There’s a feeling I’ve had once before. That of standing on the edge of a cliff.
It’s a different sensation than you’d expect for someone who’s blind. Because, obviously, any time I stand on a ledge higher than three feet, I can’t tell how far the ground below is. I’ll feel the missing space with my walking cane and back away.
But a cliff? A cliff is different. I have to know it’s there for it to be really special. As it happened, I was standing on a ledge on the side of a mountain and when I was told what was below, I tossed a rock over the edge.
I never heard it hit the ground. It was probably too far for my ears to pick up and it was a windy day. But that—that convinced me. And the feeling of standing on the edge of something I couldn’t fathom was truly frightening. And exhilarating.
The unknown. A future I can’t predict. If I was told there was a path forwards, a thin ledge to stand on while the abyss howled around beneath me, would I have the courage to keep going?
I don’t know. But this is my only choice. I, Laken Godart, am an [Emperor]. I know what I must do. There’s no going back.
So I suppose…this would be a fine way to die.
“Laken? Laken, wake up. You’re snoring.”
Someone pokes me and I wake up. I jerk upright, and look around. I don’t bother opening my eyes. There are some reactions that I suppose some people instinctively perform, but eye-related activities are generally a waste of time for me. I can’t see.
I can hear, however, so I turn my head and look slightly miffed in the direction the voice and the poke came from. It takes my brain a second to process why I was woken up, and then open my mouth to scold.
“Durene. I was having an enjoyable nap. What’s wrong with me snoring?”
“It’s not very noble. You said that an [Emperor] should be dignified in all situations. Snoring isn’t.”
I sigh and sit back. I’m back in reality and I can feel reality around me now. What was I thinking of? I was just dozing, remembering the past, perhaps. I remember a cliff…now I can feel a hard surface beneath me, and a rumbling and forward motion. I’m on a wagon, and it’s just past noon, or so I’m told.
“Snoring is a very human trait, Durene. Not just human either—it’s a natural thing everyone does. Even if I am an [Emperor], I’d expect anyone to understand that I snore and sleep like everyone else.”
“Yes, but you were also drooling. That’s not dignified.”
The voice, deep and female, points that out. I brush at my face and find she’s right. I scowl and sigh.
“Fine. I’ve stopped. But you could have just let me sleep. There’s no one to see me drooling, objectionable as that may be.”
“No, I think one of the adventurers is coming. So I had to wake you.”
Durene’s voice is self-assured and confident. I have to look my best when strangers are around, therefore I must be awake. I sigh, but give up the argument. Instead I lean back into my seat and center myself in the world. Where am I? What am I doing? I’m sitting in a wagon. Existential problems solved.
I’m on the road again. Or more accurately, I’ve been on the road for the last four days. If I’m honest, it’s not actually me on the road. I’m just sitting on a bumping wagon while a rather smelly horse pulls me along. Sitting in a very comfortable seat of padded cloth that Durene and Gamel worked up for me of course, but it does get boring.
Hi. I’m Laken. An [Emperor]. I’m currently travelling down a cleared road of dried mud, sitting in a wagon while my girlfriend—or perhaps lover—walks beside the cart. She’s too big to ride with me and Durene say she prefers to walk. I would too—it’s good for the legs, but it’s just a bit too likely that I’ll have my foot crushed by a wagon wheel for me to risk it.
Honestly, a 1% chance of having my foot get run over by a rolling mass of several tons of weight is too much for me. So I sit and talk with her, or occasionally Gamel, who walks and sometimes sits on the wagon. He’s one of my subjects, a young man from a village called Riverfarm.
“Mister Laken! I think we’re only a few miles from Riverfarm if that’s the place your man Gamel has described, sir!”
A voice shouts at me and I turn my head in the direction of the call. I raise a hand towards the adventurer. That’s Beniar, the leader of the Windfrozen Riders. He’s a [Rider], and one of the two Silver-rank adventurer groups that I hired to escort me and protect the village.
I hear hoof beats, and then someone rides up to the wagon. I sigh. Not because I’m unhappy about reaching Riverfarm—on the contrary, I can’t wait to be back. One of the reasons why is because it means I’ll have more space from Beniar. He’s a chatterbox and annoying.
“Allow me to say, sir, that it’s been a pleasure escorting you this far. I hope you’ll recommend my team to the Merchant’s Guild and for future assignments. Not that our job is ended—we’ll be patrolling around your village for the month, as you know. So I hope to work together well with you, sir. Or is that my lord?”
I don’t need eyes to hear the impudent tone in Beniar’s voice, or know that Durene’s probably scowling at him. To stop her from arguing with the young man, I smile in his direction.
“My lord is acceptable, Beniar. Sir, your majesty, or any other title you’d prefer to give me I would also be content with, however. Thank you for telling me. You may go.”
That throws him. I hear Beniar’s horse lag behind for a moment, and then a cough. Durene giggles, his voice sounds strained.
“Ah, yes sir. We’ll signal the village that we’re arriving. I uh, well, I’ll be going.”
He rides off. Durene starts laughing out loud and I think Beniar can hear her. I smile, but covertly, so that if he looks back he won’t see.
“Shush, Durene. That’s not nice. Beniar is a good sort, even if he’s…inquisitive.”
That doesn’t stop Durene, of course. My half-Troll lover, protector, and sometimes nap-waker has not enjoyed Beniar’s company. He’s just a bit too fond of bragging about his accomplishments—which are decent, enough for his team to be called Silver-rank despite his age—and a bit too interested in who I am.
I arrived in Invrisil, the city of adventurers and one of the hubs of the northern part of the continent around a week ago. I caused a stir and spent lavishly at the Merchant’s Guild there—buying supplies for Riverfarm, magic-users with flame spells to clear the snowy roads so I could ride back, and hired two Silver-rank teams to protect my village.
That’s a lot of money, and a lot of influence to be used for a no-name village in the middle of nowhere. By the time I left the city, several days after Ryoka Griffin delivered aid to my village and then disappeared in a carriage owned by Magnolia Reinhart, rumors were flying about exactly who I was and what my interests were.
I received several invitations from reputable [Merchants], [Bankers], adventurers, and so on, and refused them all. Is it any wonder people like Beniar want to know if I’m some sort of rich lordling or other important figure? The information could be worth a lot and help a young adventurer with his career. So he’s pestered me and bragged shamelessly on the four-day trip. I understand, but just wish he were as adept socially as he is with a sword.
Apparently I’m not the only person with that view. I hear an indignant murmur from my left, and then a voice. Gamel speaks up for the first time, and I hear the snow crunch as he paces to the left of my wagon. He has to work to keep up, unlike Durene, but he seems to think only I deserve the comfort of the wagon.
“He shouldn’t be so direct with you, sire. He should be bowing and saying your majesty without it being a joke.”
I sigh again as Durene voices her agreement from my left. Here I am with my two vassals who seem to think everyone should bow and kiss my smelly feet every two seconds. And soon, I’ll be in the midst of a village full of them. How will I manage?
Well, I have a few ideas. And of course, I must manage. I am their [Emperor]. I accepted the responsibility when I saved Riverfarm from an avalanche. Getting the [Emperor] class was almost a joke, a chance decision. However, I have embraced what I am now. I have a duty. I cannot turn my back on it now.
So I straighten my back. I am an [Emperor]. And if I am, there are some things I have to get right. Starting now. After all, there is a problem with my subjects telling me how I should be treated. They mean well, but that’s their opinion. I have mine, and they have to understand that. And obey.
