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Title: Shadows on the Ground (Chapter 2)
Fandom: Slayers
Rating: PG
Genre: Mystery/Action
Words: 49,000 total (10,500 this chapter)
Notes/Warnings: A sequel to The Sun, Half Covered. Story may have a Zel/Amelia bias, but I think it can be read as friendship.
Summary: Amelia and Zel visit a foreign country to seek out a conspiracy against Saillune. Meanwhile, Lina and Gourry are hired to track down a stolen manuscript, one that may be one of Rezo the Red Priest's. These two plots cross unexpectedly, causing trouble that could lead to war.
Disclaimer: Slayers copyright Hajime Kanzaka/Rui Araizumi/Kadokawa/TV Tokyo/Medianet and this derivative work was created without permission.

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"It's not here, either," Lina said, going through the stack of bandit treasure. "Damn bandits." Most of the bandits themselves had either run or limped away, aided by the bursts of wind spells and Gourry's muscles. Ordinarily, she'd be quite happy with the haul: gold and gems, and some rare books and a couple of magic items. Not to mention the cheap armor and stack of weapons the bandits had left behind. Someone might find them useful, and they were close enough to a village she could ask a leather worker or blacksmith if they wanted to take it off her hands. For a small fee of course. 

"That was all three of them, wasn't it?" Gourry said, keeping guard over her as she counted the treasure. 

"I thought so," Lina said. "That was the Griffon's Teeth. The other two were the Blue Foxes and Ragnal's... no, Robert's Rouges." Bandits were getting more and more uncreative with their gang names. Lina swore that one of these days, she'd find the book all of them seemed to pull their names from. And set it on fire. 

"What do we do now?" Gourry asked. 

"Start looking around for more rumors of banditry," she said. "We can take all our loot back to town to sell it." She'd have to use her talisman-making trick to make most of the gems worth anything, but that wasn't a horrible burden. "While I'm doing that, can you start asking around the mercenary parts of town to see if they know anything?" That was something nice, that she'd never thought about before Gourry had started to travel with her. Most mercenaries wouldn't bother to talk to her, except to make lewd comments, and then she'd just have to fireball them, which wasn't that good for getting information out of them, even if it felt damn good. Gourry was one of the guys, apparently, so they'd actually tell him things. 

"I don't know, Lina," Gourry said. "They might know something about bandits, but if a mercenary group did it, they wouldn't be talking about it around town. It's bad business." 

"Really?" she asked.

"Yeah. If your boss thinks you'll tell the guys at the bar about your last job when it was supposed to be a secret, or what you're about to do, then he might think you'll accidentally tell a spy about it," Gourry said. "So a lot of mercenaries only pass on stuff about bandit gangs and things like that."

"You think a merc group might have done it?" Lina asked. She was a bit surprised. Gourry was usually content to just follow her lead, and let her do most of the investigating. It wasn't like him to seriously suggest an idea. Of course, it was worth listening to -- he did seem to know what other warriors thought. Lina suspected he once had done mercenary work, before he met her, though Gourry always seemed to change the subject whenever she tried to ask him about it. He showed a remarkable ability to distract her from questions about his past when he wanted to. Gourry had a certain amount of irritating cunning that was usually masked by his poor memory and denseness to anything that didn't involve food or swordplay. 

"It's possible. Not a reputable group, though. Most of them would lose business if anyone found out they were stealing from caravans. Unless there was a war on between Atlas City and someone. Then attacking caravans would be fair game." 

"So, we just have to find out who is so disreputable or so hard up for money that it doesn't matter if they attack caravans for money," Lina said. She had separated out the gems and coins, which was looking quite substantial, from the stuff. There was some nicer things, like a pretty impressive war hammer that looked nice enough to be enchanted, as well as some old books. It at the very least would give them some food and inn money to find out about the bandits. "I'll carry the gems and coins. Gourry will you take the other stuff?" 

"Sure thing, Lina," Gourry gathered most of it up, putting it in a sack. He picked up the hammer, giving it a few experimental swings. 

"Thinking about keeping it?" Lina asked. 

"I prefer swords," he said. "But this is a pretty nice hammer. Is it magic?" 

"Could be. I'd have to check it. If it is, will you keep it, or should I sell it to one of the magic shops in town?" They were still looking for a replacement for the Sword of Light, after all. Currently Gourry had just a normal sword, coated in silver. It was fine against bandits, and the silver meant that, combined with Gourry's powerful force of will, could do something against demons and even some lesser mazoku. Still wouldn't be useful if they ran into something really tough. And repairing the damn thing was really cutting into their budget. Even when Gourry's strength didn't break it, silver plating was easy to chip. 

"Nah. This sword will do for now," Gourry said. "We'll find something better soon." 

Lina nodded. "I hope so, Jellyfish." She finished putting the gems into a pocket in her cloak. "Let's go."

The nearest town was a couple of hours walk. Not horrible, but a bit strenuous after the fight. Lina was ready to collapse once they got back to their inn room. She sprawled out on the bed, kicking off her boots and throwing her cloak over the chair. Gourry paused. "Should we get another inn room for me?" he asked. 

"Whatever you think, Gourry," she said. "There are two beds, so you better not just sleep on the floor." 

"I wasn't planning on it." He sat down on the chair, facing backwards, and folded his hands on the top of the back. He had already taken off his armor and sword, leaving them by the door, in a surprisingly neat pile. "I just wanted to be sure you wouldn't mind what I did."

"It's a small inn, so you might not be able to get a room," she said. "Just don't try to take advantage of my maidenly innocence, all right?"

"Of course not," he said. It was a familiar routine in small towns for them. One of them would make a joke about improper behavior, and the other would assure that nothing of the sort would happen. Things had come a long way from the first time they'd been stuck together. The jokes were safe now, because she knew damn well that Gourry wouldn't take advantage of her, nor she him. They were in a comfortable spot right now, the intimacy of a long partnership. Sometimes she wondered what would happen if one of them had tried to take it further, to try to make their relationship more physical. It might be nice. Gourry was a pretty handsome guy, in a kind of dumb-looking guy next door kind of way. On the other hand, she didn't know how he'd react if she tried anything. One moment he could be telling her that he intended to follow her for the rest of his life, which damn well <i>sounded</i> like some kind of proposition, then the next, he could be making a boob joke. 

