Fair must war with foul,
Quite a lot I fear,
In a land such as Zarisnia,
Where war is much held dear…
Duo’s ride was uneventful; he wasn’t knocked out by the gryphon, who had been exceedingly careful picking him up, and had thus been treated to a wonderful bird’s—or gryphon’s—eye view of the ocean and finally of Zarisnia.
They first landed in the Imperial City. Upon seeing Duo, an overzealous mage cast a stunning-spell that knocked him flat on his back and out cold. The man was hung almost instantly, and Zerixco, the emperor, used his magic to teleport Duo to the torture chambers in the royal prison far to the south.
Thus, when Duo awoke later, his first sight was of cold stone, and he felt naught but that same cold stone and damp straw underneath him. He quickly realized he was shirtless, but still had his pants; he was thankful for that, at least.
Not only that, his wings were still out. He’d been in too much of a rush to put them away, and now they were crammed against the wall. He turned a bit to try and get them free, and suddenly fire flared up.
It was a flaming light-ball held in the hand of a man that stood tall and thin, with black hair in sharp spikes, rather like a porcupine, if not quite so extreme, and mean eyes.
Duo knew that face. Every Marenian did.
“Zerixco!” he snarled.
“Well, there goes any confidentiality I might have had,” the emperor said, waving his free hand through the air dramatically. “You know, boy,” he started again, in a low and deadly tone of voice, “never swear with the Trickster’s name. He has a funny habit of turning on people.”
Duo blinked. That was unexpected. He had to warn Heero—
~Heero!!~ he screamed mentally. He received no response. When he searched for the golden, glittering bond, he felt it reduced to a thread, almost as if it might snap. Scared, he tried to whip along it, to join minds with the king, but he slammed into an unseen wall and was thrown back into his own body.
“Naughty naughty,” Zerixco said in a tone of voice that suggested that Duo needed to be punished. “Don’t you dare run away to your king. I want you aware for this!”
Duo felt it best not to respond.
Zerixco snapped his fingers with his free hand and a lady walked in. Duo couldn’t distinguish her features in the magelight until she threw back her hood, at which time he got a rude shock. He felt his eyes opening wide…and staring…
“I see you recognize my sister?” Zerixco asked snidely. “Guards! Chains! This piece of trash is to be tortured!”
Duo scrambled to his feet, but it was too late, the guards were already snapping the thick chains about his wrists…his ankles…
All he could do now was warn Heero…
~HEERO! ZARISNIA! LADY NANGANA IS A TRAITOR!!!~
Heero was, at that moment, glaring at a map with startling intensity. It showed the coastline of Marenia, shifted to the east to show the Hoshi Islands and the Sword Islands, and then went south to show most of Zarisnia.
He took a pen and paused with it over the paper, then threw it down, angrily. At that moment, he heard a whisper in his head.
He paused, waiting for more, hoping for more, but no more came. Frustrated, he slammed his fist onto the table. They were making no progress in procuring a ship to sail them to Zarisnia, and that was what they needed: a ship to carry them, provisioned, and with enough cargo space for their horses.
A knock on the door caused him to look up, startled. In peeked Relena, her hair neatly tied in two braids, wearing a green tunic over brown breeches and shirt.
“Heero!” she said. “I was hoping I’d find you.”
Heero made a vow to ban her from the country if she tried to take advantage of Duo’s absence to try to make him love her, but she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she picked up the pen and drew a course from Port Lunos to Zarisnia, complete with slack for wind, storms, and other such dangers. Only then did she look up.
“The ship I came in on is large enough to carry you on your quest, but we cannot take many. Pick your best, and I will carry them, as well as your horses and provisions. Anything save the dragons—they can transport themselves,” she told him, then stood and turned to leave.
“Relena—“ he said, shocked. She turned to look at him.
“Yes, Heero?” she asked.
“Thank you,” he said, a bit weakly. She nodded and left.
It was just as well. At that second, a stabbing pain, emotional, not physical, hit Heero, and an urgent sentence tore at his thoughts.
~Heero! Zarisnia! Lady Nangana is a traitor!~
Heero stood quickly, and then sat again when his head started to spin. He would be counting the candlemarks—no, minutes—until the ship left.
Duo stood in the torture chamber, looking around in mixed horror and morbid curiosity at the torture tools and other such implements. He felt curiously naked without his shirt and tunic, but before he could contemplate the fact, he was jerked straight, as if he’d been turned into a human marionette.
