I Became A Vesper | Part I | To the Palace
Chapter 1: Parting
“Are you sure you want to go with him?”
Astra paused, closing the drawstrings on her pack, and turned around. She looked at the tall brunette behind her with affection, smiling lightly to reassure her.
"It's been a while since we had to be apart for so long, hasn't it?" After ten years of friendship, she could understand why her friend felt reluctant to say good-bye. “I’m sure, Lexi.” Gently, she took the other girl’s hand in both of hers. “I don’t like being separated, but we need to look for clues about that magical stone, and the palace isn’t suited for Ladron. Besides, we'll cover more ground by splitting up.”
A well-muscled man with hair the colour of lavender, who was currently loading his luggage onto the pack horse’s saddle, glanced over when he heard his name. Astra grinned at him, raising her voice. “If we leave Ladron on his own, he’ll only get himself into trouble. Someone has to keep an eye on him.”
The man in question pouted at her words as he finished what he was doing and came to join them. “I’m capable of behaving if I have to,” he complained.
“No, you’re not.” A fourth voice, low and calm, interjected. The speaker stepped into the street and came to stand beside them. “You can't keep your hands off of anything that glitters, you light-fingered bandit.”
“Now you’re just being mean!”
“I assure you, I did not mean it that way.”
Passerbys on the street, hearing the commotion, paused to glance curiously at them. The four made quite the unusual group. The man who had been speaking, who adopted a placid expression at being confronted, could draw most of the attention alone. His chestnut hair and masculine features were quite attractive, but even more eye-catching was the official-looking armour that he wore, and the long teal cape fastened at his left shoulder with a silver pin – a symbol of office.
The man beside him, who was a few inches taller with long purple hair pulled back into a tail, lightly hit the knight on the shoulder and complained, “Can’t you just be nice since today is our last day?” His skin was tanner than the people around him, his eyes a startling shade between green and gold that marked him as a foreigner in these lands. His hands were shod in thin black gloves, and a long golden earring, like a pendulum, dangled from one ear, the only piece of finery about him. His mouth had a playful, mischievous curve to it that spelled trouble to those who got involved with him.
The knight smiled at the protest. “I jest, Ladron. Be well, and be safe.” His gaze shifted to the lanky brunette, who was dressed simply but for the necklace around her neck that sported various claws and fangs of beasts she had hunted in the past. The cuffs of her serviceable brown boots were also dotted with similar ornamentation. Her eyes were large and framed by softly curling lashes, and though she was as tall as the knight and her hair cut short to just past her ears, her features and smile were undeniably feminine. “Lexi, I’m counting on you to keep an eye on him.”
Ladron was a former - or at least, he claimed as much - thief, and an ex-convict. In the past two years he'd done his best to keep his hands to himself, but sometimes his instincts got the better of him. “Leave him to me, Aleron,” Lexi replied, linking her arm through Ladron’s with a refreshingly confident smile. The thief in question, though he was not necessarily being complimented, still put on a sappy expression at her touch.
Astra could not help but laugh at the sight of the man’s self-contented grin, which looked quite silly on his puppy-like face. “Lovebirds,” she teased, reaching to shake Ladron’s free hand. “Please look after Lexi. Lexi, I’ll be sure to write.”
Aleron, a bit reluctantly, stepped in as he glanced at the sun. “Our appointment draws near. Astra, we should get moving.”
“Alright. I guess this is goodbye for now, then.” Waving farewell, the group split into two pairs and headed in opposite directions down the narrow street. Ladron and Lexi soon vanished into the general bustle of the crowd and were lost from view. In the meantime, people seemed to be unconsciously parting for Aleron and Astra when they saw the former's flashy armour.
Astra, carrying what little luggage she had on her shoulder, stood out for reasons unlike her companion. Similarly to Ladron, she had the undeniable look of a foreigner. But unlike the former thief, who had light hair and pale eyes like the people of the north, the girl who was keeping pace with her knight companion had jet-black hair that fell past her shoulders and eyes that were just as dark. Her skin was tanned, with a faint dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks. In the midday sunlight, the contrast between her black hair and the soft blue tunic she wore was stark. Though she felt the curious stares of the people on the street, she chose to ignore them, concentrating on matching the knight’s much longer stride.
“… Aleron, I hate to trouble you, but could you slow down a bit?” she eventually had to ask, as every singular step the knight took required her to take three. The knight seemed to be in a rush today, striding forwards without pause or consideration for hsi shorter companion.
Realizing his discourtesy, Aleron immediately slowed his pace and apologized. “Forgive me, Astra. It seems I am more eager than I had thought.”
“It's been two years since you've seen your homeland. I understand.” Giving him her best smile, Astra patted his arm. “I look forward to seeing the palace you'd told me so much about.”
