Shattered Sunlight: Part One
A Kougra stood under a cherry tree, holding his sword loosely. A slight smile graced his face, and he looked totally relaxed. Cherry blossoms drifted around him, but his attention remained focused on the black Draik circling him. The Draik wore a chainmail shirt, but didn’t act as if it were there. She held a sword in one hand and a long dagger in the other, both pointing right at the Kougra’s chest. “Can’t you just move?” the Draik asked, frustrated.
“Patience, Cassie.” The purple Kougra grinned, dropping the point of his sword almost to the ground and brushing back a loose strand of black hair. “Would you rather I make it easy on you?”
The Draik hissed, leaping at the Kougra. With a single easy motion, he stepped aside and brought his sword up, blocking both of Cassie’s blades.
“You’re slowing down,” he said, stepping away from her without retaliating. “Tired?”
“Never.” She dove, rolling towards the Kougra’s purple feet. The Kougra stepped aside, not attacking. Cassie came up smiling. “Just because you have honor doesn’t mean most do.”
“Mob-fights.” The Kougra shook his head. “Why do you bother with them?”
“Why don’t you, Vesper?” Cassie kept moving, eyes intent upon the Kougra. “It’s the best way to learn reflexes.”
Vesper lunged forward, blade scoring a line down Cassie’s armour. “You don’t know how to react to just one person, though.” Out of range of Cassie’s counter-attack, he shook his head slightly. “When will you learn?”
“I don’t need to.”
Cassie charged, her two blades meeting Vesper’s one in a harsh clatter. The Kougra retreated, face expressionless as his sword met every blow Cassie made. “I could hit you,” he said, eyes not moving from Cassie’s face.
“Blast it, Vesper, I know that.” The black Draik’s blades cut as one, crossing right in front of Vesper’s face.
The Kougra smiled. His blade met Cassie’s, forming an odd cross. Vesper tilted his blade down. Cassie closed her eyes, not dropping her blades. Vesper’s sword touched Cassie’s forehead, resting against the thin scales. “My point,” he said, withdrawing the blade. “That makes it five to nothing, I believe.”
“Stop gloating,” Cassie muttered, sheathing her swords. “I’d win if your brother joined you, and you both know it. And I think someone wants to talk to us.” She twitched a wing towards the courtyard’s entrance. Vesper glanced over, his posture straightening.
The messenger, a blue Mynci dressed in the dark gray of palace runners, bowed. “Emperor Dajian and Lord-Heir Valentine wish to see you immediately.”
Cassie grinned, looking at the messenger. “Where?”
“The throne room.” The Mynci turned, already running off.
Cassie nodded once, wings already fully extended, and took a running leap into the air. She heard Vesper shout at her, something about changing into more suitable clothes, but ignored him. If Val wanted to see them immediately, then Val would get to see her in practice gear, swords included. Even if nobody was technically allowed to wear blades in the presence of either the Emperor or his heir, Cassie tended to get an exception. It helped to be one of the Lord-Heir’s closest friends.
The wind rushed past her, cool against her skin. Circling over the Shenkuu Palace, Cassie barely paused to admire its sweeping lines before she dove, heading for the inner courtyard. Another thing people weren’t supposed to do, not that she cared. Landing in a flare of wings and a cloud of dust, Cassie paused for a moment to brush the worst of the dirt off her clothes and armour before stepping to the entrance of the throne room.
The mass of people inside the throne room – really more of a throne hall – created nothing but heat. Cassie stopped at the door, trying to decide if it was worth pushing her way through the over-dressed nobles to a place where she’d be able to see the Emperor when he spoke.
The soft voice made Cassie’s decision for her. “Val.” The Draik turned, smiling at a Kougra just as black as she was. The Kougra wore simple clothes, with even the silver circlet that marked him as the Lord-Heir nothing more than a mark of rank.
“How many protocols did you break to get here quickly?” Val grinned, teeth shining white. “And are you going to tell me?”
“Should I?” Cassie laughed, punching the Kougra lightly. “You should come and train with us sometime. I want to prove to your brother that mob-fighting is useful.”
Val shook his head. “You just want to beat me up.”
“Hey, you have a fair chance of winning, one on one.” Cassie crossed her arms. “And Vesper beats me every time, one on one. Is it bad that I’d like to win, for once?”
“You have the guards.”
Cassie scowled. “They’re incompetent against any Shenkuuri. You know that just as well as I do.”
“Cass...” Val laid a hand on the Draik’s dark arm. “Remember?”
Without a word, Cassiel stepped away from the black Kougra, turning her back on him. “I remember endless days out in the sun, fighting and dueling and watching lesser warriors drop out. I remember classes that lasted for full days where the entire point was endurance training. I remember being at the top of my class in everything except duels. Vesper beat me there. I remember, Valentine, but you were never part of my training. Vesper spoke of you, but that was it.” She glanced back. “How can I know what it was like for you?”
“Remember who I am?” Val sighed. “Or do you forget?”
Cassie didn’t reply.
Val watched her for a moment before turning away, fading into the shadows he looked so like. Cassie’s eyes closed as he left, the Draik knowing when the Kougra left even without any obvious signals.
In the courtyard, Vesper and Valentine crossed paths, exchanging nods but no words. The purple Kougra came up behind Cassie, dressed in robes more formal than what he usually wore. “Cass?”
“Tell your idiot brother that I try to forget that he’s the heir,” Cassie said quietly. “And remind him of who I am.”
