CHAPTER 31 - THE GRACE OF HYLAN

The war had come to an end.

Rinmar personally led an envoy from King Eardon, consisting of only Lady Feralina and one of Kestel's aides. A small party it was but even then Fayte's father still had his reserves about trusting the Saldarians. Lady Feralina had volunteered for the trip, understanding that whoever his father sent, his father sent with the expectation that he would never see that person again.

Thankfully she returned safe and sound. Lady Feralina met in secret with the Emperor of Saldara, discussing the terms of the alliance. The Emperor, according to her, was a humble man though she agreed with Kestel's aide that the man was no fool. A smart man was what it took to fully comprehend a dire situation. Without Hylan's aid, the Emperor would soon be overthrown and his family put to the gallows.

"It is as the Prince had said," Lady Feralina reported to the King's Council a day after her return. The King sat in his throne with his Queen beside him, while the King's Council stood fanned out beside him. A new Bishop had yet been chosen so the Order of the White Rose had High Priestess Dana, a woman of eighty, took his place for the time being. "Saldara is being torn apart by civil war amongst the tribes. Skarm's Shadow, currently the mightiest tribe, seeks to overthrow the Emperor, Ringor La'ou of the Severing Sands tribe, for beheading their former chieftain as punishment for the attack on Zywedior."

Rinmar's uncle could not have taken Zywedior without help.

"As the High Sage has commanded me," Kestel's aid continued, a man in his thirties whose fair skin was now tanned and dry. "I have made secret attempts to contact Skarm's Shadow, offering them the same proposal of aid."

Rinmar was present in the throne room and what he heard upset him greatly.

"That was unwise," King Eardon said, noting Rinmar's rising anger. "By doing so you have alerted the enemy tribe of our plans."

"You put my clan in grave danger, High Sage," Rinmar said, dressed in a robe of sunset gold with white silks underneath. "What is the meaning of that move?"

"Don't trust you," Kestel said, seated on a pillow he placed on the floor, one that he brought when he expected a lengthy meeting. He flipped to the next page of his book. "Don't trust Saldara. Prefer you dead. Let them fight. Weaken them all. Then we attack."

And Saldara is no more a threat, Fayte nodded, standing behind his father.

Emily stood beside Rinmar in a dress of desert gold that matched Rinmar's robe. Her arm was wrapped around his and she gently touched his shoulder after what Kestel had said. His father saw and glanced at him, saying nothing.

"I had sought to avoid that from the beginning," Rinmar said, shrugging Emily's hands away. The Prince was losing his patience. "It was why I kept that truth from you and your King. I gave my life to save this kingdom so that my clan may have a chance at living!"

So that King Eardon would feel indebted to you, was what Fayte felt to be the true reason.

"Life was returned," Kestel said, responsible for finding clues to the sealing ritual within the tomes the Prince gifted to the Princess. There were accounts of when Ra'gelor first struck Saldara. Administrator Langton had recounted his journey to the City of Learning, Iredis, with the High Sage to research the blood spell. "Take and leave."

Rinmar raised his hand and took a step forward to-

"I never approved this plan," the King interrupted then, glaring at Kestel. "You overstepped this time, High Sage. Hundreds and thousands of lives will be lost now because of your-"

"The chieftain of Skarm's Shadow died the moment he rejected our offer," Kestel's aid added, saving the High Sage from the King's rage. "He along with those present to hear our offer. Skarm's Shadow is without a leader now and the tribe is in disarray."

His words surprised them all.

"How?" Queen Remilda asked.

"Underlord owes favour," Kestel said, reading. "Favour now repaid."

Administrator Langton stood behind Kestel, unable to help himself but smile proudly.

"I don't understand," Queen Remilda said, saying it with a shrug like it was nothing new with the High Sage. "Langton?"

The Administrator cleared his throat first. "The High Sage is not one to-"

"Do not overstep," Kestel cut in. "Do not overstep. Do not overstep. Langton is annoying."

The Administrator smiled warmly at that. "We have verified the truth of the situation in Saldara that Prince Rinmar presented to us, during the meeting with the chieftain of Skarm's Shadow."

Once again, Fayte thought, remembering the time when Kestel plunged the dagger into Rinmar's heart, Kestel had hoped for a different outcome.

