Fetohep of Khelt stood on the steps of his palace, looking down at Trey and the Quarass. He was dead. His skin mummified. His sockets were sunken, his lips and nose worn away. But his face was not empty, like that of a cadaver.
His eyes burned. Like the ghostly flames that stared out of an undead skeleton’s eye sockets. But Fetohep’s were golden. And they had an intelligence to them, an awareness and personality that Trey had never seen in the undead.
The [King] was dressed in long, flowing robes made of silk. As he raised one arm, the cloth caught the sun. His people, the citizens of Khelt, bowed. The kneeling undead made no move.
It was an invitation. Trey looked at the Quarass. She dipped her head and began to ascend the stairs. Trey started. He stared up uneasily at Fetohep.
A lich. That was what he was, wasn’t he? Or—it all fit. An undying [King] for Khelt. Don’t insult his appearance, the Quarass had said. Trey swallowed his nerves and hurried up the steps after the Quarass.
She was ascending slowly. Trey matched her pace, walking next to her. She glanced at him and frowned darkly. The girl made a tsking sound. Trey paused uncertainly, but her glare went without words to explain. She kept walking and he tried to match her pace.
Fetohep’s burning gaze watched as the two approached him. He looked at Trey for the first time and the young man froze and nearly missed a step. Trey stumbled forwards and the Quarass stopped at the top of the steps.
Now they were on a level, even if she was far shorter than he, still a girl. Trey hesitated. Did he do the bow now or…?
“Quarass of Germina. We greet you again. Your death troubled us greatly.”
Fetohep’s voice made Trey jump. It came out of his mouth, not verbalized by any vocal chords or tongue. It had a subtle echo, and each word was perfectly intoned. Precise. Fetohep looked down at the Quarass. She inclined her head.
“Fetohep of Khelt. It is our pleasure to walk Khelt’s soil once more. We thank you for your welcome, on behalf of Germina and Reim.”
“Ah yes. Reim.”
The twin lights in Fetohep’s sockets flashed a bit brighter at that. He did not look once at Trey as his voice darkened.
“You speak on behalf of Flos of Reim, Quarass? He has failed to respond to my messages. Now, he sends another to bargain in his place.”
The Quarass paused.
“The King of Destruction regrets his pressing duties of state, King Fetohep. We have come—”
Fetohep interrupted her, slashing one hand abruptly. Trey was aware of all of Khelt’s citizens and the undead army, watching the exchange from afar. Sweat was beading down his back, despite the shade.
“You have come because that boy refuses to swear the oath we demand of him. And because he has no social graces. It is an insult.”
He paused, and then nodded slightly to the girl.
“Nevertheless, your presence, Quarass, we do respect. If you would speak on Flos Reimarch’s behalf, be warned. We have little patience for his folly. Yet, you yourself are still welcome. Enter by our will and avail yourself without hesitation of Khelt’s riches. You are an honored guest. And your consort?”
He gestured towards the palace behind him. Only then did his head turn and his gaze find Trey. The young man opened his mouth. And then he caught onto Fetohep’s words.
Consort? Trey stared at the Quarass. She was staring at him, narrow-eyed. Trey paused and then realized his mistake too late. He’d walked beside the Quarass coming up the stairs. That was probably—Trey paled, but the Quarass was unflinching. She looked up at Fetohep and shook her head slightly.
“Our incarnation has taken no consort as of yet, King Fetohep. This too is one of the King of Destruction’s emissaries. Trey Atwood, whom King Reimarch considers both friend and bodyguard. He is uneducated in the ways of etiquette, King Fetohep. The King of Destruction has not seen fit to instruct Trey Atwood in the ways of formality, nor does he require it. He sends Trey as an ambassador of his will. We ask your forbearance.”
Fetohep regarded Trey. Nervously, Trey bowed, trying to mimic every part of the elaborate greeting the Quarass had shown him.
“I am Trey Atwood, your Eternal Majesty. I greet you in the name of the King of Destruction. I am honored to walk on Khelt’s soil and beg your forbearance for my intrusion.”
Trey thought he did a good job of delivering both line and bow. He only wobbled a bit and he’d copied every part of the bow. The Quarass gave Trey a look nonetheless as he straightened. The light in Fetohep’s eyes flickered a bit; he didn’t look impressed either as he turned back to the Quarass.
“So we see. So you both come to plead Reim’s case?”
The Quarass paused. She nodded fractionally at last, but Trey sensed her caution. Not fear; just wariness.
“It is our intention to do so. Germina has allied with Reim and our fates are intertwined. We may speak for both nations and of the King of Destruction’s will, if it pleases Khelt.”
The [King] paused. Trey waited, sensing that Fetohep was making a decision about something. At last, his grinning teeth opened fractionally and he spoke.
“We believe it does. And thou art a more welcome guest than the King of Reim. I welcome thee twice, then, Quarass of Germina. And you, child.”
The Quarass relaxed a bit. So did Trey. They’d been accepted. The Quarass had mentioned that was the first step, so their greeting must have gone off well enough. Fetohep lifted his right arm, and gestured.
“We shall retire to our palace. Let us speak of matters of state there. Khelt shall withdraw from Reim’s borders. My people shall likewise disperse. Seventeen shall wait upon our presence; four to cook, thirteen to attend and serve.”
He lifted a hand. And Trey, turning, saw the sea of people move. Suddenly, the silence lifted. He heard voices, laughter, chatter—the people of Khelt stared up at him and the Quarass, pointing, but many simply streamed back into the city. The undead waited for the crowd to break up and began marching out of the plaza as well; still, thousands remained, standing silent, unmoving in front of the palace.
None of Khelt’s people paid them any mind. Indeed, they didn’t even seem to question Trey and the Quarass’ presence by and large. Some gave Trey curious looks, but it a was passing curiosity. They didn’t care. They walked unburdened, many smiling. Just smiling, as if that was a natural state of being. To Trey, it was an unnatural, unnerving thing to see on so many faces. The solemnity of the past moment was gone, and they went about their lives. Only a few walked towards the palace, as if at random.
Trey saw four young women, an older man, a woman who looked as old as the Quarass’ eyes—then he realized Fetohep was behind him and turned around hurriedly.
The Quarass and Fetohep paid no mind to Khelt’s citizens. Their only regard was for each other. After Fetohep had spoken, both knew that the army on Reim’s borders had fallen back, returning to the earth. Fetohep’s words were law, and the Quarass knew his command stretched across all of Khelt.
She studied him. His was a face she knew from memory. A number of lifetimes in fact; Fetohep suited his title, the Eternal King of Khelt. Of course, she had known his predecessor, but he was one of the few beings who she regarded as kindred.
But they weren’t always allies. And indeed, this was the first time this Quarass, in this incarnation of herself, had met him. The undead [King] was studying her as much as she studied him. But for all that this was new, it was also old.
They relaxed a bit. Now informally, Fetohep nodded to the Quarass.
“Quarass, your new form is quite young. Did you wish a longer lifespan, or did some facet of this body impel you to choose it?”
The Quarass blinked up at Fetohep. Then she shook her head.
“King Fetohep, my predecessor did not have the opportunity to name a successor. I was chosen by chance, for a passing resemblance to my predecessor. I stand before you without preparation. Nor do I bear my predecessor’s dispositions. Indeed, I thank you for your greeting; the affronts I have caused you I regret.”
He paused, considering her words. Then, to the Quarass’ relief, he nodded.
“It is good that you bear little resemblance to the previous incarnation of yourself, Quarass. But I bear you no ill will; let old grudges be forgotten.”
He nodded to her and she nodded back. Neither one believed that entirely. They were old. And they didn’t forget. Still, it eased the tension.
Fetohep paused. The Quarass was aware of Trey staring at something behind him. She tried not to grind her teeth. What had Reimarch been thinking, sending him? He had no social graces! On the other hand…she saw Fetohep’s gaze flick towards Trey. He made no other motion besides that; he had no tics like adjusting his posture, or changing any expression in his face. He had abandoned all that with his life, and the stillness was unsettling if you had no experience with it.
“You did not choose your new body, Quarass. May I then extend my condolences? For a child, it is a heavy burden to bear, much less unprepared.”
He bent, looking into her face. The Quarass—disliked the sympathy. Yearned for it. Hated it. Knew his words to be true. She was young and old, and while she could remember all of her ages past—she kept her voice from trembling.
She shouldn’t have shown him weakness. She had promised the King of Destruction to bargain on his behalf, and Fetohep was an experienced negotiator. But it was too late, and perhaps it would lower his guard. Then again, he was used to her. Fetohep continued, gesturing towards the east, where Germina lay.
“You have my condolences for the situation your predecessor placed you in. How was your death?”
“Beheading. By the King of Destruction himself.”
“Ah, so I heard. But rumor often eclipses fact. I have often wondered how it feels to die and die again. My death is sometimes hazy.”
“It doesn’t grow much easier. Nevertheless, I resent the lack of preparation I have been given and Germina’s state far more than the memory of my predecessor’s death.”
The Quarass frowned darkly. Yes, the past Quarass had a lot to answer for. She’d done what she thought was best, but sometimes a Quarass was simply…an idiot. All the memories in the world couldn’t help unchecked ego or paranoia or so on. Well, sometimes it could. Dead gods, she hoped she wouldn’t be a fool. Or a drunkard. Or allergic. She hated allergies.
Fetohep was nodding, calmly studying the Quarass and then the distracted Trey. He gestured obliquely towards the young man as he looked at the Quarass.
“Has that boy coerced you into serving as a diplomat? This child seems a poor watchdog, but merely speak and he shall be removed for your stay, Quarass. If you are so forced, I will factor it into my reply.”
The Quarass smiled thinly and flicked two fingers. Fetohep was being considerate of her. But he wouldn’t shelter her or do more than offer her these small favors. That wasn’t his way. Time to play her part, then.
“Flos Reimarch would not hold Germina ransom to threaten me, Fetohep. He offered me a choice and I accepted it. We are allies, and that is no false statement. You know the King of Destruction’s nature and it is not one of deceit.”
She was sure, almost completely sure that she could trust Flos Reimarch when he proclaimed he would protect her and make Germina his ally. Whether that helped Germina or made it an even larger target was to be seen.
Fetohep accepted her reply, but her comment about Flos’ nature gave him pause. One of his ‘eyes’, the flaming lights in his sockets, flared brighter than the other. Not a wink, but more like an eyebrow rising on his withered face.
“Time changes all but we, Quarass. So then, if he has not changed unduly, he is a fool for starting his war of conquest anew.”
The Quarass bit the inside of her cheek slightly. She’d walked into that. A pithy turn of phrase she’d heard two hundred and three years ago came to her aid.
“[Fools] and [Kings] are cut of the same cloth, Fetohep. He may be both, but still, it is Khelt who has demanded the King of Destruction’s attention. Shall we not speak of such matters later?”
He paused, and nodded slowly.
“Indeed we shall. Forgive me, Quarass. Your ride was no doubt long even with Skills and I forget the needs of the body. My attendants wait upon us; let us enter my palace. You, child.”
He turned. Trey jumped; he’d finally turned around.
“Yes? Your Eternal Majesty?”
“Why does that boy send you? What worth have you to the King of Destruction? What is your class?”
Trey stuttered as he glanced sideways at the Quarass. She could only wait; either he sank and she would have to kick him down the steps to prevent him making the situation worse, or he would prove useful.
“I’m—his Majesty’s bodyguard, your, uh, Eternal Majesty? Sort of. I mean—”
The Quarass resisted the urge to slap her face and then Trey’s. Fetohep’s burning gaze flickered.
“Let us dispense with formality, Trey Atwood. You have given me cause for offense ten times over already had I wished it. Speak with barest respect and I shall not take umbrage. How came you to your post? I do not believe you serve by sheer force of martial or magical prowess.”
“Yes, um, your Majesty. I’m very sorry. I’m his—King Flos’ bodyguard, but that’s really just a title. I follow him around, do what he wants, assist him—he keeps me and my sister because we…entertain him. Well, not entertain, but…”
Trey trailed off, searching for words. The Quarass saw one of Fetohep’s eyes flare bright again.
“Ah. A companion. Strange for that boy to take such an interest. But perhaps it is the same reason you have come hence. Very well. Know this, Trey Atwood. You stand upon Khelt’s soil, and you are a guest of my palace. This is a gift offered to few in this world not of Khelt. Know that while you stay here, you are my guest. But also know that every child, man, and woman in my kingdom is under my protection. Offer any of them insult or injury, and Khelt shall turn upon you, protection of the King of Destruction or not.”
“I understand, your Majesty.”
Trey nodded palely. Fetohep regarded him silently. The Quarass could see Trey’s legs shaking a bit, but she was impressed; she’d known others to suffer incontinence when presented with Fetohep’s visage. Perhaps it was because Trey was from another world; he wasn’t as afraid as she’d hoped.
And that was a good thing. Fetohep stepped forwards, looking down at Trey. Again, the young man gulped, but made no other move. Thoughtfully, Fetohep spoke.
