(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!)
If there were a list of Top 100 Rulers in the world, then King Raelt would be on that list, but only because there were a limited number of [Kings] to go around. He would be somewhere near the bottom of that list, though he wasn’t a bad [King] and in his way, he was actually quite good at his job. His kingdom was not mighty, but it had prospered in a medium sort of way and it had not folded when confronted with adversity.
And there had been some adversity. And strife. And just a smidgen of cataclysm. But King Raelt had led his nation, the Realm of Jecrass through it all and he could look at himself in the mirror and not blink. Those were enviable qualities in a leader of people. So Raelt was a decent [King] if viewed from that lens.
On the other hand, Raelt was no monarch to sing songs about, at least in his mind. He was no Siren of Savere or Quarass with countless years of history and a unique country to manage and culture to draw upon. Jecrass had its quirks, but it was no Pomle.
By the same token, Raelt wasn’t worthy of a ‘name’ other than his own. Unlike the dancing, brilliant Bannermare of Baleros, or the Lord of the Dance in Terandria, or even Chandrar’s own King of Destruction, Raelt was known as…King Raelt. And it was a fine name he had, but it spoke to his insignificance in the eyes of the world as they measured such things.
So, he was not famous. He was a decent [King]. And Raelt had been content to live that way. He would have spun out his entire reign as [King] of Jecrass, a small country north of Hellios and Germina and just south of the big players on Chandrar’s northeastern coast quietly trying to improve his realm. Arguing with his court, practicing his hobbies (of which he only had one he was truly good at), and worrying over his daughter as she grew up.
In another life, maybe he would have had that luxury. But time had not been kind, for the worst sort of disaster had woken up. And hope as Raelt might that the disaster would go away or that he had changed, time had proven otherwise.
And now the disaster had sent a message. A proper letter. And Raelt sat upon his cold, hard, metal throne that some previous idiot of a [King] had decided would look good, and listened to it being read aloud. Or rather, he was trying to make that happen but people kept objecting.
“Your Majesty, please wait. All of the royal court has yet to gather, and several of the Wardens are no doubt yet on their way. Wouldn’t it be prudent to wait another half hour before unsealing the message in the presence of the full court?”
A fawning, sycophantic voice was giving Raelt a headache. It had to be said that he hated his job sometimes. Not because it involved making hard decisions—he could handle that. But making those hard decisions was often a tedious political business, and as such it invariably involved his royal court.
Raelt loathed, no he despised, no, he wished he could tie all of his royal court up and feed them to pigs. He had things he hated and liked in this life, but the courtiers, nobility, and various ‘people of importance’ who often appeared in his palace were on the top of his hate list.
They were sneaky, backstabbing, arguing bastards the lot of them and Raelt would have happily traded his entire royal court for a room full of [Bandits] he had to argue with each day to get things done. [Bandits] were at least honest about what they did.
“Warden Emile, I do not care to wait. This message is of the utmost importance because it came from Reim, and it bears the seal of the King of Destruction. More importantly, it arrived just this morning and the knowledge it contains is essential. Anyone not present may be brought up to speed later.”
“But sire, please, let us at least gather a few more figures of note. Jecrass should be united as its most important figures hear out the King of Destruction’s words.”
The King of the Jecrass eyed their apprehensive faces. Why did they hesitate? As if not hearing the letter’s contents would delay the worst? Raelt sighed loudly.
“The most important person in this room has already read the letter, Warden Emile. That would be me, incidentally.”
“Would you like to know if it is a declaration of war?”
The man shut up. Raelt kept speaking, looking around the room. He was vaguely pleased to see more than a few faces had paled. Men and women looked up at him. Humans of various shades of skin, but all Human. In Chandrar, a few races accounted for most of the population. String People. Garuda. But Humans most of all. Jecrass was a land of Humans, and sometimes Raelt wondered, if he had been a String Person and ruled the Stitch People, whether his life would have been easier. He spoke into the silence, curtly.
“It is not. But the declaration is also no trivial matter. Geril. Read it to my court and skip the introduction. It’s a short letter anyways. Read us the first part of the King of Destruction’s missive.”
An old man stepped forwards. He was a [Servant], but a prince among servants, as they measured such things. And eminently more respected than the disgruntled nobility assembled in Raelt’s court. Some were seated, but they stood up, as if the King of Destruction’s words impelled them towards their feet. Raelt’s own presence was hardly sufficient for that. Geril cleared his throat.
“Ahem. By your Majesty’s will…after the greeting, the King of Destruction writes thusly: ‘Word of my return has spread and with it, claims that I will once again embark on a campaign of conquest. However, I seek no legions of enemies, and to make war on nations for the sake of it has never been my purpose. To allay such fears, I, Flos, swear that I shall make war on no nation or group that does not threaten Reim or my subjects. I offer peace to Chandrar and the world and swear my armies shall march upon no enemy that does not give me just cause.’”
Raelt gripped the armrest of his throne as he watched his court blink and stare as Geril raised his head. He let them digest it, noting who reacted with relief and who thought about the contents of the letter.
And it was a letter. Sent via City Runner to Jecrass; they must have traded off Runners three times to make it here by night. Raelt was sure other [Messages] bearing the same contents were probably speeding to other nations if the King of Destruction had not hired a Courier. Well, the physical letter itself was just a formality. The contents of the letter would still shake Chandrar.
“Well, that’s not so bad.”
Warden Emile looked much better than he had a second ago. Raelt stared at him and mentally downgraded the man’s intelligence by another point in his head.
“That would be half the letter. There was a threat, I believe. Geril?”
The court stiffened as one again and Raelt smiled, imagining the collective clenching of certain body parts his words had caused. Several of his nobility gave him dark looks, but then they were riveted by the old [Head Servant] once more. Geril slowly traced a finger down the page.
“Yes, your Highness. Skipping forwards it reads…‘I have but one demand in the name of the peace I offer. Let my people go. Once, my kingdom spanned Chandrar and further, and still some call to me as their [King]. And I claim them, for what King will not hear the cries of his subjects, no matter how far removed? If any claim allegiance to me, let them come free of harm and prejudice from every corner of the world. Give my subjects to me and I will hold to my vow. But enslave my subjects, offer them harm or imprisonment or make war on Reim, and I will reply in kind.’ After that, there is a short farewell to his Majesty and the King of Destruction’s signature.”
Raelt grimaced. Simple and to the point. He was frankly surprised that Flos had made the letter read in anything close to formal parlance. He might has well have said it with his usual bluntness. I won’t attack you, so give me my subjects. If not, I’ll attack you.
The court buzzed for a second after Geril had folded the piece of paper back up. Raelt saw Warden Winta dab at her forehead, Dulfe and Cerani lean in to talk quickly, looking upset, and then heard Emile’s piping voice once more.
“That’s still not so bad, surely?”
Raelt leaned on the left side of his throne and sighed into a hand. He looked down at Emile. The man—no, the boy was only twenty seven. New to his estates and position since his father had passed away.
“It is not a message that brings me any comfort, Warden Emile. I’m glad you’re able to put your mind at ease with so little effort.”
The young man looked both pleased and confused by the statement. But another noble, an older woman in her forties, pursed her lips.
“Your Majesty, it does sound like a positive message. Or am I wrong as well? The King of Destruction has pledged not to assail Jecrass. Surely that is worth celebrating? As for his subjects, what of it? There may be some dissenters in Jecrass. Why not send them to Reim?”
A few nobles nodded with her as she gave Raelt a not-quite-challenging glance. He leaned on his palm and shook his head.
“The letter has more nuance than that. Recall the latter half. Geril may read it out loud if you’ve already forgotten. It means, Warden Cerani, that anyone who claims allegiance to the King of Destruction is under his protection. In short, anyone who fought for him during his reign, or anyone who bears sympathy to him could quit this kingdom and travel to his, and if we stop or gainsay them in any way, Flos of Reim will declare war on us.”
Silence followed that remark, and Raelt was again pleased to see Cerani’s mouth drop open as the words finally clicked for her. Emile still looked blank, but another Warden, Dulfe, a frog-like fellow, raised his voice in a passionate shout.
“Do you intend to submit to his demands like that, your Majesty? Surely we cannot simply accede to this—this provocation without baring some fangs! He could steal away a tenth of our working population with a snap of his fingers!”
“I hardly think it will be that large a number, Warden Dulfe.”
Cerani looked troubled. The older man in his forties turned to her, gripping the lapels of his coat fiercely. She returned his look, although warily.
“Milady Cerani, you underestimate the lure of a threat like this. Some of Jecrass’ citizens will no doubt stay out of loyalty to the nation—as well they should! But I fear malcontents and ingrates abound. Why, my lands might lose most if the King of Destruction’s words reach the agitators and rebels. I move to seal this letter—”
Raelt’s happy voice cut Warden Dulfe off. He was pleased to see the man color. He looked around at his friends and allies in the room, clearly doing a headcount.
“Your Majesty, I would put this to a vote among the peerage of Jecrass.”
“Even if every Warden of Jecrass and lesser peer of the realm voted against, I would still make the news of this public, Warden Dulfe. I’m afraid the news will spread, if not from Jecrass than elsewhere. Moreover, I don’t intend to fight the King of Destruction on this. Or did you forget the part where he claims his subjects in our lands, whomever they may be?”
King Raelt was even more pleased by the way Dulfe spluttered, but there was nothing he could do. For any other decision Raelt made, Dulfe could and might hold a vote and have the other nobility oppose Raelt’s decisions. And Raelt could force through his orders; he was a [King] after all, but his nobles could drag their feet or outright oppose them.
Sadly, they were powerful. Raelt was powerful, but so were the members of his court. They were technically [Lords] and [Ladies], but Jecrass didn’t see landowners as nobility all the time. More important to Jecrass, with its sprawling plains and pastures mixed in with the arid landscapes Chandrar was famous for was the control of water.
Anyone who owned so much as a stream could build farmlands, raise animals, and dole out the precious resource to anyone living on their land. The nobility of Raelt’s court were all heirs to areas of land that held water in some abundance or other. So they were River Wardens, the name for their kind of nobility in Jecrass. But Raelt’s private name for them was River Robbers because sometimes it was hard to tell a [Lord] from a [Bandit Leader]. He looked down at Dulfe and the list of the man’s faults was a silent mantra in Raelt’s head.
“I remind you, Warden Dulfe, that this is the King of Destruction we are referring to. Not any [King], and not a man known for his patience and skills at diplomacy. If you fear too many of your people will quit your ever-so-pleasant duchy to join Flos of Reim’s empire, well then, perhaps you should have amended their living and working conditions as I demanded of you at last year’s summit, hm?”
He gave the slightly frog-eyed man a happy little smile. And in his head, Raelt thought that might be the best result of the King of Destruction’s declaration. Did he know what he’d done? Or was he unaware that his call would bring in more than just his people to his banner? No, surely he’d thought of that.
And it would work, on at least some of Dulfe’s workers. Dead gods, the man had put a copper tax on every bucket of water drawn from his wells! Both he and Dulfe knew his tenants might well desert him en masse. Dulfe’s bulging eyes narrowed a bit as he glared up at Raelt’s unconcealed good humor.
“I remind his Highness that those are my domains, and while I am subject to the authority of the crown, my will should be respected. I am, after all, a very loyal citizen of Jecrass.”
His words caused a small hush and Raelt felt his hand twitch. But he schooled his body and face and gave Dulfe no other sign his words had raised Raelt’s temper.
Surely the King of Destruction wouldn’t suffer a jumped-up [Lord] making snippy remarks at him. That was one thing about Flos that Raelt envied. But he couldn’t afford to make Dulfe an outright enemy, so Raelt didn’t call for his sword and instead spoke with a bitingly pleasant tone. You could make words as sharp as any fencing sword.
