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Alliances

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Slade confidently stalked into the pub, his nose scrunching at the disgustingly thick stench of garlic that assaulted his senses. He didn’t let the odor deter him; instead, his shoulders squared and he snuck past the seedy degenerates that swarmed the pub, avoiding their spit and sloshed drinks.

He felt the stare of one man in particular and turned, meeting the red gaze of his associate. Slade smirked, the movement wrinkling his scarred eye, and strode to the massive man’s table, sitting down immediately. Slade held up a hand, three puckered scars marring the skin, and beckoned the bartender. The aproned man grunted and spat on the floor, picking up a mug of mead and placing the dirty glass in front of him.

Slade bowed his pitcher in greeting, “Trigon.”

The man snorted, sounding like an annoyed stallion, “Slade.” He downed his cup of whiskey, completely unphased by the burning, and leaned in, his voice lowering as Slade mimicked his stance. “You said you can be of service to me; what is your price?”

Slade fiddled with the butt of the knife concealed within his tunic, observing Trigon’s face. A sly smirk began to grow on his lips and he leaned on the back of his chair, crossing his arms at the taller man, “Never thought I’d see the day when Trigon is desperate for help.” A humorless laugh preceded another gulp of the nearly spoiled mead. Slade yanked a clumsily stitched rag from a passing drunk’s tunic and wiped his mouth, “It depends on what you need me to do.”

“Gotham.”

An eyebrow peaked over the horrifically stitched crater where Slade’s left eye used to be. He clicked his tongue and closed his hand into a fist, individually cracking the knuckles. Trigon paid his fake theatrics no mind, continuing, “Those pests, the hooded vigilantes that protect the region from my men. I need them to hurt.”

Slade tilted his chin thoughtfully, “You want them all killed?”

Trigon shook his head, “No. Just injured enough to need a healer nearby.”

“You do realize the vigilantes are King Wayne and his children? Killing them up certainly won’t take that much effort.”

The massive man glared, his shoulders widening menacingly, “Remember your place, Wilson.” The muscles in his jaw coiled and Slade tensed, feeling the stares of the drunken brutes fall onto him. The one-eyed man bit back a comment at how the stench of garlic strengthened and held up his palms, laying one of his daggers on the table. Trigon harrumphed as he settled back down, downing the rest of Slade’s mead. The brutes kept staring.

“It would do you best to not think, let alone speak, on your perceptions of my intelligence.”

Slade bowed his head, his teeth grinding. He didn’t bother responding to Trigon’s jibe, instead considering his options. He looked up, a devious look in his eye, “I know a man who is very familiar with Gotham.”

“Let me guess, the mad circus entertainer? With the mindless freaks that follow him?”

Gloved hands ran through his graying hair, “People call him the Jester. Been a thorn in Gotham’s side for over a decade. He’ll know what to do when I tell him.”

Trigon considered his words before unceremoniously dropping a bag of gold coins on the table. Slade kept his face blank, feeling the hungry, desperate glances that the drunks aimed towards him and placed his hand on his knife again. The red eyed man smirked and stood, re-adjusting the blood-stained belt over his tunic, “Do not disappoint me, Slade. My men will be in touch after you’ve finished.”

He tilted his chin to the rest of the pub, a humorless grin stretching his face, “Drunk or not, give him a challenge, won’t you?”

Trigon casually strode out the back and Slade watched him go, stuffing the coins into his bag and standing. A drunk marched up to him, the dull glint of his drop point and his unsteady steps unintimidating. Slade shoved past him, pushing his body into the sharp edge of the table.

The rest of the patrons watched them, none bothering to warn the assassin as the drunk aimed a punch to the back of his head. Slade dodged and countered with a quick hit, his knife gliding through the tunic and pushing through the drunk’s ribs. He quickly spun out of the move as the man slumped against him, wiping the blood off on the injured one’s hair, paying no mind to his anguished gasps as he coughed up blood.

Slade kept his knife brandished as he walked out, smirking as no one else tried to challenge him. He glanced at the moon and slid into the shadows of the forest, smirking as the darkness cloaked him. With the coins concealed and his knives counted, he saddled his steer, setting out for Eastern Gotham.