Men were confusing, Lina thought.

"Hey, Lina, what are you thinking about?" Gourry asked. 

"What we have to do tomorrow. You think we should head back to Atlas City, or would another place work better for talking to mercenaries?" she asked. 

"I think Atlas City would work better," he said. "Even with it being kind of a magic town, there's a lot of agents and stuff, and guys on break. A lot of the better companies will just be finishing up seasonal contracts and looking for guard duty." 

"Good. We'll leave in the morning." 

The scrub thinned out as they crossed the border into Jarei, turning into mostly rocks and sand and very few plants. "How do people live out here?" Zelgadis asked as they watched things go by in the coach. 

"Mostly around the oases and rivers," Amelia said. "The river valleys have a pretty extensive irrigation system. And a lot of the techniques we used back in the South for water were pioneered in Jarei." 

The buildings looked a lot like the ones in the South as well -- mud-brick with tile roofs, which were wonderfully cool when they stopped in midday. It was getting impossible to travel during the hot part of the day, so they'd stop in a town, or a roadside inn -- mostly spaced conveniently about a half a day apart, even if it was mostly just a way point in the desert. Many of the towns had fountains, used to water the horses and the camels that started to become common beasts of burden, and the rare ostrich-horse or riding lizard, probably imported from the Outer World. The architecture changed in subtle ways. While Saillune seemed to rely on paint for their decor, the Jareians used tiles to do some spectacular geometric designs. The brightly-colored glazes contrasted with the brilliantly whitewashed hardened mudbrick. The food was different as well: a lot was highly spiced, and cut into small pieces before it was quickly cooked over a charcoal fire. The coffee was brewed strong and heavily spiced. Zelgadis took up drinking tea with anything after breakfast, just so he could sleep at night. 

It was nearly a week before they got into the capital. Outside, the desert was the same stark gold that it had been for the last day, with occasional outcrops of lighter rock, but, from the hills they spent their last night on, the city looked like a green and white and terra-cotta bead on a green string of cropland along the river. It was surrounded by walls, with guards in bronze-covered armor standing at the gates. All and all, it was a very impressive and large city, and Zelgadis had to fight the urge to draw up his cloak around him and hide. It was too damn hot for the cloak, even in the morning, anyway, though he'd been quite glad to have it after sunset when the desert had cooled off. 

"We're stopping at the Temple first. We're not expected until tonight, anyway," Amelia said. "No one goes out during the noonish hours in the summer, so we can relax."

"Good," Zelgadis said. The trip to Jarei had been about as uncomfortable as the trip to Redcliffe had been. He was beginning to think he should just walk everywhere -- it felt better, even if it was more tiring and slower. Perhaps it was just that the coaches weren't built for his extra weight. Amelia didn't seem to have as much of a problem, though she moved gingerly every time they stopped for a break. 

"Excuse me." The coach had stopped and one of the gate guards, young enough that he still looked like hadn't grown into his armor, had walked up. "We ask that all people entering the city please present all weapons to be inspected and peace bonded. As a foreigner, I'm afraid I'm going to have to search your coach."

"We have papers," Amelia said. "I'm Princess Amelia wil tesla Saillune of the Kingdom of Saillune, and this is my friend Mister Zelgadis Graywords." She had taken out the Royal Crest, and something signed by the border guards, and held it out to the guard. "As diplomatic representatives, we were guaranteed avoidance of search and the allowance of one sword or polearm per party member." Zelgadis wondered if that meant he could have an extra, since Amelia never carried anything more serious than dinner cutlery, her fists, and a lot of magic. 

"I didn't receive any orders regarding a representative from Saillune," the guard said. "You'll forgive me, Princess, if I send a runner down to the palace to confirm this."

"And how long will that take?" Zelgadis asked.

Amelia gave him a look. "I'd hate to obstruct traffic for that long," she said. "I'm sure there are a bunch of merchants behind me who would like to use this gate as well." 

"Never the less, Princess, this is standard operating procedure. My sergeant would have my hide if I let a foreign coach through without searching it." 

"Then send him out, and you go find someone who knows what he's doing," Zelgadis said crankily. It was already starting to get hot, and now he was remembering why he hated cities. 

The guard left, though the barricade remained in front of the coach, preventing them from just plowing forward. Zelgadis was tempted to tell the coachman to do it anyway, though Amelia would probably contradict that unless the guard really started giving them a hard time. When did she turn into the responsible one, he wondered. Probably about the time that he had joined up with her. It was harder to slide past the rules when traveling in public. There were probably at least ten ways into the city without being searched, none of which one could take a coach on, or would let you be publicly visible afterward. 

About the time he hoped for a highway robbery to happen in the gate, causing Amelia in a fit of Justice! to order the coachman to ram the barricade, the guard sergeant, a woman in her thirties, with braided black hair peaking out from under her helmet, showed up. "Hello, Your Highness," she said. "My apologies for the delay. We didn't think you'd arrive before the noon siesta." 

"So, then, can we pass into the city?" Amelia asked. "There were some problems with customs..."

"All taken care of," the sergeant said. "Enjoy your stay in Jarei, Your Highness, Mister Graywords. I'll be sending a runner to guide you to the Temple." 

Once they were safely away from the guard station, and into the city proper, Zelgadis edged closer to the window of the coach. He didn't really want to be seen, but it was a good idea to scope out what the city was like. Most of the useful bits, such as where to find the black market, or the parts of town where less legal services happened, and the unseemly bits would be omitted from their brief trip through the city. He'd just have to seek them out later, preferably without Amelia. One never knew when they'd come in handy, after all. 

The parts of the city they did see were quite beautiful, he had to admit. Most of them had wide streets, filled in with cobblestones and full of carts and pedestrians. Many of what had to be restaurants and cafes were open air, with seating in front of the store itself, covered by awnings or the fronds of palm trees. As they rolled on, they could see down the cross streets into what looked like a giant open air market place. Most of the people were dressed in loose, brightly colored long tunics and pants, with a variety of hats and hoods. To his surprise, there didn't seem to be much distinction between women's dress and men's. Though this wasn't unusual for most traveling adventurers, most sedentary women back west favored dresses, rather than trousers. 

