"Grand Inquisitor Isean, you're not even listening. We have to do something about this." Lady Alsha stood tall before the panel of three inquisitors, her eyes blazing with fury. Despite the anger that she felt, she had managed to keep her voice composed. There was nothing to be gained by an emotional outburst, and certainly not when dealing with the pompous men in front of her.
They were in one of the smaller chambers of the Hall of Justice, but it was no less elaborate than any other room in the massive structure. Like every place in the Everbright City, the Hall of Justice was built of the finest materials, through a combination of the skill of great architects, and the powers of great mages. It was a very impressive building, but with every other building in the city being equally impressive, it hardly stood out.
"You're talking about a full-scale invasion of an important guild based on the hearsay of a few disgruntled merchants and other peasants," the balding bear of a man in the center of the three men replied with obvious annoyance. "We cannot endorse such an action. Imagine how the people will react!"
"It's not just hearsay Grand Inquisitor," Alsha countered, gritting her teeth to force the anger out of her voice. "What about Mister Swallow's report? A demon has been freed, or at the very least one of the pillars has been removed. Isn't that what the Knights of the Firmament were tasked to prevent?" As the three inquisitors' eyes widened in surprise she added with conviction, "Our very purpose lies in protecting the people should the demons ever rise again."
"And do the people know that?" the man to Isean's right countered. Grand Inquisitor Tibrae stood in stark contrast to Isean. He was short and slender, with long black hair pulled back into a braid. "We'd have a riot if we came charging in without regard to the social order," he said with a shake of his head. His eyes narrowed as he went on, "Besides, I hardly count the ramblings of an old man to be evidence of a demon roaming the streets. Where did it go if it was freed? Mister Swallow is nothing more than a man seeking attention, and there is no reason to give him any."
"I thought the same thing when I first heard the story, but when I investigated I found that there was more than enough reason to move on the guild," Lady Alsha explained, swallowing her rage to keep herself from shouting. "Even without the looming prospect of a demon invasion, Huzain Sabreeza has been oppressing the people he has been put in charge of."
"I question why you even bothered to investigate this at all," said the third man, Kinar Grembal, who was seated to Isean's left. He scratched his grey beard in thought as his grey eyes searched Lady Alsha's. While he was the lowest ranking of the three, bearing only the title of High Inquisitor, he was also the oldest, and he had a way of seeming grandfatherly, which usually put Alsha at ease. "But you do make a valid point about Sabreeza," He admitted, but then he sighed and explained, "Still, there is a process to these things, and we must go about them the proper way. This will take some time. A full investigation of those allegations must be organized."
"I don't believe that time is something that we have," Alsha replied without missing a beat, though the calm nature of Grembal had drained some of the anger from her. "We could be on the brink of something terrible here. What if Sabreeza is planning a revolt?"
"Now you're jumping to even wilder conclusions than before," Grand Inquisitor Tibrae accused, waving his hand in irritation. His eyes darted between her and the other two Inquisitors as he growled, "She's starting to sound like that boy you have working under her now. What was his name? Kirra?" Turning his suspicious gaze back to her he rolled his eyes and said, "Don't tell me that the orphan mystic is rubbing off on you. Perhaps it was a mistake to approve his transfer."
"The only mistake here is that you aren't taking this seriously," Alsha replied, her wrath returning like a flood, "Kirra was an asset today. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have learned anything at all."
"Spare me the details," Tibrae replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. He folded his arms as he regarded her coldly. "I've heard enough of this nonsense."
"It's not nonsense . . ." Alsha began but was cut off with a raise of Isean's hand. She knew better than to keep talking when a Grand Inquisitor told her to be silent, even if it was through an unofficial gesture.
"If that boy is involved, it's always nonsense," Isean replied firmly, meeting her eyes as if daring her to challenge the point. "This matter is closed, and you will not have the backing of the Order on this. We will not raid the merchant guild at this time. That being said, we will investigate your claim as to the oppressive nature of Sabreeza's actions."
"But Grand Inquisitor . . ." Alsha protested despite knowing it would be futile.
"I said that the matter is closed," Isean stated forcefully. When Alsha's mouth snapped shut he went on more calmly, "I advise you to consider transferring that child to another company. It is clear that he has influenced your judgment, and we would prefer if you were no longer impaired by his wild theories."
