Pieces of debris rained above them along with ash flakes that looked like grey snow dancing in the wind. Commander Rayleigh wiped his face and inspected his palm. It was stained with a burned grey color. Ash grey like his eyes.
Once the pride of the capital, the symbol of peace, the mighty Aredaos bridge was now in shambles. Merely a skeleton of its former glory. Rayleigh's father told him stories when he was a young boy and witnessed the inauguration of the bridge 170 years ago.
"Damned terrorists" he thought while clenching his jaw in anger.
"Commander Rayleigh, we've retrieved princess Ereya. She needs medical attention, as well as this civilian child she tried to protect".
Two officers arrived with a floating stretcher carrying both his wounded subordinate and a young Sirtosian looking boy.
He glanced at them, seeing bruises and blood all over Ereya but she still was holding the boy while unconscious.
"Even unconscious you're still keeping the boy safe..." Rayleigh pondered.
"Very well, send them both to our best military hospital. There they'll receive the best treatment".
"Aye, understood" The soldiers quickly drove off in their flying police cars towards the hospital.
"Ereya will need surgeries, her limbs seem fractured. But more importantly...I saw it at a distance...while she was holding the bridge cables... She used her powers" he worried.
"I hope the high duke won't punish her too severely....I’ll ask for an audience." Rayleigh was resolute in helping his subordinate.
"Come in." A friendly voice greeted him from the balcony.
Rayleigh turned from the throne room to the palace garden. Ahead of the balcony two imposing statues of the gods Galatis and Yarl stood above him ominously. While passing by them, he felt judged by their stone gaze.
The commander climbed the marble stairs and reached the garden. Rayleigh kneeled in front of the noble who called for him.
"Thank you for receiving me, sir."
The noble was obstructed partially by the window curtains that flew in the wind. Exotic birds circled around the garden while others proudly displayed their beautiful feathers. Numerous species of trees and flowers were planted in a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Some even called this garden, "paradise".
The pièce de résistance were the aquia semonia flowers that bloomed during the night and glowed fluorescent during the day. They had a bizzare, gelatinous texture and were used in medicine as well as a delicacy in Dorrean cuisine.
The older man stood near a grape tree in horticulturist gear, looking intently at one of the branches.
"No need for formalities, Rayleigh. Stand up."
"You saw my granddaughter using her powers outside the temple... The camera caught it too. It was faint, but the blue glow could still be seen. The mecha looked freshly powered up as well..." the old man took a pair of scissors and cut a small grape branch.
"So what are you going to do about it?" the affable elder's smile turned to a glare while picking one of the grapes and eating it. The fruit burst in his mouth and red juice trailed on his lips like blood.
The man in front of Rayleigh was the high duke himself. He looked like a merry old man with a long white beard and smiling eyes. He rarely fully opened his eyes, choosing to keep them closed most of the time. When he opened them like in this instance, suddenly the warm, friendly feeling disappered and instead icy blue eyes sent glares that felt like daggers.
Rayleigh wasn't intimidated though, he got used to it. He was one of the few people in the military that was close enough to high duke Tiordan to know his true temper. Duke Tiordan had a seemingly calm surface but inside he was a smoldering fire waiting to ignite.
"High Duke Tiordan, I'm going to do what I've always done. Be your loyal subject. I will see so that the news media won't show the footage with the glow." Rayleigh said confidently, keeping his composure.
"I see, I see... I know your record speaks for itself. Rayleigh Teseryon, a faithful friend indeed. So my friend... Do you know how to grow grapes?" the high duke veered off the topic while cutting another branch.
"I have an idea, sir" Rayleigh was taken aback for a moment but quickly recovered his stoic look.
"You see Rayleigh, when you have a branch that is not as developed as the others, it takes resources from the bigger, more developed branches. So you cut the smaller one to give the other branches more nourishment. And what do you do with the smaller branch?" duke Tiordan showed Rayleigh the grape branch.
