The Dawn Before Battle
Fire cackled in the torch stands that littered the grounds, illuminating the darkness of the night. The flames were fading to embers, their lives burning out as the night drew to an end. The dawn approached, creeping ever closer, but no sign of stirring came from the many soldiers camped in the square. Lily glanced over to a section of the wall, where Prei and Tate slept with their heads on each other’s shoulder. Their chests moved in a synchronised rise and fall as they breathed to the same rhythm. Lily felt that familiar maternal feeling, watching her daughter and friend sleeping in peace. She turned her gaze to the great doors in the wall, where Victoria was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wood of the door with her spear resting against her shoulder. She glanced up, matching Lily’s gaze. She motioned at the empty space next to her with a jerk of her head. Lily quietly moved over and sat down next to Victoria, taking care not to disturb the sleeping soldiers.
“You didn’t sleep, did you?”
“Neither did you, Victoria.”
“Ah, but the difference between us is, this is my city. I have an obligation to defend it.”
“Please. I have as much of a stake in this than you.”
Victoria gave Lily a sidelong glance and said nothing.
“…Fine. You do have more to lose.”
“Exactly. You have another home to return to, after all. You’re technically an outsider, despite my many attempts to bring you into our fold.”
“Heh. I especially liked the one where you offered to marry me. I might have taken it, too, were it not for the fact that my heart belongs to another. A noble title is a very tempting thing.”
“Yet my family would have benefitted from your genius far more than you would have benefitted from our influence. And you’re far too pragmatic a woman to seek a title for its own sake. You were never truly tempted by the offer. But I’m glad you’re trying to pretend you were. A noble’s pride can be a very annoying thing.”
Lily laughed quietly.
“You know me too well. It’s honestly rather alarming.”
“I’ve had a long life. Learning to read other people is a skill I’ve had much reason and opportunity to learn and master.”
The two women lapsed into silence. The hum of crickets crept into the air, their criers beginning to wake as night began to fade into dawn. Victoria spoke a barely audible word.
An ambiguous, inconspicuous word. Yet it carried so many questions behind it. Why had Lily decided to maintain relations with Riasode? Why was Lily willing to let her daughter join the garrison of a city that she herself did not want to be a part of? Why did Lily agree to fight in defence of this city? Why did Lily work so hard for the sake of this battle? Why was Lily losing sleep over this matter? Why did Lily care about this city which, by all accounts, should be none of her concern? Lily thought for a while before replying.
“Because it is impractical to live in isolation forever. Because I do feel some connection with this city by virtue of my parents’ work. Because my daughter found a calling, found a place she wanted to be, and it is certainly not my place to deny her that desire. Because I want to honor my parents by making sure their sacrifice does not amount to naught. Because Prei, my daughter, treasures this place, loves this place, considers this her home. And what mother would sit idly by as her daughter’s home was threatened?”
“There’s something else, though, isn’t there? Something that’s making you lose sleep.”
“Yes. There is. It’s Vessel.”
“Do you have some personal vendetta with her?”
“No, nothing of the sort. We’ve only met once, we’ve only exchanged three sentences. But… I think she used to be my friend.”
“Used to be?”
“…It’s a long story.”
“We have some time. We can’t do anything until the enemy decides to attack, and I find that there are few better ways to idle time away than with a good story.”
“…Fine. I’ve never told this story to anyone outside my family, so consider yourself lucky.”
“I will forever treasure this privilege.”
Thus, Lily launched into a retelling of her story, of her beginnings, of her fall in the Labyrinth and her discovery of Iris. She had intended to simply share about Hina and her suspicions, but as she continued to speak, the words flowed unbidden, and she found herself pouring out the entirety of her tale since that fateful day in Azoria. She spoke of her encounters in the wasteland, of her struggles to make herself new limbs. She spoke of her battle with the Warden, recounting in brilliant detail how she lost an arm in her attempt to tear off the armor plating. She told of her meeting with Tate and her encounter with the mechanical serpent upon the ocean. She spoke of retrieving Prei from the serpent and making the decision to raise her as a daughter. She spoke of her despair when she gazed upon the ruins of Azoria. She spoke of the difficulties she faced when building her house. She spoke of Hina, her old friend. She spoke of how Prei lived for years in fear of Hina’s katana. She spoke of how Vessel felt somehow familiar to her. She spoke of her suspicions, that Hina was Vessel. She shared her life, though she left out the details about releasing the seal and meeting Sarah. It felt good to open up to someone other than her family. It felt good to trust someone who wasn’t bound to her will in some way. It was cathartic.
When she finished, Victoria leaned her head against the door, taking in everything Lily had said.
“You’ve suffered a lot. I had thought myself to be the more experienced one of us. I had considered myself to have experienced far more of life’s troubles than you. I see now that I was wrong. What you’ve experienced in a mere nine years – it is arguably more than I’ve seen in my centuries of life. I apologise for my lack of respect.”
Lily shook her head.
“It’s fine. That would have been the natural assumption. But I suppose that’s why I care. Part of it, anyway. I want to know for sure, whether Vessel is truly Hina, and what happened to her. I want to know if there’s any of my old friend left.”
Victoria held Lily’s gaze.
“Then go find out.”
“When they attack, as they most certainly will, ride ahead of the army with a white flag – the sign for parley. See if you can’t get a chance to speak to Vessel. Maybe you’ll learn more. I doubt any vestige of your friend remains, but if that’s the case, then that, too, is closure.”
Lily narrowed her eyes.
“So you’re sending me as messenger, then. In case they decide not to negotiate.”
“As expected, you know exactly what I’m going for. In my defence, you’re logically the best option. You probably have the highest chance for survival if they decide to refuse and attack.”
“…Granted, that’s probably true.”
Lily was not one for false modesty. That much was clear from the fact that the plan she had outlined involved her single-handedly fighting thousands of mages. She knew what she was capable of. The two women lapsed into silence as the first rays of dawn finally began to break the horizon. At that exact moment, three short trumpet blows sounded from the lookout on the walls. Immediately, the soldier sleeping on the ground leapt to their feet and started assembling into ranks. Prei and Tate got up off their spot against the wall and shared a quick hug. Then Tate ran toward the center of the town as Prei began to organise the soldiers. Lily and Victoria shared a glance and nodded, affirming each other. Getting up off the ground, Victoria signalled to open the gates.
The large wooden doors slowly swung open, revealing a cloud of dust in the distance, kicked up by the advancing host, ranks upon ranks of soldiers, marching at a measured pace, armor gleaming in the light of the new day.
They were coming.