“Gamel, I appreciate your input. And yours of course, Durene. But please understand this: I will be treated like a commoner, disrespectfully, flippantly, and sometimes rudely by the people I meet. That is not their fault. They do not know I am an [Emperor], or if they do, they might not believe. That does not mean you two should reprimand them. In fact, I insist you do not. I order you not to. Is that understood?”
Durene’s laughter cuts off. I can’t see Gamel, but I imagine him straightening up, flushing.
“I’m terribly sorry, sire.”
“Enough of that. I told you, sir, or my name is fine.”
And here comes the hard part. I modulate my tone; try to explain why I say what I do. It’s one thing to command, another to lead. I was told that just recently. I may be an [Emperor], but I must inspire and teach, not just tell.
“The reason why I say this is because titles are meaningless to me, Gamel. No, don’t gape. I may be an [Emperor], but being called and treated like one isn’t strictly necessary. Yes, I insist on respect, but that comes in a different way from people I meet. I would rather know how people feel about me than ruin their impressions of me and mine of them from the start. Rudeness of course is different, and you can be offended about that. But simple ignorance or casual incivility is to be welcomed, I think.”
There’s a thoughtful silence from Gamel after that, and I hope I’ve reached him. However, Durene’s voice is troubled.
“But Laken, if you’re an [Emperor]—”
I raise a finger and she breaks off. Where has this come from? Durene’s changed a lot from the timid girl I met in the forest almost two months ago. Oh, she’s mainly the same, but she’s bolder now. She’s gotten a lot more opinionated—mostly about how I should be treated. That doesn’t’ mean she’s right of course.
“Durene, I understand your concerns. However, my ego is large enough that I don’t need to be called ‘your majesty’ every two seconds. Think of it from my perspective.”
“How do you mean?”
I smile slightly.
“I am an [Emperor]. You know that. Gamel knows that. And I know that. That fact will never change. Why should what other people say or believe matter? I know who I am. That’s all I need.”
Durene’s voice sounds awed, and Gamel makes a similar noise. I sigh. It really wasn’t that special. It’s just about self-confidence. But perhaps neither Durene nor Gamel has ever thought about life in that way. They both grew up in a tiny village. Gamel can barely read; Durene can’t.
Neither one knows about psychology, economics, mathematics, germ theory…so much. They know a lot about living, and they’re good people who don’t need the rest to survive. But it could help them. So now and then I try to teach.
Unfortunately, every action has consequences. And my little speech has roused the final occupant of the wagon. I hear a screech and flapping wings. I sigh.
“Frostwing, shut up.”
The loud shrieking cuts off. I turn in my seat and get up onto my knees. It’s not hard to find the perch anchored to the top of a bag of grain—although I do get my fingers in a bit of fresh bird droppings. I grimace and then find Frostwing. The bird recoils a bit from my touch, and then rubs her head against my palm.
Frostwing. I have a bird, by the way. She’s just a fledgling, but she’s getting bigger each day—she’s already about as long as my hand and forearm. I wonder how large she’ll get by the time she finishes growing.
She allegedly has blue feathers, the better to hide in the sky, I suppose. I’m still not sure if Durene’s playing a trick on me. I keep thinking that blue is an odd color in a bird—but I can’t remember what eagles and hawks are supposed to look like from my world. I…think they have brown and white feathers, but honestly, listening to descriptions of birds isn’t like seeing them. It doesn’t stick in the mind.
Or so I would imagine.
Right now it seems like Frostwing wants to learn to fly. She keeps flapping her wings on her perch as I find her head and stroke it. A beak pokes my hand gently and I sigh.
“I think she’s hungry. Again. Gamel, do you have—”
“Some jerky. Here, sire.”
Gamel’s already got the dried meat ready. I break some off as Frostwing tries to snatch the entire strip from me. She’s voracious, but I am her owner—and a [Beast Tamer], so I scold her and force her to take pieces from my hand one at a time.
I’m not sure this is how you raise birds, but hey, I’m giving it my best shot.
Lecturing Gamel and Durene, talking to nosy adventurers, and dealing with my pooping bird take up a good amount of time after I’ve woken up. However, I must admit that for an [Emperor], someone with a class who’s supposed to rule over countless people and an empire, this isn’t exactly very fulfilling. I’m restless, and I want to be in my village soon. There I’ll be able to see…in a way.
And there’s so much to do. I have a thousand and one things I know I have to take care of, but I’ve been confined to the wagon for the trip. When I am outside of the lands I own, I am blind and to some degree, helpless. This world is filled with monsters and I must rely on other people for help.
Like any good [Emperor], in fact. There’s some irony to that. But I’m keenly aware that as loyal as Durene and Gamel are, and as faithful as the villagers of Riverfarm seem to be, they’re not exactly capable of everything. None of them are fighters, although I wouldn’t ever bet against Durene. But despite her having a [Paladin] class, she’s never been in a life-or-death battle, and there are dangerous monsters in this world.
Not that I’ve ever seen one. I’m blind. If I’m in a situation where a monster is close enough for me to hear or touch, I’m probably dead since running away when blind is very, very difficult.
So the adventurers like Beniar are essential. Not just now, but in the future. I have thought and been advised on the future. That’s why when the second adventurer rides towards my wagon, I make sure Frostwing’s poop is off my hands and try to look as dignified as Durene thinks I should be.
“Mister Laken, may we have a word? It’s me, ah, the leader of the Celestial Trackers.”
I hear a young woman’s voice, and then another as two adventurers ride down towards me from the wagons ahead. Did I mention the other wagons? Some of the adventurers not riding next to the wagon I’m on are filling the ones ahead and behind me. I, as an important person, get a wagon to myself.
“Certainly. Come by this side and we can talk.”
I move over to the right side of the wagon and hear Durene making room for the horse. Someone else speaks politely to me, the owner of the second horse.
“I am here as well, sir.”
I nod. I’ve met these two adventurers as well, and they’re considerably easier to work with than Beniar is.
“Wiskeria and Odveig, right?”
“That’s right. We were hoping to speak with you about our duties when we reached the village, Mister Laken. Is now a bad time?”
“Certainly not. Did you have any concerns? What are your expectations from what the Merchant’s Guild hired you for?”
The two confer as I wait patiently. Odveig is the leader, a [Macewoman], and Wiskeria is her subordinate. They lead the Celestial Trackers. Well, Odveig is the one who calls herself the leader, but I feel like Wiskeria is the brains behind the group. She’s a [Witch], a specialized type of [Mage] who can apparently use spells to hinder her opponents and brew potions and use spells to assist her friends.
In short, she’s fascinating and I’ve wanted to talk with Wiskeria, but haven’t had much time to do so. In the few interactions I’ve had with their team, I got the sense that Odveig is rightly paranoid that Wiskeria might take her place as the leader of the group. Wiskeria herself seems disinterested in the role of leader, but she’s far too sharp to be excluded from the decision-making process.
Which is why both of them are here now. Odveig is the first to speak to me. She has a husky voice, and a very pleasant tone with a slight accent on the ‘th’ sounds she makes.
“Generally, these sorts of contracts have us patrol an area by day and night, Mister Laken. We ah, are expected to be fed and given adequate shelter, but that’s all our contract entails. We can hunt and scavenge for our own provisions, but that generally takes up a good deal of the time we’re supposed to be guarding, you see…”
“Food is not an issue, Miss Odveig. And I’m sure we can find indoor spots for your entire group—unless you’d prefer camping in the tents you brought. As you know, there are not many buildings in the village that can be used, but we’ll try to accommodate you as best we can.”