“I am Fetohep, child. One of Khelt’s eternal rulers. Tell me, did the King of Destruction tell you of my nature before you arrived? I see he did not. Do you fear me? I am one of the undead. And I am also [King]. Does my appearance frighten you?”
The Quarass tensed. She saw Trey look at her, which was bad. But when he turned to meet Fetohep’s gaze, he only bowed slightly, in the way she’d taught him.
“I—do a little bit, your Eternal Majesty. But your lands are very beautiful. And I—I think you’re quite regal!”
He burst out with that. The Quarass blinked. Fetohep’s burning gaze went out for a moment. Both rulers stared at Trey. After a second, Fetohep spoke.
“Interesting. I have rarely heard those words uttered in truth. Tell me, Trey Atwood. From whence do you hail? You look of Terandria, or perhaps Izril. And yet, you are no [Slave]. [Slaves] know etiquette. How camest you to Reim?”
“Well, your Majesty—”
Another look. This time Fetohep glanced at the Quarass and she spoke.
“Surely that is yet another matter for more formal discussion, Fetohep? It touches upon the King of Destruction’s return and thus, Reim’s relationship with Khelt.”
Fetohep’s gaze sharpened on Trey. He nodded abruptly and turned, gesturing towards his palace.
“Very well. We shall discuss the matter tonight, as we dine. Come, my palace lies open to you both.”
He gestured and began to walk slowly into the palace of Khelt. One of the wonders of the world. Maybe not on the top seven list, but certainly on the Quarass’ private list of top thirty sites. Maybe even top twenty.
The doors were thrown open and the Quarass could see black stone and a long rug, seemingly without end inviting them in. She regarded the rug. That was new. It looked like a genuine masterpiece too; at least done by a Level 40 [Weaver]. She wondered how long it was. If it was over forty feet, she’d be impressed.
Trey stared at the grand palace, his eyes going to the ornamentation on the tiles, the glowing alcoves spilling magical light out around colored glass, the sweeping scale of the hallway, and all the other things that held visitors spellbound the first hundred times they saw it. The Quarass, who’d walked these halls far more times, followed Fetohep. He was going to show off his kingdom of course.
The palace of Khelt’s capital, Edojaf, had not been worked upon by the masters of each generation, concurrently built up by the feats of genius of mortal hands. No, it was so fantastically made that it skipped most geniuses and only took from the best masters that stood out in the annals of architectural history. The fact that Drevish had been the last to work on Edojaf’s palace spoke to his skills.
The Quarass admired Drevish’s work; he’d expanded the palace, doing away with that terrible, kitschy ‘woven gold’ design and expanded the exterior of Edojaf’s place with flowing walkways, much in the same style of Wistram and Lizardfolk cities. She regretted his death; the man had been an irascible master. Trey, meanwhile, was following Fetohep as the [King] of Khelt did what he so loved to new visitors who weren’t the Quarass: show off.
“Look upon my kingdom, Trey Atwood. Tell me what you see.”
Trey’s eyes widened as he stood on the balcony of the palace. It was exposed to the open air, and unlike Reim’s palace, all of this palace’s ornamentation was just that. There was not even the hint of the functional but unaesthetic murder holes, arrow slits, or any other fortifications on Edojaf’s palace. Nor, looking out across Khelt, did Trey see any in the city.
It was simply beautiful. Like a modern city of Earth, only, as Trey had noted, largely built of stone. But there was glass on some windows! And more color than any modern city; like Ger, the capital of Germina, the people of Khelt worked murals into some of their buildings. Yet while Ger did wonders with colors, Khelt had taken it to the next level.
Here was an example: someone had, over time and effort, and using the very rooftops of houses in one district of Khelt’s city, created the image of a leaping whale thing—it had four sets of flippers—breaking out of the water by coloring each rooftop. It was the kind of beautiful image that tourists would flock to, in order to marvel at the scope and effort of the work and take pictures of. And that was one work amid thousands Trey could see.
A bell tower whose bell looked as though it was made purely of glass, but for the knocker. A street that told some kind of tale in miniature—Trey saw a rearing Dragon, fleeing from—
Houses clearly made to be experimental, one circular rather than conventionally rectangular, another which was made entirely of wood—living wood! A flowering tree! Trey’s mind hurt trying to take it all in. He looked at Fetohep. The [King] was pleased.
“Yes. It is. Have you ever seen it’s like, child?”
Trey had seen wonderful things, but not all in one place. Fetohep nodded. He cast a hand out over his city; by his side, the Quarass blinked, not impressed by the sight. She scanned the city, looking bored, and then focused on the circular house. Oh. That was new.
Fetohep was speaking to Trey. By now, Trey was almost used to staring into the dead face. Almost. He kept having to remind himself that Fetohep wasn’t a mummy, but that was all. Honestly, it wasn’t bad; Fetohep almost looked like someone wearing a really good costume. Gazi was scarier because she was clearly non-Human in a way only CGI could even try and fail to imitate.
“Of all the nations of Chandrar, nay, the world, Khelt stands among them as a rare paradise. My people are untroubled by war, famine, or other threats. Undead till the fields, and provide menial labor. They hold Khelt’s borders, ensuring peace from all but the gravest threats. Few nations can boast of such glories for all its folk; in almost every other nation, there are those who starve. Never so in Khelt.”
“I—we saw that coming into Khelt, your majesty. But how come no one else has tried it?”
Fetohep shook his head slightly.
“Few can command the undead as I do. Fewer still trust them, with reason. Other nations do make use of labor as Khelt does, but less efficiently. Illivere’s Golems are costly, and few. But Khelt’s people serve their kingdom eternally in death. As does its [King]. I know you wonder as to my nature.”
Trey hesitated. Fetohep was staring at him.
“Yes, your majesty.”
Fetohep nodded. The [King] touched his chest with one hand and Trey saw how his hand moved. There was still skin and muscle and tendon underneath the withered hand, but emaciated. And—in places—decaying. But slowly; Trey remembered reading somewhere that in case of zombie apocalypse, it was probably a bad idea to go into freezing or arid climates; corpses would decay much slower.
Fetohep was also probably protected by magic; Trey had learned to see it under Gazi’s tutelage and Fetohep was practically blinding.
“I am a Revenant. One of the few undead possessed of the will I kept in life. I do not level. But all my Skills of old are given to me. However, I am not like base undead. Even Revenants are consumed by their grudges, their hatred of the living. I am not. In life, I swore to protect Khelt, and so I was given a second chance in death. I am Fetohep, [Undying King] of Khelt. And I hold your sovereign, Flos of Reim, in contempt.”
He seemed to say that like a challenge. Trey hesitated.
“I—I understand that’s so, your Majesty. I’ll tell King Flos that if you wish. But um, I don’t think he minds.”
Fetohep’s gaze focused on Trey for a moment and the young man held his breath. Fetohep turned abruptly, walking back into the heart of his palace.
“Of course he does not. He is a child. But it seems you are not as rigid as his [Steward] or his other Seven. Very well. Gaze upon Edojaf as long as you will. I shall await you within.”
Trey saw him walk further into the palace, and gesture to someone. A servant; the same young woman Trey had seen walking towards the palace. Aside from the Quarass, him, and Fetohep, Trey had seen no one else in the empty palace.
He glanced back at the city and then saw the Quarass walk up next to him. She glanced at Trey and whispered.
“Well done. Give him no insult. He will continue to test you. Do not belittle Flos Reimarch, but do not offend Fetohep either.”
“What am I doing? I don’t know what he wants!”
The child Quarass looked up at Trey. She shook her head impatiently.
“Wants? He wants nothing of you, Trey Atwood. Nothing but to command your respect. Fetohep is vain. Your role is to intrigue him. Mine is to negotiate. Come, let us not keep him waiting.”
They found Fetohep waiting within. The undead needed no light; he was clearly at home in the darkness, if the glowing golden lights in his eyes didn’t give that away. But he flicked a hand and the magical lights filled his hallways, giving the wrought stone and ornamentation a beautiful, soft glow.
Fetohep gestured ahead and Trey saw that six people waited for him and the Quarass, all dressed in rich clothing that befitted nobility more than servants. But servants they were as they bowed to Trey and the Quarass in perfect unison. Fetohep spoke, pointing down the branching hallway.
“I offer you two rooms where you will both sleep, and the comforts of my palace. You are guests. Whatever you desire will be fulfilled, Trey Atwood. Simply speak your will to my attendants and they will be fulfilled. Save for the comforts of flesh; Khelt has no slaves.”
He looked at Trey. The young man jumped. Did he just say anything? Save for—
“Khelt doesn’t have slaves?”
The Quarass looked up sharply. Trey bit his tongue; he’d blurted that out. Fetohep paused.
“I care nothing for citizens not of Khelt, but slavery itself is an inquietude that breeds discontent and ill practices. Slavery is banned within Khelt, for all my subjects are mine. For that reason, outsiders are banned; they spread diseases and violence. [Slaves] are a nuisance.”
Trey paused. It wasn’t exactly a liberating answer. Fetohep studied him.
“Does this bother you?”
“No—I—no, I don’t like—I mean, I think keeping slaves is wrong, your Majesty.”
It might have been the wrong thing to say, but Trey had to say it. To keep saying it rather than be silent. He saw the Quarass look at him. Fetohep stared at Trey, his face unreadable. His mouth opened and the ghostly voice replied.
“I see. Have you need of rest, Quarass, Trey Atwood?”
“No, your majesty.”
“Then we shall dine. Come; let us speak civilly before we return to the topic of your arrival.”
Fetohep swept down the corridor, and Trey followed. He could feel the servant’s eyes on him. Or—attendants. There were three men, three women. Two of the young women were very young, and one of the men. The other three were older, but they all stared at Trey and the Quarass with great interest. He could hear the two young women giggling until Fetohep turned his head; then there was complete silence.
He didn’t scare them. That was what fascinated Trey. Or rather—his subjects did fear Fetohep, but for his authority. Not because he was undead. In fact, as he led Trey and the Quarass to a dining hall and two of Khelt’s citizens swung the doors open, they surrounded him, pulling out his chair, taking his murmured orders, all without missing a beat.
Before Trey knew it, he was seated at a vast dining table. Near Fetohep and the Quarass; it wasn’t going to be some gag where he sat at the other end. The [King] was seated on a suitably impressive chair, much like a dining throne, and the Quarass and Trey on chairs no less comfortable. Trey stared at one of the attendants, a young woman, as she bowed to him. An older man was bowing to the Quarass.
“You dine on my hospitality, Trey Atwood. Speak your desire and it will be fulfilled.”
Fetohep looked at Trey. The young man blinked.
“Anything you wish, within the Skills of my [Chefs] will be made. And the talents of Khelt’s people are near limitless. Name it and it will be so.”
Name it. It was like getting having a cooking genie ask you what you wanted. Trey’s mind instantly went blank. He began to panic, staring at the Quarass, but she was unhelpfully already listing her desires to the servant, as if this was normal. And for her, it was!
“I shall have a dish of roasted eels seasoned with the most succulent vegetables of Khelt’s gardens. I care not which. Let each eel be seasoned with juice of lemons and be the youngest and most succulent plucked from Khelt’s rivers. To drink I will imbibe a glass of white juice made of grapes. Finally, I wish eight sparkling glossberries sprinkled with nali powder, served upon a bed of crushed ice.”
The attendant listened without even so much as looking for a notepad. He bowed and murmured.
“It will be done.”
Then he stepped backwards towards the doors. Fetohep, the Quarass, and the smiling young woman all stared at Trey. His mouth went dry, but his stomach rumbled. Trey wished it could provide his panicking brain with instructions.
“Name your preference, child.”
Fetohep was staring at Trey. Trey saw the Quarass looking at him, so he went for it. He wavered, searched for anything, and spoke.
“Uh—I’ll have um—a pie? A shepherd’s pie? Please?”
He saw the Quarass’ eyes narrow. Trey winced and tried not to sink down in his chair. It was the first thing he could think of. Fetohep’s gaze also looked disapproving.
“A shepherd’s pie? Elaborate, Trey Atwood. What is this dish made of?”
“Um—well, it’s a dish from home—if it’s hard to make, I could ask for—”
“Nothing is out of possibility. Describe it to me, child.”
Fetohep’s voice seemed to snap for the first time in irritation. Trey hesitated.
“Well, it’s some fried carrots, um, peas, meat—lamb meat or maybe beef—all fried up. And then you put mashed potatoes on top and bake it—”
He stopped as Fetohep held up a hand. The young woman was biting her lip, trying not to laugh.
“Ah. Traveler’s Pie. They call it so in Izril and Terandria, do they not, Quarass?”
“They did when I visited both continents.”
The Quarass murmured, giving Trey a look. He bit his lip. Fetohep’s gaze was disapproving as his tone. He looked a Trey.
“I am aware of the meal. Intriguing that the name has changed. You are aware you may ask for any dish you wish, boy? Why do you ask for a low-born dish?”
“It’s food from home. I’m sorry, your Majesty—”
Trey cut off as Fetohep shook his head. The [King] sat back, looking displeased.
“Let it be so. What do you wish to drink?”
