Chapter 13: Argo

The nights wore on one into the other. Pyro expected Zora to argue again, or at least imply her dissatisfaction through either speech or action every time she slipped in the mud, tripped over a root or a branch grabbed at her tattered clothes. But not a word was uttered. Indeed, it almost seemed as if her face became a determined mask to finish this journey.

There were new noises here, animals Pyro could not identify. Those cries were hollow and deep, making the back of his hair stand up. There was others that sent him spinning around, fists ready to set alight. They were nothing of course, nothing more than his nerves. But this constant tension drained him.

Nothing could describe the feeling rising in Pyro's breast when they finally set foot on the land of Argo. The forests slimmed and one plant was tamer than the next till only a stretch of grassland with the occasional tree. He felt relief, no doubt, that this period of hardship was over. But only Cor knew what lay in store for them now.

He felt it first, the beating of hoovies thrumming against the earth, tingling up the soles of his feet.

"What is it?" Zora whispered. She knew now, to trust his ability to sense their suroundings far better than herself.

Then he heard it, horses' bodies lifting and thudding against the grass, men's shouts, and chain armour chafing against metal. Pyro glanced around: unless they doubled back, there was no cover. And they wouldn't make it: they were too tired, the distance too far. The riders were coming in too quickly.

Zora had already fistsed her dagger, fell back into position behind Pyro. The riders were dots are the horizon.

"Can you see who they are?" Zora pushed stray hair away from her eyes.

Banners. Spears in hands, pistols at sides. "Border patrol," Pyro murmured. "We're not the party they're expecting, so keep your wits about you."

And all of a sudden, the riders had circled around them, points of the spears at their breasts. Pyro breathed out slowly: it felt so wrong to be caged. Heat tickled down his arms. No. Not now.

"We mean no harm. We have come to meet Chief Ivor."

"Why does a Cor seek audience with our Chief?" The speaker's spear pressed at Pyro's skin.

He opened his mouth. "I have brought…" And the words evaporated in the air. I have brought his wife? Pyro could not say it.

"I am Zora, Princess of Tria. My uncle will be sorely disappointed by the manner my escort and I are being treated in my future land."

Pyro stared at Zora. She had not used this tone on him for the weeks and he'd almost forgot how much authority the lady could conjure in her voice.

The rider's jaw slackened and then he pulled himself together. A movement, and all the spears withdrew except for a pistol now trained on Pyro. The rider dismounted. "Pardon me, m'lady, but we were expecting you weeks ago and when you didn't turn up, we thought that something must've happened."

As if this looks like nothing happened, Pyro had a mind to say but kept his lips firmly together. The Substrata had the most peculiar idea that they were superior than the Gifted and sometimes they became the most offended if you said something intelligent.

The rider turned and whispered to one of his men who then dispatched himself from the group. "A mount will arrive for you shortly, m'lady."

"Thank you, and what is your name, good sir?" Zora gave him the sweetest smile and Pyro had to stop the corner of his lips from twitching upwards. It was the smile coated with honey, when she wanted to get something done for her.

"Thomas, m'lady."

"Well, Thomas, I'll be very pleased if you get your man to put away his weapon. I assure you that it is not needed." Zora turned her gaze on the rider and though she wore nothing more than tattered rags, Pyro felt sure that the men could notice nothing else but her refined royal glare.

Thomas shuffled and coughed into his fist. "M'lady, I don't think that's a good idea. Those creatures – you never know what they might do." Behind him, his man arrived with a chestnunt mare. "Ah – here you are, m'lady." He made a cup with his hands for Zora to step on.

Zora's chin lifted. "And what about Pyro?"

Thomas stared back at her. "Who is that, m'lady?" Him and a couple of his men turned their heads as if expecting another member to appear on the plains. Pyro took in a deep, slow breath. He noticed the tightening around Zora's lips, the narrowing of her eyes.

"I can walk, my lady," he said, before she could lash out anything that might harm her reputation in this new land.

The pistol went off. Zora screamed. Pyro watched the bullet thud into the ground, a leaf's distance away from his foot.

"Don't you dare talk to the Princess, animal!" Thomas's spear rested again Pyro's bare neck.

