Completed What is Common to Mankind

Zael Castomir

Slayer of Ganfarred
Character Biography

(Art Credit)​

Zael Castomir did have work to do in the great city of Elbion, but he also had a few reasons (cough, excuses) to slack off. First of all, preparations for the big Festival of Fiery Skies were making things a little difficult. Second of all, his work wasn't exactly time sensitive and, hell, he wanted a little rest and relaxation. Third of all, tonight was his birthday. Hell yeah. Nineteen summers choked out, and Zael was still the reigning champion—hold your applause, folks, the best was still yet to come.

All this resulted in a lot of coin spent, some of it gained back from gambling, and frequent tavern crawls and other dives into Elbion's plentiful amenities. So it was really only a matter of time until Zael, having met some students before during an incident with kraits and having visited Elbion itself before during a cultural exchange, would bump into somebody he knew.

This is exactly what happened at the One-Legged Flamingo, a tavern that was actually well-put together, stylish, and one might daresay classy.

"Zael!?" said Yuna, a small and mischievous student from the College, whose last name Zael still never had the occasion to learn.

"Hey, Yuna," Zael said, raising his beer toward her.

She stomped over to where he sat at the bar. "You!"

"Your face is glowin red."

"Because I'm so fucking mad at you!" Yuna said. And then she slapped him across the face. "That's for leaving us in Rostok, you asshole!"

Zael rubbed at the flaring redness that was perfectly sized and shaped like Yuna's right hand. "Yeah, I did lead you all on there. But you still got the Stalker's corpse for your studies, so that's somethin."

Yuna just ignored the entirety of his response and, in a way that was quintessential Yuna, went from seething anger to doting concern in one second flat. "What happened to your eyyyyeeeeeeee~? Gods, what happened? Tell me. Tell me, tell me."

And that's how they got to talking and drinking. Talking and drinking that began in the One-Legged Flamingo, went out onto the evening streets, and eventually toward the very inn where Zael was staying. Yuna was just an endless font of chatter—entertaining chatter to be sure, she could probably keep the Emperor of Amol-Kalit amused even on the topic of sand. She was also clingy, acting like Zael's arm was something she had bought and paid for. And she was also as subtle as a bludgeon in the hands of an orc about how much time she had tonight, and that she didn't need to be anywhere, and how nobody was expecting her, and how she had tons of time to fill, so on and so on.

For a good ten minutes outside of the door of his room at the inn, Zael was trying to disengage from Yuna, but she'd always find a way to revitalize the conversation. So, eventually, Zael did what most young men would do in such a situation. He said fuck it, why not.

"Yuna," he said, interrupting her as she went on about how some Professor always came to class with a splotch of peanut butter on his mustache. "Do you remember that promise I made to you in Grishino?"

Her brow flattened and her lips scrunched up in confusion as she racked her mind to remember. And then, not more than one and a half seconds later, she did indeed remember. She gasped with both anxious anticipation and unexpected delight. Then Zael yanked the knob of his inn room door, kicked it open such that the door bounced off of the wall inside, and roughly took Yuna by the waist and hauled inside the room with him. She let out a yelp of nervous glee and then the door slammed shut.

Inside the room there was a frenzy of fumbling hands from both Yuna and Zael, each working hastily, and therefore clumsily, to remove the clothing of the other—and this was only made harder by the two of them being utterly unable for a good while to separate their lips from one another. Yuna, for her part, was both ecstatic and terrified. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, was it finally happening!? She'd been waiting ages for a boy to actually do this with her, but, argh, damn it, everyone that she liked and wanted didn't like nor want her, no matter how much she came onto them! What rotten luck she had! She practiced for hours on this, you know! Making out. Kissing. Practiced with her pillow, with that little mannequin head that was supposed to be used to hold headgear, with apple slices she took from the plates of other students at lunch (she was always hungry so always ate her own) that she'd put together to form makeshift lips, even felt desperate one day and tried with her dorm neighbor's cat but it bit her! But now this was the real thing! The real, real thing! And they were going to do it! She wasn't going to be a stupid virgin anymore! Finally, finally, she could quell those awful and perennially unsatisfied urges of hers!

But, to Yuna's dismay, it didn't quite go the way she wanted.

Zael had playfully shoved her down onto the bed, where she bounced lightly and giggled as she came to rest. He even got his shirt off. Yuna had gotten hers off, was making to likewise remove her undergarment beneath, when Zael just froze, his big grin faded, and he got this look of bemused disquiet, like a pall of uncertainty had come over him and he couldn't figure out why.

"Wait," he said.

"You've seen them before, we went streaking together, re-mem-ber? Duh, silly," Yuna said of her tiny breasts.

"No, it's not that."

"What are you worried about? I'm good. I'm good at this. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. I've done this plenty of times! It'll be fun. You'll be like, 'Wow, damn, I can't believe I didn't want this sooner!' Here. Look. I'll pinky promise you you'll have a good time!"

That look of uncertainty still plagued Zael's expression. He looked off to the right. Off to the right. Back to Yuna sidelong. "We can't do this."

"What? What do you mean 'we can't do this'?"

"I mean we can't do this."

"Why not??"

"It doesn't..." Zael actually struggled to find the words, " doesn't feel right."

Yuna scoffed. "What? What is it? Is it some other girrrrrrrl? Huh? That it?"

"I gotta go."

"No, no, no, Zael," Yuna all but vaulted up and off of the bed, grasping at him as he started to put his clothes back on, "listen to me, listen to me, okay? Nobody has to know. This can be our little secret, just you and me. I can keep a secret! I can!"

"Bye, Yuna."

"But you made a promise to me!"

"See you some other time."

Zael effortlessly made it to the door despite Yuna's meager attempts to haul him back. He opened it, stepped outside the room, and as Yuna in her frustration hollered, "OH COME ON!" he shut the door and briskly made his way out of the inn.

Out on the streets of Elbion in the early starlit dark of night, Zael massaged his forehead as he walked aimlessly. Thinking. Just thinking. His own frustration was but a shadow of Yuna's (and certainty different in character), but it was there, and marked more by incessant qualms about right and wrong. Even within himself, however, there was disagreement at every turn about what he should do and what he should not do. Kress...he just...he just never felt like that before in his life. He didn't even think it was possible. Confused, without answers, even with some near irrational apprehension about himself as a man, he just walked through the streets of Elbion.

Some birthday, alright.
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The Informant

Zael's walk took him right back to where the night started: the One-Legged Flamingo. It was nice that the tavern was far more a well-to-do place than the usual, because Zael, uncharacteristically, didn't even feel like he'd enjoy a bar fight. He just wanted to sit and drink and think.

But opportunity just had to walk in the front door.

Her name was Malia Corinth, and she was apparently of some notoriety and stature because attending her were two bodyguards. She wasn't the one Zael wanted to talk to here in Elbion, but she knew where to find that person. So Zael took another drink of some liquid courage, set the half-full glass back down on the bar, and stood. Malia had made her way over to a secluded corner of the Flamingo, and there she sat on a luxurious corner couch, smoking some kind of fine selection in an elven reed pipe: sageweed or bristletrim, if one judged by the smoke with faint crackles and sparks in it.

Zael walked over. Approached as much as he could until the two burly bodyguards stepped in front of his way and put halting hands on his chest.