“Um—grape juice sounds good to me as well.”
This time the flash of the eyes signaled more than just disapproval. Trey’s mind raced. He was putting his foot in it! What had the Quarass told him? He looked at her for guidance, but whatever she was mouthing at him he couldn’t understand. Desperately, he looked around.
“How about an…orange juice?”
He thought Fetohep would finally lose his temper, but to his surprise, the undead [King]’s eyes lost their intensity. He nodded to the attendant who smiled and bowed.
“It shall be done.”
She retreated like the other servant. Trey relaxed, feeling sweat run down the nape of his neck. Fetohep nodded to him, mollified for some reason.
“Ah. Oranges are a delicacy. Few places in Chandrar may grow them, let alone enough to drink.”
The Quarass’ death-glare made Trey shut up. And suddenly, he began to see. Fetohep went on, ignoring the interruption.
“I remember them fondly still. In my century of life, I travelled to Baleros where it was served commonly among other fruit drinks. Tell me, Trey Atwood. Have you journeyed to the Baleros?”
“No, your Majesty.”
“Really? Then you are from Terandria?”
“No, your Majesty. I’ve uh, never been there either.”
Fetohep paused. The Quarass spoke up, smiling from her seat; she’d been given a cushion so she could sit higher at the table.
“Trey Atwood came to Chandrar recently, Fetohep. He is a stranger to this land and many others.”
“So it seems. Izril, then? Yes, Quarass. We shall discuss it later.”
Fetohep waved a hand as the Quarass began to interrupt him. He seemed annoyed, and Trey, in a flash of insight, realized that Trey’s nation of origin was beginning to bug Fetohep. The [King] went on, nodding at the Quarass.
“You order the same dish each time you first visit, Quarass. Eight lifetimes have you dined with me now, and this dish remains first. I had not the opportunity to ask your previous incarnation. Nor do I believe she would have replied truthfully. Will you tell me the reason?”
She smiled faintly. Now it was the Quarass speaking to Fetohep, Trey could relax slightly. He stared around the luxuriant room, and then focused on the Quarass. She was just as fascinating as Fetohep in her way. She lifted one hand, gesturing as she spoke to Fetohep.
“I remember both eels and glossberries were my favorite dishes in past lives. Not just delightful; they were the happiest meals and most fulfilling across any life I have ever shared. Each time I find whether my body has a taste for the meal. Sometimes it does not, but the memory compels me to seek it out each time.”
“I see. How fascinating. They must have been truly memorable meals. I myself recall the joys of my life more and more rarely with each century. But I can still recall the food I ate on some occasions. Especially dishes that stood to me of note. I recall a time I ate a Dullahan food which disgusted me vividly to this day. Are you familiar with a raw fish sliced thinly accompanied by the innards of a…I am struggling to recall the name of what I ate. A creature with spines fished from the sea.”
“A sea urchin?”
The Quarass beat Trey to it. Fetohep’s eyes brightened.
“Yes! A remarkably foul dish, or so I believed. But I became enamored with the taste and concept.”
The Quarass nodded, glancing up as she spoke thoughtfully.
“The dish originates from the islands, Fetohep. As I recall, such meals are somewhat popular among the people of Drath, Rhir, and Minos.”
“Ah. Of course. A shared heritage and geography. Such seafaring species seldom reach Khelt, but I recall Dullahan cities where I met Drathian sailors, a rarity in other ports. A shared history.”
“Indeed. A pity their trade fleets have stopped visiting Chandrar these last few centuries.”
“The changing nature of politics. What was the cause of their absence? An incident with Roshal’s Slavers?”
“Hm. Yes. I recall the moment. Neither side ever admitted guilt.”
The two rulers were speaking animatedly, of events centuries past as if they were yesterday. And they were the only ones who could do it; Trey was far out of his depth. He watched as Fetohep turned and accepted a cup. Trey saw the young woman had returned. With his orange juice. It was sweet, pulpy, and delicious. Trey’s eyes went wide; the Quarass was sipping with a smile as well.
“Is the beverage to your taste?”
Trey hadn’t tasted orange juice this good or this fresh! Fetohep looked pleased.
“Khelt has its gardens and imports delicacies which are preserved.”
He took the cup he’d been given and put it to one side. Trey was drinking too greedily to ask about it, and Fetohep turned back to the Quarass.
“Allow me my indulgence, Trey Atwood. Drink; your cup shall never run empty. Quarass, while we speak of the past, may I ask if you have ever visited the Dullahan’s capital in the last few centuries?”
The Quarass looked up, sipping sedately but with clear pleasure from her cup. She smiled.
“I have. The city of Invinctel has not changed much in four hundred years since I last visited. You have walked it’s ramparts?”
“I recall it fondly. As well, the memory of that biting cold. I am glad it remains as I recall it.”
That pleased him. Fetohep leaned forwards slightly, his ‘eyes’ flashing in their sunken sockets.
“The world beyond Khelt still holds some allure, Quarass. Do you feel the same, kept as you are by Germina’s needs? I have walked each continent in turn before my demise, but I follow the events of the world with interest. More so now that Wistram has begun broadcasting events the world over. This latest incident with Tiqr was a mark of their folly, however.”
“Of a surety. But then, Wistram has fallen into decay since Zelkyr’s passing.”
“It would be a Drake whose vanity locked away the magics of Wistram from future generations. But then, their kind has always courted folly in arrogance. As I am sure Tiqr is a tired topic—have you followed the recent developments in Izril?”
“Are you referring to the Antinium? Oh yes. And the near war involving the siege of Liscor. An intriguing failure on both sides, Human and Drake. ”
Only Fetohep and the Quarass would call the Antinium ‘recent’ as Trey understood it. They’d been on Izril for decades! But Fetohep was shaking his head.
“One suspects that with all the issues plaguing the Drakes forces, they would take a more pragmatic approach to their ongoing conflict with the north. However, they continue to provoke a conflict—a mark of their pride, no doubt. I predict war within the decade between the Drakes and Humans, if the Antinium do not strike first. Your thoughts?”
She shrugged fractionally.
“It would be advantageous for the Antinium not to overtake Izril. I recall visiting Rhir about…five hundred and three years ago? Do you recall the mention of the Antinium then?”
“I visited scarcely before you. They were simply one more monster, as with Crelers.”
“But I recall rumors of them further back. They appeared only when the Demons were truly threatened. As when Archmage Chandler and Zelkyr marched with the Blighted King—”
“…The last one. The Blighted King and Queen, then.”
“Of course. Ah, them. And that disaster. Yes, it was certainly an incident, but hardly unexpected. Rhir’s rulers forget that the Demons cannot be so easily eradicated.”
The Quarass frowned darkly.
“Nor should they be. I recall a time before them. The Creler infestations.”
Both she and Fetohep paused. Even he seemed to shudder.
“Khelt recalls such times as well. The Antinium are the latest horror, then, if the Demons are but an intermediate threat. They may have well been entrenched in the continent long before we became fully aware of their presence. I agree. Would you care to wager on the existence of the Antinium in Rhir as well as the Hives on Izril?”
The Quarass drummed one hand on the table. Trey, entranced, realized the young woman was filling his cup. He blinked as she smiled at him. The Quarass shook her head, holding up a hand as her attendant approached.
“Mix water with grape juice, half of each. I would not wager on that, Fetohep. But I would bet on war in Izril within—four years?”
She glanced sideways at Fetohep, and now her smile was slightly challenging. The [King] paused. It was his turn to sit back and regard her.
“The Antinium are restless. And yet, I think they fear a third war. A fair bet. However—would you care to wager as to the instigator within that span?”
The Quarass blinked. She looked upwards, calculating, and then flicked her fingers dismissively.
“Antinium lead the attack within four years. No, make it six. The Drakes will refrain from doing so unless the balance of the Walled Cities changes. They have lost their great [General], the Tidebreaker. They will hold back.”
Fetohep chuckled, a hollow echo.
“You underestimate their pride, Quarass. It will be Drakes who attack—the Antinium’s Grand Queen is too aware of the risks to attack herself and risk utter destruction. She will attempt to keep expanding until the Antinium are forced to war. That is my belief.”
“You are welcome to it, then. A bet?”
“Let us strike one. The Antinium be attacked within six years by the Drakes or some other side, or war shall not break out. If they attack—four hundred pounds of gold?”
He looked at the Quarass. Trey choked on his drink. Fetohep stared at him as the attendant, silently laughing, flew to fetch Trey a cloth. The Quarass stared at Trey and then shook her head.
“Germina lacks that in its treasury, Fetohep. Nor do I know whether my nation will stockpile gold in the future.”
“I would accept assassinations in kind, I suppose. Your kingdom will continue to produce them?”
“No child assassins.”
“Ah. Even so.”
“Mm. Four hundred pounds of Khelt’s gold against sixteen assassinations of Germina’s highest-leveled [Assassins]? Level 30 at minimum.”
Fetohep nodded, his eyes flashing, and the Quarass smiled. They didn’t shake hands, only sat back confidently. Trey, wiping his mouth and nose, looked at Fetohep.
“I shall enjoy collecting another bet, Quarass. Your predecessor lost twice, as I recall. A losing streak across two incarnations.”
He laughed, and the sound echoed in the banquet hall. The Quarass gave Fetohep a thin-lipped smile.
“I am not as foolish as that incarnation of myself, Fetohep.”
He waved a hand, his humor subsiding.
“Clearly not, Quarass. I ask that you pardon the insult. And I shall look forwards to the future with interest. It is good that Germina and Khelt remain so close; this luxury is a rare pleasure. If fates allow, let us converse with more regularity so long as you live in this current incarnation.”
He looked at her, and the Quarass inclined her head.
“If it is possible, I should be delighted. And I look forwards to collecting Khelt’s gold.”
Fetohep laughed again, but quieter. They didn’t speak of the bet any further. Trey glanced at the [King]. He seemed confident of winning, but what if the Quarass…Trey recalled their conversation.
Oh. If she dies, he’ll just collect it from the next one. Trey stared at the two talking lightly. There was an affinity there. And somehow, in their relationship, the Quarass was both younger and older. And it had illuminated something for Trey as well.
The way Fetohep spoke of the world, and his gestures of opulence. It wasn’t for opulence’s sake. Trey hesitated, but Fetohep had clearly written him off and aside from a few asides, he’d begun speaking only with the Quarass. It was a polite snub, but it told Trey he’d made a mistake. So he hesitated—and spoke up.
“Your Eternal Majesty? May I make a request?”
Both rulers broke off. King Fetohep glanced at Trey and the Quarass looked up warily. Trey ducked his head slightly as the undead [King] looked at him.
“I have said you are my guest. If you wish it, speak to your attendant and it will be done.”
“I understand that, your Majesty. But I would like to change my um, dinner.”
The Quarass froze. In his seat, Fetohep sat up slightly.
“You have already given your request once. Naturally, my [Chefs] will accommodate your every desire. However, have you a reason for your change of heart?”
Trey nodded, feeling his skin prickling. Fetohep was watching him. Testing him, the Quarass has said. Judging his worth. Well—he spoke, his voice only quavering a bit.
“I hate to trouble your [Chefs], your Eternal Majesty. But I feel as though I’ve offended your hospitality. If I only visit Khelt once, I should order a meal properly, shouldn’t I?”
“Hm. If that is your belief, go on. Speak.”
Fetohep gestured at the young woman, who appeared and bowed, smiling expectantly at Trey. He took a deep breath. Fetohep was watching him, as was the Quarass. He’d only get one shot. So this time Trey was ready. He opened his mouth and let fly all his fantasies from home. All the things that Flos’ [Chefs] had tried to make, but failed for lack of ingredients or simply the exorbitance of the dish.
“I’d like a slice of the shepherd’s pie, but also a bubble and squeak. That’s a dish where you add in onions, mashed potato, and mix it up with vegetables like cabbage, carrots, peas, and so on with some bacon, fry it all in oil, then make a pancake of it and brown it. I’ll have a fried egg on top, and to drink I’d like some proper tea, made with the best tea leaves—strong, with no sugar—and for desert, a treacle tart, which is a pie made with syrup and lemon and bread crumbs into a pie base. Top it with whipped cream—um, whipped heavy cream that’s sugary. Also, also—can I have a little bit of breaded fish? Fried? You put the fish in a batter, and then you fry it in oil. Please?”
It was only three dishes, but it came out like a torrent of words. The young woman blinked, and then began trying to memorize Trey’s order, her eyes flicking left and right. Fetohep stared at Trey as he stopped at last, breathing slightly faster. Even the Quarass looked slightly impressed when he was done.
The young woman’s hesitation was clear as she glanced at Fetohep. Even Trey was worried; he’d ordered a lot, let alone for a single meal! And it sounded complex, although he was pretty sure a good [Cook] could make it all; there had just been a lot of words and vague concepts. But Fetohep just raised a hand. He looked at Trey, and the Kheltian attendant.
And he smiled. Well, he was always smiling, but Trey sensed it was genuine this time.
“Let it be so.”
