<9>

Morning soon came to Mei Lin and AA’s house. The five of them were seated around the dining table, with Rei and Zai placed on opposite ends of the table, between AA and Mei Lin on one side and Cassandra on the other. They felt as if they were the arbiters of some weighty dispute.

Cassandra broke the silence with the story of her failed attempt to form a backchannel to the Abaddon government. As her story went on, Mei Lin’s eyebrows furrowed deeper, and her gaze became permanently glued to the fists clenched on her lap.

‘Princess, will you not reconsider your choice?’ Cassandra concluded. ‘The world draws nearer to the brink of war, and your example—’

‘I can’t,’ Mei Lin said with the swiftness and sharpness of a Seraphim light bolt. It looked as if she shaking her head softly—or perhaps it was trembling violently. Rei and Zai couldn’t tell which.

‘But you live in peace with one of the Abaddon. Surely—’

‘No, I can’t!’ Mei Lin screamed, and silence reigned afterwards, not only over the room, but over the world outside as well, or so it seemed. The only sound they heard was Mei Lin’s rough breathing.

‘Do you know why I live in peace with him?’ she hissed. ‘We met in the battlefield. I killed many people he held dear. He killed many people I held dear. In the end, the only reason we both survived is that we were too tired to kill each other.’ Another spell of silence fell as AA placed his giant hand gently on her shoulder. ‘I told you already that I paid for this peace with blood. You managed to form a relationship with the Abaddon without having to kill or even hurt one of them, and yet you tell me that I should be an example of peace? This has to be a joke, right?’

The last sentence she uttered came out almost as a shriek, and its echoes were swallowed slowly by the silence. Zai had flinched as if struck by a physical blow. But when he turned his head to look at Princess Cassandra, he noticed that she had remained unaffected by the burst of emotion, and her gaze remained fixed on Mei Lin. She’d probably be no match for Mei Lin in a fight, but I don’t think she could be defeated by her words. As he thought that, Cassandra took a deep breath to compose herself before answering.

‘Do you mean to say that my means would have been the better way to forge peace with the Abaddon?’ she said in a whisper, as if hesitant to break silence. ‘I have worked with Publius for almost two years. During that time, we’ve met face-to-face just five times, with none of our meetings lasting longer than an hour. Despite our position in our own governments, and despite deep knowledge of each other’s plans, we’ve accomplished almost nothing in those two years.’ Cassandra’s voice grew in strength. ‘And now all that work—just to create a small crack in the wall between our races—was undone in an instant. He could have been killed by his own government. Perhaps that’s how much they hate us—they would kill their own just to spite us. And now I found out that my effort was for nothing. No one else from their side would talk to me. Think about it. You live, eat, and speak with one of the Abaddon, but none of those I’ve met would so much as listen to me. Now tell me: would you call what I’ve built a “relationship”? Do you still think that I’ve accomplished more than you have?’

Without waiting for Mei Lin’s reply, she stood up and turned to Rei. ‘Your partner and I are heading north, to the Etruscan capital. Someone has to fix the mess that was started in Caesarea. Will you come with us?’ Again, she did not wait for her reply. She motioned to Zai and headed for the door. The black-clad mercenary hurried after her.

‘That was well said. I don’t know what else to say.’

‘You know, they just have to see it,’ said Cassandra in a soft voice, almost to herself. Zai could see that she was shaking, just like a fresh recruit after the first taste of battle. ‘They have to see that it is possible for Abaddon and Seraphim not to kill each other upon sight.’ She wrapped her arms around her body and then squeezed tightly, as if to force the trembling to stop. ‘If they knew that was possible, then I wouldn’t have to skulk about the alleys of Caesarea just to talk to someone who thought that same way I do.’

Rei stumbled out the door, bowing at the doorway before heading for the princess and Zai.

‘Come on, you two,’ said the Princess of Delphi. ‘We must hurry. Crises don’t resolve themselves, you know.’

* * *

It took most of the day for the trio to cross the forest, and the sun was saying its fiery farewell when they caught sight of the great north-south road connecting the Abaddon and Seraphim lands.

‘Princess,’ said Zai while they were taking a brief reprieve in preparation for crossing. ‘I believe it’s prudent at this juncture to tell you that we’re being followed.’

‘Are we?’ said the princess with mild incredulity. ‘I sense no one.’

‘Well, there are two groups of them. One of them is all alone, perhaps a scout. He’s much closer to our position and he’s been following us from tree to tree, as if he knows we can hear his footsteps if he followed us on the ground.’

