(The Wandering Inn, Volume 1 is coming out as an audiobook! The narrator is doing live reading on her Discord, invite here! You can listen to her streaming most week days at 2 PM EST if you’d like to hear the audiobook being produced! Please be respectful on her server, and look forwards to the finished product!)
“Nawali. Nawali. Nawalishifra.”
The girl was lying down when she woke up. She heard the voice at first. Familiar. And she was being held, she realized. In someone’s lap.
“Nawali. You must wake up.”
Bezha called to Nawal in a soft, gentle voice. As she had done for many years, ever since she had begun helping to care for Nawal and her brother as children. And that name, Nawali—only she called Nawal that. An affectionate name she still used even though Nawal was grown.
The girl shifted. She felt leaden. Drained, and her lungs hurt. Her arms—she could barely move them. It was not an unfamiliar sensation. Hadn’t she felt that in the forge a hundred times before? It was the same pain, the same feeling that was an echo of the beat of the hammer or air in her lungs, fighting to explode outwards as she walked the smith’s labyrinth. It had broken other apprentices, her brother, and worn her father down.
But that was only half of the feeling in Nawal’s chest. The other half was like a hidden sunrise in her. She felt good, though she didn’t know why. At first she struggled to remember. Was it the triumph of forging a sword? No, not necessarily. That sword of steel was just that; a sword, far from a masterwork for all it had been done pure. Why was she happy?
And then the girl lying in the warm embrace remembered. Her eyes opened. An older, lined face smiled down at her. Bezha. And clustered around were some of the other women. No Silmak. No Hesseif. And no…Trey?
Nawal croaked. The woman nodded. She held something and Nawal felt cool liquid at her lips. Instinctively she gulped and tasted a sour, bitter liquid. But refreshingly cool.
A stamina potion diluted with water. The thing for exhausted bodies. Nawal felt some strength enter her limbs. But she didn’t rise yet.
“Nawali, you must get up. Do you have the strength for it?”
Nawal was exhausted. All she wanted to do was rest. That was her right, wasn’t it? Part of her, the sleepy part, resented even having to speak and be awake. But Bezha was insistent.
“Up. You are tired, this I know. But you must be up. Don’t make me pinch you.”
“Why? For what? I finished the sword. Isn’t it…”
A yawn cracked Nawal’s mouth open. She didn’t feel the veil on her face. Of course; they must be in a woman’s room, where men were outlawed normally. Bezha shook her head in answer to Nawal’s question.
“It is not the sword. The sword was made perfectly. But you must be up. He has mentioned your name. And already they are gathering in the banquet hall.”
The word sparked something in Nawal’s chest. She peered vaguely up at Bezha. Part of her still felt like a young girl in a younger woman’s arms, rather than an adult held by her aunt.
She saw Bezha’s eyes widen incredulously. A light flick across the temples; Nawal winced. But it was an affectionate tap.
“The King of Destruction, of course. Don’t you remember?”
And then Nawal did. The shining caravan, the King of Destruction riding at the head of the group, the roar of his citizens. The moment she’d laid eyes on him again and realized that the legends were true.
The happiness in her breast leapt and rose. Nawal slowly sat up. And it was the [Blacksmith] of the Tannousin clan who let the others help her change out of her sweaty, smelling clothes and into a more colorful dress. But it was the young girl who walked out, followed by her clan. Rejoicing, laughing and smiling as she entered the banquet hall.
Because the legends were true. And Nawal walked into the banquet hall and heard the roar of sound. She saw a room heaving with people, a room that could hold over a thousand still crowded by soldiers, servants, and…people from the city. Citizens, come to see their King. Feasting, drinking. And as Nawal’s eyes travelled up the room, she saw him sitting at a table halfway up the room. As if he’d forgotten to sit at the head table. But there he was, sitting with a group of awestruck children who looked up at their King.
At the head of the room sat the grand table, heaped with delicacies. And there sat Orthenon, eating efficiently as he talked brusquely with a soldier on his left. On his right was the empty chair. And past it was Teres, staring at Nawal. Then Gazi, then Trey.
But they were all the background. Nawal stopped. She’d seen him. And so had Clan Tannousin, who paused behind her.
Silmak, who’d forgotten the speech he’d prepared. Hesseif, who rubbed his eyes like a boy. And Bezha, who looked younger, like Nawal, remembering a hundred tales as they looked at the [King] leaning over and inspecting the food on a young girl’s plate. His red-gold hair flashed in the light as his head turned.
And a myth came to life. A story turned, and the girl inside Nawal smiled. For there stood the King of Destruction. And before he spoke, before she realized her impropriety and knelt, and Silmak stammered a greeting that was lost in the noise, before Nawal recalled the King of Destruction’s darker tales and apprehension and the other mortal emotions overwhelmed the feeling, for just that moment, Nawal smiled. And he smiled too.
That was the kind of [King] he was.
“No one speak anything ill of him. Do not mention his slumber, or his enemies. Make no promises and offer no insult no matter what is done. Never forget why we are here, and where we are.”
As they sat at the tables near the head banquet table, Silmak hissed at the rest of his clan. All thirty one other men and women, from Bezha to the youngest, all nodded, and those that did not hear nodded as his instructions were passed down the table. It did not need saying, honestly, but they felt better hearing it. Nawal, who sat next to Silmak and Bezha, felt unsteady. She looked around, at the sea of faces.
She didn’t remember Silmak’s awkward greeting to the King of Destruction, or what the [King] had said. Or rather, she remembered it in flashes. Entering the vast banquet room with all eyes on her for a moment as Flos of Reim returned to his seat at the head table. And now they were sitting, feasting as he sat there.
And it wasn’t a situation where Flos was sitting at the head of the room and where Nawal could turn and stare at him from afar. No, it was more like—
“Ah, I would that you had been with us, Trey. I wonder what you would have made of the Quarass. As for Hellios—well, your company on the road would have been appreciated. Teres tired of answering all my questions, I think. And Mars, Venith, and Maresar all had to remain, at least for the moment. Perhaps Orthenon could take you with him to Germina?”
Nawal heard a slightly indistinct voice over the background noise. She heard a laugh, and then a dry voice, even closer.
“I fear my journey must be swift, my lord. So I shall travel alone. Although if you wish it—”
A chuckle. Nawal’s skin tingled.
“No, no, Orthenon. It was a joke. I have at least eight questions to ask Trey, and I don’t think his presence would be helpful in Hellios. Where I suspect you’ll spend the longest.”
“You do trust the Quarass of Germina, then, my lord?”
That voice was soft. Female. A pause and then—
“Let us say that I looked into her eyes, Gazi. And I judged her to be true when she agreed to work with me. If nothing else she is brave; and that is to her credit. The last Quarass was craven. This one will not be, so she will be a fine ally or enemy. Either way, Orthenon need not linger there overmuch, although he will visit Germina first. But tell me, Trey. What’s this I hear about—”
If she turned her head, she could see him. Here was the thing. It was not like most banquets, where the ruler and his guests of honor would sit at the front of the room, staring across their diners. Flos, the King of Destruction, was eating in the center of his banquet hall, and for some reason his table was so close to his diners that you could lean over and hold a conversation with him.
Nawal could hear every single thing Flos said, and while some of the other people at his table were out of earshot, he was far too close for her to relax. She stared at the food on her plate and realized she’d eaten some of it. And it was good food! Delicious, or at least, she thought so. But she could feel Flos’ presence to her right, and it distracted her. The other diners too, who listened covertly to him speaking. Until he spoke her name and her heart stopped.
“So tell me, Orthenon. What passed in my forges before my arrival? You mentioned something. And Clan Tannousin are my guests this night. And you Trey, spoke of your acquaintance. Nawalishifra, a female [Blacksmith]. I sense that something has occurred. Where does Daiton fit into this?”
Clan Tannousin froze in their seats. Nawal felt sweat suddenly run down her clothes. Orthenon neither laughed nor made small talk, either of which might have been preferable, even if it delayed the anticipation of the events reaching the King of Destruction’s ears.
“My King, I heard only half of what transpired. But from what I understand, Clan Tannousin’s smith disputed the quality of Master Daiton’s work. They competed to forge a sword.”
“I have the results of both. I wished to wait until after the dining to present both to you. Again, if you wish it…”
“No. No, I believe I shall wait. Ah, how exciting. And…intriguing. You saw the entirety of the affair, Trey? Speak up! I can barely hear you.”
Nawal chanced a glance to her right. She saw Flos leaning over, past a girl who was looking at a boy too much like her to be coincidence. Trey had mentioned he had a twin sister. But he was speaking to Flos! A mere servant? Hah! Nawal tried to disappear in her seat and saw Silmak feverishly take another gulp of wine and refill his cup. She didn’t hear what was said, but she sensed the rest of her clan’s eyes on her.
“Be calm. Be calm, Nawali…”
Bezha’s voice whispered to her. Nawal nodded. She wanted to reply that she was calm and the sands take her eyes if she was not! But she wondered if that oath might actually induce blindness in this moment.
The King of Destruction had heard of her rash bet! But—Nawal comforted herself—he would see the rightness of her statements. She had forged a blade that the so-called master blacksmith Daiton could not. For all his layering techniques, his sword was simply inferior in quality to the steel in her blade. He might have an aesthetically pleasing blade, but put to the test, her sword would break long after his had shattered to pieces. And hers had held an enchantment!
“I see. I see. Tell me the rest later!”
Flos straightened and Nawal breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon as it turned out. Because no sooner had Trey sat back than a voice, louder and audible to Nawal, cut in.
“My lord. Might I speak into your ear?”
Gazi Pathseeker raised a hand. Nawal glanced swiftly up at her. She froze. Gazi was staring right at her with all four eyes. Two immediately shifted over to Flos as the King of Destruction, bemused, leaned over.
“Very well. What is it?”
Gazi turned her head to whisper to him. But two of her eyes were still looking at Nawal. And the [Smith] girl suddenly had a terrible, terrible premonition. Because Gazi’s smile was every bit as evil as the rumors said.