--

The crescent moon hung in the sky, its presence steadfast as the clouds lazily sauntered in front of it. Bathed in the light of the orb was the nation of Azarath, one of its seven cardinal Temples, and the organized cluster of removable cottages. In the trailing end of spring they now surrounded themselves in the bountiful yields of their winter crops and endeavors of husbandry; fresh herbs, medicinal flowers, and incense sticks decorated the buildings while the few flocks lay in the grass and slept as the herd grazed. Even despite the chilled night air, birds cooed and fluffed their feathers within their nests, all perched throughout the community. The quiet hum of magic lulled them to complacent sleep, save for the ones tipped off to a familiar intruder.

Identified by the smooth pyrope gem embedded in between her temples, a woman crept along the monastery’s cottages, her fingertips brushing the smooth script that decorated them. She entered through the back, hidden by the shadows, and leaned her ear against the simple drapery of her mother’s cottage, listening to the hushed conversation within.

“Arella, have you heard the latest news from Gotham?”

“There has been more information since our last negotiations? It was only half a moon ago.”

“Yes, apparently Trigon’s men have taken to helping the Jester. King Wayne himself was nearly bled out half a moon ago, and his children are faring no better.”

The nervous rub of hands followed by a shaky breath in, “Will war break out?”

“Potentially. For now Trigon seems complacent in gathering up support and resources. But King Wayne is being stretched thin to adequately protect Gotham.” A pause, “King Wayne is considering a marriage between Jason and princess Koriand’r of Tamaran.”

“If Tamaran is occupied with Gotham… If they take even a squadron away from Azarath we’ll be too vulnerable.”

“Arella…”

“Trigon has pirates. He will not hesitate to attack us again.”

“Then what shall we do?”

A sigh. The heavy sound of a palm running over a face, “Then the conditions of our latest negotiation still stand. I sent word to King Wayne a quarter moon ago. His men are set to arrive by dawn. With our past, I am sure that some will volunteer to stay until the official units are sent.”

“Are you truly sure of this, Arella? You must realize how helpless the move will leave us if she is killed in Gotham. Trigon will capitalize immediately. Is there no other way?”

“I am certain this is the right choice.”

Amethyst eyes widened and the woman quickly moved away, tiptoeing so quietly and moving her slinky body amongst the shadows so effortlessly that one would think she were floating over the ground rather than scurrying like a guilty child. Entering her chambers she removed her cloak, revealing that while she was an adult, she was young, just a few years grown completely out of her girlhood, and that her eyes shone a brilliant purple.

She bent at the waist, pulling off her boots and quickly shimmying the decorative bracelets along her wrists and ankles; the flash of the bracelets she adorned were magnificent although the bands were brittle, crafted out of clear, flexible glass. She flexed her fingers, comforted at the black rings that sat upon her middle fingers. The contrast was bold against her skin, pale as it was. Sitting down and crossing her legs, the young woman straightened her back and balanced her hands on her kneecaps in meditation. She sought to clear her mind of the information she had overheard and listened as the quiet muffled conversation slowly made its way towards her chambers.

The tarp entrance was moved aside and a woman entered. She was nearing the middle of her life: her dark hair was tinged with sparse gray strands, her skin a pale cream, and her tired eyes filled to the brim with sorrow and tears. The young woman squeezed her eyes tighter and smoothed any emotion from her face as the other knelt in front of her.

A soft anguished sound escaped trembling lips and Arella smiled sadly as the younger of the two finally opened her eyes. Leaning forward, the matriarch placed a soft kiss on the precious stone that decorated the pale forehead. She cupped her daughter’s face, quietly admiring the wide eyes, thick brows, and sharp nose that greeted her; as her own charcoal eyes stared into her daughter’s violet irises, the elder couldn’t help but feel a vice around her heart.

She knew that Raven knew of her fate just as she knew that this would probably be the last time she saw her precocious child with her very eyes. Arella untucked her daughter’s headscarf, revealing the braid, its strands the color of mulberry wine, the covering hid. Sighing in resignation the mother felt her eyes begin to water as the impossibility of their situation settled in.

She grasped her Raven’s hands, shutting her eyes and resting her forehead against her daughter’s, feeling the push of the jewel against her brow. “My daughter,” she whispered, allowing some tears to slide down her cheeks, “My Raven, my Raven, my Raven.”