They arrived at the Temple, and disembarked from the coach, letting it drop off the mail that was the normal part of its route. Their guide, the guard from earlier, mounted on one of the riding lizards, nodded to them, then headed back towards what Zelgadis guessed was the gate. He made a note to get a map of the city as soon as he could, so that he and Amelia wouldn't need to rely on their hosts. "Should we go inside?" Zelgadis asked.

"I suppose so. The Temple did promise us a guide," Amelia replied. 

As if Amelia could conjure people out of air, they heard footsteps at the Temple gate. "Hello, Princess Amelia, Mister Zelgadis."

Zelgadis did a double take. "Miwan? What the hell are you doing all the way out here?" 

Indeed it was the Femillian former Princess... or Prince, depending on what you wanted to call a young man raised as a shrine maiden in an all-female town. He looked a bit more masculine than the last time Zelgadis saw him. Not that that was saying much, but pants did help. The short sword at his belt didn't hurt either. "Well," Miwan said, "After the whole falling out with my mother, I decided to travel the world and find out who I really was. Because I was trained as a shrine maiden, I could get food and lodgings at the temples as I travelled. I eventually ended up in Jarei, and decided to stay. I'm being trained as one of the temple's knights." He grinned. "When I heard you and Miss Amelia were coming to town, I volunteered to be your guide." 

"Thanks," Zelgadis glanced at Amelia, trying to gauge her reaction. He remembered she hadn't much liked Miwan when the two had first met, though some of that had been what he thought was jealousy that he was paying attention to another 'woman'. No chance of that now, though. 

Amelia might not have been thrilled to see Miwan, but her face didn't show it. She smiled. "It's nice to hear things are working out so well for you, Mister Miwan." She held out her hand, and Miwan shook it. "Can you show us inside."

"Of course." They got a brief tour of the Temple then. The courtyard had a statue to Ceipheed that looked a lot like a replica of the one in Saillune City. There was also one of the ever-present fountains, and some small pots of desert-blooming flowers. Off of that, there were quarters for priests, the small group of temple knights that Miwan had joined, and guests. There was also a small bath in the basement, but, Miwan explained, most of the temple's residents just used the public bath down the street. On the other side were the kitchens and dining rooms, and various rooms for meetings or prayers. They were also shown into the Temple proper, but by that time, Zelgadis was just willing to make a few comments, then ask to be shown back to their rooms. 

"At least, there's enough space for two rooms, this time," he commented.

Miwan raised his eyebrows. "I wasn't aware you two were-"

Amelia had turned a rather red color. "That's not what Mister Zelgadis meant. The last town we stayed at was so small that we had to make two rooms by hanging up a sheet in the only guest room in town." 

"Exactly. It'll be nice not having half of a small room," he continued. 

"Just so," Miwan nodded. "I have to get back to my studies. Just find a novice if you need to go anywhere before evening." With that, he left them alone.

"Honestly, Mister Zelgadis, that sounded like something Mister Gourry would say." Amelia said. "You have to be more careful.

"I will, all right? I didn't think he'd read that into what I said," Zelgadis noted now his cheeks felt warm. It had to be the heat. "So what time do we have to be anywhere?" 

"Seven in the evening." Amelia said. "You might want to take a nap since we'll be out late. Also, the tailor should have left clothing for you in your room." 

"Oh, boy," Zelgadis said. He wasn't looking forward to whatever had been picked out for him, even if Amelia had made all those promises about what not to use. 

"Don't worry about it, Mister Zelgadis." She grinned at him. "I'm sure tonight will go perfectly." 

When making arrangements from Redcliffe, Amelia had opted to go with more local fashions, in the interests of time. Things like this would be hard enough to arrange on a week's notice, and having High Priestess Calande try to find someone willing to sew two sets of clothing in the Saillune style was a bit too much. As a result, this was her first time not wearing a dress to an official function. Granted the trousers fit very well for a garment made while she was days away from the maker, and were a pleasant shade of turquoise that matched her boots, and made of some nice fabric that she couldn't quite identify, but felt soft under her hands, but it was still just <i>weird</i> to not feel the swish of skirts around her legs. 

She half thought she looked like a boy, and there wasn't a mirror where she could see anything out of it. She could have requested a shrine maiden's robes, which would both be appropriate and different, but wouldn't have the gravitas a diplomat needed. She finished running her brush through her hair, and tried to guess about the placement of hatpins without the mirror. Tomorrow she'd just have to find a mirror. Well, it's the best I can do for now. I'll have to ask Mister Zelgadis if everything looks straight. Or maybe Mister Miwan -- he at least might know something about women's clothing, and he might know what the local women look like. She half wondered if this was some sort of elaborate prank to make the foreigners look foolish. 

Be more confident, Amelia! True virtue shines from within, regardless of what you wear! She straightened her back, mentally braced herself and exited her room, grabbing her cape off the chair. Mister Zelgadis was staying just next door. She knocked on the door. 

"One moment," came the muffled sound. She heard the sounds of heavy footsteps, and then he answered the door. 

She had to admit, he did look good, even if he was scowling a bit. But, really, that was probably the best one could hope for with Mister Zelgadis. The colors suited him well. She had suggested dark blues, which went well with his skin and hair. And, thankfully, the local fashion allowed trousers, not robes or hose. He had already buckled on his swordbelt over the doublet and was holding the half cape in his hands. 

"You forgot your hat," she said. 

"I'm not wearing it," Mister Zelgadis replied. "It's silly looking. It looks too much like the one I got stuck in when Lina and I were shipwrecked at that amusement park. The vest thing is bad enough." 

"When in Jarei, Mister Zelgadis." Amelia tried to give him an encouraging smile. "You might stand out more if you don't wear it, for all you know."

"I can't imagine how," he said. He practically threw the cape over his shoulder in a gesture that made Amelia wonder if he knew how cool it make him look, and was doing it for her benefit. Down, Amelia

"And you do know, you'll have to leave your sword behind, or leave it with the guards at the palace. I think it would make the guards flustered and stern if you were wearing it around the king."

"It's not like I'm going to chop the king's head off," Mister Zelgadis said. "Besides, I'm just as dangerous without it as with it. Most of the guards couldn't cut through my skin, or deal with spells." 