The young woman bowed, and hurried off with the older servant, and the Quarass looked at Trey. She nodded and something like a smile flickered over her lips. Now, when they all sat back, Fetohep included Trey into the conversation again.
“Your requests mind me much of Terandria, Trey Atwood. Although the dishes of sugar are similar to Baleros’ tastes. Do you hail then from a coastal nation? Perhaps—no, perhaps one of Izril’s islands?”
“Er, no, your Majesty. I’m—”
Trey paused. And he looked at the Quarass and continued slowly.
“—From somewhere else. Not Reim either.”
He wanted to be helpful. The [King]’s eyes focused on his face like a laser beam.
“I see. That is interesting. Well then. At the very least, I can understand the cuisine you ordered. It is not the food of royalty, but it is a rarity in Chandrar, is it not?”
“I haven’t had any of it since I left home.”
Trey said that with feeling. Fetohep nodded, looking satisfied.
“Of course Reim lacks for fish as well as many varieties of vegetable. Chandrar suffers for want of water. Khelt does not, of course. You have witnessed the greenery of my land, Trey Atwood.”
“Yes, your Majesty! If you don’t mind me asking you, how is it possible? Reim is so dry, and I saw a forest in Khelt.”
Trey gestured towards a window. The Quarass was smiling he saw out of the corner of his eye. Fetohep’s eyes brightened. He waved a hand, and on cue, another attendant materialized, with a cup of water. Which was good; the orange juice was so sweet! This one had ice cubes in it; Trey blinked as he drank.
“Even one new to Chandrar realizes that this continent is one of sand and dust. Whilst the coastal kingdoms thrive, all those that border Zheikhal, the great desert, are dry and devoid of water. Rain falls seldom so far inland; in Zheikhal, not at all.”
Zheikhal? Trey vaguely remembered the name. Takhatres and his tribe had crossed it to do battle with the Emperor of Sands. Apparently that was what was keeping his armies from attacking Reim even now. That and Takhatres. Trey worried about him some days. Fetohep went on.
“Even on the coasts, rain may sometimes desert a nation for long stretches. Chandrar is dry, where other continents are not. A phenomenon of the weather that no one, neither [King] nor [Mage] can change forever. Thus, rulers who may generate water are necessary for life to flourish.”
“As with the Siren of Savere.”
The Quarass murmured into one cup. She was chewing on her ice, Trey realized. It was so childish, but Fetohep didn’t seem to mind. He glared at the Quarass for entirely different reasons.
“Speak not of that lawless [Bandit] among our ranks, Quarass. She holds no station I acknowledge.”
“The [Bandit Queen] is one of a newer breed, Fetohep. When the world had forgotten a [Bandit Lady] could exist, her breed returned with a vengeance. She is a new concept, yes. But an old one too. I have seen their kind rule many kingdoms in times past. The Siren may be a sign of their resurgence.”
Fetohep made a disgusted noise.
“Would that Flos Reimarch had done away with that wretched nation of Savere. That he destroyed and brought low so many nations and failed to do the same to Savere is another fault I hold against him. But she can summon water. That is her value, Trey Atwood. Mine lies in the control of undead.”
He gestured towards himself. Trey nodded.
“Khelt has found many ways over its existence to generate enough water. Some are artifacts. Oasis Tears for instance, are gems which produce water in limited quantities. I have enough to create a few barrels of water each hour. But as you must surely know, Khelt requires rivers of water.”
Trey nodded. Reim needed it too; it was why Flos’ ability to summon rain with the [Edict of Bloom] had been so valuable. Trey hesitated.
“Do you use magic, then, your Majesty?”
Fetohep made a chuckling sound.
“A common thought. Inexperienced rulers of Chandrar have tried the same and perished for their mistakes. It is true that [Hydromancers] are able to draw water out of the air, or create temporary liquids. But that takes from already dry land and climate. Far better to have them remove salt from seawater. Thus, Khelt imports water when necessary. But the true secret to our water lies simply in storage. Every drop of rain, and the countless oceans we have imported over centuries lies below Khelt.”
“You mean—you store it all? Enough to water Khelt for an entire year?”
Fetohep nodded calmly.
“For an entire year, or a decade. Of course, Khelt pays lavishly for [Mages] to carry water from the sea and bring rains each year, but if need be, we will simply draw from the reservoirs without fear. My kingdom is built to last forever, Trey Atwood. The reservoirs below Khelt and its stockpiles alone will feed my people if every other nation succumbs to famine and drought. I have seen two such times before. The bounties of a single [King]’s edict are a paltry thing; Khelt prepares because I remember what generations forget. Disaster and fortune are cycles which come and go without end.”
He tapped his chest once more, shifting his robes. Trey looked at him.
“Your Majesty. May I ask how Khelt came to be?”
He expected Fetohep to give him a speech, but to his surprise, the Eternal King simply shook his head.
“You already know, Trey Atwood. Or you may guess. Like Germina, Khelt has found a way to endure. All that you see now is the product of my predecessors and I. You have seen them.”
Trey remembered. The gates. The statues lined up, one after another. Fetohep nodded.
“Eighteen of Khelt’s rulers have come before me. I am nineteenth. And we have weathered millennia, each of us ruling for centuries, or even a thousand years. We are still young compared to the Quarass of Germina. But it pleases me that you see Khelt’s worth.”
“I do, your Majesty.”
“Good. Then you have seen Khelt’s wealth. Now see the skill of its people.”
And Trey looked up and smelled something wonderful wafting towards him. He turned—and eight attendants swept into the room, all at once. They brought all of the dishes Trey had asked for, and the Quarass’ meal. Trey gaped—it hadn’t been more than a second since he’d asked for his new order! Fetohep smiled.
“Ah. So we shall dine. Taste your food, Trey Atwood. Tell me if it is that which you desired.”
Trey’s first bite made him almost recoil in shock.
He looked up at Fetohep, tried to speak, swallowed, and tried again.
“It is. Thank you. How did—”
He stared at the bubble and squeak sitting next to a huge slice of shepherd’s pie. Next to it, true to every bit of his imagination was a treacle tart, complete with a blob of whipped cream. It could have come from a restaurant! But—Trey cut off a bit with a shaking fork—it was better than he’d ever tasted! But it tasted like—
“It tastes exactly like it’s from home? How did they do it?”
He was almost afraid as he stared at Fetohep. The [King] looked amused as the bowing attendants stepped back.
“My [Chefs] know the wishes of their diners through a Skill. It pleases me. They shall be rewarded for their efforts.”
Trey nodded, trying not to scarf down the familiar food. It was so nostalgic! Teres would be heartbroken she’d missed this. He wondered if he could save some for her. Across from him, the Quarass was eating more sedately, but with just as much clear enjoyment.
Even so, having Fetohep watching you eat was somewhat off-putting. The [King] seemed to realize this because now he picked up the cup he had set aside and lifted it. Trey wondered if it was empty, but he caught the sight of a ghostly liquid shifting around inside the cup. Fetohep noticed his stare.
“You dine with me, Trey Atwood, but the pleasures of food have long since been unavailable to me. I am content to sit and converse, but this discomforts the living, even among my subjects. So I shall join you in a repast.”
He lifted the cup to his…well, he didn’t really have lips. Nevertheless, Trey saw him inhale something which seemed as much gas as liquid. Like liquid nitrogen; Fetohep’s eyes flashed brighter for a moment as he lowered his cup.
“What is that, your Majesty?”
The [King] glanced up.
“A draught of magic made liquid. It is known as Ghost’s Tears in some parts of the world. A drink [Mages] occasionally consume. Or my ilk. I seldom imbibe of it. But it is enjoyable.”
“I had no idea the um—I had no idea anything was edible, your Majesty.”
“Few dishes are palatable to the undead. But such meals can be made. This drink is enough for me. Eat, and let us converse civilly.”
All three diners did just that. Trey felt like he’d passed the first test; he was able to eat and listen and talk to Fetohep and the Quarass. Indeed, he did more of the questioning; Fetohep was pleased to speak of his kingdom to Trey, who was fascinated by it.
“You can see the benefits of the undead. Food is no issue. Nor base crafts, such as bricklaying, or the maintenance of buildings, the necessity of transport. What occupies many citizens in another nation, such as Reim, is needless here. Thus, my people are free to live how they please.”
“Really? But can’t people do that in other nations, your Majesty?”
Fetohep laughed silently and the Quarass chuckled. Trey flushed, but Fetohep raised a hand as one of the aforementioned people of Khelt, the young man, filled Fetohep’s cup. He was smiling too, but hiding it.
“You confuse the illusion of free will with the freedom I describe, Trey Atwood. Yes, people of other nations are ‘free’. Free, but constrained by the needs of the body, of monetary needs, the need for security. Shelter. Not so here. Each citizen of Khelt has the freedom to choose their destiny. They need not worry for food. If they are hungry, they will be fed. If they require shelter, it will be given.”
Fetohep waved a hand lazily.
“They must find the will to stay in areas where food is freely given, but yes. No one in Khelt need work if they do not desire it. That is freedom, child. Whether it is to work or to rest idly; they may do so. Some live and die, content to eat and pursue baser desires. And after their death, they serve their home forever, guardians and laborers. Most, however, choose some occupation. Indeed, I encourage it.”
“And they work?”
Nods from around the room. The attendants looked at their [King] and he sat back.
“It gives them purpose and contentment. My fifteenth predecessor, King Thekheldan, observed that his subjects had grown apathetic and quarrelsome, driven to further and further excesses without need or drive. He was the third of Khelt’s rulers and Khelt very nearly fell from rot within. Ever since, Khelt’s people have worked and few take to pure indulgence. As so.”
He gestured at the young woman serving Trey. She was his age and smiled at him as she refilled his goblet. He blushed as Fetohep spoke.
“The seventeen I called for shall dance attendance upon every need you require, Trey Atwood. They shall serve as I have need of them. However, should I require the same service tomorrow, seventeen different citizens of Khelt shall fill the role. My people work less than the laborers of other nations. Unless they themselves demand it, four out of the seven days do they fulfill their duties. Three of the rest are given to their pleasures unadorned.”
“I see. But if they don’t do most jobs—what are their classes?”
“Some administrate. Others create what undead cannot. Dresses, cuisine, toys; all things to amuse or provide. But what is mainly created in Khelt is literature and art.”
“Khelt is known for its [Historians], who write of the world. As well, it is famed for the masterpieces which are seldom sold, and adorn the collections of connoisseurs around the world.”
The Quarass explained, spearing a gleaming berry gently dusted with white powder with a fork. Fetohep nodded. Trey sat back.
“And that’s what they do? All their lives? Don’t they get bored?”
The King of Khelt sounded amused.
“Should they? They live for themselves. They seek each other out for the pleasures of the flesh. They enjoy their lives without fear of attack or starvation and so pass contented into death. Few strive for more. Why should they desire aught else? Unless—you refer to material wealth? Gold? Possessions? They do accrue that. Khelt has use for coin; some accrue it by their occupation to barter with the traders I allow into my realm on occasion. However, what many strive for as they age is the right to bear children.”
Trey looked up sharply. Fetohep paused.
“It is not a right freely given. My people are sterile without my blessing.”
The Quarass flicked her fork. Trey felt something flick him in the side of the head and yelped. She had excellent aim! He chose his words carefully as Fetohep stared at him.
“Pardon me, your Majesty. I’m just surprised. That seems…unfair?”
He heard Fetohep sigh.
“How so, Trey Atwood? Were I to allow my citizens to reproduce freely, Khelt would overflow. Even it cannot sustain a population which grows indefinitely. The right to bear children is sacred; indeed, many are unprepared for such responsibility. It is something to work for and thus, a freedom treasured.”
Trey gulped down his objections. He tried to think of it from Fetohep’s perspective. Certainly it wouldn’t be good to have someone Trey’s age or younger having a baby. And yet—wasn’t it a universal right? But he knew it wasn’t the thing to debate right now, so Trey cast around for a change of topic.
“Are there any who don’t wish to enjoy themselves, your Majesty? Who seek something more?”
Fetohep tapped one finger against his cup as he lifted it. Softly, he looked at his attendant. The young man paused, flushing as his [King] regarded him. Fetohep nodded.
“Some do. They become my administrators, or the living commanders of my army. Some few hone their levels. But often, those of my people who crave more leave Khelt. It is a choice I offer all my subjects.”
This time one of Fetohep’s eyes flashed. Trey was learning to understand that he communicated with his eyes more than the rest of his body.
“My people are not prisoners. They may leave Khelt at any time, Trey Atwood. With my blessing. With coin and provisions, with the [Merchants] allowed to enter my realm. No child may be taken, but any who has reached adulthood may go. The condition is simply this: they may not return.”
Harsh. Fetohep read it in Trey’s face. He shook his head.
“Khelt allows few visitors past its borders each year, Trey Atwood. Some years less than a hundred. Less than ten. Most are [Merchants]. Few are diplomats such as yourself; but I have little need of them. Rarest still are those whom are allowed to stay. It is not a privilege one can toss away lightly.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean to imply that. I—who is allowed to stay? Foreigners?”
