Come dance with the gypsies... Circulation: 170,869,764 Issue: 395 | 5th day of Relaxing, Y11
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An Iliad: Part One


by eternus_dragon

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Azure was a beautiful, graceful Faerie Draik and she absolutely detested it. Yes, her frilled wings were stunning and they matched her sharp sapphire eyes, but the young pet was sick of it all. Faerie, Faerie, Faerie... her brother, Korial, was an elegant Faerie Xweetok, her mother a gorgeous Faerie Zafara, and her father a Pteri, painted, you guessed it: Faerie. As King Hagan’s royal diplomats, Azure’s family was hardly short of neopoints. Azure had every thing she ever wanted, more than she ever needed and anything else that she did not know existed.

     This presented a problem: whenever her whole family showed up anywhere, together, it caused envious pets, the “commoners” as her brother called them, to point and whisper and glare. Azure had acute ears and knew of their words: “Stupid nobles! They think they’re so much better than us. Look, a whole family paints themselves to mock us!”

     It was especially bad, when her family went to a party and brought their four petpets as well... who were also Faerie-painted. However, Azure’s parents did not see any issues, and despite their daughter’s request to paint herself a more humble shade, they insisted that it was the only “proper” color. Azure really wanted to be painted Cloud. It was simple yet beautiful and so free. She never liked the Faerie wings, which were too broad for her and awkward. When it was her day to join her older brother and her parents in Faerie-glory, she had tried to get out of it, but Mom grabbed her, shoved in her paws the glowing Paintbrush and marched her off to the Rainbow Pool.

     “Azure!” Korial’s voice cut the Draik from her daydreams. Azure looked up to see the Xweetok in the air, beating his tiny, but efficient wings at a blurring speed.

     “What?” she snapped. “Can’t you see I’m about to go to a match?”

     “What match?” Korial snorted. “You don’t even have your sword. Plus, the sparring tournament is long over, right? It was the last until spring, too. Who’s going to fence with you in the winter?”

     “I hate your logic.” Azure sighed, outsmarted by her scholarly brother once more. “All right, I don’t have a sword match. What do you want?”

     “Mother wishes for you to join us in a conference with Lord Bracken of Altador, this afternoon.”

     “Please,” Azure immediately moaned, “I’m not into self-inflicted pain.” Conferences with “Lord” anybody meant politics. And Azure hated politics more than Cheeserolling. And that was saying a lot, since Azure was officially banned from the sport, when she had gotten frustrated and taken out her anger on the Techo who ran the place.

     At the last conference, the Draik had sat dumbly in her chair, feeling very stupid and under-educated, as her peers debated about everything from the number of Kikos at Kiko Lake, to where plushies came from.

     Korial sighed and said, “Look, we all know you hate these, but they are actually interesting...” He trailed off, as Azure rolled her eyes. Even her brother drowned in a stew of politics and found it interesting!

     “Okay,” the Xweetok sighed again. “Do it just this time. Just once more. I promise I’ll never bug you for a conference again... for a whole year!”

     “Seriously?” Azure exclaimed. “Promise?”

     “Promise.”

     “Okay... I’ll go.” Azure stretched. A whole year without affairs of state and all that junk! She felt better already.

     Korial hovered into the air and flew off, calling over his shoulder, “Remember, six o’clock sharp! Don’t be late. Lord Bracken is here to discuss the war, to enlist help and... well, you’ll find out. See you in the meeting hall!”

     War, eh? Azure thought, rising to her feet. That was good, as she had done a lot of research on her sport, swordplay, and that included military tactics and such. She wouldn’t be clueless, so this last conference might actually be pleasant. Maybe.

    ***

      “Lord Bracken!” announced the guard at the great oaken door, holding his spear stiffly in salute. Then he and another guard tugged on the rings of the ancient castle doors, admitting a tall, broad-shouldered shadow Grarrl. Lord Bracken was clad in dark armor that reflected the light and clinked as he moved. An extremely large broadsword the length of Azure’s whole body was slung easily at his hip, and many large daggers rested, in their sheaths, at his leather belt. He wore a crimson cape that billowed out like fiery wings.

     The Grarrl towered over Azure’s father, but the Pteri smiled calmly, as if he associated with others three times his size on a daily basis. He probably did.

     A diplomat is always polite and cool and calm. A diplomat never betrays emotion, be it fury or sorrow or joy, unless it serves a greater purpose. A diplomat can insult without angering, compliment without encouraging, decline and accept at the same time.

     Azure recalled the passage from a scroll she had read, in the marketplace. She was young then but over the years learned what the oxymoron-filled paragraph meant. Indeed, her parents were skilled at their work, able to speak in riddles and negotiate without their opponents realizing half their terms.

