I dreamed I was sleeping in my bed, with worried voices speaking loudly overhead. I couldn’t tell who had trespassed here, only that they had come in secret and stood around me, speaking anxiously and quickly. As I was dreaming I missed most of what was said, but I knew it was important. I tried to remember, to grasp the words as they flitted by, but like memory and water they flowed away, leaving me only with an impression. Snippets of a conversation.
“Is it time…?”
“I don’t think so.”
“….we’re early. We….here!”
“And…! …okay? Remember!”
And then I woke up.
As dreams went, it wasn’t the worst I’ve had by far. Not the best either—it was mainly confusing. I’ve had good dreams and bad dreams aplenty. Of course, I don’t remember most of them and I never ‘see’ dreams.
Because of course, I’m blind. Hello, I’m Laken Godart, [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire. Protector of Durene’s Cottage, sovereign of the village of Riverfarm, Windrest, Tunslaven, Kiquel…and so on.
I’ve got a lot of titles. A lot of power. And yet, it feels like only yesterday that I was a normal young man walking around in San Francisco. Forever ago and yesterday. Strange—I sometimes forget what my friends’ voices sound like. There are so many around me each day, asking me questions.
“Laken, do you want eggs on your uh, weird potatoes, bacon and onions?”
Sometimes the questions are good questions and come from people you love. Nevertheless I roll my eyes as I get up.
“No eggs for me. And it’s call bratkartoffeln, Durene. Honestly, I keep telling you. How hard is it to remember?”
“Hey! I try, but—oh, you’re joking.”
I smile to myself at the sound of Durene’s voice. I can tell she’s in the kitchen, delicately stirring the fried potatoes with a long-handled spoon. She transfers the hot food to a plate and comes to sit by me as I dress and move towards the small table in her cottage. I have a chair—she uses the floor. We’re still pretty much on the same level because she’s a good bit taller than me. Bigger, too.
She’s half-Troll. And a [Paladin]. It’s a long story. I eat breakfast happily with Durene, talking about the day until a loud squawk interrupts us. A large and, apparently, blue bird is making a racket. She smells breakfast and wants in.
“Shut up, Frostwing.”
I toss some bacon at her and sense her catch the bit of meat and worry at it. Placated for a few moments, I turn back to Durene and keep eating. It’s wonderful to be able to sense where every part of your meal is on your plate. It’s what I always imagined sight to be like, but better, since I can sense everything in my domain. And that means I can sense everything from Durene scratching her leg to Frostwing behind me, to the Mossbear snuffling around our front door—
“Um, Durene. He’s back.”
Durene gets up and I sense her opening the door. Feel it too—it’s no longer cold and the breeze actually feels quite nice. Spring is finally here. Durene shouts at the large bear outside.
“Go on, shoo! I’ll feed you breakfast later!”
The bear whuffs and I raise my voice.
“Bismarck—heh. Bismarck, go on, leave the door alone!”
I snort a bit as the bear obediently backs away. Yes, I named the bear Bismarck. I think it’s funny and it needed a name. Especially because it’s now my pet. Or something.
[Lesser Bond: Bismarck]. I received it yesterday after I finally came up with a name for him. Bismarck was just called ‘Unnamed Mossbear’ before that. Apparently I tamed him by feeding him and having him fight in a battle alongside my people. Now he lets me ride him, hangs around the cottage for food and in general pesters Durene.
“Shoo! I’ll give you potatoes later! And don’t you dare dig up my garden! It’s all growing, understand? Leave my plants alone!”
Possibly only Durene could push a bear off her property. She’s actually stronger than the Mossbear, and the Mossbear’s bigger and tougher than normal bears to boot. Durene chalks it up to her [Enhanced Strength] and her other new Skills, but I wonder. Trolls are said to be extremely strong and tough, but they can’t gain classes or level.
As a half-Troll Durene seems to have the benefits of both her Human and Troll heritage. Not that it helped her before she met me. She was an outcast, barely tolerated by the village. Only when I became an [Emperor] did everything change.
“Oh, how much it changed.”
I mutter to myself as I stroke Frostwing’s head. My lovely, stupid bird snaps at the meat I offer her.
“Soon you’re going to have to hunt for yourself. You can fly, and it’s a waste of good meat to keep feeding you cow and pig. How do you feel about rats?”
She poops in her nest. I sigh. Animals, Durene…what else? Well, there’s the young man waiting patiently outside the gate. I keep telling him not to do that, but Gamel is my [Knight] and seems to believe I should be attended at all times. Since the villagers agree with him, it’s hard to tell him to stop. Plus, it is convenient.
Time to start my day! I stride outside as Durene, grumbling, chucks potatoes at Bismarck. Apparently bears can eat potatoes and he chases after a spud as I walk past. I wonder if this is what it’s like having a dog?
“Good morning, Gamel.”
Gamel bows. Quite smoothly too. He must have been practicing. I nod at him and square my shoulders.
“Time to start the day. Durene, I’m heading into the village.”
“Wait for me! I just have to—no, Bismarck, there are no more potatoes! Go eat some berries!”
Disappointed, the Mossbear ambles out of the cottage gates as Durene hurries into her cottage. I sense Bismarck heading into the forest now that breakfast has been served. He’ll scavenge for food until dinner or when I call him. I’m fine with that. I know some people would prefer me to ride him around everywhere but I like walking and Bismarck is not that comfortable to ride.
“I wonder if someone can make a saddle for him.”
“The bear, sire? I will ask Mister Prost about it right away!”
I grimace and wave a hand. This is the problem with being an [Emperor]. Everyone takes my words as a command. And that can be a big problem.
“We have more important things to do than waste time with saddles for bears, Gamel. Maybe once we finish construction and get everyone settled.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
I wait until Durene comes out of the cottage. She’s got a greatsword and she’s tying it to her belt. It’s old and she doesn’t have a sheath—the greatsword is made of iron, not steel. Even so, she’s killed two Hobs with it and a score of Goblins.
Durene, my [Paladin], and Gamel, my [Knight]. Their lives were shaped by me. I saved Gamel’s life. Kept him alive when he was dying. I ordered him to live and he lived. He has never told me whether he resents that order.
