FACE TO FACE
The usually somewhat tame and peaceful fortress turned into everything but in a single day. Thundering news spread like a wildfire throughout -- the Lord and the Lady were getting married, and everyone was invited. That sole piece of news had seemingly set the whole, makeshift city ablaze, turning it into a non-stop hub of chatter, noise, and shouts.
Every smith roared, demanding the rarest materials to craft something as a gift; every butcher demanded the rarest animal to prepare the best feast; every jeweler demanded the shiniest and rarest gems to decorate the Lady; every baker demanded the finest ingredients to create the best wedding cake there could ever be; every street performer structured new ways of entertainment, hoping they would be selected to participate in the wedding; every musician wrote a new song celebrating Lino and Hannah, every painter thrust themselves into a sleepless marathon, every dancer tried forming more and more elaborate moves to wow and awe, every bard had already begun composing their version of the Lord and the Lady epic...
The entire fortress had sprung into over-life, never a singular moment of peace. Amidst it all, Alison observed in silence with fervent eyes. It was beyond breathtaking to witness it all. The thing she found the weirdest, however, of all the weird ones currently surrounding her, was that no one she encountered, no one she asked or observed, had done anything out of fear. The local smith, Ryvel, didn't spend a whole week sleepless to craft something because he was terrified he would otherwise be executed; he did it purely out of his own initiative, his own desire.
All was done purely for celebratory purposes. Terror and fear could not be found, as, Alison suspected, the entire rest of the world believed would. Instead, passion, excitement, fervor the likes of which she had never witnessed in her life had dominated the world around her, so much so that even she had begun to feel it all. She had to consciously prevent herself from breaking out into the blazing fervor like the rest, had to consciously keep herself leveled and steady. One moment of carelessness would be enough for her to join the ranks of rest.
Thousands of people poured out into the streets every single hour, rushing left, right and in circles. Thousands of ships left and docked the pier, thousands of beasts took flight and landed in a massive circular motion. She could already faintly see the framework of the above-floating platform where the ceremony would be held. The entire thing was cast out of precious obsidian bejeweled with rubies and gold. Had Hannah not nearly slapped them to death, Alison suspected that the entire platform would have been built out of rarest and most precious gemstones.
She could not make the heads or the tails of it all. After all, in her mind and in her heart, the Empyrean could never command this level of respect and liking. The way he commandeered people was exclusively through the terror and fear... not like this. The reality, however, proved her different. It was true of many things, as, ever since she arrived here, nearly two weeks ago, her perception had slowly begun taking one hit after another. The things she so fervently believed were proven false before her very eyes. The truth she had come to embody within her soul turned to be mere lies and myths. Perhaps, more so than anything else, it was the fact that not a single execution took place since she'd come here. Not a single person died... or was even arrested and thrown into a cell. All disputes that would emerge were handled on the spot and were hardly ever all that heated.
It was in pure contrast to her Sect, where spies, unfilial disciples and criminals were executed, locked up and banished on a daily basis. It was this contrast and these questions that led her to walk up to the top of the fortress and knock on the simple, wooden doors. Nobody stopped her on her way up, merely greeting her with smiles before rushing elsewhere and away, no doubt too occupied with planning one part or another of the upcoming wedding.
The doors slowly opened, revealing a dimly-lit, simply-decorated room. Two bookshelves hung on the far left end of the four walls, with a simple bed cradled into the corner on the far right. Window hung right opposite of her, beneath which a desk stacked with papers and a chair rested.
On top of the chair, a masked man sat in silence, reading through the papers. Alison knew he’d put on the mask exclusively for her, as seemingly everyone else had already seen his face. She stood in front of the doors, merely looking at him, without taking a step forward or entering.
"... uh... come in?" Lino noticed her standing awkwardly outside and called out, meeting her sky-blue eyes. She donned a simple, white dress with a folding bottom and crescent top. Unlike Hannah, who Lino would describe as the ‘fiery' sort of beauty, Alison was the docile type, blemishless.
“... t-thanks.” Alison nodded meekly and slowly walked in, turning around and observing the entire room. Lino pulled out another chair from his void world and put it on the other end of the desk, taking out a single bottle of wine and two glasses, pouring them full.
“Halfway through, huh? You’re holding up well.” he said, smiling faintly.
“Huh? Ah, yes,” Alison mumbled, sitting down slowly while staring at the bookshelf. Most of the books had to do with histories and myths and theories rather than just being stories, surprising her. “They made it easy.”
“They?” Lino questioned.
“Uh, people,” Alison replied, tearing her gaze away from the books and focusing onto him, ignoring the glass of wine in front of her. “They all welcomed me.”
“Well,” Lino said. “Only fools reject beautiful women.”
“... why did you come to find me?” he asked, ignoring her faintly blushing cheeks. She’d changed in that department, Lino noticed, as she didn’t use to be this shy when they were kids. Rather, he was the type to blush far quicker than her.
