[SL] Tired Without Roads
Nightgale’s steps were silent in the grasslands of the Court’s Valley, its pawpads cushioning its enormous size and weight. But Stibi could still feel the catbeast’s powerful muscles shifting underneath him with every trot - though not unfamiliar, it was still profoundly uncomfortable, and he clung to Aure with tight hands.
Of course, Aure was not perturbed by his favorite mount’s pace. Or, rather, he’d held an aura of rigid determination since leaving the Court of Land’s halls, and perhaps failing to properly saddle Nightgale had barely registered on his mind. Stibi glanced up at him once or twice, fingers curled in his long coat, but said nothing.
He was not one to find Aure difficult to speak to, most days. Aure was, at his heart, a simple man. He craved companionship and affection, freely given. He enjoyed talking to others and listening to their plights. He was naturally generous, and often resolved conflicts through selfless action. In all ways, he was easy to read and hard to offend.
But this... resoluteness was a stark contrast to the humorous optimist Stibi had come to know. It brought tension in the air with it, like claws in his chest, and conversations failed him. And the longer Aure went without initiating himself, the more Stibi figured it was best for him to stay quiet.
He was out of his element, anyways. In front of Nightgale was High King Jovia’s caravan, a practical-looking trio of carriages pulled by stocky dragonids. The murmur of chatter rose from them as the explorer of the Mire poured over his maps and discussed routes with his subordinates - things of which Stibi had no idea and no interest in.
And behind them, he could sense High King Achernar’s eyes boring into Aure, in that piercing way of most mages and those distant from the Courts. The mage of the Mire rode his own pale steed, a ghostly dragonid that seemed tense and resistant to the group’s trip. It occasionally let out a snort or a huff, and Stibi could taste the delicious magic as Achernar simply mind-altered it into complacency.
And here he sat, a mere Low Duke in the middle of foreign Courts’ highest-ranking members, barely clinging to his own Court’s right hand. To say that he had no business riding Nightgale at the moment was an understatement.
He shifted again as the caravan rolled to a stop. Nightgale paused, a paw in the air, until Aure patted its head and it settled into a neutral stand. Achernar’s dragonid huffed again.
Stibi stared as Aure’s hands curled and uncurled around Nightgale’s reins. He could hear, faintly, Aure’s knuckles cracking. Something churned inside of him.
The chatter from the leading carriage crescendoed, before falling silent entirely. Jovia, a fierce scowl on his face, disembarked and stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, staring off into the distance. He took a deep breath, composed his expression, and beelined for Nightgale.
“Aure,” he said, in the flippant way of one speaking to equal authority. “I’ve unfortunately been informed this is where we’re to make camp for the night. I hoped to cover more distance before nightfall but the telepather’s reported that there’s been some activity in the mountain pass.”
The clomping of Achernar’s dragonid brought him side-by-side with Aure. A keen look betrayed his interest. “Activity? A corruption?”
Jovia’s face twitched into mild irritation before polite disinterest resumed. “No, but it’s something old-world. Said we have to wait for the Sea to send a response, as it’s their jurisdiction. They’ve already dispatched someone, but we’re stuck here until then.”
“Unfortunate.” as if understanding its master’s wishes, Achernar’s dragonid stomped a foot and shook its head, shifting its weight between its sides. “I’m sure they could make an exception for me. They know I’m traveling with you?”
“They explicitly said it was of utmost importance to let the Sea handle it,” Jovia said, though the quick glance towards the caravan was filled with frustration.
“It’s alright,” Aure said, voice smooth, “we’ll still make good time, and there’s plenty room in the budget for surprises like this.”
Finally, relief cascaded over Jovia. “That’s excellent news. Thank you for being understanding, Aure.”
“Of course, Jovia.”
Satisfied, Jovia trotted back towards the carriage, where servants and workers had already begun to unpack the camp supplies.
Tents magicked themselves out of folded canvas, a mage lit a swiftly-constructed firepit, handlers unhooked dragonids to tie them to trees and set out water pails. The bustle clicked in Stibi’s mind, and he let out a long breath, the sensation traveling down his spine. This felt more like home.
Aure led Nightgale to a shady spot and simply slid off its back. Stibi instinctually reached out, expecting Aure’s hand to assist him off the catbeast, but the other had already turned to stare at the servants.
Stibi paused, hand still outstretched, as a pang filled his chest. He retracted the hand sheepishly and glanced down towards the grass. Awkwardly, he shifted so that both his legs were on the same side of Nightgale, and tentatively placed his hands behind himself.
It was a simple task, no? Dismounting? Aure (and other tall men) accomplished such a task with ease. He simply had to... lightly push. Nightgale watched on with half-lidded eyes as Stibi merely trembled.