"I got an appointment," Zael said dismissively, almost arrogantly, and tried waltzing straight through the wall of muscle before him, not getting an extra step closer in the effort. He did, technically, have an appointment with her, but not today; this was all early.

Malia, not even looking up from her leisurely smoking, gracefully blew out some of said smoke with her head tilted up and off to a side and said, "What's your name?"

"Zael—hey, watch that fuckin hand hotshot or you won't have it tomorrow—Zael Castomir."

Malia took a second to consider, and then gave a small wave of her hand for Zael to see, and said for the guards' benefit, "Oh, the Anirian. Allow him through. I'll make an exception."

The guards let up on their blocking, and Zael stood firm, fixing and straightening his clothes. "Maybe I'll see you boys some other time," he said, walking in-between them and then taking a seat in the lounge chair opposite the corner couch. Zael looked at Malia. Gave a bit of a shrug and said, "Bad night, figured I could get some work done."

"I trust that it will be quick?" she said. "I have others with whom to converse soon."

"I'll make it quick."

"Hmmmm...good." She took another pull on her reed pipe. "So. Zael Castomir the Anirian. I've only ever known two types of Anirians: ones who love Vel Anir, and ones who hate Vel Anir. Which one are you, hmm?"


A tiny, amused huff of a laugh from Malia. "Liar."

"Ain't my business tryin to convince you," Zael said, then he got right down to it. "I'm lookin for someone."

"Aren't we all?"

"There's truth in that. Tonight it's a woman named Lucy Vale."

"I should have known."

"Heard of her?"

"Heard of her?" Malia smoked from her reed pipe again, blew a bluish-gray cloud of sparkling smoke from the side of her mouth. "I make my living knowing things. Pah. So much for a grander life from the College. Mister Castomir"—ugh, Zael hated the sound of that—"let me be the first to inform you if you have not already been so informed or have not gathered or deduced as much but, frankly, there is simply no place for a mediocre mage in Elbion. And that's what I was. A mediocre mage. Throw a stone and it'll bounce off the head of one such mage and into the eye of another. Hah, who would have thought something as awe-inducing as magic could be made so undervalued by oversaturation. But my true talents are something the College is incapable of teaching. And I daresay, more lucrative. Magic might be an oversaturated commodity here in Elbion but the demand for what I do far outstrips the supply."

"Everyone's lookin for someone."

"That among..." Malia smirked, "...other things." She folded her hands down in her lap then, a little lazy wisp of smoke rising from the reed pipe she had pinched between her fingers there. "So you just want to find Miss Vale? That's all?"

"Plannin on havin a chat with her."

"For that little insurgency of yours? Gilram, was it? Yes, that sounds quite right. Lucy does have her sympathies for the lonely Archon's cause. Or maybe just the Archon himself—she does fancy the salt-and-pepper look—but here I go speculating when I ought not."

She was well informed. "Yeah. That's the Lucy I'd like to see. She hard to get to?"



"On whether or not you, one, can navigate your way through Elbion's Quarterfell district—not the most welcoming nor pleasant of places, mind—and, two, if you don't mind doing a brothel crawl to find which whore's bed she's purchased tonight."

"A brothel crawl," Zael said flatly. "You've gotta be fuckin kiddin me."

"Oh, I'm afraid not." Malia looked past him, up and over his shoulder. "You're welcome to stay for a while if you'd like, Zael Castomir. Perhaps I could be convinced to part with more about Lucy Vale, or mayhap we can chat about the lovely state of affairs in our esteemed Vel Anir and Elbion. But first, my other, actual, appointment."

Zael glanced back over his shoulder, getting a glimpse of the person who had come to see Malia tonight.
Straight into the den of lions.

But this was the reason for his Gezi, was it not? The meeting of peoples unknown and cultures foreign, and in this there would be no people more unknown, no culture more foreign, than that of the great city of Elbion itself. Some in Gild considered it the very epicenter of sin upon Arethil. Ruslan, for his part, was not here to pass judgment. He had not come to look down upon or castigate anyone (not even the local Letai, with many apologies to Marta Maisal there). Simply put, Ruslan wanted to experience how the world outside of his homeland worked. And a great part of that was—inevitably, inescapably—magic.

Though perhaps some of his fellow Praetors might chuckle with ceaseless humor if they knew the particular reason he had come into the One-Legged Flamingo. Across the continents had Ruslan journeyed, here now into the very heart of magical knowledge in the timeless city which housed the great and mighty College—the College—of world renown, and he was not here for that. Instead, an investigation into something more...earthy.

There was the woman with whom he had his appointment, Malia Corinth, sitting in the lovely corner with the translucent drapes shrouding much of it. Two big men also helped block the view. Another man sat one of the two chairs opposite her corner couch.

He gave her a small nod, a friendly smile, on his approach, but it was she who spoke first, "Ruslan Gildal. I had to engage in some extracurricular activities to become appraised of you. But, as it is, news anywhere to the east of Alliria is not my specialty. In my most humble opinion, Epressa can be such a dreary continent when compared to the liveliness of Liadain."

"I have a mind to change that," said Ruslan as he took his seat beside the eyepatch man. "In my own quiet corner of the continent, that is."

"Quiet isn't quite to your fancy, hmm?"

A humble smile, and he said, "Not for men like me."

Malia laughed delightfully and said, "Men after my own heart. Oh, but if I'd the time for anything resembling romance and indulged so, then who would be here to tell you what it is you wish to know?"

Ruslan glanced over at the eyepatch man, then asked of Malia, "Is he with you?"

"Another client, like yourself." Malia brought the elven reed pipe to her lips. "You didn't pay for privacy, my dear. But we're all friends here. No need to be shy."

"Shyness has nothing to do with it." With a frankness and a concern for the younger man beside him, Ruslan said to him, "I'm going to be asking about something you might not want to get involved in."

"Oooo, I do love a good preamble," Malia commented.

"Zael," said the man, giving his own name in a manner most untroubled. "And I'm involved in some...complicated things myself. It's alright."

Malia blew out a little wisp of sparkling smoke. "Hopefully the company of our Anirian friend doesn't court cold feet?"


"Evvvvverybody's got a comment on that," said Zael, chuckling.

"Just didn't expect to meet one here." Vel Anir, it ought be noted, was another such place that a good many Gildans thought to be the epicenter of sin plaguing the world. Those were some good debates in the Forum, the Elbion versus Vel Anir arguments.
"Glad to make your acquaintance then, Ruslan, I love bein the surprise." A touch of rueful humor there—Zael couldn't help but think about his good ol' mother and father, doing the deed, carelessly at that, and getting caught because baby Zael was baking in momma's belly. The little surprise that ruined both their lives, and they made sure to tell him everyday once he was old enough to hear and understand, that was for damn sure.

"And now you know one another. Swimming," said Malia. Then to Ruslan, "A word of advice? Just don't speak too loudly, now that we've come to our business. The din of the Flamingo is suitable, if not as masking as a rowdier, lower class tavern, but still it must be said how keenly ears perk to the sound of secrets spoken."

It seemed to Zael something of an unwise joke to say "Did you pay for privacy, Malia?" Sure it was funny to him, might even be funny to this Ruslan from Epressa, but Zael didn't want to hazard pissing off the woman who knew a lot about him and, as well, many other things. If nothing else, it'd ruin his little excursion to Elbion here.

