"I know why my mother sent you with me."
They have walked for hours in silence, Elora trailing just behind, gaze on the trampled path and on the steady, hypnotic pace of her companion's feet on the ground. It's almost midday, and the blue strip of the ocean has grown bigger, the winds saltier, the distant sound of sea birds louder. Guards escorted them out of the city, but since then they've been alone, on foot.
Mel stops, still with her back to Elora, and her voice is strained when she speaks, as if trying to keep herself in check. Elora watches Mel's dusty leather shoes as she turns around, planting her feet firmly on the ground, stance wide and tense; ready. What for soon becomes apparent.
It's a bright day, the wind brutal this close to the coastline, and when Elora raises her eyes a fraction, the blade of Mel's knife catches the light from the blazing sun, sharp and bright.
"It's not enough to banish me, is it?" Mel continues, and even in the periphery of Elora's vision she can see how every line of her face has turned hard, teeth bared. "She wants you to kill me."
The golden speckles that dot her cheeks glitter in the light, but for all that her face is twisted up in anger, the anguish is plain to hear in her voice. She is hardly more than a child, though children in Noxus learn to kill with one hand while they learn to write with the other.
Even a servant of Noxus learns how to wield a weapon, and Elora carries her own knife in her belt. But Mel has been trained by the best since she learned how to walk. The bite of a Medarda is always a vicious thing; even the youngest and softest Medarda could crush those in her path easily enough between her teeth.
Instead, Elora keeps her eyes downcast, gaze on the ground, on Mel's practised stance, the way she has positioned herself against Elora, as if she were someone who could actually stand against her.
She can see when the fight goes out of her, knees straightening and posture changing. With a quick flick of her wrist Mel throws the knife down, blade penetrating the hard ground right next to Elora's foot.
Mel huffs, "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Straightening her back slowly, Elora looks up. Mel stands opposed to her, weaponless, hands clenched into fists at her sides. They are of a height — Mel is small for a Medarda, built like the runt of the family — but that hardly makes them equals. Like always, Mel wears clothes that keeps the golden armor fused to her skin hidden. A secret few know. Elora cared for her after it was attached to her body — she wonders if Mel even remembers.
"Your mother..." Elora hesitates, the idea of going against Ambessa Medarda's expressed wishes leaving her mouth dry. "She expects to be kept appraised of your undertakings."
"My undertakings?" Mel snaps. "Why?"
"That is more than she deemed necessary to tell me."
Bending carefully to pick up the knife, Elora pulls it out of the ground and hands it back to Mel, handle first. Mel stares at her, still with that angry tilt to her mouth, brow knitted in confusion. Elora has been in the Medarda's employ for years, since she was old enough to work, but perhaps this is the first time Mel has ever properly looked at her.
Instead of taking the knife back, Mel turns on her heel and continues on their path, stalking towards the ocean. What else can Elora do but trail after her?
Clutching Mel's knife in her hand, she follows, the biting wind pushing her forward.
There's a ship waiting for them on the coast.
Mel carries a letter from her mother which will instruct the captain to take them on as passengers. The ship will take them beyond the Noxian territories, the long way around the coastline, and Elora walks onto the ship hesitantly, waiting for Mel to stop her.
She has still not spoken to her since she threw her knife at her feet, but she must know that Elora cannot go back home, no more so than Mel can. Returning to Ambessa Medarda, assignment uncompleted, would not be looked at with kind eyes.
The journey takes nineteen days in fair weather; longer, perhaps, in less cooperative conditions. Nineteen days, and though the wind remains mild, the waves make Elora nauseous and unsteady. If Mel feels the same, she shows nothing of it.
In fact, Mel shows nothing much at all, retreating into herself on the journey that seems long and dull. Space is sparse and the food unpalatable. Mel sleeps curled around herself, arms tight against her chest.
Sometimes when her sleep seems uneasy and bothered by dreams of who knows what, Elora reaches out to put the flat of her hand between her shoulder blades, the armor on her skin like a shield between them. Even through her clothes, it seems warm to the touch.
Only when the looming horizon of Piltover can be seen in the distance does Mel seem to come out of her stupor.
"When we touch ground," she says, and Elora forgets to avert her eyes, caught in Mel's gaze which seems to hold her as securely as were she tied to her, "if you slip away, I won't speak to anyone of you. Anyone who knows you came with me will think you're dead."
Elora does not know if Ambessa Medarda would be so easily fooled. Mel's failures were always a heavy weight between mother and daughter, but not even Elora knew for sure whether Mel would strike her down, when she held her knife up in the sun.
"Where will you go?" she asks, finally tearing her eyes away, looking down at Mel's hands, clasped in her lap, the Medarda ring still on her finger.
There are people she can turn to. Clans and houses who have trade agreements with Noxus, those who are unlikely to forget what is in their interests. Mel remains tight-lipped and quiet, as the ship rocks them steadily on its course.
"If you stay," she says finally, "I want to hire you. I don't have any money now, but I will. If you work for me, I will pay you for it when I can."
Elora frowns, her eyes still on Mel's ring and the shining Medarda star. "What do you want me to do?"
"You will send your reports to my mother. But I will read them first, and add or remove whatever I please."
Slowly, Elora forces herself to look up. "No," she says, the word foreign on her tongue, but firm, because it must be. "Your mother would know if you changed them. If she doesn't trust that what I write her is the truth, she will send another. If it is me, at least you will know."
Mel flinches from her words, as if they were akin to a slap. "I suppose she's made sure she'll always have power over me," she says, the bitterness in her voice so apparent Elora can almost taste it on her own tongue.
Rarely has she had the opportunity to let her gaze linger so long on her face, but even in sideways glimpses, caught in the corner of her eye, Elora has come to realize that Mel is gifted with a face far too expressive for a Medarda. It would not be Elora's place to tell her that whatever command Ambessa will gain this way is a force that can be wielded from both sides. Love always means to hand over some measure of power to another, whether one intends to or not.
Reaching for the bags they brought onto the ship, Mel pulls out fresh clothes for them both. "I need to look," she hesitates. "Like I'm here by choice."
So Elora helps her with her clothes, her hair, and the paint on her face.
"I will tell her," Elora says in a whisper, fingers nimbly braiding Mel's hair, "that we've arrived in Piltover. That you wear Medarda colors. That you have plans but will not tell me."
Mel turns to look at her, and despite her instincts, Elora does not avert her eyes. Mel has always been radiant, even before her golden armor was fused to her body, spilling out onto her cheeks in gilded constellations. Elora thinks about the knife Mel threw at her feet, the only weapon she brought, now secured at Elora's belt.
The youngest and the softest Medarda, facing exile and banishment, weaponless and alone.
Twenty days ago, in Noxus Prime, Elora bent in front of Ambessa Medarda, frozen in a formal, perfect bow, even as the silence stretched out and her back started to ache.
You will accompany my daughter. You will send me missives on where she goes and who she meets. What she does to survive. You will report everything to me.
She stopped pacing, feet firm and grounded on the floor in front of Elora.
I raised her since her first breath to take what she wants. She will eat them whole.