CHAPTER FIVE: SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
“Ah, I see that the Separatists are not alone, my king. Look there,” Rhalyf said as he tipped his head towards the direction of Tyrael.
His keen eyes had picked out four horsemen riding towards them at breakneck speed, intent on reaching them before–or at least at the same time–as the Separatists.
“They are not Aravae riders,” Aquilan remarked as he shaded his eyes to see them more clearly.
Elasha appeared even more annoyed by these riders than the Separatists. “It’s General Michael Baston and some of his officers!”
Rhalyf frowned slightly at the name as if it was familiar to him. “Ah, he is the highest leader of the human military on this continent, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He constantly seeks to convince Father that he and his people should be allowed to fight with us against the Leviathan. It’s ridiculous, of course,” she answered.
“Fight the Leviathan?” Rhalyf let out a bark of laughter. This was one subject that he and Elasha agreed upon. “With what? And how? They might as well slit their own throats as go up against a Leviathan. It will accomplish the same thing.”
“They’ve been told that. Repeatedly. But General Baston insists that there must be a way for humans to assist in their own defense,” Elasha answered with a half-hearted shrug. “Father has told them to concentrate on the things they can do like preserving their history and having children, but General Baston does not listen to reason.”
“And he’s not a Separatist?” Rhalyf lifted an eyebrow.
“He respects the laws and wishes to move forward with the Empire. He understands that humanity’s only possibility of continuing is with us, but he’s determined to make humanity more useful?” She shrugged again as she made that statement a question, clearly not understanding the mortal’s concerns here.
“My king,” Commander Sevren said as he rode around to Aquilan’s side.
Per Aquilan’s request, the Protectors remained behind them so there was, at least, the illusion of a private ride amongst friends. Rhalyf liked the fact that Aquilan was confident in his own ability to protect himself and cared not for the pomp and circumstance of leadership. King Vex was rather the same. But his reasoning was a little different. Allowing someone near him would mean they would have a chance to strike.
Sevren continued, “Would you have us ride out and deal with these people?”
“No, Commander Sevren. I would have you remain where you were. I will handle this,” Aquilan said calmly.
“Sevren, they’re a bunch of humans. What can they do? Shoot at us with their guns?” Elasha shook her head in derision. Human weapons didn’t just not work against the Leviathan. “An untrained child could handle them.”
“We’re not going to handle them with violence, Elasha,” Aquilan stated firmly. “That will hardly lead to a rapprochement with them.”
Ah, here he goes again with that listening to the people thing and not taking a firm hand with them, Rhalyf sighed internally. The exact opposite of what Vex would do. Vex would have chopped off some heads, stuck them on pikes and put them in town squares where all the humans could see what happens to those who disobey, Rhalyf thought. Who am I kidding? He would never have saved humanity in the first place! And I should be glad Aquilan is nothing like him. Truly.
“Words won’t either, Uncle,” Elasha said. “Father has spoken to them until he’s blue in the face. It’s done less than nothing.”
“I am certain my brother has tried his very best. I doubt I shall do any better, Elasha, but we must try,” Aquilan remarked gently, but his eyes met Rhalyf’s.
Rhalyf suppressed a grin. The truth was that while Vesslan adored politics, he was terrible at diplomacy. Aquilan had confessed to Rhalyf that he knew it was a risk to grant Vesslan the position of Emissary, but their relationship had never been an easy one. So not giving Vesslan such a position would result in a rift that they might never recover from.
While Rhalyf thought that such a breach should be encouraged, Aquilan did not. Vesslan was all that was left of Aquilan’s immediate family. His king would not risk alienating the fussy, arrogant older Aravae. But Rhalyf thought it was just a matter of time before it occurred in any case.
And how much damage will Vesslan do in the meantime?
“I’m sure if anyone can talk sense into them, it is you, Uncle.” But Elasha’s expression was doubtful that anyone was capable of this.
Commander Sevren slowly rode back to his prior position. Humans might not be a threat, but this was clearly an insult to Aquilan and Commander Sevren would have liked to answer it with violence. Rhalyf rather agreed with him. But they’d do it Aquilan’s way first.
Until that way does not work.
The three vehicles roared to a halt not twenty feet from them. Dust clouds rose up. Ripped and crushed vegetation was left in their wake. Noxious fumes emanated from their exhausts. He saw Elasha wave her hand in front of her face and cough. Aquilan showed no reaction. Rhalyf was similarly unmoved, but unlike Aquilan, he was smiling. It was the smile he wore into battle.
Aquilan gave Rhalyf a stern look and said, “They are our people, too, Rhalyf.”