‘Was that human?’ said Rei, indicating that she had heard the same footsteps. ‘I thought it was just a large bird.’

‘I’ve thought about that, but the large birds in this forest don’t usually land on trees. That’s mainly because they can’t fly. I don’t think they could climb trees, either.’

‘And the other group?’ asked Cassandra.

‘They’re a few miles back. I don’t know their numbers, although it couldn’t be that big of a group. In fact, the sound could be just the loud footsteps of a huge man. If I have to guess, I think they’re just co-ordinating their steps to mask their number.’

‘And why tell us this now? I feel like you’ve had this information for some time now.’

‘Well… Once we take the road, we’ll have left the cover of the forest. We’ll then be easy prey for archers. Considering that someone’s been tailing us for much of our journey, they could easily assemble a large group at a moment’s notice to snipe at us from the forest.’

‘What do you recommend we do, then?’ asked the princess.

‘Well,’ said Zai as he scratched his chin, ‘what I’d not recommend is deforestation. We need the cover, after all.’

‘Your chance to demonstrate your worth as a bodyguard, then?’

‘Won’t they find our sudden stop suspicious?’ asked Rei.

‘That’s another reason I informed you of them just now. They probably think we’re just preparing for crossing the road, or perhaps for nightfall.’

Rei was quick to pick up her partner’s intention.

‘An ambush, then,’ she said. ‘Set up a fake camp and wait for them to attack.’

‘That’s one of my plans. Seems safer than charging at a scout who’s managed to track us from such a distance, or attacking a group without sufficient intelligence. The problem is…’

‘…it would take too much time,’ said the princess. ‘I wish to get to Etrusca a quickly as possible, and I do not have plenty of days to spare after our detour.’

‘Thought so,’ said Zai. ‘Back to our first option, then. Rei, I’m going after the group. You give the scout some exercise.’

‘Shouldn’t we switch assignments? You’re better at tracking; I’m better at brawling.’

‘Not this time. You take care of the scout while I get the group’s attention. Then attack them from the flank or rear. If you come at them right from the start, they might be more wary and some might break away from the group. Better to wipe them all out at once instead of letting a few escape and call more comrades.’

‘Gotcha. Where is my prey?’

Zai pointed to the southeast. ‘Roughly two miles in that direction.’

‘And what about me?’ said Cassandra.

‘I’d ask you to stay here and make noise for three people. Are you fine with that?’

She nodded. ‘But if I feel like you’re in danger, I’ll start attacking in your direction. Are you fine with that?’

Zai laughed and shrugged. ‘I’ll just have to dodge really quickly if that happens.’ He turned to Rei. ‘Ready?’

Rei nodded in reply.

‘Go!’ said Zai as he dashed into the forest, his footsteps still imperceptible despite his speed. Meanwhile, Rei, who had been building up strength in her legs, sprung forward as if fired from a ballista. She covered a few hundred yards in that one leap, during which time she had readied her legs to take another explosive leap forward.

Moments after her second jump, she heard the sound of branches breaking and twigs snapping just ahead of her. She’s on the move, she thought as she gathered Abaddon power in her legs for a third jump. Wait, he’s headed towards Zai!

She took a sharp turn in her third jump, hoping to place herself between the fleeing scout and Zai’s path. She gathered strength in her legs for a fourth jump while straining her senses to find the scout. From this distance, she could also hear the heavy footsteps Zai had mentioned.

Those footsteps sound familiar… thought Rei as she took a fourth leap.

The princess must have come to the same conclusion, as a pair of light arrows shot into the sky from her direction. One burst into a triangular shape; the other into a crescent attached to a line. Or maybe that’s a scythe?

She felt the scout stop just a few hundred yards in front of her. Then, to Rei’s shock, a pair of light arrows came from his direction. They burst to form what was now clearly (to Rei’s mind) a tonfa and a flail.

‘Mei Lin!’ she screamed, and from the foliage in front of her burst the familiar small figure holding a green parasol.

‘Ah, well met, Rei-chan,’ said Mei Lin casually after landing on a branch of a tree in front of her. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘They probably followed us after the princess left,’ came the voice of Zai. He walked in, undetected as usual, beneath the trees where the two stood.

‘So that was AA you were heading for, then?’ said Rei, showing no surprise at her partner’s sudden appearance.

‘I must say it was very well done of you three to notice us this soon,’ said Mei Lin. ‘We were hoping to drop in on your party unannounced once you’re within sight of Abaddon lands.’

