“Trebuchet is ready!”
“Right! Three, two, one—”
Rael saw the wooden beam rise into the air and stop. Behind it, a long sling of rope curved up behind it, and the young man saw a large stone fly out of the sling. It was such a smooth, casual motion that it took him a second to remember that the stone now flying high into the air weighed over a hundred pounds.
The massive stone defied gravity for a few seconds, and Rael had to turn his neck and stare with the other Human nobles as it flew across the open ground. Four hundred feet, five hundred feet—when it landed it was a speck in the distance. The plume of dirt fountaining up into the air signaling the impact wasn’t audible—the trebuchet had sent the stone at least seven hundred feet away!
Rael’s jaw dropped. Immediately he heard a whoop and then cheering. Peasants streamed past him, shouting with glee as a rider on horseback rode towards the place where the stone had landed, measuring out the distance. When the distance was shouted back, the nobles around Rael murmured. Gasping would have been too uncouth.
“It went that far? How?”
One of the younger nobles standing next to Rael couldn’t contain her disbelief. Lady Haviet fanned herself lightly while craning on the tips of her toes to see the trebuchet surrounded by the excited people.
“Magic, of course. It has to be. There’s no way they could throw something that heavy without a spell!”
Lord Andres looked excited as he pointed at the stone in the distance. His words made the other nobles murmur, but it was Lord Pattin who shook his head.
“It’s not magic, Andres. I didn’t detect anything from it when we inspected it a minute ago. Did you, Lady Cimeca?”
The young [Lady] shook her head, not taking her eyes off the trebuchet. Pattin nodded as he regarded the war machine speculatively. It was being loaded with another stone, a huge chunk of granite that looked recently cut.
“I’ve heard of these things. Siege weapons. War machines. But they’re supposed to be incredibly rare and difficult to manufacture! Pallass makes siege weapons, but the Drakes don’t sell to Humans. There’s a group in Chandrar that’s known for their weapons and Baleros uses some, but—”
Pattin broke off and bowed politely as an older [Lord] approached. Rael bowed as well, tilting his head towards Lord Tourant. The older man looked interested.
“What was that I heard you saying, Lord Pattin? This is like the weapons the Drake cities make? Truly?”
He looked at the trebuchet and Rael saw the half-Troll girl helping to lift another massive stone into the sling. He eyed her, noticing how her slightly cracked grey skin was covered with sweat. Part of Rael wanted to look away. She was monstrous, and yet she was Emperor Laken’s consort. And there was something…impressive…about the way she held her end of the stone while three men had to lift their side.
“I’ve never laid eyes on one myself and I’ve only seen a few sketches, but the similarities are remarkable, Lord Tourant. This is like a catapult, clearly, but the range and power are completely different.”
“Fascinating. And you’re sure of this?”
“Fairly sure, Lord Tourant.”
Pattin answered politely. Lord Tourant glanced around.
“Good, good. Thank you, young man. Excuse me.”
He walked backwards out of the small gathering of the younger nobles. Rael eyed him cautiously. Tourant was a fiery man and as Oswalt’s father, he had taken it upon himself to punish Rael, Oswalt, and the others when they caused trouble on his lands. But today Tourant was too busy to recall past misadventures. He strode over to the crowd of nobles and Rael heard him speaking loudly.
“Your Majesty, this is an accomplishment! Am I to understand that this design is similar to the devices manufactured by the Walled Cities? A truly wonderful feat!”
Rael’s jaw dropped again. Not a second after he’d gotten the information from Pattin and he was using it to look like he knew everything! Andres laughed and gave Pattin a gentle cuff on the shoulder.
“Not bad, eh, Pattin? Maybe Tourant will come running back to you for more advice! Assuming you’re right!”
The young [Lord] smiled politely, not looking at all offended. He nodded to Oswalt.
“Your father seems quite interested in these devices, Oswalt.”
The young man he was addressing jumped and looked around. The glassy look on Oswalt’s face turned to confusion, and then he realized Pattin was talking to him. Oswalt shrugged self-consciously.
“My father? He’s just trying to get ahead of the others. You don’t need to answer him, Pattin. Just because he knew your father doesn’t mean he should take credit for…”
He trailed off. One of his hands reached up reflexively towards his ear and then Oswalt lowered it. Rael tried not to look at his friend’s ear; a chunk was missing and though the rest had been healed, the missing flesh would never be restored.
Last night. Rael shuddered as memory swam at the back of his mind. He pushed it back and saw the nobles around him doing the same. Cimeca, Andres, Ellia, Haviet…they all shared that moment of recollection, except for Pattin. He’d stayed out of sight during the—the festivities, Rael recalled.
Cimeca broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Pattin, you should talk with Emperor Laken. I’m sure your knowledge would impress his Majesty, and the others.”
“I hardly know much…”
Pattin demurred, but Cimeca gently pushed him towards the group of talking adults. They were surrounding a young man who stood at the center of attention. His eyes were closed and he was smiling, turning his head from speaker to speaker and nodding occasionally. He began talking as the young nobles approached and everyone fell silent to hear him speak.
Laken Godart did not shout, but his words carried and he made people fall silent to hear him, rather than raise his voice. He pointed unerringly to the loaded trebuchet, though it was behind him and his eyes remained closed.
“Yes indeed, Lord Tourant. That does seem similar to a siege weapon from a Walled City. I have never visited Pallass of course, but the design of a trebuchet is universal…assuming you know how to make one.”
The [Lords] and [Ladies] surrounding him exchanged quick glances and Rael could see his aunt, Lady Bevia Veniford, narrowing her eyes. Even a small sentence like this was important. He could practically see her thinking and Rael had learned enough from his aunt to understand what she was thinking.
So, this [Emperor] Laken had never been to Pallass? How did he know how to make a trebuchet? No, wait, he’d said he’d never visited Pallass, which implied he might have visited another Walled City. When every word could be checked with truth spells, subtleties like this were essential.
Oblivious to the racing minds around him, Emperor Laken smiled.
“I’m impressed you know of trebuchets, Lord Tourant. Only a handful of people were familiar with the concept, and that included seasoned adventurers in my Empire. Are they truly so rare in this region?”
“Well, I…I suppose I’ve heard of them in passing.”
Lord Tourant spluttered and turned evasive as Rael smirked. The older man tugged at his mustache and pointed at Pattin.
“Lord Pattin’s heard of them. The same as a Walled City, didn’t you say, Pattin?”
Every head turned towards Pattin. Not at all worried about being put on the spot, he nodded.
“They appear to be very similar to the ones described defending the Walled Cities. But from what I understand, the design is easy to replicate. Is that the case, your Majesty?”
“If you understand the basics, yes.”
Emperor Laken turned his head to smile at Pattin. He had no gaze to tell what he was thinking, but he seemed to smile deeper at Pattin. After a moment he went on.
“These are only a few rough prototypes. I hope to create a market for engineering devices of all kinds. Naturally a…Walled City would dominate the market, but within a year or two I believe Riverfarm would be able to compete in the marketplace for quality, if not quantity.”
The exclamation went around the circle of nobles. Laken only laughed lightly.
“Is it such a stretch of the imagination, Lord Tourant? I did not choose to showcase these trebuchets simply as entertainment. Indeed, I’m confident my people can begin mass-producing trebuchets within another month. After more testing is done for safety and efficiency purposes, obviously.”
“But that would be incredible! No one in Izril exports anything like this! You’re telling me—I mean to say that you’re able to create these things at will, Emperor Laken? Your Majesty? Have you an [Engineer]?”
Laken tilted his head thoughtfully as Lord Tourant tried to press him without giving offense. He shrugged.
“I have two [Engineers] already, Lord Tourant.”
“Of course it was difficult for them to construct the first trebuchet, but copying a design is much simpler than creating one from scratch. Naturally such devices would not be cheap and a small team would need to be trained for its use, but it would be one of a few engineered devices I plan to sell—to a select list of clients, of course.”
This time there was silence. Lord Tourant opened his mouth, hesitated, and found himself unable to ask the obvious question. Select clients? More such devices?
“Your Majesty, are you intending to create a market for engineered devices in northern Izril?”
Lady Bevia peered closely at Laken. He smiled.
“It’s a thought, isn’t it? Unless you disagree, Lady Bevia?”
The old [Lady] tapped her lips thoughtfully with one painted fingernail.
