"So that's the Barrens up ahead, yeah?" Livia asked, clutching to the pommel of the saddle. After hours of being stuck on the back of a bouncing animal, her bottom was numb and her legs and back ached. Her hands throbbed from her death grip on the pommel, which was only slightly loosened now. She didn't like horses – had never been on one in her life. Horses were a privilege that only the very rich could afford, so she'd only seen one a few times, let alone ride the monster. She had no problem with heights when she was climbing up an extremely tall tower, but on the back of a bounding monster of an animal?
She was freaked out.
Jasper, damn him, controlled his horse with graceful ease. Instead of being thrown around like a ragged toy, like Livia, he moved with the horse, almost in synchronisation. And he managed to still look good, despite being in the saddle for hours and hours. They'd left in the early hours of morning, and now the sun had already passed its zenith.
Jasper glanced up to where the sheer sides of a cliff rose up in front of them. He shot her a dry look.
"The Barrens are on a plateau – what else could that be? Haven't you ever been out here before?"
The words were said lightly, but Livia was affronted – she'd been trying to make simple conversation with the only person in the group she'd talked to before. Cassius was up ahead, riding point, but she didn't dare go near him – he scared her even more than the damn horse did. He was so muscular that she could barely see his neck. The Priestess was covered completely – oh so inconspicuously – in white, with a veil over her face. Her sparkling green eyes gazed out coolly from above the slip of cloth across her face. Her servant was trailing along on a pony behind, hunched in on himself and glancing around nervously, his face in shadows from his hood. The other two men were Gytheum Guards and she tended to stay away from them as a rule.
Except for their handsome Commander, whom she was quite interested in getting close to.
"Actually, no. I haven't," Livia answered, brows arched. "Why are you surprised? I told you that I'm the daughter of a whore – do you really think someone living in the Twists has the time or money to go gallivanting about the country? I've never been out of the city."
"Oh." He blinked. Scratched the back of his neck. "Well, sorry then. I guess I'm not used to…"
"Talking to people who grew up in the slums?" she said sardonically.
"I never said that," he said, shooting her a sideways glance.
She shrugged. "You didn't have to. I could see it—" she waved at his face "—in your face. Dead giveaway."
He smiled slightly. "Not much gets past you, eh? Well I'll tell you about the world outside of Kalamis's boundaries. Right now, we're heading dead north up to the Barrens. Surely you've heard the stories?"
"What, the stories that say it's a churning firestorm? Real comforting, those ones."
He didn't acknowledge her sarcasm. "Have you noticed that everything that was green is slowly turning to brown, the closer we get?"
She had noticed – outside of the main city, the view of green rolling hills had been fairly stunning. But now there were quite a few dead trees intermixed with straggling, barely alive ones.
"I have and it hasn't reassured me that we aren't trekking into a firestorm or some other type of evil."
"I didn't peg you as the religious type. Anyway, it's caused by what we call acid rain. The scientists in Kalamis believe that the volcanoes and fumaroles on the Barrens cause it. The poisonous vapours that are expelled from them mix with the clouds up in the sky, forming a toxic type of rain that kills the environment – thus why the Barrens are described as… well, barren. And, sometimes, the rains can spread out to here."
"Wait, so if we're not ambushed by the spy or burnt to death by the volcano, we'll be melted by this acid rain?"
He gave her a dry look. "Yes, that's exactly right – if we don't find shelter quick and the clouds look faintly yellow, our skin will be melted off our bones."
Livia narrowed her eyes at him. "Nice try, but I'm not gullible. Try again another time."
He grinned roguishly. "Fine. The rain will only hurt you if you're exposed to it for a long time. We have oilskin coats especially made for this."
"Even for me? I'm so touched that you're actually trying to keep me alive."
Jasper cut his eyes towards her sharply. "I didn't realise that I was supposed to kill you," he said carefully.
Livia scrutinised him, her head tilted to the side. "You really have no idea about politics, do you?"