“Oh. I see. Really? And…what did you say?”
Flos listened for a second, half-smiling as Gazi kept whispering. Orthenon, glancing over at them, frowned at Gazi, and Teres, who was having to lean back for the entire thing, glanced up sharply. At Nawal. And then, horror of horrors, Flos’ head turned to look at Nawal.
She felt her heart stop for one shuddering second in her chest. That would have been enough to plague Nawal’s dreams for a month. But then the King of Destruction stood up. And the banquet hall quieted slightly as the King of Destruction spoke in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
“Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. Might I exchange a few words with you?”
He looked at her. Nawal stood up. She couldn’t help it. And though she knew she should not speak to another man who was not a foreigner, Flos clearly desired a reply. And one did not refuse the King of Destruction.
“Your Majesty. I am honored to be your guest. I—we of the Tannousin Clan are honored to serve you.”
She’s said honored twice! But Nawal was speaking around the huge lump of sand in her throat, and she felt awkward and stupid. She bowed very low. Every eye was on her. There were voices still speaking, but most were listening to the King of Destruction. Flos smiled at Nawal and inclined his head.
“And I am honored to have a smith of the Tannousin clan in my lands. I hear—but time enough for that later. For now, Nawalishifra Tannousin, a rumor has reached my ears. A bit of gossip from my vassal, Gazi Pathseeker.”
Nawal glanced at Gazi. If looks could kill—but the Named Adventurer was grinning, and her looks could kill. Nawal’s voice trembled.
“A—a rumor, your Majesty?”
What could Gazi have said? And then Nawal remembered and her blood froze. No, not that. But it was too late. Flos was nodding.
“My loyal vassal, Gazi, tells me you think my days of glory were exaggerated. She tells me you were disappointed by what you saw of my palace. Is this so?”
The banquet hall went silent. It wasn’t a gradual silence, the last of the voices fading away, or even a sudden hush. Everyone just stopped. And this time Nawal felt the looks pierce her like spears. Orthenon looked up from his already-empty plate.
I meant no disrespect. Don’t kill me! Please forgive—
Nawal’s stuttering voice cut off as Flos held up a hand. The King of Destruction didn’t look angry. If anything, he was smiling gently. He looked around at the others. There were not a lot of friendly stares, but the [King] captured their eyes before he spoke again.
“You are correct.”
Nawal breathed again. Flos held up a hand against the murmur of protest that rose up. He gestured around.
“Is it not so? In times past, my city was grander. And this was but one of the kingdoms that flourished. Perhaps my towers did not pierce the clouds, and perhaps the streets were not filled with gold, but yes, Nawalishifra. There were legends then.”
His subjects quieted. They looked and nodded, changing their minds from anger at the insult to…nostalgia? Flos gestured around.
“I recall a time when banquets in this castle were so plentiful that we could have filled every room and not had enough space to stand. Then again, this room is already overfull. But in those days, I recall standing outside and seeing every house filled with guests sitting on roofs. And [Lords] figuring out how to balance plates on thatched roofs. Do you recall that, Orthenon?”
“Yes, my King. As I remember it, five of our guests fell and broke bones.”
“They did, didn’t they?”
Flos looked around at the room. And Nawal, still standing stupidly, saw more than one head nod. She stared at older faces in the crowd. And there was that sense again, of legends becoming reality. They had been there. They had seen it.
That great head swung back and Nawal stiffened again. But the smile Flos gave her was disarming.
“So fear not, Nawalishifra. I take no offence from your words. If anything I agree, and wish I could grant you the sights of old. But I cannot. And the fault of that is mine alone. I, who slumbered.”
He spread his arms, a cup of wine in hand. And who would gainsay the King of Destruction? Flos shook his head, but then he turned to a man sitting at his table. A [Mage] in robes. And next to him, two other [Mages] who sat across from some Stitch-People, warriors to look at them.
“Ulyse! Jelaim! Will you give our guests but a taste of what glories there used to be?”
The group looked up. Nawal vaguely recognized the [Mage] with the bright yellow parasol who stood and gave Flos a bow. Ulyse of Parasol Stroll smiled slightly.
“It would be our honor, your Majesty. A small entertainment. Mirin? Palke? Asimi?”
The four [Mages] stood. And they swept across the table. Nawal felt a hand tug her down as the [Mage’s] walked past her, down the center aisle of the banquet hall. She saw Bezha gesturing her down and sat. But she looked back at Parasol Stroll. They walked towards the double doors in the center of the room and turned their backs to the room. Nawal, the audience, saw them raise their parasols. Unfold them.
Four brightly colored umbrellas opened. Only, they weren’t quite umbrellas. They were small, meant only to block the light. The four parasols twirled behind the [Mages] for a second, hypnotizing. Ulyse’s yellow-and blue parasol spun, hypnotizing the audience with their colors. And then as one, Parasol Stroll turned. And vanished.
It was like they’d turned a page in a book; as their bodies rotated, the rest of them that should have been there never appeared. So they turned and disappeared from sight. There was a slight gasp at that, but anyone who’d seen an [Invisibility] spell had seen something similar. The real show began a moment later.
Every light in the room suddenly went out. Candles, orbs of [Light], braziers—all vanished. Nawal felt a moment of panic, and then realized the room was lighting back up. A blue, ephemeral light took the place of the darkness. And then, soaring upwards were butterflies.
Blue. Gold and violet. Red like blood. Pink and green and orange. Turquoise and magenta, every color imaginable. Even puce. They fluttered up from a man’s hands. And Ulyse’s words echoed.
“To the King of Destruction! To days of old, I present to you a small performance from Parasol Stroll. Watch, oh guests of Reim. And remember the light shows of old.”
He gestured. And a hundred more butterflies sprang from his fingertips, flying over the heads of his guests. The bright little things changed, became swooping owls and eagles and other birds. They flew up, circling the banquet hall. They flew up and up until they reached the ceiling and dove.
The audience ducked as the birds landed among them, but the light did them no harm. The birds shattered like glass against the ground, their bodies breaking into shards of light that bounced across the room and faded. When they looked up, Ulyse was gone.
“The King of Destruction.”
No one could tell where the voice came from at first. Then, suddenly, it was distinct. They turned back towards the doors and saw Mirin. Her parasol was indigo and teal, and it was spinning behind her. Faster and faster. She raised a hand, and from the ground, from the stone floor and air, suddenly there was water.
It rushed up around her, a river of liquid that shot up to the ceiling far overhead. It flowed around the [Mage] encasing her but never touching her. The water rushed past her, crashing down in a wave that dove over the heads of those seated. Again, some ducked, but the water didn’t touch those seated.
It crashed over and passed under the other tables. And there were cries of shock, because it turned out the illusion of water was no illusion after all! People jumped up as the water soaked their boots and feet. But Mirin just pointed, and the water rushed down the center aisle, a wave rolling towards the King of Destruction’s table, right past the Tannousin clan.
Nawal reached up, and felt the water run through her fingers and down the hall. The King of Destruction laughed as the towering wave built and stopped in front of him. It crested and broke over his head and froze there. And vanished, falling into nothingness. Flos reached up and a bit of water landed on his palm, melting away like liquid snow.
Laughter broke the awed silence. From the back of the room this time a group of people walked forwards. Not Parasol Stroll, but the Serpent Hunters. There were eight of them, all armed, and they carried curved daggers tipped with black venom. They stood four by four in two lines and began tossing the blades at each other.
Those nearest them ducked away, but the Serpent Hunters caught each blade and tossed it back, juggling it in the air first at the person directly across from them, then in a pattern, the first to the fourth, the second juggling every blade that came back to them, the third throwing alternately to the first and the forth, and so on.
The Serpent Hunts walked down the hall, juggling their weapons, and then, before it could dull, suddenly grabbed their weapons out of the air and tumbled sideways, placing their backs to the King of Destruction where he’d turned to look in his chair.
Jelaim, the leader of the Serpent Hunters, strode down the hall. He called a challenge and his eight warriors mockingly took it up. They threw their weapons at him, first two, and then four daggers. They passed within inches of Jelaim’s cheeks, sides, one through the gap between arm and armpit as he walked forwards in a sauntering pace. Then the warriors threw eight, all towards his chest.
They were going to hit! Jelaim paused. He bowed as the daggers flashed at his chest—then towards his face! There was a gasp—
And a [Mage] appeared. His parasol spun, red and black, and the daggers went flying! His parasol knocked them aside as if it were as strong as steel. The daggers flew erratically, but the [Mage] snapped his fingers and they halted in the air. He folded his parasol with a flick, and then waved it in the air, tracing something burning in the space above his head.
And then sparks filled the sky. They drifted down, bright, glowing embers of light. Only, this spell went wrong, because rather than go out or burn harmlessly, it turned out they were quite real! Half the audience ducked under the tables as the burning flames landed and the abashed [Mage] waved them away. Jelaim laughed as he bounded onto a table.
“To the King of Destruction! Serpent Hunters, a show of arms!”
Two of his warriors unsheathed longer blades, a shortsword and a scimitar. They lunged at Jelaim and he dueled them both, his blade flashing across the table as they pivoted and whirled, both lashing out with real envenomed blades, but never touching each other in a display of perfect skill. And then the [Mages] returned as one and cast a spell. And Nawal and the other members of the audience looked up and gasped. They laughed; they shouted in horror and cheered.
For here were miracles. Here was magic and might and a sight to delight the eyes! But as Nawal watched, as her eyes travelled back to the laughing [King] on his throne and saw his boisterous laughter replaced by a melancholy smile on his face, she wondered what wonders had passed in this very room in days of old. Her heart hurt to imagine what had been lost.
The display went on for half an hour. Between the Serpent Hunters doing a few duels that took several minutes, and three spells from Parasol Stroll going wrong and taking a bit of time to clean up, there was ample time for Nawal to rediscover her appetite and clear her plate twice.
