Part Three, Chapter XXVIII
He settled beside Quatre, stretching his legs slightly as Zechs finished conversing with the Maguanacs and began to walk over to them. Their surrounding trees were dappled in light - not the red glow of dusk but the almost blinding gold of noon - and the mating calls of the odd iruha could still be heard. The Prince had ordered an early halt because the Capital was only several candlemarks away and they did not wish to make their presence known. As a result, it was not yet nightfall, and Zechs had taken advantage of the time to arrange a meeting.
Trowa watched as two of the Maguanacs separated themselves from the group and strode off into the distance, presumably to check the Capital for suspicious behaviour and for other causes of concern. He had offered to do the task himself but neither Rashid or Zechs had seen any need for it; from what they had managed to gather, the city was still functioning normally. Or it was if one discounted the fact that it was held under military control. They were all certain, however, that any useful information would have to be gleaned from within the palace complex itself, and an appropriate course of action therefore had to be decided upon.
"They've gone into the Capital," said Zechs, confirming Trowa's assumption as he folded against a sturdy trunk. "We can begin if you're both ready."
Quatre's raised an eyebrow. "Are Rashid and Abdul not joining us?"
A headshake. "The Maguanacs will not be playing an active part in our infiltration plan, so Rashid said that they would be content with being told what we decide to do. If they have any opinions, they will inform us."
Trowa's hand paused on its way to his supplies. "And Abdul?"
"He will provide us with Magical assistance if it is deemed undetectable, but Rashid has suggested - and I concur - that the Maguanacs be kept secret until an emergency or until we decide to come out into the open. That way, we have a backup if something goes wrong."
After a moment, Trowa reached for his pack again. "That makes sense. They're our allies, after all."
The Prince frowned but Quatre nodded musingly. "Yes, they are. If their presence is discovered, Anokiv will be expecting us too, and infiltration would become considerably more difficult."
An 'ah' of understanding. "So that's agreed. Now how will we organise the infiltration?"
Quatre glanced at Trowa, but the brown-haired youth avoided his gaze and spoke directly to the Prince. "You need me inside."
Zechs studied both of them thoughtfully, then returned Trowa's look with a steady one of his own. "Do I?"
"Nobody else could do the job as well." Trowa's tone remained even.
Zechs did not object to that, for it was true. Instead, the Prince turned to Quatre. "What do you think?"
The blonde's eyes lifted towards Trowa, and for a long moment, the two of them merely stared at each other. Finally, Quatre looked down. "We need somebody inside."
Trowa gave him the merest flicker of a smile, then faced Zechs again. "I'll be careful."
Zechs was about to agree, but Quatre spoke up unexpectedly. "Trowa, you can't just go in there."
The other youth regarded him. "Why?"
"You may be able to get in, and to do so undetected, but your options will still be limited." A pause, then a slow, deep breath as Quatre looked up. "You're going to have to join up with Anokiv himself."
Trowa's body stilled and Zechs shot the blonde a sharp glance. Quatre's face held a hint of trepidation, but his voice had been resolute. The prince turned questioningly towards Trowa. "What about you?"
The youth remained silent for some time, then gave a single nod. "It's a good plan. A workable one." He turned to address Quatre directly. "What position were you thinking of?"
Quatre thought for some time, then finally replied, "Go in as a soldier. Make sure your performance is extraordinary, that it attracts attention, because you need that to get an audience with Anokiv Ronterdo. Tell him - and nobody else - that you are in fact an assassin, and that your agenda is in fact to enact revenge on the noble cheated your family of money and drove you off the land leased to you. Say... Baron V'quez. He was crooked, and he died on Zolt'e."
Trowa listened intently, his eyebrow rising at the concocted story but making no other comment except, "Go on."
The blonde gazed at them both, slightly self-conscious, then nodded. "Anokiv will probably tell you that all the nobles died, then you can put on a righteous act about being denied your right to justice. He may find that amusing, and it will lower his guard as well as validate your story. Then, from what I know of him, I think he will attempt to test your abilities. Fail his set task in a way that proves you are nothing but a well-trained and rather brainless soldier," Quatre glanced up apologetically, "and he'll mentally disregard you. You'll have both a reputation as someone important to Anokiv and the lack of respect necessary to spy on him."
