|Azelie Pozreth, "The Paragon"|
Azelie shook her head; she was better than this! Carefully, deliberately, she lifted her gaze and looked right at the merchant measuring out the milk for her.
His eyes flicked up and then right back down again. He handed her the jug. "What're you lookin' at, hussy?" he growled.
Azelie took the jug and placed it in the basket hanging from her arm. She strode on her merry way without answering him. This time, there were no silly rules, only the list of market items. Azelie completed her purchases in record time, racing from booth to booth and staring at the merchant to make them work faster to be rid of the discomfort. She grinned as she swung off toward the Pozreth bakery, ignoring the confused and disdainful stares directed at her back. Just a few more turns, and she could unfasten the stifling veil over her face! She reached up to her jawline and began loosening the strings.
Azelie turned the corner and stopped. A crowd blocked her way--but they weren't looking at her. Village locals gathered in an awkward sort of audience as soldiers in palace livery made their way up the lane of housing units. Every so often, Azelie heard a door banging open, but no one made a sound except the indistinct whisper and the odd whimper. She saw only the crowd, she was too short to see what was happening.
Carefully edging her slim body into the narrow spaces between people, Azelie worked her way to a spot that gave her a clear view of the soldiers. Two of them guided a line of veiled figures between them, but these were so shrouded that all Azelie could tell was that they were women. Which women in particular, she could not tell. Why were the soldiers taking these ladies? Why was everyone just standing around watching them?
Azelie barely had time to wonder before a rough, mailed hand clamped around her arm and pulled.
"Here's another one!" the soldier cried, hauling her out of the press, toward the space around the wagon.
Azelie felt her heart give a jolt as the veil chose that inopportune moment to drift free as silently as a whisper. There she stood, bare-faced among those long fabric robes with eyes. Several people gasped; they knew the reputation of women who unveiled in public.
The squadron leader stared down at Azelie over thick arms folded across his broad chest. With nothing else to lose, Azelie stared back.
Finally, the leader barked, "She'll do!"
The soldier shoved Azelie into the back of the wagon with the other women. She could count twenty faces in the dim light. The vehicle gave a lurch and sent Azelie tumbling toward an open space on the bench lining the interior.
"Why are they taking us?" she asked the pair of eyes beside her. "Where are they taking us?"
No one ventured an answer. Azelie was left to her own worried thoughts and the clatter of the wheels upon cobblestones. The wagon was just rolling to a stop when she thought of her basket; did her family know she'd been taken? What would her mother think when her father brought the basket back and told her of the broken milk jug and the spilled berries? Would she ever see them again?
The doors at the back of the wagon opened and the soldiers began herding the women out. A Council member in rich, resplendent robes stood by, surveying their arrival. The other women were far too concerned with where they might be headed and whether they were about to trip over the hem of their long gowns, but Azelie watched the Councilor, staring straight at him until he turned and looked at her. She held his gaze until the soldier behind her gave a rough shove on her shoulder. When she glanced back, the Councilor was already walking in the other direction, but Azelie hoped at least to have made her message clear: she was not afraid of him, nor what might happen to her.
Some time later, Azelie sat in a fresh, clean gown far richer than anything she would have imagined wearing, freshly bathed, while a maidservant combed her hair to a brilliant sheen. The other servants had all but ignored her as they went about their business, but this maid began humming to herself. She stopped when she looked up at the mirror and saw Azelie staring intently at her.
The maid blushed. "Forgive me; I forgot myself."
Azelie relaxed her stare; quite possibly, this girl was from the village, like herself, and only a strange twist of fate placed her in servant's livery, while Azelie received gowns and jewelry.
"It's all right," she said. "I get the feeling you and I are not much different."
The young girl twisted and pinned Azelie's curls into place, peppering her head with jewels. "Oh, but we are!" she gasped. "You and the other ladies were chosen for your impeccable beauty to become the public face of the Council, to ensure that the Realm is receptive to their policies. The citizens long for a leader since the King died."
Azelie flinched. "But I cannot lead a kingdom!" she objected. "I am only a commoner."
