Caught Between Kingdoms: The Aftermath
This short story is a sequel to the Caught Between Kingdoms series.
Almost a month had passed since the day Meridell was attacked by Lord Kass. Even now, most of the fair city lay in ruins, especially along the outer, poorer quadrants. Thieves flourished throughout, springing up like weeds.
Amidst all of this destruction, a former Kass general often found himself day-dreaming about the fate of the mysterious flower girl: a dainty red Usul with tattered patchwork clothes and long, auburn hair.
He sat upon a simple cot—small, given his size—and cradled his head. There were times since his appointment as an envoy that the Eyrie wished himself back in the citadel, but even then... there were happy moments here. Lisha would visit from time to time with two of the same book in her paws. More often than not, the mage would hand him a copy before sitting at his desk. She chattered between chapters. Why Lisha came to his quarters he did not question, but it seemed like her new quiet place. Today she had brought a fictional story to break up long hours of textbook reading.
"Can you believe that princess just sat there in a tower waiting to be rescued, Serian?" She let out a shout of frustration. "I mean really! Why doesn't she just use her sewing supplies as weapons? They're really sharp if you use them right!"
"Yeah," he replied, fiddling with a page, "they certainly are."
Setarian had lost interest by chapter two. The book had something to do with knights and princesses, he recalled, and saving them from the big, bad monsters. Standard fare if he had ever seen it.
You don't have to fight back to be strong, Lisha. Marielle tried to show me that—he sighed—but I just provoked her, hoping to see a response—the fool I was. I almost wish she had persevered. How disappointing it was that she didn't.
"If I were a princess, I'd fight back." She closed the book with a thud while making sure to keep the bookmark in place. "Sorry, Serian. I'm talking your ears off, aren't I?"
"Nah," he responded. For a while, you didn't want to talk to me at all.
She hopped off the chair. "The King wants to speak with me about my progress as the court's scholar. He expects me there soon, so I'd better go. Let me know how you and Jeran do today, alright?"
Setarian squirmed in his cot. "I will. Have fun talking to the oaf—I mean, the King—Lisha."
Lisha rolled her eyes before making her way out the door. "You probably don't want to mix those two up anymore, Serian."
I probably will anyway.
Returning to the citadel—even for diplomatic reasons—would be difficult, he had realized. Knowledge had a price. But if there was any consolation in knowing his Father was a Darigan turncoat, it explained why so many of them viewed him with disdain. It did not help that he had been living on the enemy side for so long. "He almost looks Darigan," they might say. On the inside, however, he was no longer one of them. In a sense, they were right. Only one of his parents had been a Darigan in the first place, but when did blood shape a Neopian's personality, loyalties, or values? The more time he spent in Meridell, the harder it became to understand.
The only other one who might relate was his half-sister, a Meridell citizen despite their Mother's mysterious homeland. King Skarl had released her just before Lord Kass had attacked the city, but they had not met up since then. When they had last spoken, he was "Serian," an Eyrie cursed by dark faerie magic to look like a child. Not long ago the spell had been broken. He'd thought to find Marielle many a time, but each time they passed the street where they had met, he froze.
"What's wrong, Setarian?" Jeran had asked that morning, gesturing him over with a wave. Today the knight chose to wear leather armor with Meridell's crest sewn at his chest. "Smith Street is next on the scouting route. Once we get an idea of where our priorities are, we can allocate Neopians for our next project."
Since the war ended, King Skarl repurposed funds from his banquet budget to create a score of city rebuilding teams. Many of the workers had been poorer Neopians, some of them displaced farmers. Although the Darigan loathed admitting it, Skarl had made a good ruling. Now, at least, some progress had been made, albeit predominantly in the city's upper ring where dukes and duchesses lived.
"Come on, General, let's get a move on." Despite the fact that Setarian had been relinquished the title a while back, Jeran would sometimes use it when his patience drew thin. "We have a duty to the city."