“No…but Pallass has long been known to host the greatest [Craftsmen] and other artisans on the continent. Our port cities import new goods, but the Drakes have had a monopoly on innovation for centuries. Surely you don’t intend to challenge a Walled City?”
Rael held his breath, wondering if the Emperor would take offense. But Bevia’s question only provoked an amused chuckle from Laken.
“Why not? Humans are at least capable of what Drakes and other species are. Perhaps more. This device is one small step. But I am sure that humanity has much, much further to go.”
The nobles stared at him. More. Laken turned to his trebuchet, a device that bordered on magic with a proud smile. But that wasn’t what kept Rael’s eyes on him. No.
It wasn’t just pride. It was confidence, certainty that made Rael’s heart beat faster for a moment. Emperor Laken just smiled as he turned to the trebuchet.
Humans can be more. In a world where Humans fell behind other races’ superior qualities—the strength of Minotaurs, the willpower of Drakes, the speed of Garuda, the adaptability of Lizardfolk—they had won by being more well-rounded, more prolific than other races. But Laken spoke about humanity’s potential.
A blind man with a vision. It drew people to him, Rael included. Laken turned back to them and Rael heard the young woman standing next to the trebuchet calling an all clear. She pulled a rope and the machine hurled another boulder far into the distance. The cheering as it landed and applause was deafening. Laken just smiled once more, a mysterious, welcoming smile.
“Believe me, this is only the start. A trebuchet is a piece of technology, an achievement that requires no magic or class to operate. Once built it is capable of being used by anyone. Man, woman, child…so long as they understand how it works. Ah, and I see the second one is loaded. Would any of you like to try aiming and firing it, by any chance?”
He looked around and Rael found himself shouting to be the first to try.
It’s funny, but I think the most surprising part of today’s demonstration was when one of the young [Lords] asked if the trebuchet could throw him. Lord Andres, I think it was. That was slightly startling, but what got me was that everyone thought it was a completely natural suggestion.
I had to explain to the excited nobles, patiently, that it didn’t matter if someone cast a [Featherfall] spell on Andres. The whiplash of being thrown by the arm of the trebuchet might kill him before he had to worry about landing. I’m not about to risk a [Lord] dying on my lands, thanks.
I guess it’s a natural thought to have. If you’re an idiot. Lord Andres strikes me as one of the rash, more impulsive young nobles. They’re not all insane, though. I’ve noticed some of them who seem quite interesting. That Lord Pattin for one. And they’re all a lot less rowdy than they were yesterday. I suppose I have the fey to thank for that.
Hi, I’m Laken Godart. [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire, etc. Last night I hosted a banquet with actual faeries from another world, and today I’m showing off my trebuchets. It happens.
“So you can throw a smaller weight even further. Dead gods, this thing can shoot as far as three longbows! What a wonder!”
I’m standing at the heart of an excited group of nobles from Izril. Mostly men—the women have retired to the shade to watch the trebuchets firing. Those that aren’t getting a chance to aim it and fire it themselves. It’s rather like a carnival attraction, with people lined up, wanting a chance to point it and loose a stone.
We’re using smaller projectiles for this demonstration on a scaled-down model of the trebuchet that Tessia and my people have built. That way we don’t have to cart the gigantic hundred-pound stones back and forth. The trebuchet’s arm keeps swinging up in my mind and then being pulled back to the ground as the excited [Engineers], [Builders], and [Tinkerers] swarm over it.
The attraction has pulled in hundreds of villagers and they’re being rotated in by Prost to get a look before going back to work. The trebuchets are amazing, I have to admit. But I don’t get a chance to admire them; I’m already starting my sales pitch. I smile calmly at the excited [Lord] talking to me and sigh as if I’m a bit disappointed.
“It’s quite an accomplishment. But I’d hardly call it a wonder, Lord Melbore.”
“What? But if you can strike a target a thousand feet away—”
Lord Melbore is a heavy man, standing in front of me. I can sense him in my mind—and smell him too. He’s sweating in the morning sun. I cut him off with a knowing smile as the nobles around me edge forwards to listen.
“A device like this can hurl a stone capable of destroying a city wall—an unenchanted city wall, if it’s not burned or destroyed by the enemy first. It has quite an impressive range, but it’s hardly useful in a mobile battle, is it? And for all the stone is large, I’d imagine it could easily miss groups of running soldiers.”
Tourant nods and I hear a few other disappointed murmurs of agreement. The [Lords] here might be lesser nobility of the realm, but they’ve all probably seen actual battle. They have to defend their lands, and that instills a level of practicality in each of them. I nod, letting them know I’ve considered the problem.
“Adaptability is key, gentlemen. If a trebuchet were only useful for this one purpose, it would be a poor defense indeed. However…Mister Helm! Miss Tessia! Would you prepare one of the special rounds for our guests to watch?”
I raise my voice and turn. Mister Helm, the [Blacksmith] of Windrest and Tessia, the young woman that Gamel is besotted with, immediately bow and rush towards the larger trebuchet. Entranced, the [Lords] follow them like curious sheep. I watch, knowing exactly what will happen.
The open fields in front of the trebuchets are clear and no one is allowed to head out into them or near the trebuchets while they’re firing. But now everyone is told to step back and as Tessia loads the special ammunition I see Mister Helm rechecking the sling and frame of the trebuchet.
Good. I’ve gone over the need for safety with the engineering team assigned to testing and building the trebuchets again and again. The last thing I want is someone dying while making one of these things. I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time, but it won’t be today or tomorrow if I can help it.
“Alright then! Three, two, one!”
Tessia’s the one to pull the rope. She’s a lot younger than Mister Helm, but she’s one of two [Engineers] and she was not only the first to acquire the class, but she’s the highest-leveled of the two. It was quite amazing to see how she took to the trebuchets—Tessia, a young woman who had lived on a farm all her life and found her vocation making weapons of war.
Because that’s what this trebuchet is. I watch the arm go up in my head. I can’t see it of course, but I can sense the sling lifting its payload into the air. I can sense the small objects before they’re flung across the field and spray into the ground and a few of the trees, cracking and making loud thuds. Few of the stones made it much further than one or two hundred feet away, but the spread of the volley makes the nobles jump.
“What in the name of Dragons…?”
The nobles are staring ahead, trying to figure out what was thrown. I stroll over and interrupt them before they can badger Tessia or Helm. They’re still nobles after all, and they look down upon anyone but Lady Rie and I. So I look down on them, just to make things fair.
“Stones, Lord Tourant. Hand-sized stones, packed up and thrown at speed. With enough trebuchets firing at once, you could take down a charging army—assuming you were able to move and load them quickly enough, of course.”
It’s a simple concept. The trebuchet can be loaded with a heavy stone to knock down a wall, or smaller stones to shred an enemy army. I’m sure armor would protect some people, but a stone hurled that fast and far? It would be devastating. And it makes the trebuchets I’m showing off that much more valuable. As a defense for my empire, and as an attraction for the nobles visiting me. I clear my throat as the [Lords] begin arguing how well that would work against an army.
“Let us resume our demonstrations. Unless anyone wishes to retire? No? Well, I believe there are refreshments available in the shade. I would be happy to discuss a few aspects of the construction and usage of the trebuchets there. If anyone will join me? Ah, Lady Bevia. And Lady Bethal. How kind of you.”
I step to one side as the men jostle each other, wanting a chance to fire the larger catapult. Two women sweep towards me. Lady Bevia, the older of the two Venifords and Lady Bethal Walchaís, followed as always by her silent husband, Lord Thomast.
“Emperor Laken, thank you so much for the entertaining diversion!”
Lady Bethal’s voice is high and light and she gently places her hands in mine as she laughs. I smile back, although I can still feel a bit of a prickling aura around her, just barely there but visible. Behind her, Thomast bows, as silent as a rock. But I can tell he’s watching me.
“Indeed. I had wondered how you might top the banquet of last night, but I find myself underestimating you yet again, your Majesty. Truly a magnificent demonstration. I only fear I will have to drag away my nephew.”
Lady Bevia’s voice is welcoming and warm as well. I smile at both women and keep my guard up. Of all the nobles present, these two strike me as the sharpest—and most dangerous.
“You are too kind Lady Bethal, Lady Bevia. I’m delighted you chose to stay another day. I had hoped this showcase would please you, but do let me know if you’d wish to rest or seek other entertainment. There is a limit to how long one can be interested in throwing stones, I fear.”