When it was over, Parasol Stroll swept the King of Destruction a bow alongside the Serpent Hunters, and the applause filled the room, even from the group of people that were slightly singed, wet, or smelled mildly of turnips.
“My gratitude, Ulyse, Jelaim! You have captured a bit of the past, and for that I thank you.”
Flos got to his feet after the show had ended. He commanded silence, and had it. The King of Destruction looked around and down at Orthenon.
“We have feasted my return. And welcomed our guests from Clan Tannousin! But now, I think, it is time. For I have heard there was a dispute between my [Smith], Daiton, and Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. It seems both have forged a sword. And it falls to me to decide which is the better work. Is that so, Orthenon?”
“That is the quarrel as I understand it, your Majesty. And both blades are present. Master Daiton.”
Orthenon stood up and gestured. The servants hurried to the back of the room and returned with a blade, wrapped in black cloth. At the same time a man sitting at one of the tables nearby stood.
Daiton was pale, as he stepped forwards. The King of Destruction turned, and Nawal and Silmak were already on their feet. They approached the King of Destruction as he stepped around his table and regarded both Daiton and Nawal. The young woman’s heart was beating out of her chest, but she enjoyed a moment of satisfaction at Daiton’s trembling knees.
“Master Daiton. You have one of your blades to show me?”
Words failed Daiton for a second. He simply held up the sheathed blade. It was a lovely one, and the sheathe was made of a bright leather crisscrossed by a rich red thread and betokened with a gold-leaf adornment on the tip and handle. And when Flos unsheathed the blade, there was a murmur of admiration.
A blade gleamed in the light, and those close enough to see saw the delicate pattern of steel that Trey had mistakenly called true Damascus steel. But anyone with eyes to see—and that included Orthenon, Gazi, some of the warriors including Serpent Hunt as well as the King of Destruction himself—could tell that it was just a pattern of steel. And as Flos smoothly unsheathed the blade and swung it, it did tear the air with a pleasing sound.
But that was it. It was a sword as good as you could find in many [Blacksmith]’s shops. Perhaps better than a low-level smith could ever craft, certainly a worthy blade for anyone who needed something of steel. But that was it. It was sharp. But no one would sing legends of this sword.
“I see. A fine piece of work, Master Daiton. One of your blades fit for an officer, or perhaps even one of the nobility. The steel looks beautiful, as does the patterning.”
“Your Majesty honors me.”
Daiton hung his balding head, muttering. He shot a glance at Nawal and she returned it, full of scorn. If he had not boasted of his work, or challenged her, perhaps it would not have come to this! But then Orthenon was gesturing and Flos laid Daiton’s work aside so the blade draped in black cloth could be revealed.
“This blade is the work of Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin, my lord. But the enchantment on it comes from Parasol Stroll.”
“From them? You mean, this blade was fit to be enchanted?”
Flos’ eyes sharpened as he reached for the cloth. Orthenon nodded slightly. Flos glanced around. To Nawal’s surprise, he looked straight at Teres, the girl who looked as plain as Trey sitting beside Gazi. Flos held her gaze before addressing Teres and the room.
“A blade cannot be enchanted unless the metal is exceedingly pure. And I am told Tannousin steel is so. But this was forged with Daiton’s metal, was it not? So let us see—ah.”
The note came as Flos pulled the black cloth back. And the sword that the servants offered to him shone in the light. Nawal heard a susurration and felt her tense back straighten a bit.
A gleaming sword forged of pure steel rose in Flos’ hands. It had a simple handle with no guard, made of wood and carved in haste—that part wasn’t enchanted. But the metal of it, the single-edged blade slightly curved and given a wicked slashing edge was magical. Still, even had there been no enchantment, it would have still competed with Daiton’s ornate blade on looks alone.
“I see. This is a beautiful sword, isn’t it?”
Flos lifted the blade and swung it through the air. His hand blurred and Nawal heard a gentle sound; the blade cut air without much noise. Flos balanced it with one finger, changed hands, and swung it with one hand, then two. He made the blade appear graceful in his hands; he knew how to use it like any master, Nawal could tell. He inspected the edge, tapping the blade thoughtfully, then tried to flex it, holding the back and handle. The metal barely flexed. Flos looked thoughtful.
“Enchanted by Parasol Stroll. Ulyse. Do you claim to have placed the strongest enchantment you could upon the weapon?”
The [Mage] nodded.
“To our ability, yes, your Majesty. If we were more than four, we could have done a stronger enchantment. But linked, we were only able to place one of strengthening on it. It is still a match for most blades in terms of quality.”
“Hm. I see. Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. Do you claim this blade is worthy of the enchantment it bears? Would you put your craft against Daiton’s as you claim?”
Flos turned to Nawal. She gulped, but in this at least, she was defending her clan’s pride. She answered back as boldly as she could, her voice quavering only a bit.
“As the sands are my witness, I do, your Majesty! I call insult to the blades served by a master to the King of Destruction! They are not of pure steel, and not worthy to be called a master’s work. My steel, humble though it may be and woman-forged, is barely worthy.”
A ripple went through the audience and Daiton’s face drained further of blood. Flos only nodded.
“I see. Then I will test your claim.”
That threw Nawal. Did he mean to slice Daiton’s sword with hers? Hers was enchanted! That alone proved it was of better quality than his. But Orthenon seemed to know what Flos meant. The [Steward] gestured at the servants.
“Bricks. Here and here, to hold the sword up. Ten for each side. And a sledgehammer, I think. A maul will do if one can’t be found.”
The servants rushed out of the hall. Flos nodded. Nawal and Clan Tannousin stared in mounting horror as they saw what was happening.
Ten bricks of stone were carried in. They were placed on the ground, piled up, forming two columns. And on that column Nawal’s sword was placed, supported on both tip and handle. Next, a huge sledgehammer, capped by a heavy striking head for breaking stone—or armor—was brought to the King’s Steward. The man carrying it handed it to the King of Destruction. With one hand, Flos casually lifted it from the base of the handle and held it out as his audience watched.
Again, the King of Destruction turned and addressed the table behind him, ignoring the horrified look on Nawal’s face.
“I believe I once told you, Teres, that a proper sword, with a proper enchantment could survive a blow from a warhammer. But the metal that makes the sword must be fine to hold the enchantment, and forged just as perfectly. If the blade is weak, or the metal imperfect, the magic is likewise flawed. So. This is my test of Tannousin’s craft.”
Then he turned back to the sword resting on the blocks. With one hand Flos lifted the sledgehammer, and before Nawal could close her eyes, brought it down on the center of the blade held up in the air by the bricks. She saw the sledgehammer connect perfectly in the center and heard a crash of sound.
And her sword crunched. Not the metal—but the handle and sword tip! With nowhere to go, they tore through the bricks piled up underneath, cracking them with the force of the blow. The sword itself barely even flexed, but the bricks shattered and the sword tumbled to the ground. There was a burst of sound, but hardly louder than the roaring in Nawal’s ears. She stumbled and Silmak caught her. But there, in the remains of the bricks, dusty, but perfectly intact, was her sword.
Flos held the hammer to the servant and bent to pick it up. He inspected the blade and shook his head.
“Unharmed. A strong enchantment and the metal itself is just as powerfully made.”
Nawal felt light-headed. She smiled victoriously behind her veil as Flos turned to Daiton. The man was looking down at the crushed blocks, swaying on his feet. He looked like he might faint.
Flos had to say his name twice before the [Smith]’s head jerked up. The King of Destruction gestured to Nawal’s sword in his hands.
“Daiton. This sword is beautiful. And I think, beyond what you have made. Do you dispute this?”
“No. No, your Majesty. I cannot. It surpasses my own. And—Nawalishiffa of Clan…she did it in a day. With my steel, sire. I cannot match that feat.”
Daiton whispered. Nawal’s excitement faded as she saw the old man had tears in his eyes. Daiton slowly looked at his sword and bowed his head.
“I’m ashamed. But I will retire my hammer. I cannot call myself a master if a smith half my age can outperform me so. None of my blades could hold such an enchantment.”
He turned to go, stumbling, but Flos held up a hand.
The man stopped and turned back. Flos held up Nawal’s blade. And he glanced at Nawal now.
“Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. Daiton is my master blacksmith, and I gave him my charge of forging my armies their arms and armor because of his skill. You have placed a superior blade in my hands. But I have a question for you, Nawalishifra. Do you then claim you can do Daiton’s work? Provide my armies with steel for all the tens or hundreds of thousands who join my rank?”
He gestured towards the sword he held. Nawal gulped. A hundred thousand? She could barely forge one sword every day, and she’d forced herself to get one done! If she had to refine metal for more blades, even if her clan helped her, no, even if she had apprentices…
Silmak broke in, his voice high with nerves.
“Your Majesty, I am ashamed to say that would be impossible, even for the best smith of the Tannousin. We forge a single blade of masterpiece slowly. We could never hope to supply an army, let alone the numberless warriors who serve the King of Destruction.”
“I see. But that is what I require from my master of smiths. Daiton may not produce a blade of this quality, but his swords are strong steel and he can make enough to outfit an army. Hm. It is a quandary. On one hand, I cannot deny the fact that Nawalishifra’s blade is the better one. But if she cannot produce more than a single blade, am I to give the rest of my [Soldiers] rocks?”
He glanced meaningfully around. Orthenon nodded briskly, and some of the other warriors in the room were doing the same. Then Flos’ eyes settled on Nawal. And suddenly, she had a horrible realization.
Of course Flos knew Daiton wasn’t able to produce blades worthy of enchantment. Of course he knew Nawal was the better smith—probably before he’d even seen the blades! He was the King of Destruction and a seasoned warrior in his own right. He had to know the quality of Daiton’s blades. But he was content with that.
And he was right—he didn’t need enchanted blades for regular soldiers, just good steel, produced as fast as Daiton could manage it. But Nawal had challenged him and in doing so, insulted the King of Destruction in his halls by showing his smith up.
But he was giving her a chance. Nawal forced saliva into her mouth and spoke up loudly.