"I know. But do you..." Setarian hesitated, ears flattening against his head. He wore a simple brown tunic with mail underneath. "Do you remember those rogue guards? The ones who tried to end me all of those months before? They had been stationed at the gate over there. I... I request that we avoid this block for that reason."
She had been around there as well. Marielle.
Since the war ended, two new guards stood in their place. Even from afar, their spears flashed in warning. Looking upon the cobblestone road, Setarian sighed. Darigan knew what sort of emotion his eyes were displaying right now. They always seemed to betray him. And given the way Jeran wrinkled his snout, he picked up on the half-truth. The knight made a motion as if to step towards the street anyway, but turned back at the last second.
"Alright, we'll cover that one another time." His voice softened. "Besides, if anyone tried to attack you, they would have to go through me first."
Setarian looked down. I wouldn't want you endangering yourself for my sake, Jeran.
With each day came more opportunities to improve relations between the now peaceful kingdoms. In theory, Lord Darigan said, a lasting treaty would aid in this process. After being betrayed before by Lord Kass, however, most Meridellians did not agree with his logic.
"Go away! We don't want Darigans here!" Setarian often heard from the same pig-tailed Draik who heralded his arrival about the city. Despite Jeran's attempts to calm the child down, she would scamper out of reach. Others would glare at him from afar, echoing her sentiment with silence.
Thankfully, few Meridellians heckled them. Whenever anyone did, a crowd would gather, dispersing only at Jeran's orders. Excluding some children, none of them would ever laugh, even when a rotten vegetable thrower hit their mark. They only watched. Perhaps they hoped Setarian would retaliate. Although there came a few close calls, nothing had yet to make him snap.
They want a reason to see me removed. He wiped tomato guts from his mane, sword-paw twitching. I won't give it to them.
Throughout the day, their japes proved increasingly difficult to ignore, especially after Setarian caught the end of a well-dressed elderly Ixi's conversation with Jeran.
"...don't think it's appropriate to have an—an—enemy living in the city. As my late husband made clear, his kind can't be trusted!"
My kind? He clenched a paw. So we're a different species now, are we?
"I assure you, Lady Green, what happened to your husband was not Setarian's faul—"
"How couldn't it be? They both followed the same Lord!"
I've had about enough of this.
Instead of shouting at her, he placed a paw on Jeran's shoulder and ripped him away more forcefully than intended. Jeran spun back and grasped Setarian's arm tightly.
Shocked, the Ixi lost let out a shout before losing her balance and falling. Townsfolk stopped to watch the scene, eyes wide with fright.
"Setarian," grunted Jeran, eyeing him with disappointment. "Your claws are sharp."
The Eyrie let go at once.
"Jeran," he began, trying to keep his tone level, "I didn't mean to hurt you. Truly, I didn't. But there's no use pretending that these Meridellians will ever like me—or any other Darigan for that matter! My presence here is only making things worse!"
He might as well have said, "No kidding," but Jeran was a noble-hearted sort. Before saying anything, he helped the fallen Ixi to her feet, apologized for the scare, and offered the court physician's services. To Setarian he replied, "we have plans to make for the builders, and the King wants them done for tomorrow. Work on those in my study, and I will check up on your progress later. You are dismissed."
I'm not your soldier, Jeran, regardless of your rank. The Darigan huffed, crossing his arms.
"Now, General." Setarian did not like his tone, but muttered words of agreement.
Some of the Meridellians found obvious amusement in his compliance. Feeling a flush rise to his cheeks he took to the sky, flapping his wings hard enough to stir up dust. Meridellians below, including Jeran, broke into coughing fits.
Setarian sighed. I'll be hearing about this later.
Above the city, he could see just how much had been destroyed. Even then, although he would never admit it aloud, the city almost looked beautiful. Not as much as the citadel had, of course, but there was charm in its painted wooden houses, tent markets, and smatterings of green parks. He dove down closer, amused by the panicked pointing of the Meridellians below.
It proved difficult to properly map the land while gliding a hundred feet in the air. It was only when he passed over the Smith Street gate that his blood ran cold. He would have kept his head held high and ignored the world below if not for a sudden scream.
