Author Topic: The Offering  (Read 2675 times)


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The Offering
« on: February 09, 2017, 07:58:35 PM »
Though peace had been hard won by Arctra, it was not certain. With the civil war over, attention had turned toward the ever-present threat from the east. Skarra, the island of necromancy, where magic was stolen from demons and employed with ruthless efficiency against anyone who opposed the magisters. They had been raiding Arctran shores for centuries, but it was only recently that their true interest had been revealed. In committing so many mercenaries to Velasca's cause, they had shown their very real interest in conquering Arctra for themselves. That none of those mercenaries had returned from the battle was hoped to be enough to check their ambitions. But nothing could prevent what was happening today.

A Skarran ship had docked in the bay; a messenger came with the news that First Magister Brexus Tevarius of the Skarran Conclave was here to offer peace to the True Queen of Arctra. And reluctantly, Ariana had been forced to allow him to step ashore. Now she waited in her throne room, her husband on one side, her First Blade on the other, armed guards and their captain lining the great hall. The nobles and others gathered there murmured amongst themselves. No one was pleased with this development.

There were few smiles to be had in the throne room, most there on pins and needles regarding the Skarran delegation and their claims of offering peace. Everyone knew the Skarrans would never offer peace without wanting something in return. The question was, what? The Captain of the Queen's Guard was there, ever watchful and ever suspicious. His wife was there, too - the former First Blade. Though she no longer officially held a position of influence, she was a personal friend of the queen and her consort, as well as the current First Blade, and the wife of the Queen's Captain. Whether she was First Blade any longer or not, she still held a vested interest in the future of her country and the well-being of her friends.

The side door opened, and a runner came to the throne, bowing before rising to speak softly to the queen and those closest to her. All eyes were on him, watching as Ariana nodded. The queen glanced at her husband, something unknown passing between them, and turned to take her place on the throne as the runner slipped away. A few moments later, the great doors at the far end of the hall were opened with some ceremony, and the herald made his announcement.

"Brexus Tevarius, First Magister of Skarra!"

Every eye in the place snapped to the lavishly dressed man who entered. What drew the eye were the rich trappings in which he dressed himself, the staff he held in his hand declaring his ability with magic, the sheen on his bald head. He leveled his eyes directly at the young monarch as he approached at his own pace, but the rumble of discontent in the room only increased as his retinue followed. He had guards, yes, but what truly drew the Arctrans' ire was the sight of two slaves, collared with metal and struggling with the weight of a large chest carried between them. Both were very plainly Arctran-born, and neither lifted their eyes from their burden as they struggled to keep up.

Liam grumbled under his breath, almost growling in annoyance and barely repressed hostility toward their so-called guests. It didn't help when he recognized the two Arctrans who were under the Skarrans' control, his hand falling to rest against the pommel of his sword, though he resisted the urge to draw it from its scabbard. As for the First Blade, he was looking wary, eyes narrowing on the sight of the slaves among the Skarran retinue and wondering what they were up to.

As the magister reached the steps at the bottom of the dais, there was a dangerous moment. His foot lifted, as though to mount those stairs, and Liam's guards, well trained as they were, smartly reacted, barring his path with pikes crossed. The herald, seeming to realize there could be a fight right then and there, cleared his throat and introduced the queen, completely superfluously.

"Presenting her majesty, Ariana, True Queen of Arctra and Daughter of the line of Arlan, Bearer of the Sword of Arctra, and Defender of the Nine; and her chosen consort, Rory Brennan, Knight of the Realm and Defender of the Queen!"

The words rang out in the hostile silence until, finally, Ariana deigned to look at the Skarra smirking up at her. "State your business here, First Magister. You are not welcome in my land."

Beside the Queen, her chosen consort and the man who was her first line of defense visibly tensed. He was as armed as her guards and as willing to put his own life at risk to defend hers, just as suspicious as she regarding the Skarran presence here today. He knew they still had some enemies, and he also suspected the Skarrans weren't here because they wanted peace. He said nothing for the moment, allowing Ariana to address the man herself, though he was right there beside her if she needed him.

The magister looked coolly between the armed men and women around him; to the Captain of the Guard glaring at him; to the Consort, also glaring; and finally met the cold eyes of the new queen. They all knew what he was seeing; a sweet, angelic face crowned with a coil of golden hair, a girl-child who could not possibly be a threat to him or his people. His smirk deepened as he lowered into a florid bow that mocked more than it respected.

"Your Majesty," he began, his voice as smooth and cloying as syrup. "I bring you greetings from the Conclave of Skarra. Our congratulations upon your victory. An offer of peace, in exchange for one small condition of our friendship."

An angry mutter cut through the hall. How dare he think to lay terms before their queen? Only those standing close to the throne knew exactly how much danger the magister had put himself in with those insulting words, however. Only they could feel the chill in the air that revealed the unexpected presence of the queen's ghostly brother.

Ariana raised her chin sharply. "I was not under the impression that peace offerings came with terms and conditions, Magister," she said, trying hard to keep her voice only sharp and not hostile. She was frightened, but she knew it would never do to show it.

"A small thing, majesty," the magister responded, gesturing with his staff. The guards on the steps stiffened in response, ready to attack at the slightest hint of magic. "We in the Conclave know of your troubles with the nomads who squat on your lands, these Wild Ones, as they call themselves. We humbly offer our land to them, to take them off your hands for good."

Ah, but the Queen was only as good as the people who served her, and though her personal circle might be small, she could not have asked for a more loyal following. Her Captain had personally seen to the screening of each and every guard who stood in the queen's defense here today and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they would not hesitate to shed Skarran blood to defend their queen.

Of all those gathered there, it was Rory who visibly stiffened at the Skarran magister's offer. Though few knew the truth, the blood of the clansmen flowed in his veins, hence he found the Skarrans offer not only suspect but unacceptable. "The Wild Ones helped up to defeat Velasca. Why would we cast them out now, when we owe them our gratitude?" he found himself saying, against his own better judgment.

"Why, to avoid further conflicts," the magister said smoothly. "It is no secret that Arctrans distrust and dislike these nomads. We merely offer ourselves as the caretakers of these wild mages and warriors -"

"Caretakers?" The interruption came from the nobility gathered nearby, but it was clearly the voice of Shaye O'Connor, loaded with suspicion and hatred.

The magister's expression flickered with annoyance. "Caretakers, yes," he said, but was again interrupted, this time by the queen herself.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2017, 07:59:21 PM »
"As you name yourselves caretakers of the innocent souls you have stolen from our shores and many others and enslaved over the centuries?" Ariana asked harshly.

The magister blinked, surprised to hear strength from the girl on the throne. "I know of no innocents stolen, as you say," he said, obviously trying to cover the slip.

"And those Arctrans you have collared at your back?" Ariana snapped. "Were they willing accomplices to the loss of their freedom?" She glanced to Gerard, nodding toward the two slaves. "I would like to speak to them."

It wasn't only Share O'Connor who was seething with anger, though there was clearly a division between those in charge and some of the nobles gathered in their midst. It was no secret that some of them might have been happy with a pact with the Skarrans which would rid them of the nomads, but it was not the opinion of the majority of the populace.

As for the First Blade, he had no choice but to obey the wielder of the Blade of Arctra, but even if he had, he would have obeyed his Queen in all things. He offered a small bow to acknowledge her request before stepping forward to descend from the dais and approach the Skarran slaves, his path taking him directly in front of the magister and his retinue.

"Majesty, I protest -"

"Protest noted, magister," Ariana said sternly. "Please allow your Arctran companions to approach the throne."

There was another dangerous moment as the magister stood in front of Gerard, his hand flexing on his staff as all around them the nobility shifted and muttered amongst themselves. Then ...


Shock rippled through the hall at the magister's sharp tone, at the word he had dared to use on them. The insult was taken further, and undone, when he added, "Misery! Approach the throne with the First Blade."

It was only then that Ariana realized that those words were names. The two slaves moved together, silently, their eyes downcast as they flinched past their master toward Gerard.

Gerard stepped aside, past the magister, his face carefully composed and neutral, as unmoving as a stone, though he was inwardly seething with fury. He had lived long under Velasca's rule and had learned long ago how to keep his true feelings hidden beneath a mask of neutrality. He didn't so much as flinch at the magister's words, his blood running cold to know that his own people had been stripped of their dignity in such a way that they had even lost possession of their own names.

"Do not be afraid," he whispered to them as he approached. "You are safe here." Though safe was a relative word when in the presence of Skarrans, he had a feeling Ariana was not going to allow the magister to take the Arctrans with him when he left.

The man did not look up, his eyes fixed on his feet, but the woman did. Her eyes darted to Gerard's face, to the magister, to her feet, to the nobles nearby, and back to her hands once again. She was skittish, afraid despite the reassurances offered to them. What was safe but a word to her, when her master was glaring at her back?

Above them, Ariana waited patiently, forcing herself not to clench her fists as she took in how broken in spirit these two were.

Instead of leading the pair of slaves toward the throne, Gerard escorted them from behind, guarding their backs against any unexpected threat of attack from the Skarran entourage. He didn't bother to spare a single glance to the magister, though he would have been happy to run the man through with or without his queen's orders. Instead, he bided his time for now, knowing such an action would be interpreted as an act of war between their two nations. In his opinion, war was inevitable, anyway; it was only a matter of time.

As soon as Ariana opened her mouth to speak to the pair, something shocking happened. They fell to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the ground at her feet. Ariana stared at her, horrified to see anyone debase themselves so much before another person.

"Please ..." She scooted to the edge of the throne before remembering that she couldn't help either one up. "Please don't do that." Her eyes flickered to Gerard and Rory, silently asking for help to make the two slaves stand.

Rory was on his feet almost as soon as Ariana was and moving down the dais to help each slave to their feet, offering quiet, consoling words in a voice that was too quiet for even the Skarrans to hear.

As for the First Blade, he had moved behind the slaves, and turned to face the Skarran gathering, one hand on the sword at his waist, clearly drawing a line he was warning them not to cross. With a nod from their Captain, a small retinue of guards had fanned out to circle the assembly, ready to defend their Queen at a moment's notice.

The two slaves were so used to obeying that they were up on their feet almost before Rory could encourage them to. The male seemed to fold in on himself, older than the woman and seemingly more broken by his lifetime than she had been.

"Please," Ariana said softly. "I just want to know ... are you willingly bound to this magister? Was it your choice?"

Again, the woman's eyes darted about, to her fellow, to Rory, to her hands, not daring to look at the queen herself. "This one was a child in your land, majesty," she offered in a hesitant voice. "She did not want to go with the men who painted her with the blood of her parents."

Ariana's concerned expression shut down, trying desperately to hold back the sheer fury that erupted inside her. This woman was older than her; she should have lived out her life here, been married by now, or in some form of employment. Not been made use of in the Nine only knew how many ways since her childhood. "And you?" she asked the man softly, but there was no answer.