"That's not really the point," Amelia said. "It's a matter of appearances." 

Zelgadis sighed. "I'll peace-bind it, all right?" He fished out a piece of cord from his belt pouch and securely looped it through sword and scabbard. "Where's Miwan? Let's get this over with. I'm starving." 

"He should be here soon," Amelia straightened her own clothing self-consciously. And waited, in silence. After about five minutes, she couldn't stand it and said the first thing that came to her mind. "Mister Zelgadis, this might seem like an odd question, but..."

He gave her a curious look. "But what?" 

"But, well... do you think I look feminine in this?" She stood up, tucking her hands behind her back, and suddenly realized how immature that made her sound. "Um, you don't have to answer that. I was just concerned, it's all."

Zelgadis looked at her. "You look fine. Anyway, most men wouldn't wear your jewelry, or have that much lavender on. And, if you're really concerned, I think our tunics are cut a lot differently." He paused, suddenly looking down in a way that a man acquainted with Lina Inverse's hair-trigger temper about her figure found almost reflexive after the first couple of explosions. "Not that I was staring, of course." 

"Well, I did ask, so maybe it was all right this one time," Amelia said, shifting her weight. "Thank you Mister Zelgadis." 

Thankfully, Mister Miwan finally chose to interrupt, along with an older woman, dressed in Temple robes, her curly hair cut short, and tucked under a fitted cap. Mister Miwan himself seemed to be in some kind of uniform, with the Temple's symbol sewn onto the right breast, and one of those floppy hats Amelia always associated with the more flamboyant types of swordsmen. "Hello again, Mister Zelgadis, Princess Amelia," Miwan bowed to them. "May I introduce High Priest Esther Calande, leader of the Temple of Ceipheed in Jarei. Your Holiness, this is Her Highness Princess Amelia wil tesla Saillune and Mister Zelgadis Graywords."

Amelia frowned. "High Priest?" She looked at Mister Miwan again, and then at Esther Calande, who had a rather... matronly chest for a high priest, and tried to decide if her ability to tell male from female had just been completely fried by the desert. She was tempted to look back at Mister Zelgadis, just to be sure someone was still what they seemed to be. 

"The Jarei prefer gender neutral titles," the old woman smiled at her. "I'm originally from Saillune myself, Princess, so I can understand your puzzlement. Don't be surprised if someone slips up tonight." 

"Oh." Well, that was strange. Even Saillune had never eliminated the old titles, even if a King-regnant was the same as a Queen-regnant, a king-consort the same as a queen-consort, and a prince was the same as a princess, all the way down through the lords and ladies. A bit disconcerting even. If that was her worst problem with Jarei customs, though, she'd be lucky. "I suppose that's not all bad. The prince always got the better part in the old fairy tales."

"Prefer to be the one doing the heroic rescue, rather than needing to be heroically rescued, huh?" Zelgadis gave her a faint smile.

"Exactly, Mister Zelgadis." That boosted her confidence a bit. 

"Let's hope no one needs to be rescued tonight," High Priest Calande said. 

"Of course," Amelia replied. "Let's get going, then." 

It was around sunset, and the orange glow of twilight colored the white buildings russet. It was still warm out, though, with none of the evening's chill setting in yet. The lamplighters were already going around. Amelia watched them as they walked. "Are all the streets lit by magic?" she asked.

"Only the main ones," High Priest Calande replied. "Some of the neighborhoods might put in the lights privately, though." Out of her corner of her eye, she saw Mister Zelgadis give a slight nod, as if he was confirming something he had thought of earlier. "We're very close to the palace," High Priest Calande continued. "It'll just be a short walk. I presume you don't want to bother with a carriage."

"No," Mister Zelgadis said. "We've been driven around enough for one week."

Amelia saw High Priest Calande glance at her, and she nodded. "I agree with Mister Zelgadis. We've walked enough in our lives that a little more won't hurt." And she was in comfortable shoes, which was a plus. A lot of the things she had worn for other dress occasions were either shoes meant more to be seen than walked in, or comfortable slippers that would be torn up by anything more rough than a dance floor. 

"All right, Princess," High Priest Calande nodded. "Just tell me if you change your mind, and I'll have Miwan send for someone." 

"Plus, I get a better view of the city this way," Amelia said. "Even if it's just for a short while."

They had left the plaza the temple faced, and had turned into a wide boulevard, with date trees growing regularly down the center and on either side. Someone had not only lit the lamps, but had set glowing stones on garlands on the trees, making it almost look like they had been transplanted from an elven forest somewhere. At the end of the boulevard, was a wall, and a gate, with two guards, dressed more finely than the city guards they had met that morning. They must be at the Royal Palace. 

The guards were more cooperative, or perhaps better informed, than the ones earlier, or else they recognized the locals and were willing to wave in any guest of theirs. As a result, there was no hassle at all in getting in. As she had expected, they did inspect Mister Zelgadis's sword briefly, though the cord preventing him from drawing it quickly seemed to satisfy them. At the gate, Miwan waved goodbye to them. "I just was to escort you two and the high priest to the palace. Have fun."

"Goodbye, Mister Miwan," Amelia waved back. It was amazing what a couple of years, and a little knowledge would do. She was struggling to remember why she had disliked him so much when they first met. Oh, right. There was some jealousy there, since Mister Zelgadis had taken to him unusually quick. But, that hadn't been fair of her at all. That wasn't Mister Miwan's fault. 

The palace grounds themselves were brightly lit, with a surprising amount off greenery, and the ever-present fountains and decorative tile and stonework. Even after sunlight, Amelia still saw servants and officials afoot, walking between the buildings and along the covered arched hallways. She and Mister Zelgadis were being led to the main building, to one side of the gate they had entered in. 

"It'll just be a quiet dinner tonight with the advisory council and His Majesty," High Priest Calande said. "We can arrange attendance at more events later. Truthfully, the winters are more social around here. During the summers, most people are out working late. There's a bit more activity here than normal, because of the upcoming eclipse, but things are still pretty quiet." 

"That's all right," Amelia said. "This is mostly a business trip."