Trowa stared at him for a long moment, then gave a single nod. His expression was carefully neutral.
"That was very detailed for an improvised plan, wasn't it?" Zechs commented, a thoughtful half-smile contrasting with his penetrating gaze.
The Healer hesitated, then gave in to a sheepish shrug. "I... had considered it before."
Trowa waited until their eyes met, then sent privately, < Thank you, Quatre. > The 'voice' was accompanied by a brief mental touch and a small smile.
< What for? >
There was a pause. < Not leaving my fate to chance. >
< It is my fate too, > Quatre replied softly. < Or do you not remember the story of the lifebond? >
A small silence. < I remember. > Trowa's eyes grew shadowed as they met his friend's, and for an instant, the inner battle was mirrored on both their faces. Then, they turned away as one; it had not been much of a battle, in the end. No matter how long it lasted, the outcome would have remained the same. Quatre reached out, then drew back again. A final glance passed between them and Trowa bowed his head as though accepting the descent of a sword. It was decided.
After a while, Zechs regarded the two of them and interjected quietly, "So the plan is finalised?"
"You only have six sevendays left. In that time, you will have to gain Anokiv's attention, instigate yourself and obtain whatever information you can. Is that enough time?"
"It will have to be." The tone gave nothing away.
"Very well." Zechs noted the position of the sun, then said, "The fires are burning, and I smell food. Should we continue after we have eaten?"
The other two youths nodded and rose together, and they walked towards the aroma of the Maguanacs' cooking. Trowa cleared his mind of the plan they had just discussed; there were holes in it, gaps which would have to be filled and details which would have to be modified, but those could wait until later. For now, food was waiting and he had learnt many months ago that fresh meat was a commodity to be savoured on long, arduous journeys such as these.
Especially when the endings of the journeys were so unpredictable and uncertain.
The pair stared at each other for a long, shocked moment, and the other peoples' eyes darted between them. Had the Clansmen not all been raised to be attentive about what they revealed to others, many mouths would have been hanging open, but even as it was, nobody managed to keep their expressions completely neutral. Wufei swallowed but could not speak.
Finally, the man breathed, "Ni guo ran zai sheng." 
There was a pregnant pause, and all the Clansmen's eyes became riveted on Wufei. The youth found the presence of mind to lower himself in a traditional kowtow. "Yes, Father. I am alive."
Chang Wulong took three long strides towards his son then stopped, running onyx eyes over the youth's body. "Your condition?"
A flicker of surprise, but Wufei returned evenly, "As well as can be expected. I am aware of no immediate danger."
His father nodded in satisfaction, reaching out to help him rise.  "Your mother will be glad to see you well, but we are being amiss. I should not have interrupted while you were greeting Elder Li Chong." With that, the man directed a respectful nod at the Elder and took a step back. Wufei glanced at Sally, then bowed deeply. As tradition demanded, he did not speak; ordinary members of a Clan could not address the Elder of another Clan until their presence had been explicitly acknowledged.
For several moments, Elder Li Chong regarded him from his throne-like chair. "It would appear, Chang Wufei, that the tides of fate blow rather unexpectedly. I am Elder Li Chong of the Tiger Clan and you are very welcome within these Clansgrounds." His gaze became penetrating. "I think that you would not be surprised to learn that until recently, we had thought you deceased in all except spirit." An eye flickered sideways. "I had assumed similarly myself until your father enlightened me of another possibility several days ago."
After a brief pause in acceptance of the direct address by the Elder, Wufei straightened. "I am most grateful for your hospitality. I survived by chance, and endured until now with the assistance of my companions. Until today, I had no knowledge regarding my parents' wellbeing either."
"I assumed as much." The Elder turned to Sally, who had been observing the events in silence. "Elder Po Sally, you are most welcome within these Clangrounds also. I am sorry to hear of the unfortunate fate encountered by those in your Clan."
"I thank you for your condolences, Elder." Sally clasped her hands in greeting. "And for your hospitality also."