The woman answered for him. "This one was a soldier," she whispered, flinching at the sound of the magister's boots on the flagstones behind her. "He is broken."

"They're clearly slaves, Ariana. They had no choice in what they've become," Rory put in quietly as he moved to join her. Whatever their fate might have been, the Skarrans  had clearly made a mistake in bringing them here today. Either that, or they'd been hoping for this very thing - for any excuse to declare war on Arctra. It was a dangerous game they were playing, but he knew Ariana well enough to know she would not abide the suffering of two of her subjects, even to save Arctra from war.

"Some willingly sell themselves into slavery," she murmured to him just as softly. "I had to know." Rising, she gently raised her hands to unhook the collar about the neck of the male.

The magister made a fatal mistake. "No!" His staff came around, the end crackling with power, aimed at the queen herself.

With the crackling of the staff, there was a flurry of motion in the throne room with Rory stepping in front of Ariana to shield her with his body and drawing his sword, his blue eyes hard with anger. "I suggest you leave while you still can," he told the magister, as the guards moved to close their circle on the Skarran entourage.

Gerard remained where he was between the magister and the slaves, while Liam simply took a telling step closer. Everyone present knew the magister was a dangerous man to thwart, but the Skarrans were also clearly outnumbered.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2017, 08:00:07 PM »
Ariana had flinched, the first time she had ever shown any kind of fear where her people could see her. This was the girl who had single-handedly fought the Usurper's daughter and won, all to try and prevent an inevitable battle. This moment of weakness, however brief, would not be forgotten.

"Take your peace offering with you," she told the magister, forcing herself to stare him down. "The Wild Ones are citizens of Arctra. They are friends to the crown and the sword, and we will not allow you to enslave them without a fight. And in recompense for your appalling actions, we will give sanctuary to these, and any other of your indentured servants that wish safety from your regime."

The magister sputtered with anger, but the ring of weapons closed in. Not even he, a mage of high skill, could hope to survive a fight here.

"Captain, have your men escort the magister and his companions back to their ship. If they show any sign of returning, burn it out from under them."

"With pleasure, Majesty," Liam replied, with just the hint of a barely repressed smile on his face. "After you, Magister," he said, waving a hand to the man to order him and his escort out of the throne room. The magister would have to order two of his own men to carry the chest, if he wanted to keep it, as none of the Arctrans seemed inclined to help and his slaves were no longer his to command. Rory and the First Blade remained where they were, attentively guarding the Queen and the slaves.

Scowling, the magister backed up a step as Liam addressed him, releasing his grip on the power that made his staff crackle with energy. A snapped word had two of his own men taking hold of the chest, and he turned without another word, not even bothering to bow to the queen as he stalked out, escorted by several angry guards. As the doors closed behind him, the tension in the room was released, talk starting up from every corner.

Ariana let out a slow breath. "Court dismissed," she murmured, knowing that she should do that officially but not having the strength to. "Captain, Gerard ... would you bring our new friends to the audience chamber, please? Gently, if you would."

That done, she curled her hand into Rory's, drawing him away from the throne and through a side door. Only he heard her banishing her ghostly brother's presence from them.

In that moment, Rory was thankful for Adare's presence, knowing that if all else failed, the prince would rise up in his ghostly form to protect his sister. Liam and Gerard did as Ariana asked, even amidst the murmuring of the dismissed nobles, and Liam nodded to Shaye to join them. Seasoned warriors or not, the two men were as gentle as they could be in escorting the newly-freed slaves to the queen's audience chamber. It was slow going, mostly due to the male slave's frailty, but the men patiently accommodated his slow pace. Liam, in particular, was still doing a slow burn to know that once proud soldier of Arctra had been reduced to this.

The audience chamber was, in actual fact, an old study that had never been intended for this purpose. But Ariana and Rory had known straight away that not all royal audiences were suitable to be had directly in front of the throne, and had gone out of their way to make sure the room was made warm and comfortable for those occasions when it was needed. By the time Liam and Gerard had managed to herd the two slaves into the room, Ariana had removed her crown and loosened her gown, slumped comfortably into a high-backed chair as she rubbed her temple. She had been very frightened of that magister.

Rory was pacing the floor, unable to repress his anxiety now that they Skarrans were presumably gone. "The arrogance of that man!" he was heard saying, obviously angry, his hands shaking in rage and even a little fear. For a moment there, he'd thought the man might actually attack the queen, and he had acted entirely on impulse, putting himself at risk to step between them. He could do no less for both the woman he loved and the rightful queen.

"I shouldn't have just gone straight ahead and tried to do it," Ariana was answering as she looked up. "I may have made things a lot worse, but ... I just couldn't leave you at his mercy."

The man shuddered, weeping at the kindness that had been shown to him, unable to put words into use at all.

"Liam, take his collar off him," Ariana asked softly. "Maybe he will be less afraid of you than he is of me." Her eyes turned to the woman - young still, but older than she was. Unaware of the queen's gaze on her, the female's darting gaze was constantly returning to the First Blade; no doubt the first man who had ever protected her from another.

Liam approached the man with respect and unexpected gentleness as he lifted his hands slowly to remove the collar from the man's neck, while murmuring quiet words of comfort and reassurance.

"You realize this could be interpreted as an act of war," Rory pointed out, though at that moment, he couldn't have cared less. Had the Skarrans really believed the Queen would have allowed their request?

"It's all right," Gerard assured the young woman quietly, standing beside her, though he did not dare touch her.

"If they're sensible, they'll assume that two lives are worth whatever was in that chest and try to be diplomatic again," Ariana sighed quietly. "If not ... then they can try to wage war on us if they like. I think we've proved we are more than capable of defending ourselves."

As the collar came off, the man moaned, shuddering in relief, and folded in on himself even further, curling his arms about his torso as he rocked. Ariana's heart almost broke at the sight. "Someone send for a healer," she asked quietly. "There must be something we can do for him."

Rory halted his pacing at the mention of a healer, his own magic still wild and untamed inside him, but potent enough. He'd healed Adare once upon a time and had realized for the first time that his prince was really a princess in disguise. "No need," he said, moving over to the man who was barely able to stand without swaying on his feet. "Sir," he started, addressing the man with the respect Rory felt he deserved. "With your leave, I am going to try and help you, but first you need to sit," he told him, sliding an arm under his arms to help him to a chair.

"We treat him like we treat all our veteran soldiers," Liam put in.

"Of course." Ariana nodded to Liam, watching as the broken man clung to Rory as he was eased down into a seat. "Whatever he needs, the crown will provide. I'll argue the point with the chancellor myself if I have to."

While their attention was on their male guest, however, the female had inched ever so slightly closer to Gerard, her hands hanging still at her sides. She was still in awe of what she had seen and heard in the throne room, and here, at the gentle way these people dealt with her broken companion. It felt strange, to be standing amid them and yet not as ignored or lonely as it had felt to do the same in Skarra. Her darting gaze never rested in a single place for long, afraid to be caught looking.

While Liam was in no position to command the queen, the man had once been a solider and as such, he believed it his responsibility to make sure the man was well cared for and spent whatever life he had left in relative comfort. The girl, however, posed a different problem - one which Liam had thoughts about, but said nothing of, for the moment.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2017, 08:00:48 PM »
All too aware of the girl's - no, woman's - presence, and of the fact that she was barely dressed, Gerard unfastened his own cloak and drew it gently around her shoulders, unaware that the others might notice the act of kindness. He caught her gaze and sought to hold it for a moment, noting how her gaze darted away like that of a wounded animal or one who was expecting cruelty from any direction.

The response to that one kind act was as shocking as it was heartbreaking. She simply froze where she stood, wrapped in a cloak already warmed that took the chill from her skin and hid her less-than-decent attire from a casual glance. But she didn't know what to do, or what to say in answer. So there she stood, tense and wide-eyed, waiting for the punishment that always accompanied any act that might otherwise be kind.

"Don't be afraid," Gerard told her quietly, his raspy voice as soft and soothing as he could make it. "You're safe here. And you're free," he added, flicking a gaze at the collar that was still around her neck. "May I?" he asked, lifting his hands toward the collar but not yet touching it or her.

Trembling with the force of tension in her muscles, she almost managed to meet his eyes before looking away once again, her gaze flickering toward the tableau of others in the room before focusing on his armor. She swayed back from his hands as they rose, only to stop herself from retreating. Her collar. He wanted to remove her collar. She offered a quick, shy nod, raising her chin with jerky grace even as her eyes found the window to fix upon. The collar was metal, chilled by the coolness of the spring air and heated by her skin; skin that was bruised and reddened, rubbed raw by the confinement placed there.

The First Blade was careful in his removal of the collar, not wanting to cause her any further pain or injury. Though he had no idea what it must feel like to be a slave or to have suffered what she had, he'd lived under Velasca's rule long enough to know what it felt like not to be free to live a life of your own choosing. "What is your name?" he asked, as he fingered the collar loose and eased it away from her neck. He was asking for her real name, though he realized she might not remembered it.

She whimpered as the metal stuck to her skin, wincing only once as he drew it away. It would take weeks for that wound to heal; longer for her not to miss the weight of that collar around her neck. But here and now, with the man who had protected her from her master, she felt relief at its loss. She blinked, realizing he had asked her name, and for the first time, her eyes snapped to his and stayed, lingering as he finally got a good look at the fire-flecked hazel that was her own gaze.

"Silence," she whispered, the word barely leaving her lips before it disappeared from hearing.

"No," he replied gently, not touching her, though he was less than a hand's breadth away from her, hazel-green eyes meeting hers. He was a knight and a soldier, the First Blade of Arctra, and yet there seemed to be a strange gentleness about him, kindness and compassion. "Your real name," he prompted further. "The one you were born with."

The question confused her, and it showed in the flicker of her gaze, the gentle furrowing of her brow. She knew no other name but Silence. Her earliest memory was of having it shouted at her whenever she tried to speak. It had happened so often that it had become the only name she knew to answer to. Before she had been with her first master a year, her name had been Silence, and she did not have any memory of any other name given to her.

"Never mind," he assured her with a soft smile. "We'll worry about that later. Are you hungry, thirsty?" he asked further, pushing aside his curiosity about her past to ask about her well-being. At least, she seemed to understand what he was asking her; it was a start, albeit a slow one.

Again, the question seemed to confuse her. Her frown deepened as she groped toward the meaning of the words he was saying. "What ... what is humgree?" she asked finally, ashamed of needing to ask, afraid of being punished for asking. While, yes, she knew and spoke Arctran, some words had not been taught to her.

Gerard arched a brow, surprised that she did not understand the word's meaning, though she had to know what hunger felt like. "Would you like something to eat or drink?" he asked, rephrasing his question, ever-patiently.

She blinked, this time startled by the question he gave her. Her gaze flickered toward the window, dropping to stare at the design on his armor once again. "It is not yet sunset," she said, as though that would answer his curiosity.