Ruslan leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. "I'm looking for a place."

"Variety. I love it."

"I understand that you have some familiarity with places of this sort."

"A kind of place. You did strike me with your appearance alone as being of the adventuring type. Is it a ruin, by chance? Those are fantastic destinations, and the College, I shall gloat, does not know of all of them."

"It's an illegal place."

"Oooh, is that right?" Malia said, now sitting up from her leisurely position and leaning forward with interest much like Ruslan. Zael couldn't say he was surprised; this whole business of hers seemed like it had more than a few toes dipped cozily in criminal waters.

Ruslan glanced over at Zael. Then looked back to Malia. And he came to it. Said: "I want to visit a brothel."


Silence followed.

And then Malia pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and laughed into it. The classiest laugh Zael ever did hear, especially for a woman caught in such a throe of mirth. "My! You truly are far from home, aren't you, Mister Gildal?"

Ruslan, his brow narrowed in puzzlement, said, "Why do you say that?"

Malia moved her hand from her mouth and waved in the air, as if trying to dispel the laughs which would not in that moment cease, "Brothels aren't illegal here in Elbion, Mister Gildal!"

With Malia in her fit of titters and giggles, Ruslan looked over to Zael. And, well, as it so happened, Zael could help give him the clarification he was clearly looking for. "There's plenty back home in Vel Anir, too." He shrugged. "I would know."

Ruslan sat back straight in his chair. In the wake of his mistake, his great cultural misunderstanding, all he did was smile lightly and remark lightheartedly of his appointment with Malia, "Well...what can I say? Coin well spent."
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Things like this were just bound to happen throughout his Gezi, and it was something Ruslan openly accepted. Of the greater world outside of Gild he was simply inexperienced. He did not know firsthand of these things, and thus, as always, it was the place of the learner to make mistakes in the pursuit of knowledge. Here humility was key, as was a reservation of judgment. He believed in Jura, in the Right Ordering of Things, and yet still he'd a fascination for just how the rest of the world worked.

Malia recovered, ending her mirth with a long and luxurious sigh, and said, "Fortune and opportunity smiles on you, Mister Gildal. As it so happens..." And she gestured toward Zael.

Who picked up where she left off. "I got a little business in a brothel or two, yeah."

"You're far from home, I'm far from home, and we're both heading toward a common destination," Ruslan said. "I know a fair few people who would call that providence."

Zael grinned. "I ain't much for the idea of fate, but I reckon opportunity acts a lot like it."

"Care for some company?"

Something about that question seemed to tickle the one-eyed man. "Brother, you just don't know how much I love the number three."


"Heh, don't worry about it."

Malia brought her elven reed pipe back up to her lips and said, "Allow me to apologize in advance for the brutes, lowlifes, and general ne'er-do-wells who infest the Quarterfell. While there might be a certain degree of kinship that I share with many of them and their chosen, ahem, 'professions', I would also say that a good many of them lack any class. I hope it will not spoil your impressions of my fair city."

"A good cause for comradery then," Ruslan said. Dear Regel, this was another thing he wasn't used to: Gild had its criminals, sure, but it lacked areas of the city like this Quarterfell, sections called "slums" in places like Alliria. Community, charity, and public spirit went a long way to alleviating the plight of the poor.

"You waltzed in at the right time," Zael said, and then he jerked a thumb back at the two bodyguards of Malia's, "or else you'd have to hire one of these two hefty guys to watch your back."

"They'd catch a fair price for their services. Thank you for the timely intervention."

"Savin you some coin, hotshot. That coin pouch is already a bit lighter than it needed to be tonight, huh?"

"I'm sure I could have gotten a loan from Malia here," Ruslan said with a sly smirk toward their host.

Rosy cheeks flanked her delighted smile, and she said, "So long as you don't mind crippling interest, Mister Gildal."

Ruslan chuckled, and said to Zael, "Let me thank you again, then."
Zael gave a tip of his head to Ruslan, and then he stood, looking to Malia. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got a seditious little lady to track down."

"You'll be happy to know that Miss Vale's ventures are usually all night affairs," said Malia. Then with an ambiguous tone she added offhandedly, "She's quite difficult to fully satisfy."

"Good for me then that she fucks like a lioness. Plenty of time to go bumblin around in Elbion's most attractive neighborhood."

"Best of luck to you, Mister Castomir." And to Ruslan, a playful shrug, a titter, and then, "And I suppose...enjoy the pleasures of Elbion, Mister Gildal."

He simply offered a cordial smile and said, "Not quite my intention, Malia."

She cocked her head in curiosity, but Ruslan was already up and turning to go. He met eyes (eye? damn, how'd the arithmetic work with his eyepatch now) with Zael and gave a slight jerk of his head toward the Flamingo's front doors. Together the two men walked out of the tavern and into the lively evening air. A city the size of Elbion never truly slept, especially not now on the cusp of such a big festival.

"Not quite your intention, huh?" said Zael as they walked. "You spent a fair price of coin just to be missing out."

"Allow me to explain. What Malia said in there was correct: where I come from, brothels, prostitution, is in fact against the law."

"That sucks."

"I am, at present, reserved of judgment. You see, though I am inclined of course to agree with the law of the land in Gild and with the culture of my people, I merely want to hear the testimony of the women—"

"—and men," Zael said, grinning.

This took Ruslan by surprise, and his face changed expression a couple of times through phases of bewilderment before he collected himself. "Is Women frequent brothels as well?"

"Frequent might be a strong word if you're makin a comparison, but it ain't unheard of."

Damn was it clear his bearded buddy was struggling with the idea. Hell, just like Zael himself when he got a bit of insight on how the College students lived their lives as compared to the Academy and its Initiates, it was shocking to him all the same. At last Ruslan absorbed the unexpected knowledge as neatly as he could and said, "Alright. I merely want to hear the testimony of the women, and the men, perhaps, who do that work. What is their appraisal of their profession? I want to hear them attest to the quality of their lives. Maybe I will find that the view of my people is vindicated."

"You're gonna buy a night with a prostitute to talk to her?"

"Such was my plan."

"Don't do that," said Zael, unaware at the moment that this was, in fact, exactly what he tacitly planned to do, his awkward and upsetting encounter with Yuna presently vacated from his mind.


"They'll think you're strange."

"I am strange to them. A stranger in a strange land. How could a foreigner not be so?"

"No, not even like that. They'll think something's wrong with you. Or with them, maybe."

"I can make assurances to the contrary. And surely, how could it not be considered an easy night's work, easy coin, for merely answering the earnest questions of a curious traveler?"

"Listen," Zael said, scrunching his lips this way and that and he mulled over an idea. "Alright, listen. I'll make it work, smooth it over, but you gotta trust me."
Talking with this Anirian Zael reminded Ruslan more than just a bit of his friend Castulo back home in Gild. While Castulo never particularly said that he had partaken of the sordid pleasures of a brothel either illegally at home or casually while aboard, and Ruslan never asked, still he had the reasonable suspicion to think that Castulo was inclined to such things the same as Zael here. And, in truth, it did bother Ruslan. Perhaps after this excursion he would be armed with the more worldly and practical reasons, to which Castulo was more receptive, against such behavior.

For despite Zael's enthusiasm, and Ruslan's own open-mindedness that he himself could be mistaken, it was just as he had said: he was inclined to agree with the law and moral guidance of Gild.