‘Fat chance of that,’ said Zai. ‘I noticed you when we were still miles away from the road.’

‘Te-he!’ said Mei Lin, knocking on her head with a fist while sticking her tongue out. She then cast a serious look at Zai. ‘You must be part cat.’

‘I get that a lot,’ said Zai with a smile. ‘Now I suggest we head back to our camp before the royalty we’re escorting starts seriously considering deforestation.

* * *

‘Princess,’ said Cassandra with a deep bow as soon as she saw Mei Lin.

‘Drop the “princess” bit, Cassandra,’ said Mei Lin. ‘I already told you that I’ve given up that title and my old name when I lost the Battle of Epirus. My name is now “Mei Lin”.’

‘But…’

‘Let’s see… If you don’t start calling me “Mei Lin”, I’ll start calling you “Sandy”. Remember that day when we princesses went to the beach and you ran ahead of us, but—’

‘Anything but that! All right! I understand!’ Cassandra screamed as she held her hands out in front of her, eyes shut, as if shielding herself from danger.

‘That’s good to hear,’ said Mei Lin with a satisfied look on her face.

‘So, uh, Mei Lin,’ said Cassandra, ‘why are you here?’

‘Ah…’ said Mei Lin as her eyes darted to and fro before settling on AA. ‘You see, Ei-chan was worried when he heard that you were heading north, and he was insistent that we should watch over you—’

AA suddenly shook his head. He then pointed to Mei Lin.

‘Ahh,’ said Cassandra, Rei, and Zai in unison. She’s the one who’s worried.

‘Well, if you’re that worried about us, then, we’ve no choice but to let you join our party,’ said Zai with a smirk.

‘D-Don’t get me wrong,’ said Mei Lin. ‘I still think I’m right. That’s why I want to see what you can do about this crisis.’

Cassandra nodded. ‘And I want you to see how much this world needs your example.’

* * *

The party of five made good progress down the road to the Abaddon lands. With the towering presence of AA, as well as the menacing aura of the two members of the Seraphim royalty, no brigand dared impede their progress.

A week after Cassandra enlisted the help of Zai and left Caesarea, the group finally managed to reach the wall marking the boundary of Etrusca, the land of the Abaddon. Along the way, Zai had managed to gather news from the inns they have passed by. The big rumour was that an Abaddon legion marched south a day or so before, probably in response to a Seraphim mora that had been sent north. Or perhaps it was the Seraphim that had responded to the Abaddon mobilisation. In any case, the threat of imminent war hovers ominously over Geos, and it was most likely up to their party to prevent that from happening.

Of course, they had to enter Etrusca to accomplish anything of note.

‘Have I not made myself sufficiently clear? I am Cassandra, Princess of Delphi. I have been sent by the Prince of Olympia to negotiate a peace treaty with your country. Why won’t you let me through? Or do you wish me to conduct negotiations right here and now? In that case, bring me someone of sufficient rank to discuss terms with.’

The sudden outburst didn’t come out of nowhere. After about an hour of trying to negotiate entry into Etrusca, upon which Cassandra poured all her courtly powers of persuasion, she found out that the commander of the gate garrison had been stonewalling her more effectively than the actual wall could.

‘Ma’am, our races are on the brink of war,’ he said. He was clearly struggling to maintain the proper display of decorum towards a high-level official of a rival state. ‘If your excellency enters Etrusca, we cannot guarantee your safety. Our embassy in Caesarea would be more amenable to the discussion your excellency wishes to hold.’

A small twitch developed in her left eyebrow. The name ‘your excellency’ reminded her of her meeting with Zai, and a burst of irritation came over her.

‘I came from Caesarea. The Abaddon embassy there is in lockdown. In fact, the reason our races are on the brink of war has to do with why they had to lock it down. If I were given enough time, I would be able to explain that the incident in question should not be grounds for fanning the flames of the current crisis.’

The restraint holding back the Abaddon officer’s tongue snapped. ‘Princess, one of our own was murdered by a Seraph bolt; do you think we do not know who threatens us? Do you tell me this is no reason to protect ourselves? Do you think we are stupid, Seraphim?’

‘If I may speak, centurion,’ said Zai, who, moments ago, had been standing mutely beside Rei, some steps behind the princess. She had told them to leave the negotiating to her, and so she cast a baleful glance at her interrupting bodyguard.

‘What is it, human?’ spat the Abaddon? ‘Have you chosen to cast your lot with Akhaia?’