The cottage that we leave behind is mine. The dirt road that we walk down is mine. The village we enter is mine, as are all the people inside. I claimed it. I claimed the land around here, marked it with totems proclaiming the borders of my empire. So I can ‘see’ the entire area around the village if I concentrate. I can sense the hundreds, no, over a thousand people in this area alone busy at work this early in the morning.
I sense houses going up, people carting timber to the areas under construction, the [Farmers] hard at work to the north in the new fields, the [Blacksmiths] at their forges, working to produce nails and hinges and so on for the construction. Riverfarm was a small village of just over a hundred people. Now it is turning into a city.
There’s a method to the chaos. It might seem chaotic at ground level—I wouldn’t know. The babble of voices greeting me, the sounds of horses and people shouting at each other is confusing for a blind man. But I can view the village from above and get a very reliable idea of how things are laid out.
“Good, we’re still on track. Gamel, is Prost supervising the building?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“We’ll go see him, then. Durene?”
“I’m going to help carry stuff, Laken.”
“I’ll see you later, then.”
I part ways with Durene, knowing she’ll be carrying trees around and helping people lift things too heavy to carry without a team. I’d like to stay with her, but I have my duties too. I am an [Emperor], and my job is to oversee…this.
An empire. Or the beginnings of one. It’s small, and by small, I mean that it only has a few thousand people in it, but that’s a frightening number of people to house, feed, and protect every day. They’re all villagers, the people of Riverfarm, Windrest—villages that were raided by Goblins. Oh, and a town. The town of Trottvisk declared itself part of the Unseen Empire just the other day. It happens.
So much to do. I wouldn’t know where to start—but I have some advantages. My Skills as an [Emperor], my knowledge from Earth, my home, and my counselors. I might not know how to take care of so many people myself, but if there’s one thing I know from Earth, it’s that delegation is key.
In fact, my coming from another world is probably my biggest asset. One day I just appeared in this world. And while all the scientific knowledge in the world wouldn’t protect me from monsters or starving to death by myself, it does help when I’m a leader of a large group of people. One of the things I brought from my world to this one was the idea of sanitation.
Obviously, people didn’t eat everything with dirty hands in this world before I came along, but they didn’t consider washing hands essential and they sometimes built their outhouses and latrines way too close to the water.
That’s changed now. I walk towards a man directing people to dig the latest public outhouses away from the river that gives Riverfarm its name. He stops, turns to me, and bows the instant he notices I’m here.
“Emperor Laken, sir!”
Prost, my [Steward] has also changed markedly since I first met him. He was a [Farmer] who barely tolerated Durene and couldn’t accept that she and I were living under the same roof. Now he’s my right-hand man who oversees construction, settles minor disputes, coordinates things like food, housing—all the things I’m bad at. I nod to him.
“Mister Prost, how are we doing today?”
“Another four houses built since you last visited, sire!”
“Four? But I was here last night!”
Prost beams. I can sense it and hear it in his voice.
“Yes, your majesty. But we had a night team working and they’re quick! Don’t fear that people minded the hammering—we sleep like rocks unless there’s an alarm called!”
I have to shake my head. Another of my Skills is [Blessing of the Hearth], which allows people a comfortable night’s sleep even if they’re lying on the floor. I had no idea it could be used this way, but that’s the thing about leading, or so I’ve learned. It’s about combining multiple perspectives to achieve the best result.
“Well, carry on Mister Prost. I just wanted to see if there were any new developments.”
“In the construction? No, sire. We’ve been keeping to the directions you gave—it’s very simple to understand!”
“Is it? Good, good.”
My directions. As I said, I can see the entire village and my empire with a bird’s eye view. That means I’m uniquely able to visualize the layout of the buildings in my head and organize it as best I can. However, there’s a lot to take in.
“Just let me know if you see any issues arising regarding wells, proximity to the outhouses and so on. We want everything within reach and I’d hate to know that we didn’t build a large enough road or something.”
“Yes, sire. Don’t worry, I’ve talked it over with the other [Village Heads] and [Farmers] and so on. They all agree your plan for the city is sound.”
One of Prost’s new talents aside from all his organizational skills seems to be reassuring me. I leave him to it. The village does look good in my head. I tried to copy it over as best I could to a map, but sadly I still can’t read books with my [Emperor] senses. I had to describe it and trust that everyone understood what I was talking about.
Creating a village. Planning it out with access to water, food, keeping houses away from [Blacksmiths] who are noisy, and organizing a central road that splits off into smaller paths—it would be a challenge for an [Architect], and I have absolutely no training in this area. However, I did my best. In fact, coming up with a design for my new empire reminded me a lot of video games—or rather, what I imagine video games are like.
It’s hard to play a lot of games when you’re blind. Board games sort of work, but anything with a strong visual component? No thanks. I did have friends who told me what it was like, though. The friend I was hanging out in San Francisco with, Zoe, she told me about a game. Age of Empires II or something. She described it like this, where you direct people around, lay out your kingdom, and defend it from enemies.
In my head, I’m thinking of where monsters or bandits might come from, how we’re going to expand—because we will expand, I’m sure of it—the placement of other villages, and of course, how to patrol the entire area I’ve claimed to keep it safe. I get headaches just thinking of all the problems. And people do this for fun?
“Gamel, I think I’ll look at our crops today. I see Wiskeria and our guest are near the farms so we’ll visit her on the way.”
“Very good, sire.”
Though Prost is my [Steward], I’ve assigned him to worrying about construction and farming for the most part, which he knows the most about. However, I have two other people I regard as my counselors. I go to meet both of them now. They’re standing near the farms, talking with their own crowds of people.
One is a woman on horseback with a pointed hat and spectacles, overseeing the deployment of armed men and women. The other is a woman wearing a dress, out of place among the more simply dressed folk. But she is also in the thick of things, speaking eloquently as people bow to her and hurry off.
“Lady Rie, Wiskeria.”
I greet them as I approach. The two women break off immediately and come to me. Rie curtsies and Wiskeria dismounts to bow slightly. Wiskeria is a [Witch] and my [General] tasked with defending my empire. Lady Rie is a [Lady], formerly the landowner of some of the villages and towns around here.
After Goblins attacked her mansion, Lady Rie pledged herself to my service. I was the one who led an army to save her, but I was surprised by her request to become my vassal. It’s been three days since she came to Riverfarm and she’s already assisted in numerous ways.
“Good morning, Emperor Laken.”