The maid finished placing the last hair pin and turned the chair to face her. From the table beside her, she selected a wide crown hung with a trailing veil of diamonds. "You won't need to rule; they will just use your beauty to win the people over to choosing you and rejecting the Regency; the Council will still be in charge, all you will have to do once you win the people is endorse their continued rule."
This nettled Azelie more than it reassured her. "So I'm to become a puppet, am I?"
The maid placed the crown on her head and arranged the veil around her face. "A very beautiful puppet, if you are chosen." She smiled, her eyes full of admiration. "If it's any consolation, I think you will win; the others have flaws, but you..." she sighed. "You're perfect."
Perfect. The word repeated in Azelie's thoughts as she wafted through the selection process. She repeated it to herself as the others were dismissed for one reason or another. Finally, it came time for her turn to be presented to the gathered populace to gauge their reaction upon seeing her. I am perfect, she reminded herself as she emerged onto that balcony amid thunderous applause. She stared down at them, willing each one by one to stop cheering and to witness her. A discreet parchment gave her the words to say, words that had been repeated almost twenty times already.
"People of the realm!" she announced. Her voice was not commanding, it did not echo off the stones as she was sure others did; but when she looked down and met the upturned gaze of a villager, she felt her words reach out to them, so that at the very least, this one person heard what she had to say.
"I have been a commoner like yourselves; I was raised up from among you to become the person you can trust to ensure that your needs and interests are represented in the Council's every decision. Your voice is my voice; your sentiments are my sentiments. Together, we will continue to thrive in the realm, just as King Balwyn would have wanted!"
She finished, and the whole crowd stood in awed silence before breaking out into wild cheers, so much louder than before.
A Councilor took her hand and guided her back into the palace. A few others had already assembled, and they regarded her with proud grins.
"Well, my fellow Councilors?" asked the one beside her. "Are there any doubts?"
A woman spoke up in a thready voice. "None whatsoever," she gushed. "She is perfect!"
I am perfect. Azelie tried to remind herself every day, but as time wore on, it became harder and harder to convince herself. Within days of winning the adulation of the people and holding audiences with endless streams of admirers and supplicants seeking wise answers (fed to her by the supremely-capable Royal Council), Azelie Pozreth became the target of a series of announcements decrying her as, at best, a performing monkey, and at worst, a shallow ninny who didn't know what to think. As her popularity waned, that of two strangers seemed to swell and expand. They were twins, and they made no pretense of laying claim to the vacant throne, defaming the Council before the people, and especially the "perfect" citizen they had chosen to connect with the people. The Lord and Lady Regent, as they called themselves, stirred up scorn against such unblemished beauty, so much that Azelie could no longer hold public audiences--nor could she leave the palace, now that she had been burdened with such a high-profile reputation. She was reduced to wandering the halls; at least, by way of staving off boredom, the Council had instructed her to be listening carefully to any conversation she overheard. Azelie particularly enjoyed the clandestine nature of the new assignment; accustomed as she was to being overlooked and ignored, she found particular skill in slipping in and out of rooms undetected--even by the inexorable, untouchable Twins themselves. She reported what the Regents would discuss, and the Council would devise new ways of undermining their influence based on this information. Azelie smiled to herself; she was perfect, after all--but perfect didn't necessarily mean good all the time. The Twins always seemed to find new ways of picking on her anyway, so she preferred to stay out of their way. She found that by concentrating very hard on a particular person, she possessed some instinct that told her precisely where they were. Azelie depended on the instinct so much that she never expected to collide with a young man in the Great Hall one day--but that is precisely what happened.
One moment, she was walking and listening for the Lady Regent, and the next, her veil had slipped over her face and her nose ached from smacking into someone.
"Oh!" Someone cried. "Sorry! I didn't see you there."
Azelie adjusted her crown and stared at Someone; he had dark, sleek hair and narrow features. His blue eyes sparkled as he bowed low with expert decorum.
"A pleasure to meet such a rare beauty," he murmured. "I am Prince Jaran; who might you be?"
Azelie felt the warm blush crawling up from her chest to her face. "I am Azelie Pozreth, the Council Paragon Interface," she said, curtsying delicately.
The blue eyes widened. "Oh, you're the interface! When I saw the advertisements I thought--well," he caught himself and faltered, hanging his head in embarrassment.
Azelie tilted her head. "What did you think?"