“Your Majesty. I—I cannot forge steel as fast as Master Daiton. I am slow, and my purpose is to make and forge Naq-Alrama steel. In that, I will humbly serve, but I could never replace your master of smiths. I humbly withdraw my sword from comparing it to Master Daiton’s, and beg your forgiveness—and his—for the insult.”
She bowed as low to the ground as she could. She heard more voices around her, and then a quiet again. Flos nodded.
“Raise your head, Nawalishifra. I do not take offence. And I am grateful to have laid her eyes on a blade this peerless. As for Daiton, I think he is humbled in his own way, but I think the matter is closed.”
Nawal did raise her head. She saw Daiton nodding fervently, and nodded as well.
“I beg for forgiveness, your Majesty. I did not mean to bring insult, and I did not realize the difference in what was sought. I only saw the…the quality of metal.”
Flos inclined his head. He turned to face the rest of the room, and in doing so, picked up Daiton’s blade. He held both side by side.
“Well and so. Remember this, to all who listen. Yes, I do not expect any enchanted blades from my forges. But Master Daiton’s art is in his way, peerless. For he makes [Smiths] out of apprentices with ease and can create swords I am proud to give my [Soldiers]. I would not ask him to make me a blade capable of slaying Dragons. But when I call for my armies, I know they will be armed with the finest steel he has made, and count myself lucky to have his services.”
He looked back at Daiton and bowed his head slightly. Nawal heard someone bang on the table—Jelaim, banging his cup. And then there was applause. Daiton looked up, tears in his eyes, and knelt shoulders shaking as he wept. Flos looked at Nawal.
“My smith indeed. I commend Daiton and his apprentices. And yes, I do need blades that can be enchanted. But that is why you have been summoned, Clan Tannousin. I expect you to live up to your reputation as the peerless smiths of the desert. You have already proven your skill. Continue to do so, and I will reward you with my gratitude equal to your labors.”
He looked down at Nawal and Silmak. And the two knelt, and both pledged to forge Flos the greatest blades of Naq-Alrama steel he had ever laid eyes upon. And Nawal meant it. As she rose and shook Daiton’s hands and apologized again to the teary-eyed smith, she saw how Flos had engineered all of this night so that neither Daiton nor Nawal would bear the offence of her petty feud.
And she admired him. Admired and feared. But she was no longer petrified as she sat down in her seat. She looked up at him as he sat, still inspecting her blade and chatting to his [Steward] and wondered if this story might be told about the Tannousin clan fires someday. That of the foolish girl [Smith] who had challenged herself against his [Blacksmith] and failed to best him. Would they say she was foolish for missing the point? Or that the King of Destruction had cleverly twisted it so that the outcome was a draw? Would they tell legends of her?
Now that was a terrifying, and incredible thought.
The banquet ended. Oh, there were no doubt other events of note, at least from Clan Tannousin’s side, wonders and things to think deeply on, but to the King of Destruction, there was less wonder and more mundanity. He enjoyed himself of course, but Nawal was right that he had tasted delicacies and hosted banquets that people still told stories about. So the food and drink was a passing pleasure and Flos retired after two more hours to his room.
There he summoned Orthenon, his [Steward]. The man was actually waiting outside his door, having anticipated Flos’ summons. He slipped in as Flos was sitting with a cup of mulled wine.
“I’ve been thinking, Orthenon. Trey and Teres both call me by my name, usually without honorifics. It’s been so long and the casual appellation is somewhat delightful. People in their world are usually so informal. Would you ever consider doing the same?”
The [Steward] paused as he came to sit across from his ruler.
“I don’t believe I ever would, sire.”
“A pity. Gazi said the same thing. Mars tried it, but she gave up.”
Flos sighed. He hadn’t really expected anything different from Orthenon. It was a mark of their bond that Orthenon even sat in his presence; he was a man who believed in formality, and though he was as much friend as vassal to Flos, he couldn’t bear to be too informal. As one might expect of a man who’d been raised in the Drath Archipelago.
“Never mind. I’ve given you my instructions regarding the Quarass. I don’t intend to keep you—will you set out tonight?”
“As soon as we finish speaking, your Majesty. I will send Venith and Maresar back. Then Mars when I reach Hellios.”
“Good. I could use Mars. And Gazi too, if her eye were healed. You and they are the only things keeping our enemies from assaulting us. They fear you, and rightly so.”
“They will have more cause if Germina and Hellios’ armies both join with yours.”
“True. But even then, do you think that Nerrhavia would fear us? Or Fetohep’s armies of Khelt? No, no. It is my Seven that shook the world the first time. And I fear that without all of my Seven, this undertaking may yet fail.”
Orthenon was silent for a moment, and Flos knew he was taking his words seriously. Of course. Orthenon had plotted Reim’s strategy countless times and he was the one who had led their armies to devastating victory after victory along with Queravia.
“Takhatres is stalling the Empire of Sands himself. But when he returns we will have two armies, and one of them devastating by any measure. If we have time, I can bring you an army that could fight even a coalition of states with you leading them and Mars and I supporting. And should Gazi heal, we won’t need to watch our backs. However…”
“We still lack for [Mages]. Yes. And that is a void only filled by Amerys.”
The two men fell silent. Flos stared into his cup. Orthenon stared at him, then the window, which reflected the dark desert and city of Reim.
“It is not like her to be silent, your Majesty. If she truly did turn traitor—”
Flos held up a hand.
“What is there to betray? I left her, and my kingdom. Her wrath would be expected. Ah, but Orthenon—I’d expect her [Message] at least. I’m sure Wistram has something over her, but to think they could hold her this long? Even with two Archmages, I would still place my faith in her.”
“Perhaps there were three.”
“Perhaps. Wistram has not deigned to answer my challenge. And I must have Amerys. Orthenon, I am troubled by her absence. But I realize I cannot dwell on it. Germina is now our ally, or so I hope, and let that be enough to give other nations pause. If the Quarass…no. You will do as you see fit. Enough, let’s talk of something happier before you leave.”
Flos sat up and smiled at his old friend. Orthenon gave him a brief smile as well. Someone could mistake him for being emotionless or cold. But that was only because they had never seen Orthenon’s wrath, or heard him laugh. Such events were rare, but Flos cherished each memory.
“As his Majesty wishes. Then, what of the sword you held? How is the sword of the Tannousin smith?”
Flos raised an eyebrow.
“Fine? It was a sword of pure steel. I’ve held similar enchanted weapons before. But—then again, it is excellent work for a single day. I wager half the Dwarf [Smiths] I’ve ever met would be hard-pressed to pull off such a feat.”
“I agree. I had reservations upon seeing a female [Smith] from the Tannousin tribe. But they have brought Naq-Alrama steel. Do you intend them to forge you a personal sword?”
Flos waved his cup idly.
“Well, one would be nice to have. My old sword was enchanted quite wonderfully, while a Naq-Alrama sword is but a mage-killer. I was thinking of asking for a spear for you, Orthenon. And blades for Takhatres on top of a sword for myself. What do you think?”
The King of Destruction was pleased by the grin that lit up Orthenon’s face.
“I would be delighted.”
“I thought you might. Naq-Alrama steel is worth paying a fortune for, even if we get only a handful of weapons out of it. But if I can convince this Nawalishifra to stay, I would benefit from more weapons of that quality. It will be tricky, but Trey has a way with people, or so it seems.”
Orthenon frowned. Flos knew he didn’t quite like Trey as much as Teres, and still regarded the twins as oddities, potentially dangerous ones.
“I confess that I do not know Trey as well as you do, my King. But you have an eye for people I lack. If his presence may persuade the Tannousin clan, by all means let him stay with them. He was part of the impetus of today’s bet.”
“Ah. You see? I must have a talk with him tonight. Send him here as you go, would you?”
Flos laughed hugely. This was what he enjoyed. The randomness and unpredictability of people. Gold was stagnant, and magic got old. But people? Each one was different, and those that interested him seldom failed to disappoint.
Orthenon pensively watched as Flos took a drink of his wine.
“In truth, I still wonder about her competence, your Majesty. Nawalishifra looks too young to be a full-blooded [Blacksmith] by her tribe’s standards. She is obviously quite good, but I once heard that a [Blacksmith] had to be Level 40 to work Naq-Alrama steel.”
“So did I. And yes, I doubt she’s at that level. And the actual forging of a blade is only half of a [Blacksmith]’s work. Preparing the metal is just as important. But her father apparently forged that ingot before his passing, so perhaps it is in her capabilities. If it isn’t? We will see.”
The [Steward] nodded. That they would. He cast a glance towards the door and Flos knew their time was nearly at an end. He grasped for a few more sentences before they left. Something fun. Idle chatter. He would miss Orthenon for however long the man took to settle Hellios and Germina. The task might take him weeks or months, but Orthenon never protested, no matter how arduous his work.
“A funny thing. I’m told Naq-Alrama steel is twice as tricky to forge as mithril, but no one speaks of adamantine.”
“Perhaps because few know how to forge it themselves. And it is such a rare metal.”
“Easy to miss, or so I’m told. I heard a [Miner] once dug up a huge vein. He thought the stuff was useless, so he sold it to a [Bricklayer] to make cheap bricks of. It apparently isn’t that hard unless processed.”
“It is not.”
“Ah! Then that explains it. You see, one day a Dwarf from Terandria visited the city the [Bricklayer] was working in, and he came across a wall built of the stuff. Can you imagine, Orthenon? Enough metal to make several breastplates of pure adamantine, baked into the side of a crumbling wall!”
Flos chuckled and Orthenon smiled.
“If I spot any, I will bring it back, my King. But I must be off. Have you any surprises to offer me before I go?”
Flos did. But he knew that would prompt a final discussion, so he’d been holding it in until the last moment. But now was the time. He sighed as he put his drink aside and leaned forwards.
“A few surprises, but all necessary as I will convince you, old friend. Firstly, I intend to issue an edict, Orthenon. An edict, and perhaps reform one of the units of old.”