He shrugged. "That's why I'm the Commander of the Guard. I speak better with my sword than with words. What did you mean by that, anyway?"
"Surely you've heard of collateral damage, Jasper. That's what your father's hoping I will be – harsh, but true. I'm not anyone special or important. I shouldn't even be on this little nation-saving adventure. I'm only here because not only did I see your spy's face, but the Primor wants me to use my lie detector abilities."
"Oh, don't try to deny it," she snapped when he opened his mouth.
"The higher pitch in your voice and the narrowing of your eyes beg to differ," she said tiredly. "Don't be angry with your father – he's a politician. They all use whatever they can to their advantage. And if a human lie detector crosses his path, he's not going to let her go wandering off again."
There was a hint of self-loathing in her voice, but luckily Jasper missed it.
Before he could say anything, she quickly changed the subject. "So what's up with this Druid? Alaric, isn't it?"
"That's right. I never did finish giving you my geography lesson, did I? Well, the Druids live in their jungle to the northeast there. Beautiful place, there. Their main city, Wudu, is built over the main river out of the trees themselves. To the northwest," he nodded in the direction, "is where Leukos is, the home of Tatiana and her fellow Priestesses of the Light. It's very mountainous and Leukos is at an even higher altitude than the Barrens here."
Livia had a hard time imagining this when the rock face that was looming up in front of them was massive.
"So, you were telling me about this Alaric?"
"No need to be impatient, now. Alaric is a… family friend of my father's."
Livia snorted. "Please. You said 'family friend' in the same way people pause before calling their bastard their 'nephew'."
He shot her an amused look. "Nothing gets past you, does it?"
She pursed her lips. "That was a pitiful deflection – answer the question, Winthrop."
"Ooh, now we're using surnames." At her flat look, he rolled his eyes. "Fine, I guess it's useless keeping anything from you."
"I like the way you think," she murmured.
"Alaric made a soul oath to my father. I don't know the exact details, but sometime in the past, Elijah saved his life or something, and Alaric made an oath to him. He's a good man. Once you get over his eccentricities."
"But he's a Druid. Does that mean he can do magic and stuff?"
Jasper grimaced slightly. "Druids are closely connected to their god and, through him, the natural world around them. Alaric can do some amazing things, but I would hesitate to label it anything as fanciful as magic and stuff."
They had been going in and out of some trees for some time, but now, when they emerged from underneath the failing cover of another dying set of trees, they were confronted with a sheer wall of rock.
This halted Livia's near endless stream of questions.
"Whoa… it's huge! How in the world do we get up that monster of a thing?" Livia exclaimed as the other's halted beside her, Jasper and Cassius. Cassius slid off his horse and Jasper followed suit.
"Are you sure we're in the right place?" Jasper murmured, but Livia could still hear him faintly. He didn't look very happy with his lips pressed into a thin line and his brow creased.
"Positive," Cassius replied. "I've followed all the markers here." He peered upwards towards the top of the cliff that was dimly highlighted by the dying sun. "I'd say our spy got here first and took the ladder with him."
Jasper swore, running a hand through his hand in agitation.
"We can either spend the night travelling to the next ladder or path, or someone can climb up that cliff and tie a length of rope to the top."
Tatiana nudged her horse forward. "I don't really care what your decision is – but surely it can wait for tomorrow. I am exhausted and the thief doesn't look much better." Livia wanted to be offended, but she could see no malice behind Tatiana's reference to her. "We need this night to recuperate. Plus, the Druid hasn't even arrived yet."
Jasper frowned. "I don't like it, but you're right. We'll let the horses go now – there's no use keeping them around till morning. Let's set up camp."
Livia tried to help them – she really did. But when she tried to brush down her horse, she found out she was doing it wrong. And when she tried to collect firewood, she found out she'd retrieved the wrong type of wood.
So she plonked herself in the middle of the camp, a sullen look on her face. She wasn't used to being useless.
To her surprise, however, Tatiana strolled over and sank elegantly to the ground, her servant trotting after her.