His narrow lips curved upward. "I never dreamed you were real," he murmured.
Azelie opened her mouth to say something else, but just then, a knot of Councilors descended upon them, drawing them in separate ways.
That was the last time Azelie ever saw the Prince. She tried asking about him at her regular Council sessions, but no one would answer her. The servants (whom she helped avoid unjust punishments by distracting the superiors to give them enough time to get away) told her that Jaran was one of those that some people called "Gifted", and that the Regents--along with the Council--had agreed to issue an ordinance declaring them Outcasts, which gave the Council jurisdiction to use the prince in conducting secret "experiments."
In return, Azelie launched her own sequence of experiments; beyond just knowing instinctively where people were, Azelie found that, gradually, she could be able to detect their very thoughts, and still further, to place thoughts of her own among those of another. When the Council decided to abandon the tactic of winning the people with beauty, and thus brought in a second exemplary woman to act as ruler--even going so far as to demand that everyone treat her as Queen and refer to her as "Her Majesty"--Azelie immediately set out to bend this woman to her will. This proved harder, as every attempt to influence this new Queen was met with equal resistance. The Queen was the only person in the whole castle to regard Azelie with open disdain, so Azelie contented herself with planting vulgar thoughts in the Queen's mind when she least expected it.
One night, Azelie woke out of a deep slumber and found herself in the midst of a terrible storm--and the sound of Jaran screaming in pain. It took several minutes for her to realize the screaming was in her head.
It hurts! I can't stop it! Azelie recalled one story she had heard, of a Healer that once worked for the King, but was dismissed by the Council on suspicion of conspiring with a dragon to kill the king. In retaliation, it seemed, the Dragon had Marked her, and she had fled to the harbor. If anyone could help the Prince control his gift, it would be this healer.
Go to the Harbor, she sent the thought to the fearful Prince. Find the Dragon-Marked Healer.
It's too much! his thoughts screamed. They will find me. What Dragon? What Mark?
He must not have heard her clearly enough. Azelie fought to make her words distinct. She is Dragon-Marked; you will find her in the Harbor. She is a healer, and she can help you.
A furious crack of thunder sounded like a stone striking the side of the castle, but after it happened, Azelie found she could not hear Jaran anymore. She could only hope that he had understood and would find his way.
She was running, pursued by a pack of wolves. She turned her head to look at them, and suddenly one gets its jaws around her leg. She screams and tries to pry its teeth out of her skin, but another bites down on her wrist. She can do nothing as yet another wolf lunges straight for her throat—
Dennahlia came awake with a heavy gasp. Her body sat upright, but she couldn't feel her hands, or see her arms. She willed sensation in them, then frowned as the movement of her fingers occurred behind her head. She tried to stand, but her ankles had been firmly trussed to the legs of the chair she sat on.
The Hunter glared at the two faces across from her.
"What did you do to me?" She growled.
"Do to you?" Said the one in the hooded cloak. "Who do you think I am?"
Dennahlia wriggled again, but the back of the chair was too high for her to get the kind of leverage over the rope that she needed. She scowled.
"A freak," she spat at the ground in front of her captor's feet. "And a monster!" She felt the panic rising in her chest and attempted to meet it with brazenness. "If you're going to kill me," she declared, "do it quickly!"
The deformed woman with the green scales on half her face chuckled deeply. "I am a healer, and my name is Erlis," she answered. "I could no more kill you than scrape the scales off my own face. We only tied you up because of the danger you would have brought on yourself if you had succeeded in killing me while I healed your wounds." She gestured to the side, where a shaggy-haired youth regarded the Hunter with thinly-concealed malice. Now there was a kid with his priorities in the right order.
Then she realized what Erlis had said.
Wounds? Dennahlia looked carefully over what she could see of her body. Her dream about the wolves returned—only now she began to doubt whether it was all a dream or not.
"What wounds?" She asked.
Erlis watched her carefully. "You arrived in my yard with your body nearly flayed to ribbons. It has taken several hours, but I managed to restore your body to it's full health." She leaned forward. "How did you get so wounded? Where did you come from?"
Dennahlia fumed inwardly, but she was professional enough to hide it. What had that blasted Illusionist done to her?
