Her dreams that night were calm, but she woke to Kass and Willem arguing. Bickering was common between the eldest, but they usually waited until they were outside or when most of the family had gone elsewhere. Elaeis inquired if she could help, but both had snapped at her to go back to sleep. After that, Kass retreated to the back room and Willem took to preparing morning meals. The breakfast was quiet, except for mother’s constant questioning about if they were fed well enough or not. Burret said nothing of the meeting with the Preservers, so Elaeis didn’t mention it either.
Once past the tunnels, she kissed Tilli on the cheek, then nodded to Burret as they parted ways. Watching her younger siblings walk into the fields, Elaeis felt stronger than the vay before. There were no more tears waiting to break free. She hurried down the familiar path to her workroom.
When she arrived in the Fortress, her pace was abruptly halted by a crowded stairwell.
Soldiers were packed into the barrack halls. There was a heightened tension in the atmosphere. Elaeis didn’t figure out why until she reached the meal room which stood between the entrance corridor and her work quarters. Yestervay, it had been mostly empty, but now it was overflowing with soldiers.
On the announcement platform, Director Ignimbr stood with a few Officers, including Officer Uvarov who was speaking to the soldiers in a booming voice, “We have long, hard work ahead.”
She crossed the room slowly, lingering in the crowd as she wondered what was happening. Uvarov’s tone was formal.
“Rested or not, you will follow into battle as we pursue the last of the Rephaites.”
As she patiently waited to get through the clustered soldiers, her senses curled away from a standerby. A foul smell was expanding outwards from him. Covering her mouth and nose, she looked imploringly to a couple soldiers who also smelt the deed and quickly moved to allow her to flee. Blinking rapidly, she noticed that the Director seemed to be looking towards her. Her cheeks reddened. She focused on getting through the crowd.
“Make certain your armor is intact and your weapons are sharpened. We leave at new sunrise. If anybody comes across Obstructionists on the way to the Rephaite dwelling, thy Lady orders to kill them on sight. However, we do not expect heretics to bother for they are known for their laziness and hypocrisy.” Uvarov glanced at the Director, who nodded once in confirmation, before he turned his attention back to the company, “At new rise, all units must be in attendance at the playgrounds. Any further questions, speak with your commanding Officer.” Uvarov placed his fist over his heart and raised his left palm towards the ceiling, “For thy Goddess.”
The soldiers repeated the prayer, placing their fists on their chests as they bowed their heads. Elaeis muttered the prayer, finally making it to the corridor that housed her room and slipping away from the main area. As she headed towards her work quarters, she felt uneasy. The sensation lasted as she entered the room and went to sit at the desk. The door shut on its own, causing her to turn quickly and see that someone was there.
Nsut stood with a patient expression, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“You startled me.” Elaeis breathily responded, walking over to her workstation where someone – probably Rau – had left a pile of torn pants.
“We have need of you.”
“What is it that you need me to do?”
“We need someone to light a fire in the fields.”
Elaeis paused, thinking before asking, “How is it going to light on fire? The plants are so heat-resistant.”
“We have a concoction of alchemical substances that we want you to pour. Once these hit the air and ash accrues, there’ll be plenty of destruction.”
“Am I going to be okay?”
“If you run fast enough.”
“Isn’t there anything else I could do?”
“Well, you do have access to the barracks…”
“Theoretically, you could distract the soldiers with something so they might be unwilling… or perhaps, incapable of going out for patrol. If you understand what I mean?”
“I don’t think I do.”
“What I’m suggesting,” Nsut wrapped an arm around her shoulders, “is simply that you show the units a good time. We’ll supply the wine, you just need to herd them. If you can do that, we’ll get someone else on the field job.”
“I’ll do it.” Elaeis felt slightly guilty that she was sending someone else to do the nasty task of dealing with flammable potions, but she also felt that she’d be useless in such a pressuring position. With a small smile, she gave a silent prayer for her good luck that there was something else to be done.
“Great, by second sunset, tonight. Might want to start to get it on it now, some of those Denisovans have mighty tolerances.”
“Good luck.” Elaeis wasn’t sure if it was the appropriate thing to say, but she said it anyways.
Nsut gave a tight smile, patting her on the shoulder and saying nothing before leaving as if they’d never been talking at all. Elaeis watched her go, then went the opposite way. She wanted to say goodbye to her family before she dealt with the soldiers.