The high priest nodded, looking grave. "I know. I can tell you this: in no way would the Temple in Jarei endorse using our priests to spy on people. Let alone as saboteurs. Was anyone hurt?"

"Mister Zelgadis was stunned a bit during her capture, and a local woman broke her leg from a weakened fence," Amelia answered.

"I'll be sure to have the Temple send something along for her," the high priest answered. 

"Thank you," Amelia said. "I'm sure Missus Galatei will appreciate it. Though, I'd rather have assurances that none of our other priests or sorcerers are going to turn against us. As you can imagine, they're critical to the success of the Southern Reclamation Project."

"Of course, Princess." They walked up several shallow steps, and into the main building. Amelia let her eyes adjust to the change in light. Here, unlike the cool light of magic outside, the walls were warmly lit with oil lamps set in braziers sporadically. The smell of incense was in the air, faintly. As they walked along the long entry hallway, passing the occasional guard, or hurrying palace servant, Amelia studied the walls, which seemed to be covered with murals depicting local history. They turned left, then, through an open arch, and started going through a series of narrower halls, ones that Amelia quickly lost track of. She looked at Mister Zelgadis, who looked alert. He might be able to recall the way out if they were pressed, and for that, she was thankful. 

The room they finally entered was small for a dining hall. A single table filled it, with the sideboard against the opposite wall they entered. Another door, off to the left, had servants carrying various cutlery and serving trays, so it probably lead to a kitchen or at least a dumbwaiter and a place to keep supplies. Four people rose as they entered. The man at the head of the table remained seated. Judging from his position, and the coronet on his head, he must be King Kavei. He looked younger than Amelia had expected, despite knowing that he was about her age; maybe because he hadn't bothered to grow a beard like a lot of young men who wanted to appear older did. "Good evening, Princess Amelia," he said. "Would you care for a round of introductions before we begin eating?"

"Good evening, your Majesty." Amelia replied. "Yes, I would like introductions." 

"Very well." High Priest Calande took her place at the table. The king himself stood, perhaps so he could point better. He wasn't a unhandsome man, though Amelia thought he looked a bit shorter and, well, scrawnier, in person than he looked in the few portraits she had seen. The cut of his clothing did a lot to hide that. Sitting down, he looked just like a normal, thin person. Only when he moved did Amelia get the sense that he was no outdoors man, adventurer or swordsman. "The person to my left is Archmage Nasim Awel, whom I believe you met some months ago." Amelia remembered the old mage, wearing a fancier version of his Guild robes. "To his left is General Jessa tab Siraba, the leader of our army." Here was a very tall woman, her brown hair bound back in a tight twist, and wearing a military uniform. "Next to her is Master Simin tab Dareiba, the head of our Merchants' Guild." Here was a woman, probably in her forties, though Amelia couldn't tell, dressed in blues. Her hair was so fair that Amelia wasn't certain that it hadn't just gone white prematurely. Amelia couldn't see her eyes, as she was wearing a set of the dark eyeglasses that she had seen on some of the guards at the gate. "On the other side, is Duke Gazi sim Shanin, representing the nobles." This was an elderly, balding man with a solid, roundish build, the sort Amelia saw on the kind of nobles who had lived active lives before age finally caught up with them. His eyes were bright, still, and he gave her and Mister Zelgadis a calculating look. "And I believe you've met High Priest Calande, that's right?"

"That's right," Amelia agreed. "This is Mister Zelgadis Graywords, a friend of mine, and of Saillune." Mister Zelgadis stepped forward, into the room itself.

"You're a bold man to wear a sword in the presence of a king, Mister Graywords." King Kavei said.

"I'm also a sorcerer. Taking off my sword would leave me no less armed and dangerous. At least this way, I'm being open about what I can do," Mister Zelgadis said.

King Kavei paused for a moment, and Amelia was about ready to cut in, when the king smiled. "Very clever, as well. I see why Her Highness puts no small trust in you. Shall we sit down, then?"

"Of course," Amelia said. She frowned. One free seat was near the king's right hand, presumably for her, but the other was near the foot of the table, separated by the duke. It was proper dinner guest procedure, if you wanted different people to talk to one another, rather than to be surrounded by the familiar, but it was a bit unnerving in a potentially hostile situation. She glanced at Mister Zelgadis, to see how he'd take it, and wondered if she should be contrary and take the seat near the foot. On the other hand, that put Mister Zelgadis near Archmage Awel, who she remembered he didn't like. Oh, for crying out loud, this is a dinner party, not a battle plan, she thought, even if some dinner parties certainly felt like battles of wits and decorum. She nodded to Mister Zelgadis, and took her place near the head of the table. 

So, now she was seated with the king on her left, the duke on her right, and the archmage across from her. The servants were bringing out the soup. Inwardly she thanked whatever benevolent forces that were listening that she had Mister Zelgadis with her, and not Miss Lina and Mister Gourry. While part of her suspected that the two of them normally ate like a pack of ravenous wild dogs was a personal choice and not a matter of etiquette (or lack thereof) -- Miss Lina did pride herself on being somewhat refined and dainty, and Mister Gourry listened to her -- she wasn't willing to trust they could behave for long periods and many meals. They didn't bother in Saillune, after all. Mister Zelgadis, on the other hand, ate like a bird. 

Amelia delicately sipped her soup, which was some kind of lentil soup, with a bit of garlic and pepper, and very tasty. It was a bit spicy, but she was starting to think all Jarei food was a bit liberal with the pepper. 

"How is Saillune in this season, Your Highness," Nasim Awel asked.

"I've spent most of the past weeks in the south," she replied, "so I imagine it's a lot like it's been in Jarei. There have been some storms, but for the most part it's been very hot."

"You don't like the heat?" 

"Well, for the most part, I'm not used to it. It's a bit cooler and a lot wetter near the capital," she replied. 

Most of the conversation during the meal consisted of things like that. Yes, her father was fine, and tremendously healthy. Tremendous was always a safe word to use with Daddy, as he was one of those people who could overwhelm anyone through his personality without even realizing he had done it. Her Uncle Christopher was well as well, and Grandpa was, if not well, then not getting any worse. There were of course, the obligatory expressions of concern for the health of the King of Saillune. Amelia was used to them, as Grandpa had been not quite well for years, and had left most of the work of the kingdom to his sons. 