     “Lord Bracken,” Azure’s mother greeted him in a business-like fashion. “Please sit. We can begin immediately.”

     The Grarrl seated his bulky form next to Azure, who felt a twinge of annoyance flash through her. Korial wore a polite smile, like their parents, so the Draik tried to match it. She kept her expression calm and her gaze cool and emotionless. It was almost like she was a diplomat, too. Almost.

     “Lady Alyssa,” Lord Bracken boomed, his voice gravelly and strong, “so you have heard of our blight? They are a strange organization known only to us as the Shadow Blades. They make war against Altador and we are outnumbered. Our Twelve Protectors can easily deal with an army, but they are not an army. They hide in the lands around Altador, ambushing merchants and even pirating on the seas. The Shadow Blades fight a guerilla war, and our army is not equipped to deal with them. Already thousands of our troops have been wounded. Innocent civilians are getting injured, and much damage has been dealt to our buildings...”

     Azure half-listened, as the general rambled on about the woes of his city. She waited for his point, his request for aid from Brightvale. And finally, he asked for it. “It is in all of our best interests to fight against the Shadow Blades, as they may turn on anyone next. We need all able-bodied warriors, no matter the age, size, or anything else, to depart to Altador at once. While we speak, my city burns.”

     “And so why have you come here, Lord Bracken?” Lord Rhys, Azure’s father asked, coolly. “Brightvale is known for its scholars and books and the lushness of its farmland, not for an army used to conquer others.”

     Lord Bracken acknowledged the barely concealed affront with a calm nod. “We are training new soldiers, lighter units, especially designed to fight the Shadow Blades. But these new units are ill-suited for the main defense of the city. We cannot afford to break our complete army down into such tiny corps for fear of a larger, massed invasion. But if we keep our regular army intact, we do not have enough soldiers to put in any of the new units. That is why I am here, Lord Rhys. Brightvale may not have a super-powered army, but you must have individual warriors, who can be trained quickly.”

     Now Azure understood why Lord Bracken had come. He wanted a couple of extra pets who could fight to add to his “new units” that would be used to fight against the Black Knives, or whatever they were called. Pets that he didn’t care about.

     “I will bring your request to King Hagan immediately,” Azure’s mother said with sincerity and sympathy, though the Draik knew that she had years of practice, winning people over to her, with that tone of voice.

     “We will persuade him to send as many soldiers as possible to help your cause,” her father promised, in the same way. Lord Bracken nodded slowly and suddenly turned his eyes on Azure and Korial. “These are your children, I presume?”

     “Yes,” Alyssa, Azure’s mother replied a little stiffly. The Grarrl studied Korial, who returned his gaze with a composed, diplomatic look.

     “A scholar?” Lord Bracken grunted, snorting at the small Xweetok. He then turned to Azure, studying her for a long period of time. Determined not to show her discomfort, Azure suddenly remembered all the lessons her parents had tried to teach her.

     “To be a diplomat, you can’t show weakness,” her father had tried to get into her. “You can’t show anything that makes you look uncertain.”

     “Swords master Talore told me that,” Azure had replied brightly. “He said that showing weakness makes your opponent more confident.”

     “Yes, in that sense, sword-fighting is similar to diplomacy. But...”

     Azure had drifted off, then, uninterested. She had never been excited with the prospect of becoming a diplomat, as her parents were. She was interested only, in her favorite sport, the swords play, which she was not at all bad at.

     “You.” Lord Bracken’s gruff voice interrupted her attempt to not show weakness. “You are a warrior. A sword-wielder, to be precise.”

     Azure recoiled in surprise. How did he know that she used the sword? How did he know that she was not a dignified politician, like the rest of them?

     “Yes.” Something odd lit in the Grarrl’s eyes. Suddenly, he seized a dagger from his belt and flicked it into his wrist. With grace and speed Azure could hardly credit to him, he lunged across the table and slashed the knife at the Draik’s head.

     Instinctively, Azure reached for her sword, which was in its sheath, under her chair. She always brought it everywhere though she did not really expect to be using it. Quickly, she grabbed the golden hilt and slid the blade out smoothly, just in time to block the dagger-swipe.

     A strange grin lit Lord Bracken’s features as he brought out a second knife and began to duel Azure, with as much fury as they would on a real battlefield. Screams came from behind Azure; her family was calling for the guards. But the Draik was too focused on staying alive to notice any of that. Lord Bracken was a general of the Altador army, so he was no push-over swordsman. Azure found herself being beaten back, despite having not lost a single duel, even with the best of King Hagan’s knights. But then like her father had said, Brightvale was not known for its great warriors. Most of King Hagan’s knights were noblemen who were bored and decided themselves, they were ready for full knighthood, even with little training.