“You mean, you pay your taxes, Warden Dulfe. As far as I’m concerned, that is the duty of all of my nobility, not a particular sign of loyalty. I know a [Baker] in the capital who pays his dues to the crown every year. I’ve never heard him bring it up, and I meet him at least once a week as I walk about my city. On the other hand, I think you bring up your contributions at least twice a day in court, Warden Dulfe.”
There were a few chuckles at that and the man’s face turned red. He straightened stiffly, gripping his lapels.
“A [King] should not be concerned with the minutiae of his subject’s affairs, your Majesty. Surely you have better uses of your time, perhaps on more walks?”
Raelt waved that aside. There was a limit to how far he could push Dulfe without it being an insult and the man was wary of directly antagonizing his [King]. Still, he’d pay for that later, Raelt promised in his head. But he had to make this clear to all of his court, so he turned his head and spoke in a carrying, kingly voice. Which really just meant loud.
“Perhaps the rights of my citizens on your lands is a discussion to be put aside until later. However, if it turns out any of the King of Destruction’s citizens were harmed, I will happily direct his queries your way, Warden Dulfe. Or do you plan on refusing to let his subjects go? Anyone present?”
He looked around. And no one, not Dulfe or Emile, or Cerani or anyone else could offer up a reply. All Dulfe could come up with in the end was a spluttering complaint, much like a toddler.
“It appears we must accede, however roguish the demand! I will let anyone who claims the King of Destruction’s name go, your Majesty. But I will consider it an assault on Jecrass!”
Raelt nodded heavily.
“That might be wise on both accounts, Warden Dulfe.”
The man blinked up at him, but Raelt was serious. The [King] pondered for a second, wondering at the implications. But he didn’t share his concerns with his court. There were better people to talk to. So he just decided to twist the knife one last time.
“And while we’re on the subject of it, please send me a proper census of all the citizens who claim the King of Destruction’s protection as you make a proper announcement, Warden Dulfe. That goes for the rest of you as well. I would know who we’re losing to Reim.”
“What? We have to announce it?”
Dulfe spluttered, but Raelt nodded.
“Indeed. And make a firm accounting of all those intending to leave. I require it.”
The other Wardens looked annoyed and irritated by turns. It was a reasonable request, but they’d have to count all their citizens planning on leaving. Dulfe’s face turned a deeper shade of magenta, but it was a royal order and he could only bow his head. He shot one final remark across Raelt’s bow as he turned to go.
“I only hope your Majesty is as diligent in protecting our borders against Reim’s aggressions. Or else it would appear that we should contribute less of our hard-earned gold to the royal coffers each year. Perhaps a vote? Until then, your Majesty, I take my leave.”
That was a threat. Raelt bared his teeth at the man’s back as he received a perfunctory bow. He stood up as his court milled about.
“I will take my leave as well. Geril, see to it my guests are properly served and I’m sure the late peerage will wish to be caught up.”
“Your Majesty won’t stay and deliberate a further course of action?”
Warden Cerani looked dismayed. Raelt turned his head.
“Beyond acquiescing? Not at this moment. I shall let you know if my plans change. Until then, I must confer with my peers. Good day to you.”
He ignored the flurry of curtsies and bows as he stepped down from his throne and walked out a side door of his throne room. Raelt strode down the corridor as he heard the doors open and swift footsteps. Geril was following him, but Raelt wasn’t in a mood to chat with his old servant.
“Dulfe, you pompous frog. A vote to cut your own taxes? I’ll double the levies on your land if you so much as hint towards it!”
The problem was the man might actually force a vote. And threats aside, Dulfe was influential enough to make a bad enemy. But Raelt didn’t intend to let the man get away with insulting him in public—well, in front of the royal court—without some payback. A [King] had ways, so Raelt swiftly turned left at the intersection and then hurried up some stairs while Geril panted to keep up.
Raelt was quick on his feet and very fit and Geril was old, so Raelt hated to make the man move fast, but he had to be in position.
He knew the layout of his palace by heart. And calling it a ‘palace’ was generous because in truth, it was smaller than some castles Raelt had known. But a [King] had to live in a palace, and worse, this one had a name for every corridor and room. Raelt slowed as he came to an open corridor and felt a warm breeze on his face.
Geril panted as he climbed the stairs. Raelt waved at him and the [Head Servant] caught his breath. It was a shame he’d never gained [Lesser Endurance] as a Skill; it would have served him well in his old age. Perhaps Geril should have been less active, even semi-retired. But that might have killed the old man outright. Raelt turned to him.
“My apologies, Geril. But I need to speak with Lyfelt in the Warded Chambers to discuss the King of Destruction’s letter. I thought we’d take this route to get there. I could use a breath of fresh air. And a drink to clear the bad taste from my mouth.”
“Ah, the Sunset Retreat corridor, your Majesty? Excellent choice. Shall I bring you a beverage? Wine, perhaps?”
“It’s barely past breakfast. Make it water. With ice for a treat. And bring me an orange while you’re at it, Geril.”
The old servant hesitated as he beckoned to a young boy ready to run the errand.
“Er, all the ones we have are still from last year, your Majesty. They’re not quite fully deteriorated, but I fear our preservation runes aren’t able to keep them fully—”
“An orange, Geril. I don’t care how bad it is as long as a bit’s edible.”
“Yes, your Majesty. At once.”
Geril bowed his head. He didn’t leave Raelt’s side, but the young boy ran off to fetch the [King]’s water. And the orange. Raelt for his part took a slow, almost snail’s pace of a walk forwards and felt the light of the palace change. It had windows of course, but now bright sunlight streamed through a place where the walls of the palace just…stopped.
The Sunset Corridor was one of the unique parts of Jecrass’ palace. It was lovely, long stretch of walkway with a swooping, modernistic design where the hallway opened up, letting great, sloped balconies give anyone walking along it an unparalleled view of the countryside. It was also the most defensively idiotic choice you could make, but one of Raelt’s predecessors had decided he had to have it in, so Raelt could walk along the Sunset Corridor and survey his kingdom as the morning breeze warmed his skin.
During a sunset, Chandrar was beautiful and the previous [Kings] of Jecrass had forbidden anyone from establishing buildings on this side of the palace to keep the view unobstructed. There was plenty of space in Jecrass anyways. It was a flat nation, with more water than dusty Reim or Germina or Hellios, which allowed it to cultivate vast plains. And on those plains the people of Jecrass raised sheep, cows, goats, and many animals of pasture. But what Jecrass was known for was…
“Horses. I see there’s at least two herds out and about. Are they the royal stock?”
“I believe so, your Majesty.”
“Hm. Well, good for them.”
Raelt eyed the distant four-legged creatures roaming about and grazing on the grass. He felt they somewhat spoiled his view, but he couldn’t air that comment out loud. Someone might be listening.
King Raelt was a man of likes and dislikes. It had already been noted that he hated his court, but he had more than a few dislikes in his kingdom. Horses, for one. Raelt disliked horses and felt like the feeling was mutual. Which was ironic because the Realm of Jecrass was known for the superior stock of horses it turned out, from warhorses to racers to sturdy plow animals.
But Raelt could never enjoy riding the things, or caring for them. Possibly it had to do with one of the times Raelt had broken a tailbone, leg, or arm riding the things. But horses were only one of his dislikes and as Raelt impatiently waited at a precise spot about three quarters of the way down the Sunset Corridor, the young servant boy raced back with water and an orange fruit.
“Allow me, your Majesty.”
Geril peeled the orange with careful hands as the servant handed Raelt a glass of cool water. He savored the bits of ice floating in the drink, for all they were almost already melted. Ice, now, ice he liked. It was a luxury in Chandrar, but a [King] must have his indulgences. He drank down the water—it was important to stay hydrated after all—and glumly looked at the orange Geril presented him.
“It is rather…”
“It’s fine, Geril. Hand it to me.”
The half-peeled orange was indeed far past its prime. Still edible, but not the sort of thing you’d give to a [King]. Geril had done his best and found the best part of it to peel and let the mushy bottom unpeeled, but Raelt still regarded the orange glumly. It was a known fact that the King of Jecrass liked oranges, but that was partly a lie.
Raelt bit into the half-rotten orange slice and chewed it. Slimy, mushy—the [King]’s mouth revolted at the sensation. Raelt hated eating oranges. He didn’t hate orange things. Carrots, for instance, were delightful and crunchy. And they grew well in arid climates! But his [Royal Gardener] refused to have such a mundane crop in his tended gardens. Oranges and other rare fruits were all the vogue.
It was another feature of being a [King] where you were at the mercy of your [Gardener]’s whims. Still, his daughter loved the stuff and Raelt liked oranges for a reason other than for their taste. He chewed the pithy, slimy orange slice slowly, trying not to grimace as Geril waited with him. Raelt had to endure the chewing for a good four minutes—then he heard what he’d been waiting for. The clip-clop of hooves outside the corridor. Instantly, Raelt swallowed and turned to Geril.
“Delightful, Geril. But I fear you were right. The rest of this orange is too rotted for my tastes. We’ll have to check the runes in the storage rooms. A shame we can’t make them perfect. Ah, well.”
He glanced across the balcony as he spoke and with one hand, flicked the orange through the air. It fell from the balcony, coincidentally just as a small group of riders emerged from below. The rider in the middle never saw the orange coming. Raelt heard a small impact, and then a shout of pain and then fury. He hurried down the Sunset Corridor, smiling, and Geril followed him. The old [Servant] might have been laughing. Or tutting quietly.
There were three entrances leading out of his palace. Of the three, anyone who wanted to use the stables would have to pass this way, and Raelt knew the voices of his [Hostlers] by heart. He could time the exact moment someone would be passing below the balcony of the Sunset Retreat corridor. The rest was just a matter of aim. And Raelt had splendid accuracy.
“I believe his Majesty might have accidentally struck someone with his orange. A terrible accident, sire. It might even have been one of your Wardens afflicted. Shall I ensure the victim is alright?”
Raelt raised his eyebrows as he turned his head to Geril.
“A [King] shouldn’t be concerned with all the minutiae of his subject’s lives, Geril. That’s a valuable lesson I learned just today. Onwards, I say. No one’s died from being struck by an orange. And if they have? Well, there’s probably worse fates.”
The [Head Servant] sighed, but he made no further comment. Raelt smiled to himself and in a much better mood, led the old man at a walk towards his actual destination, the Warded Chambers. Servants bowed as Raelt passed by and he gave them a proper kingly nod and a few words to the people he remembered. The young ones came and went, but there were a number of old folk like Geril that had tended to Raelt since he was an infant. Raelt was nearly at his destination when he heard a slight ding, a jingle of sound. He turned and didn’t quite sigh as he saw the young woman striding towards him.
“Father! Is it true that the King of Destruction sent a letter? May I see it?”
The young woman walking towards Raelt was dressed in riding leathers, and beneath them she wore leggings and a tunic meant for the sparring courts or for travel. She was the exact opposite of most [Princesses] with her long-legged stride—something she shared with her father—and the fencing sword strapped to her belt. She walked with a cat’s grace, and her presence was heralded by the chiming of a small, silver bell tied to the sword at her waist.
Princess Jecaina of Jecrass stopped in front of her father. She was just into her twenties, young, brash and confident, and beautiful, although Raelt was biased in everything when it came to his daughter. He smiled as he greeted his daughter, although his eyes flicked to the sword at Jecaina’s waist.
She owned a beautiful sword, slim and agile, a [Fencer]’s blade which suited her because she had that class. The silver bell was another thing she never went without, which irked Raelt for all of his fatherly love. He hated bells. He had a sword, but he refused to let bells near it.
“Yes, Jecaina. The letter arrived during breakfast. It quite ruined it, actually. You would have been able to read it. If you’d been there.”