"Very well," Ruslan said. "You know the road, so lead the way."

"Lemme tell ya, I didn't think my night was gonna go this way, but hell if I ain't glad I at least know what I'm doin." After a few steps traversed in their walk he added, "So what are you even doin all the way out here? You know, in Elbion? Aside from this brothel investigation of yours."

"A journey of discovery, my friend. A journey of discovery."

"That right?"

"Yes. For countless people, myself included, the land of their birth is home; they are bred on that soil, and for most, it is what they know all their lives; this is how it has always been, and for many it is good and right. Yet even they, whose feet never depart from home, are captivated by tales from afar. For a few, like yourself and I, tales are not enough."

"Well don't go countin me among the well-traveled just yet; I haven't gone so far as you might think."

"And yet you've gone far enough," Ruslan said, "unless there's no remarkable difference between Vel Anir and Elbion."

Zael barked out a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. "You know what, you're not wrong. I was just thinking about that, actually. My first time in Elbion was somethin else."

"Far different than what you've known, wasn't it?"

"You don't know the half of it."

"I believe you." He didn't even need a recounting of the details to have confidence in Zael's account. "And I suppose I could take that phrase you've used and apply it to my own journey, my Gezi as my people call it: there is my home of Gild and there is all that lies outside it, and I do not know the 'other half.' My curiosity, my thirst to explore, drives me, and so I've come to lands far from home to see how it is their people fashion their lives. All this I will take home with me, what fine things which could bring inspiration and change, what tarnished things which will vindicate the view of my homeland."
The Quarterfell
Admittedly, while Zael didn't mind going to a far-flung place like Elbion, even enjoyed the novelty of it like he'd said, he didn't have the burning drive for exploration and inquiry like Ruslan did. His heart lay elsewhere, his passion of a different character.

"Well, there's certainly somethin I'd change about my own homeland." Zael grinned, refusing to let even a hint of melancholy take hold, and then whopped Ruslan on the arm with the back of his hand. "Maybe I'll even end up tellin you about it."

* * * * *


Zael took a moment to stop and just look. A line, an actual dividing line, was drawn on the street; the buildings on one side of said line looked one way, and the buildings on the other looked another. Little did he know, he was standing in the exact spot that some of his former Initiate classmates—Edric, Noel, Henk, and Davi—had themselves once been standing before embarking on an adventurous night in the dilapidated district.

"Not quite as well-lit down this way, is it?" Zael said, summing up the state of the Quarterfell versus the rest of Elbion with that sole remark.
"I do not know what I was expecting," said Ruslan. "But this isn't it."

The Quarterfell didn't look like ancient ruins, nor even like a city freshly sacked, but there was everywhere a disorderliness which was unpleasant for the eye to behold. He could only imagine what it would look like in the day. Maybe the worst part about it was this: the appearance of the Quarterfell occupied a most unfortunate spot between earning sympathy and garnering contempt. It was so close to actually being at least a respectable locale, if but a little more effort and care were to be invested in it.

The thought occurred to Ruslan, inevitably, that maybe a good number of the denizens were the same way, mirroring in their demeanor the look of the buildings they inhabited. Close to respectable citizens, but falling short, giving themselves over to their despair, their melancholy, their hopelessly cavalier attitudes, and thus abandoning all sense of public spirit and any notion of dignity. Perhaps Elbion failed these people, but they, in their own turn, also failed Elbion. A vicious cycle.

If anything, now that he was thinking about it, this to Ruslan seemed exactly the sort of place sordid establishments like brothels would crop up. Still he reserved judgment, but at this particular moment it seemed as though his Gildan view might not be changing.

"I don't suppose that, even in such a place as this, brothels are advertised as openly as taverns and cookshops, are they?"
"We'll find out together," Zael said. "Never been down this way, so I can't rightly say."

They stepped over the line. Started walking.

"I would hope it isn't the case."

"Why's that?"

"It is one thing for such practices to go on in secret, but to be allowed out in the open? What else can result but the degradation of public spirit? I cannot see how making relations a commodity can in any way be healthy for a community."

"I thought you were here to change your mind?"

"To perhaps change my mind. Just because I can see no good originating from the business of brothels does not mean there is for certain none at all. I carry my notions into this venture, yes, but in the search of truth I cannot let them define the conclusion, but rather the conclusion confirm them, if that is in fact where the conclusion points."

"Well I can tell you about my own experiences."

"Tell away."

"It sure as hell made my day. Several times. Took my mind off things. Let me relax, and gave me somethin to look forward to. Maybe this is gonna sound fucked up to you, but it was one of the only good things I had."

"And you would be right," said Ruslan of how it sounded to him. "Though I would say the fact that you felt this way is more a reflection on the poor state of Vel Anir, then."

Zael laughed. "Like I said, brother, you don't know the half of it. I guess I need to be fair though. It wasn't really Vel Anir, not exactly, more like...a specific place in Vel Anir...that ain't for everybody."

"So let me ask you this, then: Would it not have been better if your life in Vel Anir was such that the fleeting pleasures, the indulgent comforts, of a brothel were not needed?"

Zael, for a flash second, thought of Sieglilly. That one time down by the stream. How different it was.

He managed a wistful smile and said, "Can't have everythin in life work out just right, can we?"
It didn't take very long, no, not even for the two them, both of whom had never even set foot into the Quarterfell district before, to find a brothel. There was no outward decoration that labeled it as such, no swinging sign with some cheeky name nor some lurid painting adorning the outer walls; so not as Ruslan had thought. But what was instead on offer was a woman, standing by the door, who had as her garments the shadows produced by the softly-glowing hanging lantern as much as her actual thin silk dress.

"Good a place as any to start," Zael said sidelong and confidential as they approached. "Follow my lead. Cool and relaxed."

"This isn't a den of vipers," Ruslan said. He'd a thought that perhaps his Anirian friend was placing far too much apprehension on this whole affair, as though one misstep might lead to a dangerous pitfall.

"No," said Zael, "but it's got somethin worse."

"Such as?"

"The Marte Cartel. Thieves, cutthroats, and brutes."

"Cool and relaxed it is, then." So that's why Zael had a healthy dose of caution about him. Crime on a scale which could constitute it as a guild was something that carried a morbid fascination along with it. Why was it not so that the might of the Elbion authority simply did not crush the ne'er-do-wells, and bring about order in all parts of their city? Perhaps the answer was far more complicated and nuanced than Ruslan imagined. For now, he could simply be glad that Gild itself had no such malignant problem as this.

They reached the door. The door girl smiled pleasantly at them.

"Evenin. Lookin for a warm bed. You know where to find one?"

The door girl smiled wider. "Ah, that's a lovely accent you have." Then she pointed down the street. "I believe there's an inn or two down that way."

Zael smiled back. "We weren't lookin for a place to sleep."

The door girl glanced to Ruslan. He just have a slow and assured nod. And then the door girl turned and placed her hand on the door and said over her shoulder with that sweet smile of hers, "Come on in."