“... I... I don’t know...” Alison replied, biting her lower lip. Why did she come to find him? To ask him how did he do it? To expose that it was all a lie, a charade, a play put on for her?
“... what’s your favorite part of the fortress?” Lino asked.
“My favorite part?”
“Hm,” he nodded. “Where did you spend the most time at?”
“... you didn’t follow me?”
“Haii, between keeping Hannah from murdering everyone, going over the reports, and taking an odd nap here and there, do you really think I’ve time to follow you around?” he chuckled bitterly, speaking nothing but the truth.
“... so... you bring a foe into your home, and then just ignore her? I don’t know whether to call you a genius or a moron...” Alison smiled faintly, shaking her head.
“... true, you and I are enemies,” Lino said. “But, I never thought you’d take our animosity and take it out on my people.”
“... your trust in me is rather odd. You only met me two weeks ago. Why would you believe that?” she asked.
"... call me a dreamer," he said, smiling lightly and taking a sip of the wine. "But, I like to see the best in people. Gives me genuine hope things will one day be different."
“... how... optimistic...”
“So, you never answered me. What’s your favorite part?”
“Ah, the streetside benches.” Alison replied.
“Eh? The benches? Shit,” he frowned. “I didn’t know my little home was that boring. Should I just ask Vy to fly overhead every day all day as an attraction?”
“I’ll burn you if you do...” a voice echoed inside his mind, causing Lino to grin.
“No, it’s not that,” Alison quickly added. “It’s... it’s just that it allowed me to observe in peace the rest of the city. You won’t believe what sort of things you see when people think nobody’s looking.”
“... oh, I do,” Lino grinned, leaning onto the table. “One time, I saw this young baker add extra jam for a treat a girl ordered. Only I saw it. Twice. Then trice. Eventually, I wound up going back in front of the bakery every day, and every day he’d do the same. Eventually, his boss found out, and fired him. As luck would have it, someone secretively sponsored him and he opened his own bakery. Now the two of them are fiercely cursing other bakers, saying their cake will be the centerpiece of my wedding.”
"... ha ha ha ha," Alison suddenly burst out into laughter, surprising Lino who pulled back into his chair. "I didn't know to be an Empyrean means to also be bored enough to go around stalking other people."
"Oh, yeah," Lino laughed back. "The world seems to think I'm out there all the time, fighting and whatnot. Truth is, I spend most of my time just sitting around bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. Like today. The entire fortress is brimming with stuff to do, and I'm locked up here going over some uninteresting papers because, according to Hannah, the moment I proposed we get married in front of two-hundred-meters tall statues of us, I had lost any and all privilege when it comes to wedding decisions."
“Ha ha ha, yes, that does sound like her.” Alison lowered her head for a moment, squirming in her seat. “How... how is she doing?” she managed to ask.
“... you know,” Lino said, taking a sip. “She’s here as well. Overwhelmed. And, according to you, you’re bored enough that you spend your days sitting on the bench watching other people live.”
“...” Alison merely glanced at him, not replying.
“She misses her best friend,” he added. “And could certainly use her help right about now.”
“... if only it were that easy...” Alison mumbled.
"Why can't it be?" Lino asked. "What's the world got to do with the two of you? What's her decision to leave have to do with what you two share? In your heart you know she will never harm you, Alison. Nor will she harm anyone from her Sect. Is it so terrible, then, that you continue being friends with her? Do you think it was easy for her, leaving? Watching everyone she's ever loved in her life cast her away with eyes full of hatred and anger? Just as yours was broken, her heart broke too. The reality is," he added, smiling lightly and grabbing her hand, holding it tightly; to his surprise, she didn't try to fight back, merely matching his gaze squarely. "The longer you hold onto the demons inside your heart, the more haunting they become. Today she's merely a painful reminder; tomorrow, she will be a wall that will stop you from advancing any further. She won't ask for your forgiveness, only your time. As I am right now. There are two more weeks left of your stay here; rather than looking at other people and what they're doing... go with her. Observe her and watch what she does. And even if, by the end of it, you still decide you can't be friends with her... at the very least, then, you'd have given it a chance. That's all she asks for. A chance."
“...” Alison sat silent for a few moments before nodding, causing Lino to crack a smile and pull back, taking out a talisman and handing it over to Alison. He didn’t need to explain what it was, as one glance was more than enough for an experienced eye to see it was a tracking talisman. She smiled back faintly, got up and bowed before turning around and leaving. Lino watched her fading back tenderly, slowly taking his mask off. He would be happy if Alison stayed of her own will by the end, but it didn’t matter. Eventually, she would come to be at peace with it all, as her Sect had also now befriended him. In a way, as sad as it may be, she had no choice. Just as he was about to put his focus back onto the papers, he heard a faint exclamation as he raised his head, meeting Alison’s eyes who had come back and was standing at the doorstep once more.
“Y-y-you?!!!” his head immediately ached as he sighed. Sorry, Lucky, he thought inwardly. And good luck... he he... goddamn, I’ll never get tired of those...