It still surprised Shiori how far Nan Yanoi had come in the last two years. The city was now larger than Rhi’a’non, being built on both sides of the river. The city also had a very metropolitan population, with all the major races except dragons represented. Majority were still elves and faeries of course, but there was a significant amount of naga, as well as a smattering of humans, celestials, demons and beastmen. Neleh would allow dragons entry if they so desired, and most of the streets were built wide enough for smaller dragons, but the great serpents were not interested. Zamekh had visited the city a month ago, to the shock of most of the inhabitants, but that had been a short visit to discuss things with Neleh.
There had been xenophobic movements among the elves outside of Jao’e’Tinukai, to have more of the faeries move into the duchy, but those movements were hardly necessary. More and more of the faeries moved in every month, as space became available both in the various cities of the duchy and in the faerie forest that now stretched over the whole of the eastern border of the duchy. As the duchy also became the economic heart of the empire, many elves also moved in to search for better opportunities and security. Nan Yanoi had reached its maximum size for now, as Neleh was determined to not allow the city to grow outside the protective walls, several of the other cities in the duchy had went through growth spurts.
Shiori looked around her surroundings after coming through the arch on the southern edge of the city. She could see the eyrie near the gate, with griffins landing and taking off on patrols. Neleh had the large platform towers built with the idea of using the griffins as mounts for scouting and war, but had ran into some trouble with taming them. The faeries ended up solving that problem. There were no great wyrms for the faeries to control on the elven continent, but their magic was just as effective when used on griffins. The majestic beasts were now used by the elite of the Order on their patrols and scouting trips.
The border fortresses also had similar eyries, and the borders of the duchy were heavily patrolled. There had been several attempts at raids and bandit attacks towards the rich duchy, but they had been quickly spotted and utterly decimated before they could do any harm. Small groups were easy to deal with, even by single patrol groups of the Order, whereas larger groups of enemies would find it difficult to advance into the duchy due to the chains of border fortresses, which would conduct raids and cut off supplies if the enemies tried to by-pass them. The Order excelled in battles that weren’t simple regiment against regiment affairs, and small group tactics used in raids and harassment were their specialty.
Shiori could see a group of Order brothers patrolling the streets as she walked towards the central tower. The Order members could not be told apart from one another, as their uniforms and equipment were identical and their faces were covered. You could tell the difference between a faerie and an elf of course, but there was no way to identify a brother or a sister as someone in particular. The Order members were all dressed in identical black uniforms, with slight differences for function and specialty. They all had clothes of black leather and cloth, with silver embossing and highlights. The clothes covered the Order members from their toes to just below the eyes, and they had a black and silver hood covering their heads and removing the possibility of recognizing them by hair. This resulted in only their eyes, and little of their foreheads being the only thing showing. The hood was connected to a black cape, which had the duchy symbol of a white and silver phoenix on the back. The only other distinction was the symbol on their shoulder, which showed the number of the individual’s Order.
The clothes were of course heavily enchanted, as was anything produced in Jao’e’Tinukai, and although it was completely standardized, it was hardly a problem when the standard was the absolute best the craftsmen’s guild of Jao’e’Tinukai could produce. The idea was that if an item broke or was damaged, it could be replaced immediately with an identical one. The more warrior centric first Order had their members equipped with black and silver metal armor, while the second and fourth Orders that were more focused on speed and ease of movement used mostly leather of same colors. Third Order used the level of armor the mage or priest was most comfortable with, though the design was the same. Fifth Order of course didn’t publicize their presence, so they either hid among the populace or pretended to be members of the other Orders.
There were of course more reasons behind the uniform and impersonal looks of the Order. Part of it was for the Order members themselves, and part of it was for the populace. The idea was that the brothers and sisters stopped being individuals as soon as they were on duty, and were simply extensions of the Order’s will and reach. The populace knew they would be getting the same objective treatment no matter which member of the Order they talked to, so no favoritism or grudges. They didn’t see opposing a member of the Order as pissing off an individual, but stepping on the toes of the entire Order. The members got to let go of their own problems and didn’t have to worry about their actions haunting them personally. They also left behind their own ideas and prejudices when they donned the uniform, and strived for the ideals of the Order instead.