Lady Bethal laughs as she half-turns to look at the trebuchets.
“A diversion? To abandon this? You do yourself and your people too little credit, Emperor Laken. I have seen magic shows and curiosities from other lands, but this is truly fascinating. It’s a thing of wood and yet it throws stones as if they’re light as feathers! How amazing. I don’t suppose you’ve settled on a price? Or may I make a bid for the first six of them you care to sell?”
I try not to blink in surprise.
“I must confess I hadn’t given it much thought yet, Lady Bethal. These trebuchets are still being tested and my team is working to perfect them.”
They’re capable of being fired, but accuracy, maximum range, and putting them on wheels are all challenges I’ve given the team of villagers I’ve assigned to the issue. Not that they mind working around the clock; the engineering team loves to fire the trebuchets as much as the crowd and they’d work long into the night if I let them.
It’s all trial and error with them, but the fact that they could roll out two fully functioning trebuchets by the time the nobles arrived makes me feel I should reward them. It feels like only a few days ago that they were still trying to figure out what wood to use. To deflect Bethal’s interest I turn to her husband.
“Lord Thomast, would you care to try one?”
“You are too kind, Your Majesty. But I will be content to watch.”
Drat. The man bows his head slightly but seems determined not to let his wife be alone for a second. And why not? I nearly died of poison at my own banquet yesterday. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of safety. Lady Bethal seems completely at ease, but I have a feeling that her cheerfulness is sometimes feigned. Perhaps not now, though. She claps her hands together.
“Thomast is a bore, your Majesty. He never tries new things. On the other hand, I would love to try firing a trebuchet again. I nearly hit the tree I was aiming at, didn’t I, Thomast?”
I cover a smile. A good actor, perhaps. But I can’t imagine she and Thomast are pretending to be husband and wife. They’re too clearly fond of each other. I have a thought and beckon—Gamel is by my side in an instant.
“Yes, your Majesty?”
He’s been watching me all day, which is uncomfortable, but suits his duties. I think he’s worried about me being assassinated too—Lady Rie, Mister Prost, Durene, and Wiskeria were all adamant that I have at least one person by my side in the midst of the nobility. Never mind that I could spot a knife coming. Although I didn’t spot the poison…they have a point.
Now at least I can get rid of him for a second. I turn my head and whisper a request into his ear and he’s gone in a flash. I make polite conversation with Bethal and Bevia before Gamel hurries back to me with two objects being carried between two men.
Lady Bethal turns and claps her hands as she sees two smaller trebuchets being placed on the ground in front of her. I’d nearly forgotten about them, but the prototypes are just as functional as the real thing. I sense Bethal circling around the miniature trebuchets and poking at the sling, exclaiming with genuine interest.
“Oh! They’re like children’s toys! How delightful!”
I cough as Lady Bethal hovers around the smaller prototype.
“Children’s toys that can knock a hole in the wall of a house, Lady Bethal. Please don’t fire it into the crowd. But if you would like to perfect your aim, I’m sure Tessia could show you how to calibrate the trebuchet yourself.”
“Would you? Oh, how kind!”
Bethal is drawn away as Tessia comes over. In a moment she’s hurling smaller stones at a tree with commendable accuracy. Bethal laughs, waving at her husband.
“How marvelous! This is so much fun, Thomast! Go on, give it a try!”
He walks over, leaving me alone with Lady Bevia. She smiles at me and I’m reminded of a grandmother speaking to a grandson.
“You have no end to your surprises, do you, Emperor Laken?”
“I try to please, Lady Bevia.”
“May I ask where all these designs come from? Or perhaps your strange court? I hate to press you directly, but you have been adroitly evading answering anything about your past.”
I pause. My strange court. Bevia glances at me, and I sense her gaze like a physical thing.
“It is quite strange. No one speaks of last night and I barely recall what happened in its entirety. Those strange, wild folk, the things I recall…would you care to explain any of it, your Majesty?”
What can I say? I shrug my shoulders, lightly, remembering.
Green. Laughter, the brilliant folk dancing and singing, and then laughing and buzzing. The bright frost in her eyes.
A memory. That’s what last night was. Forever ago, despite it not having been more than twenty four hours since the fae danced among us. But the next day people woke, some with scars, many with memories both bright and troubling and no one spoke about it. It was as if what had happened was long ago, and even Oswalt, one of the injured lordlings, treated his injuries as if they had just…been.
Acceptance. There was no regret, no fury at recalling. It had happened. It had been done. It was in the past and they had lived through it. None of the [Lords] and [Ladies] spoke of what they had witnessed, although many looked at me differently. But blame, guilt…none of that was in the way they spoke.
Faerie magic. I shiver as I think of it. There’s something terrifying about that, more than there would be if we just forgot. It speaks to me of bargains with the fae, of promises that can’t be broken.
What is, is. What has been agreed cannot be turned back. More than ever I wonder just how much I risked. But the reward is the respect of the nobility. As for Lady Bevia…
“I could not tell you even if I tried, Lady Bevia.”
She regards me for a long while.
“I suppose you could not, at that. Some things even [Emperors] may not explain. But you are strange, your Majesty. You have so many secrets and you have given us precious few answers.”
The memory of last night fades between us even before Bevia is finished speaking. On firmer ground I keep my voice light, put a tiny smile on my face.
“Have I? I do apologize. I mean only to entertain, not drag down the conversation with boring details about my past.”
I turn my head innocently and Bevia laughs quietly.
“Oh, what a charming young man! One capable of subtlety and deceit—your Majesty, you are an enigma! Where do you hail from? Why did you decide to settle in Riverfarm? Would you do me the great courtesy of hinting at one of these questions? For an old lady’s sake.”
Clever old women are to be feared. I waver and nearly give in. There’s something so charming about Lady Bevia that makes me want to answer her, at least in part. But before I can reply, a voice speaks.
“Oh Bevia, you mustn’t press his Majesty to answer anything about his past! He is an [Emperor] after all—monarchs are entitled to their secrets!”
I hear a bright voice and a sigh from Bevia. A woman approaches the two of us, her voice smooth, her dress shifting as she strides quickly across the grass to our position. I feel the urge to confess fading and smile at the woman in gratitude.
“Thank you, Lady Rie.”
She glides past me and I nod to her politely. Bevia mutters what sounds like an insult before she greets Lady Rie warmly. I could almost swear I heard ‘don’t get in the way’, but my ears must be playing tricks on me because Lady Rie greets her warmly and Bevia is just as delighted to meet her.
Knives under the table. I back away as Rie takes my place in the line of fire, laughing and speaking sweet nothings. There’s a lot I have yet to say to Lady Rie, but I’m grateful for her presence today. She takes Bevia off my hands and I back up. Normally I’d stay and learn from her, but something’s just crossed my mind. I frown and turn my head. What is…?
Durene is walking towards me, sweating but happy. I wave to her distractedly. There’s something in my mind. I cast my thoughts across my empire and barely sense Durene being intercepted by a group of villagers begging for her help in the village. What is it?
There’s something at the corner of my mind. A thought. A…presence. Many presences. I frown, and then my eyes widen.
My exclamation makes several heads turn, but no one speaks German so I pretend I stepped on a rock. Hardly [Emperor]-like, but it makes my reaction. I don’t turn around or give any other reaction—now Bevia and Bethal are both watching me, along with some other nobles. The beauty of being blind and having the ability to ‘see’ in every direction is that I can control my reactions. So I calmly turn my head towards the young man hovering a few feet away from me.
“Get me Wiskeria, Beniar, and…no, only those two.”
He straightens at once, sounding alarmed. I hold up a hand, speaking with a slight smile on my face for those watching.
“Don’t run. But do it quick. And don’t make it obvious what you’re doing. If anyone asks, especially Lady Rie, make an excuse.”
Gamel turns and hurries off. It’s believable enough that I don’t worry as I turn my mind back to the shadows lurking far in the distance. And to Lady Rie. Should I tell her? She’s with Lady Bevia. Should I tell them?
No—no need to cause drama. And how would I explain knowing, anyways? Some things should be kept secret. How much do I trust the nobles here? Not a lot, despite them being impressed with me. How much do I trust Lady Rie? Well…a bit. But only as far as Durene can throw her. Not as far as a trebuchet could.