“I am certain that we will be able to find information there,” he told her as he guided her expertly through the crowded streets. “Once the audience with the king is over, I shall take you on a tour of the castle myself, and introduce you to my men.”
“That sounds lovely.” Astra pondered something for a moment or two, before deciding to ask: “Aleron, may I ask what the king is like? How should I conduct myself around him?”
The knight’s expression fell slightly. Though she didn’t miss that small detail, Astra chose not to press, quietly waiting for his reply. Aleron adjusted his expression before saying, “His majesty is a renowned fighter who conquered a portion of the Tanabrinian Empire’s territories in the last war twenty years ago, and very politically-minded. Since assuming the throne, he has ruled with a firm and disciplined grip. He is a great man.”
But not a good one.
He didn’t need to say it for Astra to understand. Though he had given the ruling monarch nothing but compliments, those compliments held no mention of the virtues of the man’s personality. Astra nodded. “I think I get the picture. I’ll be careful, don’t worry.”
The street that they walked on began to slope upwards. Around them, the hustle and bustle of the general population began to thin; not many had reason to be so near to the palace.
“According to the notice that I received, we are to have an audience with the crown prince first and foremost,” Aleron explained to her, “but afterwards, I will need to report to his majesty. Given my untimely disappearance, it may take some time, but I'll handle it, so don’t fret.”
The noirette raised her brows at him before gesturing down at her own unruffled appearance. “Do I look like I’m fretting?”
Aleron felt a smile tug at his lips as he said, “No, you do not.” Looking ahead, he changed the subject. “Look, you can see it now.”
Following his action, Astra turned her gaze upwards.
Before them stood the majestic palace of Ateole. A sturdy wall ran around all sides of the imposing structure, with pennants of violet and gold fluttering from the tops of each tower. The palace itself was so large that she could not see the whole thing when she was this close. In the distance, she could see several other buildings – perhaps other, smaller palaces – which were surrounded by gardens.
The wall walk ran until both sides met at the large, heavy wooden gate that they were approaching. An ornate emblem embossed in gold was emblazoned on the arch hanging overhead – a large bird in the midst of flight, holding a lightning bolt in its claws and a jewel of some kind in its beak.
“Is that the royal emblem?” Astra asked, jerking her chin at the shining bird.
“Yes, the Thunderbird,” Aleron replied, indicating the pin on his shoulder which held the same symbol. “A raven from legend, who descended from the heavens and granted a bolt of lightning and a holy crystal to the ancient Hero. That lightning was used to forge the sword that the hero would later wield, and the crystal was said to contain a power that could purify evil." Patting the pouch at his waist, he added, "Both the sword and the crystal had been lost to time, but both are referred to as the hero's relics. Together, they form a set. The royal family is said to be descendants of that hero, and so they took the legend as their symbol.”
“How very dramatic,” Astra commented, hearing Aleron chuckle as she studied the emblem with more interest. The two soldiers who were guarding the main gate stopped them when they approached, but not to hinder them. Instead, both of them, who were relatively young men dressed in plain jerkins and armour, had expressions of delight as they rushed towards Aleron with shouts of joy.
“Captain! Captain, you’ve returned!”
“We heard the news that you’d contacted his highness, but to think that the rumours were true!”
Astra stood back slightly as she watched the two soldiers enthusiastically bombarding Aleron with questions and greetings, a half-smile on her face. Seeing her patiently waiting, Aleron lowered his head and said something quietly to the two men, whose excitement subsided, and they nodded and saluted him as they went back to their posts.
“Please go ahead, Captain,” one of them said as Aleron smiled at them and gestured to Astra. As the noirette stepped up to pass through the gate with him, she caught the curious looks from the two guards and nodded at them.
“You didn’t tell me you were so popular, Captain,” she teased Aleron as they stepped from the dirt road onto the cobblestoned courtyard and headed for the central palace, which was the largest building and built almost entirely from imposing marble.
Embarrassed, Aleron scratched his head. “That… was simply because I have been away for so long,” he replied. “Though my men are aware that I was given a mission, I am sure that no one expected it to take two years to complete.”
“Including you,” Astra pointed out, and he nodded in agreement.
The guards at the entrance to the palace were dressed differently than those at the gate. These men were older, with sharper eyes, and were wearing ornate armour with purple capes. They questioned Aleron and Astra both for some time, with Aleron presenting the notice he’d received from the palace as well as the pin which was his symbol of office, before the men nodded and let them inside. A manservant was waiting for them at a nearby staircase, and he hurried to greet them as they entered.
“Welcome back, Captain Aleron. His majesty has requested that you make your way to the audience hall.”
“His majesty has?” Aleron’s brow creased. “I was under the impression that I was to meet with the crown prince first.”
“The crown prince in currently in his majesty’s company,” the manservant explained, “And his majesty has ordered for the guests to be brought before him immediately. Please, allow me to escort you.”