King Eardon nodded and looked to Prince Rinmar. The Saldarian Prince clasped his fingers tight and hid his hand behind him. He nodded his approval before taking a step back to stand with Emily. The King gestured for Lady Feralina to continue.

"The Emperor has agreed to all our terms," she reported.  

The Orders of Rondiar would lend aid to the Emperor of Saldara. A hundred mages from the Order of Elements, accompanied by fifty knights and two hundred soldiers of the White Shield, led by Lady Feralina, would march into Saldara and join the Emperor's army, supported by a group of thirty healers from the Order of the White Rose.

"Their shamans are crafty," Archimage Lasandra had reported to the King two weeks before the envoy set out. Rinmar's father had sent three of his best shamans to Iredis to share their knowledge with the Archimage personally. "But they know little of magic. I advise an army consisting of a bulk of my mages should we lend aid to the Emperor."

Skarm's Shadow, named after the behemoth sand worms of Saldara was pitiful compared to the force sent out from Rondiar. One time they did battle and Lady Feralina herself had wounded near a hundred of their men. She killed none - a feat not to be mistaken for weakness.

"There was no need to kill them," Lady Feralina had reported casually.

It would take many more months before the lesser tribes surrender to the Emperor and pledged their allegiance once more, and years after that for Saldara to be wholly united again. At least now the desert kingdom was on the road to recovery.  

In the meantime there was still a matter of Zywedior. Rinmar's uncle, a man named Lormio La'ou, was believed to be the mastermind behind the massacre. He alone had influenced the chieftain of Skarm's Shadow then, to carry out the bloody massacre of Zywedior.

"My uncle was banished for the study of blood magic," Prince Rinmar had explained when the matter of Zywedior was brought forth in court. "Skarm's Shadow made up the bulk of my father's army. A strong tribe, of that none in Saldara can deny. Your city… your city had no chance."

Fayte shut his eyes then and tried to shut out screams in his head.

"My father took the chieftain's head when he learned of the carnage his tribe had wrought," the Prince went on, turning to look at Fayte and his father then. "Our people did not take kindly to that. They saw it as a victory, I admit to you, and called that we march onto your kingdom and take it for our own. My father disagreed. And that is how it came to be that my clan lost half its numbers, my father his only sister and three cousins, and I… I my mother."

Fayte remembered what Kamille had told him during their flight to catch Ra'gelor. It was still hard to feel sympathy for the Prince then, even though Fayte realized that he and the Prince shared much in common. He had lost his family in Zywedior, and it was for that reason Rinmar eventually lost his family as well. Yet seeing Emily with him now made Fayte feel like he had lost much more.

Savagery, some called it, but the Emperor had surrendered to King Eardon as many of the men involved in Zywedior's massacre that he could find. A pitiful twenty-three of them, men who the Emperor claimed to have played major roles in the massacre. King Eardon ordered a public execution, initially planned to be held at the remains of Zywedior. Fayte did not have to risk being executed himself by hitting the King. His father smashed his own office table with his fist when he was informed.

"Do what you wish with those men, Eardon," his father had said when he confronted the King with his family in the garden. "But keep your business away from the graves of my wife and daughters. Do not bring your foul deeds to the resting place of my family, or I swear, Eardon, I'll personally destroy the escort sending those men to Zywedior."

Those men were executed outside Rondiar City in the end. Seeing his father's reaction made Fayte realize that he was struggling with this just as much as he was. Outside, his father was the exemplar of understanding and acceptance. Understanding the need for peace, and accepting that he had to let go of his hatred for the Saldarians.

"I have neglected my shield," Fayte heard the King say at the garden, after his father had stormed away. "It has taken more blows than it can withstand and now I fear I may have broken it."

The King's fears were for nought. A day after, Fayte found the King and his father laughing over a game of chess again. Their laughter were short lived though. The alliance brought about an unrest throughout the whole of Hylan. It almost grew out of control quickly if not for two things.

"You!" Fayte had said one afternoon in Castle Rondiar after bringing some treats to Rakhor, the palace gryphon who he owed many treats to.

The Underlord's agent smiled at him and proceeded on to the throne room, escorted by two knights.

A group of unrelenting men and women had formed a group to violently oppose the alliance. These were mainly people who had lost their loved ones in Zywedior. The execution of the twenty-three men was seen only as an insult to the memories of their deceased families. These were people who could not see past their hatred for the Saldarians. Even his father had to agree with the King when they discussed arresting these men and women. The Underlord played a crucial role providing the names and whereabouts of these people.