I back away from the nobles gathering around the trebuchets, pretending that I need to pee. No, no need to alarm anyone that doesn’t need alarming. Wiskeria is on the outskirts of the village and Gamel has already found Beniar. I’ll walk and meet them. I nod to myself, my mind racing as I count. It’s not bad news. Okay, it is horrible, terrifying news, but it’s not the end of the world. And we’ve planned for this, Wiskeria and I.
Calm. Be calm. I breathe in and out slowly, lowering my heart rate. I have people with skillsets devoted best to one activity. Lady Rie is a negotiator, a diplomat. She can do her job. She doesn’t need to know everything. I nod to Wiskeria and Beniar as both stroll over and try to think of the best spot where I can retire with them. What excuse should I use?
They’re hurrying towards me, Beniar on horseback. I wave at them and make them slow. Act natural. Be calm. A leader is calm and leads from appearance as much as anything else. No one else needs to know what I tell them, so I hurry them into Wiskeria’s cottage. And begin to make plans.
Plans. It was already evening by the time Wiskeria strode through the village. She’d been in her home for the last few hours, speaking with Beniar, Prost, and Laken when he wasn’t busy attending to the nobles who wanted his attention. Thankfully the crowd was still occupied with the trebuchets. Laken had expressed incredulity at how long the nobles were fixated on them, but it made sense to everyone else.
A trebuchet was a wonder of mechanical engineering, something as unique as any spell. He treated it like something normal, but Wiskeria knew she could have lived for decades and died before ever seeing such a device. They’d fascinated her when she’d seen the first big one firing. Now they reassured her. Even if they weren’t part of the plan.
She was headed towards her people, her army. They trained and patrolled when they weren’t actually fighting and they stayed out of the village to avoid getting in the way of the builders. Wiskeria needed to do a thousand things, so the only thing that kept her from running was Laken’s order to pretend nothing was wrong. Still, Wiskeria wanted to run.
She was hurrying, her heart pounding with anxiety and determination. Not fear or at least, not much; she had a plan and she trusted her [Emperor].
Her [Emperor]. What a thought! But he had proven himself ten times over, and this latest crisis just showed Wiskeria how right she was to place her trust in him. What would have happened if he hadn’t been there to warn them all days in advance? What would have happened if…? She shook her head.
Wiskeria was hurrying, but she slowed as she saw the woman in the black-and-white frilled dress walking towards her. Sacra’s face was calm, austere, the perfect image of a [Maid]. But there was still a trace of Odveig in her, brash and confident. Seeing her was a shock that put her duties out of Wiskeria’s mind for a moment. The [Witch] slowed and adjusted her pointed hat. Sacra paused as well and the [Witch] and [Maid] regarded each other in the dirt street.
“Wiskeria. I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”
“Sacra, please. That is my true name, although I understand that you might be confused after knowing me for so long.”
The [Maid] smiled. Wiskeria did not.
“There’s not much to understand. A traitor and a spy is a traitor and a spy, no matter how well you think you knew her.”
Sacra’s smile didn’t vanish, but it did fade a fraction.
“A traitor? I admit that I deceived you, Wiskeria. But I never intended to cause you or my team harm. I saved you from Emperor Laken’s suspicion as you recall.”
“He was only suspicious of me because you were spying on him.”
Sacra shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. Wiskeria stared. Odveig would have blustered or cracked a joke. She didn’t have half the calm aplomb that this strange [Maid] did. And yet she shifted her stance the same way. Her face was the same. Wiskeria gritted her teeth.
“Tell me, was it all fake? All of our close encounters, the way we stood by each other? Was all that just an act?”
“Would you like me to say it was?”
The [Maid] raised an eyebrow. Wiskeria waited, folding her arms. Sacra sighed.
“My name is Wiskeria.”
“Very well. General Wiskeria, I was your friend. And I was your team leader. And I was a spy. I can be all these things at once. I regret fleeing, but I had a mission that transcended friendship. And I have duties that carry me back here.”
Wiskeria thought about tossing fire at Sacra’s face and seeing if her uniform caught on fire. But she held back. Sacra was probably far deadlier than Odveig had ever been.
“Rather tactless to send the same spy that was uncovered, isn’t it? Is Magnolia Reinhart that crude?”
“Not at all. She’s being honest. If she wanted to alarm Emperor Laken, she’d send someone whom he had no idea of. He knows I am a spy, so he won’t waste time with subtleties. There are at least three people watching my every move.”
Three? Wiskeria had heard Laken ordering two people to shadow Sacra. The [Witch] turned [General] filed that information away. Sacra regarded her a moment and then bowed.
“I’d love to talk more, but I’m afraid I have pressing business, Wiskeria. As do you, it seems.”
“What are you doing?”
Wiskeria’s hostile tone had no effect on Sacra.
“I must meet with Emperor Laken. Lady Reinhart has considered his reception of the nobility and his little demonstration of this morning and sent a response.”
She held up a letter. Wiskeria opened her mouth to ask what was in it, hesitated, and turned. She’d wasted too much time and Laken’s name had reminded her of what she had to do.
“I wish you the best of it. Not that I think his Majesty will receive you warmly.”
“I did request an audience. And his feelings towards me are largely irrelevant. I’m sure I will speak to you later, Wiskeria. Until then.”
Sacra walked calmly past Wiskeria. The [Witch] stared after her, angry, wanting to say so much more, and then tugged her hat’s brim lower on her head.
“Later? Not if we’re all dead.”
Then she strode off, her robes swirling around her. And the Emperor of the Unseen Empire received Sacra on his throne.
Of all the people I don’t feel like meeting at the moment, Sacra is probably highest on that list. But I could hardly ignore her request once I got it, so I give her an audience in the meeting hall on my wooden throne. I shift uncomfortably, feeling the smooth, carved eyeball on my armrest with one hand as I scan Sacra in my mind’s eye. She’s a [Maid] from head to toe, without any accessories save for a ring on her finger. No hidden daggers, no concealed weapons I can sense…I still don’t relax. Once the formalities are over I cut straight to the point.
“I hope Wiskeria didn’t treat you with any hostility?”
“Not at all. She was quite polite.”
Sacra smiles, not at all unsettled by my knowledge of their meeting. I’ve been following her around in my head when I haven’t been distracted and she’s done nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I have every reason to suspect her and so I’ve put two watchers on her at all times.
I’m also wary of her being alone with me, which is why Durene is standing next to my throne and Gamel and Prost are standing at the meeting hall’s doors. If it came to a fight, I worry that Sacra might beat Durene like last time, weapons or not. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. And if they need to raise an alarm, I’m sure Lady Rie will raise it.
She’s standing just outside the meeting hall. I refused to let her join in. Not because I think she’ll steer me the wrong way. I think she might do it by accident. Lady Magnolia manipulated both her and me with ease with a simple letter. I’d hate to know what Sacra could do.
“I’m glad Wiskeria didn’t offer you any offense. Although I can’t say I would reproach her for holding a grudge either. It is slightly unpleasant to look at someone you thought you trusted.”
Sacra’s face doesn’t change one whit. She just gives me a small, meaningless smile, the kind any [Maid] would give a disliked employer.
“I do apologize. But Lady Reinhart thought it would be best that someone you knew deliver her words personally, and I was the best choice. You are, of course, free to eject me from your empire, but Lady Reinhart values courtesy in her friends. Her enemies are free to be as crude as they wish, for as long as they live.”
Was that a threat? Durene makes an ominous sound, but I pat her hand.
“I don’t appreciate the warning, Sacra. Why is it that you wanted to see me?”
Without missing a beat, Sacra replies.
“Lady Reinhart has observed your reception of the small group of nobles through me, Emperor Laken. She is quite impressed with your guests…as well as today’s demonstration of your trebuchets.”
How does she know about the fae and the trebuchets? Sacra was not invited to either gathering. Still, I’m not surprised.
“I’m glad she’s so invested, particularly considering that she forced all of this on me.”
“She does apologize for the inconvenience, your Majesty. But trust is a commodity in short supply, particularly of late. Lady Reinhart bids me to inform you that she is impressed with your empire and would like to offer you peace.”
I raise one eyebrow.
“Peace? Don’t I have peace already?”
This time it’s Sacra who interjects a bit of strife into her tone.
“Emperor Laken, please be serious. You know that there is no peace—not between you and Lady Reinhart at least. She has surveyed your lands, tested you, and sent me to observe your qualities as a leader. She has been rightfully wary of you.”
“Why? Why am I so dangerous?”