“Few. [Scholars]. [Mages], occasionally. Sometimes a half-Elf, who seeks Khelt’s eternity to remain. Each one I judge. Each one must offer Khelt something of worth to be allowed to stay. No others may enter even should they wish it, and they have come in centuries past. By the hundreds of thousands, begging for refuge, for Khelt’s protection. Whatever the reason, they never step onto Khelt’s soil.”
Silence. Trey saw the Quarass look up. She regarded him.
“You are uncomfortable with that idea too, Trey Atwood?”
Both of them were looking at him. Trey shifted.
“No. Yes. I mean—if they’re desperate—what happens to them?”
Neither Fetohep nor the Quarass hesitated. Nor did he seem bothered by the question.
“It is not maliciousness, but necessity that forces me to ward my borders, child. Khelt cannot endure foreigners. Such people ferment rebellion. They object to Khelt’s way of life, seek to gain power, or overturn the rule of Khelt’s kings. They would destroy what Khelt is. So they are not allowed entry.”
Simple as that. The Quarass was nodding, almost approvingly. Trey looked from face to face. Fetohep went on, musing, refusing a refill of the ghostly liquid.
“The few who enter are sometimes Khelt’s children, those who have left. They bring families, children. But still, I demand worth of them. Those that leave and find the harshness of the world to come crawling back I do not allow entry.”
“But some you do.”
The Quarass interjected. Fetohep looked at her. She was smiling faintly. Trey blinked as Fetohep lifted his cup, drinking. He spoke even while drinking; it didn’t seem to interfere with his voice at all.
“They are my children. I give to Khelt’s people peace and prosperity. That is my function, Quarass. That is the reason I am [King]. What other is there?”
She looked at him. And she smiled enviously. Slowly, the child lifted her cup.
“To watch and endure. To guard Chandrar until the end of its days. Yet I fear Germina, for all its past glories, cannot match Khelt’s peace.”
Fetohep lifted his cup and inclined his head.
“A harsh task. Yours is a nation not given Khelt’s advantages, Quarass. Queen Khelta, who founded my nation, was gifted beyond any who have walked Chandrar’s sands.”
“She was the greatest [Necromancer] I have ever met. And just as great a [Queen].”
Softly, the Quarass looked back. And her eyes seemed faraway until they focused on Fetohep. Trey, listening, realized the significance of her words. Fetohep bowed slightly.
“Your words honor Khelt, Quarass.”
She only nodded. The conversation petered out for a moment and Trey realized his stomach was stuffed almost to bursting. He sat back, and then Fetohep put down his empty goblet. He regarded Trey’s mostly empty plate and the Quarass as she let her attendant take her plate away. He nodded, satisfied.
“You have enjoyed your repast. Thus, let us finally discuss matters of state.”
Trey sat up slightly. The Quarass nodded, steepling her hands together on the table. Fetohep’s head slowly turned from her to Trey.
“We spoke of the worth of Queen Khelta. Now, let us speak of that of the arrogant boy who calls himself King of Destruction. I have demanded one thing of Reim and its [King]. An oath, sworn by blood, that Flos of Reim shall not attack or imperil Khelt in any way.”
“You demanded it?”
Trey’s voice stopped the Quarass from replying. She glanced at him. So did Fetohep. The [King] nodded.
“I have sent him messengers from Khelt bearing my will. He has refused to accede. But I do not request this oath. It is a necessity. Should he continue to refuse, Khelt shall march on Reim and bring war to its people without end until his people lie dead and their [King] likewise.”
Trey stared at the [King]. They’d been talking so calmly a moment ago! But Fetohep uttered the threat as if it were suitable to an after-dinner chat. The Quarass frowned. Her eyes flicked to Trey, but she wasn’t surprised either.
“That is an act of aggression unlike Khelt, Fetohep. You have heard the King of Destruction’s oath of peace, have you not?”
“Words. I look not to empty promises, but to history, Quarass.”
Fetohep’s tone grew harsher. The flames in his eye sockets turned darker, deeper in color.
“I am all too aware of his ambitions. Once, Flos of Reim conquered almost all of Chandrar and Khelt was forced to bend knee to him. So as not to be destroyed, we paid the King of Destruction’s tribute in food and coin and our people’s lives, to fight in his armies. Khelt has done so in the past, but each instance of subservience is an affront. This time, I do not intend to give such tributes to Reim. Thus, the oath made in blood. Flos of Reim will not forswear it lightly.”
The Quarass of Germina had lived for lifetimes dancing the game of politics. Sometimes with all the delicacy and grace of a feather blown upon the winds of change, other times with the crudest of methods, as need dictated. She was experienced, as skillful as any [Diplomat] purely by virtue of memory.
However, at the moment all she was thinking was ‘uh oh’. Fetohep’s eyes were blazing and his tone was beyond irate. She had forgotten that Khelt’s citizens had fought for Flos in his first war of conquest. No—she had been aware of it. He had demanded the same of Germina and the previous Quarass after all. Tributes in the form of food and arms to fuel his armies, soldiers to do battle in his name.
The only difference was the he had coerced Khelt into doing the same as Germina. And Fetohep had clearly harbored a grudge. He wouldn’t have scorned any amount of tribute, gold, or even artifacts. But his people? The Quarass looked swiftly towards Trey. The young man was pale at the threat of war. She understood that.
Then again, Fetohep’s demands weren’t terrible. Indeed, a vow of neutrality would do Reim little wrong now. It was just that it would close Khelt off from the King of Destruction’s will forever unless Flos truly forswore a blood oath with all that entailed. And the Quarass was certain that Flos wished for some of Khelt’s vast surpluses. She thought carefully and quickly and replied to the undead [King].
“King Fetohep. I understand your demands. And the King Reimarch may well accede to an oath with some remunerations. Reim hungers; you have surely heard of all those who claim loyalty to the King of Destruction returning to his lands. If Khelt would offer Reim an equal exchange in exchange for a vow of nonaggression—”
This time the word surprised the Quarass as well as Trey. Fetohep’s gaze found the Quarass. He shook his head.
“Khelt will offer Reim nothing. It demands, Quarass. This is no negotiation.”
“King Fetohep! That is unlike Khelt. The King of Destruction will not accept a threat backed up by force of arms. War between Reim and Khelt would cost both nations!”
“And it would ultimately doom Reim. Khelt will not fall; the King of Destruction’s armies may sweep aside hundreds of thousands, but the countless dead of Khelt? And while they do, their flanks will be unguarded. It is not a war that boy can fight. He and I and you know it.”
She did. The Quarass bit her lip, her heart fluttering. She inclined her head.
“Nevertheless, Fetohep. Why utter such demands? Khelt can surely make a trade of goodwill rather than a demand that breeds enmity.”
It wasn’t what Flos Reimarch would prefer, but a concession of goods would be simple for Khelt to supply and aid Reim. Fetohep surely knew that, just as he knew how unlikely the King of Destruction was to obey a threat. Was it because he hated Flos that much that he was making this demand? No—the Quarass knew Fetohep. He would swallow pit vipers for the good of his kingdom. So why—
Then the pieces fit. Her eyes narrowed.
“You do not wish to be seen to aid Reim.”
Fetohep’s gaze flashed once. The Quarass sat back. Of course. Tiqr had fallen this morning. But Fetohep simply toyed with his cup.
“I consider Khelt’s interests, Quarass. I have no wish to pay for a demand owed to Khelt for injustices past. Nor will I enable that boy’s fruitless endeavors.”
Intriguing. Fetohep was clearly uncomfortable at admitting Khelt was leery of other nations singling it out for attack. His pride was at stake, hence his deflection. The Quarass pressed him on it.
“Fruitless? Fetohep, you recall the ambitions of Flos Reimarch were no empty promises. He united almost all of Chandrar before his slumber. His armies spanned the deserts beyond number! Other continents walked warily of Chandrar. Can you call the dreams of such a [King] fruitless?”
“Of course. How could you argue for him, Quarass?”
The Quarass hesitated. Her mind raced ahead of the argument. Trey Atwood, at his seat, looked confused.
“But your Majesty, King Flos did conquer the continent. Even if he was conquering—”
“I am not referring to that, Trey Atwood. No. I ask the Quarass: what was the point?”
Fetohep paused. He looked across at the Quarass, who was biting her lip.
“Six hundred years. Six hundred and fifty three. That is how long I have ruled Khelt. It is a long time. Long, yet short to the Quarass of Germina. Even so. Trey Atwood. Look at me. What do you see?”
He gestured to his emaciated form. Trey hesitated.
“I see—a [King]?”
“What of my flesh?”
Fetohep’s eyes flashed slightly. The Quarass tensed, but they were good answers. The [King] shook his head.
“You make no mention of my appearance. Spare me flatter, Trey Atwood. Look at me. What do you see?”
A pause. Trey’s voice was quiet.
“An undead body.”
“Rotting. Fading. Slowly, by turns, but nevertheless. Flesh decays, child. You see me in my death. Now look. See my arm. The flesh which continues to rot upon my frame. Even my bones slowly turn to dust. This may be my final century; or if not this one, in two hundred years, the magics that keep me will fail and I will turn to dust. Even with all our magics, Khelt’s rulers must still fade. As all things will.”
Trey was silent. The Quarass was too. She listened as Fetohep went on.
“Nevertheless, I am ancient as other species measure time. Even half-Elves seldom live to my age. Now I hear the Quarass speak of Flos’ glories. And I say, what glories? He is but a passing memory to Khelt’s existence. What reason have I to admire what fades and burns away with the quickness of a candle’s flame?”
Ah. The Quarass saw his argument. She opened her mouth, but Fetohep fixed her with a glare. He went on, speaking to Trey. The young man couldn’t understand, but the Quarass and Fetohep did.
“I remember when the boy-king named Flos of Reim defeated Hellios’ [King] in a duel that astounded all of Chandrar. I recall when that same boy rode to war against the Order of Black Judgment and ended a system that had existed longer than I. And I recall the moment when word came that he had given up his dream of conquest and entered into a slumber. All of it passed while I remained here. It feels like yesterday. Do you understand, Trey Atwood? His kingdom rose and fell in the course of decades! You say he conquered Chandrar, that he unified a continent? Is it so today?”
Trey opened his mouth, but he didn’t reply. The Quarass cursed internally. Fetohep looked at her and shook his head.
“Your [King]’s rise and fall, you unending Quarasses, all of it is temporary. I am temporary. Why should Khelt risk itself for what will soon crumble to dust? I admit he is a [King] like no other in his generation. But how quickly they pass! Flos is but a man who comes every four hundred years. No more. Greater rulers have broken themselves upon the throne of the world in times past.”
He flicked his hand dismissively. Now the Quarass did speak. She sharply struck the table with her cup and Fetohep glanced at her.
“You dismiss Flos Reimarch too casually, Fetohep. I have lived many times your lifespan, Fetohep. And I say Flos of Reim is a man who comes every two thousand years. At least! Few rulers have united Chandrar. I see in him the ability to retake Chandrar. It may wither and pass, but have you seen another who has done so much in your lifetime?”
He had not. She had, and she saw Germina’s fate in Flos’ hands. If he rose, Germina might endure. If not—his fall would take Germina with him. Fetohep had to know that too, because he dismissed her argument with a wave of one hand.
“One cannot know the worth of a ruler until he is dead. And sometimes, not even then. I acknowledge he is a rarity. But what of it?”
He turned to Trey, away from the Quarass.
“Consider this, Trey Atwood. If Flos of Reim conquers all of Chandrar once more he may be one in two thousand years. Let us assume he has the strength to conquer the world. What of it? No matter how vast his empire, will fall apart with his passing. A [King]’s power dies with him.”
That was true, too. The Quarass clenched her hands together.
“Yet, Khelt need not be part of Reim’s fall, King Fetohep. It may observe as it has! But a threat without concession of any kind—”
The sunken sockets flashed with emerald light. The [King]’s eyes focused into a pinpoint of intensity.
“I will not give Flos Reimarch gifts, Quarass. His ambitions matter not at all to me. What will he create? What will his conquest do for the world? Nothing! He seeks to control more and more land, like a child playing with castles made out of sand. There is no point to giving him aid. Even if it were not politically inexpedient—”
He paused, tripped over by his words. The Quarass narrowed her eyes and Fetohep went on.
“—I have neither reason politically nor functionally to offer Reim support. Far from it. Khelt will destroy Reim, his remaining Seven or not. These other nations will not hesitate if my armies join battle with Reim’s. I will have his oath tomorrow or Reim’s fall will be sealed.”
“Then it is a threat Flos Reimarch will never bow to. You know his nature. You risk war, Fetohep.”
He knew that. But his pride—the Quarass gritted her teeth. It was like him to make it a philosophical argument as well as pragmatic. Fetohep snapped his fingers impatiently.
“Quarass, you know that to give Flos Reimarch any aid is to court the fate of Empress Nsiia.”
“Then do not demand an oath!”
“Should I wait until that boy is able to force Khelt’s subservience? Or trust that he will not a second time? Tell me, Quarass, how fairs independent Germina?”