Li Chong gave a single nod, then turned to address them both. "Do you have a purpose in visiting the Tiger Clan? I shall assume you are companions."
Wufei and Sally exchanged quick glances, but Wufei was the one who spoke. "We are companions, yes, and we do in fact have a purpose in seeking you. If you do not object, I will first tell you of what we have encountered on our journey thus far."
The Elder of the Tiger Clan settled into his chair and gestured for them to do similarly. "Very well. Let us hear this story, then."
Mureia Schbeiker fell into step behind the gypsy moving slowly towards the funeral pyre. The sound of chanting drifted through the heavy foliage, distorted eerily by the mountains that encircled their camp. Occasionally, the ancient words would be drowned beneath the wild beat of the imitora and the mournful wails of the imiti , but they rose again with solemn dignity at each refrain.
Uon le taq ei v-run ta
The gypsy ceremonies of death were many and varied, but by far the most detailed were those which marked the passing of Royals, and those which marked an unnatural and dishonourable death. When both these conditions held true, the resulting ceremony occupied many members of the Camp for at least two sevendays. She and her mother had been participants for all four.
As they emerged into the small, firelit clearing, Mureia's voice lifted to join with Silai's in the chanting, and around them, the sounds of the other inbstruments faded gradually away. Soon, their voices were all that could be heard.
Uon le taq ei v-run ta
Once, twice, three times. With each repeat, they each reduced their range by one note until by the sixth refrain, their chanting was an augmented fifth apart. It was a haunting sound, one that Mureia had only heard once before. Except that this time, she was part of it herself.
Me zi-ei kuior v-run na
The embers in the pyre was blazing, and the Royal's head piece rested solemnly at the vertex formed by three identical logs. Time was almost up; once the flames had destroyed enough of the logs to make them crumble, the head piece would fall and the final phase of the ceremony would begin.
Ti uon le ge-iciou roh...
A loud crackle. Some three dozen heads looked up from their bowed positions, and as though spurred by their attention, the fire suddenly flared up and licked at one of the logs. Blackness ran up its length, spreading hurriedly, until a small crack formed near its base. Several intakes of breath could be heard, and all eyes became fixed on the head piece as it trembled dangerously on the now unstable structure. Then it fell, sinking downwards in slow motion, and was swallowed up by the dancing flames.
Ti uon le ge-iciou roh...
Mureia and her mother faced each other across the pyre, moving their fingers in an intricate pattern and murmuring the chant one last time. The ritual had reached its completion.
Ti uon le ge-iciou roh.
May peace your departed-spirit find. 
She surveyed the men before her, accepting their salutes with a nod and a smile. Some officers preferred to keep their distances from their soldiers - presumably to ensure that a mixture of awe and fear remained - but Lucrezia Noin had never seen the point in such plays of power. She gained respect by proving herself in both training and battle, and she retained trust by turning the men from underlings to comrades. In her eyes, anybody who was unwilling to do either did not deserve to be a leader.
Unfortunately, her disdain of such leaders did not mean they did not exist.
Noin was supposed to be in control of the situation in Sanq. The Special Operations sector of the Oz military was led by Prince Khushrenada, and beneath him, there were three main authorities - Colonel Une, who was in charge of a small team that ran secret investigations and attacks and in whom the Prince appeared to place a great deal of trust; Adept Ronterdo, the Mage who managed all the Magic-related details of the sector; and she herself, Lieutenant Noin, who oversaw the training and allocating of all the armed forces. Since both the Prince and Une were otherwise occupied, the position of leadership had fallen to her.
At the beginning, things had run relatively smoothly, but after a sevenday or so, Noin began to notice some oddities that sent her directly into a state of alertness. They were only minor details - men hesitating minutely before obeying orders, hushed whispered that changed into bawdy battle songs as she approached... minor details, yes, and not suspicious in themselves, but she would like to think that she knew her own people well enough to testify that such things rarely happened before. Somebody was interfering, and it was not difficult to determine who.
