"How goes the conflict?" Duchess Valda leaned forward, seated in her throne as she attended court for the day. Standing before her were the captains of her military forces; the captain of the guard and high captain of the Windseer armed forces and his subordinates.
"Exceptionally well so far." the high captain said, stepping forward, first to speak in order of rank. He was everything one would expect in a war veteran: tall, muscular and scarred on practically every part of his body. His wing membranes were tattered, completely useless for flight. Despite his appearance, he stood tall and proud, bearing his marks with honor in the name of his Duchess. "The Drakesire forces are stubborn, though, and very resourceful. They aren't going down quietly, even as we whittle away their numbers and sack their fortresses, and more and more of their army defects."
"Very good." the draconic Duchess let herself relax a little, falling back into her seat and curling her tail around her ankle, "You can hand your detailed report to my strategist in the barracks, and I will work out the details of our next move with him. Keep your men well fed and prepared in the meantime, and do not engage Drakesire forces unless they attack first."
"Of course, Duchess." the other dragon bent his knee, lowering his head in respect, "That will be all for my report then. However, the captain of the guard has news for you as well."
"Indeed? You are relieved then, high captain. Captain Gerik of the city watch, please step forward."
The scarred war vet took his leave, and a far younger-looking dragon took his place at the base of Valda's throne, clearing his throat to speak, "A man in black approached the castle walls today, my Lady."
Valda furrowed her brow at this, tapping a clawed fingertip on one of the arms of her chair, "What did he want?"
"He said his organization did not take kindly to having their scouts coming back injured... or not coming back at all. He said that if we continue to harass the cloaked men who try to enter the city, we will suffer grave consequences."
"And did you slay him?"
"No, my Lady, we--"
Valda's fist hitting the fine wood of her throne interrupted him, "Next time, I don't even want you to hear a word of their nonsense. Is that understood? None of that refuse is allowed within my city."
The young dragon bowed low, his voice shaking slightly, "Of course... Yes, Duchess."
She softened a little bit, letting out a sigh and waving dismissively, "At ease. Return to your duties." the dragoness nodded to one of her aides, "Summon my strategist. If I must contend with two wild dogs at once, then I'll simply use a double-headed spear."
Tacitus sighed and leaned back on his chair, a book laid out in front of him on a desk, the room illuminated by candlelight. He rubbed the back of his neck and took a look outside at the setting sun. Valda had been downstairs for a long time tonight, and he could almost taste the tension in the air.
"Guess she's dealing with more crap." he leaned forward again, returning to his book. He had been going through books like crazy since he'd settled into his place in the castle, having nothing more to do aside from satisfy Valda's urges, which admittedly took up a lot more time than he would have imagined had he not experienced them himself.
"Well! I'm bored." he said, shoving the book to the back of the desk and pushing his chair out in one motion, "Time to do some wandering."
Taci walked out into the hallway and stretched, taking all of two steps before running into something very plush and bouncy.
"Oh... please, excuse me." a familiar voice said, dragging out the 's' sound in "excuse".
The fox pulled back from the large pair of breasts he'd run into, casting his eyes upward and blushing up a storm, "M-Miss Emiko..! I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention."
Emiko let out a little chuckle, covering her lips in a ladylike fashion and offering her hand to the fox, which he promptly kissed, "Lost in thought, little slave fox? Thoughts of who, I wonder..."
"Ah... no, I was just..." he turned away and cleared his throat, "How have you been, Miss Emiko? It's been a while."
"It has." the lamia's platinum scales shimmered as she glided along the floor, having decided to take the fox with her, a small hand resting on the shoulder opposite to her, "The life of a slave Mistress is a busy one. Fulfilling, but busy." a grin crossed her lips, emerald eyes sneaking a peek down at him, "And I imagine your role keeps you quite occupied as well."
The heat returned to his cheeks, "It does. Duchess Valda leads a very stressful life, and I am always more than happy to um... relieve some of that stress."
Emiko chuckled again and stopped at a bench at the end of the hallway, inviting him to take a seat upon her coils as she settled onto it, "So choosy with your words. You still like to dodge around openly admitting that you're there to pleasure her?"
"I-It's not that, Miss." he squirmed on his scaly seat a bit, avoiding eye contact with her, "I'm just... me. That's the only way I can be, you know?"
"Of course." she planted a soft kiss on his furry cheek, a loop of coil crossing over his lap as she settled in close to him, "Our Lady has an eye for talent. Or maybe it's more of a tendency to bring out the desires in others that makes her so good at what she does. Of course, if that were true, she wouldn't need me, now would she?"
"I... can't answer that." Taci settled in against the harem Mistress and let out a soft sigh, finally allowing himself to relax.
"Mm I know. I'm just teasing you, little fox." Emiko giggled and stroked over his ears with her fingers, making him sink lower against her body.
"Am I holding you up from something?"
"Oh, no. I'm merely stretching out a little. It's been some time since I wandered about the castle proper. I think people even began to forget I existed." she snickered softly and flicked out her forked tongue, "I swear one of the nobles did a double-take. Earned him a nice slap from his lover."
"People would be hard-pressed not to stare at you, Miss." the fox admitted, sharing in her laugh and letting his eyes drift shut. Everyone in the palace had such skilled fingers, particularly around his ears. Or perhaps he was just incredibly sensitive.
"Such a flatterer. Maybe I'll tell Duchess Valda that you've been flirting with me." Emiko playfully fanned herself, grinning at the fearful look in his eyes, "Oh Duchess... Your slave made several passes at me, and I, a simple fair lady, could barely resist his charms. How could you suffer such an unfaithful servant?"
"It would be the end of me." Taci rubbed his eyes, cheeks redder than ever, "Gods, would it ever be."
"Oh, I don't think she'd punish you."
"I meant more that I'd die from embarrassment."
She laughed loudly at that, openly this time, hugging him around the waist and giving his neck a firm kiss, "Oh, Taci... Don't change. Please, don't."