The two greet me, Rie formally, Wiskeria informally. I nod to Wiskeria and incline my head to Lady Rie. There is a difference and according her the status of her rank is important. Lady Rie is good with people. She is a [Lady] after all, and as the last member of the Valerund family she knows how to organize and settle disputes.
“Lady Rie, thank you for your help. May I ask if there are any new developments?”
“None worth speaking of, Emperor Laken. However, I urge you once again to entertain the notion of an audience with some of the local nobility. I could arrange the meetings quite easily.”
I grimace and cut the motion short. Lady Rie has been floating the idea past me for the last few days.
“I understand your desire Lady Rie, but I have no desire to enter the political world just yet.”
“I fear it is far too late for that, your majesty. Your presence alone is significant, and I worry that the other nobles will take your expanding empire as a sign of…”
Rie hesitates delicately. I fill in the gap for her.
She shifts ever so slightly.
“Perhaps. Which is why an audience may allay their worries. I have no doubt the other [Lords] and [Ladies] who own lands in the area have already investigated your presence, your majesty. They will be cautious, some afraid—but the truth is that there is a surplus of lands and not enough of the aristocracy to manage the land. Your presence may be quite beneficial so long as the other nobles are assured that their lands will not be encroached upon. And you are needed. Many villages lack a local [Lord] or [Lady].”
“Is that a bad thing?”
The practice of landowning seems medieval to me—not the act of owning land, that’s as common as landlords, but the idea of owning everything on a piece of land, including the people. I don’t see why anyone would want that, but Lady Rie seems surprised by my question.
“Having a [Lord] is quite beneficial, Emperor Laken. Some would consider a village or town not protected by some kind of landowner to be very dangerous indeed, or at the least, troublesome.”
Wiskeria stands patiently to one side, listening, and I sense the crowds of people either moving away on business or waiting for me to finish. I feel as though I’m interrupting important work, but I am the [Emperor]. Teaching me important facts is quite necessary if I’m to lead well. Rie explains as I stand patiently with Gamel behind me.
“When my family was alive we managed a huge area of land. It is not simply protection we offer, but justice. We enforced laws, settled disputes, collected taxes, and dealt with disasters and monster attacks as they emerged—ruled in short. Each [Lord] is a [King] of his own domain, or so it is said.”
“I see. And there’s a lack of nobility in the area?”
“The Second Antinium War was…devastating to put it mildly. Many of the aristocracy lost their lives defending their homes from the Goblin King. As such, there are many unattended lands that lack any local ruler.”
“I see. Well, if it will reassure the other [Lords] and [Ladies], I suppose I could consider an audience. But on the same note Lady Rie, would you prefer to stay elsewhere? I know Riverfarm’s accommodations are less than what someone of your station might expect. Several of the local cities and towns have offered to give you their finest lodging.”
I float the idea by Lady Rie, wondering if she’ll bite. She declined the offer the first time I made it, but will she have changed her mind in the three days she’s been here? Lady Rie shakes her head instantly, and then recalls that I’m blind.
“I am quite content here, Emperor Laken. I would like to see my home restored to me—but so long as the Goblin threat persists, I do not believe I would be safe anywhere but here. As to staying in a city or nearby town—if you will allow me to say so, I see greater opportunity in making myself useful to you here, your majesty. If you will permit me to stay, I would do so gladly.”
“I won’t turn away aid, and I do consider you quite invaluable, Lady Rie. Your people are quite helpful as well. Although as I recall, your man—Geram?—was insistent on staying by your side.”
Adamant, in fact. He didn’t say so around me, but I got word of the argument through Prost. All of Lady Rie’s servants follow after her and treat me with the utmost respect, but it can’t be normal having an [Emperor] pop up all of a sudden. Rie’s voice is apologetic.
“Do forgive him, sire. He worries for my safety, but I assured him I was quite safe in the village.”
“I quite understand. I believe he will be quite an asset to Wiskeria’s army.”
Geram is one of Lady Rie’s more notable servants. He’s a huge bald man who fights with his fists. He’s apparently a former [Street Brawler] of some renown—an odd choice for a captain of the guard for a [Lady], but he does seem tough. He took down several Hobs himself while defending Rie’s mansion. I wonder if he’s romantically involved with Lady Rie, or the other one, Nesor, her [Mage] is. He’s a young man with a lot of anxiety and isn’t the best [Mage], but I’ll take any magic-users I can get.
“I’m grateful for all the soldiers I can get, Lady Rie. On that note—Wiskeria, how goes training the army?”
Wiskeria steps forwards smoothly. She’s in charge of defense, which is a lot simpler since I can tell if anything enters my lands. Wiskeria can send out a patrol to deal with most problems at once, which is why she devotes most of her time to actually creating an army to fight with.
We have a small core of adventurers and retired [Warriors] and so on, but I’ve had to rely on other towns and cities by using another Skill – [Imperial Levy]. I can request their soldiers to fight if a huge group of monsters or bandits come along, but I’d prefer to have a force at my disposal. Wiskeria’s been working in that area, but training [Soldiers] up from scratch is hard.
“We have a number of recruits interested in fighting, Emperor Laken. I suspect we’ll have less after the rigorous daily training, but then again, perhaps not. They are quite dedicated. However, we do have an issue.”
“There’s not enough weapons to train all the potential recruits, and many skilled workers—[Bakers], [Carpenters], and so on—don’t have the tools or space to ply their trade.”
“That was my observation as well. Too many villages fled without packing their supplies and lost them to Goblins or thieves.”
Lady Rie sighs. I nod. The Unseen Empire is comprised mainly of villagers who fled their homes and as such it lacks most of everything.
“I’m aware of the problem, Wiskeria, but I consider getting a roof over everyone’s head the first priority. Most of the villagers are still sleeping in barns—that can’t last forever. If they’re not training, send your soldiers to help with everyone else. That goes for our experienced craftspeople, Lady Rie. We have a lot of hands. Anyone can help lift or hammer nails, or help make rope and so on. We’ll use that to get everyone housed quickly, and then focus on specialized buildings and tools. Our [Blacksmiths] can only work so fast and I need them making nails before swords.”
Wiskeria nods reluctantly, but Lady Rie clears her throat softly.