It was a mild rebuke and it bounced off Jecaina as she tossed her head, letting her hazel-green hair fly for a second. It was a peculiarity of some of Jecrass’ bloodlines that their hair could actually turn green. Raelt’s hair was simply a light brown, but his daughter had inherited the rare strand of color from her mother.
“I was riding with Liass and Mellia. Besides, the letter hasn’t gone anywhere. May I see it?”
“Later. I need to speak to Minister Lyfelt about it. Don’t bother Geril for it, Jecaina. I’m sure you know what it says.”
Her eyes sparkled.
“The King of Destruction’s peace! And he’s calling for his subjects, or anyone who claims loyalty to him! Isn’t it splendid?”
“I don’t believe I used that word, did I, Geril?”
“No, your Majesty. I believe that word is not suitable for her Highness’ ears.”
“You swore, father? But it’s not a threat! We can give the King of Destruction what he wants. And isn’t it a wonderful chance? I could ride to Hellios, or maybe even Reim and see him now that he’s sworn to peace!”
“Absolutely not, young lady. You’re not to go riding anywhere near the border, much less on another week-long jaunt.”
Raelt had a miniature heart attack at the thought. Jecaina scowled at him. They were nearly of a height, both tall, inheriting the royal family genes.
“Father! I can handle myself. And surely the King of Destruction wouldn’t stoop to kidnapping.”
“He might not, but someone else might. You are Jecrass’ heir and next ruler by right.”
She tossed her head again, challengingly. Much like her favorite horse, actually.
“I only have half the claim. If you had a child, you could nominate them. And I could go adventuring!”
Raelt grumbled under his breath, although Geril was nodding in agreement with his daughter’s suggestion. King Raelt was as yet, unmarried, and he had no children, at least directly. He looked down at his daughter, dismayed. Jecaina of Jecrass was little like her adopted father. She was more like her mother, who was Raelt’s half-sister.
That technically made Raelt the uncle of Jecaina, rather than father. But it was her mother who had given birth to Jecaina after a tryst gone wrong and she had abandoned her daughter. So Raelt had raised her.
It was a story everyone in Jecrass knew, but only Jecaina brought up her heritage. Anyone else who tried that, River Warden or not, would be heaved straight off the Sunset Corridor balcony.
“I don’t intend to get married soon enough for you to join any of Flos’ subjects and ride to his capital, daughter. And you should be wary of the King of Destruction’s proclamations. He is a dangerous man. Possibly the most dangerous in the entire world at this moment.”
Jecaina’s eyes widened. She protested, taking an aggressive step towards her father as if she were about to lunge.
“But father, he’s a legend! I grew up hearing stories about the King of Destruction—everyone did!”
By ‘everyone’, Jecaina meant all of her young friends, noble or rich enough to ride about with the nobility and the [King]’s daughter. Raelt had told no such stories and he cursed the crowd around Jecaina who had spread the King of Destruction’s myth to her. But then again—she was right. Flos of Reim was a legend and now he was back. There might be a lot of young folk who joined his capital. He’d have to try and mitigate that, somehow.
“The King of Destruction is no hero young lady. I don’t know what stories you’ve heard—”
“He was a champion of the people, wasn’t he? Don’t lie, father. Didn’t he start a war with the Medilean Kingdom when he heard the royal family had been overthrown and a tyrannical [Warlord] had taken over? Wasn’t he the man who fought the Order of the Black Judgment when they became little more than bandits?”
Raelt bit his lip. He answered carefully, trying to force the words through his stubborn daughter’s ears.
“He did do that. And he fought in the name of justice, that’s true enough. He would start a war over a single wrong and tens of thousands would die. That does not make him a good [King]. Or even a good man.”
“But he did conquer all of Chandrar. Isn’t he a man worth following? Shouldn’t I meet him? You met him, or so Liass’ father claims.”
“Warden Telimt is a liar and a braggart. And he’s telling the truth in this case, which is why I’m convinced Flos’ return won’t bode well for Jecrass or anyone else. There will be a proclamation and anyone who wishes may leave for Reim. But Jecrass is still Reim’s enemy.”
“But father! The King of Destruction could be a powerful ally! Jecrass has never wronged him. And—and at least three of his Seven are with him! Mars the Illusionist, Gazi the Omniscient, Takhatres, the Lord of the Skies—and Orthenon, his [Steward]! Wouldn’t you like to see them? Just once?”
The [Dueling Princess]’s eyes were shining. Raelt felt a twinge of conscience at the look in her eyes. If he were her age, he might have felt as she did. But he had to be the one to put his foot down so he shook his head.
“He is not an ally I want, Jecaina. I don’t trust him. In fact, I think Minister Lyfelt and I—oh damn, will you initiate contact with him, Geril?—will condemn his letter. At least in word. The other northern nations will most likely do the same. Claiven certainly will.”
“But Dad—can’t I at least meet him? As a dignitary? Mellia says I could go as a diplomat. The King of Destruction’s supposed to be very handsome, and so is the King’s Steward. And he’s supposed to be unmarried…”
It was possible Raelt might have a heart attack before he even reached the Warded Chambers. He tried to banish thoughts of Orthenon and Flos from his head and he pointed a finger at his daughter.
“You will not ride into Hellios, and nor will you or your friends join any caravan headed towards Reim. If I catch so much as a whiff that you’re planning it, I will bar you from the stables. And the same goes for your friends. If need be, I’ll throw them in the dungeon for a day or two to cool their heads. Their parents will hear of this as well.”
“That’s not fair!”
“It’s my order. And I’m still the [King].”
Raelt snapped at his daughter. She stomped a foot.
Jecaina scowled at her father. She turned and stormed off. He shouted after her.
“I’m a [Tyrant]? You haven’t even met the King of Destruction!”
She didn’t reply. And the servants who scurried out of the way didn’t even look at their [King]. Raelt adjusted his crown, feeling flushed with anger and embarrassment. He hurried down the corridor and found Geril standing in front of the Warded Chambers. They were marked by a magical door and the most secure part of the palace, warded against eavesdropping and other magical and physical means of spying.
“Everything alright, your Majesty? I ah, spoke to Minster Lyfelt. He is awaiting you.”
“I’ll be with him in a second, Geril. Did you hear that?”
“Your daughter’s parting words were fairly audible, your Majesty. I take it she wished to visit Reim?”
“She thinks he’s a hero. Damn Liass and Mellia and her friends, gallivanting about and putting thoughts in her head. She’ll have to rule them someday and old friendships will complicate things. I need to teach her to be a proper ruler, rather than a half-wild [Princess].”
“She is quite skilled in some ways.”
“With a blade? That’s not ruling. That’s a hobby. She’s not going to be a [Warrior Queen] of old, Geril. And she’s not going to meet the King of Destruction. Nor will anyone else. Put a word in the border patrol’s ears about watching for young nobles trying to sneak into Hellios.”
“Shall I send a message to the families of her companions, your Majesty? I could also increase her bodyguard.”
Raelt shook his head glumly.
“Don’t bother. That will only make her more rebellious. Leave be—Jecaina might dream of visiting Reim, but she’ll probably give up when she realizes how far she’d have to ride just to get to Hellios’ capital, let alone Reim. I dread the day when she learns a movement Skill, though.”
“Perhaps your Majesty would like another glass of water? With some lemon?”
The [Head Servant] suggested gently. Raelt hesitated, and shook his head.
“No, I’ll speak to Lyfelt. Let no one in. This won’t take long, I hope.”
He straightened his attire, checked his light crown was straight on his head, and then opened the magical door. The Warded Chambers were a series of rooms that contained a number of Jecrass’ secrets, but Raelt needed only one of them now. He walked straight into the first room, ignoring the two side doors, and stopped in front of a large, marble statue. It was the head and shoulders of a man, although the carving was generic. The man had a head of hair, eyes, a nose, but there was something plain about him. He had no distinguishing features and that was the point. It was an enchanted item of course, and the eyes of the statue were turned sideways and the mouth was moving. Raelt heard a few words as he walked into the room.
“—yes, send the reply to Medain and copy a response for Claiven. I’ll speak with the parliament in half an hour, but delay my arrival until—ah, Raelt!”
The statue’s eyes turned back towards him. Raelt half-smiled as the statue’s lips curved upwards.
“Minister Lyfelt. I’ve kept you waiting.”
“Not at all. And it’s my pleasure, King Raelt. But let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we?”
Raelt inclined his head. There was a high stool which he perched on, wishing the marble bust were closer to the ground. But the damn [Enchanter] had installed it at a normal head’s height, as if you wanted to stand and talk to the stone statue for hours. Perhaps he’d thought Raelt would keep it by his throne or something.
Fat chance of that. Raelt knew that whoever looked through the mirror on the other side could see and hear whatever was happening around the statue in Jecrass. And while he trusted the man on the other side, Minister Lyfelt was still the head of Belchan, and thus the ruler of another nation. They had set up this system to communicate, but Raelt wouldn’t share all the workings of his court with Belchan.
The marble bust had cost Jecrass’ treasury 28,413 gold pieces exactly. Raelt had added in the price of getting a [Mage] who specialized in both enchanting and stone magic to come from Belchan, carve and enchant the marble head here while being housed in the finest rooms and treated like a royal visitor, and then come back to repair the magical head twice when the spell malfunctioned.
Was it worth the coin? Well, yes. Raelt and Lyfelt could communicate instantaneously this way, which saved the issue of trusting a [Mage] with [Message] spells. Additionally, they could properly chat rather than write brief text messages to each other. Raelt still resented the cost, but Belchan had paid for an enchanted mirror and that had to be double what he’d spent.
That was Belchan for you, though. They were home to one of the [Mage] schools of Chandrar, not nearly as impressive as Wistram, but certainly lucrative for the magic users that called the nation home. Added to that, Belchan was richer in water and natural resources—they had a small gold mine as well as rich fields for agriculture. The one thing they didn’t have was a monarchy, which currently Raelt regarded as a plus.
Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan must have been sitting, because the marble head craned up a bit to meet Raelt’s face before something changed and the head lowered again. He’d probably adjusted his seat. His head looked left slightly and the nondescript features—a far cry from Lyfelt’s handsome visage, spoke curtly.
“I’m speaking to King Raelt of Jecrass. Turn away everyone at the door.”
He looked back at Raelt and smiled.
“Apologies, again. You know how busy it is with the King of Destruction’s letter.”
“It’s actually fairly quiet around here. But a [King] doesn’t have to deal with as many people as a [Minister].”
Lyfelt chuckled. He had a very pleasant voice, the kind of soothing tones you could listen to for hours. Despite the statue speaking, he still had a great deal of charisma, some of it inborn, some of it part of his class. He had been elected [Prime Minister] by Belchan’s people and unlike Jecrass, the country was a democracy, a rare sight in any part of the world. It had a parliament and the position of Prime Minister was a result of a party winning a majority, as Raelt understood it.
He was glad Lyfelt had won, and not just because the man was easy to talk to. Lyfelt was a career politician, someone who’d gained a [Politician] class and consolidated it to [Minister]. He wasn’t born into his position like the River Wardens of Jecrass, and so he’d risen to ruler of a nation purely by his political savvy.
“I’m planning on issuing an announcement with the contents of the letter later today. What of Belchan?”
“Ah, I believe I’ll let it filter through the parliament members. They’ve been briefed and they’re already taking sides on the matter. As if there’s a choice. I trust you make that clear to your court as well?”
“I had to hammer it into their heads. But I don’t see an option besides agreeing to the King of Destruction’s terms, do you?”
“Not at the moment. But there are more options available, Raelt. A pity your River Wardens can be so…so…shortsighted. But then, half of the minor parties in my parliament are like that.”
Raelt nodded, feeling some of the weight of this morning drop off him as he and Lyfelt groused about being rulers. The two men were friends, although they were dissimilar in quite a number of ways. But fate had conspired to make them allies, and the friendship had come over time.