"You do not need to wait until sunset that you're free," he reminded her, realizing with a heavy heart that it was going to take a lot of time and patience for her to understand what that even meant. "Highness," he said, turning toward Ariana to find Rory quietly administering to the other slave, while Ariana and Liam looked on.

Ariana looked up as Gerard addressed her, tearing her concerned gaze from the broken man under her husband's ministrations. The queen's eyes flickered to the woman at his side briefly, noting that the collar was gone and his cloak was now about her shoulders, glad that Gerard had been seeing to their other guest in the meantime. "Yes?" she asked softly, not wanting to disturb what was happening nearby.

"With your leave, I would like to find the lady food and proper clothing," he said, though he did not say whether he intended to go alone or take the girl with him. He glanced at the other slave, who seemed to weak yet even to eat, deciding he was in capable hands here with Rory and the queen.

Liam arched a brow as he, too, looked briefly over at the First Blade and the girl, privately wondering what was keeping Shaye.

"Of course, Gerard," Ariana nodded obligingly. "And perhaps discover if there is anything in particular she would like to do, now she is a free woman in a free land?" She bit down on the wish to laugh at the alarmed look on the woman's face, not missing the way Silence looked to Gerard for reassurance.

A soft knock sounded on the door, and Shaye slipped inside, closing it behind her. Over one arm, she was carrying a loose robe, clearly intended for the man, moving to murmur to her husband that the brothers from the Temple were waiting patiently to take him into their care.

"Yes, Majesty," Gerard replied, unable to disobey her request, even if he wanted to. He offered a small nod of his head before turning toward the door, even as Shaye slipped inside. If it was strange to see him taking charge of a young woman he'd only just met, no one seemed willing to dissuade him from it. "If you would come with me, I'll see to it that you are properly cared for," he told the girl, gesturing toward the door with a hand.

She was ... being dismissed? Silence glanced between the queen and the man she had called Gerard, uncertain quite what she was supposed to do. She let her gaze linger for a moment on Misery, relieved to see him beginning to relax, and swallowed hard, nodding quickly in answer to the invitation she had been given. It wasn't hard to see how she had been labeled Silence even now.

He'd noticed that she needed healing of her own, though unlike her companion, most of her hurts seemed to be those of the spirit and mind, rather than those of the body. He realized, too, that it would take some time before she understand what it meant to be free or knew what to do with her newfound freedom. He led her toward the door, a nod of his head to Shaye as they passed her, and on out into the hallway.

Shaye watched the pair leave, shaking out the robe she had brought with her. "The Skarran ship is preparing to leave," she reported quietly. So that was why it had taken her so long to join them; she had been watching the delegation leaving. "The Temple hospice has a place for him, if he needs it."


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #4 on: February 09, 2017, 08:01:24 PM »
Rory gave a heavy, weary sigh as he leaned away from the man and lowered his hands. "I've done all I can," he said with a frown, knowing it wasn't enough, but perhaps sharing even just a little of his own strength would give the man the strength he needed to heal and go on.

Liam took the robe from Shaye and laid it across the man's shoulders. "You've done enough, Rory. You need some rest."

"More than enough," Ariana said quietly, rising to her feet to curl her arms about her husband. She touched a soft kiss to his cheek. "You shouldn't tire yourself out so much, you know."

Shaye bit her lip, trying not to smile at the young couple as she rounded the couch to crouch and meet the man's eyes. "Messare," she said gently. "There is a place for you at our temple, if you wish it. They will care for you."

Rory smiled at his wife's embrace, drawing comfort from her, though his heart ached to know people - not just their own but any people - were still treated in such a way, but it was Liam who could not keep his mouth shut or his thoughts to himself at such a moment.

"Damn them all to hell," he practically growled, only voicing what he knew they were all feeling. "Are we going to allow them to take our people and make them their slaves?" He was not only speaking of Arctrans, but Wild Ones, too. They all shared the same country, after all.

The aggression in his voice almost undid Rory's work with the broken man who was still with them. He cried out, smothering the sound with his own hand as he shuddered, curling tightly into himself.

"Liam!" Shaye snapped her husband's name sharply, a warning and a threat designed to make him keep control of himself. "Go and speak to the brothers waiting in the corridor, and calm down."

If it wasn't for the man's obvious distress at the anger in Liam's voice, he might have argued his point further. Instead, he only grumbled to himself and stalked his way toward the door, brushing past his wife on the way and lowering his voice for her ears alone. "By the Nine, this isn't over," he warned her, though he wasn't talking about any conflict between them, but their common hatred for the Skarrans. Fortunately, he held his anger in check enough not to slam the door on his way out.

Shaye rolled her eyes, but didn't linger on Liam's exit, gently reaching out to calm the man who was keening softly in pain and distress. Ariana watched, her eyes wide. She had never seen anyone so broken as this man had been, determining in that moment to know what it was that had been done and if she could possibly prevent it ever happening to anyone else ever again.

"Rory," Shaye spoke softly. "I hate to ask, but he needs you to reassure him here."

Rory nodded, disentangling himself from Ariana's embrace to kneel down in front of the broken man again and draw from some inner strength deep inside him to try and calm the man's fears and turmoil once again. He touched the man's hand, closing his eyes to search for some inner peace inside himself and share it with the man.

Shaye rose to her feet, talking quietly with Ariana as Rory drew some semblance of calm back into the man beneath his hands. It seemed to take an age, but finally he was quiet once again, calmer than he had been before. The door opened quietly to admit two brothers from the Temple - the gentle souls who cared for veterans who had seen too much, experienced too much, for anyone but the Nine to comfort them.

"Your Majesty," the younger bowed to the queen. "If we may?"

Ariana nodded. "Please do," she said in a quiet tone. "Anything he requires, send word here."

"As you wish." With gentle hands and quiet words, the two brothers ushered their broken charge from the room, allowing Liam to re-enter in their wake.

It was unlikely anyone but Shaye noticed the look of regret and concern on her husband's face as the Temple Brothers took their charge in hand. He was still seething with anger, but he held his tongue long enough to not disrupt what little peace Rory had been able to offer. As for Rory, he slumped into a chair, clearly exhausted, but relieved he was able to bring the man even a small bit of peace.

Ariana's hand skimmed gently through Rory's hair, her eyes turning to Liam. And there was the banked anger they had not seen before. "I know," she said, cutting off any apology or repeat of what Liam had said before. "And if this country was more stable, I would be making plans to go to war right now. But it isn't stable, Liam, and it won't be for at least a year. The most I can do right now is to declare Arctra a safe haven for any slaves that may escape their captors, and work on fortifying our defenses in case of any retaliation for that."

"I know," Liam replied, fully aware of their situation. It hadn't been long since they had restored Ariana to her proper place on the throne. They hadn't yet won the loyalty of all the nobles and it was uncertain if they ever would. There was too much work to do in Arctra before they could even think of waging war on their Skarran enemies, but that only made him that much more angry. "It's a start, I suppose, but there most be something more that we can do."

Still teasing her fingers through Rory's hair, Ariana sighed, frowning as she considered what few options they had. "I don't know," she admitted unhappily. "I was never trained for this, I don't know what to do."

Shaye glanced between them thoughtfully. "Well ... what about the merchants?" she asked innocently.

"What about them?" Liam echoed, his thoughts moving in another direction, though he wasn't sure if Shaye was having similar ideas.

Rory remained quiet, clearly spent and not one who was accustomed to strategy or war, though he had once wished to be a knight and was stranger to a blade.

"I can't think of any other kind of person who can enter a foreign country, ask a lot of questions, and not only be allowed to leave, but welcomed back next time too," she pointed out with a faint shrug, leaning against the back of the couch. "It's just a thought."

"Spies disguised as merchants," Liam said with a smile, following her line of thought. "Our first concern should be for those of our people kept as slaves," he said further,  though helping them escape could be a tricky business. It could also be considered an act of war if the Skarrans knew they were plotting such a thing.

"No, the first concern is to find out how many there are and how they are treated," Ariana objected. "We can't possibly begin freeing anyone without information. And information will take months to gather. And to be honest, Captain, I would rather safely give birth before openly declaring war on anyone else."

"We've already seen how they're treated," Liam pointed out, not entirely disagreeing with his queen. "The Skarrans are our enemy. They will always be our enemy. It may not be wise to openly declare war on them outright, as you say, but there are other ways," he pointed out. "If you give us time, I'm sure we can come up with something," he said, though it was unlikely either he or Shaye would be taking part in any plot to spy on the Skarrans.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2017, 08:02:04 PM »
"We have seen how one man treats them," Ariana argued, shaking her head. "This isn't something we can run at, Liam. We need information; more than that, we need time. We don't have the ships to be able to mount an attack on Skarra, much less the knowledge of their terrain that would be necessary. Surely there must be a spymaster somewhere in this stinking city?"

"I am not suggesting we declare all out war, Highness," Liam argued, addressing her by her title, rather than her name, spreading his arms in supplication. "Let me make some inquiries. That is all I'm asking. We cannot leave our people to suffer under Skarran rule, no matter how they are treated."

"Discreet inquiries," Shaye added, straightening up. "I know a few people we can get in contact with, see what they know and work from there." She glanced up at Liam curiously - was he happy with that plan?

He nodded his head at Shaye's suggestion, glad she was in agreement with him. He wasn't suggesting they declare war just yet, but they should at least know what they were dealing with here and how many of their own people's lives might be at risk.

"They're right, Ari," Rory said quietly from where he sat near Ariana's side. "We need to know what's going on with Skarra."

"I know," Ariana sighed, perching herself on the arm of Rory's chair. "All right, see to it," she said with a decisive nod. "Let's keep it just between us for the time being, though."

Shaye smiled, inclining her head to her queen. "As you wish, Highness."

It wasn't quite as much as Liam might have wished for, but he knew it was the wisest course of action for now. "As you wish," he echoed his wife's reply, looking between the two royals and realizing how tired they both seemed. "You should get some rest," he told them both, looking from one to the other.

"I should make sure the woman has a place to sleep and maybe to work, if she wants to," Ariana said, worrying over something someone else had already taken in hand.

Shaye chuckled, shaking her head.

"Gerard seems to have things well in hand," Liam pointed out, with the slightest hint of a smirk on his face as he looked to Shaye, some sort of unspoken communication moving between them. There came a knock at the door, and he glanced that way, but waited for Ariana to respond to it.

A little confused over the look that passed between her captain and his wife, Ariana glanced at the door as the knock sounded. "Come," she called, and the regal tone was back, the queen on display once again, even if it were only for a messenger.

"Highness," the messenger greeted her with a both as he stepped into the room and offered a bow to both her and the others gathered. "I have a message from Kari of Clan Tarven wishing to inform Her Majesty that her granddaughter has gone into labor," he informed them, a message that was not only directed to the queen, but to those in her company, as well.

"Thank you." Ariana inclined her head to the messenger, waiting until he was gone before casting a teasing smile down at her husband. "You're going to be an uncle."

Shaye snorted with laughter. "Trust Liayna to pop hers out just as we've started brewing ours."

