Island of Shadows: Twilight Refuge, Part 1
Island of Shadows:
She fights to keep her expression calm and neutral. She feels the frustration rising and the anger that always accompanies it. The part of her that always stays honest admits that all of it is tinged with sudden, sick fear. “So,” she said slowly to keep control of her voice, “you are certain, then?”
The smith nods. He looks crestfallen and deeply upset, though he controls it well. “I’m very sorry, Highness. We have tried substitutes and different formulations, but none of them produce the potency needed.” He spreads thickly calloused hands to indicate the eclectic collection of metal ingots, herbal mixtures, and pungent fluids on his workbench. “The moonsilver we can make, but without the proper herbs and tempering fluids, we cannot make the coins.” He seems on the verge of tears.
The Princess lays a steady hand on the man’s massive shoulder. “You have done well to try, Izake. Take heart, and see to your apprentices.” The man nods, still not meeting her eyes. He shifts to kneel before her, knees pressed together on the floor, and bows to place his forehead on the dirt floor. “No, no,” she says, hiding her irritation. “None of that.” Izake stands, still averting his gaze. The Princess pats his arm, strong as stone, and takes her leave.
Shinchona awaits her in the hall, a worried frown on her round face. “It’s the herbs, isn’t it?” She speaks softly, but the words still carry far too well in the quiet corridor. The Princess nods. Shinchona curses under her breath, something the Princess has never heard her do. “I should have known. I should have smelled it. When the Deeproot brought them up in that forest instead of closer to the Court, I should have known.”
“We could not have known,” the Princess replies thoughtfully. “This is a long and careful plan, clearly, to have discovered not only these secrets but to have substituted inadequate ingredients at their source.” She frowns, her fear surpassing her frustration. For the first time, she wonders if she has misread the situation. She wonders if she has underestimated her enemies. She wonders if she has made a serious mistake.
“I wish Mochizuki were here,” Shinchona mutters, and then looks to her Princess, aghast that she spoke aloud.
The Princess smiles. “As do I, but her mission is vital; all the more so now, I think.”
“How many coins remain, do you know?”
The Princess shakes her head. “Not precisely. Three, perhaps four, and they are scattered around.” She lifts a wide metal disk from a hidden pocket in her robe, just enough so that Shinchona can see the edge of it, and the councilor sighs as the Princess slips it back. “But I have only that one. How long before we can get a fresh batch of correct ingredients?”
Shinchona’s long ears twitch as she thinks. “Less than a week, I believe—if I send people tonight.”
“Then do so,” the Princess says. “I have some preparations to make.” She smiles at her friend’s questioning look. “If our enemies know so much, we must assume that they know this as well. Which means that they must strike in the next several days to make the most of their carefully engineered opportunity.” Shinchona visibly swallows her fear, and the Princess shares every bit of it.
* * *
Valkor gritted his teeth and tightened the straps across his chest. The wound in his side throbbed, shooting little fingers of pain through his abdomen, but quickly settled down to a dull ache. Well, that’s an improvement, he thought with a grimace. A quick glance from the corners of his eyes showed him that the others did not seem to have noticed. They seemed absorbed in their own struggles to put on the strange clothing that the natives used and still carry their equipment. Most of them were failing. He looked again at the tunic and short trousers that Yamazaru had so helpfully provided in their bright colors. The chain will fit under there just fine, he mused, but nothing else will. He sighed, resigned, and struggled into the tunic.
“Gotta say,” Tarlith said, her voice thick with sarcasm, “I’m not loving this plan.” She hissed as Lily pulled tight the wide band of fabric wrapped around her stomach. “Seriously. Leave some room for me to breathe, huh?” The Sanctioned Witch shrugged apologetically and tucked the extra material under the large bow that Hana had tied at the small of the riftling’s back.
“Come on,” Ser Luther said, sliding his straight sword into the wide belt of his layered robes, “you like sneaking into places.”
“I like being able to breathe while I do it,” Tarlith muttered. “I love sneaking into places. I don’t like playing dress-up to do it,” she said loud enough for Luther to hear. “We sure this is our best option?”
“Benkei thinks so, and he was planning to try and just march in behind his medallion,” Luther said. “If he thinks dressing up as Yamazaru retainers and bluffing our way in is better, then he’s probably right.” Tarlith grumbled as she turned to help Lily with her robes. “I’m not any happier about it than you are, but it’s the best plan we have.”
“Then how about if we switch outfits?” she growled under her breath. Valkor snorted, he could not help himself and ignored Luther’s questioning look. Tarlith poked an accusatory finger at Amari. “So how come she gets to keep her forest togs and I’m the one trussed up in skirts?”
“The hoods and face coverings our kaiken traditionally wear disguise her features better,” Son Goku said, stepping through the door of their room. He nodded to the group and began inspecting the costumes. “Especially the ears.” Tarlith unconsciously touched the pointed ends of her own ears. The young man saw the gesture and smiled. “For all that you do not look exactly human, you are not so unusual as many of our people, touched as we are on Kagejima. Your friend, however, is unlike anything we are familiar with. As is your, ahem,” he cleared his throat, looking at Valkor, “your robust companion. Greater care must be taken with your disguises.”
“Is everyone ready?” Benkei asked, striding in. He paused and glanced around the room. “Nearly, it seems. Good. We should leave soon. Even as it is, we will not make the Court before evening.” He looked around more closely at the group, and his usual disapproving expression deepened slightly. “Well, I suppose it’s the best we could hope for.”
“It should do,” Son Goku said, sounding cheerful. “Come on. Let’s see to provisioning.”