None of my business, he tried to convince himself, noticing that the guards had dispatched from their post. That was when he saw a hooded figure dashing through the streets, followed in distant pursuit by Skarl's men. Behind them pranced an auburn-haired red Usul.
Is that you, Marielle? He bit a claw.
"Thief!" she cried out. Setarian felt a sudden sense of dread. He knew that voice well. "Please, someone stop her! She's getting away!"
These Meridellians will not put themselves at risk for you, Sister. The Darigan scrunched his paws into his thick, black mane before gritting his beak together. But I am your family.
"May Lord Darigan protect me," he muttered. And Marielle forgive me.
He brought his wings in close. Rapidly he descended towards the ground, homing in on the hooded Neopian. Meanwhile, the figure zigzagged through the city streets, overturning carts. One of the guards tripped over a rolling marrow and crashed to the ground. Neopians scattered like petpetpets.
Setarian watched the figure's every movement. He glided above multi-story houses that populated the upper ring.
Those that noticed him ran into their homes, screaming, "A Darigan! A Darigan!"
The remaining guard sheathed his sword and took out a crossbow. Setarian only had a split second to dodge the arrow, but could feel the breeze whip by his wing.
"I'm on your side, you fool!" Setarian shouted, ruining his element of surprise.
In response, the figure dug her paw into a bag and threw a score of miniature daggers at him. Forward tumbling, Setarian avoided all but one. A jab of pain shot up his foot as he shook the dagger away. He then dive-bombed the Neopian, twice spinning away from her dagger throws. Whipping out his blade, he turned it towards the flat end while hovering in the air. There would be no need for lethal force.
I hope. It's been a long time since that's been necessary.
Coming in close, the hooded figure—a female red Mynci—took out a short sword. After deflecting her advances, he slammed into her, sending her and the loot to the ground. Before he could knock her out, another arrow whizzed by, this time nicking his cheek.
"Ouch!" He turned around, snarling as he did. "Is this how you thank me? With arro—"
Setarian froze in place. The blue Lutari guard had his bow drawn and an arrow pointed at his heart.
"Don't make me use this," he warned.
"I'm the envoy!" Setarian made an exasperated gesture with his free paw. Or weren't you paying attention the last couple of weeks? "Lord Darigan sent me to help with peace relations between the nations!"
"Oh, I know." His bow did not lower. "We all know."
"Because a few words on parchment don't erase the past. This is a job for the King's royal guard."
"Tch. Usually I'd say the same thing," as I'm just as thrilled about this position as you are, "but I know the one who was attacked."
He laughed. "A likely story. Now, if you'd like to avoid unnecessary issue, drop your weapon, stay out of the way. I have a thief to apprehend."
Setarian threw the blade to the ground. "Happy?"
"I am," cooed the thief as her prehensile tail grabbed Setarian's long sword and brought it up to her paws. "Thanks, boys. Now, if you don't mind..." She slung another small dagger out of her cloak. It hit the bow, fracturing it into wooden pieces. The Lutari howled in pain and put his hand into his mouth. In the chaos, the thief sprung to her feet and broke into a run.
An out of breath Marielle came running behind. Her eyes widened at the sight of the Darigan before her.
"There's no time for introductions! Guard, hand Marielle your long sword. I'll take the thief down."
"What?" the Lutari tried to grab for a weapon, but drew back in pain. "A-absolutely not!"
"You're hurt!" Setarian countered. "It's no use to you right now."
He spat. "How do I know you won't turn on me?"
"You're just going to have to trust my word."
Marielle gave Setarian a suspicious look. "And why would you even offer, stranger?"
"Simple. What he stole has value to you, right?"
"Then you answered your own question."
The guard shook his head vehemently. Marielle seemed apprehensive. Meanwhile, the Mynci continued her escape... with his sword.
This isn't going well.
The Darigan took a deep breath. "Lieutenant Dorian failed Mariana. I don't want to repeat his mistakes! It was wrong of me to mock your Mother in that prison cell—I'll admit it now—but I need your trust. Vouch for me!"