Rory smiled as he slid his fingers through Ariana's. "That's good news, anyway," he said. It seemed a fitting way to follow up the visit from the Skarrans, giving them hope for the future. He was not one to question the gods when it came to such things, glad for their blessing. "Shall we send a message in return?"

Ariana considered this for a moment, squeezing his hand fondly. "Let's visit this evening instead," she suggested. "We can sneak out easily enough." Realizing that she probably shouldn't have said that in front of the captain of her Royal Guard, she looked up at Liam, eyes wide. "That is ..."

"What, do you think you will be going without an escort?" Liam countered, trying to look stern, but unable to keep the smirk from his face. Apparently, he was hoping he and Shaye would be going along. After all, Conall was like a brother to him, and Liayna and Shaye had grown fond of each other.

Ariana glanced at Rory, biting her lip against the smile that was threatening to rise. "Just don't tell on me to Gerard," she told Liam earnestly. "He doesn't need to know that we can sneak out of the palace at any hour of the day or not without him realizing we've gone."

"Oh, yes ... The first thing I was going to do is tattle on you to the First Blade, when I am the Queen's Captain," Liam replied, trying to keep as straight a face as he could. Rory chuckled weakly, still worn out from his attempt at healing, and Liam's gaze slid that way. "Go rest while you have a chance, if you're going to be sneaking out of the palace later," he urged them, waving a dismissive hand at them, as though if were the king dismissing his subjects. Perhaps he had been leader of the rebels a little too long.

Ariana's brow rose at the dismissive hand, a small smirk playing about her lips. As much as she appreciated Liam O'Connor, he did have a habit of forgetting that she was the queen. Shaye, on the other hand, burst out laughing, doubling over as she sagged against the couch, all but weeping with hilarity as she waited for her husband to realize what he'd done.

"What?" Liam asked, looking from one to the other, and either not realizing what he'd done or having done it on purpose. "She is with child, and he is clearly exhausted. If they are to go gallivanting about the wilds at night, then they both need their rest," he pointed out, gesturing toward the queen and her consort as he made his point. "You really did not think we were going to let you go alone, did you?"

Shaye gasped for breath, still snickering as Ariana let herself laugh a little. "One of these days, captain, you are going to do something like that in front of the court, and I'll have to demote you to save face," she warned teasingly.

Liam shrugged, unconcerned. "You would be hard pressed to replace me, Highness," he retorted with an exaggerated bow. Though she was his queen, they were also friends, though he sometimes forgot his proper place and had to be reminded.

More than a friend, Liam was something of the brother Ariana had been denied all her life. After all, Adare's ghost had never shown any hostility toward the man; perhaps he, too, understood that the sometimes intimidating commander filled a void he would never be able to. She laughed, her turn to wave a dismissive hand. "Go away," she told him cheerfully. "We'll meet you in your old quarters after dinner."

"As you wish, Majesty," Liam replied with a nod of his head, a wink tossed to Rory before he turned with a half-smirk to Shaye. "Are you through laughing at me, wife?" he asked, offering a hand to pull her off the couch.

"No, but I can walk," Shaye answered, bowing to the queen just to drive the point home. "See you later, children." Taking Liam's hand, she pulled him toward the door before he could put his foot in his mouth again, wondering how Gerard was doing with the skittish young woman they still hadn't got a name for.

Liam's smirk widened, as he got his wife's drift. Together, the couple left the company of the queen and her consort with plans to join them later to accompany them in visiting Clan Tarven.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2017, 08:02:43 PM »
"He's fond of you," Rory pointed out, once the pair was gone. There were few Ariana allowed to speak to her the way she did Liam.

She smiled. "I'm fond of him," she admitted, turning her full attention to him. Her fingertips rubbed gentle circles at his temples, trying to ease the headache she knew he must have given himself exercising his wild magic. "He's never coddled me, never tried to make things easier. But he's always there with advice and reassurance, too. Honestly, if it wasn't for him, we might never have got past embarrassed fumbling."

"Oh, I think we'd have gotten past it eventually," Rory replied with a soft smile, sighing a little as she rubbed his temples. The headache wasn't going to go away without a little sleep, but it was more annoying than truly painful. "Shall we take his advice?" he asked, regarding a bit of rest.

"I think we should," she nodded, kissing his forehead before she rose to take his hand. "I need to get out of this bloody dress before your children try to escape by other means. The sooner the healers say we can announce this, the sooner I can stop trying to hide it."

"It will eventually become difficult to hide," he pointed out, taking her hand and pushing to his feet, but pausing a moment to lay the flat of his against against the swell of her belly that indicated she was with child and that she'd been trying to hide.

"It's already difficult to hide," she pointed out, but a part of her melted when he laid his hand over her gently swollen womb. They might be young, neither one of them within a year of twenty yet, but this was something that belonged to only them. "I don't want to hide it," she confessed softly. "I want everyone to know how happy we are."

"Then don't hide it," he told her. He wasn't sure why the healers were being so reluctant to share the news, but he knew they must have their reasons. One thing he did know - Kari would know she was with child the moment she laid eyes on her, if she didn't know already. "We should make a proper announcement first, though," he pointed out. It wouldn't have mattered so much really, if she wasn't the Queen of Arctra.

"I know," she smiled, touching her head to his shoulder. "I'll talk to the healers tomorrow. Tonight is about Liayna and Conall, and whoever is about to join them." A brighter smile lifted her expression. "Arora might be there, too," she realized, unable to keep herself from hoping that the woman who had birthed both Liayna and Rory might be at the birth of her first grandchild.

"It's likely," he agreed, turning to touch a soft kiss to her lips, his fingers brushing her cheek. "Come, you need to rest if we are to go out later," he said, purposely avoiding the word "sneak", as it implied they were doing something they weren't supposed to be doing.

"So do you," she countered, but she didn't argue. They both needed to rest, and thankfully, the people he had staffed their personal household with knew better than to disturb the young couple when there were no official engagements planned.

He smiled again, though he was clearly weary, and took her hand to lead her to their bedchamber, leaving strict orders not to be disturbed until dinner. It was rare that they had a few hours without any pressing matters of state to tend to, and he planned on taking advantage of it, even if it was only to rest.

Thus it was that they had the perfect opportunity to make a guess at what the First Blade was doing. As the queen and her consort reached the door of their private chambers, two of the serving maids were knocking on the door of Gerard's chambers - one bearing a tray of food and drink, the other with a selection of clothing over her arms. Ariana caught Rory's eye and bit down a giggle.

Rory arched his brows, exchanging a curious glance with Ariana, unsure what his wife found so amusing about the First Blade offering the girl food and a change of clothing. It was only kindness, wasn't it, or was it something more? Whatever the answer might be, he was too tired to question it at the moment, though he might ask her what she found so amusing later.

She flashed him a grin, pulling him into their chambers before the servants could catch them ogling what the First Blade was up to. After all, it wasn't as though the honorable Gerard de Winter was in any danger of having his virtue sullied by a woman who couldn't even speak confidently ... was it?

There was some question as to just how virtuous the man was, but to the best of everyone's knowledge, he had never been married and did not have a woman hidden away anywhere. He had always put his duty to the queen first and foremost, but he was also a man with a man's needs and desires. He was an honorable man, however, and it might only be that side of him that had caused him to show the girl some kindness.

He had no idea others might think otherwise, nor did he care. If he'd known the queen had noticed, he might have explained, though he did not feel an explanation was necessary. He'd made sure to stoke the fire in the hearth, and as he opened the door to let the servants enter, the girl could be seen sitting near the hearth, the First Blade's cloak still wrapped about her shoulders.

It had taken a great deal of effort on his part to convince Silence that sitting down in his presence was acceptable, and even now, she was uncomfortable, her back ram-rod straight, her knees pressed together. She truly had no idea what was expected of her here, or why she was being tended to, always waiting for the moment when the kindness would fall away and reveal the cruelty she hoped was not there.

The maid with the tray moved to set it down near the hearth to keep warm; the other laid the armful of clothing on a chest, turning to speak softly with the First Blade. "There's a few bits there, sir," she explained quietly. "Not knowing how sizeable she is and all. The pipes have been fixed, so if she needs a bath and hands to help, just call for us. Is there anything else you need?"

"A bath," he echoed with a nod of his head. "Come back in an hour, perhaps?" he asked, rather than ordered, allowing the girl time to eat before she bathed and dressed. It would never do for him to tend to the personal needs of a woman who wasn't his kin or his wife.

"Of course, sir." The two women curtsied and slipped out, but not before sharing a curious glance at the stiff-backed girl sitting at the fire. There would be talk in the servants' quarters about this, no doubt, but it was unlikely to be harmful to either of them. She was a newly freed slave; even the hardest of the servants wanted to see her taken care of, and who better to do that than the First Blade himself?

Once they were alone again and the door was secure, he turned once again to the girl, making it a point to keep his distance. She was as skittish as a bird with a broken wing, and he didn't want to frighten or startle her. "You must be hungry. Come eat," he told her, gesturing with a hand toward the table where the servant had set the tray of food and forgetting she didn't understand what the word hungry meant.

She startled, despite his best efforts, automatically leaping up from her seat as though she had been scalded by it. Her hands disappeared under the heavy hang of his cloak as she cast her eyes downward, but there was tension in her frame - as though she was bracing herself to be struck for daring to sit at all. "This one will serve," she said, the words coming unbidden to her tongue in the soft lilt that was just above a whisper.

He furrowed his brows at her, perplexed by her reaction to him and his kindness when he'd expected nor asked for anything in return. He took a few slow steps toward her, extending an arm to offer a hand. "You misunderstand my intentions. I have not brought you here for any reason other than to help you. I ask for and expect nothing in return." He curled his fingers toward her beckoning her further. "Please, it would ... please me if you ate something."


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #7 on: February 09, 2017, 08:03:28 PM »
She eyed his hand warily, her darting gaze taking in the outstretched palm, his concerned expression, the food so tempting on the table. It would please him. Without realizing what that meant, she felt something warm awaken inside her, finally stilling her gaze on his hand. "This one would like to please you, sir." Hesitantly, she slipped her fingers lightly over his palm, since that was what he seemed to expect.

He hadn't told her that because he wanted her to please him so much as he thought it might convince her to do as he asked, since it seemed she was accustomed to serving and pleasing a master of some kind of other. He could hardly stomach the idea of her with the magister and hoped she had not suffered too much under his rule, but was not so naive not to know otherwise. He even offered her a small smile, green eyes kind and full of compassion, though she might not recognize it. Not pity, no, but something else - something more akin to kindness. His fingers closed gently over hers and he led her toward the table, where food awaited. It wasn't a fancy meal, by any means, but it would satisfy the hunger she had no name for.

She had never seen a smile before, a true smile that was not hiding anything malicious behind it. The sheer gloriousness of the expression hit her fully, her eyes widening as she looked up at him. The guarded wariness in her gaze softened with awe and something that might almost have been hope, only to fade into confusion once more as she found herself standing by the table, uncertain what to do from here.

