Adjusting to life in Athering had been difficult, to say the least.
On the road, either between Harbourtown and Atherton or Atherton and Aeril, there had been no problem, for he rarely left Anala’s side and the newcomer’s ‘strange behavior’ did not need to be explained to the Bellica’s troops. All that was said was that Lares was Anala’s Paxwoman and that “an insult towards ‘im’d be tha same as one aginst me — ye ken?” This statement had earned the instant loyalty of some of her fighting force. The rest were still wary, skittish of a stranger so close to their bellica. After all, who was to say she hadn’t been bewitched into trusting Lares? He couldn’t say he blamed them. He’d feel the same way.
After all, he was a fairly patient man. He could wait. Slowly he’d win the troops’ trust, he knew. So he just continued doing his job, guarding Anala with his life, with the same grace and aplomb that dictated all his movements. Inwardly he roiled.
Upon their second return to Atherton. Anala had had to report to the Empreena much, much more, about events in both Aeril and Voco as there’d been no chance to report upon her return from Lares’ home nation before she’d been deployed into action again, and Lares had, of course, followed his bellica. Even if he hadn’t, his presence would still have been noted by the Empreena and it needed an explanation.
A story had been worked out, back on the road from Aeril, to explain the appearance of both Lares and Dagon. The two men were said to be ‘childhood friends’ of Anala who had both insisted on leaving Harbourtown and swearing themselves to her as Paxwoman and Honour Guard. It wasn’t the best story. Lares was sure that the Empreena, at least, was aware of the truth but it was the best they could come up with. So long as Lares didn’t slip up and reveal his true Vocan origins, it was hoped everything would be fine.
Adjusting to Athering’s very different society? Difficult, even without much of a language barrier. Pretending to be from a town within Athering that had its own unique dialect, and whose members were very much different from the rest of Athering? Oh, God. Kill me.
So he had thought many times in the past few days. Vulcanus had not answered his plea, if indeed the deity could even hear him when he was so far away from Voco. So he’d had to make every attempt to appear as a native Harbourtowner. The accent was not an easy one to adopt — and during his practice sessions he’d not gained much more praise than tentative, “Well at least you’re trying!” smiles from Anala and Dagon. His solution to his inability to master the accent was to not speak. Anala herself spoke sparingly because of it; so no one would think that strange.
Mind you, changing roles from Lares the Fop to Lares the Taciturn Paxwoman was not unwelcome, truth be told.
The mannerisms were a much tougher problem to solve. After all, he could not stop moving altogether. While they weren’t identifiable specifically as that of a Vocan, they were definitely not that of a Harbourtowner or indeed of a denizen of Athering’s many towns. Atherton was diverse enough, as the nation’s capital, to allow him to be seen as a non-Atherian, if ever he was caught alone in the city. He stood out like a…well, like a tree growing out of stone, I suppose. He mimicked Dagon as much as he could, but constantly thinking about that which was usually second nature — his gestures or the way he walked–with minute details was incredibly exhausting and stressful. Alas, he no longer had his main stress relief: he’d had to stop smoking altogether and hide his cigarettes, because not only would such an un-Atherian behavior brand him a witch by the populace and get him hunted down by an angry mob, but the Empreena, who apparently knew quite a bit about Voco, would recognise the smoke for what it was. One drag would be all the proof she would need to name him a spy and throw him in the dungeons — and have him executed.
So seven days of withdrawal it had been. He’d passed off the shakes and fever as flu. Uncomfortable, but preferable to death. He supposed. Not that what I want matters anyway — I made a promise to guard Anala, and I can’t very well do that if I’m dead.
He just thanked God — or perhaps Goddess, since he wasn’t so sure about religion since that experience on the ship from Voco — that he knew how to fight with a sword, and so could fit into Atherian society in that respect at least. Retiring his pistols and cutlass had not been something he’d wanted to do. A sidearm definitely would give him an advantage in protecting Anala or any other of his new friends who fell into harm’s way but, on the plus side, he had plenty of sparring partners now. Sparring partners who were also friends.
Had it not been for Jules, Dagon, and the majors, Lares might have had a breakdown by this point. He was forever indebted to them — they had willingly provided a support system for him to turn to when things became too hard to deal with alone.
A need to repay that kindness was what prompted him to follow Jules now.
The bellicas and majors of the first and second regiments had retired to the mess hall for an early dinner. It was now far past the dinner hour, but the four remained, laughing and chatting and lingering over drinks, with Lares and Dagon in their standard positions behind Anala. The two bellicas leaned in close, across the table from each other, talking in low tones while the majors had a rather raucous conversation beside them, complete with loud guffaws. Between the bursts of noise from Caelum and Aro, Lares caught brief snippets of Yarrow and Anala’s conversation. Dangerous, to talk of rebellion right there in front of everyone. Perhaps they were attempting to hide in plain sight. He hoped it worked.
For himself, he cared naught for rebelling, though from what he saw Yarrow would be a better choice for the Sceptre. Not the best, perhaps, but there really was no one else. Besides, Anala was on her side, which meant Lares was on her side. What did it matter to his conscience what happened to Athering? He cared more about Voco. There was no solving that nation’s problems for a while yet.
The conversation died when Jules appeared at the table and saluted.
“As you were, Medic,” Yarrow said, getting up from the bench. “Report.”
“CMO Jules requesting family leave, Bellica.” Lares watched his friend carefully and saw the red-rimmed eyes and slight twitch in the cheek. What had happened?
Apparently Yarrow wondered the same thing, for she moved over next to Jules and asked him as much. Jules paused, staring straight ahead. The twitch in his cheek intensified for a moment before he spoke. “My father died, Bellica. Requesting time off to visit my sister and then escort her to Atton for the ceremony.”
“Juno,” Yarrow swore, and placed a hand on Jules’ shoulder. “You have the time you need, friend. But may I request you stay in town until after the second? I know it is nine days away, but I would appreciate it.”
Jules nodded. “Don’t think Sarai will be able to leave that quickly anyway. She’s High Priestess now,” he said, in an afterthought designed to keep back tears.
“Is she?” Yarrow said, compassion in her eyes. “Convey to her my congratulations, will you?”
Jules nodded again. “Can do.”
“Good. Dismissed, soldier.”
Jules stood at attention and saluted, a gesture Yarrow returned. “Yes Ma’am,” he said, and marched from the mess hall.
Lares leaned down beside Anala’s ear. “Permission to go, Bellica?” he asked softly, his eyes still following Jules. Anala waved her hand and then Lares was off, following his friend into the hallway.
“Jules!” he called, for CMO was already all the way down the hall. The man stopped, but did not turn. Lares jogged to catch up with him.
“Friend,” he said, placing a hand on Jules’ shoulder, “you have my sympathies.”
Jules nodded, a stilted motion, and kept his head faced forward. “Thank you,” he said in a voice thick with unshed tears.
“Do you wish for company?” Lares asked, at a loss as to what else to say.
Jules shook his head quickly. “No, thank you…I need time right now. And to see my sister.” Still he faced forward, still not looking at Lares.
The Vocan suppressed a sigh and put his arm around Jules’ shoulders and squeezed. “Alright. If you need me, I’m here.”
Briefly, so quick he may have imagined it, Jules’ hand came up and grabbed Lares’ for a moment, squeezed it once, and then was gone again. “Thank you, friend,” he said softly, before walking down the hall.
Lares stood staring at the space Jules had left for some time afterwards.