It feels like everyone’s warned me of Magnolia Reinhart. She’s a cunning monster, a threat, a ruthless tyrant…Ryoka, Lady Rie, everyone’s afraid of her. But what did I ever do to bother her? Start a small empire? From what I understand, Magnolia Reinhart has a hundred times as much land as I do. But it’s Sacra’s response that puts it into clarity.
“Because you are an [Emperor].”
Sacra stares at me. I sit back in my throne. My throne, where three months ago I was living in Durene’s cottage. Now I sit in my growing village, with trebuchets being built and nobles following me around, trying to curry favor. I can sort of see her point.
“Well, I suppose that would be alarming to a [Lady], particularly one of Magnolia Reinhart’s power.”
“Indeed. But she is prepared to put aside her wariness and offer you peace, Emperor Laken.”
“Peace. You keep saying that word, but what would that entail?”
Sacra spreads her hands.
“An immediate cessation of hostilities. No aggressive or hostile actions towards you or anyone in your domain without formal notification. Recognition of your sovereign rights. Support for your growing empire in the form of connections, trade, political support…”
That sounds good. Good, if a little vague. But I could see Magnolia Reinhart’s acknowledgement helping me deal with other cities, cementing my influence. I lean back in my throne as Durene shifts from foot to foot.
“And what would all of this cost me?”
Sacra smiles, confirming my suspicions. She holds up a finger.
“One request. For the next four months, you will refuse to sell your trebuchets or any other weapons of war to any other party in Izril. You will not gift them, or let the secrets of their manufacture be spread.”
“She wants that?”
“Yes, your Majesty. It is a simple request. Afterwards you would be free to pursue whatever business interests you please.”
I frown. Why would four months matter? I eye Sacra, wondering if she’ll answer and don’t bother with that question. Instead I ask the more pressing one.
“Assuming I did agree, what guarantee would I have that Lady Reinhart would keep her word? A contract? Paper and ink are poor reassurance, I feel.”
The [Maid] standing in front of me gives me a slight frown, as if I’ve asked a truly stupid question.
“Lady Reinhart would hardly trust this to a verbal agreement, Emperor Laken. She proposes signing a binding contract, enforced by magic. It is quite common among the nobility when trust or a grave matter is at stake. It would of course be authenticated by a third party—Wistram, for example.”
Crap, I should have known that was how things would work. I keep my face straight as I think of all this. No selling trebuchets for four months? It has to be too good to be true. I could still build them, refine them, market them to others…why wait for months? What does she get? I mull over the possibilities until I realize Sacra is taking something out of her pocket.
Durene sees the motion and lurches forwards. Sacra withdraws a small letter and raises her hands.
“I mean no harm. I have a letter from my mistress, transcribed, of course. It is not dangerous in any way.”
“I’ll give it to him.”
Durene snatches the letter from Sacra and sniffs it suspiciously. She clearly doesn’t have any idea of whether or not it’s poisoned and looks helplessly towards me before licking the paper gingerly. I cover my face and try not to laugh as Sacra gives Durene the first genuine look of surprise I think she’s made so far. After a second in which Durene blushes fiercely, she hands me the letter. I lift it and sigh.
“Your mistress does know I can’t read, doesn’t she?”
“She does. But some things are best conveyed formally. I have memorized the contents by heart. If you would allow me?”
Sacra waits until I nod and then begins to speak. I feel Durene peering over my shoulder and hear her trying to read the letter. She’s still on the first sentence by the time Sacra finished. The letter is short and Sacra delivers the stunning missive without changing her tone of voice.
To His Majesty, Emperor Laken,
Thank you so very much for entertaining my dear friend Bethal and the other nobles which I so rudely foisted on you the other day. Sacra tells me you handled their reception wonderfully, if slightly unconventionally, and it has put my mind at ease. You have shown tact, deliberation, and restraint and for that I deem you to be a rare exception to your class, a delight.
After some consideration, I have decided that I am quite content to suffer your presence on my continent, your Majesty. And I foresee the potential benefits of a relationship with your empire. But my goodwill towards your empire only goes hand-in-hand with my demands. Sacra has given you my request and I trust you will agree to it, as this agreement would be wholly beneficial towards you and your empire. Keep your damn trebuchets out of sight.
The silence after Sacra finishes makes me wonder whether I should clean out my ears theatrically, or just sit in silence for a while and wait for someone to laugh. But I do neither. I can sense Gamel and Prost giving each other nervous looks, but Sacra waits, as patient and as still as a statue. Her eyes are on me. At last I raise my head.
“And she wants my response?”
Sacra smiles politely.
“By the time I depart with the other nobility. By all means, take your time to consider Lady Reinhart’s proposal, Emperor Laken. But be sure of your answer by the time I leave.”
Her eyes never waver as she curtsies. I keep my face blank and remain as still as possible. This time I’m sure that was a threat.
What the hell does Magnolia Reinhart want? Apparently that question is one for the ages because my impromptu council of diplomacy all agrees that few people ever know what the Deadly Flower of the North truly wants. Magnolia Reinhart can be as straightforward as a poisoned arrow to the chest, or as twisted as a garlic braid. That’s Durene’s analogy, by the way. I had no idea you twisted garlic braids. How do you twist garlic, anyways? Isn’t it a bulb? Or is garlic different in this world?
Prost, Rie, and Durene don’t ever answer me on that. What they do do is argue for over an hour over why Magnolia would want me not to sell my trebuchets—their speculation ranging from her desire to corner the market herself, to a suspicion that she doesn’t want nobles killing each other and besieging cities until she’s ready for it to happen—without any real consensus. They agree her outlined terms are good, generous even. They’re only wary of signing any deal with Magnolia Reinhart. Especially Lady Rie.
“The problem isn’t whether signing it would be better or worse for your empire, your Majesty. The problem is whether or not not signing it would be worse, and which option Magnolia Reinhart wants you to pick!”
The [Lady] paces back and forth as I massage my head and try and understand what she just said.
“It sounds like she was fairly clear about what she wanted, Lady Rie.”
“Anything that woman says cannot be trusted!”
Lady Rie grumbles as I sigh and walk around the table in Mister Prost’s home. His house has become something of a planning room for us and I feel bad for invading so often. Maybe I should make this the official meeting room and give him another house. A bigger one. But there are memories here too. Death, the snow, life…
And here we are, talking about [Ladies] and deals involving magic treaties and empires. I smile and run my hands over something on the table. A map. I can’t tell what’s on it, but I can sense the markers that Lady Rie has carefully put on there for my convenience.
“Interesting map. What do the flags represent on some of the cities?”
“Ah. Those would be the cities allied to you, Emperor Laken.”
“Allied to me? I don’t know if that’s accurate.”
“They offer you goods for protection, respond to your requests for reinforcements, and send emissaries to you, your Majesty. What else would we call them? Allies? Or perhaps vassals is more accurate?”
“Good point. Alright then, where’s Riverfarm? Where are we?”
“You’re touching our flag, your Majesty.”
I pause and feel the tallest flag.
The map slowly appears before me. In my mind I can sense my empire, but the map is different. It skips all the geography and lays the cities, towns, and villages out for me in the plainest of terms. Riverfarm is here, bordered by a forest and river and close to a small mountain.
It’s shielded in one sense, isolated in another. But now it’s growing, connecting to nearby settlements, most of which are ‘mine’. They’re under my protection, within my sphere of influence. But as my fingers move east and north they run into small, round objects.
“And the stones? What do these represent?”
“Those are the cities and towns that are firmly against you, Emperor Laken. They refuse to acknowledge your claim to Riverfarm or trade with us.”
I remember getting some hostile letters, but I hadn’t realized there were a number of cities that actively boycotted me. I run my hands over the cities—most far from Riverfarm on the map—and recall what Sacra said.
“Maybe they just don’t trust an [Emperor] who appeared out of nowhere.”
“Perhaps. But they might well be influenced by the other nobles to oppose you. Not just Reinhart—it would be just like her to work through fools like Lord Tourant rather than having to intercede herself.”
“Wait, Tourant has a hand in this?”
I frown, confused. Lady Rie sighs.
“Among others. His touch is particularly tactless; he is an old friend of the [Mayor] of Elkhan—here, your Majesty.”
She takes my hand and places it gently on a village. I hear Durene mutter something and Rie lets go. I feel the hard stone underneath my fingers.
“Okay, but what does that give him?”