"Hi…" Livia said uncertainly. She couldn't see any contempt or malice in Tatiana's face, so she relaxed.
Tatiana swiped away the veil, revealing her striking face. She smiled.
"So, thief, you can draw, huh?"
Livia blushed slightly. "Yeah, uh, sorry about that. I guess I can get a little carried away."
Tatiana laughed, waving her hand at Livia. "Oh, I don't mind at all. I am a terrible drawer, but who says no to the Primor? Anyway, my name is Tatiana, Priestess of the Light. Which you've probably already guessed."
Tatiana held out her hand and Livia shook it, smiling slowly. "Livia."
"Oh, I already know. And this is my servant, Balthazar."
She was going to hold out her hand to him, but he gave her a nervous look before shifting away. She didn't need to be a human lie detector to see that he was overly paranoid and didn't want anything to do with her.
"So he's a eunuch?" Livia asked.
Tatiana look surprised for a moment, as if wondering how Livia could flippantly ask such a question.
Despite this, she nodded. "As is the way of the Light."
"I've always wondered – what does your city of Light actually look like?"
"You mean Leukos?" she said with a smile. "It's beautiful. And cool, unlike the terribly hot weather in this place."
Livia snorted. "I've heard it's ten times worse up there in the Barrens," she said, indicating to the massive cliffs next to them.
"Either way, it is a much nicer temperature than here. You can only get to it through these narrow gorges or, if you're brave, down the multitude of rapids in the river. But that would only take you to the Barrens, not straight to Kalamis or Eutropios. I don't think there are enough people in Leukos to call it a city. The only people there really are some of the natives, the Priestesses, and their servants, like Balthazar. The main building is the temple, where all the Priestesses live and carry out our religious practices, and it's hewn from the sandstone cliffs. Now that's the true beauty of the place – the sandstone is pink, so when the dying sun shines on it, it makes it glow. It's gorgeous."
Livia grinned at her. "You've basically sold the place to me already," she said, making Tatiana laugh.
"Would you like to play a game of cards?" she finally asked, after her laughter had died down.
Livia's eyes sparkled. "Only if it's poker."
An hour later, Livia was grinning as she counted all the coins she had procured. After the first few minutes of their game, other people had joined in until everyone but Jasper and Balthazar were playing. Even Cassius. Livia might have had a distinct advantage by being able to tell when people were bluffing, but she didn't dare look at Cassius. Everyone else was taking it graciously, but she didn't want her head squeezed off between his astronomically muscular fingers.
Finally, a few hours after the sun had gone down, Livia lay curled up in her sleeping blanket. The ground was hard and the night cold, but it was nothing she wasn't already used to.
She heard the sound of murmured voices and craned her head up, glancing around curiously. She spotted two people by the fire, one she didn't recognise and the other Jasper. She peered at the one that wasn't familiar. He was covered in what looked like animal fur, but in the flickering firelight she couldn't be sure. She thumped back onto the ground, yawning widely.
Her curiosity would have to wait for tomorrow.
Jasper frowned; looking down at the figure huddled in a blanket at his feet, tufts of blonde hair poking out the top. He grit his teeth in frustration – this damn thief was turning out to be more trouble than she was worth.
He nudged her firmly, mouth set in a grim line, ready to berate her when she peeked her head out of the blanket.
She rolled around, muttered a bit, then was still again.
As a soldier, Jasper had learnt to sleep lightly and be alert to the smallest disturbances. After all, if you weren't, you were killed. Easily.
It was as simple as that.
So it was pretty frustrating to find that Livia didn't awake, even when she was kicked. Didn't this girl live in the slums?
Jasper rolled his eyes – he'd tried being nice. Screw that.
He placed his boot on the top of her form then kicked her, so she immediately rolled over and tumbled away from him. Her limbs began flailing and she managed to stop herself, her head sticking out of the tangled blanket.
"What the fuck?" she said, expression murderous as she glared at Jasper. "Take a hint, soldier boy – I'm trying to fucking sleep here!"
