Vellius had been trained with the long, hooked staff that he carried. Through a series of instructions, holistic exercise and repetitive practice, he actually was somewhat skilled in its handling, able to roll the smooth oak across his body and catch it anywhere on his form with a snap of motion. The suddenness of such a violent maneuver was intentional, of course, serving to strike at hands and hilts, twisting wrists and breaking fingers to disarm anyone that may threaten him. Ostensibly, according to his teacher, the entire affair was part of some “Soaring Winds” school, an ancient discipline that only the most dedicated could master. When Vellius, remembering his oath, was recalcitrant about learning how to shatter sternums and stop a man’s heart with one motion, the training had ended. “Limitations are only in your mind.” spoke the half-mystic teacher on the day Vellius abandoned the training outright. It was a strange sentiment when the limitation was a self-imposed ethical imperative, Vellius thought.
Still, the limitation was there, and Mintay had been adamant that Vellius had become too valuable to lose to simple violence, and so therefore must learn to defend himself. The fewer resources spent watching and defending his apprentice and therefore investment, the more resources could be devoted elsewhere, helping others. Again, remembering his oath, Vellius agreed. Still, defense and disarmament was all he would tolerate. The city, Vellius argued back, did not need more people with the ability to kill.
“Quite right.” had been the master’s response.
Perhaps his favorite part of the instruction he had received was the staff he was allowed to keep, a gift from Mintay. Formed of Valan wood (Chestnut!), straight and smooth with a careful polish, a relic hand-worked by someone who had love of beauty and the feel of a solid tool, one that spoke to the owner of sturdiness and reliability, the sort of thing that one would pass to their descendants.
It was for this reason that, when the man burst through the doors to Mintay’s office, Vellius found himself confident in brandishing his staff from a nearby table. The man was screaming, had already worked his way past the guardians downstairs (that terrifying one-eyed monster included), and was armed, a long, cobalt blue rapier cutting a strange, soapy path through the air as it was raised against Vellius’ master. Perhaps the young man’s plan had been to save Master Mintay from an early grave with an act of heroism. The sturdy staff in his hand, he brought it up to intercept the man’s blade with some force, to push it back and into a position where it would threaten nobody.
It was heartbreaking to see the blade flicker away from his strike and bury itself in the hard wood of his heirloom. It was worse, even, to see the way its polish was ruined by the sudden cracks that ran through its beautiful, chestnut surface as the rapier split Vellius’ weapon in two. Vellius was not composed in the face of this, his mouth opening in disbelief. Luckily, a quick death by the same weapon was not forthcoming, as Vellius staggered backward away from his melting, broken treasure.
“We don’t gamble with irreplaceable things, Mintay!” the man screamed. It was a poised, composed fury. One that spoke of the fury as a weapon smoldering in the intent spoken by the tip of that weapon where it hovered in slow circles pointed at the master’s breast. That strange film floated in the air in its wake, a field of slick iridescence, like an oil spill on stone.
Master Mintay was, as always, unfazed. Many times, his certainty had surprised Vellius, comforting him in the case of decisions that perhaps didn’t seem to make sense at the time. Now, though, with an ostensible armed assassin in the room, it seemed almost insane to be so blasé. “Vellius, this is Navion Dran’amir , the ruler of this City and I do not believe a threat to your or my life, before you attempt anything else. Navion, do you mind sparing this talk for someplace else? The boy is quite innocent.” Mintay said, dropping the tools with which he did…well, whatever it was he did with colored sand every morning. Not all his master’s habits were transparent to Vellius. Still, ‘innocent’? That was a new descriptor. And ruler?
“Don’t patronize me for once, Ondras. I don’t care what secrets you’re keeping from him. Nobody in your company-…” the ruler began, then his reproach faded as he inspected the end of his own weapon, still dancing in air. In one fluid motion it was sheathed. Anger shifted to impatience in the man. He looked so young for a leader! How did one come by the position, anyway? That question paused Vellius, and as he worked at it he paid half an ear to what was implied to be a private conversation. One of many that Mintay would hint that he should forget, no doubt.
The two men came together in the floor, arms folded in mirror of each other. Master Mintay looked so much older than the man he ostensibly served, the stark, minimalist black of his dress contrasting sharply with Dran’amir’s embroidered white and gold. “It was a strategic move, Nav. There’s little to nothing left to threaten the stability of this city on a strategic scale beyond her. Things aren’t stable, but short her collection of indoctrinators, nothing is going to ruin the big picture.”
“Why this way? Why didn’t you tell me?” Navion returned, his stance implying that he intended to loom. It may have worked, too, if Master Mintay didn’t have a full two inches on the shorter man. His ears…elf blood? Strange that he didn’t partake of the Exodus like the rest.
“You would have interfered.” came Ondras’ clipped response. Not many people spoke the master’s name. Familiarity with the man was not something that Vellius had seen before, and they slept only a wall apart most nights.
“Of course I would have. You could have made some other sacrifice for this plan.” Vellius was running down the list of cues he had been taught to look for as Dran’ammir spoke. Tightening lips, the briefest of tics in the brow, the way his hands lingered towards his weapons. Why in the world did the master feel safe?
“Nav, I am sorry. If you had known you would have stopped me. It had to be a prize big enough that she would risk for it. Risk trusting one of us again, but a prize we could afford to lose. That means you, me, the madman, we’re all irreplaceable. You said it yourself, you know the answer, knew it when you walked in the door. ‘We don’t gamble with irreplaceable things.’ We agreed on that, and I acted on it. I don’t like it either, but this is the best way to get close. She won’t trust anyone else. We’ve tried too many times.”
The Dreamer’s tongue ran over his teeth as he considered that, then his back straightened, his arms unfolded, tossed wide. “Fine.” was all he said. Then, “Let me tell you something too, Mintay.”
“I have given everything I can for this city. I field a thousand complaints and the begging of powerful minds with weak morals. I am in three districts a day trying to assuage the hundreds that think they should rule just to hide from them the fact that there is no throne. We don’t eat. We don’t sleep. I am as propped up by magic-…” the word came with the Dreamer holding up his left hand, upon which sat a ceramic, orange ring, presented to Ondras’ unmoved gaze. “…as I can be. There is little happiness left to find in this City we’ve made. It helped, I will tell you, to know that somewhere off in the world, she still lived and prospered doing the work she once loved. Now that’s all been given up, so we have a chance at killing the one person that could bring her back. That, Ondras, is a high price.”
“The price is worth it. The world is ending.”
Vellius saw the ruler of the city, the man named Navion turn and show his back to Master Mintay. He was, admittedly, somewhat stunned. A candid exchange like this one was not frequent in Master Mintay’s presence, but for the moment the two men seemed to have forgotten he was here. Crunching through the remains of Vellius’ staff, Navion spoke his parting words without turning.
“I suppose we keep dreaming, then.”