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Honey-Nut (#22) & White Chocolate (#14)

Author: crossyndome crossyndrome
Challenge: Honey-Nut (#22: "If you want an audience, start a fight") & White Chocolate (#14: "Condescension")
Story: Lands of Valor
Story Title: It Begins to Fall Apart
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 2,735
Summary: Elsa and the Tutor visit the reclusive Empress in hopes that she'll lend them her strength for the war. They're sorely mistaken.
Notes: For some reason, certain letters get cut off in my posts and I'm not sure why. I'll either fix them and the won't show up, or when I go to edit they'll be there, but still not show up. Interesting~

Their arrival in the kingdom did not go unnoticed. They made their way along hastily, earning inquisitive looks from people as they went, some even stopped their activities to watch them go. One particular older man approached Elsa from the side somewhere and tried speaking to her, his voice was weak and cracked, and she couldn't understand a thing he was saying or perhaps what he was asking. Before Elsa could have the chance to try and reply, the Tutor simply grabbed her arm and pulled her along close behind him; there wasn't time to dawdle, that's what he said.

Elsa jutted her lips and rubbed her arm from where the Tutor had grabbed her, the area still ached. Other than the peculiar behavior of these people, she's been quite observant of the Tutor's drastic change in demeanor. It started just as they were leaving the shore from the harbor in Cogarth and boarding the ship to cross the Limem Sea. Normally a partaker in frivolities of drinking and storytelling, he had secluded himself to one corner of the ship, leaning forward slightly to peer over the railing and down into the upset waters

That in itself was unusual. Elsa brought a pint to him in hopes that it would lift his spirits or at least be enough to temporarily numb any emotion and fog his thoughts. She didn't like that he turned her down and went below deck where their uncomfortable, makeshift cots were

It got progressively worse after they reached the Scarlet Shores and placed their feet upon the red sands. He exuded nervousness all with the whole fiddling with clothes and fidgeting. His gaze never settled on one thing in particular, either. Anytime Elsa would call for his attention, he would look at her for a moment, then away at some invisible entity.

He never answered her directly when she asked, either.

“You're nervous,” Elsa stated casually, sounding quite bored as she walked alongside him, occasionally peering over at little shop signs that came into view.

“Am I?” the Tutor replied quietly, his gaze pointed ahead.

“Anytime you don't accept a pint and start looking shifty like you did after the incident in Verona City, those are dead giveaways that you're nervous, Tutor. Even if you are trying not to make it obvious,” Elsa remarked, nudging him roughly. “You see, you're like an open book to me. Your expressions are reall loud. If you were an louder, I could probably read your mind.”

“We'll talk about my loudness some other time, Elsa.” the Tutor said tersely, ending the conversation and making Elsa purse her lips. After smoothing out her top and toying with the rings on her fingers, she stared up at the Tutor's face and furrowed her brows, frustration beginning to boil in her gut.

She seized his arm and turned him to towards her. “What's gotten itself lodged up you? You haven't acted right since we left Cogarth. Are you not supposed to be in this place, Tutor?”

“That's not the issue. I can enter these lands and leave these lands at any time I please,” he answered, grimacing as he shook her hand off of his arm. “It's nothing for you to be worried about. The only thing you should be concerned over is making a good impression for the Empress. If we manage to win her loyalty, we'll be at an advantage. Her armies are undefeated and have remained that way for hundreds of years.”

The Tutor walked away. Elsa stood there for a moment staring at his back, attempting to make sense of what he just said and how that correlated with his odd behavior. Theories and hunches were there, but not enough to draw a conclusion from anything. With a dismissive shrug to herself, she quickened her pace and followed the Tutor up a steep staircase made of polished jade. She bent low enough to get a better view of the green stone, amazing at the craftsmanship gone in turning the beautiful material into a staircase. She didn't find a piece chipped off any of the stairs.

“Just remember, Elsa, be respectful to the Empress and you shouldn't be viewed too badly by her. Above all, the Empress appreciates politeness and formality. Deviate from that and we might lose our chance at gaining a powerful ally. Do you under--”

“Huh? Yeah, of course. Be polite and don't insult her. I understand.” Elsa said absently, brushing the tips of her fingers along one of the stairs. She couldn't fathom the flawless design. This wasn't a feat that could have been achieved by regular engineers or architects; it was the work of an alchemist

“For goodness sake, Elsa...” she heard the clack of heels on the staircase before she was hoisted off the stairs, released only once she was at the top. The Tutor's features were tauter now than what they had been. His nervousness seemingly dissipated as he hurriedly brushed off her sleeves and eyed her as warning. “Find another time time to do something that childish. Why don't you marvel at what's ahead of you instead?”