“Even if they don’t think so?” Rhalyf asked back.
“Yes, especially if they don’t,” Aquilan answered and lightly got down from Erendriel.
Rhalyf and Elasha got down as well. The horses remained where they were as they were well-trained, but also because of the mental connection each of them held with the beautiful beasts. It had been difficult establishing such a connection with Silveril, because the Kindreth controlled the creatures that served them while the Aravae requested a mutual exchange. These horses had expected the latter when he’d tried the former.
He’d been tossed off of Silveril’s back one too many times until he had, finally, learned the Aravae way. Only then had Silveril deigned to allow him to ride her. It was through patience and way too many sugar cubes that had won her over completely. But now she was as close to him as Erendriel was to Aquilan. He was rather proud of that. Erendriel leaned over and started nibbling some flowers. Silveril joined him. Soon all three animals were munching the sweet vegetation.
Aquilan made no move towards the humans. He clearly was waiting for the Separatists to emerge from their vehicles and approach. They did not have to wait long.
The first human got out from a white vehicle, swinging his long legs down as the machine was lifted over a foot in the air on its big tires. He wore jeans, leather, pointed toe boots–which Rhalyf believed were referred to as cowboy boots–and a red-and white checked flannel shirt that was untucked. He sported a broad-brimmed, white hat–a cowboy hat–and dark aviator sunglasses shielded his eyes.
Rhalyf had made it a point to understand humans. Not out of some benign urge to study a dying, mortal race, but to make sure they posed no threat. He found, much to his surprise, that he rather liked them as a rule.
This first Separatist’s skin was leathery and tanned a deep bronze and he appeared–though it was always hard for Rhalyf to tell human ages–around the mid-century mark. That meant he was a mature adult already in middle age, who likely wouldn’t live to see twice that amount. On his hip was a holster with a gun, which he adjusted as soon as his boots hit the ground.
In Katyr, Elasha whispered, “That is Duke Rohannan. Leader of the 401st as these Separatists call themselves. I don’t know the other two. They aren’t important.” She pursed her lips as if she tasted something bitter as she added, “He has an ever-changing cadre of young men–always men–with him.”
Two younger men, dressed similarly to Rohannan, stepped out of the black trucks that flanked him. They, too, were armed. Rhalyf sighed and murmured a few Katyr swears that involved the folly of weak men. Aquilan had schooled his expression to be smooth and unreadable.
“Do you speak English?” Rohannan asked as he approached.
A fork of lightning appeared in the air between him and Aquilan from Rhalyf’s clever fingers, stopping the Separatist abruptly. He tried not to show the fear Rhalyf knew he was experiencing but the way his hand shot towards his weapon’s grip was telling.
You might have that useless gun at your hip, but I have the power of the Void at my fingertips, Rohannan. So keep it civil, Rhalfy thought.
“Yes, I can speak English,” Aquilan answered in that language.
“Good. Not many of your kind do or not enough to really converse,” Rohannan explained. “And my Katyr is a bit limited.”
In Katyr, Elasha cursed, “The nerve of this pathetic man! It’s not as if we expect humans to learn our language. They hardly live long enough to even get the basics!”
Aquilan did not chastise her though if he had, Rhalyf guessed their king would have pointed out that her belief was the same as Rohannan’s but on the opposite side of the argument.
Instead, Aquilan stated in English, “Sometimes there are more misunderstandings when one speaks the same language, but I will do my best.”
Rohannan grunted. He took a toothpick from an inner pocket and stuck it into the corner of his mouth. He chewed on it for a moment. “Now that you’re here, are you taking charge, King Aquilan? Or are you going to let her idiot father continue speaking for you?”
Elasha lunged forward roaring, “You insolent cur–”
“Stop,” Aquilan said simply and she froze. He stared at Rohannan for long, silent moments before he stated, “You wish me to hear your concerns yet you insult my brother? Would that move you to listen to me if our positions were reversed?”
Rhalyf was rather shocked–and pleasantly surprised–that Rohannan had marked Vesslan for the idiot that he was. Maybe these Separatists weren’t complete fools.
Rohannan shifted the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other. With a rather engaging smile he said, “It might. My brother is an idiot. Anyone who claimed otherwise would be a liar that I wouldn’t listen to.”
Rhalyf’s eyes slid to Aquilan. His best friend’s expression was smooth, but Rhalyf knew that Aquilan had a touch of respect for this plain-speaking Separatist. He knew he did.