Jasper looked skyward, as if seeking patience.
"Get up. You have a bit of explaining to do."
She jutted her chin out defiantly, jaw set firmly. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it."
He raised a sardonic eyebrow – was she always this defensive?
"If you don't get up, I'll send Cassius over to gently persuade you."
He smirked as his threat got the intended reaction – immediately, she began untangling herself, popping to her feet.
"Why didn't you say that earlier?" she said brightly. "I'm happy to be of any assistance to you, anything at all!"
He couldn't help feeling slightly annoyed at this. She seemed petrified of Cassius. Sure, his size was intimidating, especially since he'd perfected the whole 'strong and silent' persona, but Jasper was much more dangerous. He was, after all, the Commander of the Gytheum Guard, a title that wasn't to be thrown around. A normal, sensible person would be more wary of Jasper, who not only controlled the most elite band of warriors in the city-state but also had the king's ear, than they should of Cassius.
"Cassius is just like a big, fluffy teddy bear, you know. Underneath that intimidating surface," he said slowly, bemused.
Her eyes slanted away from him to his bodyguard, her face paling slightly.
"A 'teddy bear'? Please. The only way he could be a fluffy-wuffy teddy bear were if that bear was a psychotic, killer bear that butchers pregnant women in the night. He is downright scary and since I – strangely enough – value my own life, I'm staying far, far away from that killing machine."
" 'Killing machine'? He'd love to hear about that."
"Ah! I'll do whatever you want!" She suddenly became wary. "Within limits, though."
It remained a wonder to him why this woman who could read faces like a book, was afraid of Cassius. To his knowledge, Cassius hadn't done anything to Livia – hell, he'd probably only looked at her!
As amusing as it was for him, her little Cassius-phobia was highly strange.
"Right. Two things. One: Tatiana has discovered her precious, expensive hair clip to be missing. You wouldn't have anything to do with that, would you?"
She answered immediately. "No – but if you do happen to find it, send it my way, would ya?"
She even gave him an audacious wink.
He gave her a piercing look. "Shall I get Cassius, to see what he thinks?"
Her eyes widened, then her hand flew to her shirt, dipped underneath it and whipped out the clip. Jasper stamped down on the emasculating blush as he realised she had hidden it in her bra, and gingerly pocketed it.
He would have to ask Cassius to keep intimidating Livia, intentional or not.
"And number two?" she asked, running her hand through her hair in an attempt to calm it.
Now this was the most important thing.
"I was thinking last night about how to get up that sheer cliff there." He jerked his chin to the Barrens, watching her carefully. Her expression didn't change. "And a thought suddenly popped into my mind."
She tsked. "I'm telling you, Commander, stick to the swords and leave thinking be."
Surely she could see what he was getting at – she wasn't that thick, was she? Her expression still hadn't changed. Maybe she did realise. She could read faces after all – she'd know how to keep one from reading her own.
He let her comment slide.
"You managed to get into the Winthrop mansion, I'm guessing through one of the windows. Which meant you either fly or you can scale walls exceptionally well."
"I like to think I can fly," she said, with a suave little smile.
He breathed out slowly to calm his irritation. "If you climbed the mansion wall, you can climb that cliff and attach the rope."
She widened her eyes. "Oh, but I'm not very good at all. Really."
He snorted. "That's a load of bull and you and I both know it. I may not be able to judge a lie, but I am a pretty good judge of character."
"Obviously didn't help you the first time we met," she muttered.
"And you, Livia, knew that you could climb up that cliff when I mentioned it yesterday, yet you said nothing. So, I'm guessing, you want to be underestimated – you don't want everyone knowing everything you can do. Which is fairly normal when you've lived out on the streets, in the Twists, your entire life."
She narrowed her eyes, her expression finally sparking to annoyance.
"And I guess you, the pampered son of a Primor, can judge what living on the streets does to one?"
He opened his mouth to speak, but she interrupted him.