"Too often, the slaves I receive down in the harem are broken, used, abused... and barely even people." her smile faded slightly, turning her affections to the fox's belly, rubbing through his robe, "I try my best to repair their personalities and make them remember who they used to be. Not too much, of course-- they are slaves, after all, and they're here to give pleasure. But enough so that I'm not keeping a harem of golems."
Tacitus couldn't find words for this. Emiko had always been very firm and assertive around him, casting seductive gazes and touching in every little place that would make him blush at every opportunity she got. It was strange to hear her speaking so earnestly.
"My point is..." she said, apparently rousing herself from her solemnity, "You have much of what many of the others lack. I'd hate to see it wasted... or removed entirely."
"Well, Miss... Our Lady has been very careful about altering me."
"I know she has." she finally smiled again, leaning back against the bench and closing her eyes, "Forgive me."
"No, no. It's ok." Taci shook his head, seeking out one of the lamia's hands and giving it a gentle squeeze, "You're surrounded by groveling, moaning slaves all day and all night. It must have been ages since you've been able to really speak of this to anyone."
Emiko snorted a little and laughed again, lacing her fingers with his and turning his head with her free hand so that she could kiss his muzzle, "The day I'd let a slave show me comfort. I must have let my guard down."
Footsteps interrupted their little moment. Duchess Valda stopped a couple feet away, a friendly, yet oddly serious expression written upon her, "Sorry for this, but... I need to see you, Taci."
"Oh, Duchess, you needn't worry. I'm not stealing your bedmate from you." Emiko grinned, releasing Tacitus from her hold and giving the dragoness a wink.
Valda cracked half a smile, crossing her arms and motioning for the fox to join her at her side, which he did, "Of course not, Emi, and it'd be a right shame if you tried. Your scales are beautiful, but they'd be wasted on a belt or a pair of boots."
"So possessive." the lamia chuckled, rising up from her seat, "Don't worry, my Lady. I've got a whole mass of writhing, moaning flesh, fur and scales down below just waiting for my very word."
"When you say it like that..." Taci seemed to have envisioned that particular choice of words quite literally, looking a little disturbed.
"Alright, we can joke around later." Valda hooked her tail tip through his collar and gave a light tug, "This is important."
"Sorry Duchess, I'm coming." the fox kept in pace behind her, turning back to wave to the castle's harem Mistress, "It was good seeing you again, Miss Emiko."
"And you, Tacitus." she blew a kiss to him, giving a teasing wink, "And should you ever find yourself needing something other than being roughly pounded from beh--"
"Important stuff! Gotta go!" Taci quickened his pace, his face practically glowing, ears pointing down to try and drown out Emiko's cackling.
Valda led him into her chamber and had him close the door behind them, releasing his collar and leaning back against the far wall, "So... the war with the Drakesires is progressing smoothly, but they're holding onto the little bit of land they still have. If we play our cards right, this little squabble ought to be over within a few more months. Then maybe this country can finally see some peace."
"That's... good to hear." Taci scratched at one of his ears to work out an itch, lifting a brow at her, "But that's not what's so important, is it?"
"Perceptive." she grinned and folded her arms again, "We had a visitor today, at the castle gates."
"A messenger from the Silent Hand."
Tacitus went cold. He turned away, facing the wall to the right and clamming up.
"It seems that our actions against their scouts have provoked some anger from them. Not that I expected anything less. They are a persistent bunch, I'll give them that."
The fox spoke up, still not facing her, "What will we do?"
Now it was her turn to pause. She looked down at the floor, mumbling something under her breath before continuing, "If they're intent on warring with us, then I will give them what they want. But I will not suffer the existence of such a malevolent force in this great country. They face elimination at my hands."
"What?" Tacitus spun around to face his Duchess, eyes wide with disbelief.
Valda's voice remained steely, repeating her intentions without so much as a blink, "I'm going to destroy the Silent Hand."
"But... you'll never find them. Not all of them."
"True. You can never find all traces of your opposition in war." the dragoness moved over to her window to look outside, glancing down at the castle courtyard where her soldiers-- now consisting of her own men and women plus converted Drakesire soldiers-- trained and readied for battle. "But to kill the snake, you must remove its head... and this clan you belonged to has five heads, does it not?"
Taci's hands balled up into fists. Somewhere in his mind he'd known this day was coming, but could never prepare for it. He took a couple steps toward her, his voice shaking slightly, "Do you really think you can win a war like this through conventional warfare?"
"My soldiers are unlike any others, Taci. You know that."
"Yes, I do. But I also know that an assassin like me could sneak by them with no problem, and I'm not even the best at what I do."
Valda turned her head to glance back at him, "You sound a little upset, my fox."
"Are you still having hang ups about your former allies being in my sights?"
The fox fell silent for a long moment, letting out a heavy sigh, "Do you want me to be honest?"
"Then yes, I do."
Now it was Valda's turn to sigh, the dragoness turning to face him once again, "I suggest you forget about them, pet. They profit from the pain and deaths of others. They are a blight upon this great countryside, and I will not rest until all of Veramir is purified of such filth."
"They're..." Taci hung his head and growled lowly, trying not to let his emotions overcome his judgment. She was his Duchess, after all. She'd never punished him before (in a bad way, at least), but there was no saying that she wouldn't, if he showed any sign of disloyalty.
"All filth." Valda finished his sentence, "Can you name even one who even comes close to your level of... well, let's call it 'civility'."
'Lore. I'll never abandon you. I promise.'
The memory stung him like no wasp could ever manage, his hand finding its way to his aching heart. He was silent for a long moment, finally turning away and heading for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To save the last bastion of goodness that exists within that place."
"You're going back there?" Valda stepped forward, eyes narrowed and voice stern, "Heel, slave."
Tacitus stopped short for a moment... then took another step.
"I said 'heel'. Don't make me tell you again."
"I... I cannot obey that command, Duchess."
"You've been gone for months. Who's to say they won't kill you on sight? We've managed to deflect all their scouting attempts since then, but what if someone talked?"
"It's a risk I must take."
The dragoness gritted her teeth. Clearly she did not appreciate defiance. "I am your Duchess, Tacitus. Your Queen. Your Empress. You swore fealty to me, and I expect you to live up to that, as I do with all my people."