After all, both Jecrass and Belchan were in the unenviable position of being neighbors to two major powers, the Thalassocracy of Medain, and The Claiven Earth, as well as adjacent to the traditionally hot-headed Hellosians and Germina.
Jecrass and Belchan had always allied to keep Medain from expanding southwards, and occasionally that alliance had included Germina and Hellios and all four nations had fought with Medain’s armies of adventurers and soldiers in the past.
“How do you think this will change issues with Medain or Claiven, Lyfelt?”
“Aside from the fact that we’ve lost Hellios and Germina? Well, with this letter we might not have to watch our borders. But if Medain pushes south…it’s tricky, Raelt. I don’t think either country will do so immediately—they’re rightfully wary of the King of Destruction. It just depends on what he does next and whether we can trust the letter.”
“You don’t think we can?”
The bust smirked.
“I trust no one’s word one hundred percent, Raelt. Even when sworn in blood. Even yours, old friend. I intend to use Flos’ declaration to my advantage, and I advise you to do the same. I’m already speaking with Claiven and Medain about this. Perhaps even get some kind of agreement hammered out, even if it’s only a joint condemnation of the conditions. If I play it right, Belchan can even be the reluctant nation coerced into opposing the King of Destruction with a small bribe.”
“Just be careful. Flos of Reim is no one to play games with. I knew him when he was becoming the King of Destruction.”
Raelt warned his friend, although he feared it was falling on deaf ears as he watched Lyfelt’s confident expression. Lyfelt was new to his position for all that he’d served for six years as [Prime Minister], and for him, power was still an intoxicating berry drink. To Raelt, who’d been born a [Prince], power was like an old riding glove. Slightly stained and frayed, certainly useful, but not exactly pleasant.
“Don’t worry, Raelt. Both Claiven and Medain hate the King of Destruction far too much to worry about our countries, except as bulwarks between him and them at the moment. They’re sending me [Messages] nonstop, hoping I’ll agree to some kind of ‘defensive pact’ that allows them to put their soldiers in our borders.”
Raelt grimaced at that, and then frowned.
“I didn’t get any [Messages].”
Lyfelt’s head shook slowly from side to side.
“You rely on your Mage’s Guild, Raelt. Whereas I have a [Court Mage] and King Perric of Medain knows that. The Claiven have also reached out to me, and you by proxy. They are concerned, but no one’s suggested refusing.”
“I don’t know how that would be a good idea. That would give him cause to go to war. Unless every nation did that, and the ones that didn’t would be safe.”
The minister was nodding impatiently.
“A trap in the words, obviously. Far easier to give him what he wants. What’s a few thousand citizens, or even ten thousand?”
“You’re not concerned by that?”
Raelt was surprised, but Lyfelt scoffed.
“Anyone who would follow the King of Destruction wouldn’t vote for my party or for me, would they? And I’ve already had to deal with a few incidents involving his supporters in some of my cities. Unpleasantness. I’ll be glad to wash my hands of them.”
Unpleasantness? Raelt shifted uncomfortably. It sounded a bit like what Warden Dulfe had described.
“Treat them with care, Lyfelt. The King of Destruction cares for his subjects.”
The bust rolled his eyes.
“I won’t be hanging them, Raelt. I’ll just turn them out and let them go on their way. It will free up housing, solve the issue of those damned fights over the King of Destruction—”
“So you’re going to do it.”
“Of course, of course. But I won’t make that decision until parliament’s fought it over for at least a day or two. And I’d encourage you to do the same. I’ll send over a few [Messages] when I’ve pinned down some of the other nations on a joint agreement. Feel free to correspond with the others, but be coy, Raelt. Let them think we’re hesitating to condemn Flos because we’re too close. As if we think he might renege on his word.”
“He won’t. Flos was never one to break his oaths lightly.”
“Obviously, or I wouldn’t count on him. But if we can make the other countries incentivize ours…what’s the tariff on Jecrass’ horse stock? I might be able to get Medain to lower the taxes they charge on [Merchant] caravans coming through their borders.”
“Always looking for a better deal, aren’t you?”
“One of us has to. How’s your daughter taking this by the way?”
“Terribly. In that she was excited by the news. She thinks he’s some kind of hero and I have no idea where she got that from. Some of her young noble friends, no doubt. I haven’t said a word to her—”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. My little boy’s just as excited, but when I can tear myself away, I’m going to sit him down and talk to him about the King of Destruction. Temper his views with mine. You should do the same.”
“Jecaina won’t want to listen.”
“Well, what if you phrased it like this? Have her come over to ah, suggest who might visit Hellios, perhaps as a diplomatic party. Yes, one of your River Wardens and their offspring of course. Purely as emissaries, not as a friendly overture—we can even coordinate this with the negations with Medain. But you can call Jecaina over to ask her who’s the most level-headed and when she demands to go, you can say—”
Raelt listened, blinking, as Lyfelt conjured a scenario out of thin air and laid it in his lap. He frowned, nodded, and left the Warded Chambers feeling a lot better. The man was truly quick with ideas and ways of pulling other people’s strings. And King Raelt felt better for having spoken to another ruler, even if the conversation had only confirmed his course of action.
Geril was waiting for him, standing rather than sitting. Raelt wished the old man would just take a seat. He had been sitting and talking for a good forty minutes! He let Geril hobble after him until the man’s feet weren’t so stiff.
“I spoke to Lyfelt. Summon a [Mage]—I’ll need to send a good deal of [Messages] throughout the day. And I need to return to my court. More politics.”
“I see. And what will the realm’s response be?”
Geril’s voice was slightly anxious. Raelt smiled at him.
“We will give him no reason to find issue with Jecrass. That goes for anyone passing through our borders. I have no doubt there will be at least a few groups travelling south from Medain. We will treat them as his subjects and let anyone who wishes to leave go unmolested.”
“Will we dissuade them in any way, sire?”
“Not with violence. With words? Perhaps. I will be touring different estates later. Warden Dufle’s especially, to see if I can persuade his folk to move elsewhere in Jecrass, not out of it. Even those who claim to follow the King of Destruction might be persuaded. They are citizens of Jecrass, even if their loyalties lie elsewhere. Let’s hope some change their minds.”
“I see, I see. And is that Belchan’s response as well?”
“It will be, eventually. We may make a statement with the other nations, but I have no desire to give Flos an excuse.”
“But your Majesty—if his proclamations pass purely unchecked, is this not a victory for Reim?”
Raelt had been thinking the same thing as he spoke to Lyfelt. But now he shook his head.
“Minster Lyfelt assures me that this won’t be the case. He told me Reim’s worries don’t lie north, but rather in the south. There is a…gathering taking place of the rulers there.”
Geril’s brows creased. The elderly man frowned for a second.
“The south. Pomle?”
It was a good guess. Raelt nodded.
“The very same. They’re moving fast. Lyfelt is content to let them do…whatever it is he thinks they’re doing. I think we’ll find out in the next few days what is going to occur. But it won’t involve Jecrass at the moment.”
He turned and rested a hand on Geril’s shoulder. Raelt smiled down at his old retainer, and the [Head Servant] nodded. He smiled up at his [King], much as he had for over four decades of being at Raelt’s side, from boy to man.
“His Majesty does his best. I will gather the remaining court and find a [Mage]. But you have a bit of time, if you don’t mind me saying so, my liege. Why not rest an hour.”
“I may do that. Thank you, Geril.”
The [King] looked out the windows at the bright morning. He felt tired, but the weight was off his shoulders, mostly. He’d done what he could. Let the other nations make plots and schemes. Raelt was going to nip down to the stables and see if he could steal some carrots from the horses and eat them in his quarters. And he was going to savor the moment. Because he had a feeling those days would be in short supply in the future.
So went the [King] of Jecrass. And in Pomle, another sort of ruler was having an equally eventful day.
It was past midmorning and into early evening when Orjin of Pomle was interrupted. He was in training, balancing on a pile of rocks with one foot. The stack was about six feet high, made up of a large rock with a relatively flat top, followed by ever-smaller rocks that threatened to shift and fall down with every move Orjin made with his one foot balanced on top of them.
But he didn’t fall. And despite Orjin being tall and heavy, from muscle, not fat, and despite the sweat beading his dark skin, he kept balancing on the rocks. That in itself was mildly impressive; Orjin had to constantly shift to keep the unstable tower of rocks from collapsing. But you wouldn’t know the complexity of the task unless you’d tried it once.
What was really impressive no matter how you looked at it was that every few seconds, Orjin would hop in the air and his feet would change from right foot to left. And the tower would tremble, but never collapse.
It was training, albeit of an unusual kind. The theory was that if you could keep your balance on a shifting pile of rocks, you could run up a collapsing hillside, or fight on a rocking boat. There were Skills who would give you perfect footing no matter where you went of course, but Orjin wasn’t the sort to rely on gaining a Skill when he could simply learn what was needed.
However, the figure who strode up to him had no time for rocks, balancing, or sweating in the sun. She cleared her throat as Orjin shifted from left foot to right, lightning fast, and he looked down at her.
“Salii. Is there something you need of me?”
“Yes, Orjin. You’re needed by the water grounds in a few minutes. Do you have anything to wear?”
He gestured at his bare chest and the loose pants he wore. They were worn and Salii eyed them with clear dismay.
“Something more formal if you have it.”
Orjin sighed. He looked down at Salii and saw some of the sun’s light shining off her dusty, brown scales. She was a Drake, a rarity in Chandrar. She was also a [Secretary], or some class similar to that. If she was asking, it meant something was happening that required Orjin’s presence.
“There is a gathering, Orjin. At least eight nations are converging on Pomle. The first of them will be here within the hour, if not sooner.”
“Not for war.”
Orjin said that as a certainty. If that had been the case, Salii would have told him already. She shook her head, looking peeved as she saw him flip. One hand was suddenly supporting him as he held perfectly still, balancing upright. It was an impressive physical feat, but even Orjin couldn’t maintain it for more than a second. Then he lost his balance and the tower of rocks came falling down. So did he, but he turned and landed neatly on the ground. Salii stepped back as the rocks fell around her. She swished her tail.
“I know. Tell me now.”
The man sat on the ground, sighing. Salii sat with him, and he looked at her, attentive, if not quite happy. He was no [King], or ruler in the sense of having a class. Perhaps he should have one, but Orjin of Pomle had no desire to be a leader. The fact that he was one was purely coincidental and had no bearing on how he lived his life. Most of the time, that was.
“Where should I begin? Last night—no, I suppose, yesterday, the King of Destruction sent out a bunch of letters via Courier and Runner. [Messages] too, so some of the nations received word before the others. The upshot of it is that they all received the contents of his message and they’re gathering here to discuss what the King of Destruction said.”
“Ah. He sent a letter?”
“Yes. To Pomle as well. I read it. Do you want to…?”
She offered an opened envelope to Orjin. He waved it away.
“Just tell me.”
“Well, essentially what he said was…”
Salii repeated the bare bones of Flos’ declaration to Orjin. When she had finished, he shook his head.
“Peace. And he wants his subjects to return to him? This doesn’t concern Pomle. We had no quarrel with the King of Destruction and if anyone wished to go to him, they are already gone.”
“I know. But it matters to other nations. And because the rulers want to talk in person, they sent word. They’re coming.”
“Eight nations? Which ones?”
“All of our neighbors. And a delegation from Nerrhavia’s fall. They’re all moving fast, especially Nerrhavia to get here.”
“Fine. Why does this concern me?”
The [Martial Artist], the warrior, folded his arms. Salii looked exasperated.
“Because you’re the Strongest of Pomle! The ruler!”
“So? Let them talk here.”
“It might not just be talk. Your presence is needed to guarantee the peace. And to make sure none of the other rulers take offense by your absence.”