Valkor stared glumly at his heavy armor on the floor. Nothing for it, he decided with a sigh, and stuffed it into a sack. His side hurt whenever he moved too far, and he tried not to think about the long ride ahead.
The journey, as it turned out, did not go too badly for him. The Yamazaru warriors had brought along a small retinue and a large wagon to carry what felt like an excessive amount of belongings. So while the Heroes had been forced to squeeze into whatever spare clothing these servants had with them, it also meant that most of them could ride on the wagon. Despite the rough ride over uneven roads, Valkor found leaning against the wagon’s low wall and stretching out in the late season sun to be a perfectly acceptable way to travel. He watched Tarlith and Lily sitting across from him, grousing and laughing by turns, and kept an eye on Hana. Through all this, she had remained stoic and determined, but she had warmed to the Heroes pretty strongly after they had set out for the Court. Valkor found that a bit strange. Benkei seemed the natural choice, being something at least familiar to her, but while she paid the monk respect, she seemed genuinely attached to them.
Perhaps that’s not so strange, he reflected. After all, it was her own people who betrayed her. Perhaps outsiders like us seem more trustworthy in that way. She had tried to help them any way she could, describing customs and behaviors and even strange words. She had practically dressed Lily for this part of the trip, in fact, and had given Tarlith tips for wearing the native dress more comfortably. She’s held up better than I expected, he thought. I hope that this journey is worth it. I hope we can make it worth it.
“Hey, old man,” Amari said quietly from behind him. “You awake?” Valkor sat up a little straighter and turned to see the elf walking her horse beside the wagon. “Oh, there you are. I thought you might have drifted off.”
“On these roads?” He grinned as the wagon bounced through a rut, and then winced as his wound throbbed.
“Still bothering you?” she asked, though he knew she did not need an answer. “We’ll get a good look at it once we have some time to rest.”
“I’ve had worse,” he said, and wondered suddenly if he actually had. “Honestly, between the fighting and all this travel, I’ve got more scrapes, bruises, cuts, and blisters than I care to think about.” He stretched. “And my stiff back, of course.” They both chuckled.
Amari sighed. “How long have we been doing this now? How many years have we been risking our necks for glory, gold, and the Goddess? I spent a long time hunting monsters in the Fae Wood, but I don’t count that.”
“So I shouldn’t count the years I spent ambushing kobolds in the Dragonbacks either?” He shook his head. “Destroying evil’s the right thing to do, whether or not you’re fighting within sight of your home or traveling from one end of Crystalia to the other to do it. Or to whatever this place is, I suppose.”
“Sure, but that’s not the same thing,” Amari said, sounding thoughtful. “It’s one thing to defend your home and loved ones, even to aggressively hunt monsters across one Realm. But it’s something else altogether to uproot completely, go to the Castle, and spend all your time focused just on confronting the darkness.” Valkor stifled the words that rose in his throat and let his friend speak. “I mean, when I was tracking through the Wood, it always felt like a job, if that makes sense. It was important, sure, but I guess I thought of it as a profession, like a suit of clothes I put on. When I hunted, I was a hunter. When I didn’t, I could put my feet up and do or be something else.”
She shrugged, clearly searching for words. “Once I met Luther, though, that changed. He didn’t put on his armor and become a paladin. He’s a paladin no matter what he’s wearing or what he’s doing. He’d walk into the darkest cave if all he had was a candle and a bag of rocks because it’s who he is not just what he does. That—“ She shook her head. “That moved me, I think.”
When she didn’t speak for several long seconds, Valkor stepped in. “So you followed him out of the Wood, back to the Castle.” Amari nodded. “And you were with him for almost a year before we met, I think; when I came to Crystalia Castle with Gollmak Ironshod.”
“Almost two years. You swore to us for, um…” She trailed off, frowning.
“That mess on the Mistmourn Coast,” he said quietly, thinking of the sunless days under those weeping trees, “with the eggs.”
“Right,” she continued, “and stuck with us afterward. Then Luther got assigned to shepherd Tarlith, and everything went downhill after that.” They both smiled.
“I think it’s the first time you decide to do something for someone who isn’t you or your family or friends or neighbors,” Valkor mused. “When you decide to go fight someone else’s evil. That’s when you change.” Amari nodded slowly. “So, if that’s the measure, I guess I’ve been doing that for, almost thirty years.”
“And that puts me at just over twenty, all with Ser Luther,” Amari said, doing some quick math. “For all that we’ve both spent a century before that fighting the good fight.”
Valkor leaned back on the wagon wall. “And don’t we have the scars and aching joints to prove it.” He caught Hana watching them, but the young woman turned away and said something to Lily as soon as she saw his gaze. He shrugged mentally. “I doubt we’ll notice a few more.”
He thought Amari had moved off, so long was she silent, but he sat up at the tone of her voice when she did speak again. “Do you ever miss home, Valkor? Do you ever think you’ll see the Dragonback Peaks again?”
“I hope so,” he said, keeping his voice light. “That would be nice. But if I don’t, well, I suppose I can rest anywhere knowing I’ve done some good for everywhere.”
From the corner of his eye, he watched her nodding. “I guess. I find I do really miss The Tree, though.”
“That’s natural for an elf,” he said quickly, hoping she took it the right way. “We’ll get back, never you fear. Besides, we know the roots run to this place, right? They’ve got to run through it as well.” She seemed to perk up at that suggestion. “You should keep an eye out for that.”
She brightened and swung back onto her horse. “That’s a good idea,” she said. “Thanks.” She trotted off toward the front of the line, and Valkor watched her go, both concerned and bemused.
To be continued...
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