“We may be able to procure some arms and tools without needing to forge them ourselves, Emperor Laken. If you will allow me to make a few inquiries, I believe I could obtain a good deal of supplies at a cheap price.”
“From the other cities?”
“Indeed. I could put in an order to Invrisil and further cities abroad as well. The transportation fee would be somewhat steep, but it would allow General Wiskeria and other craftspeople to begin working sooner. If you consider it wise? We have enough money.”
I shift uncomfortably.
“It is your money after all, Lady Rie.”
Perhaps it’s my Skill – [King’s Bounty]. Or perhaps it’s just how things worked out. But Lady Rie’s fortune is now part of the Unseen Empire. She told me it was mine to use and I reluctantly accepted it. That money could buy a lot of tools—I just wonder how I’ll repay Lady Rie.
I’ll think about it later. And Lady Rie seems to regard it as an investment.
“Consider it a gift for saving my life, Emperor. Very well, I will send a few [Message] spells with Nesor’s help. If you will excuse me.”
She bows slightly and moves away. She’s graceful, intelligent, and extremely helpful. I can’t help but think that I lucked out in having her pledge her loyalty to me. I wait until she’s out of earshot to speak quietly to Wiskeria.
“You’ve been watching her?”
“Yes, Emperor. She’s done nothing out of the ordinary. She uses her personal mage to send [Message] spells, but her people have settled in well. Fairly well. The [Servants] were arrogant until Prost settled them down and I believe Lady Rie had a word with them.”
“Sounds good. But keep a discreet eye on her. I will too. In my own way.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
Saving Lady Rie was an easy decision. Accepting her as my vassal…well, I didn’t have any reason to refuse. She’s competent, in need of a home, and knowledgeable on things like politics and trade, something neither Wiskeria nor Prost know that well. I haven’t had any reason to doubt her and neither has Wiskeria.
However, after Odveig, neither of us are quite so trusting. Lady Rie seems perfectly willing to put herself behind me with coin as well as her help. Maybe she’s grateful. Or perhaps she thinks I’m a rising star and wants to secure as much influence as possible. I’m fine with either option, but I do worry.
“All’s quiet so far?”
“You would know that better than I, Emperor.”
Wiskeria’s voice is a little less formal without anyone else to hear. She treats me more like a person than Prost or Rie or anyone else besides Durene, which I’m grateful for. I smile.
“True, but I do worry. It might be my senses can’t detect hidden threats or…well, it puts my mind at ease to know your people are patrolling.”
“Of course, sir. I think it reassures the other towns and cities too. But I have only a limited number of warriors at my disposal and I prefer to keep most of them here in case you sense anything.”
“Right. Speaking of sensing—Beniar’s riders dispatched the [Bandit] group on the western road.”
“Ah. Any casualties?”
“None. They took them out in the middle of the night.”
I relay the news to Wiskeria with the utmost certainty despite Beniar being over fifteen miles south east of here. I sensed him attack the [Bandits]. I felt it. It was almost like I was there.
Darkness. The night is pitch-black, so dark that the distant stars and obscured moon do little to provide light. It’s so dark that the few lazy sentries outside of the camp of [Bandits] can’t see much. And why should they worry anyways? They’re hidden well off the road, far from any settlements. They can hide and strike at people on the roads at their leisure.
Or so they think. But galloping hooves break the night’s silence. I imagine the sound of galloping, anyways. I can’t hear, only sense. What I do sense is the [Bandits] on watch looking up in sudden alarm. They reach for their weapons, peer into the darkness. One goes to rouse the others.
Too late. The first rider appears out of the darkness like a ghost. He rides down on a sentry who screams once—the sword takes him in the chest and he falls. Beniar, my [Cataphract] and [Captain], turns his mount and more riders appear out of the darkness behind him. They charge the sentries and into the camp of bandits.
The ragged men and women are ready for a fight. What they’re not ready for is for Beniar to scatter their torches and campfires, plunging them into darkness. Again, I have to imagine the shadows flickering and the riders streaming through the camp. I don’t have a problem with seeing since the images in my head aren’t really visual.
I sense Beniar and his [Riders] cutting the confused [Bandits] down as they flail at shadows. My riders have no problem seeing in the darkness, and as they cut down the last of the [Bandits] they cheer. I roll over in my bed miles away and go to sleep at last, relieved.
[Blacksky Riders]. That’s the name of the last of my new Skills. After the battle at Lady Rie’s mansion I gained a new Skill that allows my soldiers to become, well, terrors of the night. It was hard for me to figure out what my Skill did at first, but after one exciting night it all became clear.
My Skill allows a group of chosen riders to see in the night. Not only that—the effect extends to their mounts and lets them dampen the light when they so choose. Thanks to that, Beniar’s group of mounted warriors have become night ambushers who can attack in the darkness with ease. It’s a powerful Skill and has already led to rumors that the people of my empire don’t need eyes to see.
Just like their [Emperor]. I was relieved that none of the riders were hurt, though, and Wiskeria seems equally relieved. Losing just one soldier or horse is dangerous.
“Beniar should be on his way back. I think he’ll arrive after midday, but I’d like to put a [Mage] with his group. Someone who can send and receive [Message] spells.”
“I agree. Unfortunately, that young [Mage] that Lady Rie employs can neither ride nor send [Message] spells reliably. There are artifacts that can do the same, but they are quite expensive.”
“More problems. We’ll put that on our list until later, Wiskeria. At least I can tell where everyone is. But keeping the lines of communication open is one of the key principles of war. I think I read that somewhere.”
“Hm. I agree. But aside from Lady Rie’s personal artifacts we have nothing of our own. And I would rather buy more swords and bows and so forth than purchase a single artifact.”
“They’re that expensive?”
“Oh yes. On that note, may I speak with you about the crops your [Farmers] are growing? Food is essential I know, but they could easily devote a few fields to growing some crops that [Alchemists] would buy. Or a few varieties of mushrooms? I’m familiar with what sells well and I could obtain some seed samples with enough coin…”
“You have my attention.”
The work never ends. There’s always something to do, which isn’t bad, but it means that I always feel like there’s more I could be doing rather than taking a break. I’m sure that’s unhealthy, but I have energy and it’s not like I’m running about. Just talking and listening.