‘Nothing of the sort, sir. ‘We—my partner is the little girl back there’—he waved an arm in Rei’s direction—‘are assigned by the Caesarean government as the official investigators into the assassination. The assassin may have attacked like one of the Seraphim, but he was not one. And we hope to, ah, apprehend him soon to lay the matter to rest.’

‘A non-Seraphim who can use Seraphim skills? A likely story. What falsehood would you—’

‘Ah, are you still not in?’ Mei Lin, who had been waiting in the forest with AA, dropped by to check on them. She sat at her customary place by AA’s shoulder.

The centurion reacted with alarm at the sight of the two.

‘Aren’t you Augustus, the eagle-bearer of Legio Victrix? Why are you with the Witch of Teutoberg Forest?’

He signalled to his sergeant, who went inside. Moments later, the gate half-opened, and twenty fully-equipped legionnaires rushed out, spears and shields in hand.

‘What is this?’ said Cassandra. ‘Would you dare attack an emi—’

‘This matter concerns you not, Seraphim. We are here to arrest a traitor.’

‘A traitor, you say?’ came the soft words of Mei Lin. A small smile formed on her lips, and the legionnaires stopped dead in their tracks.

‘Once upon a time,’ she continued, ‘you sent two of your most elite legions to stop me. Remember?’ Even though her feet weren’t touching the ground, she still managed to frighten to inaction a group of armed Abaddon. ‘Tell me, if there was someone who could cause me to stay my hand against your race, what would you call him?’

The legionnaires managed to shake off their fears and held their hastae and scutum at the ready, but none took a step forward.

‘Well?’ said Mei Lin with a tilt of her head, a finger placed on her cheek. ‘What would you call someone who kills the second strongest among the Seraphim? Answer me.’ Her question came not as a scream, but it carried enough menace to compel the centurion to answer.

‘He would be a hero.’

‘Then rejoice. You have a hero in your midst.’ She stepped down from AA’s shoulder; the force of her presence caused the legionnaires to flinch. ‘I declare now, in front of you all, that as long as Antoine Augustus Beldevere lives, I shall not use the sigil of Ceres.’ She stretched her hand out in front of her, and a ball of light materialised in her palm. However, her actions carried no hint of malice that even the wary Abaddon soldiers could detect.

‘Ei-chan, bind me.’

AA nodded as he erected a network of barriers around Mei Lin.

Abaddon barriers had the ability to repel certain attacks. An enterprising bunch had tried placing barriers around Seraphim spellcasters and succeeded in interrupting their casting. A few had experimented with creating a barrier that would permanently bind Seraphim powers; on that front, none had succeeded.

So imagine the bewilderment of the Abaddon guards as they watched AA’s barriers contract around Mei Lin.

‘He would seal a greater sigil of one of the Seraphim royalty…?’ said the centurion. The grips on the Abaddon soldiers’ weapons slackened as they stared, slack-jawed in disbelief, at AA’s spell. ‘That’s not possible.’

‘This is no seal,’ said Mei Lin as the last of the barriers dispelled around her. ‘Ei-chan told me that this is a modified reinforcement spell. I had to accept it before it could work, but once it’s active, it can draw energy from my sigil for its sustenance.’

Reinforcement spells were spells cast by the Abaddon on themselves or others to strengthen them. Reinforcement spells cast on others have a shorter lifespan than those cast on oneself, since they slowly lose effectiveness once removed from the power supplied by the caster. AA’s specially crafted spell managed to avoid that limitation by drawing power from the very thing it was binding.

Mei Lin lost most of her menacing presence, despite still walking on the ground. This was one proof that the spell AA had cast worked.

‘As long as he’s alive, the Princess of Eleusis is no more. Of course,’ she said as she grinned at the guards, ‘don’t expect sweet little Mei Lin to be easy prey.’

‘As for me,’ said Cassandra, ‘my sigil is not suitable for combat—’

Yeah, right, said Zai, remembering the deforestation she had caused to flush out a band of outlaws.

‘—as evidenced by the absence of a Companion unit under my command,’ she continued a bit more loudly, as if she had heard Zai’s unspoken objection. ‘But I will still consent to swearing an oath not to use any of my powers while within the walls of Etrusca.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Not even for self-defence.’

What?!’ blurted out Zai, and the soldiers’ grip on their weapons tightened in surprise. ‘Whaddaya mean, “not even for self-defence”?’

‘There’s a reason I brought you and Rei with me, Mr Bodyguard.’ She gave the dumbfounded mercenary a sly wink. ‘I hope you do your job well.’

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