"I made a promise to a friend." Taci turned back to her, his blue eyes blazing with a flame unseen since his last assassination attempt. The attempt on the life of the very dragoness he now stood before. "I think that means a lot more than being your cocksleeve whenever you feel pent up."
Valda was taken aback, her mouth hanging open as her mind raced for a response. The anger had vanished from her entirely, leaving only shock in its place.
Tacitus wasn't about to wait for her to respond to his outburst. He made his way for the door and swung it open.
"Tacitus..!" Valda winced as the chamber door slammed shut. She found her way to her bed and sat, pulling a pillow into her lap and squeezing it against her chest, "Tacitus... You're more than just some sex toy to me. Can't you see that by now..?"
Every step the fox took felt heavy, like he was straining against every impulse that told him to go back, to return to his Duchess and seek forgiveness. But he couldn't. Not yet. He would endure any punishment she saw fit to deliver, if he could only save Lore from the coming purge.
"Stupid fox." he grumbled to himself, "You were stupid to think she'd care."
The draconic sorceress' charms still held influence over his mind, but she had lessened them some over their time together, to give him some of his personality back and make him more of a person and less of a mindless slave. What little of her influence that still remained consisted mostly of things only relevant in the bedroom, plus a set of obedience triggers to keep him nice and loyal... and now, even those were just noise. Senseless static in his head, all but entirely irrelevant now. It terrified him, and yet somehow it felt so liberating.
He made his way to the throne room and grabbed up a piece of parchment, a quill and an inkwell, weaving between nobles and guardsmen alike. One of the guards moved in to intercept him, "Hey, watch where you're going, will you? Slow down."
"I am in no mood." the fox growled, shoving past the armored dragon and swiftly dodging a steel-clad fist, grabbing the guard's arm and using the momentum from his swing to tip him over his shoulder, flooring the man before he even knew his punch hadn't connected. A crowd gathered, surprised voices mumbling amongst themselves. Two more guards approached Tacitus with their swords drawn.
"Just because you're the Duchess' fuckslave, doesn't give you the right to assault her guards, you little shit." the first growled, standing on one side of Tacitus while the second circled around, "Now why don't you come nice and quiet-like, so we don't have to explain to her that we had to cut up her favorite tube sock?"
The fox reached for his daggers, the one remnant of his former life he'd been allowed to keep, and clutched their hilts, growling lowly and crouching down, "Is that how this is going to be? Do you value your lives that little?"
"I think he's threatening us." the second guard said, raising his sword, "Maybe he'll be a little more polite if he loses some blood."
"Yeah, I think so." the first grinned, taking a step forward.
"Both of you, stand down." the voice of the castle slave Mistress called out, silencing the crowd with the force of her words alone. Emiko glided down the castle stairs on her long tail, clad in nothing but her typical harem outfit. She was completely unarmed.
"Why do we have to listen to a slave? Step off, snake."
"If you cut so much as a hair on him, I will send you back to your captain in very small boxes." her voice remained quite calm, despite the implication she'd just made. She didn't seem to notice Tacitus' stunned expression as he stared at her from across the room.
"So you're throwing in your lot with him, are you? Why don't I see just how much I can get for those scales of yours?"
Emiko smirked, slithering forward and untying her top, letting it fall down to the floor and presenting her bare chest to the guard, "Go ahead then. Bury your blade deep within my heart, dragon. And enjoy explaining to our Duchess how you're going to acquire a new slave trainer with the same skills as me. Or did you think Astyria would find some other, equally-profitable trade?"
The guard hesitated, and soon he was sliding his sword back into its sheath.
"That's a good boy." she reached out to pat his cheek, leaning to the side and giving Tacitus a nod.
The fox managed to break free of his stupor. He'd have to ask where she managed to acquire such a huge pair of balls in such a short amount of time when he had the luxury of doing so. He made his way to the castle door, the crowd parting to make way.
The angry guard snorted and watched as Emiko retrieved her top, "What, is it some kind of whore uprising? Why would you go against the Duchess like that?"
"I'm not." Emiko said passively as she tied her skimpy coverings once again, "And you would do well to remind your fellow guards that attacking the Lady's property is a very unwise decision." a little smirk came over her lips, "For one, because he's far quicker than you... and for two, he could probably get away with killing the lot of you."
Tacitus mounted up and took off at top speed away from Mardux, grasping the reins of his horse tight and trying to hold onto that adrenaline from his little scuffle. It distracted him from the anxiety that threatened to push his heart out through his chest.
"The fae woods. That's where I need to go. Not too far, not too close. Perfect."
The aptly-named "fae woods" was a forested region between the Astyrian and Drakesire-held Toran territories and the underground hideaway of the Silent Hand. Many scouts and assassins had employed the fae folk in the past to deliver messages back and forth when written letters were absolutely necessary for communication. Unlike mortals, the fae were bound not by principle, but by a magical contact known to them as "the binding seal", which forbade them from divulging any details of their agreements with mortals to any but the intended recipient. This made them quite trustworthy, and the perfect messengers for cutthroats such as those from the Silent Hand.
Taci had passed through the woods on both of his trips to Mardux, but he'd never had the need to employ the aid of a fae. "First time for everything." he muttered to himself as the first glimmer of pixie light appeared in the trees on the horizon. The sun had just gone down, making the glimmering lamplight-glow of the faefolk's magic stand out like stars on a clear night sky. They were active, and that meant there would be plenty available for hiring. Hopefully.
He slowed his horse to a trot as he reached the forest's edge, moving in carefully and keeping his eyes peeled. The fae were indeed worthwhile workers, but they were also thieves, tricksters and pranksters. It all depended on what sort of fae one ran into, as to how they would react to a mortal's presence.
He stopped in the center of the forest, dismounting and tying his horse to a tree, then sat down and took out his quill and parchment. It took him a long while to figure out what he wanted to write in his letter. He only had one piece of parchment, and only so much ink. He'd have to make it count. Eventually he felt satisfied with his message, rolling up the parchment and tying it together with a bit of twine.