“Any number of things. Refusing to allow trade caravans through if they’re carrying your goods, refusing to buy or sell…It’s meant to pressure your economy, your Majesty. Perhaps offer friendly lords like Tourant a better deal. That goes for military assistance as well. If you didn’t have your Skill and General Wiskeria’s army, it might be cause for alarm.”
Wiskeria. I nod carefully, searching for her with my mind. Ah, yes, there.
“Well, if they want to avoid us they can suffer the consequences. For now, I’m more interested in our ability to mobilize our allies. Say trouble arises, Lady Rie. Can we contact all of these settlements via [Message] spell swiftly?”
Lady Rie pauses for a moment.
“All of the larger cities, yes, your Majesty. The smaller towns…perhaps not. It depends on whether they have a [Mage] capable of receiving the spell. Most do, but others must be reached via Runner or messenger.”
“Good. In that case we’ll regard all these allies as my assets. And if we sign a treaty with Magnolia Reinhart and trade comes down the main roads…”
I trace my hands east and north, thinking. It would be valuable. And if her name makes some of these uncooperative cities open their gates…I keep thinking as Lady Rie talks with Prost about the pros and cons of interacting with a huge city like Invrisil.
“You may be able to secure enough trade and deals with nobles as it is, your Majesty. Lady Reinhart does not control every noble of Izril.”
Lady Rie sounds hopeful. I nod thoughtfully.
“True. Something to bear in mind. And of course, that’s what I have to do next, isn’t it?”
I straighten and turn. Lady Rie sounds relieved.
“Yes, your Majesty. We could debate Lady Reinhart’s…offer later. But for now I believe every adult [Lord] and [Lady] wishes to speak with you—privately. As do a few of the younger ones. Shall we entertain them in the meeting hall?”
I sigh. This is what I’ve been dreading.
“I suppose we shall.”
I meet them one-by-one or sometimes in pairs in my ‘throne’ room. They sit in chairs while I sit on my throne. It’s awkward, looking down on them and they seem to feel it too. But keeping them off-guard matters, and Lady Rie is there to ensure that she and I get the best deal for Riverfarm.
Not that I know what that is. I do know how to act, just not what I want. So when Lord Tourant comes in hinting about profitable trade deals, or Lady Fel hints that she might be interested in a trebuchet or two ‘for a friend’ and ‘as a matter of discretion’, I play my game.
An [Emperor]’s game. It’s quite simple. They hope to get something from me and dangle bait, offering me things both precious and petty. I respond by offering bigger bait for them.
“Why yes, Lord Tourant, I could see an exclusive trade agreement doing very well between our estates. If it’s an issue of gold, I might be persuaded to buy your entire harvest of—what was it you said you sold? Cotton? Yes, there’s certainly a need and I’d offer you, say, market price—but that is a large commitment to get into right away, wouldn’t you say? Oh, would you like another cup of wine?”
“Lady Fel, a gift of a trebuchet or two would hardly be fitting. Why not eight? For a friend—well of course this is all hypothetical, but I trust my people to produce them quickly and I feel that a gift would be appropriate for—what? Of course all eight! A gift of one or two would be miserly, wouldn’t it?”
It’s fun listening to people choke on their own saliva and greed. And promising gold for raw iron is entertaining as well. I don’t have gold. At least, not enough to pay for a tenth of what I’m proposing. But what I have now isn’t the point. It’s what I’m offering. It’s the image I’m creating. And as each [Lord] and [Lady] staggers out of my throne room, envisioning riches and having nothing more than the most tenuous of promises, my perceived wealth and power grows.
And that’s the point. I didn’t need for Lady Rie to explain that. I think she’s a bit intimidated at how easy it is for me, actually. But this is easy, in some respects. Flattery and using people against each other isn’t hard. Not like laying out a village is.
One of the final [Lords] I have to talk to is Lord Melbore. I clap my arm around his shoulders and sense him tense up, but I’m jovial, welcoming. And I forestall whatever he wants with a simple question.
“Tell me, Lord Melbore, where do you see your estates in a year’s time. In five years?”
“Me, your Majesty? Well, I—I would be quite interested in a deal with your empire. I’m told you’re generous to your friends, and between you and me, the market can be a cruel mistress. If I could persuade you to buy from me exclusively, I could see my estate booming in five years. I could double production as well if I had—”
I cut the man off as I shake my head.
“No, no. Grander.”
“Excuse me, your Majesty?”
“Think grander, Lord Melbore. I’m told your lands produce high-quality goods! Food, lumber, a modest business in fletching—but is that all you want to see out of your lands?”
“Well, I suppose I could see myself expanding—”
I cut him off again.
“Lord Melbore, I am an [Emperor]. When I came to Riverfarm, it was a small village. It still is, for all that it’s tripled in size. I look at your lands and see—well, I don’t see—unused potential. Don’t dream of doubling your profits in ten years. Dream of cornering the market, of becoming a byword, a staple in cities like Invrisil. How much money can you make? What do you have to offer? What could you do with an investment? Tell me, what could you do with an ally? A…patron?”
Perhaps I lay it on too thick. Perhaps some of them are intelligent enough to see that I’m offering them a cloud with nothing to back it up. But I can hear the gears whirring away in Melbore’s head and by the time he hurries out of my throne room promising me that he would be far better than Lord Tourant at getting me what I need, I know that my job is done. But I keep my guard up, because vague promises are easy to combat. It’s people who know exactly what they have and what they want that become trouble.
“Four thousand gold pieces for a trebuchet.”
“I can’t offer you one just yet, Lady Bethal.”
“It’s not a matter of gold.”
“Lady Magnolia has an interest in them.”
“Oh! Magnolia wants them? Why didn’t you say so to begin with? I’m hardly going to bother starting a bidding war with her—why don’t I order the ones after hers? I’d like ten—”
“Lady Bethal, I don’t know when they’ll be ready or what the cost may be—”
“I could offer you horses too, if you want. How does a hundred head of horse sound? Six hundred? I have so many! It’s quite interesting you know—if you have the right Skills it’s quite hard to fail at a business venture. Harder if you have a husband like Thomast. He’s very good with numbers.”
“Lady Bethal, please. I’d be happy to work out a deal, but not at this time.”
The lady peers at me.
“Are you sure? I’d hate to think I was missing out on the opportunity ahead of time. Couldn’t I reserve just a teensy trebuchet?”
“I assure you, when I am at liberty to sell them, yours will be the first name I think of Lady Bethal. I promise you, I am simply not able to accept your money—”
I glance over at Lady Rie, who’s giving me complex signals to take the money now! and sigh louder.
“—at this time. I’m sure I will send you a [Message] spell shortly. Very shortly, if Lady Rie has anything to do with it.”
“Well…I suppose I have no choice. In that case, I would simply like to extend you my warmest gratitude for your hospitality, Emperor Laken. You see, Thomast and I will be departing within the hour and while we would love to stay another night in your lovely, restful beds…we simply must go.”
The sudden change of topic nearly gives me whiplash.
“You’re going? So soon? I was under the impression you were travelling with the other nobles, Lady Bethal.”
She laughs lightly.
“I was! But Thomast convinced me it might not be in my best interests, so we will take our leave before they do. Honestly, he fusses so much about the company we keep…but yes, we will be going.”
“I see. May I send you an escort to my borders, at least?”
Another laugh. I just cannot read Lady Bethal’s voice or her posture—but for an instant I sense the thorny aura around her grow stronger. Caution?
“I fear I must decline. We’ll be moving swiftly, Emperor Laken. And I have two of my Knights of the Petal with me, and Thomast. No [Brigand] has ever troubled me.”
I consider this. It could be bad if she goes now. I have to ask.
“Then may I at least know the direction you intend to travel? As a precaution, you understand. I would hate for you to come to any injury on my lands and my patrols could at least ride ahead of you.”
Bethal considers my request and shrugs slightly.
“Mm. Very well. We’re headed west, I believe. We’ll be travelling by way of Yaist, perhaps staying the night there. After that…? Who can say?”
I think about that. West? Well then…I nod and smile politely.
“In that case, I can only give you my sincerest regrets for the dangers posed to your person while you stayed in my domain, Lady Bethal. And to you, Sir Thomast. I hope that you will remember me with fondness and that we may speak more in the future.”
Bethal laughs lightly.
“Oh, you are so polite for an [Emperor]! I am truly honored, your Majesty. Neither Thomast nor I take any offense. Although…would you consider selling us the tiny trebuchet? As a souvenir?”
