After the Alvrics left their not-so-secret council chamber, the air by the side of the Patriarch’s raised dais rippled to reveal her. She reached out with a glove-covered hand to pick up a piece of the ripped scroll on the floor and evanesced.
Milena followed the Alvric Elders through many beautiful corridors for a while. As they broke up and went their separate ways, she continued on with Nolan, wanting to see where he’d end up. She needed to find a way to take that memory crystal from him — not that she’d be able to break into a Patriarch’s storage ring. The Great Clans all used special storage rings that could only be accessed by the individual wearing it, at least until they pass away and their heir inherits it.
Milena knew it was all wishful thinking though. No Patriarch would be easily robbed of their storage rings. Vorthe would have to put a tail on him. Albeit, it would be too risky. The Royal family wouldn’t want to risk the disappearance of a Patriarch all because of a memory crystal. People would start asking questions and poking where they shouldn’t.
Nolan Alvric headed straight to his wing of the large manor house and Milena followed, walking close to the walls and making sure to keep her footsteps silent. Getting to the entrance, she stopped. She could sense the many wards positioned to prevent snooping around. The brown bricks of the triple archway that served as an entrance looked worn down by time, yet beautiful all the same.
She could sense the wards but couldn’t see them like those of Vorthe’s bloodline — damn royals and their impressive bloodline. She took out her monocle, an artifact designed to function just like Vorthe’s bloodline — or at least close to it. If she was being honest with herself, the gold-rimmed looking glass wasn’t quite as capable as Vorthe’s bloodline but it at least got the job done.
She held the monocle to her eye as Nolan Alvric walked through the wards as though they weren’t there. Gold bands of light, crisscrossing the frame of the archway came into view and she sighed. The place was choked full of dangerous wards, even the walls, floor, and roof were armed to the teeth.
She was quite good at stealth — one of the best in Vorthe. But this was not a life or death matter and she had already spent a considerable amount of her resources to break into their not-so-secret council chamber. She wouldn’t use up precious resources to fool the wards here. Best to turn back and let Vorthe send someone else to deal with it.
Milena retraced her steps, heading back to the council chamber and from there, outside the manor. She was unprepared for the odor that smacked her in the face like a running bull.
The whole estate stank like a tannery. The smell of leather mixed with some other unknown odor she couldn’t quite place. It didn’t smell like anything she had ever smelled before. She fought the urge to retch and calmed herself, disgusted all the same. She moved unhurriedly, yet unseen through crowds of Alvric.
The estate was large and very spacious. Small cottages dotted the compound all around her in a mismatch of colors. The Alvrics weren’t as orderly as most Clans in Vorthe. Perhaps it stemmed from their ancestors growing up in the wild south. All the same, it paid to adapt.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned to adapt, Milena thought to herself.
Their conduct in their homes was one of chaos and turbulence. Every word from a mother had to be screamed over the top of burning lungs to be heard. Children played everywhere with no supervision from their mothers or betters. Young adults crashed into burning pots of food from time to time as they fenced — or learned to fence.
Isn’t that why we have kitchens? Milena chuckled to herself. The rest of Vorthe couldn’t afford all the luxuries that the Great Clans were privileged to have but even common folks were financially able to install a cooking stove inside a spare room to create a makeshift kitchen. Most of them created smoke-holes to vent the smoke from their cooking, while those that could afford proper chimneys put some money into it.
The Alvrics were too focused on the old, they miss the new. Time had left them behind in more ways than she cared to think of. She trudged along unhurriedly, looking from shadowy corner to corner, checking to see if there were any other spies around beside her.
The outer wall of the estate was another hurdle that’d deplete her resources further but it was necessary. She couldn’t jump the space in front of her with her void bridge unless she wanted to alert the Alvrics of her presence. She held her monocle to her eye once again to view the wards before she started working to disarm them from a distance, getting closer with every layer she succeeded at.
After spending a little bit of time disarming the wards, she walked toward the high-walled fence of the Alvric Estate and vaulted over.