Orjin sighed louder. Of course, he’d suspected that would be the case. He thought about refusing, or walking off. Salii couldn’t stop him if he did, but…she was Salii.
Pomle was a small nation. If you looked at it on the map it would be almost a complete circle, a little dot sandwiched between other nations, right at an intersection between four, in fact. It was a tiny nation, smaller even than Reim had been. But it was important, for Pomle was known far and wide as neutral territory.
It had no government, no rulers, and those who came to Pomle were free to do as they pleased. Most who lived in the country trained for combat, [Martial Artists], hermits practicing some style of weaponry—more than one famous warrior had trained in Pomle’s single oasis or on the plateaus of its grounds. But other sorts came to Pomle too. Outcasts. Refugees. Criminals.
No one regulated them. Or at least, no one actively made the people pay taxes or follow any rules. Troublemakers were dealt with. Murder and crime were also not tolerated; Pomle’s warriors would take matters into their own hands. Only two things held any sway over Pomle. That was the tradition of the Strongest, and Salii.
Orjin was the Strongest of Pomle. It was a simple title and there was an even simpler way of choosing the Strongest. Whoever beat the current leader of Pomle took his or her place. Orjin had won this position eight years ago and those who had challenged his position had all been defeated. There hadn’t been many challengers, actually; few people wanted the position. Most just wanted to live peacefully, and the Strongest had obligations.
One of those obligations was listening to Salii. No one could quite remember when she’d appeared. It had to be five years ago? At least. But one day she’d shown up and started ordering people about. And they had listened mostly, because she had good ideas. Like how to settle quarrels over bathing. Organizing a place for children to play where adults wouldn’t accidentally intrude. Even convincing a [Mage] to draw some runes of preservation so food could be stored.
Things like that. Orjin hadn’t questioned Salii at first, and she’d gotten him to do any number of tasks he wouldn’t normally, from sorting out troublemakers to quelling monsters. He didn’t mind that; monster fighting was good practice. But sometimes she had requests like these.
“Why must I be there? For the status of the other rulers? If that is simply it, I will refuse.”
“Not just that, Orjin. All the monarchs are bringing escorts. And if they fight each other, it might be war. And that war could involve Pomle. If you’re there, you can make sure no blood is spilt—er, less blood is spilt.”
That made sense. Orjin tilted his head towards the sun, sighed, and then nodded.
“I have some more colorful clothing with my things. Let me dress.”
He stood up. Salii watched him leap over the collapsed pile of rocks, and run towards a tall plateau of orange-red rock that defined Pomle’s geography. Orjin wasn’t long; he moved fast and before more than two minutes had passed he was running past, with a more formal skirt made of bright, colored cotton, and a loose cape of some kind of animal or monster hide. He still had no clothing on his upper body, though.
“Where’d you get that?”
“A [Merchant] gave it to me once, for saving his life on the road. Will it do?”
“It’s…fitting. Okay, come on. Let’s walk to the watering grounds.”
Orjin nodded. He walked across the bare, cracked earth with Salii. She was fully clothed and wore shoes; he did not. He was barefoot, but he didn’t feel the heat radiating up from the ground. Nor did he sweat as much as the Drake. The two headed towards a distant spot where a small stand of trees had grown up, and water gathered.
An oasis, and not a mirage. The watering grounds were really just a hole in the ground where water had collected. Enough to let people live and as such anyone in Pomle would invariably visit the place for the precious resource. It was also the most populated area, as those less inclined to solo survival had made some structures here, or found a reliable source of food from the thirsty birds and animals that came to drink from the watering grounds.
The Strongest of Pomle and the [Secretary] of Pomle set a quick pace at first, but it slowed when it became clear that their definition of ‘quick’ varied. It wasn’t that Salii was out of shape; she had lived in Pomle and that was a harsh lifestyle at times. But Orjin was just too quick. He slowed to a crawl as she huffed and caught up to him, jogging. Orjin waited for Salii to catch her breath and then spoke.
“I have never asked it, Salii, but what brought you to Pomle?”
It had been five years since he’d known her and this was the first question he’d really asked beyond her name and what she did. Salii glanced up at him, surprised. The Drake swished her tail and shrugged. She consulted her little sheet of parchment secured to the clipboard of wood as she spoke. It was one of the things she always carried with her.
“I thought it would be a challenge. Pomle has no industry. No trade goods or proper economy to speak of. There are no bureaucrats, no system of government besides the tradition of the strongest, and no treasury. There isn’t even a proper waste disposal system in Pomle.”
“We bury our waste far from the water.”
“I meant sewage, Orjin. Half of Pomle’s citizens live in tents or isolated structures, very few of which are made out of stone. The rest sleep in the open. This place would give any other [Secretary], [Overseer], or [Manager]-class nightmares.”
“So, why did you stay?”
“Well, I thought I’d level up faster here.”
“And did you?”
The Drake [Secretary] gave Orjin a toothy smile. He smiled as well. That was a good answer, all told. For if you were coming to Pomle, it was probably to do just that. Level up, to be alone, or to find a challenge. Pomle was not a place where you came to be famous or make a fortune. It was a special, small nation, the newest to Chandrar.
“Here we are. Oh, Ancestors. Some of the monarchs have already arrived! Orjin, you need to say something.”
“I don’t know! Give the peace speech you did last time.”
He sighed. The watering grounds were clearly visible ahead of him. He could see the relatively wetter ground were occupied. Someone had set up tents here, and not the weathered homes of some of Pomle’s residents. These were bright, silk affairs and there were pennants flying from the top of them. Horses, people…Orjin couldn’t remember when he’d last seen so many gathered here.
“Let’s see…this looks like Mediv, Xem, Lamullt—none of the huge nations are present yet. But these are still [Kings] and [Queens], Orjin. Look. That’s one delegation right there, by the edge of the watering grounds.”
Orjin saw them. Two dozen riders, looking for a place to tie up their mounts. And that was just the main group. It looked like a small group of richly-dressed folk—the [King] and [Queen] perhaps, and a son—along with some courtiers. Behind them were a double-row of soldiers riding camels. They were trying to eye the other guests at the watering ground and shot Orjin and Salii a distrustful glance as they approached.
“Something like that. I’ll announce you—”
Orjin had spotted another group at the edge of the watering hole. They were leading their horses to drink and he thought he could tell the [Knights] apart, if only because they were wearing the heaviest armor of all the three groups. They were offering the water to their horses, and chasing away some of Pomle’s people from the watering hole. Orjin could hear one of them shouting as he approached.
“Clear off! This is Lamullt’s royal escort! Anyone who interferes with the path of his Highness of Lamullt will be dealt with!”
The [Knight] speaking looked hot, irritable in the dry weather, and out of patience with the children and people of Pomle, none of whom were showing him deference. Orjin could see they were the owners of the silk tent, striped yellow and white. And the [Knight] was keeping the others from the watering hole.
“You there. Back up. This is Lamullt’s—”
Another armored man blocked Orjin’s way as he strode past the bright tents. He glanced dismissively at Orjin, and then noted the man’s body with another frown. He put his hand on his sword.
“This is King Victal of Lamullt’s—”
“The watering grounds are open to everyone. Stop interfering with Pomle’s citizens.”
Orjin stared at the man. The [Knight] glared at him.
“Did you not hear me? This is Lamullt’s [King] residing in the tent over there! He has claimed this space in preparation for the meeting of the monarchy. This…hole will be free for others to use it when—”
He got no further. Orjin was reaching out to brush him aside and watching the man’s hand tighten on his sword. He wouldn’t get the chance to unsheathe it if he tried. But before he could, and violate the law of Pomle, a shape hurtled past Orjin and a wooden clipboard smacked the [Knight] in the face.
Salii slapped the [Knight] over the head as he jerked back. He tried to grab his sword, but the [Secretary] dealt him two more swift blows to the head with the edge of her clipboard. She was quick, and Orjin stopped to admire her technique. Before the [Knight] could draw his blade or his comrades interfere, Salii was shouting at him.
“You, draw that sword and you and Lamullt violate the peace of Pomle! And you, the idiots at the watering hole! Pull your stallions back! If they foul the waters, they’re horse meat!”
The [Knight] at the watering hole jerked his head around. He scowled at Salii.
“How dare you. And who is this?”
He pointed at Orjin, who was looking around, surveying the other two camps. Nobles, retainers, servants—they were making a mess as they set up everywhere. He felt disgusted; normally he’d let any caravan go through Pomle and just stay far away, but he had to be here for this? On the other hand he saw what Salii meant. All three nations had brought warriors, escorts, and they would be a hard fight to put down for most of Pomle’s warriors if they started one.
“Shut up and move those horses back! Draw that blade and you will lose that hand! This is the Strongest of Pomle, Orjin! And in this land, none of you have any rights beyond entry! If you offer violence in this place, you void that right!”
Salii was shouting at the [Knights], waving her clipboard in the leader’s face. He stared at Orjin, glancing at the man’s bare chest and his skirt made of cotton. Orjin thought it was a wonderfully colored thing, but he glanced to one side and saw a group of what might have been nobles in rich silk attire staring at him. Orjin returned the look blankly, and then saw someone push the tent flaps back.
A [King] emerged from the tent, and a localized hush fell amid his subjects. Not on Salii, Orjin or any of Pomle’s subjects. No longer impeded by the [Knights], several children leapt into the watering hole with a splash.
The bit of noise drew the attention of the other two parties. They drew closer, eying each other like foreign cats eying each other. A man in bright clothing strode forwards as the riders approached on their horses. Orjin spotted a circlet of gold on the man and women in the center and one of silver on the boy following them. The [Herald] took a deep breath and shouted.
“His Majesty of Xem, his Royal Excellency, [King] Aliman. Her Majesty of Xem, her Royal Excellency—”
One of the other men stepped forwards and tried to shout over him.
“You are in the presence of his Highness of Mediv! Bow your heads before—”
Orjin lifted his foot and stomped. At the same time he used a Skill, and a tremor ran through the ground. Just for a second. Salii, standing next to him, lost her balance and the riders’ horses reared. In the watering hole a bit of the dirt exterior collapsed and the children happily screamed as they jumped into the water. The shouting men stopped and every head turned towards Orjin. He looked around.
Now, what did Salii want him to say? Oh, yes, the speech. Orjin spoke as he looked at both [Kings], the one from the tent, the one on horseback, and then the woman standing behind a line of [Soldiers] who were all pointing their spears at him.
“This is Pomle. I am the Strongest of Pomle, Orjin. Thirty years ago, we claimed this land and fought every nation who tried to impose their rules on us. And for thirty years, Pomle has known peace. The King of Destruction’s armies passed us by. Pomle has nothing, though many claim sanctuary in our lands. But we have always been a place for those who wish to train. This is why Pomle is neutral ground.”
He looked around. Three rulers stared back at a man without a shirt, sweat dried by the sun, dust covering his legs and feet. Orjin returned their gazes impassively.
“So I warn you once, rulers of foreign countries. Hold to this peace. Conduct your talks as you will, and I will guarantee the peace. But to anyone who violates the peace, their safety is no longer assured. Stop no one from drinking from the watering grounds. I will stay here to maintain the peace so long as the talks continue. Salii is the [Secretary]. Speak to her if you have any questions.”
Then he turned and walked away. Salii blinked as all eyes turned to her. The Drake smiled. She waved her clipboard.
“You heard him. If you want to tie up your horses, you’ll have to find space further away from the watering hole. The same goes for um, ditches to relieve yourselves. It has to be away from the water. As for the meeting, please keep this space clear. We’re expecting the delegation from the Illivere League to arrive any minute now…”
Orjin didn’t bother to socialize with the first monarchs who arrived. They didn’t seem keen on approaching him either. Their escorts on the other hand kept staring at Orjin warily, as smaller predators tended to do when a larger, more dangerous creature was around. Of course, Orjin had no intention of starting violence. He was more annoyed by the spears and other weaponry, but Salii had talked him into letting them keep the arms.