And there came the thought to Ruslan, stepping through the portal and into the vestibule, that perhaps a den of vipers would have been preferable—for there, at least, the danger to oneself was plain enough for the eyes to see.
Zael was a bit struck by the fact that, huh, it has been a long time, hasn't it? Ever since the Republic rolled in to Vel Anir and all those sweeping changes were made in the Academy, yeah, they cut that brothel business right out. Maybe it wasn't even completely sanctioned under the old way, just something the Proctors figured would make their jobs a little bit easier, something to knock the horny out of the description of "horny, volatile, and dangerous adolescent" that suited each Initiate so damn well. Either way, this had that feeling of slipping into some old but familiar boots—which to Zael seemed like a funny thing to be thinking at nineteen years old. Blazing through life, was he? At this rate his nut hairs were going to start growing in gray.

Things weren't particularly different between here and Vel Anir. You walked into the main room, the available girls would start to sashay out, and you got yourself a look while maybe trading a flirty word or two, a flirty look or two, a flirty touch or two. Here, yeah, the Marte Cartel Zael had been told about had their presence known: there was a burly guy leaning up against the wall by the vestibule's door, keeping close tabs on him and Ruslan both, and likely there were more enforcers elsewhere in the building. By the time the Madam came out, Zael had one of the prostitutes picked out on nothing more than a hunch that she looked like she might know where Lucy Vale was lounging tonight.

The Madam took Zael's payment, and then, with that thin and sharp face of hers, turned her gaze onto Ruslan. "And which one for you?"

Ruslan leaned his head toward Zael. "I'm going with him."

Zael picked it up effortlessly. Said, "He likes to watch."

The Madam just nodded and said, "Very well. Still the same price."

And Ruslan dipped into his own coin pouch for it. Zael had to say, the man sure was dedicated to his specific venture, paying off Malia (even if it was erroneously), and now paying his way for a brothel girl he had no intention of even bedding. It wasn't going to be cheap. Then, heh, that cut both ways, didn't it? Ruslan wanted to interview at least a few of these girls, and Zael figured he himself probably wasn't going to get lucky with Lucy's location on the first guess. Yeah, wasn't going to be cheap at all.

The girl in question wasn't one of the shy ones. She had shorter hair, a broad smile, and piercing eyes; she looked like the kind of girl who didn't mind what manner of genitalia she encountered in the sheets, and that's precisely why Zael chose her first. She led them down the hall and toward one of the rooms. She entered, and Zael and Ruslan followed.

The door was hardly shut when she had her clothes stripped off and discarded in a pile on the floor: then again, it wasn't anything more than a thin silk robe, nothing which required any sort of busy fingerwork to be shed of.

She was looking at Zael's face...just off to the right a little—at his eyepatch. "I love a man with scars," she said. "Nothing warms my loins more. Take that off, would you? Do that and I'll ride you so hard you'll have a climax you'll never forget, my sweet." And she blew him a kiss.

And here...came a strange disconnect. It was as though Zael were merely coasting along in his own skull, somewhere between his eyes and the back of his head, a detached observer, an awareness simply accompanying a moving body and a speaking voice. It didn't last long, just enough for him to reach up and remove his eyepatch and say, "Fraid that's all I'm gonna be takin off tonight." Yet still...what the hell was wrong with him? He figured he was just gonna waltz in here and do what he'd done plenty of times before, whether or not his foreign buddy was watching, no big deal. Hell, at least strip down so the girl didn't have to be the only one in the room naked, but he didn't even do that. Finally, he thought about what happened with Yuna again, and, yup, there was an echo of that selfsame feeling, here and now.

The girl, of course, just knew what he'd said, and what he'd said was puzzling enough to her and it showed. She looked to Ruslan as if for some sort of answer.
This was going to be difficult.

As soon as the silk-clad woman had discarded her robe, there began a battle within him between that which was lofty and that which was more earthen; the mind and spirit on one side, the body on the other. The natural allure of the feminine form to a man was at its heart a good thing. Indeed, a powerful thing. What more elemental force was there behind civilization itself? What compelled men to action and deed on a greater scale than it? It all came back to this most basic, this most primeval of motivators; it served as the bedrock for the continuation of mankind—for all kinds—throughout the whole of Arethil.

But because this force was so basic and so primal, it could therefore be easily subverted, misused, and all the like. The body only knew what it wanted; nothing more, nothing less, and certainly any notions of why were impossible for the body to comprehend. That was up to the mind to decide, and for the spirit to carry through. The problem, of course, is that the mind and spirit could in their turn be led astray as well. And while the body could claim a certain innocence for itself, the mind...well, it could appropriate its right reason for the dark purpose of justifying all manner of acts, couldn't it? The spirit was the final bulwark against this, but even it was not infallible, for the body and mind could in their own ways, or in tandem, overcome it.

Already Ruslan observed this in himself. Little intrusions of thought, quiet entreaties, rational pleas. You're already here, you've already spent the coin, why not; this couldn't hurt, how could it hurt, what's the harm; Zael could be right, you know, this could be a spot of fun, no strings attached; aren't you a man, what's this woman going to think of you if you don't. All of this wasn't helped by the fact that the woman was beautiful, was shapely. Merely the sight of her was enough to set his nethers to stirring, an urgent and warm pulsing from there the body's chief weapon in combating any and all thoughts contrary to what it desired.

Funnily enough, though, it was the woman's puzzled look to him, after Zael had said his brief piece, that helped Ruslan focus and get back on track, despite the plethora of gorgeous distractions which existed below said look.

"We just wanted to have a chat," Ruslan said.

"Cuddlers?" she asked.

"Cuddlers?" Zael asked, now as baffled as she was.

"Yes," she said, "a few men just like to cuddle. Talk and cuddle. I don't mind." She said that as if there were other girls in the establishment who would balk at the idea. "I like it. I like a little chit-chat. You'd be surprised how much I know about the Council, the College, even far-reaching topics—I can hold a conversation. And you can tell me anything you want to get off your chest. I don't blab and gossip, that's disrespectful."

Zael looked Ruslan's way, and in his expression was the clear sentiment of: found the right one for you, at least.

"Sitting on the edge of the bed will be fine," Ruslan said to the woman.

"Are you sure? You don't want to cuddle? Touch me? Kiss me? Love me? Nothing?"

A small smile, one of a genuine good-nature. "I just want to have a talk, from one person to another. Is that alright with you?"

As if such a question, someone even bothering to sincerely ask her such a question, was an alien experience, she sat there slightly dumbstruck for a moment. But at last she agreed, taking the moment to put her robe back on and then to pat the bed next to her as she came to sit.

So the night of inquiry began.
And it started off great.

Gina was the name of their cuddling conversationalist, 'cept in their case there was none of the former and all of the latter. She hadn't been just making that part up, lucky for them; Gina was as entertaining as Zael's lovely acquaintance from Vel Anir, "Captain" Claudia herself. And, unsurprisingly, Gina ultimately had much the same opinion as Claudia did. She was able to give Ruslan thorough answers to all of his questions, all the good, the bad, and the ugly about it, everything with a stunning amount of honesty, and overall, akin to Claudia and maybe a bit surprising to Ruslan, she enjoyed her work—though, it had to be said, that when Ruslan brought up the idea of Gina having children one day, she balked at the notion of them learning what she did, and she paled even more at the mere prospect of endorsing her own hypothetical daughter engaging in the same profession.

