When Yurnero walked in, lord Neherazi was pacing up and down in the council room with his hands meticulously tucked behind him. Unsurprisingly, nothing in his demeanor suggested that the Isle of Masks was now on the brink of war.
Instead of Lord Neherazi, Yurnero fixated his gaze on the empty chair in the background that belongs to the head of the council. It hasn’t been occupied by someone worthy of its weight in a long time. The war was merely an inevitability. The only problem, according to Yurnero, was that the man in front of him would not be losing a single drop of his cursed blood in the process. The war will not touch him or his ilk.
It was with great difficulty that Yurnero bowed his head in greeting to the lord, and he was dutifully met with inattention.
“We know the enemy now. We know those filthy rats squirming in my holy land” said lord Neherazi, spitting the words like venom.
The manner in which he spoke was more befitting of a stable boy than the council head and even though Yurnero felt opposition rise up his throat like bile, he knew better than to let his emotions get the best of him.
“Perhaps, the enemy knows us more,” Yurnero replied and only when the words were already out in the air did he realize that he had spoken out of turn.
“Are you suggesting we do nothing about the impending doom of our people?”
“I am not suggesting anything,” Yurnero fisted the end of his blade handle, tightening his grip until his knuckles turned white.
Yurnero and lord Neherazi have not seen eye to eye in a lifetime and things will not change tonight. It was just that Yurnero’s bones still ached from sparring with the enemy, he could still feel blood dripping down his back, no wonder his patience seemed to be waning.
Yurnero knew no one would dare speak up to Lord Neherazi, but he does not command the Juggernauts. Right now, Yurnero needed the lord to see the facts. The war is at our doorstep is a fact, men will die tomorrow is a fact, and the council head needs to think about his people first before making an example out of the enemy.
The realization comes as a defeat to Yurnero, his legion may have won a battle tonight, but the war is in precarious hands. The dark night that broke the peace on the Isle of Masks has clearly affected the two of them differently. Lord Neherazi thinks it an occasion to make his move while Yurnero was focused on avoiding a bloodbath. You’re in the wrong line of work for that, he reminds himself.
Yurnero has never felt more trapped in his life than he did right now, witnessing Lord Neherazi blatantly put his people after his own ulterior motives. He felt trapped by his honor, by his creed, by his duty. The Juggernaut may not be commanded by the lord, but he is still the one on whose shoulders rests the fate of the people Yurnero fights for.
“I am not going to stand and watch my land burn, son. I cannot sleep with the knowledge of who the enemy is and wait for them to show up at our doorstep — ”
“They are at our doorstep — ” Yurnero failed to bite his tongue only to be cut off by the lord.
“I hope you remember the oath you swore to your people,” lord Neherazi faced the Juggernaut for the first time this evening.
With his hands still clasped behind him, he met Yurnero’s gaze through his mask.
All members of the Juggernaut wore a mask to hide their faces. It was a symbol of their devotion. An identity bestowed upon the worthy ones once they left everything else behind and all that remained behind the mask was a vessel.
The lord’s motion was as swift as a seasoned fighter when he placed a firm hand over his sword, a loose threat that made Yurnero scoff more than flinch.
With his face now inches away from Lord Neherazi, Yurnero spoke the words on his mind. “We may know the enemy, but the Juggernauts are not assassins. We do not raid homes and kill innocent men in their sleep. Enemy or not,” Yurnero stepped back and sheathed his own sword that he had drawn to greet the lord. “We are warriors, and we fight with honor.” He clasped his katana and left without dismissal.
His body tingled with rage as Yurnero walked down the empty hall. He always found it difficult to hide his disapproval, he had every bit earned the bad reputation for a sharp tongue. But his temper might just have soiled the last hope of the Juggernauts ever forging healthy alliances with the council. But Lord Neherazi willfully exploits his power over the Juggernauts, did it really matter what the relationship looked like on the surface?
Not more than ten steps later, Yurnero stopped in his tracks. Something was amiss.
“I know you’re there,” he said and his words echoed against the tall pillars, ringing as if he stood on the edge of a void.