“Just because my father will not do as you wish does not make him an idiot!” Elasha hissed. “Especially when it is to preserve ruins instead of making a new world–”
“Your world. The new world is your world,” Rohannan cut in, his voice surprisingly thick with emotion. The two young men behind him shifted uncomfortably, but Rohannan held up a hand to keep them from reacting further. “Your people, King Aquilan, talk about wanting to preserve our society and our history while you destroy even the memory of it.”
“But you do not live in those cities,” Aquilan pointed out. “You have made your own… compound, yes?”
Rohannan chewed the toothpick. “Your point?”
“That you recognize these cities are no longer appropriate for you to inhabit,” Aquilan said.
“That’s because they’re crawling with plants,” the young man to Rohannan’s right growled. “Damn things grow back faster after you burn them!”
Rohannan left up a hand to quiet the young man then he said, “Your magic is making them uninhabitable for us, King Aquilan.”
But Aquilan shook his head. “That is not true. There are far more problems than simply the foliage that keeps you from living there. For one, there are no longer enough of you to fill a quarter of the nearest city. You have no power sources that can sustain it. It is not set up for our magical ones either even if you would accept them. And, most critically, the rifts open more frequently in former large human population centers than anywhere else. It would not be safe for you to be there.”
“That’s your judgment. Not ours,” Rohannan shook his head.
“These cities cannot be used for their original purpose. Nor can they be sustained as museums. It is, in fact, dangerous to continue to allow them to lie fallow,” Aquilan stated calmly. “When we reclaim the land we–”
“Put more of your great, bloody white buildings on it? Drown it all with flowers?” Rohannan chewed angrily.
Rhalyf wondered what the Sun Elves would have done to Kindreth cities. He was sure that they would find them just as objectionable as the human ones. They’d likely strip them down for parts, too.
But something precious would be lost. There is value in history, Rhalyf thought, not that he was terribly sentimental. But he had always been a fan of history. That was where many powerful magics were found.
Rohannan pointed at the ruined city as he explained, “That is proof that humans created great cities! Great civilizations with incredible technology! We sculpted the land, we reaped the vast wealth of it, and turned it to our purpose. Our kids and our grandkids’ won’t know that from descriptions in a damned book. A few illustrations by your damned Aravae Scribes who don’t even know what they’re sketching won’t capture who we once were. Who we could be again! All they’ll know is your ways and your greatness and how we can’t even protect ourselves without your fucking noblesse oblige!”
The two men with Rohannan nodded their heads and said, “Yeah. Damned straight. Trying to erase us. Not right. You shouldn’t get to decide.”
Rhalyf pursed his lips. These were interesting arguments to be sure. But then there was the cold hard truth. Humanity could not protect itself. And the Aravae had no interest in keeping this world a museum for a few mortal youngsters to gawk at. He was sure that many believed that humans would be better off not remembering the way things had been anyway. He wasn’t certain though if Aquilan was one of them.
But Aquilan did promise these lands to the big Houses, Rhalyf thought with a twist of his lips. They won’t let the cities remain. They might not let the Separatists either. That will be an interesting moment for all to experience when those two forces collide.
His eyes slid to his best friend. Aquilan’s gaze was steadily upon Rohannan. He did not appear angry or defensive like Elasha clearly was. Aquilan was intently listening. It was a skill that few leaders had in Rhalyf’s estimation. Normally, leaders thought what they had to say was the only important thing and others should listen. But Aquilan was nothing like that.
“Most of it’s already gone. That city sprawled for fucking miles.” Rohannan spread his arms as if to explain its size. “Now, it’s just a small section of the downtown left. A couple of the skyscrapers. You don’t even get a sense of the scale of what it was. But your brother won’t even let us keep that much!”
Aquilan let Rohannan’s anguished words sit between them for a moment. Again, Rhalyf knew there was truth in what this man said. But that didn’t mean the city shouldn’t be razed. Having such a ruin so near Tyrael with all those rifts opening letting who knew what out of the Under Dark would be a mistake. Aquilan likely understood why Vesslan had been so resistant to keeping even a vestige of this place.
“You want to hang onto the past,” Rhalyf said, not mockingly, but in empathy. He gave a sad, withered smile. He normally did not speak like this, but he found himself moved to do so. The Kindreth knew what it was like to lose everything and have to begin again. Maybe what they had learned could help these Separatists understand. He felt Aquilan’s eyes upon him as he said, “You believe that you cannot achieve greatness again if you forget the greatness that came before. But it’s not true. There is future greatness. But you can’t get there from here by looking back.”
He felt the warmth of Aquilan’s regard for his words. Yes, his king liked him showing empathy to this weathered, worn man. But he doubted what he’d said had reached Rohannan. There was too much fresh hurt and deep anger in the Separatist’s heart.