In any case, the rest of my day is devoted to managing things with Wiskeria. She’s quite sharp despite only having been a Silver-rank adventurer before I made her into a [General], and I value her insight. We spend an entire day talking about how to use Beniar’s riders most effectively and hunting without depleting animal populations. It feels slightly wrong that I can tell where every deer herd is, but I have to keep my people fed. I work and then I go to sleep with Durene in the cottage.
It’s another day in the life of Emperor Laken. That is, until Nesor wakes up screaming and rouses the entire village.
Zel Shivertail is dead. The army raised by Magnolia Reinhart at Invrisil has been defeated. The Goblin Lord is marching towards the city, only a few days away from this area. And like that, I’m facing another crisis. The same crisis I’ve always had to face, in fact. The enemy that has defined Riverfarm’s struggle, the nemesis of the Unseen Empire in my mind.
“Nesor, calm down and give me answers. How badly was Magnolia Reinhart’s army defeated? How did General Shivertail die? Where is the Goblin Lord’s army headed?”
It’s early morning. Rie, Prost, Wiskeria, and I are all standing in the large cottage assigned solely to Lady Rie. Nesor, a young man who failed to graduate from Wistram is sitting at a table, face pale, hands shaking. He’s stuttering, barely able to speak.
“I—I just got a message Lady Rie. It said General Shivertail was dead and the Goblin Lord had won! It was a warning to all the nobility in the area so I got it—”
He shudders. I look at Wiskeria. She has an impatient look on her face, the same one I’m trying to suppress.
“You can’t send [Message] spells, can you, Wiskeria?”
“I never learned. That kind of magic is more difficult for my class.”
“Nesor, calm down.”
Lady Rie is soothing Nesor. She looks at me apologetically.
“I apologize, Emperor. Nesor, send a [Message] spell back to—oh, First Landing? It must be chaos in Invrisil right now and I don’t know that we’ll get a quick response. This might take a while.”
I nod and step out of the house with Prost and Wiskeria. I turn to them and see the same worry and fear in their eyes that I’m feeling. Only they’re looking to me for help. I can see lights in the houses nearby and a lot of people are standing in the streets, looking worried. Time to do my [Emperor] thing.
“Okay. Prost, calm everyone down. Don’t mention specifics, but let people know there are Goblins near Invrisil and—leave it at that. Tell them there will be an announcement later and that we are still waiting for details.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
Prost hurries off. I turn to Wiskeria and drew her aside.
“Wiskeria, explain what Nesor said to me.”
“All of it. I know the Goblin Lord was marching north, but who’s General Shivertail?”
Wiskeria’s voice is surprised.
“You don’t know?”
“I have never heard of him before. Assume I’m from far away and have no idea of anything. Who is he, and why is this so important?”
I can sense Wiskeria looking at me. I never told her or anyone besides Durene that I’m from Earth, but Wiskeria isn’t stupid. She’s already expressed surprise at the things I know and don’t know. Right now I don’t care. I might tell her everything just in case—Ryoka would object, but I need people I can trust in possession of all the facts. For the moment, Wiskeria takes me at my word.
“General Shivertail is—was—a hero of the Antinium Wars and the highest-leveled Drake [General] in the entire world. If he’s dead, then this Goblin Lord is extremely dangerous.”
“Antinium Wars. Wasn’t there a book on the history of the Antinium Wars? I never found a copy to read. Please explain all of it.”
I walk with Wiskeria to her private house and she brews me some tea while she speaks, summarizing decades of history while the sun rises. Her home, like Rie’s, is hers alone. It’s a bit extravagant especially since a lot of people are still sleeping crammed together, but rank has privileges and as soon as we get personalized housing built Wiskeria will move out and let a family take this home. She wants a forest cottage with a garden for mushrooms and other alchemical ingredients. And a place to brew potions where there’s no one to smell it.
Anyways, her explanation of Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord fills me with dread. The news we get just after morning is no better. Nesor finally got through to First Landing and all the reports are of the battle, and the Goblin Lord’s army.
Tens of thousands. That alone is enough to panic me. I could muster a force of a thousand soldiers. Maybe two thousand if I pressed every city and town in the area to turn out their garrisons. That’s all. If the Goblin Lord comes here—
“What should we do, Emperor Laken? People will panic if word spreads.”
Wiskeria glances sideways at Nesor. I grimace. The young man sounds like he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. Funny, I’m probably only a few years older than he is.
“I won’t lie to people or hide the truth. Prost, we’ll tell them what happened. But when you do, tell them this: the Goblin Lord’s army is not headed our way just yet. They’re moving towards Invrisil, which is close by, but I haven’t sensed any Goblins in our radius and I will know if they approach.”
I sense Prost nodding in relief. I don’t talk about my abilities, but people need reassurance now.
“If an army comes calling we’ll evacuate or fight, but until then, there’s no reason to panic. Wiskeria will send out more patrols and alert all the settlements nearby in case they haven’t heard.”
“I’ll send riders now.”
“Good. Lady Rie, if you would keep communicating with First Landing?”
I nod and stand.
“In that case, Prost, you and I will calm people down.”
And so we do. Prost shouts the news and I tell people what I just told him. It doesn’t calm them down exactly, but no one screams or runs. And once we get people moving about their tasks things calm down. I walk around the village, reassuring people, being there, and it does help. Everyone looks calmer when I’m around and more than one of Riverfarm’s original villagers recounts the battle in the village to the others.
Everyone’s calm. But me. As I lie in bed next to Durene I toss and turn and eventually wake her up.
“Laken, why are you so restless?”
“Why aren’t you? Durene, I promised them everything would be okay, but I have no plan if the Goblin Lord actually comes this way. We can’t fight and we might not be able to escape.”
“You’ll figure out something. If you can’t do it, no one can.”
I laugh in the darkness. How does she believe in me?
“I wish that were true.”
“It’s true! Now come over here.”
She pulls me over and I forget about Goblins for the moment. It’s nice to have someone with you who can take your worries away. For a while I’m not an [Emperor], and the cottage is intimate.
A bird screeches, surprising both Durene and me in the silence. Frostwing objects to being woken up. I throw my pants at her.
“Shut up, Frostwing.”
Today I consult with Rie and Prost. Reassurances are all very well, but I want to be prepared for a fight if it comes to that. Ironically, Wiskeria’s not on my list—she’s training her forces and there’s little I can do to help her. I don’t want to be a distraction.