“Poor, pitiful little thief. Did you know I studied pain? The ways of inducing it…the ways of taking it…and the effects it has on even the strongest souls?” Lady Nangana asked. She waved her hand, and Duo’s wings were tugged back away from his body, as if he were in a stiff wind. She smirked. “Wingcarriers, in particular, have a few—two, to be exact—more ways to feel pain.”
With that, she broke his wings.
Heero felt Duo being tortured, and even though the pain was distant and faint, it seemed to ache awfully. Perhaps it was because of the fact that Duo and he were soulbonded, as the term went. He didn’t know.
In any case, he was thankful when they rapidly set out for Zarisnia—the very next day.
Day in, day out, Duo was tortured. He was given gruel and stale water, enough to survive, no more. He was bloody, bruised, and hanging onto life by the thinnest of threads.
He didn’t realize that the thread he was hanging onto was his bond with Heero.
As a result of their bond being stretched tight with pain and illness, Heero was pulled into one of his worst moods ever. In fact, he became as tense and warlike as he had been before he’d met Duo.
Not even Quatre wanted to take a chance and interrupt him; he’d been very volatile as of late. “King Heero?” the naturemage called, rapping lightly on his cabin door. “We’re nearly to Zarisnia.”
“Make sure the others know their parts in the plan and are ready to leave immediately. Delays could be costly,” Heero said, in a curt, cold tone.
“Right away!” Quatre said, infusing the words with false cheerfulness. He immediately stepped away and went to see Trowa. The beastmage was in the cabin the two shared and looked up in interest when Quatre entered.
“Trowa,” Quatre said quickly, walking over to the other boy and making sure the door was shut, “something’s wrong with Heero. He’s acting like he did before he met Duo!”
The beastmage only sighed and looked at Quatre. “Are you picking anything up off of him?”
Unbeknownst to any but the two and a select few others, Quatre had originally been trained as a mindmage, those mages that worked with the forces of minds and emotion. Mindmages were truly some of the most dangerous mages of all, because they could crush a king without even getting near, or instill horror into a crowd. Quatre was of the empathic kind that picked up emotions—these usually worked as healers, soothing the sick and weary. However, that was before he’d discovered his naturemage talent.
“Pain, uncertainty, and great worry,” Quatre explained, voice wobbling. “He’s all torn up inside! He won’t last too much longer at this rate…no more than a few months.”
“Shh,” Trowa said, walking over and pulling Quatre in into a hug. “I know it’s hard…very hard…to watch him go through this, to suffer like this. We’ve all been together since we were children. The way he’s suffering probably means he’s soulbonded to Duo like we’re soulbonded to each other.”
“That…that would be…awful for Heero…” Quatre said, even as he sought out that particular sheet of turquoise magic that connected him to Trowa and ‘jerked’ on it a bit, causing Trowa to hug him even harder.
“So what are the orders of the king?” the beastmage asked a bit lazily.
“Just to make sure everyone’s ready…and everyone is…” the naturemage replied.
“Think we’ve got much time before landing?” Trowa asked pointedly.
“Yes,” Quatre replied with a sigh. “Too much.”
Duo felt the bones of his broken wings grating against stone and felt like screaming and crying all in one, but would do neither. He wouldn’t give his tormentors the pleasure.
In fact, they’d had a healer come in and heal him just a bit—no more—and only so they could torture him more without him dying. Duo thought it rather sick and twisted, but was in no position to oppose them.
Moreover, Zerixco had left temporarily. Duo hoped fervently that the emperor would somehow fall into misfortune along the path, preferably at the hands of his friends.
Later in the same day as Quatre’s last conversation with Heero, the Sword Islander ship pulled up to Zarisnian soil at last. Heero was immediately over the deck, and surveyed his surroundings critically.
Though the land was arid, and comprised of desert in many areas, it wasn’t bad this close to the coast. In fact, grass grew, tropical trees flourished, and flowers covered the ground, for despite the ending winter in Marenia, Zarisnia was hot year-round. Heero knew that this was, in fact, one of the reasons Zerixco most wanted Marenia—to train his troops to fight in all weather conditions, and for the fact that most of Marenia was either valuable forests or fertile farmland, at least for part of the year.