"Sit," he urged, though it was more of a request than a command. He let go of her hand and pulled out the chair, gesturing again with a hand toward it to further indicate that she was free to make herself comfortable.

Her mouth fell open, her expression practically goggling at the sight of a free-born man, a master, holding a chair out for her the way she had been trained to do for so many others. Utterly shocked, she abruptly sat down, her mouth closing with a snap as she perched on the edge of the chair.

Her reaction might have amused him, if she wasn't so serious about it. He was full of questions, wondering how long she'd been a slave, though he wasn't quite sure if he should ask, and yet, the name the Skarrans had given her certainly seemed to fit. She had yet to say more than a handful of words to him. Instead of speaking, he lifted the cover from the tray revealing a modest meal of bread and cheese and some stew or soup of some kind, as well as freshly-brewed tea.

"Eat," he told her, understanding that she seemed to respond best to simple requests that could not be misunderstood.

Modest it was, but it was more food on a single plate than she had ever seen before. For a moment, she hesitated, uncertain whether he wanted her to eat it all. It seemed like an awful lot of food for one person and one meal. Perhaps she was only supposed to eat half, and leave the rest for him? But if that were so, shouldn't he have his own plate? Confused, her fingers groped for the spoon as she leaned over the bowl, clumsily scooping a mouthful past her lips. The explosion of taste made her gasp, coughing as she choked on that mouthful.

He didn't want to stand over her like some lord, and so, he drew up a chair nearby to help her if she needed it. Her reaction to the soup startled him, and he leaned closer to lightly lay a hand against her back. "Are you all right?" he asked in concern.

She tensed as she felt the heat of his hand on her back, slow to relax even as she spluttered, fighting to draw a comfortable breath. When, finally, the coughing fit was over, she was red-faced and ashamed, dropping her gaze to her hands folded in her lap. "This one is well," she lied smoothly. "She will not eat what is meant for sir."

He frowned and sighed at her reply and sat back in the chair, looking at her as perplexed as ever. What was he going to do with her? Then again, she wasn't his responsibility really, and yet, for some reason, he felt responsible for her. It was going to take a long time and a lot of effort for her to learn that she was now a free woman and no longer the property of any man, including himself. "The food is meant for you," he assured her. "I have already eaten," he added, getting up from the chair with a sigh and pacing the floor thoughtfully, hands behind his back.

"For her?" Again, he had startled her into looking up at him. The food may have been simple from his point of view, but clearly it was a feast from hers. "This is for her?" One slender hand gestured at the tray in front of her in disbelief.

"No, it is for you," he said, emphasizing the pronoun and pointing to her. "You are ..." He trailed off with a perplexed frown once again. "You need a proper name," he said, considering her carefully for a long moment before speaking again. "What do you think of the name Loren?" he asked.

"She does not think," she said softly. "It is not allowed. Bad things happen when she thinks." At a loss for anything else to do, and given permission to eat something that was more than watery oats for the first time in her life, she took up the spoon again, shoveling the soup into her mouth.

"Don't be silly. Of course, you do. Everyone thinks. No one can control the thoughts you keep in your head," he explained, trying not to sound as perplexed and even impatient as he was. "Slowly," he told her, lifting a hand to hold her back before she choked on the soup for a second time. "There's no rush."

She froze as he chided her for her speed, slowing herself down to an agonizing crawl of movement to please him. All she wanted was to please him. He was kind and gentle and handsome, and though he could have struck her for any of her mistakes, he had not. He was unique in all her experience. "She ... should not think?" she offered instead, trying to understand and make him understand as well.

"No, she should ... You should," he corrected, his gaze drifting to her soup. "Eat," he instructed again, silencing himself so that she could finish her soup before it got cold. "Would you like some tea?" he asked, having no idea that she might never have tried the stuff before.

She was silent as she ate, forcing herself to eat more than she really should have, just to please him. Even so, the bowl was still over half-full when she laid the spoon down. "Is she ill?" she asked in concern. "Tea is for the sick. They drink it and ..." She hesitated, her face falling with grief. "They go away."

There was that perplexed frown on his face again. "No, she is not, and no, it is not. Not entirely." But he didn't want to argue with her. "Would you prefer something else? Water, wine, ale, mead?" he asked, though he only had the tea available at present. "People do not die from drinking tea. Look ... see?" he said, pouring himself a little into a second cup and taking a sip.

She watched as he drank some of the tea he proposed giving her, her eyes curious and almost afraid until it became clear that he was not about to suffer from its effects. "They do in Skarra," she told him quietly. "This one has seen it. A slave who cannot work is given tea, and ... and they do not have to work again." Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to say the words so starkly.

He scowled at the mention of Skarra, though he was careful not to let her see how the thought of them enslaving people, among other atrocities, enraged him. "This is not Skarra. It is Arctra. You are Arctran. This is your home, and no one will hurt you, so long as you are under my protection. I promise you." He gaze flickered to the tea and he got up to pour her a glass of water instead. "I think I shall call you Loren," he told her, his back turned to her while he poured the water.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #8 on: February 09, 2017, 08:04:00 PM »
"You are the master now." With his back turned, he did not see the tiny smile that crossed her face as she considered this surprising, but not unwelcome, turn of events. "She is glad." She paused, considering this, too, and eventually said, "Loren is glad. She is Loren?"

He arched a brow as she claimed him for her master, but thankfully, she did not see his change in expression. He turned back to offer her the glass of clear, cool water, his face as neutral as he could manage. "If you like. It means butterfly in the language of the Old Ones," he told her, thinking it suited her well. She was like a butterfly emerging or a rose coming into bloom.

"Butterfly," she repeated softly, aware vaguely of what that was but not certain. Her fingers closed about the cup he offered her, brushing his as she claimed it for herself, drinking deeply. Again, as though it might be taken away from her at any moment. How could anyone truly live with so much fear at every turn?

He reclaimed the chair in front of her, thinking this would probably be a good time to tell her what she could expect in the next day or so, or so he assumed. "I've arranged for a bath, once you're done eating, and I've had some clothes brought for you to change into. I'm not sure if they'll fit, but we can have them altered or have some new clothes made for you in a few days. I'm not sure about accommodations, but you're free to stay here if you like, until we can arrange for a more permanent arrangement," he told her, rambling a little and realizing she probably hadn't understood half of what he'd just told her.

He truly didn't know, she was amazed to realize. He didn't know how glorious he was to her. Had he even noticed that her eyes did not flee from his so often as he spoke to her, as she learned not to fear the blow that was not coming? His care for her, his concern ... it was wholly new, and wholly wonderful. As for his words, all she heard was stay. And it warmed her, bringing that tiny, almost-there smile to her face once more. "She will stay with the - with you."

His expression softened as he met her gaze, his heart aching with something he could not quite describe or understand. It wasn't love nor was it pity. Compassion, maybe, longing and loneliness, and a strange desire to care for and protect her from any further harm. "My name is Gerard," he told her, realizing she did not yet even know his name. "I am not your master. I am your friend."

She blinked, once more uncertain quite what he meant by that, but prepared to believe it was something good. "Not her master," she repeated thoughtfully, as though trying to imprint it on her mind. "What is a friend?"

He did not seem as surprised by this question as one might have thought, almost expecting it now that he was starting to realize what kind of life she might have lived. "A friend is someone who cares about you and who would do whatever they can to help you," he explained, trying to give her the simplest explanation possible, almost as though he was speaking to a child, though she was no such thing.

"Cares." She was silent for a long moment, a soft frown on her face as she tried to make that match up with her lifetime's experience. "She does not know care," she said finally. "She does not think it means what others have said it means."

He wasn't sure how to explain. You either understood the word or you didn't, and she clearly had not had anyone who cared about her in a very long time. "Cares ..." he echoed with a thoughtful expression on his face. "It means ... when someone does something nice for you because they are fond of you." Or something like that. He did not think he was very good with words at it was, and she clearly did not understand everything he said.

"Care is not a word to make her stop fighting?" she asked softly. Her hazel eyes were fixed to his now, a silent plea for him to tell her the truth - that what she had been told was care had been a lie, that true caring did not involve pain given for pain's sake.

"No," he replied, brows furrowing again. "Of course not. Why would someone tell you that?" he asked further, but before she could answer, a knock came at the door and he realized it had already been an hour. "Wait here," he told her as he rose to go to the door. Of course, she didn't have much choice as there was no place else for her to go.

In truth, why would she want to go anywhere? She was warm and fed, and he was kind to her. She would stay as long as he allowed her to. The knock, however, had come from the serving woman who had spoken with him before, her arms laden with towels and a basket of soaps and oils.

"Is this the right time, sir?"

"Yes, please, come in," he instructed the serving woman, stepping back out of her way to let her inside. "Loren, this is Talis. She is going to help you bathe and dress. There is no need to be afraid. She is not going to hurt you. Do you understand?" he asked her gently.

Loren shot up from where she had been sitting, expecting to be scolded for being so relaxed in the company of her master. But Talis simply smiled at her warmly, glad to see the girl had at least eaten something.

 "We'll see you warm and dry when we're done, too," she promised the skittish young woman.

Loren looked to Gerard for the reassurance he offered, slowly nodding at his words. "She understands."

"I'll be just outside if you need me," he replied, with a nod of his head to Talis, leaving the young woman in her care, glad to see she seemed to have things well in hand. What did he know, after all, about caring for a girl, such as this? He did not know what he was going to do with her or about her now that he'd taken her under his wing. He had all the servants he needed, but the thought of her falling into the hands of someone who might take advantage of her worried him.

With much coaxing, Talis managed to take Loren into the bathing chamber, easing her out of the borrowed cloak and ragged dress she wore, biting down any comment on the bruises that littered the young woman's skin. One mark stood out, a stark scar left behind by a branding that crested the upper curve of her right breast, but Talis made no mention of it. Despite Loren's guarded fear, she was not allowed to resist being bathed; having her hair washed and dried; her skin rubbed with unscented oil. After an hour, Talis appeared briefly in the main room to collect the armful of clothing before disappearing back into the bathing chamber, and for the briefest moment, there was the sound of laughter. A short burst of laughter from a girl afraid even to smile, clearly amused by whatever Talis was saying to her.

Gerard went back to pacing the floor, filled with a sense of restlessness and even nervousness regarding the girl. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with her, and it worried him. He didn't want to be her master, and more importantly, he didn't want her to be his slave, but he knew she was unlikely to understand what it meant to be free, nor was she likely to be able to survive on her own without knowing the first thing about life in Arctra. She would need a means of income, a way of providing for herself, but perhaps that would come in time. Meanwhile, he thought she'd be better off under Talis' care or one of the other servants about the palace, but he wasn't sure she would agree. He stoked the fire again while he waited, not needing a servant to do it for him. In fact, he often felt strange to be waited on by servants, when he had once been little more than a servant himself.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #9 on: February 09, 2017, 08:04:46 PM »
When, finally, the door opened once again, it was to the tune of Talis' voice. "There now, don't you fret," the older woman was saying. "You're a beauty and no mistake." She came out first, her arms laden with the damp towels and the basket she had brought. The look she gave Gerard as she left suggested that his manhood would be in serious danger if he upset his charge. But Loren did not appear until the outer door was closed.