Unity was very important within the Order, and nobody policed them harder than themselves. If a brother stepped out of line, or abused his authority, the first people to punish him would be members of the group that they worked with. The groups were often the same as the ones that were put together through the grueling and spirit-breaking training, and were welded together by strong bonds. The members of the group would be the first to defend each other and would also be the first ones to punish any transgressors because it was seen as betrayal of their bonds. It was in fact the standard practice that if there ever were traitors of deserters, then it would be their own group that would be assigned to hunt them down, as they knew each other the best and would punish them the hardest. This policy had been put into effect only twice in the last two years.
Shiori admired the architecture of the city. It was a nice blend of elven and faerie architecture, with some naga influences. She couldn’t help but compare it to the architecture of Solaris, the capitol of the Sun Elves that she had just come from. The blend of effects in Nan Yanoi was much more beautiful, than the grandstanding attempts of the Sun Elves. Nan Yanoi looked more natural, and had this feeling of air and freedom about it. There was also the contrast of the hustle and bustle of the trade districts and the tranquility of the extensive parks and gardens in the city. Nan Yanoi also had this feeling of magic, as almost every item was enchanted and masterfully crafted.
Shiori had been performing a series of missions in Solaris. Some of the nobles had not heeded Neleh’s warnings, and Neleh had finally had enough. Eight nobles had been involved with sudden ‘accidents’ of various types. There was no sign of anyone being close to them, or any lingering effects of magic, yet several nobles had strangely found themselves off-balance in high places, or standing under falling objects. Very clumsy for an elf. Just to make a point, one of the nobles had been found with a knife stuck in his eye, so that even stupid investigators wouldn’t actually think of them as accidents.
Neleh was usually very good at dealing with any trouble caused by the various factions that opposed her, but for the next few weeks they didn’t need any extra trouble, so they had been taking pro-active steps to prevent trouble from occurring. The Order was on high alert with the patrols tripled. Several missions were conducted by the fifth Order, to keep the other factions around the empire busy for a while. Travel to and from the duchy was limited, and all officials from outside the duchy were told that the people of the duchy were too busy to meet with them for now.
There was a stark divide in the elven empire when it came to feelings about Jao’e’Tinukai. Most of the populace loved everything the duchy and Neleh represented. The problem was that the duchy had become a new center of power, becoming almost an equal of a kingdom in power and influence, even if geographically the duchy was not as large. The population density inside the duchy was almost ten times the average duchy though, and that combined well with its economic and military strength. To top it all off, Neleh had become the second center of power aside from the empress that several of the nobles had been afraid of.
In Shiori’s mind, they couldn’t afford any disturbances in the near future. Despite Neleh’s best efforts, they had been unable to find a solution to their problem with the bond. Neleh had already made preparations for handling the backlash instead. They had a plan to have Asheara put in magical stasis within the house within Nexus. They also planned for Neleh to try to deal with the backlash while shutting herself away until she got over the effects it would have on her. The problem was, they had no idea how long it would take for Neleh to get over the backlash, and they weren’t sure if there would be lingering aftereffects. Neleh might be gone for hours, or she might be gone for years. In either case, they had to deal with her absence.
Estelar and the faerie queen would deal with most things, while Shiori sat vigil over Neleh and would go out only to deal with any unforeseen difficulties. Neleh had tried to leave Shiori in charge, but despite Neleh’s assurances about the safety of Nexus, Shiori wanted to protect Neleh while she was vulnerable. They had been unable to hide all their preparations, but they had succeeded in hiding the exact details of what was going on. Any observer would only know that there was something going on, but that didn’t really tell much or give too many chances to react.