Noin oversaw the unloading of the horses, and watched as Meko, Toki and Ni leapt overboard and almost immediately started sweating. Trowa and Quatre hurried down and doused the three animals with coolvine, a peculiar herb that cooled down the body without harming it. Trowa also produced a fine knife from somewhere in his packs and cut their coats shorter so that they could better handle the heat, even though they were doing fine with the coolvine’s help.
Soon enough, the horses were fully unloaded and tack was supplied, as well as packs of provisions. With a shout of thanks, Heero turned to Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, and Meiran, who were waiting for Dhan and Dhati to land.
“We’ll head to Zar ni Imperi, the capital city, first of all. Let’s set a good pace but not a scorching one. We don’t want to be in such bad condition that we can’t help Duo,” the king reasoned. He waited until the dragons had landed and Wufei and Meiran were ready to ride, and then guided Tsubasa along the path at a good pace, with Shadow trailing behind. Quatre and Trowa followed.
Relena watched from the deck of the ship, where it was pulled up in a sheltered inlet-bay. “Noin, we have to follow them, to go with them and help,” she said quietly, even as the sailors about them shouted, making the ship fast and snug in the bay.
“Princess Relena, that would not be a good idea,” Noin said, a bit worriedly. The truth was that she didn’t want Relena wandering around in such a harsh land, susceptible to so many dangers.
“Whether or not it’s a good idea is irrelevant. It’s the right thing to do, morally,” the princess countered, with supreme calm.
Noin sighed in frustration, knowing that the princess was onto one of her stubborn streaks and wouldn’t give up the cause, no matter what she said. “You’re right,” she admitted, and then paused before continuing. “Well, come on, we’ve got to inform the other guards and find some armor and weaponry for you.”
Relena smiled and followed Noin belowdecks.
The dragons hunkered down in the dunes outside the great walled city of Zar ni Imperi, watching those walls with their great golden eyes, distrustful and forever on alert. Toki, Meko and Ni had also been left behind, and were whining and growling, wanting very much to be allowed to go.
The humans, at that moment, were well within the gates, having had no trouble at all entering. Their greater goal, however, was the palace, walled itself, set up high within the city and well guarded. They passed endless booths and houses crafted from whatever materials were available in this place—they varied from houses of costly imported wood to poor men’s houses of straw and mud from the nearby river that provided the city with water and the meager fields with irrigation.
The booths were full of merchants—some fat and wealthy, some thin and poor, all begging for those passing to buy something, even the smallest of items. Quatre felt pity to some of these, his far-off kinsmen, and flipped them coins whenever he thought the others weren’t looking.
In fact, the fat merchants were few and far between, and the thin, impoverished ones were more common. Though there was poverty in Maren City—Duo himself was a hopefully living example—it was exhibited far less frequently than here. It appeared that the emperor wasn’t even doing anything to try and help these people.
‘A festering den of robbers and thieves,’ the late King Terrence had said once about the place, a bit bitterly, ‘and the emperor the biggest one of them all.’ Quatre hadn’t felt hurt about it, even though it WAS his homeland—the poor boy knew every word was true.
Soon, the small group arrived at the palace gates, and Heero slipped on his crown for a more imposing appearance. The guards weren’t fazed.
After a brief fuss, a councilmember came out to see what the racket was. Heero immediately sat up straighter in Tsubasa’s saddle. “Good sir,” he said, “I would like to see your emperor. This is an important visit from the ruler of one country to another.”
The councilmember lazily gazed from Tsubasa’s hooves all the way to Heero’s crown, a dead giveaway and iron proof that he was the king of Marenia. However, instead of apologizing and allowing him entrance, or something similar, the man did something totally unexpected.
“I see nothing before me but pitiful peasantry,” he said snidely, “and I’d advise you to return those clothes to the house of the noble you stole them from. The law may turn her face just this once.”
Heero immediately burned with rage, as did Wufei and Meiran, at the horrible breach of honor. Quatre and Trowa simply watched, aghast, before the naturemage regained his wits and led Heero away. Though the king was cool and unflappable in most situations, Duo’s capture and the pain he was feeling were wearing away at his mental state as well as his body, and he was just as likely to attack as walk away. Quatre didn’t want to take the chance.
Trowa, Wufei, and Meiran followed, more slowly, and whispering about what had just happened. All three agreed that it was dishonorable at the highest level and almost certainly meant war of a much greater magnitude than the Battle at Lunos was inevitable if steps were not taken to prevent it.