"Understood, Grand Inquisitor," Alsha replied with a nod and a salute. Though she was far from satisfied with the result of the meeting, she knew that pressing the matter any further would not end well for her. "Am I dismissed?"
The three men shared a look, and then nodded amongst themselves, though Grand Inquisitor Tibrae rolled his eyes and looked away a second later. He had already dismissed her when he had dismissed her charges against the merchant, and he wanted nothing more to do with her. Isean sighed and looked back to where she waited for an answer, but it was High Inquisitor Grembal who actually spoke. "You may return to your duties, Commander Alsha," he said with a smile, "Keep in mind what was said. You are a fine officer, and we would like you to continue to uphold the reputation that you have established."
"Thank you, sir," Alsha replied formally, releasing her salute. She turned on her heel and walked from the room, no longer caring if the three men saw her quivering with rage. As soon as the large wooden door was closed behind her she took several deep breaths to calm herself, and then slowly began walking down the hall to the antechamber where Kirra was waiting for her.
Kirra sprang to his feet as she walked through the doorway. He fell in step beside her as she continued her stride toward the building's exit. It wasn't difficult to tell the state of her mood, and Kirra decided to wait until they left the building before speaking to her, hoping she would calm down once they hit the streets.
It didn't happen immediately, but not long after they had walked out through the immaculate doors of the Hall of Justice she managed to regain her composure. She stopped and stared down at the cloudy street below her, lost in thought. Though Kirra wished he didn't have to interrupt her, he desperately wanted to know what had happened in her meeting with the Inquisitors. Taking a deep breath, he then cleared his throat to get her attention and said, "Let me guess, they didn't go for it? Big surprise there."
"Oh, the arrogance of those fools!" Alsha growled in response, her fists trembling. "Maybe we should have tried to handle this on our own."
"From the intelligence, we gathered on the forces Sabreeza is reported to employ, I sincerely doubt we would have been able to succeed on our own," Kirra replied with a helpless shake of his head. He had expected this outcome, and was surprised that Alsha hadn't. But he saw it as his responsibility to show support to his commanding officer so he added consolingly, "We were right to return to seek support, regardless of how futile it has turned out to be."
"Yes, but the question is what we do now," Alsha replied, pursing her lips thoughtfully.
"What do you mean?" He asked. "Knowing them, I'm sure they said something along the lines of not supporting the action. If we did anything we'd be considered insubordinate, and probably face severe disciplinary action."
"Not necessarily," she replied with a smile slowly growing on her face. Turning that smile in Kirra's direction she continued, "They said they wouldn't support military action, but that they would investigate the allegations that Sabreeza has abused his power."
"They would never assign us the case, Alsha," Kirra countered, "Not after you made your claims. They'll think that you're already too involved in this, and assign someone else who will handle the investigation in a manner more to their liking."
"Do you think I made it to this position in the Order without earning a few favors along the way, Kirra?" Alsha asked incredulously. Her grin faded and was replaced with a look of determination as she said, "I can get assigned to this case if I want to, and bring along whomever I like from the company. Which includes you."
"Really?" Kirra asked with excitement, "I've never served on an official investigation team before, other than our excursion earlier today, which you expected to be mundane."
"Honestly, if I had known what we were going to find out today I would have brought more men," Alsha said with a laugh, though she became serious once again and added, "but you still would have been among them."
"Once again I am honored by your faith in me, commander," Kirra replied with a humble bow as he muttered, "However misplaced it may be."
"Are you on that damned lack of confidence streak again?" Alsha asked angrily. "Stop putting yourself down," she ordered firmly, and raised her hand as if to smack him and drive it into his skull. "You know what? Don't even speak about it again. I don't want to hear another word about it for as long as you're serving under my command, got it?"
"Yes ma'am," Kirra replied after a moment of hesitation, lowering his eyes, "I understand."
"Good," Alsha said with a firm nod, but she wasn't finished with her orders. "Now, you go back to the barracks and prepare for the next few days. We're going to be investigating this by morning, one way or another, even if I have to call in every favor that I have left."
As Kirra agreed and began heading back to the barracks, Lady Alsha left in the opposite direction. He glanced over his shoulder at her a few times until she disappeared from sight, wondering who her contacts might be who owed her favors. For a brief moment he entertained the idea of following her and finding out exactly who she would be meeting, but not wanting to compromise her trust, he threw that idea away and resumed his march back home.