The soup was finished, and the salad, some kind of grainy dish, was brought out. Amelia tried not to pick at it as she took some in her spoon and raised the first bite to her lips. She could identify tomatoes and cucumbers in it, but wasn't sure what all the leaves in it were, nor the contents of the dressing. She took a bite, and nearly winced as she bit into a bit of onion. She chewed as quickly as was polite, took a sip of water to wash out the sharp taste, and took another bite, avoiding the onions this time. It could be worse, Amelia thought. It's just a raw onion -- a bit shocking, but not bad. It's not like it's something really horrible, like fried cockroaches or something. She looked over to Mister Zelgadis, who didn't seem to be having this problem. 

"And how is your sister doing?" Archmage Awel asked her. 

Amelia nearly choked on her grainy salad. "Who, Gracia? She's still out training, last I heard. She's very... very self-involved in things. Horrible about writing home." The truth was, while her father still expected Gracia to come back any week now, ready to settle down, Uncle Christopher had asked her to plan as if something had happened to her sister, or her sister had just decided to abdicate. Gracia's letters at least showed she was still alive, but she showed no interest in coming home. 

"Ah," Archmage Awel said. "That's a bit unusual, isn't it?" 

"I suppose so, but it does seem to be a family tradition to travel a lot when we're young," Amelia said. "That's where Da- my father met my mother, on his travels as a young man. And I traveled a bit, as you might recall." 

"With Lina Inverse, as the stories say," the king spoke up. 

"That's correct." 

"Is she really as fearsome as the rumors say?" 

"Well..." Amelia paused. "Some of them are kind of exaggerated. Like, I wouldn't say she's the 'enemy of all who live'. Miss Lina does have a bit of a violent temper, and she eats a lot, especially when she's not paying for it, and she sometimes doesn't know her own strength with her magic. But, she's got a good heart. Mostly." 

"I see. And you met Mister Graywords there as well," the king continued.

Amelia nodded. "Mister Zelgadis was an old friend of Miss Lina's and Mister Gourry's -- Mister Gourry is Miss Lina's bodyguard and traveling companion. The three of them had a bounty put on their heads a while back, around when I first met Miss Lina, and we ran into him when trying to figure out who had done it. It's kind of a long story how that happened, though." 

The king and the archmage exchanged a look -- what it meant, Amelia wasn't terribly sure. 

"So, are you and he...?" Archmage Awel trailed off, but not before she got the message.

Amelia flushed a bit. "No, we're good friends," she said quickly with a glance at Mister Zelgadis, who looked thoroughly absorbed in removing the last bits of his salad from the bowl, and ignoring General Siraba's attempts to speak to him. 

"It's quite unusual for royalty to be dragging their friends around on diplomatic missions," the king commented. 

"Well, I thought he would be helpful for advice when I was in the south," Amelia said. "As a specialist, you know. Mister Zelgadis has also worked as my bodyguard in the past, so he was a natural choice to accompany me here. And he tells me he's been to Jarei before on his own." 

"I see," the king said. "I could imagine that he would be useful in your project in the south."

"Oh, let's not talk about business over dinner," Archmage Awel said. "Especially after Her Highness and Mister Graywords have been traveling since dawn. They'll be plenty of time for that tomorrow. Don't you agree, Duke Shanin?" 

The Duke had been listening to General Siraba's telling of some type of battle. To Amelia's delight, Mister Zelgadis actually seemed involved in that conversation. Well, involved for him and talking to strangers, which meant asking the occasional question and making eye contact. "Pardon?"

"I said, let's talk business tomorrow. It is far too nice a night, and far too nice a meal, to ruin it with politics."

"I always said you didn't have the stomach for politics, Nasim," the duke replied. "If His Majesty and the princess want to get things done quickly, then they shouldn't let the meal get in the way of it. Oh, wonderful. The meal's here." Amelia glanced at the duke's wine glass. While the servants had been surreptitiously filling glasses as the meal progressed, Duke Shanin hadn't seemed to have drunk a lot. Perhaps he was just naturally this blunt. Some nobles were, after all, especially to people outside of the nobility. 

"Let's at least leave the politics talk for after that, then," Archmage Awel said. "If you must talk politics, it's best to do it after the meal." 

Duke Shanin shook his head, as if impatient about the argument. Amelia saw King Kavei catch her eye and shrug a bit. Apparently this was a long-standing disagreement between the two, with this particular meal as only a small part of it. 

The dinner looked lovely, and smelled even better. Skewers of some kind of meat with vegetables and mushrooms, over flat bread, it made Amelia's mouth water. Apparently there wasn't a fish course here, or the dinner wasn't formal enough to justify one, or else the presence of the city so far from the ocean made fish a luxury even for royals. Not that Amelia minded. Fish creeped her out unless they were prepared in ways that she didn't have to think about them alive as she ate. 

She studied her plate for a moment, trying to figure out the best away to eat things. Somehow, the campfire technique of grabbing one end and chowing down probably would not work. 

"Take the fork and use that to remove the meat from the skewers." 

Amelia looked a bit startled over at the young King, who was busy doing exactly what he had just suggested to her, like he hadn't spoken at all. She flushed a bit, embarrassed to have been caught, then nodded and started eating. It tasted even better than it smelled/ The meat was incredibly tender and, for once, spiced just the right amount for her palate. She took a bite of mushroom next, and found that the juices from the meat had soaked into the mushroom just enough to flavor it. She swallowed. "This is wonderful. My compliments to the chef." 

"I'll be sure to pass that on, Your Highness." King Kavei said. 

The room filled with the sounds of silverware. Despite Duke Shanin's statements about politics, the dinner was just too good to speak about anything during it. It wasn't a matter of a lack of stomach for politics during dinner, but a desire to not want to leave one's dinner to cool long enough to elaborate on much of anything. It wasn't until dessert came -- a flaky pastry covered in nuts and honey, served with coffee and tea -- that the conversation stuck up again. Amelia didn't say much -- she was already feeling a bit full and lethargic. Unfortunately it meant she was mostly too full to pay much attention to what was being said. I hope Mister Zelgadis is a bit more observant. Next time we eat out, I must remember to not eat so much.