Hands gripped his sides and lifted him, and he let out an undignified squeak. It brought Aure’s attention, head snapping around to spy his retainer Numauri placing Stibi gently on his feet.
“Stibi,” he said, with dawning recognition, and then placed a hand on his forehead. “I’m sorry. I’ve been distracted. Thank you, Numauri.”
Numauri replied with a curt nod, but Stibi offered a nervous smile and a quick “It’s alright, H-Aure!”
Another pregnant pause rested between them, punctuated only by Numari moving to set up Aure’s personal tent.
“Do you... do you wish to speak about it?” Stibi asked, tilting his head slightly.
Aure let out a light sigh, staring off into the forest. “Some of me wants to. But this is not the right time. I...” he glanced to Stibi, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be harsh or distant. It’s just difficult to discuss.”
“Nono, I understand,” he said, with a quick bow of the head, “I respect your need for space, Aure. Just... just let me know if you need anything?”
Stibi gave another nod. Aure returned the gesture before turning on his heel to march towards the rest of the camp. He pulled aside a servant and spoke something in a hushed voice.
Inside of his chest burned some sort of... passion, anxiety, something of the two. It twisted around his veins, pulsing with the beat of his blood, trembling deep inside of him - a marked fear, a sensation of helplessness, a devout resignation to uselessness.
If they were here on a sign from mighty Solis himself, why the secrecy? Why bring a Low Duke along, if Stibi was not to be emotional support or part of the prophecy enough to be included in the plan?
He swallowed and tugged at his shirt collar, directing his gaze to the ground instead. Instinctually, he rocked back-and-forth, hands itching for something to hold and crush the anxiety into.
“It’s about his brother.”
Stibi jumped, swinging around to Achernar. The mage bore a devious grin, half-leaning over him to whisper close to his ear. At Stibi’s reaction, he straightened himself, though the smile didn’t lessen.
“A-Apologies, High King,” Stibi stammered out, a stilling hand over his chest, “I was startled by your presence-”
“Yes yes,” Achernar dismissed his platitudes with a wave of the hand, “But Aure’s reason for being here. He’s cagey because he’s here to find his brother.”
His brother? His brother. A vague concept that scratched at the edges of his mind. Aure’s brother? Perhaps a hushed, overheard conversation, and nothing more? It certainly bore no familiarity in him.
Achernar admired the look of confusion for a few seconds before beckoning with a finger for Stibi to follow. He obeyed, and the mage drew them further from the camp and around a corner, behind an impressive tree.
“Need to get away from his retainer. He talks,” was the explanation, coupled with a jabbed thumb towards Numauri. The latter was merely fluffing pillows and laying blankets out in the tent, as a good retainer would. “Don’t want him eavesdropping.”
“I understand,” Stibi said, though the idea of secrecy was dreadful.
“It’s a well-kept secret among all four Courts,” Achernar began, steepling his fingers, “though I attribute most of that due to the legend’s age. Most us lessers weren’t even passing thoughts in Lunis’ mind, barely conceived, when it all came to be.”
“Then it was near the Courts’ foundation?” such a thing would not be out of the question, considering Aure’s age.
“Precisely. And cleverly concealed by the Emperesses and Aure himself since then. I found out from Aure himself, some two, three centuries ago. He approached me with a bag of coin and desperation in his eye.”
Aure, desperation? It would surely match his wayward gaze on this trip. Stibi frowned, but nodded.
Achernar’s smirk widened. “He was impressed by my resume of successful hunts and trips, and wanted to pay me quietly to keep an eye out, so to speak. Not to directly seek this individual out - no, that would draw attention! - but to keen my ears for news, and corroborate any claims. I am sure you can now imagine why he is on Jovia’s little trip.”
What uncomfortable information.
“I agreed, of course, and then immediately set out to uncover information on this name. It took several years’ worth of favors cashed in to pry the case open, and even now I lack full information. Whatever the Empresses did to hide his brother’s misdeeds, they were thorough. Moreso than they are now.”
“Yes,” Achernar said, fangs flashing in his grin, “Plata left the Courts, cursing their names and their ways in quite the explosive manner. The details are muddy, but there’s always an implication of damage to the Land or some sort of bodily harm. None were willing to specify.”
Magic coursed up Achernar’s arm and glittered on his fingers, as if to demonstrate, “Those willing to discuss why he left - those details were the most difficult to extract. But I pride myself on information, Stibi, I do. So I was willing to risk... certain actions. I want you to understand that, to truly appreciate the cost of what I learned.”
“Very well,” he swallowed.