Bringing their hands up to her face, Raven pressed a kiss onto her mother’s knuckles, silent in the ringing of the night. She swallowed as her stomach twisted painfully but stayed expressionless. The sorceress felt as her mother sat up straight and mimicked the position as they stared at each other.

Breathing in, Arella spoke, “You know that we are not marrying you off, young one. Although, you are the age that I was when I bore you.” Smiling nostalgically, Arella chuckled a bit; the sight heartbreaking not in its emotion but in its rarity. The stoic thought of the last time she had heard her mother’s laugh and could only think of muddy memories, disoriented from the passage of time.

“You shall become a personal healer of King Wayne and his family. Raven, you already are aware of the situation regarding Gotham, correct?” At the heavy nod, Arella continued, “Then you know of how dire our position is. If Trigon were to even attempt to invade…”

Raven finished, “They’ll immediately go for the ports and coasts. And if they fail then Tamaran and Gotham will both enforce a strict border and we shall either be stuck within the forest or pushed out to the islands. Any alliance within the mainland will be temporarily severed.” Voice heavy, Raven stole a glance at her mother’s face and squared her shoulders, “Azarath has no chance of surviving if our allies cannot protect us. I shall leave with King Wayne’s men at dawn.”

The matriarch trembled at the conviction in her daughter’s words and wrapped her arms around the mystic. Pressing her lips to her temple Arella squeezed her child, the rattling in her chest echoed in her breathing as she choked out short breaths. Silent and pensive, Raven leaned her weight against her mother, bringing their joined hands up to the matriarch’s mouth as she began to cough. Removing her hands, she held the ends of her scarf to her mother’s lips, frowning in concern as the thin cloth soaked up the blood.

Moving her center of balance, the mage pulled her parent into her arms, apprehension apparent as the hacking coughs rattled her frame. Frail and fragile, her mother was becoming weaker and weaker each dawn: her irregular heartbeat, her required wrist bleedings each half moon, her bloody coughs, her reliance on a walking rod to stay upright, her inability to stay standing for more than an hour at a time. Healings and spells and enchantments all failed, and all would undoubtedly continue to fail.

Raven wasn’t naive enough to deny that her mother’s health would give out soon. With her own inexperience in ruling as a matriarch paired with the conflict of her training by Azar, the nomadic kingdom would need as much protection as it could receive; so, when the escort of twenty Gotham soldiers and twenty one horses arrived the next dawn, the sorceress, true to her word, had already packed her talismans, spell books, and potions and was waiting for them without any fuss.

Once situated atop a mare she grabbed the reins, allowing herself one last look at her home, wide eyes observing all the carpeted structures, trailing wisps of incense smoke, snug clusters of nests, and lounging piles of herded animals. Most of the community was still asleep, although all the elders and monks were undoubtedly watching from within their chambers, hidden within the misty morning. Arella and Azar would surely be among them.

Raven kissed the inside of her wrist, murmuring “Por mia patrujo Azarath, hejmo de Mentrion kaj Zinthos.” against the skin. She nodded at the men who decided to stay, squared her shoulders and turned her gaze eastward, towards Gotham. For my motherland Azarath, home of Mentrion and Zinthos.

They set off. Raven didn’t dare look back.

Three quarters of a day later they galloped through the outskirts of Gotham. The mage was able to contain her gasp, but couldn’t keep the wonder off her face as she took in the city. Intricate statues and gargoyles lined the arches, acting as borders between the guilds and homes. The end of the sunset was bright and colorful, the fading rays of light blocked some by the dreary clouds and tall buildings, but it couldn’t take away from the city’s brilliance. Raven stared at the structures, astounded at the architectural feat. The Seven Temples of Azarath had tall ceilings, but every cottage within the village was comprised of one level to make traveling easier; in Gotham, two level buildings were so common along the guilds that even some houses bared the trait. Nearly a mark was spent traversing to Wayne Manor, the heart of Gotham.

Her mare whined as she was led past the massive walls that surrounded the Manor. Raven’s eyes widened in awe as she took in the incredible sight of four colossal buildings, intersected by a four level tower, if its amount of windows were correct.