There was another nice thing about bandits, Gourry thought. They had lots of stuff that looked a lot like mercenary stuff. His armor, made of black dragon scales and fitted to him perfectly, was a little too nice for a merc. Well, maybe a really successful one, which was how he got it in the first place, but guys like that usually had a company and wouldn't be wandering around Telmoord at this time of year. His sword was certainly too nice, and he didn't even have the Sword of Light any more. But, the bandits he and Lina had raided had plenty of cheap leather armor, including some that fit him well enough. 

He also grabbed a bastard sword -- the balance was a bit off, and it was a bit longer than he really liked in swords, and the metal was really cheap, and the previous owner couldn't sharpen a pocket knife. Lina had given him one of her looks when he had said all this. Why bother about a sword you're only having for the look of the thing. But, you never knew when you might need a good sword, even if this one was not a good sword. But, it was a lot better than going unarmed, and it worked real well at this sneaky stuff. 

Gourry had figured out the best way to do all this sneaky stuff, and that was to let people make up their own minds about things. See, he wasn't very good at convincing people of things, besides that he was a good swordsman and kind of dim otherwise, but people were really good at making up their own minds about things without him having to open his mouth at all. Plus, he had Lina with him, who was good at the talking, as long as you didn't mention her breasts or her magic. Then she was still good at talking, but not so much in a way that would convince people that she wasn't a scary sorceress. 

"This armor smells like the bottom of the laundry bag," Lina said. "Stupid bandits -- you'd think they could keep their armor clean." She was scrubbing at the leather with some saddle soap. 

"They weren't very good bandits," Gourry said. "But, they did have armor that fits you, kind of." It was kind of surprising, actually. Lina was pretty small for a woman, and most bandits were male. Probably the fact they weren't very nice to women kept a lot of women from being bandits, or maybe they had their own all-women bandit gangs or something. But, it worked out pretty well. A lot of what made people think Lina was the Dra-mata Bandit Killer Enemy of All Who Live Genius Sorceress Lina Inverse was the fact that Lina had the cape, and the magic jewelry, and didn't wear any armor, as well as having bright red hair and looking like she was really ten, and being scary and fireball-throwing when she was angry. So, having a merc lady who you couldn't tell how big her chest was beneath the armor and her hair tied back and looking tough and scary because most women mercs tried to look as tough as they could around strange men, just in case they needed to kick them, would be a good cover for Lina. Well, as long as she left her talismans in her bag, and didn't start flinging around spells. "Do you want some kind of sword?"

"Yes," Lina said. He handed her the nicest short sword they had gotten. Lina wasn't bad with a sword and this one was enough like the one she normally wore that if they needed to fight, she wouldn't run into trouble. Not that Lina couldn't throw a nasty punch and she had a killer kick to the groin, so Gourry was more worried of her forgetting her cover if they got into a fight than her needing much help. Maybe they should have waited until 'that time of the month' to try this, when Lina wouldn't throw around magic. Then again, if they ended up in a fight so bad that Lina forgot she wasn't supposed to be a sorceress, they probably would have blown their cover. 

Well, unless someone tried to grope Lina, but the armor would stop that. 

"Does the armor fit all right?" Gourry asked. "Let me see, Lina." 

"Sure," Lina stood up, turning around slowly. "How's this look, Gourry?" 

"Let me adjust the straps." Which should be enough warning for her that he was going to put his hands near her chest, so that she wouldn't fireball him. She held still, and he noticed she was kind of red, and she shifted from foot to foot, so he did it quickly and efficiently. 

"Thanks, Gourry," she said, and he nodded at her. "Hey wait... hold still for a moment." She moved behind him, and he turned his head to try to follow here.

"What are you doing?" he asked. 

She had grabbed his hair. "I figured that your hair is pretty recognizable, Gourry."

"I'm not changing my hair, Lina." 

"Well, I'm tucking mine under a bandana. We can at least pull yours back." He could tell she was grinning at him. "I'll be gentle, I promise." 

"Well, fine," Gourry said. "Just no ribbons or anything. I'm supposed to be a mercenary." 

Lina laughed. "I know that." It didn't take her long to do whatever it was she was doing to his hair, then to braid her own hair and coil it under the scarf she had bought. Between that, the red pants and a blue and white shirt, she didn't look much like her normal self. 

Lina was careful to lock the room behind her when they left, and leave one of her booby traps attached to the door. Gourry made a note to not touch the door when they got back. Hopefully he wouldn't forget that: Lina's booby traps usually weren't lethal, but they hurt like hell. Sure, she'd probably heal him, but that wasn't the point. Gourry noticed that she had left her talismans in her belt pouch. Considering they were apparently pretty powerful magic thingees, he figured it was because she really didn't want anyone to steal them. 

He lead them through a maze of streets in Telmoord, to get away from the nicer part of town where they had gotten an inn room. If someone was following them, this would lose them. The mercenary bars were in the seedy part of town, where things that the city didn't really want to admit happened happened. There the streets were tiny, and the lights were mostly smashed, and, if they didn't look like trouble, they probably would be in trouble from people who did look like trouble. 

The first bar had the strange name of The Frothing Otter, and it had a drawing of a mug of beer and what Gourry thought had to be an otter, though he wasn't terribly sure what one looked like, and he didn't think the sign painter knew that well either. It sounded crowded, which was good, since there'd be lots of people talking. He might even know someone in there, though it had been a long time. Especially for a merc; most of the old timers became sergeants or officers, or retired, or got cushy guard jobs, or died. 

The bar looked like a bar. There really wasn't much he could say about it, besides that it was kinda clean, considering it had been a long day, and it was full of mercenaries. There were a couple of barmaids serving drinks, and the bartender. Gourry also guessed a few of the 'mercenaries' were probably getting paid by the owner to toss out any trouble makers if they got to the furniture-breaking stage. Furniture was expensive. 

He walked up to the bar. "What'll it be?" the bartender asked.

"I'll have a beer," Gourry said. He looked at Lina, who had followed him to the bar, and was looking tough. 

"Whisky and water," she said. 