She leant back from her aggressive pose and sighed. "And, I'm guessing from that little flare of indignation there, that you have lived in the Twists. You are the adopted son, after all."
Jasper's lips narrowed – her ability to read his face was disconcerting. Plus, she'd managed to turn the whole conversation around, so she had control of it.
"We'll have a quick breakfast, you can meet Alaric, and then you're climbing up that wall."
She sighed in an exaggerated way. "Breakfast better be good, then. I'm bloody hungry."
Jasper looked at her impassively for a moment before turning and walking towards the campfire. After a mild hesitation, he heard her follow.
"Alaric, this is Livia, our resident thief – so try to keep your belongings close to you."
Livia sent him a smug look, a gilded dagger appearing in her hand, twirling around her palm. As Jasper realised that yes, the little shit had taken his dagger, Livia turned to the druid with his beaded beard and body covered in animal furs. Jasper snorted when he saw her eyes soften as she took in his bent, old man stature and gnarled walking staff.
"Oh, I needn't worry about that – I have Mother here to look after me," he said, his voice croaky with age. Jasper watched in amusement as a black shape disengaged itself from the rest of the shadows and became a large black cat that padded over to Alaric's side. His gaze transferred to Livia just in time to see her mouth pop open. He didn't need to be a face reader to see that she was surprised.
"Is that a panther?!" Livia had a look of indecision on her face, as if she weren't sure whether she should begin cuddling the dangerous animal or not.
"Indeed it is – her name is Mother."
A small smirk appeared on Jasper's face as Livia's face softened into a gooey mush. Now this was entertainment.
"Aw, so she's very gentle? I can pat her?"
The 'old man sparkle' in Alaric's eyes turned evil, and Jasper tilted his head to survey Livia. Her face had lost it's previous gooey expression, instead turning into one of trepidation – finally she realised something wasn't right.
Jasper decided to put her out of her misery. "It's short for Motherfucker, Livia. I wouldn't go near that damn rodent."
Alaric straightened up with an indignant sniff, completely losing his gentle old man demeanour.
"She's not a rodent, she's a cat," Alaric pronounced imperiously, Mother snarling beside him. "And it does not serve you well to be so dismissive of her. The Druid's have a saying—"
"Oh, by the light, you can't be starting on these damn sayings already!" Jasper said, sharing an exasperated look with Cassius.
"—that 'he prayeth well who loveth well both man and bird and beast'. Now that, young Jasper and Livia, just shows the unity between man and animal, and through animals such as Mother here, to Nasci." He slanted a look at Tatiana and gave another disdainful sniff. "Or to whichever God you choose to worship."
Livia's eyebrows were in her hairline while Jasper just sighed irritably. He loved the old Druid, he truly did, but his endless storage of 'insightful' quotes got old after a while. Actually, they got old quite quickly.
"Well, time for breakfast!" Jasper announced, breaking the silence and striding over to the campfire, where Cassius was still sitting.
I've drawn up a map (using a dodgy online progame) and you can see it here (without spaces): http : / / s233 . photobucket . com/albums/ee151/rosieroo123/Where%20The%20Truth%20Lies/
I've been thinking about photos and I'm not very concerned with finding any for this story, as it will be very hard to find ones that just… fit. It's hard to find a short haired blonde with attitude. BUT I was thinking Livia might look a bit like Katie White in this photo (take out the spaces): http : / / userserve-ak . last . fm/serve/_/40320317/Katie+White . jpg
Tell me what you think! Also, if you have any suggestions for her or any other characters, I'll be happy to hear it!
Thanks for your lovely reviews: RomanceObsessed , ..You. , pbgurl , sappyromancelvr , Hail , Northfacegr95 , Bubbly Girl , LoveAntiquity and cheesecake15.
RomanceObsessed : Nope, Tatiana is a new character. She's a Priestess of the Light who delivered the sword to Kalamis. Thanks for reviewing!
Oh, and that quote at the end is stolen from 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by Coleridge.
Please review and tell me your thoughts about the characters and the story so far!