The party went all the way back out to the dragons and retreated still further until they came upon a tiny oasis, barely more than a stand of trees and a pool. Here, they pitched a camp.
Quatre made sure the king was settled down, and then went off to think to himself for a while. Now more than ever, it was imperative that they find Duo; Heero, if faced with constant upset, which was certain to happen if he kept trying to get into the palace, would waste away quicker than ever. Therefore, the naturemage decided to take matters into his own hands—by way of infiltration.
He raided his stock of herbs and found some that would dye his hair a believable Zarisnian black—and did so. Colorvine in his eyes turned them an unremarkable muddy brown. Lastly, he changed his robe and headed towards Zar ni Imperi. He was careful to make sure that none of the others saw him.
Upon reaching the city’s limits, he walked with his head down, in ‘eternal respect’ to the emperor. None recognized him as being in the group earlier. That was good. He bypassed the good streets and headed into the ‘rougher’ parts of town, running his hand lightly over both his money pouch and dagger as he walked. He stopped on occasion, asking different people if they had any news of the Winners; he used a false name, Najib, and said that he’d been a servant for the Winners, but had been lost.
The results were discouraging. Either the people in town hadn’t heard of the Winners, or refused to talk. Some simply shut their doors on him without speaking. Others stared at him in terror, or in pity. The afternoon was dwindling when he finally got an answer.
The woman lived in a tiny hole scraped out of the earth, with barely three walls and a roof. Her hair was completely white, her skin browned from ages of living in the desert. She looked him over with a sad smile, and then leaned in close and whispered words he’d been longing to hear.
“Come in. I will tell you all I know.”
Quatre didn’t refuse; he hurriedly stepped into the small hole, crowding his small body into even smaller a space than normal, so that the woman might have some room. She smiled, and thanked him, sitting opposite him, before she began to speak.
“You want information on the Winners? Information you shall have. You will probably not remember me, but I remember you, Quatre Winner.”
He froze in shock, but quickly brushed it away with a laugh. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken. My name is Najib--”
“It is Quatre. Quatre Raberba Winner, with your middle name taken from the great revolutionary hero of old. You were spirited away…be glad you were. This land is decaying—and has decayed—it is dying the slowest and most horrible of deaths,” she told him.
“How do you know me?” he asked, half-horrified.
“I am right then, that you do not remember…I was a nurse for your family. I held many of the babies in my arms, including you, and sang them songs, told them stories…” she trailed off, gazing wistfully at a wall. “But no more.”
Quatre felt nothing but sincerity from her, so moved on. “What happened?”
“It was not so long ago that your father was exiled for suggesting that maybe it would be a better idea to negotiate with the northern countries than to boldly oppose them in war. He was, of course, the Lord of Peace…but the Lord of War and the Emperor are close friends…closer than your father could ever be with Zerixco. They were exiled to an oasis near here…you have heard of it, or you will…it is called the Spring of the Holy. It is a fanciful exile, for Zerixco did not want to totally anger the people, though he stabbed your father several times as a parting present,” she said softly.
“He did what? No! My father! Is he still alive?” Quatre inquired in anguish.
“Yes, he is, but not by much! I have heard that he is hanging onto life by only thin threads now,” the nurse replied sadly.
“I must find him!” Quatre said fervently. He instantly memorized the name of the location, ready to get a map and go there. “Thank you for your help.”
“Wait, young Master Winner! I have some other news that may be of use to you, for even the most unusual news becomes the most important in cases. Since a few days ago, rumor has spread that Zerixco captured one of the northerners. He is being held at the imperial prison far to the south in the old Temple of the Trickster,” she said.
“That must be Duo! Thank you for your news—this will help us find and rescue him!” Quatre said excitedly.
“However…by the time you could reach him…he will almost certainly be dead,” the nurse said in hushed tones. “Zerixco’s ways are so rough and evil…”
“No…” Quatre whispered. He steeled himself, and then faced her, now brown eyes glittering. “We will STILL go!”
The old woman smiled. “It is that bravery that we need…” She paused. “Are you leaving soon?”
“Now,” Quatre said apologetically.
“Then go with my blessings, meager as they may be—you are what this country has been seeking and needs!” she said, her eyes glittering in the low light.
“Thank you. I shall see you again,” Quatre said as he left. “And thank you!”
“No, thank you, young Master Winner,” she said to empty air.
