Turning over for what seemed to be the eightieth time that night, Jones decided to give in to the fact that she was not going to be falling asleep anytime soon. This was not the first night that she had trouble falling asleep; not by a long shot. It was, however, her first night as a legitimate Xamalian Messenger, for a while, at least, and Jones had a sinking suspicion that her troubles falling asleep were largely related to that. For the year that Jones had been Marked, she wanted nothing more than to have her name cleared, get reinstated in the southern army, and get on with her life. Staring into the blackness of the sleeping hall, listening to all of the other Warriors, Messengers, and Healers all sleeping around her however, Jones realized that it was not like she remembered it.
The last time that she had been in the southern castle, she had been named a Messenger, along with the other five Messengers that had successfully completed their year of training. Two of the other Messengers had looked so scared that it made Jones feel pity for them. Being that terrified was a good way to ensure a quick death in the war, for anyone - Messenger, Healer, or Warrior. Grit and determination were the only way to ensure a long life in this battle, but even those two things were not enough sometimes. A good example of that was Cal, the Healer that had been traveling with them at the beginning of their journey. Even though he seemed to hate her, Jones had nothing but respect for the will-power that Cal displayed on a daily basis while their troop was trying to rescue the Deluvia brothers. That determination did not ultimately save his life, though. He died, like so many others that Jones had seen in her very brief time in the Xamalian army.
Two of the other Messengers on their inauguration day were very reserved. That was a much safer emotion to display in front of the Xamalian king. When he presented them with their rings, they saluted dutifully, but said nothing else. Looking back now, Jones could admit that she should have had such a reaction when she was presented with her ring. But that was not what she did when King Avery Samra held out the ring to her. Her reaction was much more similar to the fifth of the new Mesengers that day. When King Samra held out the fifth Messenger’s ring, he saluted him again and said steadily, “Thank you, your grace.”
And just as the king had done with Jones, he took a minute, looked deeply into the Messenger’s eyes, and placed his hand on her shoulder and said dutifully, “May you bring the south a swift victory.”
It wasn’t the words that frightened Jones when he said this to her; it was the complete emptiness in his expression when the words passed his lips. In that one expression, Jones saw and understood that the king did not care about her; he was not worried about her well-being at all. The abyss that stared back at her from his ice cold blue eyes said plainly that if she were somehow killed right there in front of him, he would not care. She could imagine him merely wiping any blood that may have been strewn across his face off with his wrist and then continuing on down the line.
“It appears that we may have been wrong about you,” she could hear repeating in her head. The king may not remember, but that expression had been the exact phrase that he muttered when she was banished. Clearly, he did not know what to think of the Messenger who somehow discovered valuable secrets on pretty much every mission she was sent on. Now, almost a year later, he said the exact same phrase to her: “It appears that we may have been wrong about you.”
What was Jones supposed to make of that? Although it was possible the king was not aware that he had said the exact same thing to Jones when she was Marked, Jones couldn’t shake the suspicion that he did know what he said. Though she had only been working for him for a brief two years, Jones learned quickly that Avery Samra was not as dumb as he acted. Ella may have other opinions, but Jones saw that every thing he ever did always served a purpose - it just took some time to realize all of the connections between what he did and their outcomes and how it helped him in the war.
One really excellent example of this was the way he got his hands on being bound to a Messenger. Though the king probably did not completely understand the meaning of being bound to a Messenger, he did understand that it would increase his power. Jones spoke with the few people connected to Werrington before he was bound to the king, and everything they told her all sounded like King Samra was trying to get bound to a Messenger. He may not have been initially planning on getting bound to Jax Werrington, but when he did, he ultimately got what he wanted. Looking back, he may have actually gotten a better deal than he had been expecting, because Werrington was exceptionally well connected. The only person Jones could think of that may have been more connected than Jax was Todd Kavich. Like Todd, though, that level of connectedness came at a high cost; no one really trusted him. Except possibly the king. Not that it mattered in the long haul, at least not for Todd or Werrington. Because both of them had figured it out ages ago - every person in the war could be bought if they were offered the right price. For some, like Mitch Atkins, it was for a certain amount of money. Growing up with nothing, it wasn’t hard to understand why Mitch’s family had been swayed so easily by the amount of money that Temoragu gave them. Jones surmised that if she had grown up in as poor a family as MItch had, she too would have been looking for a way to get out of debt. And if that meant she had to betray her country to ensure her own survival, Jones knew she would be lying if she said that she could do it. Very few people could convince her that they would be able to say ‘no’ to a large enough sum of money.