And for Zael's end, Gina even knew Lucy Vale. Not quite friends with her, but not just acquaintances or familiar faces owing to a prostitute/client relationship. Something in between. Unfortunately though, she didn't know precisely where Lucy was tonight, or even if she'd visited this particular brothel or not. Gina was able to set Zael up with a few names though (once she was reasonably sure Zael and Ruslan weren't out to, you know, murder Lucy or anything), and that left a decent enough breadcrumb trail.

After Gina, though? The night's luck started to take a dip.

Second visit, and the girl in question, while initially nice and flirty, proved not to be in any mood for Ruslan's questions, and wasn't in much of a mood for any of Zael's either. "We're here for one thing and one thing only," she had said. "Shit or get off the pot." So he and Ruslan got off the pot.

Third visit, the girl (woman, she was older than both of them and looked it) was cool and impassive about it all, but her answers were curt and, yeah, even Zael could feel Ruslan's dissatisfaction. The woman's demeanor kind of reminded Zael of a no-nonsense farmer or miller or something; she did what she did, it was a job, she wasn't particularly happy or unhappy about it, but the job needed doing and she was one of the ones to do it. She did, however, confirm for Zael one of Gina's contacts, so that brightened up hope for the next visit.

Fourth visit was rough. The girl, outwardly cheerful, was just that way as a facade. When Ruslan started with his questions, even though he was gentle, considerate, and respectful just as he had been the three times before, the girl broke down in tears. She didn't want to do this. She hated her job. She felt used, violated, dirty, and that, because of it, she would never have what she truly wanted in life. But after the Great Dragon Drakomir had decimated Elbion, desperate times had come, and, for this girl, her entire family save herself had perished in the incident. This was all she had and she hated it, and hated herself for finally giving in to her own desperation to make some sort of living. Ruslan left her a good deal of extra coins before they left. Zael felt too bad for her to even ask about Lucy.

The fifth visit was...interesting.

"We just want to have a chat," Ruslan said, not all that different from the other visits and other girls.

This one immediately looked alarmed.

"I don't know you, who sent you, who the fuck are you, I already paid everything I need to pay, I'm a free woman!"

"Slow down, slow down, slow down," said Zael. "Nobody sent us, we're just—"

"You're Cartel, I know you're Cartel, I can smell it on you."

Sensing this wasn't going to go well at all, and, in a wild, last ditch attempt to get something for their money (both their coin purses were by this point much lighter than when the night started), Zael said, "You're right, we are Cartel. We were just lookin for Lucy Vale. Lucy. Vale. Tell us where she is and we'll leave you alone."

And holy shit if it didn't work. The girl didn't question anything about it, just simultaneously pitched a fit and told them which brothel Lucy had gone to tonight—how did she know? Was she lying? Just crazy? Fuck if Zael knew but it was better than nothing. But because the girl had gotten to hollering, Ruslan and Zael booked it out of that particular brothel and, with an enforcer hot on their heels ready to beat the tar out of both of them, they made their getaway through the Quarterfell streets and alleys.

Eventually, they came to a dark and cozy spot where they could relax and catch their breath. It was somewhere close to the harbor, maybe, because not too far off there was the sound of running water: maybe it was the Cairou River, or maybe some city canal or runoff, who knew. All that mattered was that their deadend alley didn't have any Cartel goons trying to "dead" or "end" them.

Ruslan reclined with his back against a wall. Zael sat a creaky crate with a gaping hole in its left side.

"You get everythin you wanted?" Zael asked, grinning a little.

"Maybe a little more than I bargained for at the end there."

They both chuckled—small sounds tempered by their panting. When they each had their breath soundly back in their chests, Zael asked, "So, Ruslan, what are you, man? Some kind of world traveler or somethin? Is that your aim in life?"

And Ruslan was more than happy to share.
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Man to Man, Heart to Heart
"Certainly that is a part of it. I have in me something of the explorer, yet it is not a drive strong enough to devote all my life to. Perhaps you could call it a prominent side interest. And, to be quite truthful with you, I am already longing for my home."

Zael gave a small, rueful shake of his head, this clearly over his own lot, "Wish I could say the same about that, friend. But, I'm tryin to fix what I think needs fixin." A punctuating smile, full of cockiness to rub away that earlier ruefulness, and then he said, "So you're not quite a world traveler, though you do some travelin."

"Yes. My aim in life, as you said, is, simply put, to see my homeland prosper."

"That right?"

Anfisa might've smacked Ruslan on the back of the head for this, for divulging details that didn't need to be divulged, but she had always been a cautious one—sometimes overly so. Though Ruslan had agreed with her at the outset of their Gezis that, yes, it made sense that some things just didn't need to be said, because neither of them really knew how foreigners might react, here it didn't seem much a cause for concern. He'd already mentioned that he was from Gild, and Zael the Anirian didn't much mind, and neither had Malia (nor Gina when she had asked). And besides, they'd had an adventurous night together already, something which took no small amount of trust between them.

So he continued, "Yes. Peace has settled upon my homeland of Gild and the greater region, Campania, that it occupies, but I'm sure you know as much as I do that peace does not last. War will come again. And what's more? I believe it is inevitable that there will rise a dominant power in Campania—other nations have come close to becoming the mistress of the whole region and all its people. You know of your Anirian history: tell me, how small was the city and its territories in its earliest days?"

"We all got humble beginnin's."

"And today?"

Zael barked out a laugh. "Gonna need a big map to mark it all out."

"Exactly. This growth of dominion is something we see time and time again throughout history. In Vel Anir's case, where once it could claim no more than a mere plot of land upon Arethil, now it stretches all that enormous area between the Falwood, the Cortosi Coast, and the Savannah. It has come to be the mistress of all the region. This is what I wish for Gild. I do not wish for my homeland to be subject to the dominion of another nation. And it is either that you become the master of your domain, or you find yourself in service to one. One day a sole power will claim the whole of Campania, ruling over it. All my life I will dedicate to ensuring that power is Gild, because I love my people, and this is what is in their best interest."

Ruslan smiled.

"And you?" he said. "What is your aim in life?"
"Me? I love fightin. And I'm in the fight of my life."

"And what would that be?"

Zael shared a little knowing smile. "How much do you know about Vel Anir?"

"Only what travels by way of rumor across the continents, and what is written down in the works of historians. All that to say: not nearly as much as you, I wager."

"Yeah, I got a bit of insight you could say—a lot of it thanks to my magic." He turned a palm upward and puffed out a little flame for show. "I'm a Dreadlord."

"The Anirian elite soldiers," Ruslan observed.

"You're not wrong, and you're close enough. Soldiers, mages, spies, assassins, hell man, we do it all. When Vel Anir needs a knife to stab someone with, we're it."
The Guard was the big bludgeon in Vel Anir's other hand, but they weren't part of this conversation, and Zael didn't need to get into picky specifics about the composition of the goliath that was the Anirian military. "But see, here's the thing. If you've got magic, you're becomin a Dreadlord. You're gettin your ass thrown into service, one way or the other." He didn't believe that the Republic fully stopped the kidnappings; and even if they did, it was only a matter of time, according to the Guard's needs, until they began again. Zael scoffed. "Choice? We ain't got no choice. You join the Guard, you wait to be called up to some shit the Guard needs you for, or you get gone with exile. There is no just plain livin. There is no sayin no to war."

Ruslan looked like he was trying to square what he'd heard and read with what Zael was telling him. "So the Dreadlords are...slave soldiers?"

