(By Deikan-Kalibran)

We have crossed the border to Abun, and I am filled with reservations. Not long ago, we were at war. With Queen Kaliendra’s ascension to the throne, so were our past conflicts swept aside, that we might begin our relations anew.
And yet, I dread my invitation to visit the Queen’s home in the capital. The last time I saw Enit, it loomed in the distance as I stood over the body of General Kepi of the Ahkis clan. That day is as clear to me now as it has ever been. I remember the numbness that filled my being as his spear found its mark in the side of my face. And I am haunted by his expression of surprise when I ran him through with my sword anyway.
Mere days later, our corrupted king, Eras, had been executed. What we had been told were Abunese raiding parties in our highlands were actually soldiers from far away, conspiring with the Corrupted King to start a war between Issad and Abun. I killed general Kepi for a lie, and was happy to do it at the time. I do not look to the Gods for my reward.
Our priests told me they could hide the scars. That they could make my wounds heal such that I would look as I did before the war. I refused.
I like to think that in these scars, something of Kepi is preserved. So long as I am alive, his talents as a warrior are not forgotten.

Kepi of the Ahkis clan was the brother of the late Prince Zu II, the father to Queen Kaliendra. Although Kaliendra has declared peace between Abun and Issad, the scar on my face reminds me that some wounds go deep, and no amount of time can ever, or should ever, truly heal them.

Enit’s royal garden was quite a sight to see. Rare desert flowers had been carefully cultivated over the generations, and their bright colors were in vivid contrast to the stark tan and brown of the walls of Queen Kaliendra’s palace. Narrow dirt paths separated different beds of different flowers, with the occasional tree planted along it. Sed the Elder sat in the shade of one of these trees, lost in an unnavigable labyrinth of thought. A Tokaya, his blue-green coloration made him blend in surprisingly well with the shadow cast by the tree he now sat back against. Though the royal gardens were in the heart of Enit, Sed’s mind wandered outside the city limits, to a plateau overlooking the town. It had been there that he had dueled general Kepi of the Ahkis clan, and against all odds, had won. 

Years ago -The early morning was cold, but the hike up to the overlook had helped shake the cold from Sed’s bones. Slowly, he crawled to the edge, and found himself looking down on the Abunese camp. They were completely unaware.

Sed crawled back from the drop and pulled the satchel from his back. From the satchel, he produced a piece of flint. There were plenty of dry shrubs growing from the outcropping. Any of them would be suitable for a signal. But it wouldn’t do to have the fire spread to the camp they were trying to capture, now would it? He selected a smaller shrub away from the rest. It should burn bright enough to be a suitable signal without catching the rest of the hillside.

Before he could strike the flint, a foot came down on his hand, pinning it to the ground. Sed looked up just in time to get knocked over by a swift (but thankfully somewhat soft) kick to his chest. Over him stood General Kepi of the Ahkis clan. The general’s dark tan scales let him blend perfectly into the terrain overlooking Enit. Perhaps he had been watching Sed work this entire time…

Kepi took a few steps back, a basic, but sturdy spear clutched in his left hand. He gestured for Sed to rise to his feet, and so the blue-green tokaya did, pulling his sword from his belt as he did so. To Sed, the rest of the world seemed to fade away into the background. All the weeks of stealthily making their way towards the capital had been building up to this moment. And now Sed’s mission had been brought to a halt by his most dangerous opponent.

Sed made the first move, lunging towards the General, trying to close the distance before the spear could be leveled. With unbelievable speed, Kepi stepped aside and parried the strike with the shaft of the spear, knocking Sed backwards towards the edge of the overlook. A second attempt to push towards the General was countered by a swift swing of the spear, the tip raked across Sed’s stomach, drawing blood, but not cutting particularly deep. It was enough to keep him from completing his attack, however. It seemed that every time Sed attempted to strike at the General, Kepi would counter with equal or greater speed. At this point, the sun had risen enough to illuminate the overlook, and had Sed not been so utterly focused on his opponent, he would have noticed the Abunese soldiers had been awakened by their combat, and stood below, watching.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the General initiated an attack of his own, driving the spear deep into the side of Sed’s face. Sed’s vision blurred, he fell to his knees, and with a shudder of revulsion, he realized he had just swallowed one of his own teeth. Yet in that moment, he also saw his opportunity, at last, to strike.  With one hand, he wrenched the spear from his face, and with the other, he drove his sword through General Kepi’s heart.