“We do appreciate that, sir. May I ask what trouble you’re expecting? Hiring two Silver-rank teams is not—not—”
She stumbled on her words and Wiskeria took over. Her voice is quieter, smoother, and precise. It makes me think she’s had some kind of formal education—or perhaps it’s just her personality.
“Two Silver-rank teams are generally only called for when protecting areas at immediate risk of monster attacks, sir. To escort so many wagons two teams is quite appropriate, but we’re afraid our services might be considered wasted when guarding an entire village for a month.”
I smile. Do they fear inactivity, or that I’ll try to pay them less? Their fee has already been paid—half now, and half held by the Adventurer’s Guild when they return. Either way, I should reassure them.
“Call me paranoid, Miss Odveig, Miss Wiskeria. But I feel that two Silver-rank teams are better than one, and both are essential in case trouble comes to Riverfarm. That might not happen, in which case you’ll have a quiet month. However…if it does happen I’d rather be ready for it, which is why I’m willing to pay for the best.”
“You’ll get that, Mister Laken, rest assured!”
My words seem to reassure and invigorate Odveig, who I’m sure is sitting straighter on her saddle. Wiskeria takes a more measured response.
“In that case, we’ll set about ensuring there are no threats to the village, sir. And if there turns out to be no threats nearby…will you have us patrolling the entire duration?”
“That’s a good question. I wouldn’t like to waste your time, and if you find nothing, I’m sure your group doesn’t all need to scout at once. I’d be fine letting your groups train or…doing whatever you feel is necessary. However, my village is in need. Could your groups help rebuild? A few hands to help lift and carry things would be welcome.”
Another brief moment of whispering, and then Wiskeria speaks up.
“I’m sure our party can send some of our group to assist with whatever rebuilding is necessary, or lend our Skills where we can once we’re sure the area is secure, sir. I expect the Windfrozen Riders have useful Skills in their group as well. We may be able to hunt for game as well, once again, after ensuring the area is clear of monsters.”
“Excellent. I will speak with you when we reach the village, then. I’m told it’s just an hour or two away?”
“We should be arriving within the hour, sir.”
“Very good. Thank you.”
They withdraw. I sit back in the wagon and after a moment, Durene steps up next to me.
“You aren’t expecting trouble, are you, Laken? I’ve heard monsters and bandits like to prey on villages that get into trouble.”
Her voice is worried, and I nod while turning my head up to the sky. It’s still so cold out here! Winter in this world doesn’t play around. Thank goodness for blankets and thick coats.
“I had the same thought. That’s why we have two Silver-rank teams, Durene. They’ll deal with most problems quite easily, unless I miss my guess.”
“That’s true. I haven’t heard of any village rich enough to hire a Silver-rank team, let alone two!”
Durene’s voice beams with pride at that simple fact. I laugh, and lean back.
“Yes, yes. Don’t let it get to your head. I’m going to take a nap now, Durene. Without snoring or drooling, hopefully. Wake me when we get close to the village, will you?”
It feels like I’ve just closed my eyes when a broad finger pokes me awake. I hear Durene at the same time as her voice.
“Laken! We’re here!”
I don’t need to be told that. The instant I sit up, I hear a huge mass of voices cheering like wild, making Frostwing wake up and panic on her perch. But that’s not the special bit.
The special bit is that I can see all the villagers cheering me, see the adventurers guarding the convoy of wagons gaping, see the people of Riverfarm rushing towards me, waving their arms and calling my name.
Well, see is a strong word. It’s more like a vision in my mind. A…sense, if you will. I call it sight because that’s the closest thing I can think of to this power I have.
As an [Emperor], I own Riverfarm. I claimed it to save the village, and as it turns out, whatever land I possess, I can sense, down to the smallest rock. I know instinctively that Riverfarm has eight buildings that have been excavated of snow—three more than when I left—and nearly thirty buildings still buried beneath. I can sense Durene hovering by the wagon and beaming while Gamel stands up on another and waves to his sweetheart.
I can see. That’s the gift of my class and it is worth beyond worth to me. However, my ‘sight’ has its limits. I see expressions, open mouths, and so on and moving outlines of people, but there is no color in my mind, and no detail. It’s more like what I imagine a bat’s echolocation might describe the world as. I see shapes, but not nuance.
It’s good enough. It’s more than enough. However, it means I do still need to rely on others for some things. I stand up from the wagon and hear the villagers shouting my name.
“Laken! [Emperor] Laken!”
“Our [Emperor] has returned! Praise Emperor Laken!”
“The Unseen Empire! Emperor Laken!”
That last cry makes me start a bit. The Unseen Empire? Now how did they…? Oh, right! I once claimed Riverfarm as part of the Unseen Empire. It’s a fitting name, if embarrassing.
However, the cheering is genuine and it puts a smile on my face. I don’t deserve it, but I did save a lot of the village after the avalanche. I’m touched by their belief in me. I raise a hand, and they go wild.
I imagine this is what being a celebrity feels like. As I step down from the wagon people rush to surround me. I clasp hands, let people gently touch me, and then Durene and Gamel are forcing people to stand back. And just like that, the wild exuberance turns into deference as the villagers form a path for me to enter the village.
I can sense Prost waiting with some of the older villagers. I’m anxious to talk to him, but I can’t help it. I nudge Durene and she bends down so I can whisper to her.
“Psst, Durene. Describe the faces of the other adventurers to me.”
I can sense them, well, most of them, the ones within the village’s radius. In my picture of the world all of the adventurers are standing stock still, gaping. However, I want to know what their expressions are like. I can sense Durene as she straightens, and then I hear her voice, full of merry laughter.
“They can’t believe it! Beniar’s face is—I think his eyes are going to pop out of his head! And Odveig looks like she’s going to choke!”
She sounds gleeful. In fact, Durene might have been waiting for this moment. I never mentioned my true nature to Odveig or Beniar—people assumed I was some sort of noble, or a very rich stranger, but an [Emperor]? I can’t imagine what they’re thinking at the moment. I nudge Durene one more time.
“Oh. She’s…staring at you.”
“Does she seem surprised?”
“Yeah, but she’s not gaping or anything…why?”
“Nothing much. I just wanted to see how she’d react. Quick thinking and being able to adjust to any situation is important.”
She doesn’t get it, but Wiskeria is already part of my plans. I stride towards Prost and the other villagers as people shout my name.
Emperor Laken. I guess I can’t hide that fact any longer. And as I think that, I wonder if Wiskeria or the other two [Mages] in the adventurer groups can cast the [Message] spell. If they can…word about me might be spreading very quickly.
I smile faintly. Oops. The secret’s out of the bag. Not that I had any real hopes of keeping my class secret. But the dice have been cast. What will happen next?
It’s odd, but I actually think I know.
The first day after I came back to Riverfarm was pure chaos, plain and simple. It was already late when I returned, and between hearing Prost and the other villagers fall over themselves to thank me—and assure me they hadn’t eaten all of the food Ryoka had brought—I was hard pressed to get a word in.
Or rather, because I’m an [Emperor], my words cause a complete hush and everyone has to listen to what I say, rather than let my voice be one of the many and get work done. Ah, well, we had a banquet on that first night and that’s probably all I was going to get done anyways.
A celebration to welcome an [Emperor] back. More than that, a celebration because I brought back exactly what I promised. Food for Riverfarm, supplies, tools to help rebuild, and adventurers to keep them safe. Everything the village needed to start rebuilding.