"Setarian?" she gasped. "It can't be. You look... you look..."
"Different? I'd imagine so."
Tears began to stream down her face. "But how can this be?"
"How? Marielle, look me in the eyes. You said it yourself when we met that we shared the same trait, that for once in my life this curse was worth celebrating."
She bit at her paw for a moment before handing the guard a blue rose, one of the flowers tucked away in her patchwork coat.
"You were right to protect me from this Eyrie, sweet guard," she said as Setarian growled. "I hand you a token of my gratitude. Please smell it and think of me."
Thinking he had won, the guard shrugged, smirked at Setarian, and gave the flower a strong whiff.
"I'll take care of your troubles. I'm happy to help, my Laaa—"He fell backwards and into Marielle's paws, out cold. Laying the guard down, she then pulled the sword from its sheath and handed it to her half-brother.
"Sleep powder. He'll think this entire day is a dream."
"Huh." I'm glad you never used that on me.
"There have been times that I've needed to defend myself." The Usul slid one paw over another. "I know I've said I believe not in violence, but—"
Setarian responded with a bitter laugh. "Just because you say something doesn't make it true, Marielle."
She shied back. "But those horrible things you said then... I..."
"I know. It was wrong of me to bait you." He made a cutting motion. "We'll talk later."
Without another word, he ascended. Even at full speed, it took some searching to find the thief. She had already found a network of alleyways to sneak through, but based on a fly by, all of the doors seemed barred and the streets cleared of necessary hiding spots. Never had Setarian been so thankful for Skarl's push to clean up the city streets.
Even so, flying through narrow passages quickly proved difficult. Store signs and staircases missed his wings by centimeters. Twice he avoided accidental run-ins with slops being dumped from windows.
I take it back, he thought, coughing from the stench of rotting marrow pooling in the waterways, Meridellians make terrible architects.
He managed to worm his way onto another busy street. The city folk could smell calamity from miles away, apparently, because most of them were already in the process of fleeing. Luckily, the thief had tripped when running out into the open.
Setarian charged the hooded thief, parrying her jabs in the air. The long sword, he could tell, was not her weapon of choice, as her blocks became sloppier with each attempt. Swinging such a heavy blade caused her obvious exhaustion. Panting, the Mynci attempted an underhand swing. Setarian brushed it aside before bringing down the dull side of his sword to her head. It connected.
She slumped to the side, unconscious.
He removed burlap and rope from an abandoned cart of potatoes. They made rudimentary bindings at best, but they would have to do. Nestling the stolen goods—a silver necklace—in a makeshift bag, he clamped the cloth with his beak and lifted the Mynci into the air. Luckily enough, the lass did not weigh much. He dumped the thief unceremoniously before the dozing guard before handing Marielle the item. The moment his hurt foot pressed against the ground, he bit back the pain.
"His problem now," he spat, brushing his front paws against each other. "Watch him say he did it all." Not like I want the credit anyway.
"I... I suppose so." The Usul opened the package carefully before pressing it against her chest. Closing her eyes, she spoke a few words to it, but not in a language Setarian could understand. After a few seconds of silence, she fastened the jewelry about her neck and stepped closer. Setarian's first instinct was to back away, a reaction she noted all too quickly. "Why avoid me for so long?"
The Darigan dared not look his sister in the eyes. Given the way their eyes changed at the slightest emotional influence, it seemed almost wrong to look. No Neopian should have such a clear image of another's heart. That is, unless, they were permitted a peek. She gave no such invitation.
Setarian looked down at his talons and flexed them. "I am a Darigan, as you know." She had once said that his Father—a Darigan Ixi if the history books wrote it true—could never have promised them safety. Perhaps she had been correct, but it still stung.
"I know." If she was bitter, her tone hid it well. "But you inherited Dorian's best qualities."
"Have I really?" Setarian sighed. "Look, Marielle. I know I have made many mistakes in the past, even treated you—my last family member—with cruelty. And so... what I mean to say is... I want the next chapter of my life to be something worth reading."