The look of utter surprise on Kepi’s face seemed to bring the strength back to Sed’s limbs. The searing pain in his face was dulled. Victory! Somehow, he had mustered the strength to defeat the best warrior Abun had to offer. Now, he became aware of the Abunese troops assembled below him. For a moment, Sed the Elder’s confidence wavered. If they so desired, this assembly could easily kill him in moments. But the sight of their fallen general was so demoralizing; the Abunese soldiers began to drop their weapons, surrendering to the bruised, beaten, and profusely bleeding aggressor standing above them.

Within days, the men commanded by Sed the Elder had surrounded the city of Enit. They were not without compassion, however, and had allowed the captured Abunese soldiers to return to their homes. They had also delivered the body of Kepi Ahkis to the gates, both as an honorable gesture and as a symbol of triumph. Yet more days later, it was known that all this effort had been a farce. The only reason General Kepi had allowed Sed to live long enough to deliver a fatal blow had been because the General knew Abun was innocent. Killing Kepi had not been a victory, but rather an empty act by a misguided soldier. The lie broke Sed the Elder of Issad, and it was never certain that he had been able to put himself back together again.-

Sed lowered his head, attempting to conceal his tears, though he saw no one around. It was unseemly for a hero of Issad to be so vulnerable. Still, it was hard to avoid dwelling on a past that haunted his every moment, awake or otherwise. After a moment, he became aware of a hand wiping the tears from his face. Too weak to protest, he looked up, finding himself face to face with another tokaya, this one light green, and adorned with golden jewelry, signifying nobility.

A chill rose from Sed’s gut as he realized he was looking at Queen Kaliendra of Abun. Furthermore, he was crying in the middle of her palace gardens. Her voice was soft, soothing, and concerned. “Sed the Elder… What is wrong?”

It took him a few moments to register the question. Even then, his only response was to stare timidly at the Queen. Her kind expression never wavered for a moment, even as her eyes were drawn to the ugly scar marring the left side of Sed’s face.

He could not reply, he had expected that any sign of weakness would be met by scorn in lieu of his status and history. In Issad, the Abunese were considered dangerous, untrustworthy barbarians, regardless of the currently peaceful relations between the two cultures. Sed had long been disillusioned with these notions, but not so much that he ever could have expected the Queen of Abun to look on him with care and concern.

Kaliendra then embraced Sed, driving the last vestiges of coherent thought from him. He had not been so close with another person since before the death of General Kepi. Slowly, Sed returned to his senses enough to pull away from the Queen, blinking the last tears from his eyes. He stood and lowered his head in a gesture of respect.

Queen Kaliendra. I—I apologize for my lack of propriety…” she stood and stopped him speaking with a wave of her hand.

“Do not apologize, Sed the Elder. I know you are troubled. If anything, I am happy that you have found my royal gardens enjoyable enough to be at ease and allow your mind to wander. Although, it seems to have wandered to dark places… You do not need to explain yourself to me.”

Sed stared at the ground, unsure of what he might accidentally convey should he meet the Queen’s eyes. All at once, he was filled with elation, anger, confusion, and, strangely, contentment.  “Thank you, Queen Kaliendra. I am not used to such kindness…”

Soon, he found himself being led by the hand out of the royal gardens, down several modestly decorated hallways, and into a small, but much more ornate room. In the center of this room was a round wooden table, clearly imported from some far off land. At the table sat Kaliendra’s husband, Prince Faad. Kaliendra deposited Sed into a chair across from her husband, then sat herself next to Faad.

“Well met, Sed the Elder.” Said Faad. “I had heard that you were a troubled man. I did not imagine the extent to be so drastic, however. I hope we have not done something to upset you further.”

“You have not,” replied Sed. His mind was racing, unsure of how to proceed. The sheer volume of emotions he felt were overwhelming his ability to think rationally. The freedom he felt within the walls of Kaliendra’s palace seemed to have caused him a new sort of duress in his own mind. In an instant, however, he saw a bid for liberty, and a grand plan began to unfold. “May I speak frankly?” he asked.

Prince Faad and Queen Kaliendra exchanged confused, but meaningful looks. Rather than replying, they both nodded in unison.