Erlis, meanwhile, mistook the meaning of her silence. "Are you having trouble remembering? What is the last thing you recall?"
Dennahlia's mind wasn't having any trouble at all. The longer she kept awake, the more her thoughts spun in dozens of directions, seeking a way out of this mess. If she could only reach the brooch tucked into her glove...
"I'll tell you what," she remarked, trying in vain to struggle some more against the ropes, "untie me and I'll tell you what you want to know."
Finally the youth stirred. He kept his fists clenched as he snorted. "Not a snowball's chance, after what you tried to do!"
Instantly, the sound of his voice kicked the Hunter's senses into high gear. By some miracle, she had encountered the hideout of one of the Outcasts she sought! The bear cub had led her right to its den.
"You will let me go," Dennahlia mused, "when you realize it's your only chance to stay hidden... Your Highness."
The young man's hand flicked open, releasing a spiderweb arc of blue sparks. His eyes shifted from her face to Erlis.
Dennahlia grinned as he confirmed what her senses had already told her: this was Prince Jaran, the last known member of the Seramis royal family. The name Erlis told her that his companion was the disgraced Royal Healer Erlis Irrya, banished from the castle after being accused of killing the King when she ought to have been caring for the Queen.
On cue, Erlis shifted her position forward, as if placing herself between the Hunter and the prince.
"Have you come to rid the kingdom of us, in the name of the Outcast Ordinance?" Erlis asked.
Dennahlia shrugged, and felt her fingertips brush the opposite palm. "Oh relax; you're not my quarry."
Erlis and Jaran shared a glance.
"Why are you here, then?" He asked.
The Hunter gave one last twist and felt the subtle click as her finger connects with the brooch in her hand. She chuckled. "Your guess is as good as mine, Highness. One minute I am running through the Wilderness looking for something I am not even sure still exists; next thing I know, I'm being chased by a pack of wolves," she shuddered. "And then..."
"Wolves?" Jaran repeated. "I thought the wolves lived in the forest."
Erlis stared at the Hunter, her face paling as she realized the Hunter's true errand. "The Regents sent you," she guessed.
Dennahlia nodded. "Seems a suit of armor went missing; they'd like it back."
Jaran tilted his head. "So, wait... You're not after the Outcasts?"
Dennahlia relaxed into her bonds; the deed was done; all she needed to do was wait for the cavalry to show up.
"I never said either way," she teased the young prince.
He immediately whirled on Erlis. "I told you it was a trap."
Erlis kept an eye on the prisoner. "I think she might have fallen into a trap, but that doesn't mean she is the trap. We may yet convince her to join our cause."
Dennahlia leaned back and laughed. "I would never join you circus monkeys!" She let her hands hang slack. Almost time...
Unfortunately, the dragon eye was keener than she anticipated.
"Hand!" Erlis bounded to her feet just as Dennahlia slipped her bonds. She went for her knives, but a furious blow knocked the weapon from her hands.
Jaran stood with his hands extended toward her, a glittering web of sparks spanning his fingers.
Dennahlia smiled. "Neat trick," she said, drawing her sidearm. "Ever wonder if it could stop a bullet?"
"All Outcasts exit the building with your hands in the air! I repeat, hands in the air, by order of the Lord and Lady Regent!"
All three froze and the two Outcasts complied.
"We mean no harm!" Erlis called out.
"Come out or we will open fire!" Said the voice. "Three... Two—"
Erlis and Jaran shuffled toward the doorway, with Dennahlia keeping her weapon trained on them in the rear.
"Thanks, Sergeant!" She hollered. "I can take it from—"
"I said hands where I can see them, you garbage mutant!" The Sergeant directed his comment not at the compliant Outcasts before him, but at the Hunter sent to bring them in. "You are all under arrest according to the law of the Ordinance!"
Jaran spun to gape at Dennahlia. "You?" He spluttered.
Dennahlia swore and launched herself at the ten-foot wall beside her. She landed at the top with ease, but before she could drop down the other side to make her escape, a turquoise-colored wind blew her back into the narrow, cramped courtyard.