And now it’s the day after. I slept like I was in a five-star hotel in Durene’s cottage. My blankets and pillow felt like they were made of silk or clouds, and I woke up feeling full of energy. That’s thanks to my Skill as an [Emperor]—[Empire: Blessing of the Hearth]. It makes sleeping pleasant, even if you only have the floor and some blankets for a bed.
I’m grateful for that. My subjects need their rest, and lots of energy. Because today I’m going to start…everything.
“Laken, do you want eggs?”
“Sure, Durene. Give me some bacon too. No, Frostwing, you can’t have any. This is my bacon. Peck me, and I’ll halve your breakfast, understand?”
Breakfast is quick, serene, and over in a flash. Once I leave the cottage I find several people waiting for me. Waiting in the cold, although not in the snow since Durene shoveled her pathway this morning.
Prost, Gamel, Odveig, Beniar, and Wiskeria are all waiting for me by the time I come out with Durene. I’m surprised Gamel’s here, but I suppose he thinks of himself as my personal manservant. Prost speaks for the villagers, so his presence makes sense. As for the adventurers…well, at least they’re ready to work.
“Ah, Mister—that is to say, Emperor—ah—”
Beniar calls out hesitantly as I walk towards him, a smile on my face. I can hear him tripping over his words and imagine his blush. Gamel and Prost bow deeply to me as soon as I come near, and the other adventurers awkwardly imitate them.
I think they’re still reeling from the revelation that I’m an [Emperor], to be honest. Well, it makes sense. In their world, a class defines who you are. So if I have an [Emperor] class…I’m an [Emperor]. Simple as that.
“Let’s not dwell on formalities, Beniar. I told you any form of address was suitable. Sir works well.”
“Ah. Oh? Yes sir! Uh—”
Wiskeria clears her throat. She seems the least tongue-tied, as I had expected. I glance towards her and notice how she’s watching me. I think the other adventurers are surprised as well; I’ve forgone my walking cane and move about surely on Durene’s land. Because of course, I can see as well as anyone else now. Better, perhaps.
Whatever her thoughts, Wiskeria politely bows her head as she speaks. She doesn’t stumble over her words.
“Do you have orders for us, sire? We’ve made a small camp next to the village and we’ve got a good sense of the immediate area. We only need your word to start scouting the landscape. If we could speak with some of the locals who know the area, that would help as well.”
I nod thoughtfully. Adventurers…I have a lot I’d like to talk to them about, especially Wiskeria, but for now I need to talk to Prost more. So I let them do their job.
“If your group will divide the scouting and patrolling with the Windfrozen Riders, I’d be most grateful. I believe I will talk with Odveig and Beniar more specifically about their duties later—but as you can see I have a lot to do.”
“Of course, sire. We’ll get to work right away.”
Wiskeria nods to Odveig, and then has to drag both her and Beniar away. They’re still staring, which I have to say, I’m getting more used to. I turn to Prost as Durene joins me with Frostwing perched on her shoulder. The bird pecks at Durene’s cheek as I smile at Prost.
“Farmer Prost. How has the village been since I left? I’m told you got the food I had delivered to you alright—did you have an enjoyable Christmas? I hope my Runner, Ryoka, explained what that was.”
Prost starts, and I think he’s surprised at my warm greeting. Well, we did have an unpleasant first few encounters where he was against me and Durene living together. After I saved the village he was falling over himself to help me, and his attitude’s much better. For my part, I haven’t forgotten the past, but Prost lost his youngest boy in the avalanche. That kind of pain…no, I would never hold a grudge after all that has happened.
“Miss Ryoka, your majesty? Oh, she came by not a week ago—we were so grateful for her arrival we wept, sire. It was a blessing, and the food she brought—I know I said it too much yesterday, but the village can’t thank you enough, your majesty.”
“Sir, or sire’s fine, Mister Prost. Don’t worry about the titles—I’ve told Gamel the same. But now I’m back, and I’ve got all I promised.”
“More food and supplies? Your m—sire, I have to tell you that we’ve been rationing what Miss Ryoka brought. We made sure to not overeat, and I think we could stretch it till the spring if that’s all that could be bought.”
Responsible, thoughtful…the villagers of Riverfarm aren’t idiots, for all they once were small-minded. You can’t be stupid and live out here, where a bad harvest might mean starvation if you hadn’t planned ahead. I wave a hand and start heading down to the village, speaking to Durene, Prost, and Gamel all at once.
“Ryoka delivered a good bit of food, but hardly all of what I bought, Mister Prost, Miss Yesel. Don’t fear, we’ve enough food to last us the winter and a good ways into the spring. However, making sure we have food for the times after that is one of our biggest priorities right now.”
“Yes sir. We’ve been digging out more of the buried buildings, but it’s painfully slow work…but with you and Durene here, I’m sure we’ll do all that needs doing!”
“About that. I think clearing the snow is a good start, and so I hope I can ask you, Durene, to help. Gamel can also lend a hand…I’ll speak with Mister Prost about other matters, unless there’s something pressing?”
“Nope! I can do that, Laken. I’m ready for work, and there’s an extra-large shovel in the wagons I can use!”
Durene’s clearly ready for hard work, and she hands Frostwing to Gamel, who’s gotten used to handling the cranky bird. I nod to Gamel. If he’s my assistant—and he’s very loyal and does what I ask him to—then I should use him as one.
“Can you ask Odveig and Beniar if their [Mages] can use their spells to melt the snow, Gamel? I know you know some fire magic, but I believe some experienced spellcasters might help quite a bit with the excavation.”
“At once, sire.”
He and Durene head towards the village. I can sense the villagers waiting for me, but a few shouted words from Prost and they disperse. After shouting greetings at me, of course. I walk slowly with Prost around the village, making my way over huge drifts of snow.
The avalanche that hit Riverfarm buried almost all of it. Some houses were only half-consumed by the snow, but in the first few days after the disaster the villagers couldn’t walk without sinking into the deep snow. At the moment there’s a good section of the village that’s been cleared of snow, but there are still walls of hard snow and ice.
Prost is busy showing me the new houses the villagers have dug out. I can sense how battered the buildings are. Oh, the supports have held in most, but the wood is broken in countless places from the sheer force behind the avalanche. It will take a lot of doing to restore the buildings to any sense of working order, and there are still fields buried in the snow, dead animals still frozen where they were engulfed, scattered tools and belongings…
“It’s a mess, Emperor Laken. I’d despair at restoring anything at all if you weren’t here, I really would. Most villages suffer a disaster like this and, well, it’s over. We’d have to pack up and move, what few of us survived. It’s that or starve or freeze or be eaten by monsters.”
“Not exactly a pleasant choice, Mister Prost. However, even with what I brought, rebuilding Riverfarm will be a chore and a half. I hope everyone knows that.”
“Aye, we do. Don’t fear sire, we’re no strangers to hard work and we’ll do whatever you think is best.”
I can sense Prost nodding as he takes me around the barn, the main hub of the new village. There are simple beds inside, piles of recovered goods, several cooking fires outside…rudimentary stuff, but at least the villagers sleep like rocks. Everything else will have to be remade, and I’m the one in charge. Oh dear.
“Let’s get down to business, then, Prost. I’ve got some good ideas on how to proceed, but I’d love to hear what you’d do in a situation like this.”
I’ve got more than just a few ideas. I’ve spoken to several people, Ryoka among them, who gave me excellent advice on what to do. And honestly, I needed it. Rebuilding a village and managing everyone is not among the skills I brought from Earth, from my world, but I feel oddly confident now.