She had never trusted Anokiv Ronterdo. Treize had not done so either, but in his case, it was for more political reasons. Noin, on the other hand, tended to judge leaders on how they treated their people, and Anokiv had failed on every score. He treated his servants like slaves, ruling by fear and enforcing unimportant rules with an iron fist, and he proved no more admirable in his dealings with the soldiers. If anything, his sneers and sarcasm grew more pronounced, and his desire to appear in control seemed to increase. It was a combination that grated her.
Nonetheless, Anokiv's position both in court and as a Mage had been too crucial to change, so he remained in the sector and in a station of command. But where he had always been her equal in terms of rank, he now seemed to have gained an upper hand. Somehow, the Mage had maneuvered his way into a position where he could influence her forces, and he had taken full advantage of that position. Noin was losing control of her people. And worst of all, she could not do anything about it.
Anokiv's strength lay in fear. The men feared him - they were terrified, in fact - and he knew it. Those who offended the Mage usually ended up being convicted for crimes that they could not possibly have committed, but which contained so much evidence against them that not even Noin could prove their innocence. Other offenders simply disappeared without explanation. She had tried to find some evidence that would link the incidences to the Mage but to no avail, and although these cases were supposed to remain secret, details usually circulated like wildfire.
Reigning through fear was not a strategy Noin liked and was definitely not suitable for long-term purposes, but even she had to admit that it left little room for retaliation. The men believed that the Mage could hurt them; if he issued an order that contradicted hers, they automatically wanted to obey his. How could she ask them to do otherwise when they were so terrified? Unwilling soldiers did not do their tasks well, and besides, it would convince them that she did not care for their wellbeing and she would lose one of the only cards she still held. Yet somehow, she needed to regain authority before Anokiv sent her people into danger. And she would have to do so soon.
The problem was that she believed Anokiv's controls were Magical in nature, that he was playing on the men's fear to subtly push them into acting a certain way. She herself had no trace of Magic - what she did possess was a natural Psychic shield, courtesy of her partially royal blood, and although it was not as strong as the one the Prince held, it was enough to prevent her mind from being read like an open book. Or rather, it stopped Anokiv from doing so without her knowledge; he could force his way in, but she would know. Her men had no such shields.
"Lieutenant Noin?" The voice was rather hesitant.
She turned around to face an unfamiliar soldier, who shifted uncomfortably and lowered his gaze. A newcomer, then. "And you...?"
Confusion crossed his features for an instant, then the youth snapped into attention. "Mikel Androis of the third division, Lieutenant."
The name rang a bell. Noin ran a critical eye over the youth; yes, there was more than a trace of resemblance there. "Would you happen to be related to Officer Androis?"
"He is my uncle, Lieutenant." An undeniable tone of respect, even admiration.
But Nita Androis is of the second division. "Have you been in contact with him since you came here?" A negative - she had thought as much. "Well, tell Officer Mair that you have my permission to visit Officer Androis in the second barracks when both you and he are off duty. Now, do you have a message for me?"
"Ah... yes." Mikel flushed slightly, and a flicker of amusement appeared in Noin's eyes; this lad was his uncle's polar opposite. The shyness would disappear soon, though. It always did. "Officer Mair asks you to see him when you are unavailable. It is related to a new recruit."
Interesting, Noin mused, then smiled once more. "Thank you, Mikel. And welcome to the Special Operations sector. It was a good choice." Or at least, it had been a good choice once upon a time... and it will become so again.
The youth ducked his head. "Thank you, Lieutenant."
She nodded and began walking towards the training grounds, then paused and turned. "Oh, and Mikel?" He looked up. "The word 'lieutenant' grows rather cumbersome during battle. In unofficial situations, people call me Noin."
He looked rather startled, but Noin simply stood and waited expectantly. Finally, Mikel answered, "Yes... Noin."
Noin smiled and moved off. Both Androis and Mair were extremely canny and competent, as was Rudo of the seventh division - the last two remained utterly unaffected by Anokiv because they had Psychic and Empathetic powers respectively, and Androis simply could not be attacked because he had suffered an accident in his youth that rendered him unable to use or be affected by Magical powers. They were perhaps the only three whom she trusted at the moment, though even that trust had become cautious.