Despite the reaction from the Grand Inquisitors, there was a spring in his step. It was about time he had been allowed to serve on an actual investigation team, considering that he had already been a member of the Knights for four years. But he had always progressed at a slower rate due to the distrust that had been built up around him. None of his commanders had ever thought he was worth much of anything, no matter how hard he had tried to prove himself. Lady Alsha was different. She saw something in him that he could barely see himself, and he hoped that he would be able to keep his good standing with her.
The thought was momentarily forgotten as he reached the barracks. Kirra was filled with a sense of dread every time he saw the structure. He had lived in this particular building for the last two years, though he had spent the bulk of that with a different company. Now he lived in the same quarters as Lady Alsha's troops, and though there hadn't been any problems yet, he knew it would only be a matter of time before they arose.
With a sigh he stepped past the guards and through the massive doors that led into the structure, heading down the long hallway that would eventually lead to his bed. Despite his wish to avoid the barracks most of the time, he needed rest, considering the long day he had been through. Not even fear of his bunkmates would stop him from getting the sleep he needed.
He was immediately approached by one of the men as he entered the room; Kobek, a man three times his bulk and a full two heads taller. The man spoke with a deep voice as he greeted Kirra with a smile. "Oh, back from training already, are we? How'd it go?"
"It went all right," Kirra answered simply, interpreting the smile as a sneer. Wanting to reduce the length of the conversation he walked past the large man and said, "Nothing important. Very routine."
"Liar!" Kobek insisted indignantly, "You came back and went straight to the Grand Inquisitor's office. Are you going to tell us what's up or are you going to keep it to yourself?"
"Why exactly should I tell you?" Kirra spat out as he spun around, glaring at the larger man. They were starting to draw a crowd as men and women left their bunks to watch what was going on. This didn't deter Kirra at all as he went on to explain, "We're not friends, just fellow soldiers. I've never been given a reason to trust any of you, and I don't think I have one now."
"Oh boy, the kid's getting feisty again," said another man from behind him. Kirra spun around as the man walked toward him, a grin on his face. He recognized the Knight, but he couldn't place his name. Their lack of familiarity did little to stop the new speaker from acting like they were old friends as he went on laughing, "Lighten up, we were just curious. It ain't every day that Lady Alsha goes to see the big shots. If you don't want to tell us, fine, but you might try actually getting along some time."
"As if," Kirra snorted, "Piss off, I'm not going to tell you anything."
"Whatever you say, kid," Kobek replied, and to Kirra's surprise and relief, they all walked off, and the room returned to normal. The watching soldiers returned to their bunks or the conversations they had been having before he arrived. It was a reaction he had never had before, but he didn't wait around to analyze. He resumed his walk toward his own bunk in the corner; the bunk he had chosen to be as far away as possible from everyone else.
With a tired groan, he began removing his armor. It was normally a time-consuming process without help, but he had grown accustomed to it. He had been doing it for years after all, and could both put on and take off his armor as fast as any veteran. In just under a minute he had every piece off and set aside, waiting to be put away on the rack beside his bed. Standing in his sweat-soaked tunic and leggings, he considered going to the baths before he put his armor away. Deciding he was too tired at the moment for either task, he lay down on his bed and shut his eyes.
Without realizing it, Kirra had laid his sword on the bed and he began to absentmindedly stroke its hilt. He almost cursed as a voice spoke into his mind, and immediately stopped what he was doing, though it was already too late. "You know, they have a point," the sword said, its feminine voice was pleasant, but most of the time he found it nagging.
"Oh no, not you too," Kirra replied mentally. She could hear his thoughts and respond in kind, but she could also hear the words spoken around her, even though she couldn't speak. Still, when he wished to have a private conversation with her, he would refrain from vocalizing those thoughts, as he was doing now. With an annoyed groan, he added, "I thought we agreed that you weren't going to side with them."
"Oh, I'm not," she assured him, but then he groaned as she continued, "I just think that you need to be a little more open. It would do you some good to have some friends, and you aren't exactly winning any points with your attitude."
"I'm not looking to win points," he countered in annoyance, "I simply want to be good at my job, and I don't want to disappoint the commander."
"Why?" she asked, and he could hear the smile in her voice, "Are you attracted to her?"