“That would be welcome on both counts. Have we the resources for a unit?”
The [King] shrugged.
“We brought back some treasure from Hellios and Germina. I will see, but it is on my mind. But the true surprise for you and the world is that I’m planning on conducting in that most displeasing of enterprises. Diplomacy. The world waits for me to declare war again, and the kingdoms and nations of Chandrar already plot my downfall. So I intend to give them something else to think about.”
Orthenon’s brows shot up and together sharply. He hadn’t expected this, which made Flos happy. If he hadn’t, it was likely no one else would be expecting this either.
“What do you intend to send to the other nations of Chandrar, your Majesty?”
He had a wary look on his face, as if he might have to physically restrain Flos—as he’d done more than once—from making a stupid mistake. But Flos was confident Orthenon would see the merit of this plan. He smiled broadly and sat back in his chair.
“Peace, Orthenon. I intend to issue a world-wide declaration of peace.”
A bark of surprised laughter came out of Orthenon’s mouth, a moment of true levity. He laughed, and Flos committed the moment forever in his mind. But the King of Destruction didn’t laugh with Orthenon. He raised one eyebrow.
“It wasn’t a joke.”
Trey Atwood sat in the banquet. He ate in the banquet. He had some of his hair catch on fire in the banquet when one of the Parasol Stroll mages did his fire trick. He watched Nawal during the banquet. This was what Trey Atwood did.
He thought Nawal looked very relieved after she sat down at her table, but he didn’t get a chance to talk with her. And she disappeared too soon afterwards. He hadn’t seen her after he’d caught her from fainting—and nearly been tackled by that huge guard, Hesseif, and Bezha, who may or may not be Nawal’s mother.
But it didn’t surprise Trey, honestly. Nawal and her entire tribe had looked overwhelmed by the King of Destruction’s scrutiny—and his presence. And she had already collapsed once from her task of smithing, so they retired quickly after the banquet started winding down.
That left Trey with Gazi. Only, Gazi left the table first, and Flos and Orthenon left shortly thereafter. And so Trey was left with Teres at last.
Trey had eaten during the banquet. And chatted to Gazi, and watched the show, and worried for Nawal. What he hadn’t really done was talk to Teres. Things were still awkward between them.
Oh, they’d said hello. Trey recalled them reuniting after the week or so apart. She’d found him playing with his sand sprites and wondering to himself if Nawal would be okay.
“Hey. I’m back.”
“Oh. That’s grand. How was it?”
“Good. It was—okay, here’s what happened…”
And they’d talked. And Teres had given Trey a full accounting of what had gone down with Flos and the Quarass and Hellios and he’d been properly amazed and asked questions, but at no point had he sat down right next to her and leaned on her shoulder or vice-versa. At no point had they began talking so fast their words overlapped, or hugged each other or…or felt close.
They felt like friends. Or family members. Or like brother and sister, even, but not like twins, which is what they were. So close they could sometimes know what the other was thinking. But now Trey couldn’t tell what Teresa thought. She had changed. And so had he.
They’d fought. And they still hadn’t figured out how to come back together. Trey wondered if they ever would. He wondered if they should. They’d been so angry at each other at the time.
Gloomily, Trey picked at his food. He kept glancing up at Teres because he had the feeling she was doing it when he wasn’t looking. Finally, there was a point when they both looked up at the same time and caught each other staring.
“I was just—”
“Okay, fine, but it’s only—”
They stopped. And grinned at each other, because they’d had a moment of simultaneous understanding.
What? I was just checking to see if you were checking. Okay, fine, but it’s only because I want to talk to you. Idiot.
She missed him after all. Trey scooted closer, taking over Gazi’s spot. Teres rolled her eyes.
“You think she sat between us on purpose?”
“Could be. She’s like that. Sometimes she’s nice—”
“She is! But she hides it. I told you. And sometimes she likes being mean. Like she was to Nawal. But she’s never really mean—”
“Tell that to his Majesty. He told me all kinds of things on the road. Gazi’s dangerous, Trey. She was a slave once, you know that?”
“Well…he found her and raised her and I guess she was a lot more timid. But she became one of his Seven by killing a lot of people. A lot.”
“I know. She said she got to be one of Flos’ best vassals by playing up being scary.”
“I don’t think scary’s the right word. Here’s what I heard she did once from Flos. There was this spy, and she ate both his eyes and then—”
“Excuse me, Sir Trey. His Majesty requests your presence at once.”
Trey and Teres jumped. They saw one of the servants beckoning to Trey. He swallowed a moment of disappointment and then an impulse to tell the servant to go away. That might work on Flos, well maybe, but his servants treated the King of Destruction’s words like law, and they would drag Trey if need be.
“Me? But—what about you, Teres?”
He looked at his sister, hoping she would come with him. But the servant just shook his head.
“His Majesty ordered only your presence. This way.”
He was already impatient. Teres made a face.
“I bet he wants to talk to you about all kinds of stuff from our home—”
She waggled her eyebrows, although Trey wasn’t sure how secret their secret really was to begin with.
“—to you. I couldn’t handle it. Go on. I’ll talk to you tonight.”
“Promise. And you can tell me about that veiled girl. She’s a [Blacksmith]?”
Trey sighed as he saw Teres’ disapproving look to where Nawal had been. He slid out of his chair and followed the [Servant], who set a quick trot through the castle.
The [Servant] pointed Trey to a room Trey was vaguely familiar with. It wasn’t Flos’ bedroom, but a sitting room Flos sometimes used. It had a lovely view, and a balcony. The King of Destruction was using that when Trey entered the room.
“Ah, Trey. I’m grateful you’re here. Thank you—Eim, isn’t it? Your father used to deliver me a nightcap when I was younger.”
Flos thanked the [Servant], and Trey found a seat rather than look at the way the manservant’s eyes would light up. He heard the door close after a moment of conversation and Flos came over to sit down. The King of Destruction smiled at Trey. He had a cup of wine in his hand, half-empty.
“It has been a long time since we spoke, hasn’t it? A week? It feels like months! Would you like a drink? Something else to eat?”
“No thank you, your Majesty. I was talking with my sister. We hadn’t seen each other either.”
Trey pointedly glanced at the door. Flos paused, and Trey felt a moment’s pinch of conscience. Flos was nothing but kind mostly, and aside from the slave thing, which Trey had been forbidden from bringing up (and had given up trying because Flos wouldn’t listen even when he tried), he was good to talk to. But Trey couldn’t bring himself to be as casual and say ‘Flos’ like Teres did. And he was peeved about not speaking to Teres.
“Ah, my apologies, Trey. I’d forgotten the bonds of siblings. No, twins. But I hope you two will chat tonight. Teres did mention missing you on the road.”
Trey perked up a bit. Flos smiled.
“Don’t tell her I said that. I won’t keep your overlong. But I did wish to call you here to talk. You know it eases my mind to talk to you two.”
“Is this more stuff about history? Teres said you pestered her all about war and our world.”
Flos shook his head, which relieved Trey a bit.
“No, no. I just wanted—well, a willing ear, I’ll confess.”
The [King] looked actually embarrassed as he shifted in his seat. Trey looked nonplussed so Flos explained.
“You see, Trey, it is enjoyable to see your reaction as someone not of this world. You are one of a handful of people I am able to speak to without a level of…distance. As a [King]. And explaining concepts to you, or informing you or Teres of my plans helps firm them in my mind. I used to do that to the other of my Seven back in the day. Not Mars, or Gazi—or Orthenon—Mars is a terrible listener at times, Gazi gets bored, and Orthenon is too serious and too sharp.”
“Who’d you talk to, then? Takhatres? Amerys? Or…the others?”
Trey tried to remember the other three of the Seven. Drevish he knew, the [Architect]. But the other two were…
The [King] noticed Trey’s moment of hesitation. He smiled sadly.
“Takhatres was good to talk to. Amerys was almost as poor a listener as Mars. The three you’re thinking of are Drevish, Queravia, and Tottenval. They were my companions of choice for these kinds of talks.”
“Why not? Well, perhaps because all three had different qualities. Drevish was an [Architect], one of two of my Seven not suited to war so he had no patience for grand strategies. He would listen and give me his frank—and quite sharp!—opinions. But he would listen, and his ideas were fascinating, as you might expect from someone who could build a castle out of water in the desert.”
“He did that?”
“Oh yes, to prove he could. It used up so much magic and Orthenon was so furious…but it was a grand sight, and I think I gave Drevish an entire vintage of wines to celebrate. Ah, but where was I? Drevish was one, and Tottenval another. Both cared little for war. Have I told you about Tottenval?”
“No. Only that he died at sea.”
“Yes. It was…he died saving my life where no one else could. And he was no warrior, but a [Gardener]. Not even a magical one. He made Reim bloom and fed my entire kingdom. A Beastkin from Baleros. I will tell you of his passing someday. But not today. Not now.”
Flos shook his head, a shadow crossing his features. He took a long drink of wine, as if to banish it.
“Tottenval was good to talk to, mainly because he was so incurious. I would tell him some grand scheme Queravia and Orthenon had concocted, or of our latest enemies and their might, and he would say, ‘so?’ As if it were the most mundane thing in the world! That would only make me try and describe the magnificence of what I saw to him even harder, until he got it or I realized how trivial the matter really was. The perspective of a [Gardener], Trey.”
Trey nodded, trying to imagine Tottenval in his head. He wondered how he had died. And how he had saved Flos’ life.
“I get it. But what about Queravia? Weren’t you…”
This time Trey was afraid to say it. Hints from Mars and Gazi had helped him here, but Flos’ expression had changed. It wasn’t just grief, and the King of Destruction’s fine metal cup bore the imprint of his hand when he lowered it this time.
“Yes. We were close. If that was what you were asking. Who told you? Mars? Gazi? Someone…no. Another topic. Another time. Yes, I loved talking with her just because her company was enjoyable. That was all.”