The bartender nodded, and quickly got them their drinks, and Lina paid, while complaining about the price. They had plenty of money, but Lina had said earlier that pretending to be poor might help explain why they were asking about jobs. Plus, Lina liked complaining about money -- at least, she did it a lot, even when they weren't poor at all, and it was something kind of cheap, like a midnight snack. Gourry took a drink of his beer. He didn't like most kinds of beer all that much, anyway, but this wasn't even that good for beer and it tasted watered down. It might well be. If he looked poor and not likely to hang around, the bartender might have taken his chances that he just wanted to get drunk, and didn't care what he was drinking. 

"Wow, you two look fresh off the march," the other person seated at the bar said. Gourry sized her up. It was hard to tell, since she was balanced on the bar stool, but she looked tall for a woman. Her voice was friendly, and had a bit of a northern accent. She was wearing a short-sleeved maroon tunic, and he could see the muscles on her arm stand out. Not as much as a guy's would, but enough to convince him she was probably a seasoned veteran, used to running around in armor and fighting with a sword. Her blonde hair was braided out of her face. She had what looked like a cheap dinner: a bowl of stew and some bread, in a decent-sized portion. 

"Yeah," he said. 

"Our company disbanded two weeks ago," Lina said. Her voice sounded a bit different than usual. Gourry wondered if it was part of her act, or maybe just the booze. "My partner and I caught rides to here, and were hoping to join up with another company." Between Lina picking his brains about mercenaries, and her own observations, she wasn't too bad at faking it. 

The woman shook her head. "It's too late in the season. Most good companies aren't hiring right now. They're either in the middle of campaigns, or looking for guard work to tide them over until the winter. You're better off just freelancing the guard work until late winter or spring. Especially if you two want to find work in the same company. Most of them tend to pick a weapon, so at least one of you will have to learn a new one."

"I'm fine with short swords," Gourry said, which was true enough, even if he was just used to having something with a bit more reach. "What about you?"

"Me?" the woman asked. "Well, I was working for the Fox's company -- that's Felan's Fighters -- but he and my sergeant recommended me for possible knight training. He knows someone in Saillune City that I'm supposed to speak to. I'm doing caravan work until I get there. I heard bandits were in the area, but I also heard Lina Inverse the Bandit Killer was too, so things might be quiet."

Gourry tried not to look at Lina. He hoped she'd keep quiet and not try to find out more about those rumors. Maybe she would, because it wasn't like this woman was insulting her. 'Bandit killer' wasn't even a bad nickname for Lina. It might not be 'genius sorceress', but it wasn't 'dra-mata'. "Saillune's a pretty nice city," he said. He saw Lina give him a warning glance, but he wasn't going to say anything about Amelia or anything. Give me some credit, Lina, I know mentioning Amelia would be bad.

"That's good. I've never been there. I grew up north, near the mountains." She paused. "You can call me Enarra. My real name's longer, but no one but my family can ever pronounce it right." 

"I'm Mina, and that's Gerry," Lina said. 

"Nice to meet you," Enarra replied. "You're from up north too, aren't you, Mina?"

Lina nodded. "Zephilia. Haven't quite gotten rid of the accent yet." Which was a lie, Lina normally spoke without much of an accent at all, which put her close to sounding like she was from Saillune, but could be from anywhere from Sairaag to west Elemekia if you weren't paying attention. It's just she was pretty good at hiding the one she had, unless she was drunk or trying to trick people. Gourry wasn't even sure if he had an accent himself. At least, he never thought he had one, but he had never asked anyone (that he remembered). No, wait, he had once asked Zelgadis, who had told him not to worry about it so much, probably because they were in the Outer World at the time and all sounded pretty foreign. Or maybe it was a magic user thing -- Amelia, Zelgadis, and Pocota didn't have much of an accent either, and Sylphiel only had a slight Sairaag accent, but not when she was casting spells. Filia, though, spoke all weird. Maybe because she was a dragon, or maybe just because she was from the Outer World. How did golden dragons talk, anyway? Well, if they were disguised as humans, probably the normal way, but really, they weren't. 

Lina was saying something, and Enarra answered, and Gourry realized he probably should be paying attention. "... so we wanted to know who to avoid," Lina was saying. "Things were pretty bad before we left, and I don't want to get the kind of reputation that follows us around."

"I can understand that. There are a lot of shady companies out there." Enarra said. 

"Thing is, Gerry and I were hired out east, near the Elemekian border," Lina continued to speak. "We don't know most of the companies in the area. I couldn't tell you if any of them would be barely better than bandits, unless they got really bad." 

"Ah, got it." Enarra nodded. "Well, the two you need to watch out for are Becker's Brigade and Russell's Rangers. There's a few more that aren't so good with the pay, or have bad support. I wouldn't sign with Hawkins's Hawks or... oh, I can never remember the name -- Pollard's something. At least not for more than a short contract. I don't like passing on tales like that, but..." she shrugged, "people talk. You can ask other people here if you don't believe me." 

"We were planning on it," Gourry said. 

"Here, let me buy you a drink," Lina offered. 

Gourry tried not to look surprised, "But...," he said, feeling pleased he remembered Lina was under cover, so he couldn't use her name, even if he'd already forgotten which fake name she was using, "you were just complaining about how we don't have any money." 

"The lady helped us out, Gerry," she said his fake name in the exact way she normally said 'Jellyfish Brains', "so we need to thank her." 

"Nah, you don't have to do that," Enarra said. "I know what it's like to be dirt poor when I'm between jobs. I'm on second watch for the caravan tonight, so I can't have more than this, anyway." She tapped her glass for emphasis. "Thank you, though. If I see you in Saillune City sometime, remember you offered." She grinned at Lina.

"You're welcome," Lina replied. "And, yeah, if we see you in Saillune City, remind me and I'll buy you that drink." 

After they walked away, Gourry whispered, "You mean, you'll have Amelia buy her that drink, don't you?" 

"Shove it, Jellyfish Brains. Not here." 

Author's Note

Some of the mercenary names are references to various things (the Schlock Mercenary webcomic, some books), and the mercenary Lina and Gourry meet in the bar is a thinly veiled Expy of the lead character in The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. Mostly because I enjoyed that book and needed a stock mercenary for Lina and Gourry to meet at the bar.

All of the Jarei characters are original, though.

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Becca Stareyes, Invoking Urania

December 2013

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