A gigantic fireball exploded at the rear of the squadron, spooking the horses and adding to the panic. Erlis and Jaran split off to find cover as the air filled with flames, howls, magic spells, and fantastic illusions. Velora dropped in to even the odds by scaring away the horses and pulling the soldiers down to the ground. Aurelle created illusions of the Outcasts, making them seem more numerous than they actually were. Damaris used careful streams of flame to keep any outliers from slipping away, and Korsan made up for the lack of armor on the part of his compatriots by casting and maintaining protection spells in the melee.
They fought until the last soldier backed off and left the harbor far behind.
Erlis came out from behind a stack of crates to greet the newcomers.
"Master Korsan," she bowed. "It is good that you arrived when you did. I should have realized that the Hunter's false sympathy was nothing more than a stall tactic." She held up the abandoned brooch. "This was a homing beacon she managed to activate while speaking with us."
Korsan tilted his head as he regarded the scaly face. "Have we met before?" He asked.
Erlis smiled, and her right cheek blushed. "We worked for the King at the same time, I think," she said, "but we never had the pleasure of meeting."
Korsan smiled. "King Balwyn spoke highly of his very valuable Healer. A pleasure to meet you, Madame Irrya."
Velora sauntered up. "Darn Hunter got away," she snarled. "Wouldn't you know she was an Outcast too, all this time?"
Aurelle looked back toward the docks. "Where is Damaris?" She asked.
Fear gripped Erlis as she glanced at the bodies left behind. "Where is Jaran?" She added.
Amid the rocky spires and deep crags, a lone figure trudged across the landscape. He waved a hand at Jay, flying up ahead, and flopped down under an overhanging rock to rest. The fairy settled on a rock next to him.
Harlock wagged his head. "I don't know, Jay; maybe we should have taken the harbor route. All of this wasteland looks the same, I can't tell if I'm walking in circles!"
We will arrive at the castle soon enough, the fairy assured him.
Thinking about the harbor reminded Harlock of the widening circle of friends and acquaintances he had formed since reawakening. Learning from Erlis and Aurelle, who seemed to know a lot about this Outcast phenomenon and the people behind the oppression had bothered him considerably.
"Jay," he mused. "How did we meet, you and I? Did I know you from before? Do you know anything about my past?"
Jay buzzed noncommittally, a sound Harlock had come to accept as her "thinking noise."
I met you on the boat, she answered. I have not known you for much longer than you have known me.
"Where did I come from?" Harlock mused. "Where did you come from?" He recalled how it seemed that no one else could understand Jay's speech like he could. "How did we get to be bonded so closely?"
Jay lifted off and began flying uneasy loops. You ask many questions, she replied. But I will try to answer them. You may not remember this, but the first time we met—"
Harlock had been so focused on Jay's story that he didn't notice the clatter of a passing cart till it rounded the bend. He grabbed Jay to hide her light and jumped to his feet. The horses shied at the unexpected movement, and the driver slowed to a stop.
"Ho there," he cried, "what's the likes of you doing out here in the wasteland?" He regarded the bare-chested man dubiously. "You one o' Them or something? The Outcasts?"
Harlock recalled Velora's sentiments on the subject. "What if I am?" He said, not ready to confirm or deny the question.
The man wagged his head. "If you wasn't, I'd give you a ride into town; t'ain't fit for a man to be out here with no food nor water—but the town ain't safe for the Outcasts. Word is there was a big to-do at the harbor and two of 'em got arrested."
Harlock kept his face blank. "You don't say," he mused, trying not to appear too interested. "You wouldn't happen to know which two, would you?"
The wagon driver wagged his head. "Nah, never heard—but there are those who would tell you that they saw the Crown Prince himself gettin' drug into the castle in irons. Heh-heh," he chortled. "Bet the Regents wouldn't let him live for long if he was! Bet that Hunter will be collecting her bounty soon." He fidgeted with the reins. "Will you be takin' that ride, then, stranger?" He asked softly.
Harlock tucked Jay into his pocket, where she would stay hidden. "I'd be much obliged, sir," he said, climbing in.
The driver snapped the reins, and the horses ambled on down the road leading to the city.
The Hunter had found them; was it his fault? Could he have stopped her if he had chosen to remain with Velora and Aurelle? He wondered who else had gotten taken with Jaran. There was only one way he could think of to find out.