Now all that was left was payment. He dug into his pocket and produced a flawlessly-cut garnet, holding it up to the moonlight and watching it glimmer. It had come with the payment of his last assassination before he'd been sent after Valda, and he'd never gotten around to doing anything with it.
"Guess it'd be put to better use by a fae in the end." he said, pocketing the gemstone again and walking deeper into the woods, looking behind trees, under leaves of plants, even checking his hood a couple times-- pixies sometimes liked to nap in the hoods of robes, because of the warm fabric. There were glowing lights all around, but each time he tried to call to one, it would flit away, answering with little more than a buzzing of tiny wings. Eventually he found one lounging on a large leafy plant, apparently dozing off.
"Excuse me." he said, tapping the leaf a couple times, "Um... hello?"
The diminutive humanoid didn't respond, turning over and letting out an inaudible yawn, stretching out her arms and seeming to curl up to sleep again.
"Hey... I'm talking to you." he shook the leaf a little harder, this time knocking the poor little fae around with it.
That seemed to wake her up, the tiny female squeaking and holding onto the leaf until it stopped shaking. She was quickly in his face, hovering in front of his nose and giving it a little kick that felt like a fly bite, "Hey! What's the big idea!"
"Calm down. I was just--"
"Don't you tell me to calm down, fox!" she landed on his muzzle, causing him to go cross-eyed to focus on her, "Just tell me what you want."
"I-- I wanted to hire you for a delivery!"
"Oh." the anger seemed to vanish from her tiny features all at once, "Well why didn't you say so?" the little pixie sat cross-legged on his muzzle, "What can I do for you?"
Taci held up the letter, which was quickly grasped by the pixie's magic, floating in the air beside his muzzle, "I want you to deliver this to a woman named Lore. She's a gecko, and she--"
"One moment." she stood again, hopping off his muzzle and touching a finger to his forehead. Taci felt a strange tickle in the back of his mind that he went to scratch, but quickly found that he couldn't move a muscle. The pixie's features scrunched a little as she seemed to search for something in his head, until finally releasing him from her spell, eyes opening wide with fear, "Y-You want me to go... there?"
"The Silent Hollow... Yeah." he cracked his neck a little, happy to be able to move again.
"They won't... hurt me, will they?"
"No. They've been coming through these parts for years."
"Still." the pixie sighed and floated upward, sitting herself down on his head between his ears, "Very well then, but I want something good for this. Call it hazard pay if you want. I'm not stepping foot in any assassins' den without proper payment."
Tacitus managed to smile. She was funny, this little pixie. He reached into his pocket and brought out the gem he'd examined before, holding it up for her to see, "Will this suffice?"
If only he could have seen her face. She just about lit up, both literally and figuratively, her magical aura brightening excitedly, "W... Wow. Um... I mean... yes. Yes, that um... that will do." she quickly snatched up the gem with her magic, plucking it greedily from his fingers and sitting on top of it as it floated before him, "Very well then. I will deliver your letter to Miss Lore Alandra, in exchange for this... beautiful thing."
"How did you know her--"
"Last name?" the pixie giggled and poked his forehead, "What did you think I was looking for in your head, silly? I got every detail I needed about her in order to complete my job."
Tacitus almost blushed, "Better hope that's all you found."
"Oh, relax, fuzzy. I'm honor-bound by the binding seal to only read relevant details from an employer's mind." she bounced a couple times before taking off into the air again, "Speaking of which, are you ready to seal the deal?"
"Yeah, I'm ready. What do I do?"
"Oh, nothing much. I do most of the work. You simply say what I tell you to say, when I tell you, and let me do my thing."
"Ok." he fidgeted awkwardly, suddenly uncertain for some reason.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it's just... I'm a little nervous about what she might do or say or..."
"Well you can sit there worrying, or you can find out. I say find out."
He gave her a little nod, patting his chest a couple times, "Alright. Let's do this then."
"Yes sir!" the pixie held out the letter and the gem before her, her aura encircling both items as they spun in place, "I, Lilia Woodwhisper, do hereby swear on the honor of the binding seal that I will deliver the letter of this fox-- say your name."
"-- to the gecko named Lore Alandra, paid up front with this beautiful gemstone, under penalty of eternal misfortune and misery, should I abandon my promise." she turned to Tacitus and once again took a spot on his muzzle, "Tacitus, are these terms acceptable to you?"
"Yes." he almost nodded, but quickly remembered that she was standing on his nose.
"Excellent!" the pixie buzzed alongside of his face, leaning in to give a magical kiss to his cheek. He felt a warm tingle, and his body glowed for just a moment, leaving everything sharing in that strange warmth afterward.
"The hell was that?"
"That's the spell. Until I deliver your letter, I am bound to your service. Should I abandon my promise, I will be cursed with the most horrible of misfortunes."
"A little harsh, but hey... I guess it's pretty good motivation."
"You don't know the half of it." she floated up into the air and gathered both the letter and her payment close, "Now, I'll not be long. Please wait here."
With a blinding flash, the pixie cast another spell, and was gone, leaving Tacitus with only his horse and his anxiety to keep him company.
"Little spark had better not steal from me." he grumbled, leaning back against a tree, "I'll pull off her wings and eat them."
Lore sighed and tossed another throwing knife at the old, beat-up target on her wall. She hadn't been feeling like herself at all recently. Her most recent mission had been unsatisfying and simple, and as much as she hated to admit it, she felt that she needed a more exciting kill to occupy her time with.
Then, of course, there was Tacitus' disappearance. She had been the first to volunteer to go and look for him, and her passion for rescuing her friend or at least recovering his body had earned her an arrow to the shoulder. The Mardux city guards were just as vigilant as the Silent Hand had said, and in her haste, she'd gone and opened herself up for injury. Luckily they didn't fire a second volley, allowing her to run back and give what little bit of a report that she could. She would return to the city several times for scouting attempts, keeping a healthy distance after the arrow incident, never coming up with anything she could use to find her friend. The Silent Hand had given up on ever finding him, but she sure hadn't.