Hesitantly, she stepped out of the bathing chamber, her hands hanging loose at her sides. From the slave in the ragged scrap of clothing, a simple bath had almost transformed her. Gone was the dust and dirt marring her skin, revealing a smooth, pale complexion flushed from the heat of the bath. She had been pressed into a long shift, with a simple dress coat atop it, far more than she had ever worn before, and on her feet, soft boots. Her hair had been left to spill over her shoulders, chestnut locks seeming golden in the light from the hearth. She hesitated where she stood, her eyes downcast, afraid to see disapproval in his eyes.

How could he disapprove when she was beautiful? She'd been pretty before, but bathed and dressed, even in the simplest of clothing, she was stunning, and he found himself speechless. The name he'd given her more than adequately described the transformation, like a caterpillar into a butterfly and just as lovely. "You look ... lovely," he said, at a loss for a word that might better describe her. He offered her a hand again to draw her closer as he admired the view. She could easily pass for a lady, though he didn't want to make any assumptions, but it only made him wonder further about her origins.

Lovely. It was not a word she had ever heard connected with herself, feeling almost shy as he offered her his hand. Strange, that she felt shy now, when she was dressed so completely, where before there had been little to hide herself behind. Her fingers crept onto his palm once again, allowing herself to be drawn further into the room, her eyes still downcast. "She is pleasing?"

"Very much so," he replied, allowing her the misuse of the pronoun without argument or correction. He realized his heart was beating a little faster than usual suddenly and wondered a little at it. No woman had ever had such a strange effect on him in so short a time as she had, but he thought it might just be a bit of loneliness and wishful thinking. And suddenly, he found himself at a loss for words, as silent as she, unsure what to say to her or what to do.

He was right; she could pass for a lady, but for the tell-tale redness that ringed her throat and the lack of confidence in her posture. His compliment made her smile at the floor, her head ducking more deeply as a soft flush of color graced her cheeks. "She is glad," she whispered into the stillness.

He looked her over again, frowning as he noticed that tell-tale redness at her neck that marked her as having been a slave. In time, it would fade, but for now, it was a constant reminder of what she had suffered and who she had once been. He let go of her hand, raising a finger as if to ask her to wait a moment, as he went to search through his own wardrobe. Finding what he was looking for at last, he returned with a long bit of white silk, lifting it to show her what it was before leaning close to wind it loosely about her neck, allowing it to cover the mark left behind from the collar and drape gracefully over a shoulder. He did not explain where he had obtained the silk or why he was doing what he was doing, only hoping to cover what others might not be able to see past.

Uncertain what he was doing, but aware he didn't want her to speak, Loren watched him rummage with curious eyes for a long moment. The silk was yet more confusion for her, until he raised his hands to wind it gently about her throat. And the confusion was gone. A strange sort of peace seemed to settle over her as she let her hair fall back to her shoulders, raising one hand to touch the soft new collar he had given her. Of all the masters she had ever had, she was already glad he seemed to have chosen to keep her. "Thank you."

The bit of silk did not seem to mean the same thing to him as it did to her, but he was not aware of that yet, and he could not help but smile a little as she thanked him. "Would you like me to show you around?" he asked, offering her his arm, like a gentleman might to his lady, not a master to a slave.

"A round what?" she asked, eyeing his arm with vague suspicion. What was she supposed to do? Was there a stain or smudge she should be removing, or did he wish her to put something onto his elbow?

He actually chuckled a little at her misunderstanding this time. "Around the palace," he said, still holding his arm out to her expectantly. Realizing she did not seem to know what to do, he reached for her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. "Stay close," he warned her, though he doubted she would stray.

Comprehending as he wrapped her hand into the crook of his arm, her lips formed a silent "oh" as the movement pulled her against his side. Eyes wide, she looked up at him, charmed by the laughter on his lips and in his eyes even as she blushed and settled her other hand over the first. "She will stay close to you," she promised him, determined never to break that promise.

Unaware again that she was taking him so literally, though he might find it charming had he known, he led her toward the door with the intent to show her about the palace. He didn't want to take her too far, though it was his custom to eat dinner with the queen and her consort, and he couldn't help wondering what they might make of his guest.

She moved silently at his side, holding gently to his arm as though she were afraid of holding on too tightly or of being left behind. The boots felt strange on her feet, the swish of fabric about her ankles an unusual sensation she had never felt before. And yet, despite the yards of cloth covering her, she had never felt so ... naked. So vulnerable under the eyes of anyone who looked at her, and to her surprise, she realized that they were looking at her. All her life, she had been an ignored presence; a shape in the shadows who did as she was told and was punished, often for nothing at all. Yet these people, high and low alike, looked at her, and she did not know how to react to it.

"Don't be afraid," he murmured quietly to her as they passed a group of courtiers on their tour of the palace. "And don't look away. Just smile and offer a nod of your head," he instructed further.

"But ..." She hesitated, daring to meet the eyes of those courtiers and offer a very quick nod of her head before dropping her eyes to her hands on his arm once again. "They are looking at her," she whispered, half-horrified and half-scared.

"They have never seen you before and are curious," he explained. There was no way she could know who he was nor, to his knowledge, had anyone told her.  Though he hadn't been First Blade very long, there was no mistaking who he was, and they were understandably and naturally curious who the lady on his arm might be. "They are admiring your beauty," he added, tilting his head toward hers to whisper.

"She is just a slave," she whispered, her grip on his arm tightening as another group, this time of ladies, paused in their conversation to acknowledge the passing of the First Blade and his guest. "She is not meant to be seen."

"Not anymore," he corrected her quietly, with a nod of his head and a smile to the group of ladies before they passed by. "You are no longer a slave. You are free now, Loren, to make your own choices and decisions about your life. I will help you, if I can, but I will not decide for you."


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #10 on: February 09, 2017, 08:05:15 PM »
The giggles that followed his smiling nod to the ladies caught her attention, her bowed head turning curiously to look at them once again as he drew her away. She could see blushes and smiles, and could guess at the words being spoken. A dull flush colored her cheeks, a strange surge of anger clouding her mind for a moment before she remembered what she was. She did not have any right to feel jealous of a smile given to a lady, when she was only herself. "She does not know how to decide," she admitted almost reluctantly. "She would like you to decide for her." But not if it means sending her away.

He didn't think much of the women's smiles and giggles and blushes. He wasn't looking for a woman who would only serve as an adornment to his arm, but one with whom he felt a certain connection, a certain caring. Thus far, he had not yet found anyone who fulfilled those requirements, though he was well aware that he was already starting to care for the beauty currently on his arm. "Being free means deciding for yourself, Loren," he explained as gently as he could, adding, "but you do not need to decide today."

She was silent for a while, thinking this over as they walked along, her cheek close to his arm. So lost in thought, in fact, that she forgot to acknowledge anyone they passed. And finally she spoke up. "If she decides to let you decide for her," she said thoughtfully, "is she free?"

He nodded a greeting for them both, allowing her to lapse into the thoughts he had encouraged her to have in the first place. No one could stop their mind from thinking completely, though he had become very good at hiding his own thoughts from those around him, as it seemed, had she. He considered her question a moment, or rather, how to answer it. "Yes and no. Being free means making your own decisions, unless you trust someone else enough to make them for you."

"She trusts you." The words were out there before she could stop them, even if she had thought to stop them at all. They were the truth, offered up in a gentle tone that rang with sincerity.

Though he knew he was worthy of her trust, it startled him to hear her admit it so soon in their acquaintance. "You should be careful to whom you give your trust," he warned her, though he did not feel she had any need to mistrust him. "There are people who would take advantage of you, lie to you, use you for their own means. I'm sure you know this already. I will do my best to protect you from such people, but you still should be wary."

She shook her head, knowing he had misunderstood her. Coming to a halt, she tugged on his arm, wanting him to stop and meet her gaze as she looked up at him. "She trusts you," she said again, more fervently this time. "She trusts the man who protected her, who freed her, who collared her kindly. She does not trust anyone but you."

"Collared you?" he echoed, coming to a halt and meeting her gaze. He understood everything she'd told him but that. His gaze darted to the bit of silk he'd wound about her neck. "You think ..." he started, wondering if it was worth it to explain. "I do not own you, if that is what you think. I am not your master. You are free to be who you wish to be, to choose what you wish to do," he tried to explain again - at least, within reason.

Her expression crumpled, painful disappointment painting her eyes before she dropped her hands from his arm, her gaze falling to her feet. She had misunderstood him badly, it seemed. "You do not want her," she whispered unhappily. "Where will she go?"

"I did not say that," he told her, alarmed at the dejected look on her face and the way she was avoiding his gaze. He dared to touch his fingers to her chin and lift her face to meet his gaze. "I promised to protect you and I will keep that promise. You are free to stay with me as long as you wish," he told her,  hoping she heard the sincerity in his voice.

Her chin lifted easily at his touch, revealing the uncertain fear in her eyes as she contemplated a life with no one to trust or turn to. Fear that was slowly covered with relief, but not eradicated. "She wants to stay with you," she told him hopefully. "You are kind."

He knew she might change her mind once she learned more about Arctra and found her place in it, but for now, he was responsible for her and he took that responsibility very seriously. "Very well," he replied. After all, he had told her she was free to make her own choices regarding her life. "I am expected to join Queen Ariana for dinner. Will you accompany me?" he asked, giving her that choice, too.

"She will serve the queen?" Loren's eyes blinked wide, honored by such a proposal and utterly unaware that she had misconstrued his intention once again. As much as he tried, she was not going to forget her roots in a single day.

"No, not unless she ... you wish to," he told her, though for some reason, he didn't like the idea of her serving anyone ever again, either as a servant or a slave. "You misunderstand, I think. I serve the Queen," he told her. "I am ... a knight of sorts."

She almost smiled as he stumbled over the correct pronoun, though she could see nothing wrong with referring to herself in the third person. "You are a great warrior, to stand against the master," she informed him, her eyes glowing with awe, clearly impressed with him. "Your queen has trust in you."

"I hope so," he said, though he was not sure how great a warrior he was just yet. He still felt he had a lot to prove, even if he had won the position of First Blade. "The queen is young ... younger than you, I expect. And she has suffered at the hands of her enemies. I have taken an oath to protect her and to protect the people of Arctra," he explained further, tucking her hand back into the crook of his elbow to continue on their way.

"You protect ... everyone?" Loren seemed stunned by this, unable to understand how one man with no magic to speak of could possibly protect the queen and the country. "Do these people not know how to use the swords they hold?"