She straightened her posture as a figure came into view, a smile sliding onto her lips as she recognized the man. Standing as distinguished as ever, Sir Alfred bowed his head and offered his hand to her as the mare stopped in front of him. “Sir Alfred!” Raven didn’t bother to hide the fondness in her voice as she stepped down and took his arm, hiding her hug from the soldiers.

“Miss Raven,” The retired knight’s tone was warm as he set about overseeing the servants take her bags and chests. He began to lead her into the Manor, the pathway still illuminated by candlelight.

“You’ll have to excuse King Wayne and his children,” Alfred apologized, “But they leave once the sun starts to set.” His gray eyes looked over the small bag that hung off her hip and the wrapped book that she clutched to her chest. “They usually return a mark before the sunrise, although they arrivals will be spread out.” He hummed in thought, “Expect them no later than breakfast.”

The mage nodded at his words, looking up to his face, “As long as I have access to boiling water I can heal them.”

The man nodded, an eyebrow raised as she continued, “However, I will need a garden.” Her shoulders jumped and threatened to curl in on themselves as she hastened to add, “A small one, if there is room. My herbs don’t need too much light or space, but I have the feeling that your wards will certainly go through them quickly.”

Alfred chuckled in agreement at that, opening a door and leading her up a flight of stairs.

Raven dropped Alfred’s arm, one hand lifting her skirts while the other hesitantly held onto the rail as she ascended, looking down at the steps as she went. “Sir Alfred?” She questioned, her curiosity spiking his own, “How many levels does the Manor have?”

“Three, my dear.” He turned to look at her as the stairs ended and they turned another corner, walking along a hallway, “The observation tower has four and the library has two.”

Oh, Azar.” She let her skirts drop and took his arm again, not bothering to hide the lilt in her voice, “That is extremely impressive. The Temples’ don’t even have such height to them.” The man smiled at that, but didn’t say a word. Her mauve eyes glanced out the window, pupils widening as she took in the shadowed courtyards.

Alfred stopped outside of a room and took out a key, unlocking the door and handing the silver trinket to her as he held the door open. He let her explore as he motioned for the servants to put her bags on the bed and her chests on the floor. Raven thinly smiled at them, fiddling with the rings that adorned her fingers. “Thank you all for your hospitality,” Her gaze quickly flicked to the window and back to them, “Especially at this time of night. You’ve all been very kind.”

The old man smoothed his mustache, ushering the servants out the door, “Anytime, Miss Raven. I shall have someone knock on your door before my King and wards arrive.”

The mage smiled at him, moving to unpack her chests of salves, “Thank you, Alfred. Goodnight.”

Alfred closed the door and she sighed, sitting on the soft downy covers. The woman rolled her shoulders and started to stretch, finally feeling the effects of nearly a day of nonstop travel.

A few marks into the night Raven lied in her bed, still wide awake. She tossed and turned until she settled on her side, her hand clutched at her stomach. Cursing the butterflies that wrestled in her abdomen, she rose, grabbing a light cloak. At the door she paused, turned around, and grabbed her bag, stuffing a blend of tea and some honey inside. Tucking her key in her headscarf, she tiptoed her way down the stairs and along the hallway. She tried to distract herself with observing the art but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm. A heavy sigh escaped as the weight of reality settled in, her footsteps leading her outside to the main courtyard.

She paid no mind to the feeling of grass along her bare feet, instead allowing her thoughts to dwell on the people she would be living with. While her previous interactions with some of the Wayne Clan would allow for her to be complacent in their home, she also was incredibly nervous. As a child, she had watched Mother and Azar negotiate with King Wayne from afar and had had brief conversations with Richard, Jason and Alfred during that time. She was present at Lady Selina’s death and aware of King Wayne’s second wife, the Arabian princess Talia, but beyond that?

She didn’t know anyone else.

Although she was determined to exceed in her role as their healer, her mind was abuzz, weary from the past day. The emotions that surrounded Gotham, particularly the Eastern edge, battered havoc against her empathy. The routine tread that every servant, soldier, and knight walked with through the Manor’s walls intimidated her. The knowledge that her mother would probably succumb to her illness before the mage could visit again threatened to drown her in sorrow. The insecurity that in their matured age the Wayne Clan would find her bothersome and abandon her, and therefore Azarath, without any allies froze her feet to the ground.