Flos got up and refilled his goblet. Trey stared at his back until Flos sat down again. This time the King of Destruction shook his head.
“Another time. Why did I bring that up? Ah, merely to say that I enjoy talking to you and Teres in the same way, Trey. And I would like you to know more about my enemies. You see, I’m about to put into place a rather daring plan—at least in some senses of the word. But I’m not entirely confident in it. Or rather, I suspect only some of my enemies will accept my proposal and I’d like to think over the others.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“Send a message. Which reminds me, if anything lands on the balcony let me know, would you? I’m expecting a guest before I retire.”
Flos pointed over his shoulder at the balcony. Trey craned his neck around, frowning. The King of Destruction waved at him to sit back down.
“Later, later. For now, a little lesson.”
“I get those from Gazi every day. And Orthenon too!”
“Ah, but do they teach your geography? The affairs of other nations?”
“Yes. All the time.”
The King of Destruction looked put out.
“Well, I’m preparing my own lesson. How well do you know the other nations bordering ours? Belchan? Jecrass? Khelt?”
Trey squirmed in his seat.
“I can point them out in a map. But I need to see one.”
“A map? I could order one brought, but maps of nations are always changing. And if I do that, I’m liable to spill this wine at some point and Orthenon will kill me if I ruin…no, I have a better idea. A moment!”
He raised his voice. Trey didn’t know who was listening, but the door instantly opened and the servant, Eim, poked his head through.
“Your Majesty has a wish?”
“Parchment and ink, please, Eim. Scrap parchment I think, but large enough for a table. And…hm, these tables are too short. A larger table.”
The door closed. Trey stared at Flos.
“You’re going to draw a map?”
“Of course. It sounds entertaining, and I do know the various nations. But while I wait—there was something else I was going to do, Trey. Issue an edict and form a unit.”
“What, like a proclamation? And why a unit?”
Trey frowned at Flos. The [King] chuckled.
“Sort of. I’m not talking about regular edicts and units of soldiers, though. I’m referring to a [King]’s Skills. It’s past time you learned more of mine.”
“Isn’t it dangerous for me to know?”
“Dangerous as in secret? No, I imagine most of my Skills are well-known. And I want to explain this because I’m wrestling with which edict to issue. You see—hm, how should I explain this? Well, you know that as a [King], many of my Skills affect my kingdom, don’t you, Trey?”
The young man nodded. Flos nodded as well.
“It’s a boon, especially if you consider how large a kingdom can be. And a single Skill can do…ah, so much! Now, generally kingdom-wide Skills are rare, even for rulers to obtain. I have a few, like a Skill that allows my soldiers to level up quicker. That is a very powerful Skill, if a low-level one for a [King] specializing in war. But just having it can make my nation more powerful than one without a high-level [King] over time, you see?”
Trey did see.
“So your powers affect your kingdom, but not yourself as much. That’s why you’re weaker than Mars in battle.”
“Exactly. Her Skills are almost all specific to herself. But mine affect more people. Both have their merits, but one thing a ruler can do is issue…temporary Skills. Or should I say, conditional Skills? For instance, I have the power to issue an edict over my lands. But only one, and should I issue another, it will replace the first.”
“Oh. That’s exactly like a video game. Like a buff. I get it.”
The King of Destruction paused, looking miffed.
“I’d forgotten how much these video games of yours resemble this world. I must try one on that phone of yours.”
“It’s out of battery, remember?”
“Hm. Yes. Drat. I recall. If only there was a way…you had that cord thing, don’t you? Maybe Ulyse could charge it. He can conjure lightning, if not as much as Amerys.”
Trey sincerely doubted Ulyse’s ability to conjure electricity would do anything but fry his iPhone, but he nodded.
“Maybe…but go on about edicts.”
“Hm, yes. I can only have one. And before you say that it is a simple task—an edict shapes my will and my kingdom. I cannot change it as easily as one might change boots. It’s just like blessings, honestly.”
Flos waved a hand.
“A type of Skill that monarchs gain. Again, you may only have one active. [Blessing of Rains], for instance, was considered a wonder in Chandrar because it guaranteed regular rainfall, however little. I have one, and only one. But edicts? I have three. And each is powerful, but comes with a cost, so I have not been willing to use one yet. But with three nations nominally under my control, it is time to use one.”
“Okay then. What are they?”
Trey leaned forward, a bit excited despite himself. Flos took a drink, smiling.
“Neither Drevish nor Tottenval. Well, my edicts are, [Edict of Bloom], [Edict of Silversky], and [Edict of the Blooded]. Care to guess what each does?”
“Er, I don’t know about Silversky, but one sounds like restoration, and the other like war.”
The [King] looked pleased.
“Correct! The [Edict of Bloom] revitalizes a war-torn kingdom. Ideal for Germina and Hellios, although we’ve hardly razed much. But Reim would benefit. It allows crops to grow quicker, wounds to mend, children to be born and conceived more fruitfully and quickly among animals and people—”
“Wait, born quicker? That’s not on!”
“Why not? A child will be born in six months fully formed rather than nine for a Human mother.”
“But you can’t just—wouldn’t it make her hungrier or—how does that work?”
“I think mothers do get hungrier, but the time of plenty affects all things, Trey. By contrast, [Edict of the Blooded] boosts preparation for war. All those with an inclination to fight level up much quicker and those with the talent for battle discover it.”
Trey thought that sounded reasonable. Mothers giving birth faster and crops growing sounded like way too much power to him. He saw why Flos had waited though; with Germina and Hellios under his command, he’d have lots more crops growing, and in the spring too!
“Okay, but what’s [Edict of Silversky]? Does it turn the sky silver?”
“No. But it does change the weather. I think the Skill comes from the nature of silver as a pure metal, rather than anything else. You see, I gained the Skill during a particularly bad set of sandstorms that threatened my kingdom. The [Edict of Silversky] is a purifying edict. Under its effects, lies are difficult to tell, the weather balances, and hostile presences find themselves unwelcome in my kingdom. Most importantly, it frees the dreams and feelings of my subjects from negative influence, and that is sometimes more than just external. Those who find themselves plagued by sadness or fury without reason calm, and I consider it the best of my edicts to use in times of peace.”
“Huh. That does sound nice. It almost sounds like that edict uh, purifies bad thoughts. Like someone with depression. Imbalances in the head.”
“You think so too? We did talk about medicine, didn’t we? If only we had some [Doctors] from your world. Hm. But yes, it is a valuable edict and the one with least consequence. But I fear it will be the [Edict of Bloom] or the [Edict of the Blooded] I call upon.”
Trey frowned and sipped from his sweet cup of grape juice. It was excellent, really.
“What’s the negatives of using either edict? Shouldn’t a Skill be helpful?”
“Edicts are temporary, Trey. As such, their effects are more pronounced, and there are disadvantages. The [Edict of Bloom] may invigorate my lands, but it is also a time of strife, for monsters will take advantage of the rapid growth as well. Too, the rapid growth takes nutrients from the soil and as you pointed out, mothers require more sustenance, as do animals. It is intensive on the people, for we may reap harvests and grow, but it takes work.”
“And the [Edict of the Blooded]? Wait—do people get violent?”
“Ah, you understand. Yes, my people train to war, but it encourages them towards battle, sometimes with tragic results. If I used it, Hellios might see more rebellions by young men, and I would receive reports of higher rates of injury among my soldiers. It is a tradeoff.”
“What does the [Edict of Silversky] do, then?”
“It simply makes things calm. Pure to the extent that it is sometimes agonizing. No harsh weather, no great storms, no lies—imagine not telling a lie for a month, Trey. People crave excitement, if in small amounts. It is an edict I use after a long time of unrest.”
Trey nodded. Now that Flos said it, all three edicts sounded like trouble in their own way.
“So which will you use? Will you use any of them?”
“I must. It is an advantage I cannot turn down. And I think—yes, I think the [Edict of Bloom] is the one I must use now that I say it out loud. War may be imminent, but it is spring, and there is no better time for it. We will be able to reap two spring harvests or an earlier autumnal harvest this way.”
He gently slapped his hands together. Trey flinched, expecting the edict to begin right then and there, but Flos just shook his head.
“I will issue it tomorrow. It requires at least a bit of ceremony and I wouldn’t spring it on my subjects. They will know what to expect. Now, onto units. If I explain edicts, we should explain units before my servants return.”
He gestured at the door. Trey blinked, wondering why it was taking them so long. Flos grinned.
“They’re probably trying to find a table they can fit through the doors, and parchment worthy of me writing on it. Never mind. Units are simple, Trey. And they are a Skill that reflects across [Generals] as well. We may designate a group to have certain…qualities. To be granted powers simply be inducting new members.”
“You mean, like a group of warriors who all have flaming swords?”
“Ah, exactly. Except that if it’s my Skill, they don’t need to have enchantments on their blades. Their swords will simply burst into flame when they draw them. They’ll have burning armor too, I suppose, although that would be inconvenient.”
Trey’s jaw dropped. He’d only meant that as an example!
“That’s good too! Why haven’t you made one of them yet? Wait…”
Flos was twirling a finger, smiling. Trey thought and applied a video game’s logic to the answer.
“…You can’t yet because you haven’t met the requirements.”
“Ah! A splendid answer! That’s exactly it, Trey. I have several units I could call into being and none of them I can yet form. Some units are simple to create—such as only needing some [Riders] to form a cavalry-based unit like [Driftwind Riders], who always have the wind at their backs. But more powerful units require certain conditions be met. For instance, a group of riders who also all wear heavy armor to become the [Steelshorn Relentless]. In which case their armor—which was already a pain to deal with—becomes twice as thick. Thankfully, they weren’t immune to lightning.”
Flos sighed as he poured Trey a refill of his drink. Trey gulped some more down.
“So how’ll you fix that problem?”