He chuckled a little at her misunderstanding as she took him literally once again. "I am a soldier, Loren. If called upon to do so, I must go to war to fight for my country and protect my queen and country and people, so, yes, I suppose I do protect everyone, in a way, but my oath is sworn mainly to protect and defend my queen and our people."

"You must go?" She frowned at that thought, unconsciously tightening her hands on his arm once again as they walked along. How strange it must be for him, to be the sole focus of the only trust this strange woman had ever given freely. "Will she go with you, or will you leave her alone?"

"If I am called to war while you are under my protection, I will make sure you are cared for in my absence. You needn't worry, Loren. I would make sure you are safe and cared for while I'm away," he promised. Though there was no talk of war just yet, he knew it was only a matter of time before his sword was called into service, for one reason or another.

"She cannot come with you?" she asked again, saddened by that thought. "She is small and quiet and can make comforts for you. War is not a comfort. If you will protect her, she must be allowed to comfort you."

"War is dangerous. There's too great a risk you might get hurt," he explained. "But you do not need to worry about this right now. We are not at war, but at peace," he said, coming to a halt just outside the dining hall where he went to take his evening meal with the queen and her consort and their closest and most trusted friends and allies. "We are here. Are you ready?"


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #11 on: February 09, 2017, 08:05:51 PM »
Realizing that this was where he had been taking her, Loren paused, clutching tighter to his arm as she recognized the smell of good food and remembered that he had mentioned eating with the queen. "What should I do?" she whispered in mild horror, not even noticing that her pronoun had suddenly changed. It seemed as though real fear of being with so many unknown people in such a strange place brought out her understanding that she was not a faceless entity after all.

He smiled, almost amused by the question. "You eat," he instructed her. "Don't worry. No one will be expecting anything of you, or expecting you to eat more than you wish. If you are unsure, I will be right there to help you." He didn't bother to mention that all of this was somewhat new to him, too, having only become the First Blade recently. Up until then, he'd been accustomed to taking most of his meals in private or with the other knights in the mess hall.

She nodded uncertainly, trusting that he would do as he said and keep her from disgracing him before his queen and her allies. Of course, the gathering was decidedly smaller than she had imagined - Ariana and Rory, and Shaye and Liam, and no one else. The queen had clearly recovered from the unpleasant diplomatic envoy that morning, her gown somewhat less formal and far less restrictive in the company of friends. She was laughing as Gerard drew their guest into the little dining room, a merry sound that made Loren's grip on his arm loosen just a little.

"Highness," Gerard greeted Ariana as he entered the room and approached the queen and her consort, with the newly-named "Loren" on his arm. "Your Grace," he greeted them both with a respectful nod of his head. "May I present the Lady Loren, and may I also ask your permission to take her into my protection as my ward?"

"So formal, My Lord de Winter," Shaye teased him mildly from where she was sat beside Liam, already nibbling at a bread roll. Her table manners had not improved under the last queen, after all.

Loren shied into Gerard's side, nervous of this gathering of people who were so high above her she should not have known their faces.

Ariana, on the other hand, sobered herself with a warm smile, glancing at Rory briefly for a moment. "It is a true pleasure to meet you properly, my lady," she greeted Loren, making a note of the name, wondering whether it belonged to the woman or if she had been given it in the past hours. "And of course, Gerard. You have saved me from giving myself a headache trying to decide who would look after her best."

"Thank you, Majesty," Gerard replied with a respectful albeit short bow, before turning to Shaye and Liam to introduce her to them, as well. "Some of us have not forgotten our manners, Mistress O'Connor," he countered, with just the hint of a smirk on his face. "Liam and Shaye O'Connor," he said, introducing them to Loren by name. "The Queen's Captain and his wife," he explained further, leaving the part out about Shaye being the former First Blade - a title that would only confuse the young woman further.

"It would be Lady O'Connor, but she refuses to stay in the room whenever I bring out the statement for her to sign," Ariana commented mildly, leaning back in her seat to watch as Shaye and Liam were introduced properly to the newest member of their inner circle. It had not gone unremarked on that this young woman was the best source of information on Skarra they had.

Shaye grinned at Gerard, utterly unashamed. "Manners are for when the people you might offend have a bigger sword," she shrugged, rising to her feet to greet Loren. "You look very well, Loren. I hope you will be happy here."

"Might I remind you who won the tournament, Mistress O'Connor?" Gerard teased back, giving as good as he got. He and Shaye were friends, after all, and there was nothing wrong with a little harmless banter among friends.

"I have the biggest sword in the room," Liam interjected. "Now, sit down both of you before I decide to prove it."

"I don't know, I'd quite like to see the Guard Captain flop his sword out on the dining table in front of the queen," Shaye mused, her tone and smirk giving absolutely no subtlety to her tease.

"Will all the swords be compared if he does?" Loren asked, her voice tiny in the warmth of the banter between the familial friends all around her.

Ariana blushed, biting her lip as she giggled. "We're frightening our new friend," she warned the O'Connors through her laughter.

"Don't mind Shaye," Gerard reassured Loren as he led her to a pair of empty chairs at the table. "She has lived among soldiers too long and talks like she's still one of them."

As for Liam, he got to his feet to offer his own bow to the "Lady" on Gerard's arm. Was she even the same girl the Skarran magister had brought along with him? Thankfully, his jaw had not dropped, nor had he drooled.

"This one does not mind," Loren whispered, pausing as the one he had called Liam bowed to her, still clinging to Gerard's arm. They were such a mixed group - the young queen, her quiet consort, the fierce-looking guard captain, and his wife, who talked like a soldier. Gerard, the best of men, in her eyes. And her, a slave in a pretty dress, who did not truly deserve to be here at all.

Liam offered a friendly smile before retaking his seat. Fierce-looking or not, he recognized a wounded and frightened bird when he saw one and didn't want to frighten her further. "Welcome to Loscar, Lady. I, too, hope you will be happy here," he echoed Shaye's sentiments.

"Please, sit," Ariana said, gesturing to the empty chairs at the table. The food had already been brought in, set in the center of the table for the little gathering to serve themselves from at their leisure.

Despite the order coming from the queen herself, Loren looked up at Gerard to be told again, missing the way that the other two women exchanged a look and a smile before averting their eyes from the odd couple.

Gerard nodded his head to reassure her before pulling out a chair and gesturing with a hand for her to sit. He was hoping dinner would not be too awkward for her, but it was better than sitting in a crowded halll where the courtiers might openly stare. All anyone knew of her was that she'd been a Skarran slave. For all they knew, she could have once been noble herself before she had been stolen. It was one of the things Gerard was hoping to find out.

At least this time, Loren didn't stare at him in shock when he held the chair for her. She obeyed the gesture of his hand, sitting down neatly with her hands folded in her lap, her gaze darting about the room as plates began to be passed back and forth across the table in front of her. The conversation picked up, as though the other couples could sense the awkwardness and wanted to give her something she could hide behind.

"How is the search for a cook coming along?" Ariana was asking curiously, her eyes slipping across the table to look at Liam and Shaye.

"Not very well," Liam replied. "Shaye cooks better than the last one we hired," he said, and that was saying something, since Shaye had a reputation for being able to burn water. "Do you know of anyone who might be looking for a job?"


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #12 on: February 09, 2017, 08:06:25 PM »
"Rua, how many queens do you know who keep an eye on job listings?" Shaye asked her husband in amusement, passing the plate of meat to Gerard with a wink at him and his quiet new friend.

Liam might have argued the point, but the quietest member of the group at last seemed to have something to say.

"You might want to talk to the steward," Rory suggested. "He'd know if anyone had come by looking for work, and he'd probably know their qualifications, as well."

Loren listened as the conversation washed over her, surprised to find that high lords and royalty discussed such domestic matters as food and told jokes that would not have been out of place in a tavern. For herself, she did not eat much, ashamed of the wasted food on her plate when she set her fork down, folding in on herself in anticipation of a harsh word for her lack of displayed gratitude for all she had been given.

As the meal wore on, the conversation turned friendly and relaxed, and it became apparent that the small group around the table were not just well acquainted with each other but seemed to be close friends. No one scolded Loren for not cleaning her plate. In fact, no one even seemed to notice, except for Gerard who only glanced to her plate a moment to make sure she had actually eaten something, knowing it would take some time before she regained a normal appetite.

The worst moment for her came when the servants arrived to clear the plates from the table. She tensed, every muscle screaming at her to rise and do it for them, to serve these people because that was all she knew. But she also knew that to do that would displease her Gerard, and that was not acceptable. So she clenched her hands instead, staring down at them as she felt the cruel bite of her nails into her palms.

Somehow, Gerard seemed to sense her anxiety and casually reached over to curl the fingers of one hand around one of hers, hoping that might help ease her anxiety. Though it might appear he was involved in the conversation with the others, he was more observant than he seemed and had been subtly watching her all evening.

Her hands uncurled, both wrapping about the warm weight of his palm and fingers as she felt the shock of her tension rise and drop sharply. Too sharply - it took with it her composure. But she did what she had always been told to do. She was silent, small, as invisible as she could be ... with tears dripping from her cheeks as she clung to the hand of the only man who had ever protected her.

This time it was Rory who noticed, clearing his throat as he pushed away from the table and reached to help Ariana to her feet. "If you'll excuse us, I'm still feeling a little worn out, and Ariana needs her rest," he told them, making excuses that could just as well be true.

"What?" Liam exclaimed. "You've been sleeping all afternoon!"

"That's all you know, captain," Ariana pointed out, rising smoothly with Rory's help. She glanced very briefly toward the silently weeping Loren, a sad look in her eyes. "You wanted to talk to me about something?" she added pointedly in Liam's direction. "Somewhere more comfortable, for preference."

Gerard had noticed, too, and had turned to gently dab at Loren's eyes with a napkin.

Liam, however, had no idea what was going on right in front of his eyes. "I did?" he asked, furrowing his brows quizzically. Was she talking about their plans to "sneak out" of the palace and visit Clan Tarven later that night or something else?

"Yes, you did," Shaye agreed. She had not missed what was happening beside her, either, rather proud of Rory for taking the initiative to break up the gathering in a discreet fashion. "I distinctly remember you telling me about it." She met her husband's eyes with a very pointed look, and made a not-so-subtle gesture for him to keep his mouth shut as she jerked her head very slightly toward Gerard and his companion.

Liam scowled, wondering what was going on between the other three that he was unaware of. "No, I ..." At last, he followed Shaye's nod and glanced over to Gerard and the girl to find her silently weeping. "Oh, I remember now! Yes, there was something I needed to speak with you about. In private," he added, as if that was necessary. He moved to his feet, turning briefly to the other couple. "Gerard ... Lady ..." he said, at a loss as to how to address her. "Good evening."

Loren stiffen, swaying back from the gentle hand wiping her face dry, truly horrified that she had been seen to be so broken. Shaye sighed, rolling her eyes, and took her husband's hand. "Yes, good night," she said in a defeated tone. "This way, captain." Given the force of the tug on his hand, it was a wonder Liam didn't spin on his toes as she dragged him out of the room in the wake of Rory and Ariana.