"No, that's not ri—...Actually, that's...not too far from the truth." Would've been a lot more true back in the old days, and that was the only real credit Zael could give to the Republic.

"You said that you love fighting. Wouldn't this...compulsory service be a blessing to one such as yourself?"

"And here we are, hotshot. The core of it. You're right. I love fightin, and believe me, I didn't say somethin I didn't mean there. I fuckin love a good brawl, a good scrap, a good battle even; the military should've been my dream. But I know about what kind of orders are given out. I know what kind of missions my fellow Initiate Dreadlords, the kids I grew up with, have been out on." Ruslan balked Zael said kids that he grew up with. Yup. Welcome to the real deal, friendo, the ugly details don't make it far out of the Academy, much less all the way to Epressa. "I know what we're asked to do. Asked? Fuck. I'm bein too generous. What we're told to do, ordered to do, commanded to do, man. There's Anirians out there, Dreadlord or not, who don't give a shit, they'll do whatever someone with superior rank tells em, no matter what it is. Some revel in it. But not me. I ain't that man."

Zael shook his head. "You've got to have the ability to say no. No, I ain't doin it. I ain't kidnappin anybody's kids, I ain't killin some nobleman's whole family to send a message, and I ain't burnin down a village and everybody in it for some strategic mission. If you can't say no, then, damn, maybe you are a slave. And I'd rather die free than live under the boot."

"Is it only you, against the whole of your country?"

Zael grinned. "No. That'd be just plain crazy and pointless. But we don't need to get into who my new friends are." He snorted with a little laughter. "Lucy Vale seems to like em well enough, hence the reason I'm here tonight."

"And what does victory look like for you?"

"Simple: I want to see the Dreadlords freed from state control. That's all. Easy enough to say, hard as hell to do."

Ruslan nodded with understanding. "And this is what you're dedicating your life to?"

"You're damn right."

A moment of quiet followed, both of them resting, both of them pondering what the other had said, both of them pondering of themselves as well. Zael's train of thought coursed along, starting with how definitively he'd said You're damn right and ending in, perhaps, the inevitable destination to which that answer ultimately led. Then, finally, like a lightning bolt, clarity struck. Clarity, though not perfect, but which tied together the loose strings of the night, of months prior, of years prior. The source of his conflict which came to its full, uneasy unfurling with Yuna.

"Hey, Ruslan?"


"Can I ask you somethin? Get your opinion on somethin?"

The man from half a world away grinned genially, not quite catching on to the gravity. "Go ahead."

But soon he did catch on, for Zael had a bit of uncharacteristic trouble in saying it. Until, finally, after a false start and a couple of frustrated groans, he got his thoughts out in a manner which suited him:

"There's somethin in my life where...I just don't know where I stand."
Seeing the vexation in his Anirian friend's face was enough for Ruslan to know that whatever weighed upon his mind, it weighed heavily. And when Zael finally did manage to give voice to his tangled thoughts, this was solemnly confirmed.

"In whatever way I can help, I will. Take your time."
Though Ruslan said to take his time, now that he was actually talking about it, Zael wasn't struggling so much to find the right way to sensibly express what had him so troubled. He began after just a couple of seconds.

"It's about a girl back home. In Vel Anir."

Zael half-expected Ruslan to laugh at this, something along the lines of: You're in a rebellion against your own country, who owns the strongest military Arethil has ever seen, and this is what worries you? But he didn't. Ruslan just continued to regard him thoughtfully, fist pressed to his chin, and he said with astute deduction, "And she's on the other side of your war."


"Do you know her well?"

"Known her for a long time."

"So you weren't always enemies?"

"That's a strong word there, 'enemies', but..." Zael exhaled slowly through his nose, "...she's on one side, and I'm on the other. Can't deny that."

"What is her name?"

Zael smiled a little. Happy that Ruslan would ask, happy that he would be able to say it aloud. "Everleigh."

"Everlay," said Ruslan, repeating it the way Zael had pronounced it.

"That's her. She's my darlin," Zael said, fighting against the doubts plaguing his mind even now.

"What happened?"

"I'll give you the short version." And Zael went on to say how they had gotten to know one another in the Academy, which, for the sake of convenience, he likened to the Elbion College for Ruslan's benefit. He told him about the Rogue Dreadlords, allied to the Archon Gilram, fighting against the newly formed Republic of Vel Anir. He told him how he had made a decision which firmly placed him on the side of the Rogues—there was no going back after Ganfarred. And at last he came to the last meeting between them, there in the Blackwood.

"And what happened then, when you met with her in that place, the Blackwood?"

"We hugged, we talked, we kissed...she said that she loved me, I said that I loved her...but then I left." That last word brought to him a great, stinging pause. "And that was it. I haven't seen her since. And..." Zael violently gave his head a shake in directionless frustration. "Goddamn it, shouldn't somethin have been different? Shouldn't it have come out some other way? I didn't say anythin I didn't mean. I said I'd burn the world the keep her." He tossed his arms up to his sides. Let them come back down hard and smack his legs. "But here I am. I'm out here and she's back there. What happened? What went wrong?"
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Ruslan watched the younger man's frustration with an all-too-familiar empathy. He had had his own troubles—troubles which he might inevitably bring up in example. Ruslan as well found it surprising, and hearteningly so, that Zael exhibited this frustration at all, given his stated proclivities for the sorts of places they had spent the evening crawling through. His friend Castulo, Ruslan imagined, was of such a nature that he would never find himself troubled over the affections (or lack thereof) of a woman, simply moving on to the next, never settling down.

For Zael now, Ruslan acted as the solid rock to provide some stability, the lighthouse by which some clarity and guidance could help him navigate through how he felt.

"Did she ever, by chance, tell you of her plans? What it was that she wished to do with her life?"
"Yeah. She wanted to stay at the Academy and become a Proctor—that's a teacher or professor in Academy-speak." Zael waved it off. "But that was before I went Rogue."

"And she is still there now? Do you know?"

"No, I don't, but I'd say that's true. I don't know anythin to the contrary on that."

"Would you say she's committed to it?"

"I'd say that." And it was here that Zael began to feel the slight crush of realization.

"And you're very much committed to what you're doing. Going against the state of Vel Anir. Freeing the Dreadlords."

"Yeah..." Zael paused again, running a hand down his face slowly, and then said, "I could have asked her to come with me. She even said that, right out. But I didn't. I thought it wasn't right for me to do that. But, damn man, how is this any more right? I said I loved her and then...left? It's just..."

Zael mulled over some more thoughts, his pinched lips shifting from one side to the other. Then his face settled into a grave, sober expression.

"I'll just put it the way it is: I didn't stay, and she didn't come with me."
Ruslan let the moment sit, let the last words Zael had spoken settle and merge into the past along with the rest, let those associated emotions disperse. The lighthouse in the dark, foggy night, and that dispersal was the fog parting just a little, just enough.

And then he said with great but quietly stated importance, "A man must have his purpose."

Zael, caught in that foggy night of thoughts, looked up from his seat on the crate.

"Some years ago, I was in training to become a warrior, a special kind of warrior, for my country." With an acknowledging nod he supposed, "Perhaps something not too different from your Anirian Academy." He continued, "It is a great honor to take this route in my country. Even if I had not the ambition that I have, still I would have taken it; because I do have my ambition, all was in happy alignment. It still is."