Prost shakes his head in response to my question. He has to break off to tell someone where the hammers are—in the wagons and two in the barn—and then he tells a group of young men and women to go help dig where Durene’s at. He’s in charge, as are a few of the older villagers. But that’s in charge under me, I feel. If I wasn’t here, would things go this well?
“Honestly, your majesty? I wouldn’t know where to begin, aside from digging out what I can. There’s so many farms ruined…I supposed I’d try to dig up fields, get as much land cleared so I could sow all the plants I could after the last frost, but that’s all I know. I’d be hoping to trade what valuables I could gather for supplies, some chickens and other animals maybe, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m glad you’re here, sir.”
“I find your faith in me disturbing, Mister Prost. I’m no miracle worker.”
“Say that to my daughter, sir. And my wife. You saved them and over half the village. But for you we’d be dead.”
Prost turns to me, and grips my shoulder before he remembers I’m an [Emperor] and starts apologizing. I stop him. That’s right. That’s why people have faith in me. Because I saved lives. I cannot betray that faith, although it’s more than any person should have placed on them.
“Well, we’ll see if my ideas work. For now…let’s talk about the villagers, Prost. What do you think they need?”
“Need? Well, you’ve given us warm bellies and your Skill makes us feel as though we’re sleeping on pure cotton, sire. Give us some more rooms and a place to work and I’d say that’s all I need. With these adventurers around, we don’t have to fear monsters and that’s a relief.”
I smile as I find a place to stand with Prost, out of the way. I can sense villagers staring at me as they work.
“Interesting. You thought of that off the top of your head, didn’t you, Mister Prost?”
“Yes sire. I just said what I could think of.”
“And what you could think of were the essentials. Food, shelter, and security. I’d say those are the three basic elements all people need to survive, don’t you, Mister Prost?”
“I’d agree with that, sire. That and a good drink now and then.”
I grin and see Prost smiling in relief. An [Emperor] needs to be human too.
“Well, that’s my point. In rebuilding Riverfarm, I’m looking at the essentials first, Mister Prost. Not just for now, but for the future when the supplies are gone and the adventurers leave.”
I start ticking off points on my hand as Prost listens.
“We need space for the people—not just somewhere they can live for the moment, but permanent homes. We need to grow food and raise animals, enough for the village to survive on. And we need a way to defend ourselves if monsters attack. Now, two of those issues can be solved by building the village again. However…it’s occurred to me that here might not be the best place to build it.”
I gesture towards the nearest house. Half of it has been collapsed inwards, and the other half is badly damaged and just patched over with boards to keep the wind out.
“The buildings we uncover are damaged. Some of the supports have shifted, the walls are blown out and the foundation’s destroyed on some of them. It would be just as much work to fix one up as make a new one, I’m thinking. Plus…I’m not sure the villagers would like to live in a place where so much grief has been caused.”
Most of the villagers buried in the avalanche were trapped in their houses, suffocated or bashed to death when it happened. The digging teams I led had to cut through roofs and dig to find the doors in order to save lives…or recover the bodies.
Prost nods heavily.
“That’s true, sire. But then where would we build the village? We’ve lived here all our lives, most of us.”
“I understand. And I’m not suggesting we abandon this place, but digging out houses takes time, and I’d rather have some of the villagers building new ones. It can’t be fun sleeping crammed together, even with my Skill. So what if we…drew up some blueprints for a new village right now?”
“A simple map. I can’t see well, but let’s assume Riverfarm is here. And if we’re rebuilding the village, why not make it efficient? We can put all the fields together here, rather than each farmer have their own. And houses could go here…feel free to tell me if I’m making sense, Mister Prost.”
In a few minutes Prost and I are scuffing at the ground with a stick, plotting out a village in the wet dirt. I can’t sense the impressions in the ground unless they’re fairly deep, but it’s simple enough for Prost to get a handle of my idea, and then he’s off with it.
“We could certainly build more houses like you’re suggesting, sire. The ground’s uneven over here, but if we had a few [Diggers] or Durene picked up a shovel, I don’t see why we couldn’t smooth over parts and—and well, the village could be twice as large as before! And the fields—some of us [Farmers] have talked the idea over, and some fields we could all work on is an enticing idea, ‘specially if we combined teams of oxen. We never tried the idea because we quarreled over sharing the harvests, but if it’s all of us working in the village together, I don’t see why not.”
I have an idea of Riverfarm in my head. It’s got a river running by the village, which is where the name comes from, but until recently the villagers had a very small plot of land they’d tamed and farmed on. The new village, the rebuilt one would expand that space and create a space with larger fields, more houses…and more organized structure, too. There would be a main road and houses would be adjacent to one another, rather than built wherever the original owners wanted them.
Prost and I stare at the blueprints in the dirt for a few seconds, before reality hits. The older man sits back on his haunches and shakes his head slowly.
“It’s a grand idea you’re thinking of, sire. But can it be done? We’ve a few folks with Skills in woodworking and building, and I reckon Durene could lift up a beam herself, but it’s such a large thought I can’t imagine it. You think it can be done? Truly?”
I smile. Here’s one of my tests. Prost doubts we can do this. I do too, honestly—my ideas are so nebulous, I can’t figure out how to put them into action. However, I’m a leader and so I have to reassure him. And myself.
“A new village? Why not? There are trees aplenty in the forests, and I know we have people with [Carpenter] classes here. We can build the houses one at a time and create a new village while the adventurers guard us and we live off of what I brought from Invrisil.”
I reach out and clasp Prost on the shoulder, making him start.
“Remember, Mister Prost, we’re not doing this by ourselves. A house is a challenge for a single person or a family, but a village? We could put up the first house in a matter of days or less. Why don’t we do it like this? We’ll build three houses, lay foundations, and get to work measuring, cutting wood, and so on, while we reclaim the village from the snow. We build them where we planned…and go from there. Sound good?”
“When you put it like that, sire, I can’t help but think it sounds easier. Truly.”
Prost nods as he stands up. He’s hesitant, but now I’ve reduced the problem to a manageable one to him, he’s already thinking of who had the best Skills to start work.
That’s what I need. Because I don’t know the villagers well enough myself. I go with Prost out of the village limits, towards the new building spots. Halfway there I pause and grimace.
“Something the matter, sire?”
I hear Prost’s voice, but I can no longer sense him. I’ve gone…well, blind again. I must have left the village’s limits.
“I think I’ll have to stay here, Mister Prost. You check the spot we were discussing and see if it’s usable. I’ll wait here.”
Prost leaves and I kick at the invisible boundary where my sense of the world starts to fade away in my head.
“This might be a problem.”
My [Emperor]’s senses don’t extend outside of the limits of the village. The land I claim is the only place where they work. Which is a problem whenever I go travelling, or in cases like now.
I have an idea about how to fix that. Well, I didn’t come up with the idea. But still.
It’s something for later, though. Prost comes back with the news that the spots I suggested would work. He’s talking about asking the Fairfield family to help out, and getting Gamel and a few of the ‘lads’ to get some axes to cut down a few good trees—only the best wood will do, obviously, so we’ll need to find someone with a good eye for it.
I take a breath and cut Prost off. There’s something I’ve been meaning to do, something I’ve been advised to do. It might work, and if it does, it’ll help Riverfarm—and me.
“Mister Prost, there’s one last thing we need to talk about. That’s why I wanted to talk alone with you.”