“By checking on how many enchanted blades we have. I don’t need too many, just a hundred or so—”
“—to form the weakest of my units, yes. Even if all the blades are only slightly magical, turning a hundred soldiers into a unit would make them considerably stronger in battle. But I don’t think I took that many. The Quarass’ treasury and Hellios’ had gold and other artifacts I’ll have Gazi sort through, but not quite enough blades.”
Again, Flos sighed. Trey choked on his wine.
“You robbed both treasuries? I thought you allied with the Quarass!”
The King of Destruction tugged on his beard.
“Of course. But I still need gold and her artifacts were going to waste. I will share with her of course, but as our armies will fight together, my officers need them most. Venith’s shield is enchanted, but he could use some enchanted armor like the old days. And if I had a few artifacts for Parasol Stroll…”
Trey sat back in his chair. That was Flos for you. One second talking about the benefits and demerits of Skills, the next casually robbing kingdoms of their treasures. He heard the door open.
“Your majesty, sincerest apologies for the wait. We have a chair and table as well as the parchment and ink—”
“Ah, Eim, wonderful. Place it here. Trey, move these chairs back.”
Ignoring the servant’s protests, Flos casually pulled his chair back and they brought a huge table in with six men. And parchment and ink. Trey stared at it as it filled the quiet sitting room, quite out of place, but Flos seemed pleased.
“Thank you. That will be all. Trey, gather around here. Time to the heart of tonight’s little discussion. I am going to show you Reim’s enemies. At least our immediate ones.”
He laughed heartily. Trey walked around the table to Flos’ side. The King of Destruction was already dipping his quill into the ink pot, murmuring to himself as he drew.
“Let’s see. I suppose I’ll start with Chandrar, shall I? Not all of it, since the perspective needs to be closer. But if I do the eastern and northern parts…there. And here’s Reim. You see it?”
Trey did, and he’d seen the map of Chandrar enough times to know it looked like a lowercase ‘R’, at least, that was how he thought of it. The western half was longer than the eastern, but it was wider than it was long. Okay, a really stretched lowercase ‘R’.
But what had shaken Trey when Orthenon had first pointed them out on the map was how small Reim was. Flos didn’t seem to mind, and he pointed out the little blob of Reim proudly to Trey.
“We are in the northeast of Chandrar, one of the countries bordering the great desert. As a consequence, Reim is dry, as are the nations around us. Germina, Hellios, especially Khelt…you see? Germina is north of us, Hellios northeast. Both are so close by so they contributed most to the army that attacked Reim.”
The King of Destruction drew two small nations up from Reim. Trey squinted at the map, confused. It didn’t look like the one Orthenon had.
“Hold on, Fl—er, your Majesty. I thought Reim didn’t border Hellios and Germina until now. It was even smaller than this and there were some cities between us. Which you took over.”
Flos waved a hand.
“Of course. Not all lands are held by one kingdom. There are individual cities here and there, areas ruled by tribes…lesser countries who come and go around Reim to the south here. I’ll just draw a few of the ones that I know. But I excluded the ones north of Reim and the others because I can’t be bothered to draw every single one in.”
Trey protested. Flos turned to him.
“I could conquer one of those cities or states with Mars and five cats, Trey. Don’t bother with the small details.”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall if anyone heard that. Trey almost felt sorry for the [Kings] and rulers Flos casually ignored with the strokes of his quill.
“There. You see? We have those smaller countries bordering our south I can’t be bothered to remember. Poor lands, by and large—really a no man’s land. To the north was Germina and Hellios, both our former closest enemies. Our most dangerous at the time.”
Trey nodded, biting his lip.
“But you took them out in two battles, so they weren’t all that strong, were they?”
Flos turned to Trey, looking astonished.
“Of course they were! Trey, these were both established nations with hundreds of years of history—thousands in Germina’s case. It’s old beyond belief, one of the four remaining Shield Nations!”
“Yeah, but its power has waned, right? Or—or it’s still a small nation.”
“Compared to some. But it could still command respect from around Chandrar.”
Flos frowned at Trey, looking deeply troubled by Trey’s blasé attitude. Trey frowned at Flos, deeply confused by Flos’ respectful attitude.
“But you beat Germina and Hellios like that! I was there!”
He snapped his fingers. Flos shook his head, sighing.
“Trey…both nations had strong armies. Both nations have power—streng—they had cunning rulers, at least, Germina did. And they were known quantities not to be ignored. Germina is known for its [Assassins] and Hellios its [Knights]. And stonework. That I defeated both nations isn’t due to their weakness; it’s due to my levels and the fact that Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi all rode with me on these nations.”
“So even though they were strong…”
“Am I called the King of Destruction or not?”
Flos smiled, looking very amused by Trey’s stupid look.
“Trey, what you fail to understand is that my level is truly high, as are those of my Seven. A big nation—bigger than Germina—would have one or two individuals at most who could equal one of my Seven. And a [King] of my level is an even greater threat. As it stands, most nations on Chandrar I could defeat with Mars, Orthenon, and Gazi at my back in an open battle, even with only Reim’s army. It’s when they join forces they threaten to overwhelm me.”
The casual arrogance—no, the casual confidence in Flos’ voice reminded him again of who he was talking to. Flos, who could talk about squashing a country larger than Germina as if it were a sure thing. He shook his head.
“Okay. But now both countries are yours. What’re you drawing now?”
“All the countries that could threaten Reim, at least in the short term. You see this nation to our west? Khelt. And these two northern countries north of Hellios and Germina? Those are the Republic of Belchan, to the west, and the Realm of Jecrass, respectively.”
Trey peered at all three nations. Khelt bordered Reim, at least, according to Flos’ map. And Belchan and Jecrass were both around Germina and Hellios in size.
“Are any of these nations dangerous?”
Flos hmmed for a second.
“Belchan is home to one of the [Mage] schools in Chandrar, not nearly as famous as Wistram, but still important. Moreover, it is a fruitful place—you see, it gets more water, as do the nations on the coasts. Jecrass is known for its fine horses, and I know their [King], Raelt, of old. But he was ‘only’ on the level of the Quarass, so I suppose both nations are ‘only’ as militarily powerful as Germina and Hellios.”
He gave Trey a sardonic look over the map. Trey hunched his shoulders defensively.
“Okay, I get it. They’re good nations.”
Flos laughed, and reached out and ruffled Trey’s hair. Trey held still, wondering at the odd familiarity of the gesture.
“Good, but not the most powerful. You are right in that. Their northern neighbors actually concern me. As does Khelt, but I think their [King] won’t move. If they did, Reim might be wiped off the map!”
Flos laughed heartily. Trey nearly dropped his drink.
“What? But you said—”
“Khelt is a terrible nation to fight. I learned that the hard way. Don’t worry, they’re unique. And their [King] isn’t prone to starting wars. But if they fight on their lands or around them, the armies of Khelt are insanely difficult to beat. After all, I can’t demoralize them, they don’t tire, and that damn Fetohep can bring back more and more…”
The King of Destruction grumbled to himself as he stabbed Khelt a few times with his quill. Trey stared at him.
“What? No, only the army. I’m not actually sure about Fetohep. Ah, it might be wise to send someone in person to deliver my message to him. Venith, perhaps. He can be touchy and the last thing I need is one of his armies demonstrating his ire. But happily, his nation is one of the few that doesn’t outright hate mine!”
Flos brightened a bit. Trey did not. He stared at Flos, then at the map.
The King of Destruction had kept on outlining countries as he spoke, taking time to make them properly squiggly, as Trey saw it. Two nations appeared north of Belchan and Jecrass, and a very large kingdom appeared south of Reim, only separated by the tiny strips of no-man’s land. To the left, Flos drew a few other states, a long strip of a country, a weird, tiny circle, and two more nations. Then the King of Destruction flexed his hand and grimaced.
“A cramp! This is so taxing! And these countries are annoying to draw! I think I’ll skip our eastern and western borders. There’s not much to draw, anyways.”
“But you’ve just done the north and south!”
Trey protested, pointing at the nearly empty space east and west of Reim. Flos shrugged.
“To the west lies the desert, past Khelt. The Empire of Sands is across that desert, but no one will threaten our western side. Except Khelt. And the eastern coastal nations are a mix. Some are large enough to threaten us and powerful—but they are too far, at least for the moment. There’s a little desert over here, you see—well, I forgot to add it in. It doesn’t matter. These are the nations that concern me most at the moment.”
He tapped the map. Trey stared. Four nations north of Hellios and Germina, including Belchan and Jecrass, the huge nation to the south of Reim, and four smaller countries to the southwest.
“Hold on, I just need to outline the rest. I’m making up the borders, but it’s so tiring to draw Nerrhavia. But this looks close enough to a proper map…there was this bit that looked like part of a square over here where the Sarmathi ate a section of Nerrhavia, wasn’t there?”
Trey watched as Flos leaned over the parchment, glaring at the tiny details he was adding, all apparently from memory. But it was apparent he was losing patience as the minutes dragged by and Trey drank more wine from his cup. At last, Flos threw down his quill.
“Ah, but this is a tiring business! No wonder [Cartographers] are so difficult to come by! Enough! I won’t bother with the rest.”
He held up the map and showed Trey triumphantly. To Flos’ credit, it did vaguely resemble the maps Orthenon had shown Trey. The young man stared at it.
Crestfallen, Flos looked at Trey.
“Okay? I labored for nearly half-an-hour on this!”
“I see a bunch of nations. But why are they so dangerous?”
“Because each one has the potential to invade. And all but one hate Reim—or specifically me—to some degree or other. Actually, almost all the nations do except this one. Right here, see?”
Flos pointed to one of the southwestern nations he’d drawn. Trey eyed it.
“So we have only one ally?”
“Possibly? I knew their [Empress] back in my days before my slumber. She was a growing teen then. So she would be…her empire willingly joined with mine, so I have hopes she’d ally if we drew close enough to share forces. That would be Tiqr, by the way. Stronger than Germina or Hellios, incidentally. It has a Garuda population and a great deal of animals. Like war elephants.”
“Oh! That’s like Persia from my world!”
Trey blinked. Flos nodded.