The crowd had thinned as she left. Elaeis noticed that the Director seemed to nod towards her as she passed by again, but she didn’t assume that it was for her and hurried away without further thought. She hoped he wouldn’t be curious enough to see why she wasn’t in her work quarters. Speed-walking, as soon as she got out of the exterior tunnels, she broke into a sprint. She couldn’t keep the pace up, so by the time she reached home, she was gasping and limping as she forced herself to jog along with a pain in her ribs. Almost collapsing in the entryway, her appearance must have startled because Kass, who’d been primping her nails, stood rapidly and came over.
“Are you alright?” Kass helped Elaeis to a chair, “What’s happened?”
“I’m leaving.” Elaeis panted, looking around, “Where are the others?”
“Willem and mom left for a walk. They’ll be back soon.” Kass sat beside her sister, “Where are you going? What do you mean?”
“The Preservers, they need me. I’m needed.” Elaeis picked up Willem’s flask, not surprised that there was wine in it, but she drank anyways.
“You don’t have to do it, you know?”
She nodded, “I know, but I want to, for father.”
Kass was silent, her lips thinning as they pressed tightly together.
“If I don’t do it, Burret will. You can’t and Willem won’t.”
Kass sharply looked over with a frown, “What are you talking about?” She snatched the flask away and retrieved a water pitcher to fill a cup.
“Well, Burret had already gone to take father’s place. I barely beat him to it. And, well, don’t be angry, but Willem told me.”
“Told you what?” Kass set down the cup hard enough that water sloshed onto the rim.
“About… you know.” She looked at Kass’ stomach.
“That jerk.” Kass sat back down, crossing her arms, “What exactly did he tell you?”
“Not much, don’t be mad at him. He let it slip because he was tired.”
“Sure. Well, forget he told you anything. There’ll be no harvest for this seed.”
“What?” She was confused.
“There’s no way I’m going to bear that disgusting Sapien’s child.”
She drank her water, wondering if she should let it be, but was worried for her older sister, “Are you sure?”
Kass laughed shortly, “Definitely.”
“I didn’t know that was even possible.” She admitted.
“It shouldn’t be.” Kass grumbled, “I guess if you go at it enough times, something is going to eventually take root.”
“What does mother think?”
Kass scratched at the table edge, glancing towards the door briefly before shrugging, “She wants me to see it through.”
“Stupid reasons as usual.”
“Hey, she’s protected us for this long.”
“Yeah, I know, but she thinks that if I wait it out that Kolbeck might place me in the upper class.”
“I doubt it. If he was going to, he would have already done it, but if I was living in the fortress, I wouldn’t be convenient anymore.”
Elaeis shuddered, drinking the rest of her water. She couldn’t imagine having to deal with Overseer Kolbeck like her sister had to. In many ways, she pitied Kass, but she would never say it for fear of hurting her sister’s feelings. The silence stretched. Elaeis grew awkward. As Kass stood, she blurted, “Why does he like you so much?”
Kass glowered, “What kind of question is that?” She walked to the back of the house, disappearing behind curtained sheets that blocked out the dim light. Sitting alone, Elaeis hoped that her mother would come back soon. When she didn’t, Elaeis gathered herself and followed.
“What!? I’m resting.”
“If I survive,” She kept her voice from trembling, “I’m coming back for you within Capricornus.”
Kass didn’t respond.
“Okay. I’ll be waiting then. Stop letting the light in.”
Elaeis lingered at the frame before hurrying forward. Wrapping her arms around Kass, she forced a hug and then a kiss on the forehead. Kass mumbled a loving farewell.
“Kass?” Willem’s call came from the front.
Elaeis tearfully greeted him as she returned to the front room.
Her mother hysterically sobbed when Elaeis shared the news. She fell to the ground and when Elaeis had gone to check on her, she drew her into a tight hug that she could not wiggle out of. Willem stomped about, heavy-footed and loud-mouthed, as he decried the Preservers. He did not want Elaeis to go, but he had not wanted father to go either. Willem was content with living as a slave in the Lady’s territory for as long as possible. Though, when Kass wandered out due to the commotion and mentioned how disappointed father would have been of Willem, and how proud he might soon be of Elaeis, the siblings fell into another screeching argument that soon became about too many things for anybody listening to logically follow. Her mother finally let go to pull Kass away so that she wouldn’t overly strain herself. Elaeis slipped away, whispering a sorrowful farewell before rushing out of the house.