"You know that's not the case," he answered quickly, "You, of everyone I know, understands that isn't true."
"Then what makes her different?" The sword asked with genuine interest.
"I don't know," he admitted with a mental shrug, "I suppose it's the fact that she shows me respect."
"And those men didn't?" The sword stated more than asked, though she made it clear that she wanted him to clarify his thoughts.
"No, I wouldn't call that respectful," Kirra replied after taking a moment to sort through his memory of the altercation, "They were trying to get information out of me, that's all."
"Do you remember your last barracks?" She asked, and he knew she picked up on his incredulity almost immediately. How could he forget? The last year before he came under Alsha's command had been the worst of his life. He had been harassed every day and could do nothing about it. When they found out he preferred men over women, their taunting became even more relentless, and escalated further, to cause different problems. He was still recovering from the time they had cornered him in the barracks and raped him, but that was the worst he had ever received. He had to deal with the insults and even the physical acts they perpetrated against him. He would do what it took to survive, even if he had to take a few hits along the way.
Of course, the sword wasn't finished with him yet. As he relived his past with his last company, she had continued her thought. "They treat you better here," she explained calmly, "I think they were trying to treat you like one of them, but your attitude is going to set you apart again. They're going to end up treating you like you're different, and it will only be your fault."
"I am different," he replied with a snarl, "Whose side are you on? Mine or theirs."
"Yours," she answered without hesitation, "I always have been."
"You have a funny way of showing it," he replied bitterly. Even though he knew that she was always looking out for his best interest, sometimes her methods had a way of rubbing him the wrong way.
"These people are different, Kirra," she said and then asked a question that caught him off guard, "You trust Lady Alsha, right?"
"Yes," he replied with conviction, "Completely."
"She hand-picked every single one of these men and women. She wouldn't have done so if they weren't good people," she explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I think you're looking for a reason to keep yourself apart because you've always been alone, and you're comfortable there."
"You see right through me, don't you?" He asked, not able to find a flaw in her logic.
"Always have. Always will," she agreed.
"You may have a point," he admitted with another shrug, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to change."
"As stubborn as always," she said with the same smile. "Just like your mother."
"At least my parents gave me something before they died," he replied sarcastically. Though his eyes were still closed, he rolled them instinctively and wondered if she could sense the action.
"I suppose," she admitted, but then her pleasant voice laughed as she added, "Though I wish they would have given you some sense too."
"I can't help who I am," he replied.
"That's such a terrible excuse," she scolded in her same pleasant tone, "Of course you can. In fact, you're the only one who can do anything about it."
"All right. Well, I'm done talking about this," he said. He had heard it all before, and he wasn't about to listen to the lecture again.
"We need to find you a boyfriend," she said, heeding his desire to drop the subject.
Her new choice was not much better, and he responded, as he had grown accustomed to doing whenever she brought it up. "And now I'm done talking to you."
"Kirra," she said, before he let go of the sword hilt, "I'm only looking out for you."
He shoved the sword away from him and resumed his attempt at rest. Despite tossing and turning for a few minutes to find a comfortable position, it wasn't long before he managed to fall asleep as the exhaustion took over.
It felt like only a few minutes had gone by before he was shaken awake to look groggily up into the face of one of his fellow soldiers. It was the same soldier who had called him feisty in his earlier encounter with the others, and he prepared to defend himself. It took him a few seconds before he realized that everyone else in the room was standing at attention and looking toward the door where Lady Alsha was preparing to address them.
Kirra stood up quickly, as she began to speak. "We have a mission tomorrow," she said, drawing excited smiles from many of the men and women. Most of the soldiering life was made up of routine patrols. Missions were rare, and added variety to their daily monotony. "Mission briefing will happen at first sun, and we will leave immediately after. I am afraid that this will be a small mission, and I will only be able to take a few of you. I know that all of you wish to go, but I have already made my selection of who will be coming with me. These are the names of the people that will be coming: Evren Lockspar, Judin Marro, Percin Whitefield, Lota Barr, Kobek Oswallo, Kirra Elrhanadan, and Fenri Dulbane. You six, get some rest," she commanded with a smile, "this could end up being a long mission."
"Does this have anything to do with your investigation earlier today?" Kobek asked as Lady Alsha turned to leave. She turned back around and regarded the large man warmly.