Last but not least is Lady Bevia, and here I have to deviate from my meaningless platitudes because she has something I need.
“Lady Bevia? Might I trouble you for a small favor?”
“Of course, your Majesty.”
I smile and lean over the edge of my throne to Lady Bevia as she sips some tea. Lord Rael is not with her; he’s getting in more practice shots with the trebuchet. I understand it’s a competition now, and there’s over two hundred gold pieces riding on whomever can hit the targets placed first. At least the nobles are enjoying themselves.
“I understand you have a [Mage] among your escort that is capable of sending and receiving [Message] spells, Lady Bevia. Might I trouble you to borrow her for a small task?”
The old woman pauses and takes another sip from her teacup.
“That is a rather simple request, your Majesty. May I ask what this little errand might be?”
“Of course, Lady Bevia. And I would be delighted to tell you—afterwards, that is. I trust your discretion of course, but I fear I cannot tell you ahead of time what I am planning.”
Bevia knows I’m blind so her eyes narrow just a fraction before she stops herself. She taps her ring finger gently against her cup.
“How long would I need to place my [Mage] in your care, Emperor Laken?”
“Two days at most. I would consider myself in your debt, Lady Bevia.”
She ponders my request for a moment and then nods.
“So be it. Take my [Mage], by all means. But will I receive a token of trust in the same vein, Emperor Laken?”
I lean back, relieved. That was essential. I nod at Lady Rie and she hurries out, frowning. She doesn’t know what the [Mage] is for, but Wiskeria does. I smile at Lady Bevia, ready to pay for my favor.
“What would you like, Lady Bevia?”
“Nothing taxing. Perhaps a few facts, Emperor Laken. How did you learn to make those trebuchets, for instance? How do they work, exactly? Could anyone make them?”
Again, I feel a push at my mind, but this time I’m forewarned by Lady Rie and push back. I smile at the old woman as the charm effect fades from my mind.
“I can hardly give away the secrets of trebuchets like party favors, Lady Bevia. But I do have some intriguing treats that may be of interest to you.”
“Oh? What new delights will you tempt with today, your Majesty?”
“Nothing so scandalous. But there are a number of treats from my homeland that I have succeeded in recreating here. Many more I’d like to attempt, but my [Cooks] and [Bakers] can only do so much with my poor understanding. Still, I consider these quite passable. Tell me, have you ever had a Franzbrötchen? Don’t be alarmed. How should I put this—a cinnamon roll?”
I clap my hands and I see Lady Bevia’s eyes go wide with interest. Gamel walks forwards, the sweet treat on one of Lady Rie’s ornamental plates. I knew I could find a good use for those fancy things. And of course, there’s nothing quite like sweets for a bit of diplomacy. Especially if you know how to make cookies and no one else does. I smile and lean back in my chair.
It turns out Lady Bevia has a sweet tooth.
“You have the mage?”
“She’s ready. So is Beniar. I’m about to head out myself.”
Wiskeria nods to me. She’s saddling her horse, and all we’re waiting on are a few other riders loading their horses. Their saddlebags are stuffed, and Wiskeria’s own mount is similarly laden.
“You got everything you needed? Already?”
The [Witch] smiles and pats her restless mare on the sides.
“There’s enough hellebore if you know where to look. Your Majesty’s unique Skills also help greatly in that respect. We can send out pack horses and a small team to gather what’s needed. We should be able to collect all of my ingredients within the day and be ready by sunset.”
“You don’t need me to find any more?”
“No, your Majesty. We’ll be ready tomorrow at any time.”
I sigh in relief.
“Gott sei Dank.”
“Nothing. Sorry, Wiskeria. If I had to scan every single plant within ten miles of here and check if it was the exact one you needed one more time…”
She smiles at me and adjusts her hat.
“I apologize. But it was an emergency and your…talents are extraordinarily useful.”
“Don’t I know it. Well then, I’ll send word the instant something changes. But if not, contact me as soon as you’re ready and I’ll coordinate the rest with you tomorrow.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Wiskeria nods to me and climbs onto her horse. She gently kicks her mount and the other riders stream out of the village after her. I watch her go, feeling anxious, practically trembling with excitement and nerves, but sure, sure that there’s nothing I can do. I’m too far away and everything is in motion now. All I can do is wait and watch.
For the right moment.
I think the nobles are wearing out their welcome. They’re certainly running out of things to do as three straight days of trebuchet testing is enough for the most enthusiastic of them. Well, maybe not Lady Bethal. And I’m certain that if I actually let the young men throw themselves there’d be a lot more interest. But after eating all of my confectionaries that my hard-working [Bakers] struggled to make, the nobles are finally suggesting returning to their estates.
Lady Bethal’s departure prompted the idea, but no one’s quite ready to pack up just yet. The nobles seem fascinated by the speed at which Riverfarm is developing—I think I saw some of the nobles placing bets on how many houses my people could put up by sunset. And they also seem anxious to get a better deal than everyone else, so they’re hanging about for at least one more day. Which is good, because everything is happening today.
Entertain nobles at breakfast, endure meetings and private audiences until midday, lunch with Durene in private…everyone can tell something is up. At least, Prost, Durene, Gamel, and Lady Rie can. They knew me too well. But they’re all too loyal to ask, except for Lady Rie who keeps hinting that she might need to know if something’s afoot. She’d noticed Wiskeria and Beniar are both gone with part of the army, but she doesn’t know why.
I intend to keep it that way. And I do manage to distract myself with a moment of inspiration just past lunch. I was mulling over Magnolia’s proposal, thinking about what I’ll tell Sacra. I can sign her stupid parchment at any time—that just takes a second. But will I? I’m on the verge of tossing a coin and asking Durene which side landed face up.
And that’s when I had my brilliant idea. It came while I was watching Tessia try to explain to a group of new volunteers for the engineering team how the trebuchets worked. She was trying to explain the idea of gravity to her audience, something I’d had to patiently explain to her. And that was when it hit me.
It’s all so clear. All my tentative trade agreements and the proposals crystalize around my new idea, my new understanding of what the Unseen Empire should be. I lean over and poke the young woman snoozing next to me. Durene yelps and sits up with a start. She and I were sitting under a tree in the shade and she was resting after hauling trees around all morning.
“Durene! I figured it out!”
“Wha? What? What’s happening, Laken?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m awake, see? What did you figure out? Tell me?”
“It was an idea I had. Remember how we’re trying to figure out what we can offer all these nobles? Aside from the trebuchets Magnolia Reinhart doesn’t want us to sell, that is?”
“Yeah. You and Prost and Rie talked about it all day yesterday.”
“I know. You didn’t have to listen, you know. I kept telling you that you could sleep.”
“I wanted to be with you. What did you figure out?”
“Well…I think I’ve got it.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
“Just a second! I want to see if you get it.”
I grin teasingly and hear Durene groan.
“Just tell me, Laken! I can’t guess—I’m not smart like you!”
“You’re very smart, Durene. You just don’t like to admit it. Come on. Humor me.”
“Fine. What do I have to do?”
“Just think. What does Riverfarm have that we can sell, Durene? I’m not talking about basic trade goods like pigs, normal crops, and so on. That earns most villages and towns enough to survive. What I’m talking about is how Riverfarm, how this entire empire can make a profit. What do we have? Any ideas?”
Durene scrunches up her face, sighing and picking at the crumbs in the basket, muttering to herself.
“I don’t know. Crops? You were talking with Wiskeria about poisonous plants and all kinds of alchemical stuff you could sell just the other day. We could grow fields of that. Not that I want to pick poisonous plants by hand. You know she thinks nettles will sell really well? Nettles!”
I cover a smile. A [Witch]’s sense of value is definitely different than a farm girl’s.
“That’s true. We’re trying to cultivate some crops that [Alchemists] will buy up, but we have to feed ourselves first, Durene. Mister Prost will expand the fields as fast as he can, but that’s a long-term investment. What else do we have?”
She scratches at her head.
I laugh. Durene fidgets, embarassed.
“I told you I don’t know!”
“No, no! I’m laughing because you’re right, Durene! That’s true! The surrounding area isn’t nearly as developed as some places further north. But Izril is vast, Durene. And unused land is cheap, so long as you can protect it.”
“So it wasn’t right.”
“But it was a good idea. Come on, you can do it. What else do we have?”
“A…military? You can protect roads and charge people money because it’s so safe!”