“I was not trying to hide,” Anahita replied, coming out of the shadows.
Yurnero eased his grip on the hilt of his Katana, his hand had found its position well before he could have formed thoughts. A conditioned response from years of training.
Anahita, the daughter of lord Neherazi and the future princess of Isle of Masks stood unblinking in front of the Juggernaut with a far too mischievous smile on her face than Yurnero would feel comfortable receiving. Adorned in red and gold, the proud colors of her family name, she seemed to have an objective in mind for the evening. The tiny bells at the end of her flowing gown clanked behind her as she sauntered towards Yurnero.
Nothing in his training had prepared the Juggernaut for an attack of this nature. His muscles tensed, and he folded his hands behind him in obedience, standing tall as the princess of his land approached him with a knife’s edge to her gaze.
The night was almost cruelly silent, the only sound came from the bells in Anahita’s dress as they scuffed against the marble floor reminding Yurnero of the battle. The ringing of steel against steel made him clench his jaw. The only relief he found was in Anahita’s hauntingly beautiful form. Her face had nothing of her father in it.
“You dare defy your lords, Yurnero?” Anahita teased, almost cooing in Yurnero’s ears like a bird.
“They’re not my lords,” Yurnero replied with resolve, knowing full-well the influence the council enjoys over the Juggernauts. ‘My duty is towards my people and my homeland,’ he added, trying his best not to seem surprised that Anahita had overheard him speaking to lord Neherazi.
“We all fight for something, Yurnero. For someone,” the princess purred in a low raspy whisper as she rested her hand inches away from Yurnero’s mask.
A deep breath before she could speak again. “Who do you fight for?”
Yurnero was in a battle, locking arms with the enemy only a few hours earlier, and here Anahita seemed to be untouched by any thoughts that may snatch her sleep at night. He envied and despised her at the same time. His people were not at peace, was it fair that Anahita is?
“Princess, may I ask what you want from me?” Yurnero had played enough mind games with the royalty for one day. He had a long night ahead of him, wounds to tend to, blade to sharpen, then hours of lying awake in bed contemplating the fate of the Isle of Masks.
“From you? Nothing. Nothing of value, anyway. But I can tell you something you might want to know. Sometimes the threat lies so close to us that it’s hard to see it coming,” Anahita said bringing her hand close to Yurnero’s cheek where a crack in his mask revealed the skin underneath. “You can’t fight an enemy you don’t know,” she added in her sing-song diction.
Trying to distract himself from the discomfort he felt from Anahita’s proximity and in order to extract the information that seemed to be sitting at the tip of her tongue, Yurnero asked Anahita, “am I, perhaps, missing something?”
She is the princess of Isle of Masks which means she knows her fate, she knows her allies, she knows her enemies, but most of all, she knows that Yurnero is just a pawn in the game that the likes of her play. And something in that whimsical gaze tells him that she does not put her faith in pawns.
“You will keep me safe, Yurnero,” Anahita let her words trail and diffuse in the thick of the night. It was a question and a command, neither of which Yurnero could escape.
The Juggernaut bowed his head low, accepting the order.
“You have enemies to fight tomorrow,” Anahita murmured as if to the moon that shone in the sky, and as she turned around to leave, she whispered, “sleep would do you good.”
He scoffed after Anahita had turned around the corner, Yurnero made peace with losing sleep a long time ago. There is no comfort in sleep in his line of work.
He walked back home for the night with a tired hand on his blade. Sometimes the threat lies so close to us it’s hard to see it coming. What had the princess meant? He wondered. Then, as if on command, he unsheathed his sword and in the sheen of silver saw his own reflection of the mask he wore like his own identity. No, the mask was his identity. If he wasn’t a Juggernaut, he was nothing.
Sliding the blade back into its place, he scoffed again. Will he be leading his men to their deaths tomorrow? Even if so, he will be doing the council’s bidding in the name of obedience. He scoffed for the third time and read the carving on his blade.
The conclusion is foregone but honor demands we fight.