Elsa's breathing hitched when she finally looked. The palace towered proudly over them, stabilized by enormous lustrous pillars that stood guard in front of two twin, scarlet doors. It was a breathtaking sight. Without a doubt, such an grandiose place was only fit for an Empress with a love of treasure and power. If the outside of the palace gave such a view, she could only imagine what waited on the inside

If there was anyone who could deny themselves a gold coin or two, a crown embellished with shimmering jewels or a sword made of dragon scales—it wouldn't be Elsa. She started swaying excitedly, staring between the Tutor and the twin doors.

“Are we going in yet?” she asked giddily

The Tutor raised an eyebrow at her. “I don't know why you're so excited, but I doubt you'll find whatever it is you're looking for here.”

Elsa stilled her body, unperturbed by his grave attitude. “How would you know that exactly?”

Simultaneously to when Elsa asked her question, the twin doors made a great ruckus and began to open slowly, centimeters at time for a while until they were wide far enough apart to easily squeeze several bodies through them. As they ventured forward, Elsa intrigue was now focused entirely on the doors, the green courtyard, sprawling flower gardens, small fruit trees and numerous ponds spread throughout the enclosed area.

Mountains of stolen gold and jewels weren't comparable to the beauty of the courtyard by any measure. Elsa's jaw was clenched though her eyes were widened in amazement, telling the only story needed be told

“Elsa!” the Tutor called, drawing her attention to him at last. He was quite a ways from her with two guards wielding halberds, their faces void of any expression at all. The Tutor smiled wryly, motioning her towards them with the wave of his hand. She looked over the courtyard once more, scanning the area with the hopes of committing most of it to memory. Truthfully, she'd be lucky just to be able to remember the color of the pillars or the size of the doors. As her life was already consumed by more book pages than she cared to keep track of, anything that wasn't important was often forgotten.

After a moment, she broke out into a jog to catch up with the Tutor and the two guards. They led them under a strangely angled roof to another set of twin doors, both scarlet in color but considerably smaller than those in front. The guards stood near the doors, bowed at the waist and pulled the doors open for them

An empty, spacious room welcomed them as they walked inside, the doors being shut behind them. From the perspective of a woman who had spent a larger portion of her life living in and out of a wagon, the palace was exquisite; a home she only saw fit for a person of great importance. Ornate and pleasing to the eye, bright and colorful. There wasn't much reason to dislike the palace with the exception of its vast nothingness.

What stood out the most was a luxurious rug—emerald in color—which began from the foot of the doorway, across the the room and up a set of stairs to a throne where a woman sat, virtually swallowed by her robes that draped over the edges of her throne. She observed them with unwavering, hard eyes and a taut expression.

The Empress looked younger than Elsa had imagined, having expected an older, more rotund woman sitting on her perch. What Elsa's expectations hadn't missed was the Empress' intense gaze. It felt like the woman's eyes were spearing holes into her head, forcing to stare at the floor. Elsa turned her head slightly, the Tutor didn't look to be handling the situation with any more grace than her

They weren't able to reach the start of the small staircase before the Empress raised her hand. Seeing that the Tutor had stopped, Elsa took that as a sign to do so herself

“You are not welcome in my lands, Elsa Walters.” For a woman who ruled a country with its own tongue, the Empress spoke in Elsa's language surprisingly well. However, Elsa's amazement dissipated upon realized she had been the once addressed

“How can you--” She was elbowed in the side, the Tutor shifted where he stood.

The Empress rose from her throne and began her descent, stepping down hard on the stairs with her heavy robes dragging behind her. “I've heard about what you've done and what you've contributed to. I know your purpose and why you stand in my presence this day. I want no part in your efforts. Leave now.”

Elsa tilted her head, miffed by what the woman was saying. She had no intention of leaving just yet. The Empress's attention moved from Elsa to the Tutor, who looked the most uncomfortable she had ever seen him

“You have no stepped into this palace in six-hundred years. Why do you think you're welcome to return now? Are you convinced I have a debt to repay? You will leave with your student and not return again.”