Still, she refused to allow her fears to hinder her. She would meditate and, once centered, would tackle every problem like she always did: in stride and to the absolute best of her ability.

Raven eventually found a spot not a child’s stride away from a patch of rosemary. She sat, crossed her legs, closed her eyes, and breathed. Softly, reverently, the names of home echoed through her mind and she chanted them, her voice low in the night air, “Azarath. Mentrion. Zinthos.”

For nearly two marks she sat there, her chants weakening until they were silently slipping off her lips. Occasionally a bug landed on her to rest. A bird shyly approached her and perched on her kneecap, its beady eyes observing the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of her chest.

A rustle sounded in the windless night and the bird floundered, its wings brushing her face as it flew off. Pulled out of her meditation, Raven turned only to be tackled, a blade pressed to her neck. She squeaked as they toppled end over end, her hand blindly driving out to strike her attacker’s throat. He gasped and she stumbled up, her hands clasped to her chest. At the sight of the gold band on his bicep she dropped to his side, flustered. “Prin-- my Prince! I am so sorry!” She quickly grabbed her bag of tea and opened the sieve, picking out the peppermint leaves. “Here, this will sooth the burn,” The apothecary rubbed the plant just above his Adam’s apple, her thumb smoothly rubbing circles on his temples.

The man’s coughs relented and he warily gazed up at her, his glare enough to freeze ice despite his age, “Tell me who you are.”

She bowed her head, “I am Raven, the High Priestess of Azarath. I was sent to assume the role of the Manor’s healer, at King Wayne’s suggestion.”

Her fingers fiddled with her rings as he nodded, shakily getting to his feet. He was younger than her and she assumed he was Timothy. Still, he was taller, her eyes barely level with his nose. She noticed the blood staining a portion of her cloak and stared at the young man, eyes widening at the still flowing blood leaking from his leg.

“You are injured,” She kneeled down and tore her skirt, tightly wrapping the wound. The mage grabbed her box of tea and touched his arm, “I must go get my herbs. Go to the kitchen and I will be there in a minute.” He seemed surprised at her ordering him around, if his eyebrows jumping indicated anything, but he nodded regardless.

She tried to be quiet as she all but ran up the stairs then plodded down them, one of her chests cradled in her arms. When she returned, Timothy was not alone in the kitchen; a boy, also covered in blood, was leaning against the table. He drew his blade as she entered but she paid him no mind, instead filling the kettle and setting down her supplies.

As she threaded her needle, she bowed her chin to the boy, “I assume you are Prince Damian?” Without waiting for him to respond she introduced herself, “I am Raven, the healer from Azarath.”

With a practiced hand, she removed her blood-soaked skirt and wiped Timothy’s leg clean, nodding to herself when she saw the clot. Standing, she quickly prepared them both a cup of tea, adding extra peppermint for Timothy’s throat.

Raven quietly sat on the floor, beginning to stitch the gash on the prince’s leg. He was bashful as he sipped his tea; a shyness that wasn’t needed, as Raven blamed her own impulsiveness for their mishap of an introduction. Upon learning that the mage was the one who injured him, Damian was quietly snickering at his brother, although his suspicious gaze on her lingered, critical of her abilities.

“I assume since you are not bent over that none of your injuries are too severe?”

“I don’t know why you expect me to tell you.” Damian crossed his arms, glaring at her. It did not show on his face, but he was at a loss when she glared back, “I am in no mood to argue with you, my Prince. Either tell me or go to bed with injuries, I still have the rest of your family to patch up.”

His olive eyes widened almost comically and Timothy hid his grin behind a sip of tea, already a fan of this woman.

Damian sneered a bit but ultimately sat down, finally taking his cup, “Some bruises along my ribs, a few cuts along my arms,” he grumbled. The woman nodded, tying off the stitches and reaching back into her chest. Her hands came out with a bottle of dried herbs and a tin of honey. She softly drizzled honey into her empty cup, adding the herbs and a sip’s worth of hot water. Raven stood and retrieved a spoon, softly pouring a thin layer of the concoction on the bandages. She tied it around Timothy’s leg, hearing his sigh when the pain subsided. He let her dab small specks of the salve on his remaining wounds, barely containing his surprise when Damian allowed her to do the same to him.