Another dagger hit the wooden bull's eye on the wall, "I'd give anything just to have something stimulating happen right now."
As if on cue, a bright light flashed a few feet above her head, blinding her momentarily. She blinked a couple times as it faded, looking up at the pixie that had just appeared in front of her, "Can I... help you?"
"Message for you!" the little thing sang out happily, levitating the rolled up scroll down to her, "It's from Tacitus."
"Tacitus?!" Lore grabbed up the letter and quickly untied the twine, unrolling the scroll and holding it up to the light so she could see. Now, more than ever, she was glad that Taci had taught her to read.
I know it's been a long time since we've seen one another, and I'm sorry for that. As you might have guessed, I haven't exactly been able to return to the Hollow. I'm sure you must be upset or angry, and I doubt my explanation will change that at all, should you choose to hear it... but I want to see you. I need to see you. This is the single most important thing I will ever need to tell you, and I cannot risk putting it down on paper. I need to see you in person, and not only because of this urgent news. I miss you. A lot.
Please, if you can, meet me in the fae woods. The fae delivering this letter should be able to lead you there if necessary. I will remain in the woods for the rest of tonight and all of tomorrow, but any longer and... well, I can't say that here. Looking forward to seeing you.
"This fox who gave you the letter." Lore said, unable to stop the thundering of her heart in her chest, tears welling up in her eyes, "What did he look like?"
"Black fur, blue eyes... a fancy-looking robe." the pixie shrugged, "It was dark, so I couldn't see much else."
"It's ok. I'm fairly confident that it was him." the gecko rolled up the letter and pocketed it, grabbing her cloak and slipping it on, quickly fastening it shut and putting on her boots, "Thank you for delivering the letter. Did he pay you?"
"He sure did." the pixie once again stared down at the gem she'd been given, tiny fingers moving over its surface, "He could have given me ten letters to mail for this..."
Lore might have found that funny, had she not been so focused on finding her friend. She clipped her daggers' sheaths to her belt and took a deep breath, "Alright. Thanks again. If you see him on your return trip, tell him I'll be there."
"Very well. I could do the magic seal for that, too, if you want reassurance."
"No time. I'll just have to take your word for it." without another word, Lore slipped through her door and shut it behind her, quickly making her way out of the Hollow and riding toward the fae woods. She didn't know what to think or what to feel. The poor girl was angry, ecstatic and anxious all at once. "Hell with it." she said, giving her cheeks a quick slap, "I'll just have to... hit him or something when I get there."
Taci had just about fallen asleep when the pixie returned in another brilliant flash of light, fluttering into his hood and snuggling into the fabric, "She's coming. Left in a hurry, too. Guess that letter was really important."
"Yeah, it was." he squirmed a little, the pixie's wings tickling his neck, "You think when she gets here, you can... not take up residence in my cloak?"
"Yeah, of course. It's just so soft..." she giggled and tugged a bit of the fabric around her, letting out a soft little sigh, "You mortals are so lucky. You have farms meant for gathering silk. Faefolk need to harvest abandoned spider webs. It gets expensive."
The fox laughed and slowly rose to his feet, keeping an ear out for any footsteps, "Well that gem ought to get you some nice silk, right?"
"Oh, absolutely! Thank you, by the way. That was a very generous offer."
He shrugged and pulled his hood back, letting her enjoy its comforts while she could, "It was just taking up pocket space. I have no use for such frivolities."
"Oh?" she crawled up onto his head, hanging over the front so she could look down at his face, "You're different then."
"Different than what?"
"The other assassins, I guess." she dropped down and landed on his muzzle, "They were very particular with their payments."
Taci snorted, "I guess they knew how to enjoy themselves better than I did, then. I spent my coin on food, drink and books."
"Well... then I think you know more about enjoyment than they do."
"Yeah? What makes you say that?"
"Well obviously those men and women were spending their coin on drinking themselves stupid and time with pleasurable company." she poked him between his eyes, "But not you. You spent it only on what really made you happy."
"And what's to say drinking and fucking doesn't make them happy?"
"Have you looked at their faces? They don't look very happy."
"And I do, huh?" he leaned back slowly, so as to not knock her around, "I guess I was pretty happy, yeah."
"You look pretty happy now, too." the little pixie floated down to rest on his shoulder, "I don't mean physically 'look'. We see emotions differently from mortals."
Taci snorted, lifting a brow and turning to look down at her, "Then you must be full of crap, because I'm not exactly glowing with joy at the moment."
"But you are happy. Deep down, beneath the surface. I can tell, you've got a nice, happy place to go back to. But right now it's making you kind of sad, right?"
He felt an ache in his chest, and the little fae, Lilia, seemed to take notice. The fox sighed and leaned his head back, "I don't know if I can go back there after this."
"You can always try."
"I know, but... I guess I'm afraid to."
A little hand brushed over his cheek fur. "You hold yourself back with your fears, fuzzy. You hurt yourself with them. Every time you decide not to take that step, or bite your tongue instead of speaking. Right?"
He could have been impressed by her assessment. It was all true, of course. Not that there was a thing he could do about it. Taci rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger, shaking his head, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but this knowledge is nothing new to me. I can't help being... me."
"I guess not." Lilia rose into the air, her newly-acquired gem in tow, "Your friend is coming."
"Is she? I didn't--" before he could finish, the sound of hooves hitting dirt met his ears. He turned in the direction of the sound, turning back in the fae's direction to thank her, but finding that she'd vanished. At least she'd made good on her promise to give him some privacy.
Lore stopped her horse when she spotted her friend, pushing her hood back and dismounting slowly. The two stared at one another for what seemed like forever, words caught up in their throats as they were overcome with emotion. Lore was the first to act, stepping forward and trying to swallow the lump in her throat, "Tacitus..."
"Hey... Lore." the fox managed to say, smiling as best as he could. He'd already prepared himself for the worst.
"Tacitus!" Lore launched herself at him, squeezing him into a tight embrace and nuzzling his cheek, "Tacitus... is it really you? I'm not dreaming, am I? Oh gods, please tell me this is real!"