"Yes, but that is all you need to know for now," she said simply, though her smile never faded. "Only those who will be coming will be informed as to the nature of our task. The rest of you should rest as well. You have patrols starting tomorrow. Until I return from this mission, Lieutenant Inquisitor Maddock will command this company."
Her last words elicited groans, though not at the prospect of having Maddock lead them. He was a good enough man, from Kirra's limited experience with him, but he was no Lady Alsha. Judging by the disappointed stares as she left the room, everyone wished that they could go with her. Kirra was sure that, had Maddock been in the room instead of the officer's barracks, his look would have matched those of the other men. No one wanted to do patrol after all, especially not when there was an exciting mission happening elsewhere.
The room returned to normal, or at least some semblance of it. The soldiers chatted excitedly about what was happening, speculating on what the mission was about. Kirra watched them all from his corner, wondering at how they made their camaraderie look so easy. But then he noticed that Kobek was headed his way, and he prepared mentally for another verbal sparring match.
When the large man stood in front of his bed he said in an attempt to be charming, "Looks like you're stuck with us kid."
"Looks that way," Kirra replied neutrally, neither smiling nor frowning.
"Try not to bite our heads off, all right?" Kobek requested with a smile that looked genuine enough that Kirra began to question his hostility toward the Knight. "We need to work together," the large man reminded him before turning to walk away and leave him alone once again.
"What makes you think . . .?" Kirra started to reply angrily, but then he took a deep breath before he forced a smile and said, "Never mind. I'll try."
"That's the spirit," Kobek replied, smiling wide, "By the end of this mission we're going to get along splendidly."
"I look forward to it," Kirra said with a nod, and Kobek smiled one more time before walking away. Even though Kirra wasn't completely sure he had meant it, the phrase settled in his mind and refused to go away. He began to wonder if his sword had been right, and he should give the other soldiers a chance.
Thinking of the sword brought his gaze back to where it still lay on his bed. While he had pushed it away from him earlier, if he wanted to sleep through the night without running into it he needed to put it away, along with the rest of his equipment. As soon as he touched the sword she spoke into his mind, "See, that wasn't so hard. Don't you feel better now that you were friendly?"
"A little," he admitted, then added with a sigh, "I don't know, maybe you're right."
"So how about that boyfriend then?" She taunted sweetly, and he almost threw the sword at the wall, but resisted at the last second. The last thing he wanted to do was to draw even more attention to himself.
"All right, stop talking," he ordered instead, "Go to sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow." With that thought finished he put the sword on top of his nightstand and went about putting his armor on its rack. When the task was completed he was reminded of the state of his sweaty clothing and again considered going to the baths.
With a quick glance around at the other soldiers who were all preparing for bed, Kirra realized that this was as good a chance as any. When he left the room he was practically alone in the hallways, and knew that he would find the same at the bathhouse; he wouldn't have it any other way. No matter how many friends he ever made, he would always prefer being alone when he needed to sort through his thoughts.
With a grin, he left the barracks and stepped into the cool night air. As he walked through the streets of the Everbright City he couldn't help but look around in wonder. The city had earned its name. While the sun always shone during the day, the position of the city above the clouds allowed the stars at night to greet anyone who strolled the city's pathways. Like glittering gemstones in black velvet, they cast their light upon the opulent city, causing it to glow dimly to anyone who took the time to observe it.
Kirra wondered how many people still took that time, or if they took their lives for granted. Sleep may have been his escape from the troubles in life, but one walk outside in the city at night gave him all the strength he needed to face another day. After all, even if the people were cruel, nature itself was something worth experiencing, and no amount of harassment could ever take that feeling away from him.
His senses tingled, drawing him momentarily out of his musings. He looked around in alarm, but seeing no danger he returned his attention to the starlight. It was different somehow, and he studied the night sky in curiosity. And then he saw it, an omen from a distant memory; something that made his pointed ears perk up and his eyes home in on a small patch of the sky. A brilliant shooting star streaked across his vision and exploded in a quick burst of light. He gasped in delight as somewhere deep inside him he recognized the significance of the sign.
His life was about to change for the better. Regardless of what else happened around him, he was on the path he was meant to be on. The time he had waited for had finally arrived. He would finally know what his purpose was.
He would finally fit into the world.
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