“Suppose... that many of Aure’s creations and machinations were his brother’s,” Achernar mused, letting the magic fade, “suppose they worked as a team, establishing the Land early, united in this way. I don’t intend to disregard Aure, but perhaps... consider, if you will, if Plata were more skilled than he.”
“I consider this.”
“Consider - vastly skilled. If Aure is the lord of material, perhaps his brother is lord of refining, of taking the Land’s bounties and curving them into a proper shape. If he were truly skilled, as many of our oldest are, then his creations must have been awe-inspiring, in many facets of the word.”
Stibi stared at Achernar’s hand, his own gripping his other arm.
“Perhaps... he thought himself better than the Highers. Or perhaps he did create something worthy of them - a pale imitation, of course, but a reasonable imitation nonetheless. Perhaps, in seeing his reflection on his creation, the holy laws that bind us to the Higher’s guidance broke inside of him, and he felt only disgust and resentment towards them.”
“You accuse him of having a... a meltdown, as akin to Empr- er, Sylviana?”
Achernar nodded. “From what I could glean, it was of a similar sort. Close enough to draw comparisons during her... ah, lapse in judgment, from the oldest Courtlings. Further questioning brought me little... except that Plata had been under the impression that Aure would forsake the Courts alongside him. Plausible, if their closeness was to be believed - as close as Solis and Lunis, some said.”
Blasphemy. But Stibi did not speak. He turned to half-look at the camp, at the distant shape of Aure. He sat on a lovely chair, a bowl of soup in his hands, and laughed awkwardly at something, Numauri standing behind. Achernar’s words swirled in his head.
A hand gripped his chin and pulled him back to the mage. Stibi winced slightly, squirming, but Achernar’s grip didn’t falter.
“I tell you this for a very specific reason,” Achernar clarified, holding up a finger nearly to Stibi’s face, “and I require your utmost attention. Understand?”
“O-of course, High King,” he squeaked.
“Good. Under no circumstance are you to allow Aure to stray from the Highers’ path.” Achernar’s voice took on a deadly hint of sincerity. “He trusts you, above the rest of your sun-blasted Court. Though he may be distant now, it is certainly temporary. And you must not let him abandon his station, or drag his Court-damned brother back to the Valley. Understand?”
“Yes, of course, High King,” Stibi said, almost automatically, blinking rapidly.
Achernar smiled again - though more subdued, akin to a pleased cat. “Good. I knew you would understand. And, should your heart falter when he inevitably wails and sobs, recall my impeccable seeking-and-retrieving.”
The threat hung in the air for a second before Achernar broke away towards the camp, leaving Stibi to stare listlessly into the woods for several long minutes.
His hands found his thighs, and he instinctively gripped them. He’d barely had a second to think during Achernar’s barrage. Half of it was dressed in flowery words and was nothing more than speculation and dramatization. The other held a concerning glint of truth.
All laid at his feet. At the feet of a mere Low Duke sat the responsibility of ensuring Aure’s sanity, were they to succeed. And, of course, Achernar wouldn’t have lied to Aure about Plata’s location. So he was somewhere on Jovia’s route? Somewhere, in those rotted mountains, was Aure’s brother?
By the Highers. He hadn’t even conceived of the idea of Aure having a sibling before. It wasn’t unheard of among the Courts, to have a sibling or a child, but rare enough that it raised eyebrows. What a stain it must have been on the Land, to have one as highly-regarded as Aure... curse out the Highers and leave to strike their own claim out.
And this ‘Plata’ had to be exceptionally skilled, to have survived the outer wilds all this time. The creatures that lived in the rotted lands... the dangers it posed, the raw magic in the air... Stibi shuddered and closed his eyes.
His stomach growled.
He startled, then glanced down sheepishly.
Faintly, he could smell the camp’s soup - something warm, hearty, and likely delicious. He hadn’t eaten since they’d left the Valley.
Carefully, he picked his way towards the rest of the expedition. A servant spied him and swiftly poured another bowl of soup without a question or a passing glance, and then disappeared once more into the silent machine of service.
He gratefully, wordlessly accepted and shuffled off to the side - close enough to hear the talk around the fire, but in the darkness of the trees.
He could hear Aure’s laugh, so clearly, at something Achernar said. The mage continued - perhaps telling a story? - and earned another bout from Aure.
Stibi glanced out of the corners of his eyes. In his element, around people, Aure glowed. To the untrained eye, they’d imagine he was marked by Solis himself, a radiant figure to match the sun’s own companionship and generosity. With Achernar’s words biting into his gut, it was hard to look at that light.
Instead, Stibi busied himself with his soup, and tried to will away his shaking shoulders.