However, there are things I can control and one of them is my project that Prost’s been in control of. Siege weapons. Ryoka Griffin taught me the fundamentals of how they work and the rest has been trial and error. I have a few [Carpenters], one [Blacksmith], and three new [Tinkerers] on the job with some other eager young men and women.
Lady Rie stares at the two prototype trebuchets and ballista and I realize that she’s never seen them before. We keep the siege weapons far, far away from the town in case of more accidents.
“Prost, how are the trebuchets working?”
“Well, Emperor. I haven’t been here all day, so I’ll let Miss Tessia explain. Tessia?”
Prost gestures and a young woman steps up. She’s got red hair and loose work clothing. I first met her when I helped dig her out of the snow after an avalanche. She’s Gamel’s girlfriend and her timid personality has been replaced by what I can only consider an engineer’s mania.
“Emperor Laken! We’ve finally gotten one of the trebuchets working! We can throw a twenty pound stone over two hundred feet with each shot, and I think that once we make a new trebuchet we’ll be able to hurl a stone twice as far!”
She grins as behind her the people crowded around the trebuchet step back. It fires and I hear a creak as the arm comes up and a stone is hurled through the air. I stare at the sling as it releases a stone and sense it fly into the distance. The people cheer as two boys run after the stone to see how far it’s landed. Lady Rie just stares.
“Is that a…a catapult?”
“It’s a trebuchet, Miss!”
Tessia either hasn’t heard that Lady Rie is a [Lady] or doesn’t care. She begins excitedly talking about range and the ballista they’re building while I inspect the trebuchet up close.
“Amazing. And can you aim it?”
“We’re figuring it out now, sire. The lads—and lasses—have been firing it nonstop. I’d say Tessia’s got the best shot. She can hit a house from two hundred feet five shots out of eight!”
“Please tell me we’re not actually hitting houses, Mister Prost?”
“Oh, they built one out of spare wood, don’t you worry, sire. But I reckon that we could build two more trebuchets within the week! Those would make the Goblin Lord blink twice, don’t you think?”
“Indeed they would. But I want those trebuchets inspected carefully and tested thoroughly. The last thing we need is for someone to get hurt.”
“Yes sire. I had to knock a few heads together when some of the lads kept wanting to rush things. But don’t fear—after the second time, Tessia started doing it for me! The lasses are much more careful about making sure no one’s in danger of being thumped by the arm and standing back and so on.”
Prost beams with all the pride of a former [Farmer] now constructing weapons of war. Lady Rie looks dazed as she comes over to me.
“Emperor Laken—your majesty, may I ask whether this was your invention?”
I smile slightly.
“Not my invention, Lady Rie. I know about the theory, but the villagers of Riverfarm built all this.”
“I see. But you know how to build siege weapons?”
“Is that uncommon?”
Lady Rie stares at the trebuchet as people begin to load it again.
“Oh…slightly. I believe the Walled Cities have such devices. Pallass creates them, but the secret of such weapons is zealously guarded and they refuse to sell to Humans. Other nations have them…but they are not mass-produced. And you’re building them here?”
“And we’re training [Engineers]. We have [Tinkerers]—I hope they’ll level up when I get them building some other inventions. War chariots, maybe. Or an irrigation system.”
Lady Rie stares at me. I smile. The sight of the trebuchet firing again gives me an idea and I turn to Prost.
“Mister Prost, it occurs to me that most of the villagers haven’t seen the trebuchet in action. Maybe a test would impress them as much as Lady Rie and reassure them of their safety. Could you move the trebuchet to an open space and set up a target?”
“Of course, sire!”
“And why not make it a contest? Let Tessia and the other workers have a contest who can hit or get nearest to a target. The winner will receive…well, how about a few mugs of ale and a small coin prize? You decide.”
“I think that would motivate them greatly, sire. But could I extend the offer of ale for the entire team? They’ve been working like Demons to get the trebuchet done.”
“Of course. Lady Rie?”
I leave my [Steward] to set it all up and walk a few paces back with Lady Rie. She still keeps staring at the siege weapons.
“You know, that is the true treasure of your village.”
Rie points to the trebuchet as Prost begins speaking and Tessia and the others mill about in excitement. She nods to the path to Riverfarm behind us.
“If you’ll permit me to say so, Emperor Laken, Riverfarm is hardly a rich village. With your help I have no doubt it will be quite self-sufficient, but planting cash crops as Wiskeria has suggested will only earn the people a modest income. However, building siege weapons? Exporting such devices would earn you a fortune.”
I nod slowly. I hadn’t considered it except as a form of protection, but…
“The war industry is always a profitable one. I don’t know that I’d like for my empire to be known for that, but at least we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”
“It is your choice of course, your majesty.”
“Choice. Yes, well, I’d like my people to have the same. I’m building trebuchets and teaching people to become [Engineers], Lady Rie. But I’d like them to be able to become [Alchemists] or [Blacksmiths] or [Scribes] or whatever they desire.”
“That is rather ambitious, your majesty. I suppose it might be possible, especially with your communal farming system. There will be less need for [Farmers].”
I shake my head.
“Less need for as many [Farmers], perhaps, Lady Rie. I intend to provide them with oxen, ploughs…Riverfarm used to consist of subsistence farming where each family tended a small plot of land. By creating large fields we can provide for a large number of people with only a few [Farmers].”
“And you intend to let the next generation grow up to become artisans instead?”
“That’s the theory. Or [Soldiers]. But to do that they need to survive and this place needs to be standing in a week’s time. The Goblin Lord’s army…I was hoping you had some thoughts on the matter. Is there any force that can stop them?”
“Of course! There is already talk of Lord Tyrion’s army. He gathered one at the same time as Lady Magnolia and his is by far the superior one. I doubt Lord Tyrion Veltras falls far behind General Shivertail regardless of level.”
“Huh. Lord Tyrion Veltras.”
The name’s only vaguely familiar to me, like Magnolia Reinhart. There are so many influential people in the world and I feel like I’m a small fish in my corner of Izril.
“Tell me about Lord Tyrion, Lady Rie. He levied a vast army, but does he have his own private force? Do lords and ladies have armies of their own? I recall your mansion was defended, but…”
I can hear Lady Rie’s rueful smile in her reply.