Distracted with Loren, Gerard hardly noticed that they'd been abandoned by the Queen and her inner circle. All of his attention was on Loren, worrying he'd done something wrong and upset her in some way. "What's wrong? Are you all right?" he asked, as she pulled away from his ministrations. It did not occur to him that she might only be crying because of his kindness, but only because he must have done something wrong.

Gulping for air, she nodded and shook her head, still clinging to his hand. "She ... she is nothing and ... and you are so kind and she ... she does not know how to ... how to say ..." More tears fell, a release that had been denied her for years unstoppable for this moment in time.

He still did not like how she continued to refer to herself as though she was talking about someone else, but he knew it would take time for her to heal from all the years spent with the Skarrans, and time was, hopefully, one thing he could give her. "You are not nothing, lea," he assured her, his voice surprisingly gentle. "You are someone. You are whoever you wish to be. And you are free to live your own life now however you see fit," he told her taking both her hands in his and trying to make her see that all the hopelessness and pain and anguish was over. Even if it might haunt her for years, he would make sure the Skarrans never hurt her again; he would make sure no one ever hurt her again.

The strange prickling sting of his hands against hers, salt rubbing in the tiny half-circle wounds her own nails had given her, made her hold on ever more tightly, clinging to something that was real, something she knew. Sad, that what she knew and found comforting was pain. "She does not know free," she whispered sadly, looking down at their joined hands. "She is very stupid."

"You're not stupid," he assured her with a soft smile, touching a gentle finger to her cheek to brush away any remaining tears, or maybe it was just an excuse to touch her. "You will learn what it means to be free, and I will teach you."

Wide hazel eyes rose to meet his gaze, red-rimmed from her tears. "You will teach her?" she repeated, the hope in her eyes clouded with something that not even she was certain enough to name. But he might recognize it - trusting desire, the first step toward something far deeper.

"If you will let me," he told her. "Do you trust me?" he asked, more for her sake than his. There was no way for her to know for sure if he was trustworthy, and after everything she'd been through, he wasn't even sure if she'd ever be able to trust again.

He had underestimated the power of kindness and care. Even after just a few short hours, he had her trust, wholly and completely. She had never gone so long without harsh words and cruel punishment, often for no reason other than the fact that she existed. He had protected her back from her former master; he had fed and clothed her; he had promised to take care of her. Gerard had given her more in just a few hours than she had ever had in her lifetime. "She trusts you," she whispered, confident in her feelings.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #13 on: February 09, 2017, 08:06:56 PM »
"I promise I will never knowingly hurt you, but you must tell me if I ever do anything that causes you pain, even in ignorance. Can you do that?" he asked, talking more about emotional than physical pain - the kind of pain that ran far deeper than that of the body and was harder to heal.

Again, she nodded, more slowly this time, holding his gaze as he spoke to her. It had been such a strange day for her, but she would do anything he asked of her. He was, quite simply, glorious in her eyes, and the longer she could stay with him, the happier she would be. "She can."

"There are duties I must fulfill, so I will not be able to be with you all the time, but we will find something for you to do while I'm busy and someone to stay with, so you're not lonely." He offered a reassuring smile and patted her hand, not wanting her to worry. "All will be well. I promise."

"She will se -" To her credit, she caught herself before she completed that word, biting her lip as she sought for something more appropriate to say. "She ... she may look after you, as you look after her?"

He frowned a little at her question, not wanting her to get the wrong idea, but knowing she needed some purpose, too. He just didn't want that purpose to become serving him hand and foot. "You're not a slave anymore, Loren. You're not a servant either. You're free," he explained again, realizing she probably had no real idea what that meant.

She frowned back at him, not understanding what it was he was trying to say. "It is all she knows," she said unhappily. "She cannot do anything else. She is a small thing in a big world. She wants to serve you."

Little did she know he already had servants to take care of whatever needs he had no time for - not slaves, but servants who were paid for what they did for him. He didn't really need another servant, but he didn't want to hurt her feelings or disappoint her either. "You will learn, and we will find out what you would like to do, but you don't have to worry about that right now. All you need to worry about right now is taking care of yourself."

To her own surprise, she blushed, glancing down at the simple clothing she wore like the best finery. "She likes to be clean," she admitted shyly, that tiny smile flickering into view once more before disappearing again. "She liked the lady who washed her hair."

He smiled, relieved to see her smiling, to know he had pleased her, even in such a small way as making sure she had a bath and clean clothing - things that he and the other inhabitants of the palace, servant and noble alike - took for granted. "Good. I'm glad. Tell me ... Do you like the name I've chosen for you or would you like another?"

She thought about this for a moment, another shy flush passing over her face as she confessed to him. "She likes to hear you say it," was offered in a soft whisper, though she couldn't hold his gaze as she admitted to this. "She likes it very much. But ... what does she call you? So many names she has heard."

He thought he'd told her his name, but maybe she'd forgotten or was unsure what to call him. He wasn't sure how appropriate it was for them to be too familiar with each other, but no one was likely to care. "My name is Gerard de Winter. You can call me Gerard, if you like."

"You do not wish her to call you lord?" she asked in surprise. "Or master?" There was the briefest pause, and she rushed on to share the thought in her head. "She has never used a man's name before. She was forbidden."

"I am not your lord or your master, Loren. I am your friend, and as such, it is perfectly acceptable for you to call me by my name, and if anyone questions it, tell them to speak to me," he assured her. "Would you like anything more to eat or drink?" he asked, changing the subject.

She shook her head in answer to his question, feeling guilty for the food she had not managed to eat that had been whisked away by efficient hands. She could only imagine what those servants were saying to their colleagues about her now. "She is very full, mas- ... Gerard." His name was spoken shyly, a watchfulness about her eyes as she waited for his reaction.

His only reaction was a warm and friendly smile. "Shall we go then?" he asked, though he still wasn't quite sure what the sleeping arrangements were going to be. She was far too skittish to send away to sleep somewhere else, and yet, it wasn't really proper for him to be sharing his room with her either.

Nodding once more, she finally released her tight grip on his hands, glancing down to make sure she had only abraded herself, not drawn blood. Satisfied, she drew in a shaking breath, only now realizing that they were still in the dining room. She visibly paled at the thought of walking past all those people to return to seclusion once more.

He didn't realize what she'd done to her own hands, at least, not yet, and even if he had, he might not have questioned it, unless she'd done herself real harm. He did notice how her face had gone pale, though, and worried something she'd eaten was making her ill. "Are you all right?" he asked, clearly concerned.

She bit her lip hard, her gaze darting about once again, never settling for long on any one place. "They ... they will look at her again," she managed, the words grating out from her throat as though even the concept of being seen was completely against the very grain of her being. "Why do they stare?"

There were many reasons he could give her for that, but he thought the best way to answer was to simply tell her the truth, at least, as he saw it. "For different reasons," he explained. "Some because they are curious, others because they are jealous. You are a beautiful woman, Loren. It is natural for people to admire your beauty."

She shook her head, not sure how to believe him. "She is invisible," she argued softly. "She is good at not being seen. That is how the master wanted it, and that is what she did. He did not look, and his guests did not see. Even in the dark, when they made her their bed, they did not see her."

His expression darkened, if only momentarily, at the almost innocent way she had shared that dark detail of her experience as a slave. He had to dig deep to school his expression and maintain his composure, but like her, he'd had plenty of practice over the years under Velasca's rule. He decided in that moment that if he ever laid eyes on the magister again, he would kill him for what he had done to her, but when his spoke in that gravely voice of his, his tone was as reassuring as he could manage. "You are not invisible, what they did to you was wrong. No one has mastery over another, Loren. And no one has the right to treat someone else so unkindly."

She did not seem to understand that moment of darkness in his eyes, but her reaction to it was instinctive. She lowered her gaze, dropped her hands, and somehow with just a thought, softened herself so thoroughly that only the hardest heart in the world could possibly think to harm her. This was how a slave protected herself in Skarra - with acquiescence and obedience, and quiet acceptance. "As you say, master." The word was instinctive, too; a gentle assurance that she knew her place and would not overstep her bounds.


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Re: The Offering
« Reply #14 on: February 09, 2017, 08:07:16 PM »
Gerard frowned when he saw her almost fold in on herself and try to make herself invisible to him and to the world. It was going to take a lot more than a day to convince her that she was no longer anyone's property to do with as they pleased. "Come along. It's been a long day," he told he with a sigh as he moved to his feet and offered her a hand, not even bothering to argue the fact that he was not her master.

Keeping her eyes downcast, she laid her hand obediently into his, rising to her feet to be lead along like a child. She didn't dare to speak again, uncertain what it was she had said that had made him so dark, however brief that moment had been. If upsetting him was the price of speaking, she wasn't sure that silence was such a bad idea after all.

There was no point in explaining here; he had explained time and again that she was no longer a slave. He thought perhaps it was true that actions spoke louder than words and hoped that the way he treated her would help her understand the difference between a master and a guardian, self-appointed as he was. He led her quietly back through the palace, but instead of taking her back to his quarters, he led to a favorite place he'd discovered on his own - a balcony in a lesser-traveled area of the palace that gave a breathtaking view of the bay.

The sun was already set, the moons charting their course across a sky still streaked with the bright glow of that sunset just gone. Loren had never seen anything like it, or at least never been allowed to look and enjoy what she was seeing. Despite her wish not to upset him further by taking her own initiative, however small, she drew her hand from his, laying both her palms onto the cool stone of the balustrade as she looked out over a city and a sea she had only heard of in whispers. There was a word those slaves who spoke of this place used, a word she had never felt any connection to until now. "Home."

Gerard was more interested in the view right beside him than in the one of the city and the sea that he was coming to know. "Yes," he replied quietly with a soft smile on his face. "For as long as you wish it to be." He wasn't just talking about Arctra or Loscar or even the palace, but here with him. Though he had only just met her, there was something about her that spoke to his heart. He just wasn't sure what that something was yet.

"She has not ... Home was something the others talked of," she said quietly, still staring out at the view with awe writ large across her face. "Home, to them, was safety and love and happiness. She did not know home." Her gaze flickered toward him shyly, afraid to say what she wanted to say. Until now.

He wasn't sure he could promise the love or the happiness just yet, but he could promise her safety, and there was always hope she'd one day find the rest with or without him. "Perhaps someday you will," he told her, reaching for one of her hands and giving it a gentle, reassuring squeeze, a soft smile on his face.

Her hand turned beneath his, training giving way to instinct as she laced her fingers between his. "She thinks that someday is today," she offered softly, turning her eyes back to the beautiful view, more to save him from having to respond than because she wanted to look away.

"Perhaps it is," he replied, just as softly as he, too, turned to admire the view of the city and the sea beyond, as the sun was setting behind them. He wasn't sure why the gods had decided to bring this young woman into his life right now, but he was sure of one thing - no one was ever going to hurt her again if he had anything to say about it.

He'd be sure of that.