From his seat, Trey inhaled. The Quarass’ small face turned hostile. He edged back in his seat.
“Germina stands to gain from its alliance with Reim, Fetohep. And his return is not without benefit. Or do you not see the life he has returned to Reim?”
“What do I care for Reim? What benefit is there in giving the King of Destruction any aid? I say it again. What does Khelt lack? Slaves? The dead are the only servants my people need, not other people with wills of their own. Gold? Metal is worthless. Food? No. Our stores are vast and my people sated. What can Flos of Reim give us?”
Fetohep’s voice thundered in the banquet room. The people of Khelt shrank back across the walls as he rose. The Quarass rose as well and Trey felt a pressure in the room. It was coming off both rulers. Where it met between them, he felt like the air was charged. He shuddered as they glared at each other.
The [King] of Khelt was the first to break away and sit once more. Not because he’d been overwhelmed; the Quarass was unsteady on her feet, pale with the effort of projecting the same force that he was giving off. He sighed as he sat and she slowly, unsteadily did the same. Pensively, Fetohep stared past her, out a window, and then spoke.
“Culture, perhaps. A world filled with sights to astound and new music and art. If he could offer Khelt that, or something of worth, I would see purpose in his transitory empire, his vision of conquest. But the King of Destruction has never brought that. Only the ruination of what exists. So. How could he ever dream of appealing to me?”
“Perhaps it is not what he seeks to build, then. But what he would shield against. Fetohep, if Reim has nothing to offer by alliance, let me make the case for Reim’s necessity to guard against what threatens us all.”
The Quarass’ hand shook a bit as she reached for a cup. She looked drained by the clash of wills. She was too young, Trey realized. Fetohep waited as she drank and some color returned to her cheeks.
“Go on, Quarass.”
She glanced at Trey. And he realized she was about to use him. Her trump card. She didn’t look confident though. She’d lost the debate, he realized. Fetohep was objecting on two levels to helping Reim and the Quarass was making a case for the latter now.
“Trey Atwood. Tell his Eternal Majesty the name of the nation from which you hail. It is he who helped awaken the King of Destruction, Fetohep. He and his sister, by sheer virtue of their encounter with him.”
Fetohep’s head turned, the first movement of surprise in their entire conversation. He stared at Trey. The young man ducked his head, his heart beating wildly. He looked at the Quarass. Tell him everything? But her glare forced him to open his mouth.
“I—I come from England, your Majesty. A country in the United Kingdom.”
The [King] of Khelt paused. His eyes flickered. Then he shook his head.
“No such country exists. Nor was one founded or I would know of it.”
“And yet he speaks the truth.”
The Quarass stared at Fetohep, her eyes challenging. He glanced at her and his eyes condensed, staring at Trey. He paused.
“Where is this nation located? Which continent lies closest to it?”
Trey saw the Quarass smirking from her seat. She was enjoying this. He was not. Fetohep was staring straight through him.
Another pause. Fetohep’s eyes flickered again.
“Impossible. Quarass, if this is some fanciful trick of falsehoods that escapes even my abilities—”
“What would I have to gain from it, Fetohep? Our relationship will doubtless exceed the span of my life. Even my predecessor would not incur your enmity so.”
The young girl calmly drank from her cup. Fetohep glanced at her.
“A continent named…?”
He paused. Trey could see his mind working, trying to parse the information that was true yet untrue at the same time. The Quarass put the pieces together softly for Fetohep.
“Another world, Fetohep. Trey Atwood and his sister hail from another world.”
The flames in Fetohep’s eye went wide and then suddenly vanished. In the silence, Trey stared at the motionless [King], and then around the room. The attendants waiting upon them stared at Trey, some purely uncomprehending. But then Fetohep moved. The flames in his sockets glowed again, brightly. He stood.
“Attendants. Speak nothing of what you have heard. Clear this room. I will speak to the Quarass and Trey Atwood. Alone.”
He rose, turning, and his people fled the room, casting glances at Trey, wondering. The Quarass rose too. She smiled slightly. But when she looked at Trey, he didn’t see complete confidence in her eyes. And as Fetohep turned, Trey saw no fear in the undead [King]’s gaze either.
The conversation was long. Trey stood before Khelt’s throne and stared up at it. It wasn’t made of bone, as one might assume, or even black stone. No, it was wrought of a pearl-like stone which shimmered and caught the light, casting ghostly echoes—as if refracting the light into a dreamy otherlight, creating ghostly illusions of the throne to the sides.
Fetohep sat on the throne, listening as Trey spoke. Sometime the Quarass would speak, but it was mainly Trey. And he spoke to both rulers. He had told the Quarass some of the things about Earth, but now he spoke the rest.
It was the same thing he had first told Flos. About Earth. About a world with technologies beyond this world’s own. Smaller perhaps, but far denser in population. Of buildings that touched the sky, men and women that walked upon the moon. A world without monsters or magic or other species.
About war. The Quarass demanded that. Trey spoke of guns, of missiles, of planes that could fly beyond any [Mage] and weapons that brought destruction to entire cities. The Quarass clearly thought that would sway Fetohep.
She was wrong.
“A weapon that may destroy a city in a single moment?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Fetohep stared at Trey. He looked at the young boy, and then at the Quarass.
“One that can be sent hundreds, thousands of miles at will. That may destroy a vast city at a moment. And an entire world of nations that possess a might of arms few nations of this world could ever hope to match. Weapons that reach out and touch from miles away.”
“Yes, your Majesty. It’s—”
Trey fell silent as the Quarass signaled him with one hand. She stepped forwards, smiling.
“Do you see now the peril that has woken the King of Destruction, Fetohep? Another world waits, unseen, linked to ours by some great force or magic. Should they come, will Khelt stand against such dire weapons?”
The undead [King] paused. He regarded the Quarass, and then Trey. For a moment he was uncertain, even though he had tested Trey under truth spells. But then he believed. He sat on his throne, leaned back against the ghostly material.
And laughed. The laughter caught Trey and the Quarass off-guard. It was harsh, unnatural. A dead man’s voice. Fetohep laughed and then stared down at Trey and the Quarass. And his eyes held no fear.
“A threat. I see. So the world will be plunged into uncertainty once more. Tell me, Quarass. Why should I fear another world?”
She stared up at him. She wasn’t prepared for this. The Quarass tripped over her worlds, a child again.
“Why? Because it is dangerous! Because it has the potential to overturn this world! Khelt cannot stand against such weapons!”
Fetohep dismissed her statement with a single flick of his hand.
“And what of it? Khelt will survive. Do you think the world of Trey Atwood is the first to command weapons so wretched, so depraved that no nation could stand against them? Remember, Quarass! Both your lands and mine have seen such madness and lived! In ages past, we endured the tyranny of half-Elves, Selphids. We fought the wretched Crelers when they emerged from Rhir, bent knee to passing tyrants.”
Fetohep rose and pointed down at the Quarass. She stared up at him, astonished, along with Trey.
“If this other world threatens Khelt, this land will rise up. Or bow. It matters not. Tell Flos of Reim that he will have our subservience when he proves too dangerous to resist. As last time. If he would try Khelt now…he cannot. So I will have his oath sworn in blood and deal with a second world when it threatens. Not before! Your threat is meaningless, Quarass.”
He laughed again, shortly. The Quarass stared up at him. She looked at Trey, and almost lost her balance. He stared at her.
What did they do now? Flos would have to agree to Fetohep’s demands unconditionally or go to war. Either way, he lost, and he had a lot more to lose by going to war, even if Fetohep attacked first. You couldn’t destroy Khelt like Germina. Trey imagined legions of undead, rising without end. How many could Fetohep call upon? How many lay buried in Khelt’s soil? Hundreds of thousands?
“I respect your attempt, Quarass. Truly. You have done your utmost for Reim and thus Germina, but I am unmoved. I take this information of a second world with greatest curiosity, however. I would speak of it with you, Trey Atwood, not as a threat to my kingdom, but as a scholar would. Let us return to a more intimate setting.”
Fetohep was magnanimous in his perceived victory. He led the way out of his throne room, and his attendants appeared, escorting them to a smaller sitting room. The Quarass was silent, and Trey could see her clenching her hands, trying to think. But—she was rattled. She was young. And Trey realized she was panicking.
If she’d been older, perhaps she’d have had a chance. But Fetohep’s composure was too much for a, what, a Level 8 [Quarass]? Trey found himself sitting as Fetohep motioned.
“The delicacy. Gelato. Two bowls.”
The word made Trey look up. The attendants were smoothly coming towards them, bearing small buckets of powdered ice. And in them sat two bowls of…Trey’s eyes widened.
“As you are my guests, enjoy of it. I believe our negotiations are finished, so all that remains is to see to your hospitality. Quarass, Trey Atwood, I present to you a delicacy from Terandria. Milk-based, or so I am told. A creation of sugar. I have been importing it for my [Chefs] to create. It is called gelato—”
Trey gasped as he tasted the frozen dairy. Fetohep broke off. The Quarass glanced up, taking her bowl with ill grace.
“You are…familiar with this treat?”
“Yes! Your Majesty, it comes from Earth! It’s a treat from my home!”
Trey was delighted. Ice cream! Vanilla, unfortunately. Fetohep stared at him.
“Ah. Then perhaps one of your own now stays in Terandria. For that is where this dish originates. It—comes from your world?”
He looked disappointed that Trey knew about it. All the enjoyment of having something unique was gone; even the servants looked disappointed. Trey glanced at the Quarass, but she was sulking as she ate from her bowl. Quickly though—she wasn’t used to sugar and clearly enjoyed it. He on the other hand—well, it was the first time he’d had it in months, but it was still vanilla.
“Well, there’s other kinds. You can flavor it, your Majesty. This is vanilla, but there’s chocolate, strawberry—any number of flavors!”
“Really? The [Merchants] who brought it to me assured me they had brought what is being served in Terandria’s palaces.”
Fetohep looked put out. Trey nodded. He saw the Quarass glance up slightly. The other attendants were listening with interest too.
“Maybe they haven’t invented it yet. Does this world have chocolate?”
“I’m unfamiliar with the word.”
Fetohep looked hesitant. Trey tried to describe it. The [King] just shook his head, bemused.
“A dark substance that is eaten so? It does not come to mind. My subjects? Inquire among the [Chefs].”
Two hurried off. Trey thought for a second.
“If it’s not chocolate, then perhaps um—cocoa beans? They’re a plant. Tropical, I think. Maybe you have it, but no one’s turned it into chocolate. Or at least, done it the way we make it in our world.”
Fetohep clicked his fingers.
“If it exists, Khelt surely keeps it. Unless it is not known as a food by any species. Tell the [Chefs] to locate such a…bean?”
“I think so. No, wait—they look like beans, but they come from a big…pod. I think. They should be dried! Or you dry them out and…”
Fetohep was nodding, and his gaze was alight with interest.
“Fascinating. So this other world of yours truly has different foods. From the dishes you ordered, I thought our worlds were too similar. But what else has your world in terms of delights to offer?”
The young man hesitated. Fetohep was genuinely interested, and that interest made the Quarass stir as well. She glanced sharply at Trey, and then cleared her throat. Fetohep glanced towards her. The Quarass spoke softly.
“Will you excuse me a moment, King Fetohep? The flaws of flesh call me.”
“Ah, of course. My attendants will show you what you require.”
Fetohep shook his head slightly. The Quarass nodded. Then she gave him a subtle look and nod that Trey couldn’t interpret. It was towards him. Fetohep paused and Trey, seeing his glance towards his face, took the cue.
“Ah, your Majesty, if you would…”
“Only naturally. Go. I will content myself until your return.”
Fetohep waved Trey and the Quarass away, almost hastily. Two attendants, smiling, showed Trey and the Quarass down a corridor towards the lavatories. They were elaborate. And there was running water! Trey did his business, embarrassed knowing that the servants were waiting outside. He hurried outside—there was no hand washing station, which made him ask for water and soap. They hurried off to get it, and the Quarass emerged from her own door. She looked around and strode towards him at once.
“We have a moment to speak. You sent away the servants?”
“I need soap and water. You, uh, wash your hands?”
“I touched nothing untoward.”
She narrowed her eyes as if Trey was accusing her of something. He bit his lip, but the Quarass shook her head. She drew him aside.
“Fetohep has few flaws. Among them, his faded memory of flesh. I insinuated that you were close to relieving yourself for lack of control of your bladder so we could speak.”
Trey flushed, but the Quarass went on. She was scanning in every direction for the attendants.
“Fetohep is not impressed by strength of arms or threats. I failed to convince him to offer Flos Reimarch something of value; he would rather use force than appear to be Reim’s ally.”
“I understood that too! What do we do?”
The Quarass frowned, tapping one lip. Trey winced.
“I will attempt to persuade him once more, but he speaks truthfully when he states that he dislikes Flos Reimarch’s war of conquest. Fetohep cares for history and your [King]’s will directly opposes his. However, he is vain. He prides Khelt upon being peerless. You observed his look when you spoke of delicacies he was not aware of?”
“Yeah. Do you think—”
The Quarass nodded.