Instantly the man becomes wary. He clears his throat.
“I uh, wondered if it might come to this, sire. About Durene…I can’t say how sorry I am about how I behaved. And the others too. But myself…I can’t apologize. I can only ask for—”
“What? Oh. Not that.”
I wave a hand at Prost, surprising him. He blinks, and I shake my head.
“What? But sire—the way I behaved—”
“I’m not going to berate you for the past, Mister Prost. Not now. Not after what’s happened. What you’ve all lost. No. That would be petty, and cruel, I think. You’re trying to make amends. I know you apologized to Durene and frankly…no. There’s something else I want to speak to you about.”
He sounds more nervous, if that’s possible. I try to reassure him, but give up and get into it. I walk with Prost around the edge of the village, feeling my sense of the world dim and brighten as I stumble through deep snow. Prost walks with me, tense, watching me. But trusting, too. He trusts me.
“I’m going to rule the village. I claimed it, and I am an [Emperor]. I’m a bit surprised you all would want me to lead you—”
I silence Prost as he opens his mouth again.
“—But I understand. However, I’m not experienced. I’m a low-level [Emperor] and frankly, I have no idea how to build anything. I’m not a [Farmer] and Durene knows more about raising animals than me. I need someone with all these Skills to help me coordinate the villagers.”
“Milord, I’m happy to do what I can. Me and the other older folk—we’re at your disposal. And young Gamel seems to be growing up right quick. If you need something, all you have to do is ask.”
“Yes, but asking means I have to think of it. And there are things I won’t think of, Mister Prost. That’s why I need a second-in-command. Someone who can do the thinking—and the asking—without me.”
I hear Prost gulp as he understands what I’m getting at.
“And that person who’s doing the asking…is that me, sir? Why me? I know I’ve taken it upon myself to take our orders, but I’m hardly like our last [Village Head]. I’m no leader.”
I nod. A [Village Head] is a type of [Leader], if a weak one. I suppose I fill that role, but an [Emperor] is too large to lead a village. All my Skills would apply to my empire, not an individual farm. Which is why…
“I know that. You are a [Farmer], Mister Prost. A good one, I think. Well thought of, but a farmer nonetheless. I need a leader, someone who can inspire people and manage them in my stead. Which is why I’m asking if you would take on another class for me.”
“Another—another class, sire? You mean become the village’s head? I reckon I could, but I’d only be Level 1, and you’re an [Emperor]—”
“No, not that. I mean, take on another class that I gave you. [Steward], to be exact.”
Prost stops in his tracks. He stares at me.
“But I—[Steward] is a noble title, sir! It’s as close to a lordship as—most [Kings] appoint a [Lord] as a [Steward]! I’m not worthy of such a class!”
“Yes, well, I could make you a [Lord] too, but I think that’s too many classes to handle at once. Don’t gape, Mister Prost. I said I wasn’t going to do it.”
“But—why me, sire? Why me?”
I stop in the cold snow and run a hand through my hair. I look at Prost, and wish I could see him, not just sense what his face is roughly doing.
“Why not? A ruler needs a [Steward], someone to manage their affairs. I am an [Emperor]—why shouldn’t I be able to give you that class? I made Durene a [Paladin]. If you’re willing, I’ll name you as my [Steward] and put you in command of all of Riverfarm. Under me, of course.”
He pauses for a long time in the snow. I think…no, I can’t tell what he’s thinking. But when Prost speaks, I can hear the wobble in his voice. The uncertainty, back again.
“I’m not worthy, sire. No—your majesty. Emperor Laken. I wouldn’t have imagined you were such a man, to be honest, but I can see it in you now. But sire, I know myself and I am not worthy of the class. I couldn’t be a [Steward], not a good one. I know that. You know that.”
I shake my head.
“No. You are not worthy. I agree with you on that, Mister Prost. However…none of us are. I need a [Steward], and you are the only person I can think who might fill that role. Gamel is too young, and I don’t know the others. But you? You are a man people trust. A man I think I can trust. And you have that one quality which makes me believe in you.”
He stares at me, hungry for an answer, words that can reassure him. I look into Prost’s eyes and open mine. Just for a moment. He flinches as he stares into my pupils, but he meets my gaze. And I speak from the heart.
“Change. I have seen you change. If you can change from a man who refused to accept that I could love a half-Troll, Durene, to a man who calls me [Emperor], then perhaps you can also become a man worthy of leading others. Because you must. You are needed, Prost Surehand. The village needs you. Your family needs you. I need you. Will you help me?”
For a long time he’s still. So long in fact that my eyes hurt and I have to close them. I’m not used to keeping them open. But I can still sense Prost there. At last he does speak.
“I’m not—but you know what. Milord, my [Emperor]…you say you need me. I…I’m humbled.”
There are tears in his voice and on his cheeks. They freeze in the cold. Prost bows towards me, deep.
“If you ask, I will do my best. I cannot promise…that is all I can do.”
“That is all I ask. In that case, Prost, kneel if you would.”
He goes to his knees in the snow. I reach out. There’s no grand pronouncement on my part, no long ceremony. I speak and it is done.
“You are my [Steward]. Manage my village Prost. Direct my people. I have faith in you.”
Tears fall into the snow. Prost stands.
“Will I gain the class tonight?”
“I think so.”
I have a suspicion. A hint. Prost wipes at his eyes and blows his nose on his sleeve. I smile, and bring him back into reality.
“Alright then. Let’s get to work.”
The moment passes. Prost and I head back to the village and we’re consumed by people. People, villagers with no idea what to do or what tomorrow holds. But they look towards me, and as Prost raises his voice and steps forwards, ordering the folks he knows around and dealing with minor squabbles, small complaints, they look towards him as well.
All in all, not a bad start.
The next day I’m nearly shaken to death as Durene seizes me out of my bed and rattles me around.
“Laken! Laken! You won’t believe what’s happened to Mister Prost! He gained a class! And—and lost his levels!”
“What? What? Stop shaking me, Durene! Put me down and tell me what’s happened.”
Having a half-Troll lover is a wonderful thing in many ways. But when she’s excited, Durene is fully capable of lifting me up like a kitten. And I, like kittens, do not take well to being shaken.
When I’m on the ground and sipping some tea, Durene spills the entire event to me, which everyone in the village has already heard of. Prost went to sleep late last night and heard himself get a new class—[Steward].
That doesn’t surprise me, although it’s similar to someone winning the lottery as far as the other villagers are concerned. This class makes Prost important, just as being an [Emperor] makes me important. After all, [Stewards] are hardly common. Well, not in this world. Airline stewards are hardly anything to write about…but I digress. The thing that makes me sit up and has Durene in more of a frenzy is the other thing that happened to Prost, though.
“He lost his levels! All of his levels in [Farmer] and [Builder]—and the one level he had in [Trader]! It’s all gone! And he leveled up eight times as a [Steward]! Can you believe it? Can you believe—oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to shake you again!”
When I’ve gotten the hot tea cleaned off of me, I get the fine details. Last night Prost lost all his [Farmer] levels, and he had been a Level 20 [Farmer], as well as the few levels he had in other classes. In exchange, he became a Level 8 [Steward] right off the bat.
No one in Riverfarm had ever experienced anything like it. I hadn’t either, but I knew what it was.
“It’s called class consolidation, Durene.”
“That’s what Prost said! I heard about it—like how a [Commander] could take the [Soldier] class and [Sergeant] class and turn it into one thing, but—all of Prost’s levels? They’re all gone and…he only gets eight?”