"Lore, relax. I'm real. I'm really here." he chuckled and took a step back so he could keep his balance, holding her shaking form against him a little more firmly than he'd thought he would, "Lore, I'm sorry..."
"N-No... No, Taci, don't apologize." she sniffled, wiping tears from her eyes and covering his cheeks in kisses, "Oh gods, I'm so relieved. I thought they'd killed you for sure."
Taci laughed again and helped to clean the moisture from his friend's scales, trying not to let his own tears fall, "Please Lore, do you really think I'd let myself die like that?"
"No, I guess not." she giggled and hugged him again, practically smothering him with affection, "I never stopped. Never stopped looking for you. Never gave up hope that you were still alive."
"Lore..." he bit his lower lip, guilt already beginning to creep up alongside the joy of seeing his friend again.
The ecstatic gecko finally released him from her embrace, picking up on his distress quite easily, "Taci... What's wrong?"
"It's... about that thing I had to tell you." he sat down against a tree and motioned for her to join him, "The Silent Hand is on the brink of war with Astyria."
"War? You don't 'war' with the Silent Hand, Taci. You know that." Lore rolled her eyes a bit, "It's more of a hunt than a war when people come after us."
"Well Duchess Valda doesn't see a difference. She's going to destroy them one way or another, in her eyes."
"It's impossible." Lore said, leaning against him and letting out an amused sigh, "Normal soldiers can't go toe-to-toe with an assassin, especially on our home turf. Plus, no one who has found the Hollow has ever left it alive."
Tacitus felt his heart sink, and the unmistakable sensation of inevitability fell upon him. He bit his tongue, not yet ready to face her with the truth.
"Taci?" Lore poked him, leaning in closer when she didn't get a response, "Taci, what's wrong? What's..." she tried to turn his head toward her, but stopped when her finger slipped down to his neck and felt something leather. She tugged his robe down to get a good look, eyes widening in realization, "My gods, Taci... They made you into a slave?"
"There's more." he quietly admitted, voice beginning to shake, "And it won't be easy for you to hear, but..."
"No, Taci, I understand. I know, it must have been horrible." Lore began to unbuckle the collar, crying out in surprise when her hand was slapped away, "What, have you grown attached to it or something? I mean, it's handsome and all, but what it must represent..."
"Lore, listen to me." the fox tried to sound stern, but all his firmness was quickly failing him under the weight of guilt, "I told Duchess Valda where the Hollow was. She knows where to find the Hand because I showed her."
"I... figured that. You were her captive."
"But it's not that simple." he growled, taking Lore's hand and squeezing it hard, "Lore, that place... Mardux... It's my home now."
A heavy silence fell over them. Lore tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn't let go. He could tell that she was angry already.
"What did you just say?"
"I said... it's my home." he breathed out his words, casting his gaze downward.
"How could you say that, Taci? Do you mean you've... betrayed us? You've betrayed me?"
Tacitus squeezed his eyes shut, "Please, let me explain."
"Oh, by all means!" Lore said, finally pulling herself away from him, "I've been waiting for a damn explanation for months!"
He took a deep breath, letting it out slow and slumping back against the tree behind him, "You know how my mission was to proceed by now, I'm sure."
"Yeah. Number One told me before he sent me to try and find you."
"Well, I almost succeeded." he took hold of his dagger and squeezed the hilt, "I almost managed to kill her, and back then I even wanted to. But now... I feel sick at the mere thought of it."
"What did she do to you, Taci? What did she pay you? Offer you?" Lore grabbed his cloak and shook him, "What could some noble ever give you that we couldn't?"
"A way out!" his free hand took hold of Lore's arm, his eyes again blazing with a passionate flame, "Valda, she... She showed me that I didn't have to lead that kind of a life, Lore! She saved me from it all."
"So you just gave yourself up." Lore sighed and shook her head, looking down on him with disdain, "Let everyone think you were dead, so you could live happily."
"It wasn't my ch--" he stopped himself, clamping his mouth shut. He hadn't want to let out that little detail, but now it was too late.
"So you were a captive!" Lore seemed to become hopeful at this, leaning in again and trying to let herself smile, "They did something to you. It's the collar, isn't it? It's got some kind of charm on it, right?"
"No, it's not the collar." he figured he might as well say it all, now that the cat was out of the bag, "Valda... was the one who charmed me. At first, that was all it was. I couldn't resist. I was happy because that was what she desired of me."
"So we can... we can help you. We can fix you, Taci!" Lore pulled on his sleeve to try and get him to his feet, growling under her breath when he wouldn't budge, "The Hollow has plenty of mystics and enchanters! We can get your mind back to normal easily if you'd just... come home with me!"
Tacitus pulled his arm away, causing her to fall on top of him, "Lore, listen. Over time, the effects of her spells began to wear off. She lessened their effect on me so that I'd be a little less like a slave and more like a person. And..." he hesitated, once again turning away from her, "I realized... that I didn't want to go back."
"I wanted to come back to you, Lore, don't get me wrong. But that life... Killing again and again, and for what? To fill my pockets with gold? To let some filthy soul live happily knowing that his unfaithful wife now sat in a pool of her own blood? Why would I ever want to go back to that, when I'd found someone who appreciated me for more than my ability to kill?"
"You already had someone like that, you stupid fox!" Lore drew back her fist and punched him in the cheek, knocking him onto his side. She began to cry again, shaking as she knelt down next to him, grabbing him by the collar of his robe and pulling him up so that they were face to face, "I never cared how good of a killer you were, Tacitus... I loved you for everything else you were. For everything you did for me."
Taci barely even reacted, numbed by her sudden aggression, even as her tears fell upon his fur. He closed his eyes, letting a sigh slip from his lips, "I'm sorry, Lore."
"You're sorry? You're sorry? Is that really all you can say for yourself?" she glared down at him, waiting for a response, but received none. The gecko dropped him with a frustrated groan, standing quickly and making her way back over to her horse, "Fine. You can enjoy your new life. I'm glad you warned me about her plan, but the rest of this... makes me wish you'd never contacted me at all."