Despite everything, Shiori was in a good mood today. The family had been spending a lot of time together the last few weeks, as a sort of goodbye for Asheara. They wanted to fulfill any desires Asheara might have for the last days before the stasis, and one of those desires had been for tonight. Asheara missed the times when she had slept together in a single large bed with all her daughters, and the plan was to do that again tonight. Selvaria was gone, but Shiori was there in her stead.
She had been hoping for a chance like this for years! Neleh had been focused on being the strict teacher for nearly all their time together, but Shiori had seen the hidden gentleness inside her. She was simply feeling the whip of Neleh’s tough love! Asheara had mentioned some nonsense about Shiori being a bit too obsessed, but clearly she was simply jealous. Neleh’s fate obviously lay with Shiori; it was just that Neleh was too considerate. Too considerate to rub their love in Asheara’s face while the pesky bond was still in place, too considerate to take advantage of Shiori’s pure love and adoration, even if Shiori wouldn’t mind being corrupted a bit by Neleh. Too loving to be soft on Shiori, because she didn’t want to lose their love by not training Shiori harshly!
But Shiori was starting to be strong enough, and the bond wouldn’t be holding them back for long. Soon they would be free to express their love! Neleh might be too shy and considerate at first, but Shiori would guide her. If Neleh wasn’t willing to corrupt her, then maybe she could corrupt Neleh instead.
Getting some weird looks from the people surrounding her, as Shiori was mumbling to herself and giggling a bit, she finally reached the central tower which was also serving as Neleh’s official abode. There were several government buildings around the tower, and Neleh had a palace of sorts on the island, along with an Order sanctuary, for official occasions and parties. Most of the time Neleh could be found at the tower though. Almost all of the matters of the duchy now went through the hand-picked individuals Neleh had delegated authority to. Neleh only weighed in on the most important matters, and focused on making plans and dealing with matters outside the duchy. Interestingly, the faerie queen had proven to be an able administrator. She handled civil affairs while Estelar dealt with matters of law and the Order and Shiori dealt with the matters in the shadows.
Shiori found Neleh pretty fast, as she was dealing with some weird magical construct, demonstrating her plans to the mages present. The device looked like a miniature ship of some kind, with several magical crystals in the middle. Apparently the crystals were holding the small ship aloft. Neleh noticed Shiori’s approach immediately. “Just try it. Once you got the miniature version down, we can try to build a prototype in full size.” She gave her instructions.
“Another grand idea?” Shiori asked half serious. Half because Neleh had many great ideas. Only half because many of the ideas were too difficult for the others to make into reality. It was pretty useless if Neleh was the only one able to utilize the idea.
“We’ll see. It could be a great help if it worked, but I’ll give the mages a fifty percent change of being able to duplicate it. Done with your little adventure in Solaris? I know you were eagerly expecting tonight, for some reason.” Neleh asked with a small smile.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Mission completed with flying colors!” Shiori said in a chipper voice.
“Well, everyone’s here tonight. Even Delia managed to shake off Aneirin. Switching topics a bit, I still think it would be better for you to take the lead during my absence. There’s very little point in guarding me while I’m unconscious. Only a handful of people have access to Nexus, and I’m going to have defensive spells set around me.” Neleh tried one last time.
“We can never be too careful. What happens if an enemy manages to force Delia or Elsaria to open a doorway to them?” The real reason Shiori wanted to stand vigil was the free chance to ogle at Neleh for an extended period of time, without any consequences. Shiori gave a small ‘uhehe!’ laugh in her mind while thinking about it.
Neleh had only gotten more beautiful as time passed, and she now looked almost identical to the statue in the temple of Elune. She had gained some maturity into her looks, and her black hair had gained a hint of purple light. Only Shiori knew that was the effect of Malassa’s influence. Shiori couldn’t wait to get the chance to touch that hard yet soft body tonight, claiming accident while both of them knew the delicious truth.