“I think it’s because all of his farming experience doesn’t transfer over into being a [Steward], Durene. It gives him some insights, but it is a sacrifice. Mind you, he can still farm and I think he’ll have some of his Skills or all of them still, but he’s got a new class now that supersedes his old ones.”
Durene is tearing at her hair, practically out of her mind with all these revelations. She paces around the cottage, and now she stops and stares at me.
“Wait, you knew that was going to happen, Laken? How?”
I smile mysteriously and tap at my lips.
“Let’s just say I had an inkling, Durene. As for the how…I’ll tell you later. How’s Prost taking the change? Never mind, let’s go find him. I’ll have breakfast in the village.”
We hurry out of her cottage. For once no one’s waiting to greet me—everyone’s too busy gawking at Prost. He’s at the center of attention in the village.
It seems his family, his two surviving daughters and wife regard his loss of levels as a terrible thing—but more than made up for by taking a ‘superior’ class. When everyone finds out that I’m the one behind Prost’s class, I think they might mob me, demanding how I did it and asking—hinting, rather—that they would love to be a [Lord] or [Knight] or so on. Prost has to assert his new class and Skills to restore order.
After a while, we get back to work. Prost has several valuable new Skills, all of which he confides in me and no one else. Chief among them are [Talent Finder], and [Eye of Need], which helps him find the people best suited for a task, whether they know it or not. He can also tell what we’re low on and what issues are most critical and require attention.
In short, he’s turned overnight from a [Farmer] into someone with the right skillset for what I need. The change in his class doesn’t change him as a person, but it’s terrifying to see how competent and sure of himself he became from me telling him he had a different class.
That knowledge and the knowledge that the advice I was given was right weighs on my mind for all of twenty minutes before the adventurers get my attention. Beniar and Odveig have apparently nominated Wiskeria to talk to me, perhaps because she’s the most well-spoken.
I don’t care, but it gives me an opportunity to get another measure of her as she delivers her report. The adventurers have traveled in every direction for quite a few miles thanks to the Windfrozen Rider’s mounts, and found any number of spots devastated by the avalanche, but few dangers to speak of.
“We uncovered what looks like a bear’s den in the hills, but there’s no other large animals or monsters nearby. We’ll keep an eye on it, but the bear should stay put until the spring. With your permission, we’ll range further afield and try to bring back some fresh meat.”
Wiskeria’s report is concise and to the point. She gives me her opinion that the village is safe from all but opportunistic scavenger animals—the occasional fox and squirrel—and the adventurers are already growing restless, looking for a challenge.
I give her full rein to have some of the adventurers hunt and others help with the village, and then bring up a topic more important to me.
“I hope you and the others weren’t too surprised by my, ah, class. I didn’t mean to keep it hidden, but the attention would have been troublesome in Invrisil. Are you surprised, Wiskeria?”
The [Witch] pauses for a moment before she replies.
“I am…amazed, your majesty. I hope my team has not offended you in any way. Odveig was worrying, and I think Beniar is afraid to speak with you.”
I listen to her voice. Wiskeria’s tone is straightforward, but there’s not as much stunned incredulity in her tone as there is in the other adventurers when I speak to them. I shake my head.
“I took no offense. But I hope your teams can be counted on to be a bit discreet?”
“Of course, sir. If you wish it, none of us will speak about your class.”
“And you haven’t already sent back word to Invrisil that I’m an [Emperor]?”
This time I sense Wiskeria hesitate. Aha.
“I don’t mind. Just please know that I’d prefer an unpleasant truth to a lie to my face.”
“Yes, your majesty. My deepest apologies.”
She bows her head and I feel uncomfortable. I cough.
“I imagine you have some questions about why I choose to settle in Riverfarm. And who I am, I suppose.”
“A…few. Would you indulge me, sire?”
She’s looking at me. I smile again.
“I’m afraid that whatever questions you have will have to wait, Wiskeria. However, I do want to talk with you soon about what I’m doing here and what the Celestial Trackers and the Windfrozen Riders might gain from staying here longer.”
A pause. Then Wiskeria’s voice.
“You want us to stay here. To become your subjects.”
She’s sharp. I cover my reaction with a delicate nod.
“It’s an offer I’m thinking of. I’m not asking you to decide right away. And if you think it would bother the others, by all means wait before telling them. I’d just like you to watch what’s going on here. And then decide.”
I left Wiskeria with that. I can’t force her to do anything, and there’s so much I have to do. I’ll show her what Riverfarm could be by doing. And learn more about her too. But what was it I was told? Ah, yes. An empire is built upon the strength of its subjects. I need more than Riverfarm’s villagers if I want to create someplace safe.
It really was good advice I got.
I was in the center of the village, going over plans for the new village with Prost when it happened. The bear that the Celestial Trackers had found woke up. It may have been hungry, or perhaps the avalanche changed whatever internal clock it was using for hibernation. Maybe it was just pissed off, but the results were the same.
The bear came down into the village. That might not sound like much, but I think anyone who’s ever seen a bear up close would understand.
“Get to safety!”
“Dead gods, look at the size of it! It’s not a bear! It’s a Mossbear!”
“Get around it! Wiskeria, cast a spell! Someone get me my horse!”
Adventurers scatter and horns blow as the scouts on the perimeter sight the bear and raise the alarm. The bear, or rather Mossbear might have just woken up, but it charges into the village with incredible speed.
From my position in the center of the village, I can sense the villagers rushing away from the bear. Prost is busy shouting for people to retreat to the barn as adventurers try to form up. Some charge the bear and strike at it from the side. It turns, knocks a girl with a sword across the ground with a single paw and roars as an arrow bounces off of its fur.
I can ‘see’ the bear’s form as it scatters the adventurers. It is easily three times as large as the biggest warrior here, and it looks like a tank made out of fur and muscle. Its coming right in my direction, too, towards where all the food in the barn is kept—and all the people.
“Fire! I mean, loose the arrows and get me a fire spell!”
“It’s not working! It’s too wet and the fur is too thick!”
Adventurers are loosing arrows at the bear and I can see Beniar running for his horse. But the problem is that a bear of this size is a huge armored target with all of its fur. Wiskeria scorches it with a spell and another adventurer mage hurls shards of stone at it—the bear just roars and keeps coming.
Towards me. At some point I realize I should run, but it is far too late. The bear is moving across the ground faster than I can run. I look around, searching for somewhere to hide where it can’t reach me. Then a huge figure slams into the bear from the side. I hear a roar almost as bestial as the bear and see Durene.
I’d forgotten how tall Durene is, and how large. She towers over the other adventurers as she grabs the bear, punches it, and sends it reeling backwards. One of the adventurers lashes at the bear’s side with a sword, barely cutting into it, but a second punch from Durene makes the bear back up.
It rises on two legs and tries to slam its entire weight on Durene. She grabs a paw and head-butts it. The bear grows, tries to bite Durene’s neck, and then claws her as she dodges.
Its claws are sharp, and they cut into her arm. Durene cries out and I sense blood hitting the ground. But she doesn’t fall back. She raises a fist as Beniar races towards the bear. It’s growling, and I know how dangerous bears can be. I don’t realize I’m running forwards until the bear is right in front of me.
My voice is a shout, and I can feel the command in my tone strike the bear. And everyone else as well. Durene, Beniar—his horse slows and the world pauses around me. The bear stops too. It stares at me, making a faint noise that’s half warning, half inquisitive.