Sed the Elder stood to regard the two of them. “Issad has long regarded Abun as a nation of barbarians. I, myself, held this to be true, even well after the fall of our Corrupted King, Eras, who had worked so hard to instill such ideas within his subjects. On my journey to Enit, I have been able to witness the same people I looked upon with contempt during my assault on Abun. These people are not savages, they are a rich and wonderful culture led by a wise and noble Queen, and Issad will forever be a lesser nation so long as we fail to understand this. And now, it is to you, Queen Kaliendra, and you, Prince Faad, that I wish to tell of the days following my return to Issad after killing General Kepi. What I am about to tell you will make me a traitor to Issad. But my mind is set. This knowledge will be to the benefit of the people of Abun, my conscience, and perhaps someday, the people of Issad.”

It was the Queen who now spoke. “If this is what you believe to be the honorable course of action, Sed the Elder, we will hear this tale, and will see to it that you are not regarded unjustly.”

Years ago – Sounds of celebration filled the streets of Hyaghar, welcoming home the soldiers dispatched to Abun. Ekon, the High Priest of Issad, had declared that Sed’s victory over General Kepi was proof that despite the lies of King Eras, the gods had not abandoned their people. Sed, for his part, had smiled as much as he could with his wounds, then retreated to his estate. He relayed his story and his regrets to his brother, Sed the Younger, then retreated to his balcony to watch the celebrations from a distance.

A young Emer boy began to pluck out an old marching song on a lute. It was slow and sad, yet powerful and uplifting at the same time. Sed frowned in concentration. He couldn’t remember the words… how could he forget them? This song had long been a companion to Issad’s soldiers, he’d sung it many times. But it wouldn’t come to him. The fresh scars marking the left side of his face throbbed, the burning pain of their new presence seemed to drive the song from his head, and he turned his back on the streets below in frustration… only to come face to face with another source of frustration.

The High Priest of Issad, Ekon, was a tan tokaya, roughly the same age as Sed, though a little taller. Unlike Sed, a soldier, Ekon’s garb was mostly ornamental, with rare metal piercings and sheer, but distinct cloth that did little to conceal the priest’s almost obnoxiously attractive body. When he spoke, it was the practiced and soothing tone of a skilled orator.

“You should be celebrating, Sed the Elder.”

Sed knelt in front of the High Priest, lowering his head, then rising back to his feet. “I feel no pride in my actions, Ekon. I killed an innocent and now they’re having a damn parade for me.”

“You killed Kepi of the Ahkis clan, a dangerous savage, in a duel, earning the respect of both Issad and Abun alike.”

Sed turned away, staring back out at the street. “Maybe. I feel horrible… It wasn’t right, Ekon. You gave me my orders, and I followed them… but what sort if victory is one borne of lies and deceit? General Kepi had every right to fight back against us.”

Ekon placed a hand on Sed’s shoulder. “I sent you to attack Abun because you were our first choice to replace the corrupt king, Sed. You are to be the successor to Eras. A sense of justice such as yours will quickly heal the wounds Eras opened.”

Sed the Elder slowly turned to regard Ekon once more. “You knew the entire time.” His expression was blank and distant.

“The Corrupt King’s lies dug deep, Sed. You can’t just dethrone someone appointed by the gods.” The priest’s explanation was cut short by a clattering of feet and metal, and he found himself held down against the wall by Sed, the flat side of a dagger nestled just underneath his chin. “Enough lies! If you knew enough to use me as a diversion, you knew enough to enlist my help in stopping Eras. Perhaps you were hoping I’d have complete control over Abun by the time you finished stabbing him in the back?”

“Sed, what are you-“

The priest was shaken roughly. “Speak another word before I tell you to, Ekon, and I’ll cut the lying tongue from your head.” Sed was shouting now. “I won’t be your damned shield! Find another king and get out of my house!” Sed released the priest and took a step back, the rush of anger still fresh in him. A warm-wet feeling rolled down the left side of his face, and he realized that he’d re-opened the wounds. Without another word, Ekon left in a hurry, shaken and dazed.-

“And now Ekon is the King of Issad, and believe me, he still has sights on Abun.” Sed the Elder finished his tale, then looked between Kaliendra and Faad to try and gauge their reactions.

Kaliendra replied. “You have given us a lot to think about, Sed the Elder. You have proven yourself to me to be noble and honest, and are free to come and go from my palace as you please.”

Thus, Sed the Elder of Issad had cast his lot in favor of truth, regardless of the price he might ultimately pay.

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