“How was it,” Damien Vorthe asked as he leaned forward to pour them both some tea.
“It was fun to watch,” Milena said.
Damien paused. The way he paused made Milena feel like the tea pouring into the teacup, paused too — mid-air. She breathed out a sigh of relief seeing it was not so. Damien was so unpredictable. One never knew what he’d pick up in a short moment of absence.
“Fun?” he asked as he sat back in his high-backed chair, his movements slow and relaxed.
They were in one of the chambers in Damien’s Palace and Milena was here to report her findings on her spying on the Alvrics to him.
“Hmm. They did find damning evidence about the Dark One,” she said.
“What did they find?”
“...is this an interrogation, Damien?”
Damien Vorthe calmly picked up his teacup and drank slowly. It was a bit uncomfortable to watch him move so methodically and slowly. Yet it was also nearly mesmerizing.
Milena had never met the Sovereign before but she had heard about him from the ‘Mother Divine’. She loved to think she’d be well prepared for how overwhelmingly the Sovereign’s presence would affect her. Compared to him, Damien’s presence would be a sputtering candle.
“No,” Damien said after a sip.
“You don’t have to act so high and mighty around me, you know?” Milena quipped.
“Milena, could you give your report… please?”
Milena smirked, pleased he used the magic word. “Most of it was old scrolls, but there was a memory crystal. And all the Elders present viewed its content.”
Damien Vorthe nodded in thought. “It might be damning as you say — if they know how to use it to their advantage. The Alvrics have long since wanted to uproot Vorthe from this continent, but subtlety isn't their strong suit.”
“Or they just want to go back south,” Milena added, unsure whether Damien took the threat of the memory crystal seriously or not. If he didn’t, she had been fussing over nothing then.
“That would have dire political ramifications,” Damien stated.
“I get that you see the big picture, Damien and that I’m not a Vorthe, but we grew up together. Trained under the same master. Letting me in on a thing or two is how friends should act, isn’t it?” she said as she cupped her tea, blowing on the liquid in it.
Damien had no qualms telling her, she knew. This was just a power show. It was the way of spies to withhold information as best they could to give themselves an advantage. And truly, Milena wasn’t a Vorthe. But her people, the Diviners, have been with Vorthe for as long as she could remember, playing the power game and keeping the other Great clans on their toes.
“You need to think outside the box, Milena. Vorthe isn’t the only superpower on the continent. If we show weakness or split up into factions of what we are now, other parties would swoop in and use them against us.”
Milena thought about it carefully. She was a straightforward woman, and even though she had been alive for almost as long as Damien, she neither liked nor understood politics. As long as she got to do what she loved best and take good care of her family, she was okay. Speaking of family…
“Your Fated Dark One is a pervert,” she segued.
Damien sighed and put down his cup.
“He was checking out my daughter. Can you imagine that?”
Damien bit his lip in frustration. This woman wasn’t as subtle with conversation as with assassinations and surveillance. If there was one thing Damien envied about her, it was her simple nature. And her ability to pick up on trending slang among the youth.
“If I catch him staring at her…” she didn’t want to say the word, “...next time, I’m gonna pluck out his eyes, you hear me?”
“If you have nothing else to say about the mission, good day, Milena.”
“They’re smuggling southerners here during the opening of Terra Praeta,” she picked up her teacup and took a sip. “Perhaps to search for your daimon.”
“Do they know it’s Terra Praeta?”
“No, but Nolan also said to put their people on standby.”
“Are they preparing for a war?” Damien asked with a raised eyebrow, his voice filled with mirth to show that Alvric was no threat to the Royal Family.
“Perhaps,” Milena said, taking another sip and resting in her high-backed chair. “But whatever move they would make against Vorthe would be after the Patriarch ascends.”
“And the Blue Heart Gem?”
“What they stole is but a drop in the ocean, but I must ask,” she said, sitting up and picking up her cup again. “Why do you allow them to steal it?”
Damien smiled a knowing smile. “Suffice it to say that it is an experiment.”