"Lore, wait!" Taci crawled up to his feet and stumbled after her, still dizzy from her punch, "Lore... It doesn't have to be like this."
"Then you'll come back with me?" she seemed to be trying not to sound too hopeful, but the emotion managed to slip out into her voice.
"No, you come with me." Tacitus grabbed her arm and gave her a tug, "You don't enjoy killing any more than I do, Lore. Valda can help you!"
"Oh, like she helped you?" Lore spun around, freeing her arm from his grasp and pointing an accusing finger at him, "How do I know you aren't just here to capture me and bring me back for interrogation?"
"You're her slave, Tacitus. She's warped your mind before, right? How can I be sure you're still you? Hell, how can you be sure of that anymore? Do you even remember who you used to be?"
"Of course I do!" the fox growled, squeezing his hands into fists, "Tacitus Bren, former member of the Silent Hand, son of Laura Jade and Thomas Bren. Grew up in the Bren farmstead of Duskden. I know everything that I've always known, Lore. Valda might be a mind-altering sorceress, but she isn't cruel!"
"Do you really think any of that matters to me, Taci?" Lore sighed and rubbed her head, trying to ease the pain of a headache, "You are a slave, Taci. A slave. And dressed as you are, I shiver to think of the things you're used for."
A hint of redness appeared on his cheeks, "I'm a slave because... I..."
"You what? Because you want it? Because you like being one? And who do you think told you that?"
Once again Taci's eyes turned to the floor, "I don't expect you to understand, Lore."
"Oh no, Taci. I understand perfectly." the gecko approached him again and took hold of his head, leaning in and pressing a firm kiss to his muzzle. She held him there for a long time, trembling against his body as she fought for control over her emotions, "I love you, Tacitus... but I can't go with you. I can't live my life like... that."
"But... why?" he was stunned by the kiss, and for some reason her admission of love only made him more depressed.
"Because I don't bend my knee to anyone, Taci. Not even the Silent Hand itself could make me kneel." Lore sighed and wiped her eyes again, taking a step toward him, then thinking better of it and turning away, "You've found your escape... and I'm happy for that. But I can't approve of how you found it."
Tacitus' toes curled against his boots, nails digging into the tough leather hide. He closed the distance between them and hugged her from behind, barely able to whisper as his voice gave out to sorrow, "I'm sorry Lore. I broke my promise."
He heard the gecko whimper, her body stiffening as she took a breath, her voice nearly breaking into sobs, "Just... go. Go back to your Duchess. Just don't forget about me, and I'll have to be satisfied with that."
"Lore, wait--" he felt her pull out of his grasp, watching her walk back to her horse, "Lore... I don't want it to end like this!"
"Nothing's ending, Taci." she took another deep breath and turned back, smiling as best as she could, "You are, and will always be, my best friend."
That, more than anything she'd said, drove a nail into his heart. He wanted to break down and scream, cry, lose himself to sorrow... but for whatever reason, his body could only manage to shed one tear.
"Goodbye, Tacitus." Lore sighed softly and mounted up again, "Maybe some day... we can just look back on all this and laugh. But for now, all I can do is look back and cry."
"Lore, just..." he quickly moved over to her, grabbing the bottom of her cloak, "If Valda does attack the Hollow, I beg of you, just run. Run away. If you take anything positive from what happened tonight, please, let it be that. I can't..." he felt his legs give out beneath him, the fox collapsing to his knees and trying to speak... but his throat wouldn't let the words come up.
Lore seemed to get the message either way. She reached down to ruffle his hair and ears, "Don't worry. I'll be ok. Go home, Tacitus. You don't look so good." she paused for a moment, then quietly added, "And hey... write to me again, ok? Let's send letters back and forth."
"R-Really?" Taci managed to raise his head again, a glimmer of hope igniting in his heart.
"Yeah. Unless you intend on breaking your promise." the gecko smiled, winking to him.
Taci felt as if his heart would burst. Such a wonderful friend he had, and yet he'd done so much to hurt her. He managed to pull himself to his feet and fight back his emotions, patting his chest with a closed fist, "As if I'd go and do something stupid like that."
"Good, because I'd have to come back and hit you again." Lore pulled on her horse's reins, turning it a half-circle around, "Now seriously... Go home. You look like you're about to have an episode."
"I am." he almost said it, but chose to bite his tongue instead. He gave Lore's hand one last quick squeeze before turning toward his own horse, "I'll write to you again. Maybe in a week. Give us a chance to... process all this."
"Sounds good. Just don't fill your letters with whiny crap, you big baby."
Before he got to answer, Lore had spurred her horse and taken off into the night. Somehow Taci managed to smile at those last words. The last words he might ever hear from her.
"No." he told himself, making his way back to his horse, "I will see you again, Lore. Maybe when all this blows over... and Valda has no reason to want to kill you." the fox stopped himself right before mounting up again, feeling a sharp sting in his chest, "Oh gods, Valda... I bet she's furious."
Part of him didn't want to go back and face the consequences of his actions, but it was one of only two places he could go. Would he return to the Silent Hand and continue a life of killing, or go crawling back to Valda and beg forgiveness for his actions? For Taci, the answer was obvious, if not a little frightening. He spurred his horse, riding back toward Mardux. If he was to be punished, it would be worth it for being able to see Lore again.
"Welcome back, foxy." Emiko was the first to greet him when he returned, looking a little surprised at the fact that he'd actually come back, "I thought we'd lost you. The Duchess has been worried about you."
"Worried, or pissed off?"
"If she was angry, she didn't express it." the lamia said, slithering alongside Tacitus as he slowly made his way for the stairs leading to the royal quarters, "I would ask what happened, but... that's your business, and I'll respect your privacy."
"I appreciate that." he said plainly, letting out a little sigh as they neared Valda's room, "But... can I ask you something?"
"By all means."
"Why did you let me go?" they stopped just a few feet before the door, "Why did you stick your neck out for me, when I could have easily been in the wrong? Hell, even I think I might have been wrong to just... flip out like that."