Even hundreds of years from now.
Marielle twirled a paw through her thick hair. Her voice grew soft. "Then you will need an editor, will you not?"
He pressed a talon into the pad of his paw, just enough to make it sting. "I've had many."
Fabric rustled as the sound of leather shoes on cobblestone grew nearer. Well-worn wool brushed against his side and around his back. He did not stop her embrace.
"Why not one more?"
Why not indeed.
The tears came, subtle enough to blame the dusty roads, but they both knew better.
It was then that he heard the shouts of a familiar voice. Before anything else though, a large Spardel came racing forward. It pointed a paw towards the two of them and then looked back expectantly, as if hoping for a treat.
"What in the name"—the approaching Neopian gasped for breath—"of Prickly Potions happened here?"
Before them stood a red Zafara named Kayla, who despite exhaustion, still managed to sound energetic. How she kept her star-covered robe and hat looking neat between all of the panic, Setarian could never guess. From out of her pocket, she threw something small towards the Spardel. It yipped happily.
When she looked at the hog-tied prisoner, then back to the guard, her head tilted. "I don't think I want to know."
"You don't," assured the Darigan.
"Oh, wait!" Kayla slapped her forehead. "I almost forgot! We heard that some commotion happened with an armed thief. We sent Boris and Morris out to find Jeran while the two of us went out to find you." She cupped her paws. "Hey, LIIIISHA! Serian's over here! The tracking potion worked!"
I worried them... A chill passed through his spine. Sorry about that, Lisha, Kayla.
Even from a distance, he could see the yellow Aisha sprinting, Rod of Supernova in paw. When she saw the scene, she paused, then ran headlong into his arms. Setarian nearly fell over. Luckily, he caught the fall with his undamaged foot.
"I'm just glad everyone's okay," Lisha said, wiping the mist from her spectacles. "You have a bad habit of getting into trouble, Serian..."
"Yeah. I know."After all, my last "trouble" nearly cost Jeran his life. Feeling ashamed from a sudden flash back, Setarian bit back tears.
"You okay, Serian?" Lisha asked.
"I will be."
Kayla walked around him, taking note of his injuries. "You're gonna need some healing potions for those cuts of yours, Serian." She stopped at the Eyrie's left foot and winced. "Sweet Mortogs! How are you even walking right now?"
Setarian forced a smile. Because I'm stubborn, that's why. "It hurts less than it appears to," he lied.
"If... if you're sure." Kayla did not look convinced. "You're still getting a grape-flavored potion when we're back in the castle."
The Eyrie exhaled. "Alright, alright."
Marielle smiled, he had noticed. It was a curious smile, neither sad nor happy, yet bright and warm all the same. From up close, her necklace shimmered in the sun. Two words engraved on the silver cord sparkled like gems: Marielle, Setarian.
The flower girl followed them back towards the castle. Both she and Setarian talked at length about childhood memories—the happier ones, at least—while Lisha and Kayla listened with interest. Not once did they mention their sibling relationship. That would come later. Before they arrived at the main gate, however, they were intercepted by Jeran, Morris, and Boris.
"Care to explain yourself, General?" asked Jeran.
"There's no need," interrupted Marielle. "Setarian saved me from a thief, never once asking for a reward. He is a hero, Sir Borodere."
The Lupe raised an eyebrow.
"It's true," Lisha asserted. "Although I still don't know why that guard was—"
"The thief attacked him!" Marielle's voice quivered, perhaps from telling a lie. "B-by telling this story, I hope to change our people's view of Darigankind. He did so for me." She leaned over and whispered into the Eyrie's ear, "And you are always welcome at my shop, little brother."
Meanwhile, Jeran exhaled, "Skarl knows how you did it, Setarian, but well done. It doesn't change the fact that we have mountains of work to do yet, though."
But if nothing else, Setarian thought, and if no one else, at least I've made a difference for one Neopian.
Meridell will be next.