“You do know what’ll happen to their Saint eventually if he inhales it for too long, right?” she said, looking questioningly at him.
“Don’t look at me that way, Milena, I’m not a black-hearted Sage,” Damien retorted. “We didn’t choose this recourse, Jorm Alvric did himself. We just let him have it. He’s too concerned with seeing the future.”
“The Blue Heart gem does allow a Saint to see the future, but then…” she took a sip from her cup, “it has adverse effects.”
“Not our problem.”
Milena shrugged. It wasn’t her concern if a Great family lost their Saint. And Jorm Alvric sounded ‘meh’ — nothing like the name of Saint Realm expert. But she’d keep that thought to herself. “You speak his name so blatantly. Are you not worried about him hearing you?”
She’d think twice before calling out the name of a Saint like that, especially if they were talking negatively about them. Rumor was that they could hear their names on the lips of those who called them even from miles away. The thing is, said rumor wasn’t a rumor at all. She knew this, and so did every Sage out there.
“Thank you for your service, Milena,” Damien said. Whatever dangers there were to speaking the name of the Sage out loud was of no concern to him it seems. She looked around the room with new eyes. “There are privacy wards to prevent even a Saint from hearing things inside this chamber.”
The chamber in question was dark with shadows due to the little amount of light from the light crystals. It fit Damien’s personality and status as The Master of Shadows. The furniture and blinds were also all dark. Milena took out her monocle to check out the wards he talked about and she saw Damien’s lips quirk up at the edges a little.
He gestured for her to go ahead. She did… and dropped the monocle, blinking rapidly to get the temporary blindness out of her eye. If she had thought the Alvrics warded their estate like a fortress, this was on another level!
“You could have warned me!”
Damien shrugged, smirking at her. She felt like smacking the smirk off his face. And she would.
“Ahem, where’s Erika?” she asked. Damien’s smirk faded away in a split moment.
“Busy,” he quickly said, narrowing his eyes at her.
Milena eyed Damien with a long stare. “She wouldn’t be up in the solar, would she?”
Damien Vorthe waved his hand above his teacup to heat it up with a little essence, ignoring her question.
“Of course she is,” Milena snorted. Way to get back at him for playing her.
“I designed that place mainly for her work, Milena,” Damien said. “She doesn’t want to be disturbed when busy with her research.”
Milena stood up smiling. “I should see her.”
“Good day, Milena.”
“Uh-uh. I’m going to see her.” she vanished on the spot and the myriads of wards started vibrating everything in the room violently.
Damien cursed as he rushed to quiet the wards, hearing Milena’s laughter all around him.
Jerome tried to push himself further but his hands gave out.
“You’re doing great,” Rihal said as Jerome sat down to wipe the sweat off his brows.
“No, I’m not. I thought this would be easier, but it seems I was too optimistic,” he drank from a waterskin beside him.
“Optimism is a good thing,” Rihal said.
Jerome hated these slow days. He wished he could be on the road searching for his family, but his injuries wouldn’t allow him. The silence stretched for a while as they stood together. Jerome could almost feel Rihal’s discomfort. He was still mad at him. And he couldn’t bring himself to see him as the Rihal he once knew.
After resting for a while, they exited Kilian’s training hall to go for a walk. Jerome’s muscles were atrophied and he needed as much exercise as he could get to get in shape.
“What were you doing in there?” Layla asked, walking toward them. He didn’t hear her coming.
“Training,” Rihal said.
Layla turned and bowed to Rihal. “Lord Rihal, he’s not supposed to be training.”
“You underestimate the human body and its capabilities, Layla.”
Layla observed Jerome as he took out a long stick from a storage bag in his belt and rested on it, his long hair cascading down his back. He looked aged, coupled with his gaunt looks and the deep scars that marred his face and hands. She couldn’t bear to see him undo all her hard work.
“It’s only been one cycle, at least wait four moons, maybe five,” she insisted.
“He doesn’t have that much time,” Rihal said mysteriously.
“Time for what?” The two Sprouts asked simultaneously.
“You’ll be going on another adventure soon, Jerome.”