“Your world uses them too? I wouldn’t see why not. They are quite deadly. But I feel poorly for the animals, especially when so many die. Nevertheless, that is Tiqr’s business and with any luck we won’t fight them. But they are possible allies! Er, the other nations are all enemies without a doubt.”
“And this big nation to our south? Are they weak by any chance?”
“Ah, Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Um…no. No, they are not weak. But their ruler isn’t prone to war—she didn’t even send any forces against us with the coalition army. Queen Yisame. Is she still in charge? Ah, yes. She is. She’s rather careful as rulers go, I suppose, or she doesn’t hate me as much as some nations. But she would be a dangerous enemy. You see, all this land was formerly smaller kingdoms and states of String People. But it unified oh, six thousand years back? Into a powerful empire that ruled for thousands of years then was overthrown. Into the Kingdom of Nerrhavia’s Fall that we now know today. One of the largest and most powerful nations of Chandrar, but you could say its finest hours have passed.”
He talked about all of this as if it was known history. And as if the current nation was somehow a shadow of itself despite being so powerful. Trey was also curious about the name.
“Why’s it called that?”
“Because it was the kingdom that overthrew Nerrhavia. Who, I am only guessing, was a ruler not well beloved. A dangerous enemy, but not one determined for my head. Yet!”
Trey gave Flos a flat stare. The King of Destruction only grinned.
“The nations that aren’t Tiqr or Nerrhavia?”
“Pomle, Savere, and Illivere. All dangerous, although Pomle—the tiny one shaped like a circle—isn’t hostile towards us. They’re neutral by and large, but they could go to war, and they possess significant military might despite being so small. Illivere’s prosperous and dangerous if political, and Savere is prosperous, dangerous, seafaring, and their ruler hates me.”
“Hm. Well, it’s a story in itself. Suffice it to say, if we get near any coast, she might be a significant problem. But we’re landlocked, so all’s well for now!”
Flos laughed hugely. Trey didn’t laugh.
“Okay. Two nations to the north. Big one—why are there three dots?”
“Those? I marked the capitals of Germina and Hellios for you. And those dots are…dungeons. Ah, yes. The Thalassocracy of Medain is a nation of adventurers, blessed or cursed by three vast dungeons. All three have been explored for centuries, but they are magical dungeons and still spit out enough threats to employ any number of adventurers. Their ruler doesn’t have a personal grudge towards me that I know of, but his forces were among those that marched on Reim.”
Trey almost wanted to visit Medain and know what a nation full of adventurers looked like. But he supposed that wouldn’t happen so long as he was around Flos.
“Wonderful. And that last nation to the northwest?”
Flos’ smile faded.
“Ah. The Claiven Earth. That’s what they call themselves. Claiven hates me. And it’s one of the few nations I couldn’t conquer outright before my slumber. It…may be a problem.”
That was it. Trey couldn’t hold it in anymore. He threw the map up with his hands.
“Everywhere might be a problem! You have one ally on this map and every other nation either doesn’t like you, might attack, or hates your guts! Are we going to die?”
He was hyperventilating just imagining all these foreign lands, all far bigger than Reim or Germina, lining up to attack Reim. Trey took in a huge gulp of air, and felt a large hand descend on his shoulder. It was comforting and warm. Trey looked up. Flos’ huge smile took away his fear for a second.
“Trey, oh, Trey. Don’t worry.”
Trey gulped and nodded. Flos stroked his beard, smiling.
“Everyone dies someday. Besides, looking at this map and my enemies—this is the challenge I dreamed of! And each nation might invade, but my plan will deal with half of them, at least. I’m sure of it. Diplomacy was never my forte, but remember, I am the one they fear. And I plan to use that to my advantage. At least to build up some more strength and consolidate Germina and Hellios.”
Trey shuddered, shaking his head.
“You’re barking mad. You’re crazy. At least tell me what you’re doing! And how would you even win, even with Germina’s armies and Hellios’? How can you control so much land?”
“Well, you see, there are some artifacts I must have. And if I can get Khelt’s ruler on my side, ally with some nations like Germina, and my plan works—”
Flos turned at the same time as Trey. The young man saw a figure standing on the balcony adjourning the sitting room. He heard a shout at the same time.
“The skies! Someone’s landed on the balcony!”
“Protect his majesty! Sire—”
Trey looked around as the door exploded inwards and Eim rushed forwards, holding a belt knife. Flos clicked his fingers and slapped his forehead.
“Ah, I knew I forgot something. Eim, put the blade down. Call off the alarm. That is a Courier. And my guest.”
Eim slowed in his mad charge to get in front of Flos. The figure on the balcony hadn’t moved. Eim looked at Flos, then turned and rushed back to the corridor, stopping the five soldiers rushing in and shouting frantically.
“Er, your Majesty? Who is that?”
The figure did not look Human, and as Flos walked forwards and opened the glass doors, Trey realized it was not a Human who walked into the room. Her feathers were a brilliant green speckled with white, and her form was tall and thin. Trey had only known Takhatres and a few of his tribe, but he had never met a fat Garuda. Presumably they wouldn’t fly.
But this Garuda had. And she was beautiful. Her beak opened slightly as she bowed, and her feathered wing-arms extended in a courtier’s bow to Flos. Then she looked up.
“Pardon the intrusion, King Flos of Reim. But I was told to visit this balcony.”
“The fault is mine, Courier. I apologize for the late hour and the danger, but I have need of your services. By all means, come in. And partake of wine or grape juice if you wish it. Trey, a chair.”
Trey immediately pulled up a chair, but the female Garuda shook her head. She turned to face Flos, still smiling.
“I fear I’ll be too busy for wine, and grape juice goes through my system quickly. But I am grateful for the offer, your Majesty. I came here to take an urgent message, or so I understand it.”
“You are. To every nation south of here. To the rulers of Nerrhavia, Tiqr, Illivere, Pomle, Savere…I have contacted City Runners in Hellios who will deliver my message north and east.”
The Garuda tilted her head slightly.
“I see. An important letter. You have my word I will carry it without failure or disclose its information to any but whom you intend to read it.”
“No need to risk your life, brave Courier. I am already indebted to you; you were the only Courier who answered my call. May I ask your name? I’m told you call yourself the Sky’s Mirage. Is there a reason for the nickname?”
The emerald Garuda shrugged, opening her wing arms slightly.
“It’s not the name I chose, but nicknames seldom are. Apparently it came from those who saw me on the ground as I flew high above the sands of Chandrar. I’m told my feathers on the blue sky are a lovely sight from the ground. But I’d prefer you just use my name, your Majesty. Or have you forgotten me?”
She looked directly at Flos. The King of Destruction paused, and his eyes narrowed.
“Have I? I’m sure I would remember someone so striking…but we have met, haven’t we? Were you a City Runner, once? No. No, wait. Your plumage. And your voice…you were a Street Runner who delivered my message to Drevish when assassins sought his life! How could I have forgotten you, Chaita of Keymos!”
The Garuda opened her beak in a brilliant smile.
“You do remember! And you were the first person to ever trust me with a message of such importance.”
Flos held out his hands and took Chaita’s wing-hands.
“You saved Drevish’ life, then. I am ashamed to forget. Chaita, I would welcome you into my palace and feast you any other night. And should you ever tire on your journeys or fear for your life, come to Reim and you will be welcome in any land under my rule, I promise you. But I fear I must ask you to swiftly deliver my message.”
“Your Majesty is too kind. And it is my honor.”
Chaita ducked her head. Flos smiled sadly.
“Do not let that endanger your life. For this letter will soon be known by all. But the rulers of each nation must know first. So. It is here.”
He reached for something at his side. A bag of holding, because the scrolls he pulled out were far too large to have been hidden anywhere else.
“They are not sealed by magic or any other device. You need not wait upon each ruler to hear them read aloud either. In fact, I warn you it might be prudent to leave before you witness their reaction.”
“I shall bear that in mind. But I am a Courier, and even the King of Destruction’s messages are bound by the Runner’s Guild.”
Chaita accepted the scrolls and delicately put them into her own bag of holding. Then she turned and walked towards the balcony.
“I would stay longer, but it is a long flight. Your Majesty, I may take up your offer again.”
“I will be waiting. Chaita of Keymos, I will not forget your name again.”
Flos bowed slightly and Chaita bowed as well. Then the Garuda leapt, and she was gone from view, flying in the night sky before Trey could blink. It had happened so fast that some of the shouting of intruders in the sky was still going on by the time Flos closed the balcony doors.
“And that is that. I apologize, Trey. And it seems I’ve kept you from your sister too long. Have you any questions for me?”
Trey had about a thousand as he always did. But he decided to ask only one, the obvious one.
“What was on the scrolls?”
Flos shrugged wearily.
“As I said, a message to the other kingdoms. All of them, not just the ones I listed on the map. Which you may keep, by the way. The scroll is simply a dictation of…my terms. Or would it be easier to call it a warning? Ah, well, either way. The prelude to war if they so choose. Don’t worry, I informed Orthenon of my plans and he did not object. Much.”
That sounded ominous to Trey. But Flos didn’t appear too bothered. He fished around in his bag of holding.
“Ah. I have a few spares. Here. Read it and see.”
He handed Trey the scroll. The young man unfurled it and read apprehensively. He looked up at Flos’ pensive expression twice, but the scroll didn’t seem that bad. It actually sounded positive! Until Trey reached the ‘or else’ part. Then he turned pale. He looked up, and saw the King of Destruction’s smile.
A prelude to war indeed. And so Chaita sped across the dark skies as Orthenon rode to Germina. They were not alone, for the messages they bore were carried by dozens of City Runners who began to run across the sands of Chandrar. Each one brought a burning message, hurtling from city to city, making monarchs and rulers worry as they read it. The message it contained was simple: peace.
Or at least, the peace only a King of Destruction would offer. And the world turned and that night, perhaps the only ruler who got a good night’s sleep was Flos of Reimarch. Although his hand hurt from all that map drawing.