Two people that Jones did think had convinced her of that ability though, were Edan and Aerlene Kavich. Though she had never met Edan in person, everything that she heard about him seemed to point to a person that was more loyal to Xamalie than even the king. The way that Jones saw it, a person would have to be unbreakably loyal to their country to suffer through the banishment that Edan did to this day. Why did he continue to suffer the penalty of banishment for the country led by a king that hated him? There had to be a reason; people did not willingly suffer through things out of boredom. It was the same as his sister. Aerlene had been banished, too, but she never faltered towards Temoragu . . . at least, not militarily. Yes, she did have the secret relationship with Kyle Burkin, but clearly, that was not about the military. It may have taken two months of traveling with her and getting to know her for Jones to come to that decision, but once she had, there was no going back.
Casually, Jones felt her Messenger ring that was sitting on her index finger. Though there were no candles providing light in the crowded hall, she did not need any illumination to know what the ring looked like. She knew that the ring held a large sapphire and had intricate, twisting bands of silver leading up to it. The ring had been part of her uniform for two years; she had not taken it off since the first day she was presented with it. There was good reason for that - bad things tended to happen to Messengers that took off their rings.
“Never take your ring off,” her field instructor said when she handed it to Jones. “Once you put this ring on, it binds itself to you. It will lead you to anywhere you are told to go and if you die, your attacker dies as well.”
That part sent chills down Jones’s spine the first time she heard it, and it still did now, almost three years after she heard them. Jones would have been likely to err on the side of caution with the ring, but there was one event that solidified her resolve to never take the ring off - the death of Jason Briggs.
Briggs was a couple of years older than Jones, but he had lived in the same town that she was from. Jones had been interested in Briggs for a long time; truthfully, it was little more than a crush, but still, she watched everything he did. When he became a Messenger, Jones decided right then and there that she wanted to become a Messenger too. Even once he was entered into the war, he still dropped by his hometown every couple of months, and Jones was always the first to welcome him back. Briggs, unlike any Messenger that Jones had ever seen, didn’t seem to be too concerned with whether or not his ring was on. Sometimes, he would leave it off for days at a time, just tucked away in his pocket.
When Jones turned fourteen and set off for her year of training to be a Messenger, she ran into Briggs on one of her missions. When she saw that he was not wearing the ring, she asked him why he wasn’t wearing it.
“Where is your ring, Briggs?” she asked carefully, giving him an odd look.
“It’s in my pocket,” he had shrugged, so carefree. “I don’t let it define who I am or where I need to be.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, confused by his choice of words.
He leaned very close to her and said quietly, “The rings only hold power over you when they are on. If your ring is off, you don’t have to obey it. It holds no power at all over anything you do.”
Though the two of them talked for a bit longer, they eventually went their separate ways - Jones off to deliver a message and Briggs out east. No more than two weeks later, Jones heard that Briggs was dead.
“Poor fool,” a town barkeep said as he cleaned out a glass. “He should have known better than to take his ring off. Messengers are pretty screwed in this war, but his death is even more tragic because he wasn’t wearing the one thing he had to protect himself.”
“What was that?” Jones asked, her voice devoid of any real emotion. She was probably in shock, but there was no one at the time to confirm it.
“His ring was off,” the barkeep repeated, glancing over to her. “If he wasn’t wearing the ring, then he wasn’t wearing the one thing that bound him to the Wido Corsare.”
Staring dumbly at the bartender, she asked slowly, “So, what would having the ring on have done for him? In laymen’s terms?”
“It would have killed his murderer,” the barkeep said plainly.
“You mean his murderer is still alive?” Jones asked, taken aback.
The bartender only nodded and then continued on to his other customers. For a long while, Jones sat there, not really feeling anything. As she lay in bed, staring up into the black oblivion above her, she remembered the feeling of complete helplessness. It was like a weight pressing down on her chest, and she had no way of getting out of it. Like every other time she thought about Briggs, a very small part of her screamed out, “Just take the ring off! That is what Briggs wanted you to do! If you can’t do it for yourself, at least do it for him!”
But try as she might, she never managed to pull the jewelry off. It made no difference if she were in the southern capitol or keeping watch on a mission; she had never been able to fully take the ring off. The closest she had ever come to taking the ring off had been right after their troops were reunited in Firune a couple of months ago. She almost tore the ring off that first night of watch once they left the centaurs. The ring had come within mere centimeters of sliding off her hand completely, but ultimately, she pushed it back on her finger. No one had witnessed that, but somehow, Jones got the feeling that Briggs knew. That he had seen her do it. This both angered and excited Jones, because, although she lost the battle that night, who was to say that she would fail every time she tried to break herself away from the power of the ring?
Again, Jones sighed. Glancing down to where her hand was, she said quietly, “Not tonight . . . but maybe, soon.”
Throwing her head back, she tried to wipe Briggs’s face out of her mind and succumb to sleep.