"Officer Mair." Her voice carried easily over the din of swords clanging against armour. The soldiers paused and she raised a quizzical eyebrow, spurring them into action once more. Some even grinned at her; she was glad, for it meant that they had not yet become so fearful that they dared not be friendly with her. The fact that they were in a familiar fighting formation probably helped.
Mair strode across the field to meet her, beckoning to someone who had been in the left wing. "Noin, meet Triton Bloom, our newest recruit. Triton, this is Lieutenant Noin. She commands the ten fighting divisions of Oz's Special Operations sector."
Noin regarded the youth before her, noting the muscles and the fluid grace with which he bowed. "Welcome, Triton. Where do you come from?"
"The outer regions of Sanq, Lieutenant."
"Interesting." She paused. "Why join an Oz army?"
The youth looked up, his one visible eye giving her a piercing stare. "Politics matters little to me, Lieutenant."
Noin sent a questioning gaze to Mair, who ordered, "Triton, give Lieutenant Noin the demonstration you gave me when you came two days ago."
The youth stepped backwards, launching directly into a series of lunges and rolls that even she could not have managed. Then, three small daggers appeared from nowhere, and Triton threw them towards her without breaking his rhythm or hesitating to take aim. Each missed her face by the breadth of a hair. When he stopped, she spun around to see the daggers buried - directly beneath each other - in the trunk of a nearby tree.
A voice spoke up quietly behind her. "I apologise for not warning you beforehand."
Noin turned, calming her breath. "That was impressive, Triton. Would you mind telling me how you acquired such skills?"
"My family was part of a circus troupe, Lieutenant."
"Ah." That explanation made more sense than any other would have; in fact, his use of past tense explained something else too. "I am glad you joined us."
The youth bowed, and Mair gave him a gesture of dismissal. After Triton left, the officer turned to her. "I just thought you would like to learn about him firsthand."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I'm glad you called me, Mair. He is... intriguing."
"To say the least. If problems arise, I will notify you immediately."
"That would be appreciated." The Officer bowed slightly and moved back to where the soldiers were now resting, barking a series of commands at them as he approached. They stood with varying degrees of enthusiasm and drifted away from the grounds.
Noin's gaze then focused on a lone, brown-haired youth, watching as he straightened from where he had been leaning against a tree. Without saying a single word, he followed the group to the barracks. Everything about him screamed to her of danger, and yet, for some reason, she did not feel threatened. In fact, she was certain that much of what he told her had been true, and her instincts were rarely wrong when it came to people. Triton Bloom was an enigma, yes. But whether he was a friend or a foe still needed to be seen.
Trowa was satisfied with his progress; unbeknownst to the Lieutenant, she had been trailed by someone during their encounter. He was not certain of who it was, but judging by the fact that the shadow had kept itself hidden, Trowa was relatively certain that the spy was acting on Anokiv's orders. For that reason, he had made his display especially impressive - even the launch of the daggers at a tree directly behind Noin was calculated. In the instant when she turned around, he had shot a glance at the shadow, informing whoever it was on no uncertain terms that he had noticed it.
To the shadow's credit, it did not disappear; it simply tilted its head slightly in acknowledgment. He did not give its presence away. Instead, he had waited, and sure enough, he received a secret message that evening. The message was direct and clear, and now lay as a pile of ashes in the fire.
Trowa Barton - or Triton Bloom - was to join Anokiv Ronterdo in his quarters at midnight. He would meet the one who had massacred hundreds of his fellow countrymen within the past year. Beneath a veil of brown hair, Trowa's eyes bore a hint of quiet satisfaction; stage one of their plan had proven very successful.
 - Mandarin for "so you are indeed alive".
 - Okay, Wulong didn't exactly 'help Wufei up', in that he did not provide any physical assistance, but I couldn't think of a proper way to describe it. Traditionally, a kowtow is very ritualistic and the person who kowtows does not rise until given permission, either in a non-spoken form or through a statement (eg. from a king: "You may rise."; or, from a semi-equal: "Please, you do not need to pay such homage.". By offering his hand and a semblance of actual assistance, Wulong is almost welcoming his son.
 - Refer to Chapter 25 if necessary.
 - For a complete translation, pronunciation guide and additional notes, refer here.
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