“You want to infantilize us! You want us to feel we’re nothing!” Rohannan spat with more “yeahs” from his crew. “If we forget ourselves, we have only how you see us to define us!”
“We do not wish that upon you or feel that way about you,” Aquilan dissented and held up a hand when Rohannan was about to dispute that. “But you clearly believe otherwise.”
“Because it is otherwise!” Rohannan glared at him. Rhalyf could feel that glare through those dark glasses. “I’m just here to tell you that if you so much as touch that city, there will be hell to pay.”
“Are you threatening the king?” Rhalyf’s voice was edged even as his smile grew.
But just as Rohannan was about to answer him, the four horsemen arrived. The leader of this group was a regal-looking man with ebony-colored skin and a bald head. He wore a long, brown, suede coat, cut up the back so that it laid neatly on either side of his saddle. The flared collar framed his angular face that was set into an expression of grimness.
In Katyr, Elasha explained, “That is General Michael Baston. The one I was telling you about earlier, Uncle.”
“Yes, I recall,” Aquilan said with a brief nod.
Rhalyf observed closely the two very different human leaders.
“I see that your hearing, Rohannan, is as good as it has ever been. This isn’t your time to meet the king,” Baston said, his voice low and not quite menacing, but it indicated a man that was used to being respected and obeyed.
“Are you arranging his engagements now, General?” Rohannan’s voice was higher and had a definite sneer. “Are you a goddamned social secretary for them now?”
Baston did not get off his horse, but instead nudged the animal forward so that he was between them much like Rhalyf’s electrical wave had been before. The general was willing to protect them with his body, which showed he was brave. He stared down at Rohannan for long, silent moments. Rhalyf felt the tension build in himself even though that stare was not aimed at him.
“You will remove yourself and these vehicles from the king’s path. Emissary Vesslan will let you know if King Aquilan has time to hear your complaints,” Baston said, completely ignoring Rohannan’s words.
“We’ve said what we had to say,” Rohannan retorted. “C’mon, boys, we have better things to do than parlay here any longer.”
They all watched in silence as Rohannan and his henchmen entered their foul-smelling vehicles and roared away, ripping up more vegetation under their wheels. It was only when the noise of them was distant and almost gone that General Michael Baston turned to face them. He did not get off of his horse, which Rhalyf thought was quite the power move. Baston was attempting to show them that he was an equal to Aquilan, a representative of humanity, not a vassal.
“King Aquilan, it is an honor to meet you. The Sun shines brighter when I am in your presence,” Baston said in fluid Katyr.
Rhalyf lifted an eyebrow. What had Elasha said about humans being unable to master even the basics of their language?
“Your light adds to mine, General Baston.” Aquilan bowed his head with the formal response.
“I hope you don’t mind that we switch to English. One of my boys, Finley, is teaching me Katyr, but I am not quite as fluent in it as I would like to be and fear I will offend,” Baston said in English.
“But of course,” Aquilan responded in English. “I need to practice myself. I hope you will give me some leeway if I make any mistakes.”
“You likely speak English better than most of the native speakers, myself included, King Aquilan, but I will surely give you whatever grace is needed,” Baston said agreeably.
“I thank you,” Aquilan said. “For this grace and for your intercession.”
“Though there was no need for it,” Rhalyf added dryly, switching to English, too.
“Oh, I wasn’t protecting you all,” Baston said with a slight laugh. “I’m not so blind to humanity’s abilities or lack thereof to know that those weapons the Separatists carried couldn’t harm you, nor could their fists or feet. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t get hurt by forgetting that.”
“You think I would strike out at them?” Aquilan was frowning.
Baston’s dark-eyed gaze slid to Elasha. She was suddenly studying the ground between her feet very intently. Rhalyf’s eyes narrowed. Had Vesslan hurt some of the humans? There had been no such reports, but perhaps Vesslan had known better than to put such incidents to paper.
“I see,” Aquilan finally said as he turned back to the general. “I would speak to you more about how things have been going here in my absence, General Baston.”
“I am happy to talk on the way to the Eyras Palace,” Baston answered.
Elasha looked relieved, probably believing that her father could undo any damage Baston could inflict in the short ride to the palace. But that was not to be.
“I think I would rather speak somewhere more private,” Aquilan said, which had Rhalyf lifting an eyebrow.
“More private than the palace?” Baston looked intrigued.
“Yes, a great friend of mine has opened an inn in Tyrael. It’s called The Sudden Dawn,” Aquilan said. “Let us go there.”
Rhalyf grinned. So there would be wine and danger. He liked nothing better.