“Well, hopefully you won’t be needed in either capacity. We’ve made our preparations, hatched our plans and laid our traps. Now we can only do our utmost and hope for the best. Despite all the time we’ve had to say our goodbyes, tomorrow will be very sad and emotional, and that can result in mistakes and weaknesses. I know it’s not fair to you, but I need you to be the rational one and keep an eye out, because the rest of us will be too sad to do so effectively.” Neleh said with a sigh.
The sight of their family getting ready for bed was a sight for sore eyes. Neleh might have been the only one with an actual blessing of Aphrodite, but the others were still beautiful as well. Delia was soft and womanly, Selene was more of a cool-beauty that had let her hair down for the night, while Elsaria was fresh and athletic. Shiori was still young and hadn’t really developed in all the right places yet, so she felt a little out of place, but she had hope for the future. Being slim was an advantage in her field of work, and if nothing else she had the opportunity to rely on Neleh for help if her development left something to desire. Asheara was of course the mature beauty, while Neleh was just pure perfection. Shiori noticed that she was drooling a bit.
As they lay down for sleep, Shiori made sure she got the spot right next to Neleh, while she yielded the other side to Asheara. This was Asheara’s night after all, so let her enjoy it for one more night. The future would belong to Shiori.
“Shiori, I know you still have some room for development, but being envious enough to cop a feel is a little much.” Neleh said with a slightly accusing tone.
“Oh I’m good. Don’t worry about it.” Shiori answered back with a wide grin.
“Your hand is still on my breast.” Neleh said with a deadpan voice.
“I know honey, I know.” Shiori said in a very satisfied voice.
They had gathered their family in the Nexus for a tearful farewell. Their home had a new building resembling a small temple. The whole building was covered in complex magical patterns. It also gave a view of the rest of the area. Even though Asheara wouldn’t be able to see anything during her stasis, the idea was to allow her to watch over her family. The pillars of the round temple all had several magical gems in them that would sustain the stasis spell in case something happened to Neleh. Even if she was imprisoned, the gems held enough power to maintain the spell for a hundred years. The spell was complex, but surprisingly easy on mana consumption. In normal circumstances, Neleh would re-charge the spell every few months.
As the others were shedding their tears, Asheara approached Neleh. “I have a few things to say. We have no idea how long I will be in stasis, and even if I will ever wake up. I don’t want you to hold yourself back, and I especially want you to not regret how things turned out. I loved our time together. I hope we will see each other again, but even if we don’t, I will be satisfied. I want you to live your life. I know you have been holding yourself back because the bond will carry all feelings and emotions. I still remember that night you had with Solana. I’ve never been that aroused in my life.” Asheara gave a small grin.
“That said, you can stop holding back. I know you also held back because of my feelings, and there is no need to do so anymore. That said, I will do my best to win you over once I do return. I love you.” She gave Neleh one last tight squeeze. Neleh was too choked with emotion to reply.
She gave a small wave to call Shiori over. “I know neither of you are big on swords. That said, I want you to have these, and carry a little bit of me with you into battle. Maybe they will help to watch your back.” She said while giving the large white no-dachi to Neleh, and the smaller white blade to Shiori.
Asheara gave a hug to Shiori, and whispered in her ear. “Watch her back for me. Now with your competition gone, you should do your best and take your chance. I’m rooting for you, since I’d rather it was you than someone else.
She went to hug Delia and whispered. “You’re the eldest now. You have to keep your baby sisters grounded, and watch over them. Especially the two geniuses need someone with a more normal point of view. They can be too excellent sometimes.”
She went to hug Selene. “I know you can be a bit single minded and focused, and I know you will feel the desire to turn this place into another shrine to worship. Fight that impulse. Faith is important, but you need to live your life as well. I don’t want to stand in the way of that.”
Finally she went to hug Elsaria. “My baby. Please, at least one of you should find happiness. Your sisters are too obsessed to do that. Wherever you might find it, I wish you would seek it out.”
Finally Asheara walked into the middle of the magical formation. Neleh applied power to the magic, and Asheara floated upwards. She was finally stilled in the motion of blowing a kiss to her family.