I stare at the bear, quivering as I sense how huge it is. Durene’s got a handful of its fur, but it looks like it could savage her in a moment if it gets the upper hand. How would the adventurers kill it? It would be a terrible battle and there are too many innocents around. I stare at the bear.
It’s starting to move. My command only works for a moment. And the bear is hurt now, angry. It growls at me and I see Durene take a firmer grip on it. Her fist is clenched. She’s unarmed. My [Paladin]. Why haven’t I gotten her a weapon?
This is my battle as much as hers. I stare at the bear. And then I open my eyes. I stare, sightless, at the huge bear. I can feel an…intensity in my gaze. Something stronger, frightening. A Skill. [Intimidating Glare].
“Begone. Go back to your home. Leave my subjects alone.”
The bear whines. It’s not aggressive. I stare at it, forcing myself to keep up the intensity, project my will. It’s a battle of wills. I’m a [Beast Tamer] in this moment and an [Emperor]. I tell the bear that I am not food. My village is not food. I speak to it.
And it obeys. The bear twists and Durene lets go. It slowly begins to lope out of the village, into the forest. Adventurers hurriedly make way.
“I’ll take a force and go after it!”
Beniar is the first to recover. He gestures at the others and I stop him.
“No. Don’t antagonize it. That bear could kill some of you—leave it be for now. I don’t think it’s coming back.”
He hesitates, and then bows his head towards me. I stumble backwards, and someone catches me.
“You scared me to death! Don’t do that! What if you’d gotten hurt?”
“You did get hurt!”
I reach towards Durene as she cradles me in her arms. I know she’s wounded. I can feel the blood and hear her beating heart. Durene grunts as she puts a hand over the gashes on her arm. I feel anxiously at them. They’re not thick, but I demand a healing potion for Durene, despite her objections.
Gamel rushes towards me with a potion. Odveig and Wiskeria approach with deepest apologies and explanation for why the bear could have woken up so suddenly. I calm everyone down, assure the adventurers I’m not angry, talk with them about safeguards, have a watch posted on the cave, and life resumes.
It’s moments like that which break up the day and make you realize how special life is. Which is why Durene and I retired to my cottage for a few hours.
Ahem. Afterwards, I ponder the encounter with the bear as Durene lies beside me in bed. It was startling and frightening to me more than the others for one reason.
I hadn’t sensed it coming. Oh, I’d known the instant the bear entered the village’s radius, but the adventurers had already raised the alarm. I hadn’t known the bear was coming. If I didn’t sense that, what else might happen that I’m unaware of?
The bear. It’s apparently a Mossbear, a subspecies of the regular bear group that’s bigger and tougher than usual. Magic plus biology comes up with some scary stuff. Although Mothbears are even more feared. Mothbears. What would one of those look…? Never mind.
I can’t tell where it lives. It’s outside of the village’s range, as are the new houses we’re trying to build. That’s a problem. Knowing what’s around me is essential. I can sense the entire village and when someone gets hurt I can tell at once.
Like when one of Gamel’s friends slipped and nearly cut his hand off while trying to cut through a broken beam in one of the houses. I shouted and got a healing potion to him in time. If we’re making a new village, no, if we’re going to keep this village safe, I need to be able to ‘see’ more.
Which means I need to expand my claim on the lands around. The problem is, the area around Riverfarm is wilderness, forest, open ground, rivers…no one owns it and I can’t just say that’s mine. I tried, and it doesn’t work.
I have to do something about that. But maybe later. I lie down next to Durene, my head’s spinning with ideas and thoughts. Safety is a relative thing. It can leave you at any moment. But I’m very grateful I hired the Silver-rank adventurers. They could kill the bear if they had to, despite its size. And Durene’s here. She wrestled the bear.
The village has its guardians. What would happen without them? The next day…I find an answer to that question.
The Windfrozen Riders picked up the man on the horse at the road and brought him to Riverfarm. By the time he arrives, looking frozen and practically tumbling off of his saddle, I’m there with Prost, Gamel, Durene, and a hot mug and food for him.
He eats like a beast and nearly weeps when he tastes the hot sausage. He does weep when he takes in Riverfarm and hears about the avalanche. I see him hugging Prost and crying into the man’s shoulder.
Apparently this man is named Helm, and he’s a [Blacksmith] from another village nearby. Well, nearby is a relative term. His village is a good fourteen miles east of here, located by a big prairie. It is called Windrest, and it is burning.
Mister Helm practically throws himself at my feet when he hears who I am. I have to make him sit, and he keeps bowing his head as he explains what’s going on.
“Goblins, milord. There are Goblins attacking every village from here to Mafalt. Raiding parties. They say there’s a Great Chieftain of the Goblins who’s rising in support of the Goblin Lord. They attacked our village—we have nowhere to go.”
I listen in grave silence with the other adventurers. A group of around sixty Goblins had hit Windrest last night. They’d slaughtered a dozen people and torched a few buildings, but what they were after were the animals and winter stores the people had. They made off with two thirds of the village’s goods and a lot of their supplies—and two young women. The villagers had sent word to the nearest town and received assurances that adventurers would be sent out. But the village as it was right now was practically helpless.
They didn’t have coin to hire protection. And they were terrified the Goblins or some other monsters might come back. With nowhere to turn, they’d sent Helm and others to look for aid. They needed food for the winter, someone to protect them…Helm had despaired at the task as he’d ridden from hamlet to village, until he’d come here.
He knew Riverfarm, and when he hears there are two Silver-rank teams guarding the place, his eyes nearly pop out of his head. When he hears I’m an [Emperor], Helm gets down on his knees in the snow and muck.
“Sire, we’ve nothing to offer you. But Windrest will perish as sure as I’m speaking if the Goblins come back. If you could spare your adventurers to guard us, give us just a bit that we might live, I swear we’ll repay you!”
“You can’t ask Emperor Laken for that!”
Prost is outraged. He speaks up before I can calm him down, addressing me as much as Helm.
“Take away our protection? We’ve barely enough food for ourselves! If we spared the grain and meat to keep your village alive, we’d be stabbing ourselves in the back!”
“We can’t live, Prost. Not with what we have. We’re this close to selling what we own and going to the nearest town to become [Beggars], the lot of us.”
Helm turns his ashen face towards Prost, looking wretched. He knows he’s asking, but he has to ask. A small village that suffers this kind of raid in the winter…I understand.
But still, I can’t give him either adventuring team. Goblins. If they hit Windrest, they will come to Riverfarm. I know it and feel a chill. But the people…
What would anyone do? I look at Helm and know there is only one thing I can say. Prost is looking at me with pain in his eyes. I glance at him, and nod.
“Bring your people here, Mister Helm.”
The [Blacksmith] looks up, eyes widening. I look around at the other villagers, at the adventurers, at Laken and Durene. I nod at Prost.
“We might not have enough food for all of us at the moment. We don’t have much room, but we do have people who can protect everyone. I’ll do something about food if it comes to it. But I will not let your people die if I can help it.”
“Thank you, your majesty! Thank you! We’ll never forget it!”
Helm tries to kiss my hands. I order him to get some hot food in him and tell him I’ll send an escort to Windrest. When the man is eating a second meal—he looks half-starved—I glance over at Prost.
He looks worried. Mister Prost meets my eyes, a thousand unspoken problems at the tip of his tongue. I understand. But I can’t address his fears now. That’s not what I need to say. Not in this moment. I glance around as I see every eye in the village fixed on me and smile slightly. I nod at my [Steward].
“Mister Prost, I think we’re going to need a lot more houses.”