“Thank you, H-High King,” Stibi started, then shook his head fiercely to self-correct, “ah, Aure.”


He let himself laugh. It felt hollow, but Stibi joined, awkwardly, and that mended something inside of him. “Every time,” he chuckled, already raising the chalice to his lips again. “Don’t you tire of the same stock phrases, the empty platitudes?”


“I don’t find them empty, Hi- Aure,” Stibi perked up, “I do respect you. Um, as a leader of our Court, and as a friend, too.”


“A friend? A lover,” Aure corrected.


Stibi’s ears pinned to the sides of his heads, his eyes wide, the red spreading over his cheeks. “Um, yes! That too. Though I, ah, wasn’t intending to speak of such things in... company, Aure-”


“The servants have seen plenty - of I and those I bed,” he said, smoothly. “This song and dance we sing, of reassurances every visit - and this doesn’t tire you?”


“Every time we speak, I defer to your authority until permission is granted. It’s only proper.”


Aure sighed, giving a shake of his head and finishing the next chalice. A servant helpfully provided a plate of delectable cheeses, and he helped himself to one.


“You say all that,” he waved a hand towards Stibi, “yet are one of the few that arrive in my mansion merely for company, and not for extortion. Not that I mind... I do what I must to have my simple pleasures.”


Stibi kneaded his thighs again - his habit of working through words. When they finally clicked together, he looked to Aure again, “I dare not speak these words to other than you, in a meeting of friendship, Aure, but I frown upon those who use you in that way.”


“It is the nature of people,” he nodded, and sipped, “I cannot fault them for it. And I know, in at least some, they find me attractive in turn - things to admire. My wealth, my wits, my status, my power, my influence, my body. There are things they enjoy of me. But frankly, I do not believe they enjoy me. My presence.”


“Then the fault is on them,” Stibi spoke, with a definitiveness that his voice typically lacked.


Aure laughed again - but a true one - and sat up straighter. He waved off the servant, who disappeared behind long curtains that separated the private lounge from the admittance, and placed his chalice on the side table.


Even through the mild fog of alcohol, he could hold Stibi’s hopeful gaze. It was many things - naive, eager, loving, affectionate. His words were not the sickly-sweet honey of those seeking their needs from him, but an honest assessment, built from years of their quiet meetings and earnest discussions.


The smoke of the incense behind Stibi’s head flared - for only half a second, but Aure’s eyes slid to it - and shuddered.


It bent and cracked into the form of a bird of prey, wings flared to either side of the room, each feather almost a flame. As the smoke twirled, its form wavered, but never waned - and Aure let a gasp loose, sitting up straighter - as any Court-god would, in the presence of a Higher.


“SEEK NOT THE AUTHORITY OF THE EVER-ROCK,” it spoke, in a smooth, firm, loving voice, “SEEK NOT THE EMPTINESS OF THE ROTTED CITIES. DRINK DEEP FROM THE WATERS OF HAND-IN-HAND, AND PROBE FINGERS INTO THAT WHICH YOUR HEART ACHES. MY BLESSING IS THUS: RETURN HIM TO THE MISTS.”


As soon as the being’s last word echoed in the room, it dissipated. At once, the lighting shifted, the taste of the air melted way, and when he blinked, the incense burned away simply, as it should, with no hint of the sign it had been.


“Aure?” Stibi carefully spoke. He stood over Aure now, one hand hovering over the other’s head, as if unsure if allowed to touch. “Oh, oh, you’re awake now. Okay. That’s um, good. How do you feel?”


“I saw a vision,” he said, still staring at the smoke.


“A vision?” Stibi’s eyes widened, “what did it speak of?”


Aure breathed. Though the words were vague - almost teasingly so - he could look straight down them, and see the truths he so desperately wanted to hear. Solis himself, if to be believed, wanted him to seek out Plata.


His arm twitched - the reminder of his oath to Titania. Not only would she be greatly displeased, but he would be relegated to the other Courts for a year and a half. And, too - if her visions from Solis spoke of fear and trepidation, then why give him hope?


Was it a test? Of his dedication to Solis, to Plata, to the bond they’d once shared? Was it a demand of his god, to defer to their direct, holy orders and to eschew Titania’s vow?


All thoughts melted away in the glow of the idea of his brother’s face. In the sound of his laughter, in the soft jokes, in the clinking of Plata’s workshop, all else paled.


His hand tightened around Stibi’s thigh.


“You and I.” he turned towards the Low Duke with the glow of clarity and determination in his eyes, “we must prepare for a journey.”