“The Valerund family was…much diminished by the time I became its sole heir, Emperor Laken. Aside from the small number of guards I employed, I had no standing militia to speak of. I would have relied on the forces of towns and villages to root out threats. But my example is hardly indicative of more powerful nobles. Lady Magnolia Reinhart has many, many servants trained in espionage and combat. She often employs them to clean up…problems in her domain.”
I think of Odveig, the perfect spy masquerading as a Silver-rank adventurer.
“I can believe that. Does Lord Tyrion do the same?”
Rie shakes her head.
“The Veltras family has a conventional army. As do the Reinharts, although theirs is far smaller and guards their family estate. Most powerful [Lords] and [Ladies] train their retainers. For instance, there is a Lady Bethal Walchaís who commands a knighthood. Her Knights of the Petal are elite and quite, quite dangerous.”
“I see. Everyone has their personal force on top of regular garrisons.”
“Yes, your majesty. I see you have started your own army as well.”
“My own army? Oh—yes, Wiskeria is doing her best.”
“Not just her.”
Lady Rie puts a gentle touch on my arm and I jump. She withdraws her hand quickly.
“Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”
Is she standing closer to me? Yes, she is. I clear my throat and keep my head turned towards the trebuchet which is being pushed to another spot. I don’t have to look at it of course, but people get nervous when I talk about things behind my back that I shouldn’t be able to ‘see’.
“What were you saying, Lady Rie? My own personal force?”
“Indeed, Emperor Laken. Your ah, Sightless Riders have already developed a reputation.”
“My what? Oh—Beniar and his people? Yes, I could see that. That was due to a Skill, but perhaps I’ll obtain more.”
“One can only hope. But such specialized units are the hallmarks of any powerful ruler. And it is my sincere hope that your initiatives keep your empire safe. I know that I am eternally grateful for your intervention in my hour of need.”
She gently touches my arm again. I hold still and think.
Okay. She’s definitely flirting with me. That’s not hard to figure out. The question is—does she know Durene and I are an item?
I don’t get to ask, if I was intending to ask. Prost comes back and Lady Rie stands demurely at my side. I continue the inspection and watch the trebuchets being fired for an enthusiastic crowd without any more incidents. But I do recall the touch. Was it just a casual touch? Am I overthinking things?
Her fingers were very soft.
Between my personal assurances and the trebuchet demonstration, my people are calm enough not to panic at news of the Goblin Lord’s army. They trust me, because I’ve protected them from Goblins before. However, that faith doesn’t apply to the other local towns and cities. They were all too willing to offer me a tribute so I’d protect their roads, but the Goblin Lord’s army is justifiably terrifying.
As such, I spend most of today entertaining audiences. I have no throne room, but one of the first non-essential buildings that went up was a meeting hall. It’s mainly a storage area, but someone decided it had to have a throne despite the lack of beds. So here I am, sitting on a wooden throne decorated with carved eyes. My [Carver], Jelov, is a famous man in the village. From a recluse who sold small trinkets, he’s now got eight apprentices and more work than he can handle.
“Of course my people will alert your town the instant Goblins cross my borders in force, [Headman] Filk. And I am committed to defending all the cities under my protection. My army will hunt down any stray monsters and bandits, as promised. Only an army could resist my forces.”
“Just as you say Emperor Laken. Forgive me for troubling you. It’s just that the Goblin Lord has an army and—”
The man standing and bobbing nervously is the leader of a town nearby. I forget which one. I hope he’ll mention the name again in conversation. I shift on my throne. Why did Jelov not include a pillow?
“Indeed. The Goblin Lord has an army and if he did march in this direction I would be unable to stop him. But consider this, Filk. Lord Tyrion Veltras and Magnolia Reinhart have both committed their forces to stopping him. Do you truly believe they would allow the Goblins to rampage unchecked?”
“Lord Tyrion? Well, your majesty—Lady Reinhart might—but Lord Tyrion does have an army.”
There’s a question in his voice. His town—what was the name again? Started with a ‘g’, I think—doesn’t have a [Mage] who can receive [Message] spells. I nod.
“He has been gathering an army for weeks now, Headman Filk. A substantial one that outnumbers the Goblin Lord’s army by all accounts. I would trust him to take care of the Goblin Lord. And if any raiding parties should head this way in the meantime…I will deal with them.”
That relieves the man. He raises his head, bowing again awkwardly.
“I had no doubts, your majesty! I’m terribly sorry to take up your time—of course Lord Tyrion’s got his army! And you’ve got yours.”
I smile at him and he smiles back. Nervously. I feel his gaze on my closed eyes. I think the audience is over, so I gesture subtly to Prost, standing at the back of the room.
“You must be tired from your trip. Please, allow me to offer you refreshments before you go.”
“Oh—sire, I also meant to give you this!”
Filk nearly falls over himself as he rushes to the back of the room. He comes back with a small chest carried by several people from his town.
“It’s just a token of our appreciation, your majesty. Some of our local produce, a few bundles of cloth—rough stuff, but we wanted to show our thanks. The town of Gec isn’t prosperous as those big cities, but we’re grateful that we can sleep in our beds thanks to your men!”
Gec! Of course, how could I forget a name like that? I smile at Filk.
“I appreciate the gifts, Filk. They are not necessary—I have sworn to protect your town and I mean to keep that pledge. Please, tell the people of Gec that I appreciate their faith in me. I would love to sample their produce—are those apples in the chest?”
“A few, sire. We have this cellar with runes of [Preservation] and—oh, pardon me for taking your time! It’s just a small token, hardly—thank you once again!”
He retreats, embarrassed. I smile as Prost moves forwards to take the gift. This is the fourth emissary to visit me today. People are worried, and they’re coming to me to hear what they already know. There is a Goblin Lord, but Lord Tyrion’s got an army. I can defend them from everything but a massive force and…that’s it. But they feel better because I’m an [Emperor].
That’s people for you.
My day is occupied by entertaining guests and appearing as confident—and dignified—as possible. Lady Rie takes over for Prost and it’s quite something when a [Lady] is personally greeting visitors and leading them into my throne room. It’s a long day, but I do get a pillow after my butt gets too sore to sit still.
“You may receive another pledge of loyalty from one of the nearest towns, your majesty. Headman Filk of Gec was quite taken with your village.”