"You throw it away" Rayleigh looked defeated.
"Indeed, you throw it away. You don't keep the seeds from it to plant others. A weaker seed doesn't just turn into a smaller fruit, but it also becomes susceptible to disease and death. You don't want a bad seed to infect our noble tree, do you?"
"Her father is an outside seed and her mother...My daughter was a weak seed. So is her sister. Indeed, only Ereya showed potential." Tiordan gave a disappointed, tired look.
"But now? Breaking our religious laws? Humiliating our House name?" the high duke suddenly showed a deep anger full of religious fervor.
"I'll be more strict in her training from now on !" Rayleigh tried to bargain.
"Even if you delete parts of the footage after the fact, there were still many that saw it live, even if it was faint. She'll still be punished before the inaguration. She won't escape it."
The high duke put his hand on Rayleigh's shoulder that sent chills in the commander and left the balcony garden, his face returning to a smile like nothing happened.
Rayleigh was left by himself, stunned. The usually bright, airy balcony full of colorful birds and plants turned colorless and claustrophobic.
A blue bird sat on Rayleigh's head and started relieving itself.
"Just my luck... So much for it being a paradise," the commander said as he put his face in his hands.
"Well, that's just hilarious, Rayleigh. You never cease to entertain."
A voice came from the stairs. Between the statues stood duchess Melissa, wearing a smirk on her face.
"I'm really glad I could provide amusement for you, my lady" said Rayleigh while brushing away the bird's droppings from his hair.
"Well, in these trying times comedy is always welcomed. I see you spoke to uncle, mind sharing your conversation?" Melissa hid her face partially with a feathery fan while she entered the garden.
"Curiousity is a dangerous thing these days, duchess. I hear spies lurk around especially in castles," Rayleigh replied calmly.
"I hear spies don't lurk in castles as much these days. They are more interested in science labs and military academies," Melissa retorted with a smile.
Rayleigh took in a long breath, getting tired of this verbal game of chess. He didn't have the time for this.
"Duke Tiordan plans to punish Ereya. I don't know what he plans to do but be on alert. You should visit Ereya in the hospital."
That took Melissa by surprise and for a moment her cheeks flushed, turning bright red.
"I don't need to hear it from you. I had already made plans to visit Ereya. Of course I'll protect my niece!"
"I'm sorry to have offended you, my lady. I'm happy to know Ereya will be in your care. I'll take my leave then."
"Wait, Rayleigh. Do you think we ever had a chance? Us...together?" Melissa showed a rare moment of vulnerability.
"There was no chance from the start. I'm sorry." Rayleigh said while passing by Melissa and going down the stairs.
Melissa stood above the stairs, with a saddened look on her face. She looked hurt. "You're not sorry. Liar."
After such a catastrophic event, being a commander of the Anti-Terrorist military unit, Rayleigh wouldn't have time to himself for the foreseeable future.
Now in his office, Rayleigh could finally catch his breath, or so he thought. A female officer handed him a holographic document.
"What is this?" Rayleigh asked, loosening his collar.
"Sir, this is the information we gathered up on the terrorist. We're still in the investigation phase."
Rayleigh hovered his hand above the hologram in order to get it scanned. Once it passed the scanning, he gained access to the top-secret file.
"No wonder. His personal information is almost blank. Here are just attacks that might connect to him. But there's no full name, current location or family record."
"Commander, we think that's the reason the Rising Dawn elders chose him for this job. His personal information is nonexistent. That's the reason for his long history of assassinations. He was never found out."
"An assassin hiding in the shadows, eh? The elders chose well. He's perfect for their dirty job." Rayleigh smiled grimly.
"Sir, should we send Zebed? This terrorist is highly skilled and the only thing we know about him is the name he currently goes by..."
"Ghalv." Rayleigh whispered to himself, frowning.
The commander threw the holographic device against the wall and left the office. Ghalv's holographic file flickered for a moment and then shut down.