“Do so. And Trey?”
“Do you have your device? Then this is what we shall do…”
“Tell me more about the threat of your world, child. And tell me of its majesties.”
Fetohep was beyond curious when Trey and the Quarass finally returned, hands washed. He had an array of nuts on offer, and Trey exclaimed in surprise when he saw a cocoa bean! He had to taste it—and then immediately make a face. It was bitter! But it tasted faintly of chocolate!
“You grind it up, your Majesty. And uh—you add sugar. I think there’s something else. Butter, perhaps?”
Trey didn’t actually remember. Fetohep immediately gave orders for his [Cooks] to experiment. Then the conversation became all about Trey’s world. The young man was soon explaining the resemblance Fetohep had to a group of rulers from his world.
“…Bandages? They dressed themselves up in bandages and golden masks? Tell me about these Pharaohs. Why did they adorn themselves so?”
“Oh, no, your Majesty. They did that when they were buried. And they had ointments—they uh, were called mummies. The process is called mummification, actually, and it was used to preserve themselves.”
Fetohep leaned forwards. The Quarass was eating a second bowl of ice cream as she watched them talk. Trey, mindful of what she had told him, nodded, smiling at Fetohep’s curiosity.
“That’s right. And they used coffins. They had these pyramids—well, to begin with, they lived in a nation called Egypt…”
The undead [King] nodded. He listened to depictions of the pyramids and the rule of pharaohs, only confused on one point.
“But why did they perform such elaborate rituals on their corpses if not to resurrect them? I take such measures to remain Khelt’s ruler as long as I must. But what is the point for the dead who lie buried if not to return?”
“They…thought it would preserve them into the afterlife, your Majesty. There is not magic in our world, so…”
“They could not return from death? Ah. I see.”
Fetohep’s eyes dimmed. Trey felt compelled to tell him the myth of the mummy, then. Fetohep was amused.
“So they are zombies. Well, I suppose such treatments would preserve them even longer than regular corpses. Bandages. Hm…”
He was greatly amused. The Quarass cleared her throat, waving a hand rapidly for a third helping of sugar. Her eyes were overly bright, but she still managed to play her part.
“There is some merit to thinking of Trey Atwood’s world, then, Fetohep. If not as a threat, then perhaps as an opportunity?”
“You mean, as a target of conquest? But you have no idea how this world meets with ours, Quarass. And Khelt does not conquer. It shall reap of these other cultures in time. I may wait.”
Fetohep looked amused at her insistence. The Quarass fell silent, but Trey jumped in.
“But my world does have things to offer, King Fetohep. Things your citizens might want. Maybe they’re bored of life in Khelt.”
Fetohep looked offended at the very suggestion. His tone darkened as he looked at Trey. He gestured to the young woman who was waiting next to Trey.
“Tell me, my child. Do you want for anything?”
“No, your highness.”
She shook her head instantly. Fetohep nodded.
“Do you ever wish to leave Khelt?”
She looked alarmed at the very notion. Fetohep turned back to Trey, triumphantly.
“You see? My people are beloved among all the world’s nations. They live. They flourish, safe in my borders, free of suffering or fear of monsters or attack. And they die. And it is they who guard Khelt, forevermore. The finest of entertainments, flood my nation in every variety! [Bards] come to sing tales of old! Stories abound in my libraries! What could they possibly want?”
Trey pulled out his smartphone. Fetohep paused, stared at it, and then, as Trey hit the power button, the glowing screen. He stared at Trey. The young woman stared too, entranced by the foreign, artificial light.
“…What is that?”
“A device from my world, your Eternal Majesty. It’s a phone. A smartphone. It doesn’t run on magic. It’s an artifact with many functions.”
“How is it made? How does it work?”
Fetohep peered at the screen as Trey unlocked it. His eyes focused on the apps, the words. He wasn’t a fool. He could read and Trey saw the Quarass nodding at him covertly.
“Would you like to inspect it, your Majesty?”
“Perhaps. Do you simply…touch the screen? And…”
“Yes. Like this. And uh, it has a password. You just turned it off, so if you want to use it—it’s 4467.”
“It has pictures. Videos. Games—”
The young woman edged over to stare at the phone, entranced. King Fetohep paused, as Trey began tapping on apps. The Quarass waited, and then yawned openly. Fetohep glanced up, distracted, and she bowed.
“My apologies, Fetohep. This body is young. And the hour is late. I must beg your forgiveness—”
She yawned again. Instantly, Fetohep rose.
“Ah. A child’s stamina. I forget youth. Let us retire then, Quarass. Your rooms await. My people shall take you to them. Trey Atwood as well. It is already—”
He paused. Trey was yawning too; it wasn’t even act after seeing the Quarass. The golden gaze went towards him and Fetohep nodded.
“Close to midnight. Yes. I feel we must adjourn.”
He looked disappointed. Trey knew it was his turn again and gestured to the iPhone that Fetohep still held.
“Um, your Majesty, you could keep my phone. I won’t need it as I sleep.”
“Yes, your Majesty. If you’d like to use it.”
Fetohep hesitated. But then he nodded regally.
“I accept the gift. It will be returned to you as you rise. An intriguing device. Attendants. The Quarass and Trey Atwood shall slumber.”
They came forwards, bowing. The young woman who’d waited on Trey smiled mischievously as she led him to the door. She leaned over and whispered.
“Would you like me to visit you in your rooms, guest?”
Trey jumped. That wasn’t part of the plan. The young woman cocked her head.
“It would be my pleasure.”
Trey glanced back at Fetohep. The [King] looked up for a moment and the young Kheltian woman shook her head.
“It is freely given, guest. Many would like to see you. Visitors seldom come to Khelt and I would be honored to entertain a vassal of the King of Destruction.”
Social prestige. Trey turned bright red. He stammered as he backed away.
“Uh—um—I’m fine. Thank you!”
She looked disappointed and he instantly second-guessed himself. But the Quarass was giving him a look. Stick to the plan. But then the second young woman among the group smiled at him.
“Would you like me to visit you, then?”
That came from the young man. Trey tried to stammer again, and Fetohep glanced upwards.
“Attendants. Leave him be. Four shall remain upon my will and that of my guests. The rest of you will disperse.”
The attendants sighed, looking disappointed. Trey fled as the young woman led him and the Quarass towards their rooms. She looked very disappointed, staring at Trey as the Quarass tried to stop yawning in front of her room. She pointed at Trey, fixing him with a glare between jaw-cracking yawns.
“I will—tomorrow—before he meets Reimarch—negotiate.”
“This young body! I must rest. You have done well, Trey Atwood. But he is not convinced. Pray that he wishes us to remain another day. Either way, we have done all that is possible. I will speak to you on the morrow. As for tonight—”
She gave him a meaningful look. Trey nodded and stepped into his own room. He wondered if the Quarass’ plan would work. He thought of the way the young woman had stared at the iPhone. And then he thought of Fetohep. Perhaps there was a chance. After all…
He still had Trey’s smartphone.
Smartphone. Tablets. Electronic applications. Touch technology. Call it what you will, but it was a feature of the modern age. It was so easy to use that children could make use of the simple interface.
In fact, it was a known fact of Earth that a monkey could, with time, learn to use basic apps on a tablet or phone. There were even videos of them surfing through photos. Evidence of their ability to use technology in that fashion either proved that humanity had advanced their technology and simplified it to a point where even distant relatives of their species could comprehend and pick up usage of such applications—or that Humans really hadn’t come as far as they thought.
Both theories were probably true, but the point was that the same held true of this world. A Goblin child could, in thirty minutes, control an iPhone by using various motion commands like shaking it to shuffle music—a feature its owner, Laken Godart, had not made use of himself. And if Goblins could do it, anyone else could too.
A Dragon was snoozing in his cave. He woke up now and then, but he wanted to sleep. So, casually, he conjured a simulacrum, a smaller avatar to touch the tiny phone in front of him. It was constantly charged, and while he had toned down the brightness, he was by now adept at using it.
The thing about smartphones was that they were, well, dense. Each one, even the older models, could contain countless applications, constructs of data, and so on. In practice, it mattered very little on Earth where the connected web could provide virtually unlimited amounts of the same. But on earth? Each smartphone was different. Unique.
The one lying before Teriarch was Ryoka Griffin’s iPhone. A copy, rather, made by magic, but a perfect copy. And, as such, it held music, applications, and other data relevant to her interests.
Teriarch had perused all of it already. And, notably, if you looked at the row of neatly organized apps coded by alphabet—something that was missing on the iPhone Ryoka Griffin owned—an absence of a certain app was notable. Cookie Clicker, the game, had been deleted, and it was irrevocably lost without access to Earth’s internet. It was for the best. There had been…incidents.
Now however, the Dragon tapped a few times and yawned. A sound began to play from the iPhone and he magnified it. Several voices played in his cave. Talking quietly.
It wasn’t music, but the Dragon smiled sleepily. The speakers were discussing a topic, speaking with almost perfect clarity, as if they were in the room with him. He had no idea about half the topic they were discussing, even after listening to this particular podcast…fifteen times.
“Rhmbm…forklifts…keep an eye out. Can’t stand…lawyers…hrmfph…”
The Dragon muttered under his breath, going along with the flow of the conversation. He liked the background noise, and the content for that matter. It was entertainment he could get behind. Sometimes he even forgot the podcast, so it was fresh again. And the soft, calm tones of some of them…was…so…
The Dragon began to snore.
Across the world, in Khelt, King Fetohep did not sleep. He could not. And rather than pass the night as he usually did, monitoring his kingdom, perhaps walking the dark halls or attending to some other lesser concerns, he was instead sitting on his throne. A lurid glow from the object he held lit up his face. It was rather unsettling, if anyone were to watch the dead face lit in the darkness.
But no one was watching. And Fetohep was absorbed in his task. Like a Goblin child, he was more than capable of figuring out most of the smartphone’s functions at once. He was perusing Trey’s photos; he had no time for games. Or rather, he’d spent two hours on one already—just to see what it was like! And now…
The withered finger paused as it came to a word that Fetohep wasn’t familiar with. He paused, and then tapped on the odd icon. Instantly, a list came up. Fetohep stared at the title. He stared at the contents of Trey’s phone.
He’d found the movies app. And what he was looking at was…Fetohep focused on a picture. No—a scene? Intrigued, he tapped on it. Instantly, there was sound. A moving figure. The [King] jumped on his throne. Then he stared.
This was no homemade movie. Nor was it some short clip either. It was Sherlock, the TV Series. And Trey had all of Series 1 and two episodes of Series 2, on his iPhone. He’d downloaded them illegally and gotten them on his iPhone so he could watch it during commutes. Of course, that had been ages ago, and Trey had since caught up on all of the series. He’d just forgotten to delete the videos.
And there they were. Fetohep stared at Episode 1 as it began playing. Trey had paused it halfway through and the [King] saw the tiny bar moving. He tapped on the screen and the scene froze. Awkwardly scrolled back to the start, watching the time code change. Tapped again. And he watched. He listened.
…After a few hours, Fetohep realized the sun was rising. He glanced up, stared down at the iPhone, and rose. It was still early, but he clapped his hands and one of his attendants instantly appeared. The weary man bowed as Fetohep looked at him.
“Attendant. Send for the child, Trey Atwood. Provide him with a Second Day Potion. I request his presence.”
The Second Day potion was like liquid energy. Trey sat with Fetohep, having a proper English breakfast and talking with the [King]. He hadn’t had enough sleep, but he felt awake enough to run a race! It wasn’t nervous energy either; he was simply refreshed beyond belief. Fetohep looked just as energized. He was showing Trey the TV series and the embarrassed young man was trying to explain it.
“No, it’s a show, your majesty. An act.”
“A drama? A historical reenactment.”
“Er—no. It’s all fiction.”
“All of it? Then the people I witnessed—they are—”
Fetohep struggled for the words.
“Actors, your Majesty.”
“Actors. I know of performers, but this feels different. I have seen dramas, but the style of this is completely—and the recording! It can be watched again and again!”
The [King] savored the word. Trey nodded. Fetohep changed the iPhone—he’d already mastered it, much to Trey’s surprise—and brought up the pictures.
“This—device. These pictures! Is this indicative of your world, Trey Atwood? I see no famine in the faces here. In fact—they are well fed. Beyond so, in some cases.”
He pointed to one of the pictures on Trey’s phone. The young man hesitated. Compared to the skeletal Fetohep, it certainly was a dramatic…he nodded.
“Everyone has one, your Majesty. We watch stuff on it. All the time. And play games.”
“A powerful artifact.”
Fetohep looked flustered. Then he drew himself upright, and interjected a note of authority into his voice.
“Your world has some amenities my people lack, Trey Atwood. But know that my people may travel the breadth of my kingdom at will. Undead carriages will transport them at will, without cost.”
Trey didn’t look impressed.
“We have that. We call them cars—they don’t need horses, they just move when you press down on a lever. And uh, we have elevators too. They’re boxes that go up and down like magic. You saw them in the TV show, right?”
The undead [King] wavered.