“If they join, I’ll have to figure out a way to manage their town from here, Lady Rie. Perhaps I could send you to oversee it for a day or two? We can’t have more people coming here!”
The thought of my empire growing to encompass other cities and towns gives me a headache. Rie offers me a cool drink of water and I take it gratefully.
“I assume that the news of the Goblin Lord means that politics are on hold for the moment?”
“On the contrary, your majesty. It means that the aristocracy is even more desperate to find allies. You have a number of missives that just arrived.”
“More letters? I would have thought the City Runners in Invrisil wouldn’t dare venture out.”
“Mm. Apparently they’re willing to risk it for enough coin. And your lands are known to be safe for Runners. Would you like me to read them to you?”
I sigh and sit back on my throne. I want to see Durene. Maybe I can have a day off where I just go walking with her? The woods are nice and I could pretend to be inspecting it for valuable mushrooms or building spots or something. We haven’t had a quiet time to be together lately except at night. And sex isn’t the only part of a healthy relationship.
Lady Rie stands next to me as I sit on the throne. Her voice is soft as she reads through one letter.
“To [Emperor] Laken, I am Lord Tilwa Petroms of Invrisil. I have heard of your recent accomplishments and must congratulate you on your newfound success. Hm. Lord Tilwa is a known schemer, but if he’s acknowledging you openly as an [Emperor] he must feel you have quite a lot of power already. It seems he wishes to meet with you in Invrisil.”
“Oh? I’m not keen on travelling at the moment.”
If I leave my lands I can’t ‘see’ anything with my [Emperor] senses. Lady Rie shakes her head. Is she standing closer again?
“An [Emperor] should not travel to meet a [Lord] in any case, your majesty. Lord Tilwa is testing you with this letter. Leaving him without a reply for a day or two should unsettle him slightly.”
“Oh? I’m good at ignoring [Lords] and [Ladies]. I think I responded to two dozen letters with polite nothings.”
“Including mine, Lord Laken?”
“You sent me a gift, as I recall. Are you saying I should demand something from Lord Tilwa?”
“Perhaps. He might send you a gift instead, if he hasn’t already.”
“I don’t recall. I think I left the letters lying around. It might be good to see if Prost remembers.”
A rustle. Yep, she just stepped closer. What is her game?
“I have no doubt that Lord Tilwa wishes the same thing from you that all the nobility do.”
“Influence. Power, derived from your name. At the moment your financial and military capacities are unknown and you control very little land for someone of your class. Thus, your power is mainly in lending support, verbal or otherwise. However, if you can establish Riverfarm as a powerful exporter of goods or military might—”
“Defending areas under my protection or selling siege weapons?”
“As I understand it, Lord Tyrion himself lacks siege weapons. Your empire could be quite powerful economically as well as militarily. Lord Tilwa understands that and is attempting to test the waters, but he can wait. There are more important individuals to address. Now, the next letter—”
I hear the rustle of paper and then a sharp gasp. I sense the letter fall from Rie’s hands and her quickly bending to snatch it up with trembling hands. I sit up.
“My apologies, Emperor Laken. But this next letter—it must have been mixed up and not placed at the top. City Runners normally organize such missives meticulously by rank—”
“Maybe one of the villagers mixed it up when they were giving it to you. Who is the letter from?”
“Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”
I pause. Magnolia Reinhart. My stomach doesn’t exactly sink with dread, but it does flutter a tiny bit.
“Isn’t she in Invrisil? Right where the Goblin Lord’s army is?”
“She is apparently still able to send letters. And this one—I will read it with your permission.”
Lady Rie opens the letter without waiting for me to say yes. I hear the crinkle of paper as she reads in silence, and then what sounds suspiciously like a curse.
“The letter is—well, I shall skip the greetings. Magnolia Reinhart writes—To the [Emperor] Laken Godart of Riverfarm, I extend my warmest greetings. I had no idea such an august personage had arrived in Izril until this moment and must render you my deepest apologies for not contacting you sooner.”
“That’s a lie.”
“It is. She goes on. I am so deeply apologetic in fact, that I feel the only thing I can do to express my sympathies in full is to host a small gathering of my fellow [Lords] and [Ladies] in your honor. Naturally, I would be remiss if I did not invite you, but I would hate for the pressing commitments of station or distance to dissuade you from attending. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to—that scheming bitch!”
“I—I am deeply sorry, your majesty. Please forgive me. Lady Magnolia writes—Thus, I have taken it upon myself to host this little gathering at your estates in Riverfarm.”
“No need to thank me. I will most likely be too busy to attend the gathering myself, but I believe about thirty of the local nobility will attend, as will a close friend of mine, Lady Bethal Walchaís. I have scheduled this event to take place a week from today. I trust this gathering will be most informative to all parties, and I hope that you will allow one of my most trusted servants, Sacra, to convey my personal regards.”
Lady Rie paused.
“The name ‘Sacra’ is underlined heavily, Emperor Laken.”
“I understand what she means.”
I grit my teeth as I sit back on my throne. She’s sending Sacra? I mean, Odveig? Why? And a gathering? Here? For what reason? Lady Rie hesitates and I see her looking at my face.
“Ah—there’s a few more lines, Emperor Laken. I trust you will entertain this small soiree in your honor, Emperor Laken. I am mistrustful of [Emperors] and royalty in general, but I feel that we will all be more secure when we get to know each other, possibly over a few light snacks and conversation? Lady Bethal shall tender you my warmest regards. Sincerely…”
Lady Rie folds up the letter without finishing. I sit back. The two of us wait in silence for a long time. At last, I speak.
“Lady Rie, how well do you know Lady Magnolia?”
“Not well, Emperor Laken. I have met her several times. The day before I travelled to your village, in fact.”
“Really? And what do you think of her?”
“As a person or as a [Lady], your majesty?”
“She’s dangerous, ruthless, and cunning, your majesty.”
“Do you think this is a trap?”
“Without a doubt. She might want to humiliate you by hosting the event here, gain more information about your empire, poison the other nobles against you, threaten you, or…”
“Kill you. It would not be unheard of in Izril.”
I sit for a long time on my throne. Lady Rie’s words send a chill down my spine. Goblins. Politics. I can’t decide which is deadlier. But I do know one thing. One or both is coming my way. The Goblin Lord or the hand of Magnolia Reinhart herself. And I’m not ready.