Fire raged in Pyro's core, though he kept his face calm. Only Zora was close enough to notice his breath was warmer than usual.

"Thomas," Zora snapped, "Shall we go?" She wound her fingers into the mare's mane and hoisted herself onto the steed.

Thomas jerked his head towards Pyro before mounting.

Ropes thrown out, Pyro found himself dressed in thick helm and sasil like a prisoner of war.

"What are you doing?" Again, Zora's screech filled the air.

Pyro could almost smile: he had not heard that childish, demanding girl for quite a while. Instead, he lifted his chin a little higher though his bonds tightened further around his body and jerked around as the party started to make their way forwards.

"Like I told you, Princess, these barbarians cannot be trusted."

Pyro's first impression of Ivor was a large man, with more bulk than brain. Certainly, there was more than just muscle that spilt over Ivor's belt and his small black eyes gleamed under a pair of bushy brows. And that was just what his eyes told Pyro. His head told him to obey nonetheless. Leaders came in different sizes and shapes. His heart, however, spoke of a different matter. Distrust. Danger.

"You've done your job, dog. Now shoo." Ivor ordered for the ropes around Pryo to be cut. They hung slack over his shoulders and spooled a pool at his feet. "What are you standing there for? Go!"

"I have my duties, Sir." Pyro shrugged the ropes off and stared past Ivor's shoulder to the palace that Zora had been bundled into by giggling and gossiping women. "I am bound my Chief's orders: to be here as a personal guard." The golden pillars shone dully and the wind huffed at Pyro's neck. Guards stood to attention at all sides. When Ivor did not speak, the Cor added, "If I return alone to my Chief, it is very easy to assume that some ill has befalled the Princess. That would not do."

Ivor's moustach twitched. His eyes disappeared as he frowned, and said, "I suppose you'd better come in then." He pulled a face and then turned to swagger inside.

It was cool inside the corridor, and gold tinted almost every wall and corner. Following Ivor, Pyro strode past paintings upon paintings of horses hung one after the other – Argo was indeed the land of horses. Statues of stallions and mares stood in half-gallop had been staged between majestic oak doors. Servants opened doors in front of Ivor and they entered. Till the last room, where there potraits of faces of some resembelance lined down the wall. But Pyro's eyes latched onto the person who stood in the shadows beside the throne in which Ivor lowered himself onto. With a back cloth pulled up till the bridge of the nose and thrown over the head to cover brows, ears and hair, it should've been impossible to figure out what he was. Yet it took someone who understood to actually consider the meaning of the violet eyes and the way the man held himself.

A Gifted. Cor or Verity, Pyro could not be certain. He let his gaze float over the man's shoulders, knowing that disdain marked the tilt of his head, what kind of Gifted was he to willingly cover his clan markings? He hoped that the dirt, mud and grime did not cover his clan markings.

"So," Setttled comfortably, Ivor spoke, his elbows leaning against his knees and his fingertips meeting one another, "I would think that Zephyr would be more careful."

Pyro's gaze turned sharply back to Ivor. "We had a train of good men. We were ambushed. No-man's land – the Submixt are getting out of control." Cor bless, he thought as his men's faces surfaced to his mind. Those men he had hand-picked to protect their princess, and died for her.

"Bring the chest."

The man in the shadows disappeared and reappeared with a large golden chest in his arms. He strode forwards and presented it to Pyro. The chest was a little unsteady and Pyro realised how heavy it must be.

"Open it."

The two men's gaze brushed against each other, neither sure who the command was meant for. Pyro could just detect the other man's strained breath so he lifted the latch himself and opened the chest. An array of gold goblets, silver chain, jade threaded daggers and treasures filled the chest to the rim.

"You've had your fun with the Princess no doubt. I'd appreciatate if you kept the stories to yourself. Take your pick." Ivor inspected his nails.

Fury consumed Pyro as though fire had eaten at his soul. He noticed the slight widdening of the violet eyes and forced himself back under control. Ivor was admiring his statue on his left and had not noticed the drift of smoke dispersing in the air. Through lips so stiff Pyro could barely speak, he said, "I can assure you, the Princess is delievered in the most pristine condition." And you are certainly not worthy of her. Meeting Ivor's glower, Pyro added, "I take my job seriously, sir."