Vesper nodded, even though Cassie couldn’t see him. “Coming inside?”
“You’re asking me if I want to deal with a court dressed like rainbow vomit that somehow manages to overheat practically any place they occupy. Just because the Emperor and your brother asked.” Cassie paused, a hint of a smile on her face.
Vesper didn’t say anything.
“You get to push through to the front,” Cassie said, turning to face him.
“Hide your swords.” Vesper glanced back at Cassie, smiling, as he walked through the door. “Most nobles don’t like them.”
Cassie laughed, spreading her hands. “Hide them with what? The nobles will need to deal with it, Vesper.”
“And the Emperor?” Vesper spoke softly, stepping inside the giant hall. Nobles swirled around him, some recognizing the blue-draped purple Kougra that entered, but more just glancing away.
Following, Cassie created more of a stir. She smiled, wearing the twin swords of a Shenkuuri proudly. The dusty chainmail she wore clinked, the sound lost in the chatter of the crowd. The Draik watched, dark eyes meeting the gaze of any noble that looked her way. As she walked through the room, the crowd parted in front of her. Few nobles wished to touch a commoner who had risen through the ranks through skill alone.
“The Emperor understands,” Cassie finally said, stopping where she had a clear view of the thrones. “He came to the Temple, remember? And he fights with our swords.” She glanced at Vesper. “He said that a warrior is incomplete without his swords. They are the honor and soul of a warrior. Remember?”
Vesper didn’t reply.
Cassie followed his gaze, eyes locking onto Val’s dark form easily. He moved like a living shadow, pausing for bare moments with each person. The Draik’s hands clenched for a second before relaxing, but the less visible signs of tension didn’t go away. “Why does he come here early?” she muttered. “Can’t he just stay outside until the Emperor arrives?”
Glancing back at her, Vesper smiled. “He’s Val. As you would say, deal with it.” He paused. “Why do you mind, anyway? You usually don’t.”
“Ask him what he said to me before you got here.” Cassie looked away from him, focusing on the empty thrones. “Ask him why.”
“Cass...” Vesper laid a hand on her shoulder. “He’s still the Lord-Heir.”
“How much does that change who he is?”
“He’s always been the heir.” Vesper pulled Cassie around, forcing her to look at him. “How much does that change him? I don’t know. How much does being with you change him?” His voice dropped. “More than you think.”
Cassie stared at him for a moment, but turned away without speaking. Around them, the crowd swirled, each person oblivious to anything but what was right in front of them. The heat of the room, the endless babble – combined, they created an environment that few wished to stay in for any length of time. Yet the nobles waited, and Cassie and Vesper waited with them.
The herald finally arrived, and once the echoes of his silence-bringing bell faded, he spoke. “His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Dajian!”
Cassie groaned, bowing to the Emperor as he entered. The purple Krawk was, of course, wearing gold absolutely everywhere. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that his robes were the green of new leaves with patterns in bright orange. Cassie did her absolute best to not look towards him, and again found her gaze drawn to Val. The black Kougra glanced at her, but looked away just as quickly. Emperor Dajian slowly walked down the center of the room, not looking at anyone. Val walked behind him, a silent shadow.
When they reached the thrones, the Emperor and his heir sat. Around them, the mass of nobles and high-ranked officials knelt on the floor. Cassie grinned slightly as she knelt, hearing the complaints of some of the nobles at how hard the floor was.
“Greetings,” the Emperor said quietly, silencing the complaints. “Greetings to all of our people. We have called this meeting for one purpose, and one purpose only.” He paused, looking over the hall. “We received a message from our brothers of Altador this morning. They were attacked by a group of robots and mutants yesterday. They defeated the group, but one of the mutants said that Sloth will return, and he will return soon.” The Emperor sighed. “We would not have convened this meeting on that report alone. But we have received similar reports from Neopia Central and Qasala.”
Val glanced at the Emperor, and after the Krawk nodded, stood and began to talk. “I was asked to bring a few people here. My brother, Vesperius, is one of those. Cassiel Liryuu was another. The others are historians and strategists, just as the two of them are. I believe that, if Sloth is truly trying to take over once more, we must begin to plan a defense of our land now. If we are wrong, we have lost nothing but some pride, and I think we’ll survive that.” Laughter rippled through the crowd, and Val smiled slightly.
“But if we’re right, we’ve gained much,” he said, continuing on. “The survival of our beloved city is one thing. Our lives, of course, are another. So. What say you?” His sharp green eyes ranged over the gathered nobles. “We gathered you here to inform you of our plans. My illustrious uncle the Emperor has kindly allowed me to be the one to tell you of them.”
He took a deep breath and began. “To begin with, we request a militia to be formed on the lands of every noble. The militia must be trained adequately.” He crossed his arms, tail flicking from side to side. “We will test them. The militia must be large enough to protect the lands they are drawn from. We reserve the right to draw the best militia members into our Imperial Army, of course. We ask that the Shenkuuri Temple send its masters to train and test the militia. We ask that all military strategists help us plan a way to protect our lands. We ask historians to dredge through the old tomes for any information that may help us.
“That is all.” Val smiled, teeth flashing. “For now. You have our leave to discuss this among yourselves. We do ask, however, that you try not to alarm anyone. We don’t want unfounded rumours, after all.” He glanced around, and, with a sharp nod, began walking out.
The Emperor laughed, rising. “Dismissed.”
To be continued...