     Gritting her teeth, Azure tried a reckless disarming maneuver, knowing that the longer the contest went on, the less chance she had of winning.

     To her surprise, both of the general’s weapons flew out of his claws and clattered to the ground. By now, the royal guard had poured into the meeting room, their spears tilted at the now-weaponless Grarrl. However, Lord Bracken began to laugh heartily, “I see! I see! Lord Rhys,” he addressed Azure’s shaken father, “you have a master sword-maiden here. She has spirit, determination, and everything else. Her skills are best put to use and I see that she yearns for adventure. What do you say that she be put with the groups you are to dispatch to Altador? She will be treated as one of our own; it does not matter that she is a girl.”

     Azure’s father gasped in horror, emotion crossing his face as outrage. Then he composed himself and asked coldly, “Are you implying that my daughter be sent into the front lines of a war? Are you saying I will throw away my child’s life on some distant battlefield? Are you asking if I am an irresponsible parent, Lord Bracken?” It was a straight answer, a firm answer, uncharacteristic of any diplomat.

     Lord Bracken sensed the meeting was taking a bad turn and he apologized, saying that it was wrong of him to test Azure’s swordsmanship, like he did. Then he hastily excused himself and bowed deeply, before pushing through the suspicious guards and out the great wooden doors. But not before Azure had caught his eye, and saw a glimmer of excitement, of determination. She had a strange feeling that Lord Bracken was not going to give up this easily.

    ***

     Azure glided, lifted by a warm wind and her way lit by a full moon. Her family owned, not only a huge castle that was their home, but also all the land near it. This included hundreds of acres of fields and hills and forest. It was entirely “private property”, so that made Azure’s “backyard” a private, tranquil place to go when she felt like being alone. After Lord Bracken’s visit, her father had left fuming, and her mother was staring out the window, upset. Even her cool-headed brother seemed shaken and intimidated by the huge Grarrl who had many big knives. Azure, feeling a sense of frustration she could understand, followed Lord Bracken’s example and exited the meeting room. She had spent the afternoon getting her anger out on practice dummies, at the training arena. Only after she was exhausted and her sword covered in the straw that stuffed the dummies, did she quit.

     The Draik sighed and with a grunt, landed lightly near a grove of oaks, shimmering silver in the soft moonlight. Suddenly, from no where, a small shape also dropped from the air and it mewed. Loyalty, Azure’s Alabriss had followed her. The petpet fluttered to Azure’s side and snuggled onto her shoulder. She smiled and stroked the Faerie Alabriss’ mane. Unlike Korial’s timid Faerie Cobrall, or her parents’ over-groomed petpets, Loyalty was 100% warrior like her owner. She dominated the petpet arena.

     Azure unbuckled her sword, which was strapped to her back, and hung it on the slender branch of the nearest tree. Then she sat down and leaned against the cool gnarled trunk, the rough bark massaging the back of her wings. A gentle breeze ruffled her scales and she sighed again, curling up at the roots of the tree, feeling sleepy and safe and—

     Loyalty stiffened and trumpeted in alarm, her sharp senses picking up danger. The bushes rustled and Azure stirred, but it was too late to react to the shadowy figure who grabbed her tail. She yelled, but a paw covered her mouth. In utter outrage that someone was attempting to kidnap her, Azure reached behind her shoulder for her sword, then remembered that it was still hanging on the tree. She was so stupid!

     Hissing, the Draik twisted and as hard as she could, bit down on the claws that held her. She felt her sharp fangs sink into flesh, tasted the bitter coppery flavor of blood, and heard her captor yelp. The claws loosened, and Azure sprang away, half-spreading her wings. Behind her, Loyalty was living up to her name and fiercely kicking at their attacker’s face. Azure reached for the sword that still hung upon the oak and grabbed its hilt, only to feel a sharp pain on her arm. She unsheathed her blade but found her grip slippery and unsteady, and her balance was suddenly gone. Azure wobbled and tried to lift the weapon, but her hands were heavy, like lead weights. She looked down and saw a dart protruding from her shoulder.

     Azure managed a string of foul language, similar to what the pirates of Krawk Island spoke, before falling. She heard a screech of rage and saw Loyalty, helpless on the ground. Feeling fury course through her, Azure summoned the last bit of her strength and lashed out with her tail and smirked in satisfaction, as the sharp barbs on it bit into someone’s leg, that someone crying out in pain. Her vision was blurring and it was getting darker, and everything was a smothering cloak. She snarled a last curse and a roar of defiance before the darkness overtook her.

To be continued...

 
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