Her legs were sore, but she jogged away. By the time she reached the Pits, she had calmed. As she walked past the fields, she recognized Tilli and Burret in the distance. Slowing, she wanted to say good-bye, but noticed Keeper Tourmal was there. Not only that, but as he grabbed at slaves, wrenching them around and barking needless orders, it was obvious he was in a miserable mood. From afar, Elaeis told her younger siblings farewell, letting the air swallow up the words to deliver them.
Returning to the barracks, there was loud clanging of instruments and boisterous conversations. She’d only just walked into the previously packed corridor when a stranger, dressed in a bright minstrel outfit, forced her to the side.
“Where have you been?” The orange-haired Ignis grabbed Elaeis’ arm to drag her further away from the mess hall. There was an exorbitant amount of laughter coming from the room, so Elaeis leaned forward in order to hear the Ignis chide, “We assumed you would have already gotten started by the time we arrived, but you were nowhere to be found. I almost mistook a soldier for you!”
“I’m sorry,” Elaeis murmured, lowering her gaze, “I wished to speak to my family.”
“We all wish for such things, but if you can’t do what you agreed to, it’d be best if you stayed behind.”
“What?” Elaeis panicked, “No! I can do it. I’ll help.”
“Don’t speak so loud.” The minstrel hissed, “Here,” She shoved a jug of wine into Elaeis’ arms, “Find the soldiers that aren’t drunk yet and make sure they become so.”
“Yes, of course,” Elaeis struggled with the ceramic pot, “I’m so-” She meant to apologize again, but the Ignis had already walked away. With a frown, she looked around the the main hall as she entered, trying to figure out how she would recognize sober ones. Moving along the edge of the crowd, she awkwardly hobbled with the jug.
“Did you need help with that?” An Idaltu soldier, as tall as her with similar Vadosus features, waved for attention nearby. He had a charming smile and black eyes that reminded her of shadows.
“Oh, yes,” Elaeis stammered. As he offered his arms, she gave him the jug, “I’m supposed to serve,” She paused, realizing that it might be odd to say she was trying to intoxicate sober soldiers, “the wine to,” Slowing her words, she stalled, but as the soldier patiently waited for her to speak, she pieced together a lie, “the soldiers that are recognized for their firm foundation.”
“Firm foundation?” The soldier looked amused, then chuckled, “Like, steely?”
Elaeis wasn’t sure, already regretting her choice of words, but she nodded anyways, “Did you want some?”
“Do I have a,” He snorted, “firm foundation?”
Glancing over him, Elaeis placed a hand on her chin and hummed as if analyzing. The soldier was definitely not drunk, “Why, yes, I think so. Here,” She looked around rapidly, locating a cup and handing it to him, “Drink?” As the soldier poured the wine, she held it steady.
On the stage where she’d seen the Director earlier, she saw that the orange-haired Ignis had scrambled to the center. The minstrel was even brighter on the platform, the garish outfit pieced together with colorful fabrics and adorned with bells. The soldiers that recognized her began to shout her name, Minstrel Skorzal. She bowed, presenting herself to the boisterous lot.
“Have you seen her perform?” The soldier asked as he drank from the cup. Elaeis shook her head. “You’re in for a treat then.”
With a small smile, Elaeis nodded. She wanted to watch the performance, but she also wanted to hold her word and do what she said she would. Looking around, she tried to spot sober soldiers. It didn’t take long to realize that if she looked at their cheeks, the drunken ones were flushed red and like the Idaltu beside her, the sober ones had calmer flesh. Noticing a Sapien with pale features, she led the way over.
As she went about, gathering cups and serving the wine to different soldiers, the dark-eyed Vadosus followed her closely. On the stage, the show was underway and distracting almost every single soldier in the hall. Skorzal began with a jig, bells shaking and ringing. The sharp movements she made with her limbs were ridiculous enough to cause many soldiers to curl in exhausted amusement, clapping along to give her a tempo. She followed their tempo. As the soldiers became further enamored in the act, the tempo steadily increased. Skorzal’s face had an overly dramatic presentation of worry as her limbs followed the faster clapping with scrambling steps and eventually, her timing went off as her limbs shot all over the place, failing to keep up. Soon enough, the frantic clapping turned into applause. She twirled about twice, then landed spread-eagle upon the stage to uproarious laughter.
Elaeis had run out of cups by the time Skorzal stood again to sing a ballad. The soldiers quickly sang along with the tune, the lyrics known by all except the youngest of them – who would soon learn. It was a religious song, like all approved music was, and espoused the Lady and Goddess, the kindness of their hearts and beauty of their voice. She stopped, listening to the melody and pressing her palms together, Elaeis silently prayed for the escape to succeed.
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to be continued