“It’s not like Pomle doesn’t have our own warriors around and they are monarchs. They fear assassination. And you have your hands and feet.”
And they were weapons in themselves. Orjin acquiesced with bad grace and spent his time sitting on top of one of the date palms that grew around Pomle. That got him more askance looks, but it was perfectly common; several children strong enough to make the climb had done the same, and Orjin recognized two warriors, one a [Spear Dancer], the other a [Martial Artist] like him, sitting on the tree tops and watching the sights. That was how Orjin spotted the delegation from Tiqr first.
The noise that split the air as the delegation came into view was a trumpeting blast. But it came from no horn. The creature that appeared over the tops of the palms was grey, huge. It’s steps were long, and as it swayed its huge head, its tusks caught the light. Ivory, capped with gold. And it was similarly adorned with a riding booth.
On top of it sat a woman. And before her raced warriors wearing cloth armor riding striped zebras. Hyenas bounded forwards, terrifying the horses of the other animals. They raced ahead of men and women who walked side-by-side with lions. The elephant raised it trunk to the sky and blew another sound, scaring the birds out of the watering hole.
They flew about her as she rode in. A laughing woman dressed in clothing almost as revealing as Orjin’s. But her garb was made of feathers and bright cloth. And as she approached, the rest of her escort dove out of the sky. A flock of Garuda of every color, swooping about her.
Salii stood with Orjin as he watched the procession come to a halt. It was as large as all three escorts that had come before it, and then some. He shook his head as the woman on the elephant’s back patted the animal and it blew a third trumpet before she slid to the ground off its back.
“I know that much. And that woman riding the Grand Elephant. She would be the Empress of Beasts, wouldn’t she?”
Salii stared at the [Empress] as she landed on the ground. She was nothing like the monarchs who stared at her as if they were witnessing another strange beast. The [Empress] looked to Orjin like a warrior as much as a leader. And he knew without asking that she was a [Beast Master]. Her mount proved that.
Elephants were already huge creatures. But the Grand Elephant was easily half again as large as the regular elephants that Orjin knew. It seemed impossible that such a huge creature could exist, let alone sustain itself, but Grand Elephants were able to travel vast distances in search of food. And in the savannas of Tiqr, food was abundant. As were other, less friendly animals.
Hyenas. Riding zebra. Even a pair of lions. All these animals would scarcely tolerate each other, let alone Humans in such close proximity. But the animals took their places, as docile as could be. And as she walked past, the hyenas crouched. The Lions lowered their maned heads. Even the elephant appeared to kneel.
“Strongest of Pomle!”
The [Empress of Beasts] came to Orjin first. She ignored the other monarchs and laughed as she embraced Orjin. She smelled of the wild and she was strong.
“I am Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. I greet you, Strongest of Pomle. I have come to this gathering with little warning and for that I offer you my apologies. My escort will drink of Pomle’s waters if it is acceptable and for that boon I offer you this.”
She gestured, and Orjin saw that there were more conventional forms of transport behind her procession of animals. From a wagon a pair of brawny men jumped to the ground with a coffer. It was filled with jewels.
“Treasures of Tiqr. A small price for water, is it not? Will you accept?”
Orjin felt a claw jab him in the back repeatedly. He ignored it.
“Pomle welcomes all those who offer no violence, Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. No gift is needed.”
Salii kicked Orjin in the back of the legs and only succeeded in hurting her own foot. The Empress smiled, and there was a sparkle to her eyes from within, like an inner light.
“It is a gift offered freely, then. As friends must. Tell me, what is your name?”
“Orjin of Pomle. And if that is the case, I will accept.”
“Good. I would that I could speak with you longer, Strongest. Until then—”
Nsiia inclined her head and Orjin did the same. She swept past him as Salii hurried forwards to claim the bounty of gemstones. Orjin ignored the gems as he watched Nsiia sweep past him. He eyed one of the hyenas, who was baring its teeth in that unsetting grin as it watched one of the camels. He didn’t know what to make of Nsiia. He was more sure of Illivere, who arrived next.
“This is the escort of the Illivere League’s people. It has to be.”
Salii pointed out the next group that approached from the east. She was muttering to Orjin, trying to catch him up on everything she thought he should know. He was listening with only half an ear; Nsiia had settled her people in and she was speaking with one of the monarchs as the rest turned to watch the next ruler approach.
“I’ve heard of Illivere’s riches.”
“It’s not the same as Tiqr’s. Frankly speaking, Empress Nsiia is the poorest ruler of the four major nations that will appear here. Illivere will be the second-richest.”
Orjin thought of the casket of jewels, so casually offered up.
“The Empress of Beasts appeared rich enough to me.”
“It’s by comparison. She’s still richer than Mediv or Xem or the other smaller nations. But Illivere makes its fortunes from its industry and high number of artisans. It exports cheap goods, everything from cut stone to food to processed ore. And its people are almost all craftsmen or scholars—few laborers. And that’s because the country runs on—”
The procession was close enough for Orjin to pick up the huge, lumbering shapes walking among the shorter Humans on horseback and foot. Salii caught her breath.
“Yes. They’re one of the few nations that manufactures them. The Illivere League has a powerful army, if a slow one, and their workforce never slows. They only need repairing and energy. They’ve brought some with them, obviously.”
“I see War Golems.”
The steel giants that walked ahead of Illivere was truly massive. Some of the shorter, porter golems made of stone or sand that were ‘only’ seven or eight feet tall. But the pair of giants that walked ahead of the group was fourteen feet tall. Both held flags with Illivere’s symbol on it. And it was a procession of four Golems that carried a palanquin loaded with treasures. The man who rode in front of it was fair-skinned, bespectacled, a figure who looked more at home inside reading than out in the sun. He also greeted Orjin first after his herald had called his name.
“Strongest of Pomle, this is a small token of Illivere’s gratitude for allowing us to meet on your soil today. Please accept these vintages from Illivere’s orchards, foods and delicacies from all over the league’s holdings.”
The man who stood shorter than both Orjin and Queen Nsiia was polite, well-spoke and quick and precise with his words. He was no ruler, but someone like Orjin, who had been given the position without the class. For all that he seemed impossible to shake, and shook Orjin’s hand fearlessly.
“Thank you, First Crafter-Magus Femithain of Illivere. We will accept your gift.”
Orjin sighed as he looked at the massive pile of goods the golems were mechanically piling up in front of him. They moved slowly, but with confidence in every move. The animals of Nsiia’s group and the horses and camels all stayed as far away from the golems as possible. Femithain bowed slightly again to Orjin and went to greet Empress Nsiia, fearless and self-contained.
That left Orjin with the huge pile of goods. And these weren’t exactly able to be squirreled away by Salii. He heard a tap as someone landed behind him. One of Pomle’s warriors had jumped to the ground. She leaned on her spear and looked at him.
“Orjin. More gifts?”
“Where do we put them?”
The Strongest of Pomle looked at the pile of food. It was all rich stuff, but it was going to rot fast in the sun, especially because there were few good places to store all of it. He waved a hand at the crowd of Pomle’s folk, who were watching Illivere’s golems make ready the camp from afar.
“Spread the word. We have drinks, food…let Salii take whatever she wants first and make sure no one takes what she claims.”
The spear-wielding warrior grinned and bounded off. In minutes, she was back, and she snagged a bottle of wine from the cargo before hundreds of Pomle’s citizens descended on the gift. They grabbed what they could carry, walked off, and those who wanted more came back for it. Orjin ignored all of it; he had no desire for the food or drinks at the moment. He was sure someone would share it with him if there was any left over later.
Femithain was clearly trying to suppress his expression as he watched a huge crowd gather and claim the rest of the goods. A little Garuda girl, barely more than a chick, ran off with a bottle of Illivere’s finest vintages and some of the others began eating or drinking the rich goods there on the spot.
Salii fought her way out of the mess, looking disgruntled. She glared at Orjin as she wiped sweat off her forehead.
“I rescued some of the goods. We’ll keep it stored for later, or perhaps to trade. Did you have to let the rest of it be eaten now?”
“We don’t have many places to store so much. And for what occasion would we save it for? If you wanted, we could have traded all of it for money.”
“Yes, but Crafter-Magus Femithain clearly intended these as a gift to you.”
The Drake looked pointedly at Orjin. He shrugged.
“He gave it to Pomle. And it is Pomle who enjoys his gift. It’s fairly done. You know that.”
“Yes, but some tact—”
“Another group is coming. South.”
“Savere. Hold on, I’d better get the rest of the goods into shelter?”
Salii pointed up. Orjin stared at the skies and blinked. The bare, blue skies had suddenly clouded over. And as the distant procession drew nearer, a miracle happened.
Rain began to fall. At first a drizzle, then a shower. It soaked the wet earth. Pomle’s people looked up, surprised. The watering hole greedily drank the liquid as it ran into the space. The rest wet the earth and before the waters could truly begin to conjure a flood, the rains stopped. The clouds vanished.
And the Siren of Savere walked forwards, and the waters formed a path in the sands for her.
If Tiqr was a land of beasts and people, and Illivere one of regulation and commerce, and Pomle free chaos, then Savere fell into a position between Tiqr and Illivere. Its people were wild. They rode forwards with no semblance of order, laughing. And more than one looked to Orjin like folk from the waters. Indeed, some were even walking alongside the woman walking in the center of the trail of water.
Drowned People. Children of the ocean. And the chaotic warriors who raced ahead of their [Queen]. But it was the Siren who made the biggest impact as the waters she called lapped at the feet of those gathered in the watering grounds. Water, that most precious of things in dry Chandrar. And here was a [Mage] who controlled it.
“I am Revine, Siren of Savere. I have come to speak of the King of Destruction.”
That was all Revine said. She offered no greetings to Orjin, nor to the other monarchs. She stood at the watering hole and looked down at it. Her folk spread out, laughing and pointing at the animals of Tiqr and the Golems of Illivere as if they were some huge jest. The Drowned People stood behind Revine.
A child wandered up to the Siren of Savere as she surveyed the watering hole. She picked her nose as she stared up at Revine. The Siren stared at her, and then at the small watering hole.
“Is this all the water Pomle has, child?”
“Yes? Can you conjure rain?”
“Yes. And my people demand it of me. Without water, the Drowned Folk wither and die. Without water, all things die. This water is…insufficient. So let more fall.”
The Siren raised her hand. And the clouds gathered. Orjin looked up and saw more water begin to fall from the skies. Just like that. At first a shower, then a torrent.
Pomle’s citizens ran for cover. The other monarchs retreated, some shouting insults. Femithain shook his head as his Golems set up covering for his people. Empress Nsiia stood in the rains and laughed as her animals enjoyed the rain. And Orjin? He shook his head.
“A dangerous ruler. The most dangerous of the three in a way.”
He looked at Salii. The Drake wiped water off her scales as she tried to cover her clipboard.
“The most powerfully magically, at least. She’s drawing the water from the atmosphere. It will be twice as dry in Pomle for a while after this.”
Orjin could only shrug at that. He watched the Siren of Savere for another moment. And then he turned away.
“One more, isn’t there?”
“Yes. Nerrhavia has the farthest to come. But they swore they would be here. And I don’t doubt it.”
The [Secretary] wasn’t wrong. The rains lasted for an hour, by which time the ground was saturated and the watering hole overflowing. At Salii’s request, it was even widened by people with shovels and sticks to contain more water. The sun had returned and Orjin’s damp skin was drying by the time he looked east a final time and saw them.