It took a while for the Order of the White Rose to elect a new leader. During which the Order's followers were sent to all cities to preach the necessity for peace and the virtue of forgiveness. Fayte himself had attended these preaches for many days, but he gave up in the end. He might have accepted that Rinmar truly sought alliance, but that did nothing to ease his feelings towards the desert kingdom. Wilson still spoke with him now and again, but Fayte wanted little to do with it. His nightmares only got worse when he tried to accept the Saldarians, even with Kamille who he now called his friend, though they rarely met since her return to Saldara to be trained, officially, as Saldara's first female Scygard.

I dream of Scygards butchering my family, Fayte thought as he knelt in front an altar one morning, praying. Yet I find myself friends with one.

"Kamille is Sera's way of helping you come to terms with the Saldarians," Wilson told him when Fayte sought him for guidance. "Do not allow yourself to feel torn by this."

Fayte saw reason in that.

Likewise, the only way for the people of Hylan to accept the alliance was if they had someone they could trust to look to. That person was Emily Whiteart, Princess of Hylan… and soon of Saldara as well. At first the people had claimed that her marriage was one of politics, arranged just for the alliance by the King and the Emperor. They pitied her and some had cried that the King was an unworthy father. A cruel man they said he was for giving his only child to the Saldarians, but Emily had showed them all that her love for the Saldarian Prince was true.

She told the story of how Rinmar came to her rescue. She told the citizens of Rondiar how Rinmar had risked his life to save her, and how he had actually died for her once before. It was all thanks to the High Sage for finding the ritual to the blood seal that Prince Rinmar was spare a death he did not deserve.

"Sera was watching out for him," Emily had said during one of the many gatherings held at the city's square. "She brought him back to me."

One night when the sky was clear and the moon a luminous eye in the sky, Fayte scaled the steps of the tower. Moonlight slipped through the arrow holes on the wall, dust motes in the air sparkling as though hinting of magic. Three months had passed since Ra'gelor was defeated. The demon was now held at Iredis, under the Order of the Elements' watchful eyes. This would be the last time Fayte brought treats to Rakhor, to thank the gryphon for his aid at the beginning and the end of his squire's quest. The next time he visited, Fayte would do so as a knight. He pushed open the heavy wooden door with his shoulder.

Rakhor squawked at him before he cooed happily when Emily scratched its head.

"Hi," she said.

Emily was beautiful, as she always was. Pale blue light danced in her hair as the cool breeze played with her white lace gown. A moonwhite cloak feathered with desert gold kept her warm. Protected by the white of Hylan, warmed by the gold of Saldara.

"Forgive me for the intrusion, Your Grace," Fayte said as he placed the basket of honey-coated meat on the floor. He turned to leave. "I shan't bother you-

"Fayte…" she called, softly, longingly.

I miss her voice, he realized.

"Can we talk?" Emily asked. "It's been so long since we've talked. I haven't had a moment with you since you rescued me from-"

Fayte feigned bewilderment. "You must have me confused with the Saldarian Prince, Your Grace."

Emily knew why he was behaving like this.

"I had to make Rinmar sound like the hero," she explained from where she was by Rakhor's nest. "Else the people would not be--"

"--would not be fooled of what they know to be the truth," Fayte said, then he inclined his head. "Forgive me for interrupting you, Your Grace."

"Stop calling me that," she said, taking a step towards him and no more when Fayte took a step away in response. "Rinmar has done you no wrong, why do you still hate him so?"

Because he stole you from me. "Because he is a Saldarian."

"But you are friends with Kamille."

"A lie," he said, but did not mean it. "I am no more friends with her than I am friends with you, it seems."

Fayte cursed himself when he saw how his words had hurt her.

"You are my truest and closest friend," Emily said, shocked. "How could you say that?"

"How could you marry him?" he said in return, raising his head to stare at her, to see her eyes when she said that she loved him.

"Because I am the Princess," Emily said. "And my people come before my own happiness."

"And because you love him," Fayte told her.

"No," she said, her voice was a mix frustration and sadness. "No, I don't love him."

Fayte softened. A part of him felt cheer and relief. She does not love him. Emily doesn't love him! Then the taint of sadness crept into his heart as her plight dawned upon him. She does not love him…

There were tears in her eyes. When before he had been angry with her, Fayte now wanted to do nothing more than to hold her, to comfort her when she was sad, to wipe her tears when she cried, to protect her when she needed him. He hurried forward to her-

"But Rinmar loves me." Her words stopped him. "He loves me more than I ever realized."