The small naturemage had soon made his way back to the campsite, despite the darkness, and hovered near it in confusion, for four fine paint horses were on a line with Trick and Legend. He tugged down the hood of his cloak to get a better view, and was almost immediately ambushed.
His assailant wasn’t very big, but did a very good job of tangling him up in his long desert cloak. He soon resolved to hold still, and heard a voice hissing in his ear.
“Okay, Zarisnian, what do you think you’re doing nosing around here?” the attacker asked. Quatre could tell that it was a girl, nothing more, and spat to clear some sand from his lips before talking. “I’m Quatre Winner,” he said. “Please, let me go.”
“A likely story!” his captor scoffed. “I’m going to carry you in and let the others look at you, though. I’m not as cruel as some.” With that, the boy felt himself being hauled to his feet and guided into the circle of light cast by the campfire. He was unceremoniously tossed forward, but Trowa rose instantly and caught him, knowing he was Quatre by his soulbond.
“Quatre?” the beastmage asked, seeing Quatre’s fake brown eyes and black hair. “You changed your eye and hair color? Why?”
“Infiltration,” Quatre said, turning red with shame. “I…well, I thought it’d be a good idea.”
Trowa looked up and behind Quatre. The naturemage turned as well, and saw a girl with short blackish hair standing there, watching with shock.
“I’m sorry!” she said fervently, stepping forward. “If I had known it was really you…I wouldn’t have done it…I guess I’m getting spooked, huh?”
“No, it’s okay. That was probably a good thing to do!” Quatre assured her. “But…who are you…and why am I here?”
“I’m Hilde Shbeiker, and I’m here because I’m one of Princess Relena’s bodyguards, and she’s here,” the girl explained.
That explained the horses, then. Quatre turned to Trowa. “Why’s Relena here? And where’s Heero?”
“Relena is here to help us on our quest, both in the monetary sense and the fighting sense. I didn’t think she’d be much good for that, but she proved to be a fair shot with a crossbow, so we’re not driving her off. And Heero is in what we’ve christened the ‘war tent’, discussing plans with said Princess. I hope you have some news, because he’s not doing so good.”
“My news JUST might help,” Quatre said, disentangling himself from the beastmage. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered, mostly to himself, and walked over to the war tent, lifting the flap and ducking inside.
The tent was fairly lit, with four lanterns posted on the corners of a large map of Zarisnia, but shadows still lurked in the corners. Relena was kneeling, looking over the map, while Heero sat in a corner, drinking straight from a jug of wine and looking ready to kill. Both looked up when he entered, then did a double take, going for hidden weapons.
“Relax! Stop! It’s me, Quatre! I can bring Trowa in to prove it,” he said hastily.
The two looked at each other, then relaxed. “We believe you,” Relena promised.
“Have you got any news, or were you gone for some other reason?” Heero asked bluntly.
“News,” Quatre said. He walked over to the map spread out on the floor and looked at it, then took two of the tiny pieces of metal used for map-marks and placed them in the appropriate places on it. “Here,” he said, pointing to the old Trickster’s Temple, “is where they’re keeping Duo.”
Heero sat up immediately and shuffled over, staring at their current position, marked with a magical X of ink, and then at the map-mark. He frowned. “Let me guess…going straight isn’t an option?”
“Not unless you want to run the risk of dying from dehydration or other such interesting things…” Quatre said quietly. “It’d be best to track it out to more hospitable places, to restock, reprovision, and then continue on our way. It’ll take longer, but be safer, and, on this point…” Quatre said, pointing to the second map-mark, not far from their current position, “this would be a good stop. The spring of the holy.”
Heero looked at the map-mark, then up at his friend. “Do you have other reasons for going there?”
Quatre sighed. His friend knew him like a book. “Yes. My family…they’re in exile there.”
“Your family?” Relena asked, eyes widening. “You’re Zarisnian?”
“Well…yes, I came from Zarisnia, but I’m not in league with the emperor…the things that he’s doing are wrong!” Quatre argued.
“His loyalty has been proven numerous times,” Heero added in a steely tone of voice that booked no argument. Relena nodded, yielding to the king’s judgment.
Heero then turned to Quatre. “We will go to this place first. We’ll leave on the dawn; our overall goal is to rescue Duo, and the short-time goal is to reach the spring of the holy. Make sure the others know this.”
The naturemage smiled in gratitude, nodded, and left. Relena left as well, to inform her bodyguards.