Chariots. Dozens, possibly as many as a hundred, racing across the ground. This was an army, and all the other monarchs looked up. Some were uneasy, others just wary. The Siren of Savere narrowed her eyes as her cohort gathered around her. For if her country was mighty, if Tiqr and Illivere were both major powers, here came a colossus of nations. Even Orjin was familiar with it.
Nerrhavia Fallen, one of the largest nations of Chandrar. And because of that, the most powerful, wealthiest, and most populated nation of all those gathered here today. A kingdom of String People, vast beyond belief. That was who rode the chariots into Pomle, riding around the other groups. Bright folk, their skin glossy, almost shining in the light.
String People. Made of silk. If cotton was to normal flesh, then silk was something beyond that when Stitch People made their bodies out of the stuff. They looked inhumanly beautiful and graceful, and their features were perfect. Of course; they’d stitched their appearances out of cloth. They could be what their hearts desired. So they drove their chariots in, hundreds of perfect folk. And the [Queen] who rode a chariot of gold pulled by two white stallions was the most beautiful of all.
Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia was light brown of skin, with flawless flowing black hair, and skin softer than should have been possible. Her eyes sparkled like brilliant emeralds, and her features were perfect down to the line of her nose, to her lips. She moved like she was dancing at every moment, and she possessed a radiance about her. An aura.
She was a monster to Orjin. He looked at her once as she stepped down from her chariot and he knew her body was made of some fabric more expensive than silk. She wore it, she had made her features of it, and she had become something…strange. He was attracted to her and so was everyone who beheld Yisame. They stared, men and women alike. Even the animals. That was what made her terrifying. The [Queen]’s escorts followed her, forming a procession of warriors and servants, each more fantastic than the last. All made of silk.
Graceful, beautiful, and strong. Silk provided little protection against slashing weapons compared to regular cotton, but warriors who were made of the stuff were lightweight, stronger than normal, and hard to damage with fists or blunt weapons. It was also one of the most expensive of fabrics, manufactured only in nations like Nerrhavia. Yet all of Yisame’s escort was made of the stuff.
It was a show of power. Orjin of Pomle watched with Salii for two minutes, and then went to get a drink of water. The procession was still coming in after that, so he walked off and had a drink from the watering hole while he heard chariots roll in and horses whinny.
Salii found Orjin at the edge of the pool. She glared at him.
“Orjin, she’s waiting for you!”
“Queen Yisame! She’s greeted the other monarchs!”
Orjin got up reluctantly. He walked back and found that the ruler of Nerrhavia was indeed waiting for him. She looked down her nose at him and his still-damp skirt. Her attendants looked askance at Orjin’s bare chest and flawed body.
“Strongest of Pomle?”
The word was half-question, half-mockery at the title. Orjin stared up at the beautiful face, the mischievous smile and distant look, as if Yisame were looking down at him despite Orjin being taller. He nodded curtly.
“Some call me that. I am Orjin of Pomle. And you are welcome in Pomle, so long as you abide by the laws of hospitality, Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia.”
“I will consider it. But I have come far to speak only of one man. All else is paltry. You may go. Pomle has nothing I wish of you.”
Yisame flicked her wrist at Orjin and the others around her laughed. Orjin turned to go without so much as a word. Nerrhavia had nothing he wished for either.
So they were gathered here. Four major nations of Tiqr, Savere, Nerrhavia, and Illivere. A few other monarchs had arrived, their entrances completely overshadowed or rained over by the other, larger nations. To Orjin, it was like seeing four adults walking among children.
Empress Nsiia of Tiqr.
Crafter-Magus Femithain of the Illivere League.
Revine, the Siren of Savere.
And [Queen] Yisame of Nerrhavia Fallen.
They were the names to remember here. Each knew the others, if not by face, then by name. By presence. Each one was highest in level in their own way. Although of the four…it was strange. Femithain might have been the highest-level, but he was no ruler. Revine was mighty as a [Mage], but Orjin thought it was Empress Nsiia who boasted the highest level as a ruler of all of them.
And by contrast, Yisame felt like the lowest-level if he closed his eyes and compared her presence, not her escort. Compared to them, the lesser monarchs hovered about, striking a mix between courtesy and their own self-importance. It took a while for the introductions to be finished, and in that time Orjin realized Nerrhavia and some of the other nations had brought delicacies to be served to those attending. Since he was apparently included in that austere gathering, he ate his fill as he waited for things to get interesting or for everyone to go away.
The actual meeting, as such, was very short. Informal, even. The gathered rulers waited about, perhaps for Orjin or Salii to ask one of them to speak. But why would Pomle do that? Eventually, the rulers realized they would have to take matters into their own hands and broke up, some talking to another and others gathering in small groups to talk while their retainers hovered about them.
It was rather like watching groups of birds mingle together. Orjin, eating some roasted meats that tasted like a bird of some sort, sat patiently on the ground. His ears, like his eyes and nose, were far stronger than they should be and he could hear snippets of conversations. From some. At times, there would be pockets of silence as one of the monarchs deployed a spell or Skill that muffled Orjin’s hearing. The sensation was unpleasant, like cotton wedged deeply in the ear.
No one was happy about the King of Destruction’s letter. But the degree to which they were concerned varied from monarch to monarch. Femithain was concerned and made his objection clear to Revine as they spoke together.
“He wants his people back. His veterans. If other nations allow this, a number of Reim’s scattered allies might reach his kingdom without making enemies of every nation around them.”
“A clever trick.”
The Siren’s voice was low, her gaze piercing. She glared past Illivere at some of the haughty Stitch-Folk from Nerrhavia. She looked back at the Crafter-Magus.
“His allies are scattered, but with this he could guarantee their safe passage. And you are right. There are many who fought for the King of Destruction. He could form an army of experienced soldiers. It strengthens Reim and buys him time against his enemies.”
“However, by the same token he has pledged to attack no one.”
“You think that matters? The King of Destruction will find an excuse. He always has. What will stop him from breaking his vow when he has grown enough in strength?”
“His enemies, one suspects. But you are correct, Siren Revine. This benefits Reim. The question is: will enough nations defy his imposed ‘peace’? This is one such gathering, but I would not commit Illivere to such a course of action.”
“…No. No, it would make targets out of our nations. That is true enough. And yet, what if Nerrhavia dared? The Empire of Sands is already the King of Destruction’s enemy. He cannot fight on too many fronts.”
“But how many might he fight on? I have heard reports the Lord of the Skies and his tribe are raiding the outskirts of the Empire of Sands constantly. If he were to send Takhatres against the League of Illivere, just one of his Seven—”
“He cannot stand against all of us.”
“But who is ‘us’, Siren? I came here to discuss a course of action, but fighting the King of Destruction does not appeal to me.”
That was Illivere. Cautious and refusing to commit. Whereas Revine, the Siren of Savere was open about her hatred for Flos. On the other hand, Empress Nsiia and Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia—
“I cared little for the proclamation, Queen Yisame. But tell me, does Nerrhavia desire war? You sent no army against Reim with the coalition, and you were surely able to do so.”
Yisame brushed her hair back impatiently, wrinkling her nose as Nsiia fed one of her hyenas by hand.
“I did not care to. It is true that the smaller nations petitioned Nerrhavia to enter the battle. What of it? Nerrhavia does not fear the King of Destruction. Nor do I wish to spend the time and energy it would take to battle his nation. The only thing that has roused my ire is his demands of my nation. In that, Flos of Reim has erred and provoked my response. And you, Empress of Beasts?”
Nsiia grinned up at Yisame’s face as the hyena prowled away.
“I counted Flos of Reim as my ally, once. Tiqr will abide by his peace and his request. It is a simple thing to answer, isn’t it?”
“She said that? Curious.”
Femithain and Yisame stood together, speaking quietly. The Queen of Nerrhavia looked down at him.
“And you, Crafter-Magus? What does the assembled will of Illivere think? Or is it paralyzed by fear?”
The Crafter-Magus’ gaze didn’t waver as he adjusted his spectacles.
“Illivere waits and thinks, Queen Yisame. There are actions that benefit Illivere. I think war does not benefit Illivere. On the other hand, it benefits few nations, Nerrhavia included. I came to ascertain if I had allies…or enemies before choosing my next course.”
He held Yisame’s gaze, not affected by her charms. She hesitated.
“Very well. I withdraw my words.”
“I thank you for that. As for Queen Nsiia, she seems to be held in her course. May I ask if Nerrhavia is the same?”
“How do you mean?”
“Nerrhavia is an enemy of Reim, or at least, no friend. It would fain see the King of Destruction ended. But Flos of Reim is battling the Empire of Sands, is he not?”
“Is the Emperor of Sands an enemy to Nerrhavia? I’ve heard he is of the String People. And he claims…”
For the first time Yisame looked uncomfortable. She held up a hand.
“I did not come here to discuss that…one. I only care for the King of Destruction’s letter.”
She swept away from Femithain, and his eyes followed her. A few minutes later, Nsiia and Revine nearly came to blows.
“The King of Destruction looted Savere! His armies plundered my lands and my treasuries! Shouldn’t I hold a grudge against that?”
“As far as I understand it, he did to Savere what your [Pirates] have done to other nations for years. Or did your ships not raid Zeres four months back? Izril, Terandria, Baleros—Savere is a home to ships and theft from every part of the world, isn’t it, Siren?”
The [Empress] and the Siren stood eye-to-eye, glaring at each other. There was a dangerous feeling in the air, but Nsiia’s hand was on her belt. She had put aside the spear she carried, but her knife was still there and Revine knew it. The Siren breathed in heavily.
“My ships and my ports offer sanctuary. Moreover, it is my land. My grudge against the King of Destruction is mine to carry, not for others to judge.”
“Then is it war between Savere and Reim?”
The Empress of Beasts challenged Revine. The Siren’s eye twitched. Behind her, the watering hole’s calm surface began to shift ominously.
“Not yet. But should Reim’s territory ever expand towards any coast, it will not be safe from my wrath. Or that of my sister. And if you claim friendship with the King of Destruction, I would warn you as well, Empress of Beasts.”
She turned and stalked away. Orjin sat and watched Nsiia shake her head and turned to soothe her hyenas, who’d gathered around her protectively. Salii frowned as she watched the gathering.
“She’s the only one of them who’s speaking out in Reim’s favor. It might be a mistake.”
That was all Orjin said. He watched as Revine and Yisame spoke quickly and quietly in a bubble of silence. They both showed something to each other. Orjin could see it was a letter before they quickly hid it once more. He saw Yisame nod and Revine bare her teeth. They were not the only ones with the letter, or the only ones who shared a conversation in silence.
The tension bubbling up between Nsiia and the other monarchs was now in full boil. But it came to a head when Nsiia raised her voice after an argument with the Queen of Xem.
“I was but a girl when Flos of Reim appeared on Tiqr’s borders. I opened my borders to him and joined my armies to his because I believed in the righteousness of his cause. Hadn’t he done away with monsters and enriched his lands beyond belief?”
She looked around as the other monarchs turned to face her. The Empress of Beasts spread her arms wide, shouting to them and the other retainers in their escort.
“He brought wealth back to Chandrar! Those who accepted him as friend prospered! It was his enemies, those who refused to join with him and made war who suffered. Did he not bring riches unimaginable back to his kingdom?”
“By looting every land he came across! Tiqr might have been spared, but Savere was not! Nor was Nerrhavia!”
Ravine’s eyes were furious as they locked on Nsiia’s. The [Empress] smiled coldly. She was younger than the other three, save perhaps for Yisame.
“He was willing to fight against the other continents who wanted to turn Chandrar into a plaything to be fought over by their armies. Yes, his ambitions failed and he abandoned his people. What of it? He has returned, and whatever wrongs he has committed could be aimed at any nation here, ten times over.”
She turned to face the other monarchs. And some could not bear to meet her eyes. Those that could gave her hard looks. Nsiia shook her head, contemptuously.