Elsa was bothered by the Tutor's silence. He wasn't a man to let someone trample over him and follow orders barked out at him. Fearless, he had always been fearless when treading onto other lands, believing that a Mages weren't beings you could restrict to some places and not others. Since when had he swayed from the belief that the earth was the land Mages could freely walk? She couldn't understand why the voice of a crabby Empress sitting on a throne in a lonely room mattered so much more than anyone else who had spat similar things. Elsa didn't believe this was out of respect.

Without a word, the Tutor faced away from the Empress and started for the twin doors once again. Before he could have grabbed Elsa's arm, she strode forward with a glint in her eye. “Why won't you give us time to explain why we're here? It's more than what I've done... do you understand what could happen if the Capital City falls? You have representatives from--”

The Empress threw her hand in the air, managing to quell Elsa's rant. “Girl, where you walk trouble lurks in your shadow. It follows you stealthily like the Rogues in Mirigith Forest, but strikes and destroys like a plague. I will not shoulder your burdens. I will not be responsible for what happens to those fools in your city. They have brought death upon themselves.”

“Elsa, that's enough. Stop speaking and--”

“No!” Elsa spun around and glared at the Tutor. “No, don't tell me it's enough. It's not enough, and I'm not going to stop speaking. We came here with a glimmer of hope that we would find aid. But instead we'd found a bitter old woman who would rather hear that hundreds of thousands of people have been savagely slaughtered than even lift a finger.”

Turning back towards the Empress, Elsa's nearly froze in place as the Empress summoned a stream of green energy that curled around her hands and between her fingers. Before Elsa could have reacted, could have conjured up a powerful enough defense spell, the Empress thrust one of her arms out towards her, the stream of red energy zig-zagging in the air and appearing as nothing but a flash to Elsa as it shattered her barrier like brittle glass and struck her chest. Letting out a cry of pain, Elsa was thrown off her feet and smacked onto the floor, sliding several feet before she stopped and managed to roll onto her side to clutch her stomach.

It burned. It was burning. Elsa felt as though she were on fire. Frantically, she groped her clothes and looked down at her chest, startled to find that there were no flames. This realization didn't stop the pain, it continued to burn, burn, burn. She felt it spreading from her chest and creeping up her arms excruciatingly slow. She couldn't stop it, the pain made it too difficult to even think to stop it.

At first she hadn't heard the Tutor's voice, nor had she even noticed him approach her until she felt his hands on her arms, trying to sit her up. “Elsa! Calm down. You need to calm down before I can help you! Elsa!”

“You are the savior?” the Empress waved her hand dismissively and Elsa's creeping burning sensation ceased at once. She sat completely still for a moment with her back to the Tutor, placing a hand shakily against her chest. It still ached

The Empress hid her hands in her sleeves and held them together, calmness returning to her. “I fear for humanity if she's all there is.”

“How could do such a thing? Using a spell like that on a person outside of war... it's unheard of.” The Tutor snapped, attempting to heave Elsa to her feet, but she fought against him and groaned, still clutching her stomach. “Have you lost all respect for your teacher?”

The Empress's face turned hideous in that moment. Her face wrinkled and her brows flattened, eyes eyes becoming cold. “Do not speak of respect in my palace. I rule these lands, I protect my people and lead them to victory. You teach children who have no business holding spellbooks in their hands!” her shouts echoed through the halls. The Tutor couldn't find the will to reply, instead he simply stood with his lips pressed tight

Stumbling back on the steps, the Empress' mouth twitched violently. She tucked away locks of hair that had fallen in her face climbing the stairs to her throne. At that point, Elsa  had recovered enough to stand on her own, though she made sure to keep a weak grasp on the Tutor's arm. It took Elsa sometime to find the gumption to look up at the Empress, and even then, she instinctively pointed her face to the ground when their eyes met.

Tipping her chin up, the Empress folded her hands in her lap. “I will hear no more from either of you. Leave now, and if you return to this city again, I guarantee you not make it past the gates.”

Elsa had enough of this woman and this damn place. She roughly grabbed the Tutor's shoulder and turned him towards the doors before taking her first few steps forward. She wanted to go home. She wanted a soft bed. She wanted to lay on the hillside, feeling the long strands of grass lightly glide across her face
She just wanted to rest.

The Tutor didn't hesitate to follow after Elsa, pressing a hand against her back to keep her from falling over as she moved along. They hadn't gotten far when the Tutor peered over his shoulder at the Empress, frowning.

“Your eternity has been cruel to you.”

The Empress's lips twitched again, pulling downwards. She closed her eyes and lowered her head, relishing the silence that flooded her throne room after the doors were shut.

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