Once both were comfortable, stretching their bodies as the salve alleviated their pain, Raven spoke, “Do you know when the others will be getting back?” She wiped her hands and set about pouring herself a cup, “Alfred said you all were sporadic with returning.”

As if waiting for her cue, a figure silently stepped through the door, narrowed eyes aimed at the Azarathian’s back. Damian paid her little mind and Timothy grinned at her, lazily tipping a pretend hat. Raven spun to look at her, jumping a bit in surprise. Ignoring the princes’ tittering, she clasped her hands and let her head drop an inch, “Princess Cassandra?”

The noble nodded, her shoulders squaring in suspicion as Raven continued, “I am Raven. King Wayne requested my services from Azarath.” She took a step forward, “Any injuries?”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow and then her arms, revealing the deep gashes on her sides and the slice traveling the curve of her hip. Raven sharply inhaled and ushered her to sit, quickly preparing more salve. She reached back into her chest, took a thin silver stake, and softly apologized, firmly rolling it against the other woman’s bloody, battered ribs. The princess tensed but stayed silent, breathing through her nose as the bleeding was forcibly stopped.

Raven aimed a smile at her as she wrapped up her wounds, quickly finishing up as Richard appeared. He seemed stunned to see her, but then a laugh bubbled out of him and he engulfed her in a hug, lifting her up and spinning them both around, “I haven’t seen you in years!”

The other three raised a brow at the humorous shake in Raven’s shoulders. She wriggled in his hug, cognizant of his visible injuries, “Richard,” she warned, although her tone was warm. The eldest prince let her go and held her shoulders, his boisterous laugh almost too perky for the early morning. Free to see all of him, she was pleased to notice that he only had a few scrapes. Still she pointed at the table, “Sit.”

He did as she said, slumping into the chair next to Damian, ruffling his hair as he calmed down. The royal siblings watched as she made her way around the kitchen, her cloak giving her the appearance of flying. Cassandra leaned her chin on her palm, watching their healer curiously. Raven rummaged around her chest, taking out a few different vials, until the hanging ends of her headscarf started to bother her. The mage hesitated a moment, then unfastened the material, letting her long, messy braid cascade down her back.

Cassandra’ eyes widened at the move and she quickly focused her stare on the table, fighting back a blush. She felt Damian look at her, his brows arched in confusion but she ignored him, busying herself with her tea. The princess stood, softly turning her torso from side to side as she set her cup down. Raven watched as she made shapes with her fingers, moving her hands with as much fluidity as someone mimicking a dance. Richard tiredly grinned at her in response, “Goodnight, then.” Cassandra met her curious gaze, stiffly nodded and was gone.

Timothy noticed the sorceress’ confusion, “Cassandra doesn’t speak.” He lazily announced, leaning back and taking another sip of tea, his hand still rubbing the bandages on his leg. His cerulean eyes narrowed in thought after a beat, “I think she can actually,” He glanced at his brothers for clarification. When Damian offered nothing and Richard shrugged, he added, “She just doesn’t like to talk.”

Raven hummed at that, the sound low in her throat.

The youngest prince gave her a smug look, still hesitant to accept her new position in their lives, “Will that be too much for you?”

Unperturbed, she picked up Richard’s wrist and made his hand slap Damian’s arm, not once actually looking up from the man’s wounds. Timothy laughed into his tea, his snickering not stopping even as Raven explained, “Many Azarathian monks take vows of silence for one reason or another. Communication with mutes has never been -- and will continue to not be -- an issue.”

Wrapping a thin strip around Richard’s bicep, she straightened her back, quickly glancing over them. “I need to get some more herbs from my room,” She explained, already walking to the doorway, “If Jason or your father return, tell them I’ll be a minute.”

“Can you bring more tea?” Richard yelled after her, grinning when she held a finger over her lips, “Richard, the sun hasn’t even risen yet. People are still asleep.”

Timothy took the chance to chime in, “He’s got a point. Your tea is almost as good as Alfred’s.”

Richard looked scandalized at the comment and Raven hid her smile, turning away with a nod and disappearing in the hallway right after.