“I do not call myself the King of Destruction’s subject any longer. I am not the girl I was, nor is he the [King] I know. But I will not join with you to attack him if that is what you plot, like cowards hiding in the dunes. I came here to say that, and to dare a bit of bravery from the hearts of my fellow rulers. I see that was a lost cause. Cowards, the lot of you.”
She turned and began to walk away. That was too much. One of the String People in Nerrhavia’s delegation unsheathed his sword.
“No one insults Nerrhavia’s Queen so! To arms, brethren!”
Nsiia whirled as dozens of String People unsheathed their weapons. Behind her, the Grand Elephant trumpeted alarm and her Garuda and Human soldiers grabbed their weapons and sprang up. The Stitch-Warrior who’d shouted charged at the Empress of Beasts. He sprang and Orjin caught him and slammed his head into the ground.
A smooth move. And the blow cracked the earth a bit. The Stitch-Warrior went limp, and Orjin felt at his head. Yes, the right amount of force. His skull wasn’t even cracked; the silk body made him tougher. But not that tough. He turned as another warrior rushed at him.
He’d probably said ‘you dare?’ Orjin watched him land on the ground after he’d kicked him and realized he’d never know what was said. He turned, stepped back as a silvery blade slashed twice at his chest, and lunged forwards. The Stitch-Woman went down, choking.
“Defend her Majesty!”
“Protect his Royal Highness!”
“To me, men of Xem—”
“Golems, on guard! Hold, and defend but do not engage—”
“Strike the skies, Garuda! Circle and aim! To me, Mezha!”
A flurry of voices screamed orders at once. Nsiia leapt backwards as her Grand Elephant, Mezha, charged forwards. Everyone scattered as the trunks scythed the ground and Nsiia pulled herself up into the chair on top. Garuda were in the skies. Orjin saw dozens of blades being drawn. He lashed out, knocking another one flying with a fist. He dodged a thrust, chopped down and knocked a spear from a loose grip. He punched up and the body went flying.
“Stop, stop! No violence in Pomle! Stop, or else—”
Salii was shouting, but no one was listening. She ducked as a blast of water knocked a dozen [Knights] to the ground. The Siren of Savere was pointing at Nsiia. And it might have been war then, or death. But that was when Orjin grabbed the spear.
The first Stitch-Warrior screamed as the spear tip went under his armpit and cut up. His arm went flying, and he clutched at his shoulder. It wasn’t bleeding; the arm had turned to cloth as Orjin severed it. But the pain was real. And every head turned as Orjin charged towards the Stitch-People on their chariots. They were trying to mount up, but the stallions were frightened by the other animals and the magic. They turned, aiming at Orjin as he leapt at them.
[Spear Dance: Crashing Rapids]. The screams of the warriors half-mounted in their chariots filled the air. Legs, arms, hands, all went flying. The instant Orjin’s spear severed the limbs, they became cloth, bits of silk, cut by the powerful blows. The only time the warriors bled was when the spear failed to sever a limb completely. Orjin whirled his spear, cut both legs off a downed Stitch-Warrior and turned.
Elephant. It was rampaging towards him, intent on crushing everything in its path. Orjin rushed at it. The Grand Elephant was huge. He leapt at it and saw its head go down, trying to gore him. But the Grand Elephant hadn’t expected Orjin to jump so high. He leapt up until he was nearly level with its forehead. He saw Empress Nsiia gaping at him and drew back a fist. He punched Mezha in the skull once. The Grand Elephant blinked, stopped, and sat down.
A jet of water, blasted past Orjin’s head. It missed Nsiia and the [Empress] ducked. The Siren of Savere was pointing at her. The second jet of water shot at Nsiia, hundreds of pounds of concentrated water, enough to blast flesh to shreds. Orjin, standing on Mezha’s head, raised a fist. He balanced on the dizzy Grand Elephant’s forehead, shifted his weight, aimed—and punched. Once.
The explosion of water and thunderclap of sound made everyone around Mezha duck. Water rained down harmlessly as a blast of air knocked the Siren back onto her rear. Orjin leapt down, spear ready. He threw it and hit a Golem in the face. The steel behemoth staggered and Orjin charged it.
[Aeriform Shockwave]. A punching technique. Orjin didn’t use a Skill for the Golem. He just charged into its leg and began hammering on it. Pivot, punch. His fists left imprints in the steel, but the Golem was tough—
“Hold, hold! Yield! We yield!”
Someone was shouting frantically. Orjin looked around, blinking, and realized the War Golem was stumbling back. The [Knights] had thrown down their swords and the String People were holding up their hands—those that weren’t lying on the ground, that was. All stared at the man standing in the center of the destruction.
The Strongest of Pomle. He looked around, breathing a bit faster. Mezha was still blinking as the elephant felt at the place where he’d punched her. The String People were cut to pieces—but alive. And the Golem was limping back, one leg badly malformed, the spear embedded in parts of its head.
Queen Yisame shakily looked out from behind her ranks of protectors. There were hundreds of them and only one of Orjin. They could have brought him down; the best of her defenders had stayed with their [Queen]. But their confidence wavered as they realized Orjin had only been the first.
Nerrhavia’s finest looked up from their gilded chariots. They saw the people perched on the cliffs, sitting on top of the palm trees, standing on the dry ground.
Pomle’s warriors. They were staring down, armed with spears, some just bare-fisted. Savages living in a small nation. That was, until you remembered how Pomle had formed.
“Orjin. They’ve put down their weapons.”
A shaky voice spoke behind Orjin. He turned. Salii was clutching her clipboard like a shield. The Strongest of Pomle shook his head. He’d lost himself in the heat of combat for a second. He looked at the assembled rulers. They stared at him. Any one of them might be able to wipe Pomle off the map. With time. With their resources, and their standing armies. But in this place?
“Bear a weapon again and the peace of Pomle is gone for the nation who strikes. Is that clear?”
They nodded. Orjin stood up. He rubbed at one of his fists.
“Then proceed. I’m going to have a drink of water.”
He turned and walked off.
“Would you challenge yourself against Mars the Illusionist, Strongest of Pomle?”
That was what Empress Nsiia asked Orjin when he returned from having a drink of water and reflecting on the fight. He looked at her.
“Mars the Illusionist? If she came to Pomle, I would challenge her. But in war? No.”
“You’ve never dreamed of going into battle? You’re as strong as any Named Adventurer, I would guess.”
Orjin shook his head.
“Killing people does not interest me. That isn’t why I train.”
“But your strength…”
He sighed. That was what was so hard to explain to [Warriors].
“I did not kill the String People of Nerrhavia. I tried not to hurt your elephant, Mezha. I do not enjoy killing. Fighting, testing myself, breaking my limits? I enjoy that. But I would not fight the King of Destruction’s armies for so petty a reason.”
Nsiia blinked at Orjin. She looked around Pomle, little more than a watering hole and dust. And she didn’t understand. Even so, she clasped his hands.
“I thank you, then. I might have been hurt or gravely injured despite my protections. And you spared Mezha, for which I am grateful as well.”
“She was not hurt?”
That made Orjin smile slightly. Nsiia nodded.
“She’s merely dizzy. But well enough to walk with a healing potion. I think I shall be going soon.”
“That seems wise.”
Indeed, no one else had deigned to talk with Nsiia after the incident. Her people were indeed packing and the Garuda warriors were warily circling even now. But one man did step forwards to exchange a few words before the Empress of Beasts left.
Femithain spoke to Nsiia in a little bubble of silence. He’d included Orjin in it for some reason, but the man made no comment. He sat back down and listened as the two spoke quietly.
“Illivere is neutral, Empress. But I think that word means something different to all those present. I would warn you…”
“Not to ally with the King of Destruction? As I said, I am neither his ally nor his enemy for now. You are all intent on being his enemies, Crafter-Magus.”
“He is not a man who inspires peace, Empress Nsiia. But I fear it is too late for talk of alliances and enemies. I would caution you to…to simply be wary. You see, even your form of neutrality is a side. And when all those present skew one way, neutrality of your sort appears to be something else. This meeting was more than to measure the reactions of each ruler to Flos of Reim’s demands.”
Nsiia’s gaze sharpened as she looked at Femithain. The other monarchs were watching him warily as well, but the Crafter-Magus was unreadable.
“I see. Thank you for the warning, Femithain. Perhaps…”
He held up a finger.
“Let us leave it at that.”
“Mm. Then I will take my leave.”
Femithain bowed his head. Nsiia nodded curtly and turned to Orjin a final time.
“Was this an extraordinary day for Pomle, Strongest? Or was that battle one of many?”
Orjin thought about the question and then shook his head.
“Today was another day, Empress of Beasts. Perhaps I will remember it as extraordinary. But I think it meant more to those who came here than to Pomle itself. I thank you for your gift. Should you return, Pomle will be open to you.”
The Empress of Beasts smiled sadly and nodded.
“True words. And true neutrality. Such is Pomle, I see. If we meet again, Strongest of Pomle, I would like to speak longer. You were the most enjoyable person to talk with here, however briefly. But I think I shall be quite busy.”
She turned and raised a hand. Her animals laughed and roared and trumpeted and screamed and the Empress of Beasts departed. The other monarchs watched her go. They spoke for an hour after she left, in silence. Orjin watched them. Then they too went.
The [Secretary] was counting the jewels Nsiia had presented them when Orjin found her. She jumped and guiltily closed the coffer’s lid.
“Er, I was just—what?”
“Are you able to make sense of what passed here?”
Orjin sat with the Drake. She hesitated and bit her lip.
“I do have a letter. A second one, not from the King of Destruction.”
“You didn’t tell me you received one.”
“That’s because Pomle received no such letter. I…copied it. There were several being waved about, and their little magical silencing spells can’t stop a [Secretary]’s Skills. Not one of my level. Would you like to read it?”
The Drake nervously handed Orjin a letter, an exact replica of the ones he’d seen in the other’s hands. He blinked at it.
“How? We don’t have paper.”
“I can copy any material I want. Once a day. I told you I leveled up fast here. Read it.”
The Drake urged Orjin. Slowly, he opened the letter, noting the seal.
It was a letter from the Emperor of Sands. An envelope that smelled of rich spices, oils, and was written on white paper and gilded with some red metal that shone in the light.
Orjin read for five minutes. He read the letter twice. Then he calmly ripped up the letter, but he didn’t throw it away. It would make good kindling for a fire. Salii winced, but said nothing. It was better that the letter be destroyed anyways, rather than anyone know it had been read. The Strongest of Pomle looked at his [Secretary].
“It explains what’s about to happen. Do you think the Empress of Tiqr knew?”
“I doubt she did. Unless…did Femithain warn her?”
“He did. But perhaps she knew regardless.”
“What does it mean for Pomle?”
Salii was nervous. Orjin stared at the watering hole, now occupied just by Pomle’s people, and at the warriors training as night fell.
“It changes nothing for Pomle. Why would it?”
Salii didn’t answer. Orjin left her there. He walked away from the watering hole after filling a water skin and returned to his camp. There he practiced hitting a Grand Elephant for six hours, dodging around its huge body, trying to figure out ways of incapacitating it. And then he practiced his Skills. Restlessly, aware of his limitations. The Strongest of Pomle trained until his arms and legs hurt and he was too tired to keep moving.
Orjin of Pomle slept restlessly that night, although he had trained hard and thought even longer. He wasn’t sure exactly why, but he drifted off to sleep dreaming about the people he had seen and the nations they had come from. The rulers, all of whom commanded vast tracts of land that stretched farther than the eye could see and armies beyond counting. Yet up close they were so small for how much power they commanded. Giants, wearing the skins of small folk. Orjin drifted off, imagining that.
The next day, the Illivere League, Savere, and the Kingdom of Nerrhavia’s Fallen along with six other nations to the south of Reim all declared war on Tiqr.