Ruslan stood up straighter, off of the wall.

"I, too, had a girl's fancy. I, too, told her that I loved her, and she as well to me. Yet inevitably there came a firm fork in the road. Hers was a mind perennially beset by worry, and this clashed harshly with the life which would await me once my training was done. She urged me, begged me, to pursue a profession more inclined to civil affairs, political affairs, religious affairs, anything but the battlefield. It hurt me greatly to see her in pain, to see etched in her beautiful visage the fraying twists and seams which spoke as evidence to her heart's torment. Yet I knew that I could not do as she asked. I knew that to do so would not only mean ruin for myself, but ruin for her as well, for mine would in its turn bring about hers—I would no longer be the man that she loved, but rather someone else."

"What did you do?"

"The only thing that I could do," he said with a reverent quiet for his answer and what it might mean to his Anirian friend. "I had to tell her goodbye."

"Because a man must have his purpose," Zael echoed.

"Yes." He placed a hand on his hip. "And so we respectfully parted ways, and to this day I wish her well, and all the happiness she can attain. This conclusion of our courting did not make what we both said during it untrue, especially for the time in which it was said. I liken it to a fire, once ablaze with love and all its searing heat, turned now to a quiet crackle, this of friendliness and a soft glow of warmth."

"I know, I know, it's..." Zael bobbed his head some, as if trying to gently coax out the right thought, "...nothin to do with purpose. I know what I'm doin, and I'm not givin that up."

"But if she stays just as committed to her own goals..." Ruslan spread his hands, leaving the implication clear.

"I know," Zael said for the fourth time. "But it's not really that: me bein an outlaw of Vel Anir, her bein in it."

Ruslan considered his answer for a moment. Tried exploring different possibilities, working through what else might be the source.

This consideration was interrupted briefly when Zael asked, "What was her name? That girl you once loved."


Zael's jaw dropped, and his brow knit fiercely into bewildered creases, struck by the phenomenal coincidence.

But then Ruslan smiled impishly. "I jest. Her name was Aisha."

They both laughed, enjoying the little respite of levity over Ruslan's tease. It sounded to him like Zael enjoyed it a certain degree more than he himself did. His, of course, was the mind clouded by disquiet, most receptive to a brief ray of sunlight.
And as it would happen, that moment of laughter would help clear up Zael's mind just enough for the second lightning bolt of clarity to occur.

First, the air was made ripe for the bolt when Ruslan, getting back on track, said, "I think that, at the heart of it, you don't know if you are still courting or not. Perhaps it was the way you parted, perhaps it is the erosion brought about by time and distance; this, I believe, is why something as definite as a betrothal is so—"

Then it came, and Zael's eye widened. He was looking down at the ground somewhere near the toe of Ruslan's boot, thinking, when it came, and the unnatural blue that was not the color he was born with nevertheless had in it the gleam of profound, yet so simple, recognition.

"I don't want to be like my father."

Ruslan cocked his head. Receptive, but awaiting for him to clarify.

And clarify Zael did. He looked up and said, "I'm a bastard."

Ruslan grimaced, sighed, and said, "It saddens my heart to hear that."

Almost terrified the thought might somehow slip from the grasp of his consciousness, Zael swiftly gave it voice. "He was a married man, but he was sleepin around. Fathered me on accident, and he made sure to tell me that everyday. But this isn't really about him and my mom, one of the women he'd been dirty with; this is about him and his former wife. He was supposed to be loyal to her, you know? Isn't that what marriage is? If he wasn't a married man, wasn't committed to anybody, then all that seedin he did woulda been his own business, his own private doin's, and that kind of stuff happens all over on Arethil—and probably twice over in the Academy."

Zael made some harsh, punctuated slashes with his hand to emphasize, "But he stabbed her in the back, his ex-wife. He made a commitment and then he broke it. He couldn't carry it out." He shook his head with disdain. "I don't want to be like that. That's not me."

"And so, the source of your troubles..."

" that I don't know if I'm committed or not," Zael said, nodding in acknowledgement of what Ruslan said earlier, albeit with a touch of paraphrasing.

Resolute, Zael stood from the crate and said, "But that's the one thing I know for sure now. I do not want to be like him. I won't make the same mistake my father did."
"It is good that you have spoken that aloud," Ruslan said. "Better is it to give voice to these things rather than have them haunt your mind, formless, forever."

"Yeah, tell me about it."

"So what will you do now?"

Hardly was it a definitive answer, in matters like these and many others besides, to settle on confusion. To Ruslan the answer seemed straightforward enough, yet, given the Anirian's circumstances, straightforward most certainly did not equate to easy, such was his suspicion.
Zael shook his head again, running a hand through his hair as well. He said, "I've got to get my head straight on this, that's what."

"Think it through."

"Believe me, I am. And you're helping. So thanks for that."

And for a long time, Zael, sitting back down onto the crate, stayed still and quiet in contemplation. He wondered, as an aside to all of his thoughts, if Ruslan might get impatient or annoyed with him, wanting to put this business which was really none of his behind and just go to the next brothel to get his last few rounds of inquiries done. But he didn't. He leaned there on the wall, just watching, maybe reminiscing about Aisha and maybe not. Either way, he was alright. This man Ruslan from the faraway land called Gild that Zael had never heard of was alright.

Either way.


"So," Zael said, "it's either we're together, or we're not."

Ruslan nodded.

"And here's the thing. I just keep comin back to it: I didn't stay, and she didn't come."

Ruslan nodded again, just acknowledging and letting him speak.

"The way we left? Yeah, we said a lot of nice things to each other, and they're all true. But...only two promises were made, both by me: that I wouldn't give up on freein the Dreadlords, and that I wouldn't call another woman 'darlin'. That was it. That was it and we just left each other."

The weight of his own words seemed to push his gaze down, and in his eye the look of a man coming to grip with what could only be.

"This is somethin I can't decide by myself, but it's not easy to see her again. And I can't just say on my own that we are if we aren't. So..."

Zael rose from the crate, doing what Ruslan had said earlier and speaking it aloud, giving it voice.

"We aren't. That's all it can be. We didn't make any kind of commitment to one another, and there's no other way about it. That's the way it is until the day it changes..." and he was forced to admit, "...if it changes."

He looked Ruslan in the eye.

"But, with or without her, I'm not givin up. The Dreadlords will be free in Vel Anir, or I'll die in the effort. That's the man I've become. That's who I am. That's my purpose."

Even if it meant, as it was in his worst nightmare, that the woman he said he loved and would burn the world to keep would become his enemy.

And there came to his mind's eye the last image of Sieglilly...

...before he had incinerated her.
And what more definitive end than that?

"Feel better?"

"Better's not quite the right word for it."

"At ease, then."

Zael's head bounced first to the left and then to the right in his brief consideration. "We'll go with that. Yeah, we'll go with that."

"Then I believe we've got one last stop to make."

"You're comin along for that?"

Ruslan walked up to Zael and clapped him heartily on the arm. "'Together have we ventured out, together will we return home.'"

"That sounds like a quote."

"It is."

Zael clapped Ruslan's arm as well. "Alright, then, Rus. I've got a feelin Lucy'll make a hell of an impression on you."

If this "Lucy Vale" woman lived up to at least half of her reputation, such as Ruslan had heard it said tonight, then he didn't doubt that in the slightest.