So what, Fayte wanted to say, instead, "but you don't love him."

Emily shook her head. "It does not matter."

"It matters!" Your happiness is all that matters to me! "How could it not matter? How can you marry someone you do not love?"

"My mother did it," she said, wiping her tears herself. "And now I must do the same."

"We don't need a marriage for this alliance to work. We already have an alliance! The Saldarians need us. Even without your hand, Rinmar cannot hope to keep his clan alive without our help. They are at our mercy!"

"And we are at the mercy of the Black City." Emily exclaimed. "We lost the War of Light and Darkness, Fayte. There is still a threat to the south of our kingdom. Hylan would have been lost if the Dark Lord hadn't ceased the war. We were allowed to live."

Fayte knew that she was right. "It still doesn't explain why-"

"The people of Saldara cannot be ruled by us," she explained to him, her eyes shimmering with tears. "We worship different Gods, raised with different values, in vastly different cultures. Fayte, believe me or not but I do not trust Saldara any more than you or Uncle Frendon trust them. That is the truth."

Fayte was beginning to understand. Without Saldara, we would stand no chance against the Black City should the Dark Lord choose to wage war again. But helping Saldara back to power would leave ourselves at risk of being caught between two enemies. "A marriage would keep Saldara from turning against us after we've helped them."

The Grace of Hylan nodded.

That is why Kestel did not force King Eardon's hand by tipping off the enemy tribe. The High Sage would act in the interest of Hylan, that much Fayte was convinced. If the High Sage believed that wiping out Saldara was safer, he would have done that and never apologized for it. King Eardon may remove his title but Kestel had never asked to be made High Sage. Iredis would be more than eager to welcome him to their city. How could I have not seen this? Kestel, Emily, perhaps everyone even the Saldarians had known that Hylan needed Saldara as much as they needed them. How could I be so blind?

"We were supposed to be together," was all Fayte could say.

They were no more than ten steps away from each other, but it felt like he was in Hylan while she in Saldara. Hearing his words seemed to hurt her again, this time Fayte didn't know why. It was as though Emily had been expecting him to say something different. Emily just shook her head and wiped her tears on her sleeve.

"That was just our fathers talking, Fayte," Emily said, holding her head low now. "There never was a true betrothal. Fayte, we grew up together. You, me, Wilson. The both of you have always been like… like brothers to me."

She looked up and the way she pleaded him with her eyes now told Fayte that she didn't believe that. She loved him as much as he loved her, and somehow Fayte felt like she wanted him to tell her that. It felt like Emily wanted him to tell her that he loved her, that she shouldn't marry Rinmar even if it was to save Hylan. But Fayte was certain that wasn't the case. Emily desperately needed these lies to be true now, in order for her to move on with her life. And for once Fayte found himself unable… unwilling, to help her.

"I was supposed to be your knight in shining armour," he said, and he knew he had hurt her again.

The Princess of Hylan shut her eyes and turned away. "That's what Whiteguards are for."

The door swung open.

"There you are," Rinmar said, hurrying past Fayte. "I have scoured this maze you call your castle trying to- Emily? What's wrong, my love?"

Fayte could bear this no more, leaving through the door. He hurried down the dark steps, his hand placed against the wall to guide him. His head felt like it just took a punch from Rinmar, but his heart felt like it had been clawed to shreds by Ye'Jou. The sight of Rinmar holding her and his voice calling her his… Fayte shook his head.

Sera, why do you punish me so?

When his eyes began to water Fayte went faster until he was running down the steps. It had to happen eventually. Near the foot of the tower he tripped but a hand shot out from the darkness and caught him. He blinked the tears from his eyes and looked up to see who it was.

"Tsk, tsk," Mailer said. It was too dark to see which mask he was wearing now. "Crying is so very un-knightly."

Fayte shrugged his hand off. "I'm just a squire."

He jumped off the last few steps and made for the door.

"If it is any consolation," the court jester said, though for once he sounded solemn and nothing like a court jester. "I had always been rooting for you."

Fayte opened the door and let the light from the torches outside pour in. Mailer was gone by then, but he could hear the bells on the jester's hat jingling away.