Emiko shrugged her bare shoulders, crossing her arms under her chest and leaning over to kiss his cheek, "You are a beautiful soul, Taci."
The fox snorted, "Not likely."
"But you are. The beauty might be buried under some unpleasant things, but you truly are beautiful. I know you wouldn't do those things without a good reason." she smiled and gave his hand a firm squeeze, "I knew it the moment I met you, dear."
Taci nodded slowly, trying his best to believe her. Not an easy thing to do, considering what had happened today. He slowly slipped away from the slave Mistress and grasped the door handle, hesitating, "Any advice?"
"Be as you always are, Taci. Honest, kind and devoted. But please, go easy on her if you can." Emiko's smile faded, "You may have been right to run today, but it wounded her spirit. She needs you... Now, more than ever."
A hint of redness showed beneath his fur. The fox gave her a quick wave, slowly opening the door and slipping inside. His draconic Duchess sat in her chair, facing the window, seemingly unaware of his entering. He knew better, though. Of course she knew. He shut the door behind him and stopped a few steps behind her, getting down on his knees and lowering his head, "I'm back, Duchess."
"Welcome back." she said quietly, standing and turning her chair around, then taking a seat again, "Did you do what you had to do?"
"Very well." Valda leaned forward, looking down at him and running her fingers through her hair.
He hesitated for a moment, taking a breath and quietly asking, "May I kiss your hand?"
"An odd request. What for?"
"A meager display of fealty, I guess."
"Unnecessary." she said, giving him a shrug, "You've already proven yourself by returning to me."
"No 'buts', Taci." her tailtip snaked out under his chin, tilting his head upward so she could look him in the eyes. They could both see the hurt within the other's soul now, just sitting there and staring for a long moment. Finally she sighed, extending her hand, palm facing down, "But if you feel you must..."
Taci smiled a little, a huge weight suddenly lifting from his shoulders. So she wasn't angry after all. He took her hand and went to kiss it, but she tugged it just out of reach, "Duchess?"
"You may have your kiss on one condition."
"Anything, my Lady."
She held her other hand up, magical tendrils emerging and wrapping around his body, pulling him into her lap and dispelling them as quickly as they'd appeared. She wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him firmly against her body, "Never think that I don't care, my fox. I do. I really do, but... you must understand, I have a nation to run, and this nation has enemies." she pushed a finger to his lips to keep him from answering yet, "And... at times, that may blind me to certain things. I should have trusted you more, and I'm sorry for that."
Taci waited for her finger to part from his lips, closing his eyes and snuggling closer to her, "I'm sorry, Duchess..."
"You're much more to me than just a sex slave, Tacitus. If that was all I wanted, I'd go downstairs and take my pick. You're... different. I want you by my side, always." had he not been buried in her neck, Taci would have seen the redness creeping into his Duchess' cheeks, "So please... promise me you will remember that."
"I promise." the fox replied, nuzzling happily against her neck and kissing the hand she presented to him, "I'm sorry I said those things. I wasn't in the proper state of mind to make such a judgment."
"Well, to be fair, neither was I, for the things I said." Valda kissed the top of his head, "Were you able to speak to your friend?"
Taci paused, nibbling on his lip and slowly nodding, "I did. But... well, I guess the most I could say is that I hope she listens."
"I see." the dragoness petted over his ears, "You've endured a lifetime of losing people close to you. I'd have no right calling myself your Duchess if I'd stopped you from going to her."
His breathing began to deepen as he relaxed against her, sleep beginning to tug at his tired body. He rested his hands on her back, murmuring to her in a sleepy voice, "All is forgiven, Duchess. Thank you for taking me back."
"Pfft." she rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair, "As if I'd throw you out over something like this. You really are a dramatic fox."
"Funny, my friend said something along the same lines."
"Well she's right." Valda giggled and stood, carrying him over to the bed and laying him down, "Go to sleep, pet."
"Will you be here with me?"
"Soon." she kissed his lips gently, "I just have some things to take care of before I settle in."
"M'kay. I'll try and wait." he smiled, tugging the covers around himself and already beginning to drift off. Try as he might, he'd had a long day, and his body could barely resist the urge to sleep.
Valda brushed her fingers through his hair and stood, heading out and shutting the door, "Keeping an ear out for our little fox?"
"I should know better than to try and sneak around you." Emiko chuckled, leaning against the wall, "If he couldn't do it, what chance do I have?"
"Are the guards upset?"
"Save for the two who were there, no. I made sure there wouldn't be any talk of it among the ranks." the lamia let out an irate hiss, "Not to tell you what to do, Duchess, but if I were in your position, I'd have those men reprimanded."
Valda stretched out her arms and wings, rubbing the back of her neck and yawning into her hand, "I will. They ought to know better than to use force against someone who's just in a bad mood. Thank you, by the way. I should have been there to stop them myself, but..."
"You don't have to let everything fall on your shoulders, my Lady. Your subjects are here to support you, after all."
"I know." the dragoness tried to smile, "Thanks, Emiko."
"You look tired. You should join him."
"Perhaps I will. I just wanted to thank you for doing the right thing."
Emiko nodded, curling her coils up behind her and tilting her head to the side, "What of the Silent Hand?"
"I will deal with them... but not at my pet's expense. I'll probe him for details later. Locations, hiding places, high-ranked members... what his friend looks like, so that we can avoid harming her." Valda rubbed her temples, laughing dryly, "It's going to be hard, but for him... it's worth it."
"Alright, Queen Sap." Emiko took her by the hand and opened the door for her, pushing her inside, "You've stressed enough for today. Go to bed."
"This is the only time I'll let a slave tell me what to do, snakey."
"Yeah, yeah." the lamia snickered and closed the door, leaving Valda to her vulpine slave, who was already sound asleep.
"Figured he couldn't wait. Poor thing." she slipped into bed with him and sighed, wrapping herself around him and resting her head on his chest. The sound of his heartbeat swept all the stress of the day under the rug, and soon she was drifting off with him. For a few hours, at least, the castle walls would be their world, trouble-free and silent.