I nod seriously. Durene is going through all the ideas I had. She’s not slow at all and I’m not as smart as people think I am, not by half. But I do have an advantage…
“That’s right. Assuming we could protect all our land, we would see more trade and people headed towards us. But that relies on us having a truly powerful army and ours is growing—”
I break off and grimace. I have the ability to levy soldiers, but the core of my army, my people are a few dozen [Riders] and a group of infantry who have seen only a handful of battles. My adventurers make up the best part of that force and they’re few in number. And yet—I turn my thoughts northwards.
I can levy a force. I can call on towns and cities and have them send me a few [Riders] each, a handful of [Archers], maybe some [Warriors], and that’s without there being a crisis. I can form an army—but I will need a bigger one. But perhaps for now…
“Huh? Oh, sorry, Durene.”
I realize I’ve stopped talking and clear my throat.
“You’re really close. But what’s the last thing we have, Durene? The last big thing?”
“No…but you’re really close. It’s related to them.”
“Um—um—is it—oh! Our [Engineers]! You can get Tessia and the others to build bridges and mills and all kinds of things!”
Durene’s face lights up and I give her a small hug.
“What? I got it wrong?”
“Not wrong…but I don’t just mean the [Engineers], Durene. I mean what they do. Engineering.”
There are some crackers at the bottom of the lunch basket. Durene slowly reaches down and takes one. She crunches it down.
“Okay. You—I mean, we have [Engineers]. But our big secret is engineering.”
I wait, triumphant and hear a munching sound as Durene cautiously eats another cracker. She thinks for a while longer.
“…Isn’t that the same thing?”
“It sort of sounds like it. What’s the difference?”
Crestfallen, I try to explain.
“Durene, do you ever wonder why people in this world suddenly get good at something? Like how someone who can barely cook can suddenly make all the basic recipes?”
The half-Troll girls thinks about this as she searches for another cracker.
“Really? It’s not weird how they can suddenly know how to cook, or fight?”
“No! They get a Skill, what’s weird about that?”
I shake my head. I guess it does feel natural to someone in this world.
“That’s not normal. What if you tried to learn something without a Skill, Durene? Why is it fair that someone has to learn all the steps in a recipe to make bread while someone else can just get a Skill and…make it?”
“It’s fair because they have the Skill. Sometimes people don’t get it so I guess they have to learn, but a Skill makes things easy, Laken!”
“Yes, but maybe it makes things too easy.”
“I don’t get what you’re saying at all.”
I run my hands through my hair, dislodging a leaf.
“Look at it this way. When I was telling people how to make trebuchets, I knew how they were made, but not all the details. We were experimenting all the time to figure out how to get them to fire without breaking, how to make sure the sling was the right length—”
“Oh yeah! Remember when it threw that stone straight up? That was so scary!”
“Right. We had to experiment, to test our results. But do you recall what happened the next day? Tessia became an [Engineer] and got a Skill. And then she knew the sling needed to be adjusted and the length shortened slightly. But she couldn’t explain why. She had an image of how the trebuchet was firing in her head, Durene!”
“Oh, like you do!”
“Exactly. And that’s the problem.”
Durene’s forehead wrinkles. I throw up my hands.
“It was too easy! All of our hard work, all of our calculations—it didn’t matter! Tessia got a Skill and she could finish the trebuchet!”
“Which is good!”
“No! It’s terrible! It means—it means we don’t learn anything! So what if Tessia can make a trebuchet? If only she can do it, what’s the point?”
Durene stares at me like I’m crazy. I lower my hands and try to tell her the big secret I hit on, the secret that ties in to something Ryoka told me once. This world doesn’t change. Technologies stay the same, civilizations rise, but then fall and what they create doesn’t last. The world doesn’t change as a whole. Why? Because of the system that governs this world. The system of classes that’s holding people back.
Instinct over knowledge. That’s what runs this world, what allows people to cook, build, create, and repair the things around them. Grace without skill. People act using their Skills and never learn how things work. They have a [Basic Cooking] Skill that lets them cook pasta—when they could learn to do the same by memorizing a recipe!
That’s the problem. And all of the grand things in this world, the buildings, armor, even things like candles, are a result of Skills, of individuals with levels. And when those individuals die, that knowledge is lost.
Some things are based off of actual science, like arch bridges or windmills. But too often, the [Builder] or [Engineer] constructing the bridge doesn’t bother with actual mathematics. They just feel where the keystone in a bridge should be placed, or rely on their Skills to tell whether something they’re building will or won’t work. And that means that too often, people won’t try new things.
Why should they? Their Skills can do everything they need, or someone else’s Skills can. Why write down the schematics for a trebuchet and calculate firing distances and weight and the carrying capacity of wood when an [Engineer] can figure it all out by themselves?
That’s the flaw the people of this world share. They can redesign or perfect, but not innovate. Without a fundamental education, new ideas can spread at a snail’s pace or worse, be lost. This is what Ryoka was talking about. This is why technology hasn’t evolved over thousands of years.
I try to explain all of this to Durene, but she struggles to understand it. Of course. She comes from a world where all this is natural. But I come from a world where learning is passed down, where people can’t get Skills so they either teach each other how to do things or don’t do it at all. And that’s what my big idea is.
“Teach them math, Durene. Teach them how to count, how to read and write. Make blueprints, teach people how to create new things without Skills or classes. Make it so anyone can learn to build a trebuchet and gain a class. If I can do that, then I won’t have one or two talented [Engineers]. I’ll have a hundred. A thousand.”
Durene’s eyes go wide as she imagines it. Riverfarm, exporting talent, hiring out our people to build bridges, construct and build across Izril.
“Wow. But wait—if everyone knows how to do things, what’s the point of getting the class to begin with?”
“There’s always a need for Skills, Durene! It makes things easier—that’s great! But we can’t rely on them. And if I can make gaining a rare class like [Engineer] a certainty, then I’ll have a monopoly on talent. That’s how Riverfarm will succeed. Not with one [Cataphract], but with a hundred. I need to figure out how to make people gain the classes I want. And to do that…”
It’s a little line in the middle of conversation as I stroll into the village with Durene by my side. An aside to the [Lords] and [Ladies] who come to me asking how these ‘cookies’ are made, horribly mangling the German names for sweets. I drop it into the conversation when there’s a lull.
“If you have too many hands, consider sending them here. I believe Lord Tourant was complaining about overcrowding? Well, we have no shortage of tasks to be done, and I would consider it a personal favor.”
The [Lords] and [Ladies] blink in surprise, but at once they’re willing to offer me some young folk, send a few families, half a village that doesn’t really contribute to their estate, to make the journey down the very safe roads. I thank them, smiling, and they brighten up, as if giving me free workers and people would take a load off of their shoulders.
“Of course I could spare a few people, your Majesty. Of course they’re free citizens, but between you and me, they’d jump at the prospect of greener pastures. You might have to take them in hand, but I’m sure there are one or two hard workers among the dregs…”
“I would consider it a favor myself, your Majesty! Too many families in one of my villages. As if they can’t limit themselves to two children at most! And they complain about a lack of jobs—well, they can find work in a city if they’re so hungry for coin!”
“You are too kind, Lord Tourant. By all means, let them know there’s work to be had here, Lady Fel.”
I smile and shake hands and when they draw back to descend on another tray of hot cookies, I shake my head. It’s too easy, sometimes. How did that saying go?
“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…’”
“What’s that, sire?”
I turn. Gamel is standing behind me, offering me a hot cookie. I nearly laugh, but then I take it and break it in half.
“Oh, nothing, Gamel. Just something I heard once. A lesson, really. A nation needs people to thrive. And talent, raw talent is worth cultivating. Here. Take this.”
I offer him half the cookie. Gamel backs away.
“I couldn’t, your Majesty!”
“I insist. Just don’t let the nobles catch you eating it. They might try to take it from you. Where’s Durene? Does she have one?”
I turn, taking another cookie from the plate as Gamel surreptitiously devours the sweet treat. Durene is hovering around the crowd of grabbing nobles, clearly wanting one. I smile and she turns and beams with delight. She’s never had a treat like this before; sugar is expensive and this is the first time I’ve recreated a food from home. I smile and laugh and make light conversation with the nobility and dance them along on a string. And all the while I wait.
Wiskeria is ready. Beniar is in position. The plan is set.
And it’s nearly time to surprise everyone.