“I…did. Yes. And the elevators? Ah, similar to flying carpets. And I have heard of Pallass’ experiments. I considered implementing some in Khelt, but the cost in mana stones was far too exorbitant.”
He paused. Trey nodded along, trying to be helpful.
“We also have escalators, your Majesty.”
“Moving floors. They’re like…”
Trey tried to explain the concept. Fetohep stared at him.
“You mean—they move you faster to your destination, which you are travelling to on foot? In fact, you may simply stand as the floor moves you to where you wish to go?”
“…Yes? I mean, you can probably sit too. Some people do.”
And the ones who stood still on the walking side deserved to die a horrible death. Now Trey was saying it out loud, it sounded a tiny bit lazy. But it was convenient! It wasn’t like they were everywhere. He squirmed, but Fetohep was just staring at Trey. At last, he opened his mouth and spoke faintly.
“What? No. Not really.”
Trey blushed. Fetohep just shook his head. He looked rattled. Trey had no idea why. The [King] had to get up and pace.
“There are a people more luxuriant than my own? No. No. This device—”
He looked at one of his servants. The young woman’s eyes were locked on the glowing screen; she’d edged around to watch as Trey showed Fetohep some of the features. Trey saw Fetohep watching his subject, and the entranced look on her face. And he saw Fetohep, for the first time, looking jealous.
For a long while, Fetohep sat with Trey as he offered the iPhone to the young woman and she fumbled with it. He looked at her, and at Trey, and the young man held his breath. At last, though, Fetohep shook his head.
“The Quarass is clever. Even in the body of a child, she can be as clever as any serpent.”
“Er, yes, your Majesty?”
Trey turned beet red as Fetohep gave him a knowing look. The [King] shook his head.
“Or perhaps it is—no. Never mind. I concede her point, at least. Your world fascinates, Trey Atwood. But there is still not enough reason for Khelt to ally with Reim. Tiqr’s fate has proven that to refuse to declare the King of Destruction as an enemy is to be a target.”
He raised a hand as Trey hesitated.
“You need not reply. I know your response. I can imagine that insufferable child’s words. Yes. Khelt bows to arrogant nations in allowing their will to dictate my actions. It is an affront, but one I suffer for my kingdom.”
Fetohep shook his head. And he sat, looking distant. Old.
“Nothing is eternal, Trey Atwood. Khelt is a fragile blossom. Someday, whether under my rule or a hundred thousand years from now, it will fall, and dust will consume my kingdom. While I remain, Khelt exists. And my people endure. Until the end of my days. That is my purpose. What reason have I to risk my nation?”
He looked up expectantly then, pensive, the weight of his world upon his shoulders. Trey hesitated. He opened his mouth, raised a finger—looked down.
“I don’t know.”
King Fetohep of Khelt paused. He waited, and then made a sound like clearing his throat.
“You have no arguments?”
Trey shrugged helplessly.
“Not any good ones. I’m sorry, your Majesty. I’m not a good negotiator. I don’t know why King Flos sent me.”
Fetohep looked disappointed. Trey bit his lip, but he really didn’t have anything the Quarass couldn’t already say. Khelt was beautiful. All it lacked was…
Both he and Fetohep looked at the young woman who was laughing at something. The picture of Flos, as it turned out. Fetohep lifted his hand and she reluctantly gave it back. He stared at the image of Flos Reimarch.
“He has changed. At least in appearance. I remember that feckless boy of old. He was so…”
One finger touched the screen. Trey looked at Fetohep, and a burst of inspiration seized him.
“Your Majesty, would you like me to take a picture of you?”
“A picture? Of me?”
Fetohep looked surprised. But then he nodded.
“It is a rare opportunity, one you may never have again. I shall allow it.”
He straightened upon his chair as Trey lifted the iPhone. The young woman hurried out of the way, watching with anticipation. Fetohep could not know it, but he unconsciously adopted a pose much like the one Flos had taken with Teres. Straight-backed, his face still. Trey hesitated.
It could have all gone the way of Teres’ photo. But he glanced at the iPhone, at Fetohep, sitting there, and then had another flash. He looked at Fetohep; the [King] was watching him, waiting.
“What about a selfie, your Majesty?”
“A picture of both of us. If you’ll allow it. Like this.”
Trey edged his seat over. He ignored the ridiculousness of what he was proposing, and put his head next to Fetohep, turning it towards the camera. The undead [King] glanced at him, surprised. But Trey didn’t shudder; he was intent on the picture. The [King] glanced up and saw them together. Trey tapped the iPhone and the screen flashed.
He showed Fetohep. The undying [King] stared at it. It was an image of him and Trey. The young man had a decent smile and Fetohep had a death’s grin. He was captured there. The ruler of Khelt stared at the image.
A picture, a recording on a boy’s phone. Fetohep stared at it and saw something close to immortality. A piece of data, stored in ways he didn’t understand. A fragile thing yes, but possibly eternal. But you had to work at it, guard it. Save it and keep it, but you could theoretically let it endure forever. But it had to be maintained.
He thought of the statues of his predecessors at the gates of his city. Each one made by a master. They had portraits, books written about them. A thousand and one tributes to their name. And this? Fetohep looked at the phone and thought of a world full of them.
Slowly, he sat upright. Trey was taking a photo of the young woman as she posed, excited to be captured by it as well. He jumped at Fetohep’s soft touch on his arm. The undead [King] saw him turn. But Trey had no fear on his face, although Fetohep was long dead. He looked at the [King] and Fetohep gestured.
“Sit, Trey Atwood. The Quarass yet slumbers and my meeting with the—King of Destruction is yet hours distant. So sit. Tell me more of this great detective, boy. Are there more stories of his? Tell me of your world. More of your nations. Of—culture.”
Flos Reimarch waited at Khelt’s border as the sun rose to midday. He had ridden out early, so as to be there. Even with his Skills, it was a fair ride, and so it was customary to await a meeting as the sun reached its zenith. He waited with Gazi and an entourage of a few hundred. The Serpent’s Hunters and Parasol Stroll were there, but Flos himself was not armed for war.
Gazi was. Or at least, she wore her armor and bore her claymore wherever she went. And she was the more worried of the two as they waited together on horseback. She looked up at her [King] before breaking the silence.
“You sent Mars back, my lord. Was that wise?”
Flos smiled. He stroked his beard, eyes watching Khelt’s horizon for movement. Gazi had already seen it, but it was yet indistinguishable for Flos.
“I don’t believe she will be needed. And would you be happier if Mars and Orthenon were here? Takhatres too, for that matter?”
Gazi paused and then shook her head restlessly. Two of her eyes focused ahead, tracking something. Someones.
“We can ill-afford a war with Khelt, my Lord. Even if we hold the border, he would threaten us eternally. And we cannot remove Khelt’s threat so easily. Are you certain that the Quarass and Trey will be successful? If not…”
Would you cave into Fetohep’s demands? Both knew Flos. The King of Destruction paused.
“I am not sure, Gazi. But I do not intend war. Fetohep may have his demands, but I desire Khelt as an ally. Still. Have faith!”
The Quarass could not be trusted entirely. Gazi had known three, and this new one seemed no less dangerous for her youth. Flos just smiled again.
“Trey, of course.”
“What can he do?”
The half-Gazer looked highly skeptical. Flos laughed.
“Gazi, Gazi. I may be a poor ruler compared to Fetohep, at least when it comes to turning my kingdom into one of riches. I fully acknowledge it! In diplomacy, experience—perhaps many ways, Fetohep may exceed my talents. He has guided Khelt as well as any of their eternal rulers, after all. However, I believe I overtake him in a few areas.”
“Your ability to eat and drink?”
Flos snorted and nearly sprayed a mouthful of water out as he took a sip. He laughed, coughing.
“That at least! And war! But no—I mean in one other way. I do know my subjects. I have something of an eye for people, or so I like to think. Trey is a poor diplomat. But that is not why I sent him.”
Flos smiled. He looked sideways, down at Gazi. She resisted the urge to look at him with all four eyes.
“Why, because you have somehow taken him as a pupil, Gazi. You, the terror of my Seven, famously aloof, even more so than Amerys and Drevish. And he worries about you when you do something as simple as jumping out a window. He is a poor diplomat, yes. But he is kind. He listens. And I think—”
He broke off. The King of Destruction had seen the trail of dust at last. He called out and urged his mount forwards. Gazi rode with him. Across Khelt’s borders, the undead soldiers of Khelt rose, forming a double line in the sand. They knelt. And Fetohep of Khelt rode through them.
He was not alone. The Quarass and Trey rode in the plain carriage behind him, while the white-faced man of Germina followed Fetohep. In his carriage, Trey was nervously chattering to Fetohep as the [King] rode alongside them.
“No, you see, your Majesty, it’s actually based on a series of books. And this is a modern adaptation. In the original series, Sherlock doesn’t have any technology like uh, well, anything you see in the modern version. However, the basic story’s the same…”
He broke off as he saw the King of Destruction ahead of them. Fetohep raised one hand, and he looked up. His tone darkened. The Quarass looked up, waiting. It was time.
“We shall continue the conversation if time permits. Driver, hold back.”
The carriage slowed. Across from him, Flos spoke.
“Hold back. Gazi, with me.”
The King of Destruction raised a hand and his forces stayed back, arraying themselves nervously at his back. Only Gazi followed Flos forwards, and then, she stopped at a remove. The carriage slowed. Fetohep and Flos rode towards each other. Slowly. Staring at each other.
One a living man, the King of Destruction. Another a corpse still preserved by magic, golden flames burning. The Eternal King of Khelt. Their horses slowed further. Flos’ stallion shook its head uneasily; Fetohep’s mount was skeletal. They drew even closer, Flos soothing his horse. And then they stared at each other.
“Fetohep. You look much the same as I recall. Your corpses are strewn across my border. Need you threaten Reim with your every petty demand?”
“Boy. Your manners have not changed since your youth.”
Fetohep’s eyes flashed. Flos smiled archly at him.
“Does sending an army across my lands count as polite conversation, then, oh Eternal King of Khelt?”
“It behooves one to reply to a message sent. King of Reim.”
“I believe my silence was enough. I will not be threatened.”
“Indeed? Then cross my borders, Flos Reimarch. Khelt is death to any who threaten it. I have not forgotten your last war of conquest. I demand assurances your second folly will not endanger my people.”
Flos pursed his lips, looking vexed.
“I took four thousand of your people, Fetohep. All of whom volunteered!”
“They were mine.”
The golden gaze flared. Behind him, Khelt’s undead shifted. Flos narrowed his eyes. Abruptly, he looked away. Fetohep shifted his gaze past Flos’ shoulder. It was easier that way.
“I wish to try again, Fetohep. I want to see a new world. To see what I cannot imagine. And to show my people that future we fought for. I will not give up so easily a second time.”
“And how will I know those are not empty words?”
“You will have to trust me.”
Laughter. It echoed from all the bodies behind Fetohep. Flos smiled too.
“Do you truly believe you could hold against my [Army of the King]? It would be my doom. But Khelt would fall with Reim.”
The laughter cut off with a snarl. Fetohep turned his head, glaring.
“Khelt will not be your subjects a second time, boy. You will assure me of this or your dream will end here.”
“And what assurity does Reim have that Khelt will not one day invade? Be reasonable, Fetohep! Offer me some compromise! Or have you only threats, oh, wise and diplomatic ruler?”
Flos spread his arms. The statement confounded Fetohep for a moment. He snapped back, beyond irate.
“What could Reim possibly possess that Khelt does not?”
For answer, Flos cupped his hands to his face.
From behind his ranks, Teres rode forwards, white-faced with nerves. Fetohep stared at her, then turned his head towards the carriage and saw Trey’s face. The resemblance was obvious. Flos laughed as he patted Teres’ shoulder.
“Teres, this is Fetohep. Fetohep, Teres is the twin sister of Trey. You know they are from another world? I have two. How many do you have?”
The undead [King]’s eyes narrowed to pinpoints. Flos let Gazi silently usher Teres back. Now the two of them sat. At last, Flos spoke.
“It is a fascinating world, isn’t it?”
“For different reasons, we agree on that at least. But you have no notion of where it lies or how these children come here.”
“Someone has created a connection. I will find it. And is it not a fair dream, to rebuild my kingdom? My people lie scattered, Fetohep. They trusted me and I abandoned them.”
There was an odd sympathy in Fetohep’s gaze, mixed with contempt. Flos held it.
“Khelt is forever, Fetohep. You will have centuries and millennia to rule it. Will you not walk with me until my end? We need not be friends. But we are fellow rulers. War will break both Khelt and Reim. You are a diplomat, King Fetohep. Offer me something of worth for my vow instead of threats. Or do you fear other nations so?”
It stung him. Fetohep recoiled and then hesitated. Long he sat there, weighing. Choosing. At last, he spoke, his back straight, his gaze unbreakable.
“If they would try Khelt, let them. Khelt kneels when it must. But it does not forget its pride. Let Nerrhavia Fallen send an army ten times the size of the one that broke Tiqr. They will never take Khelt. Nor will you, King of Destruction.”
“You will have my vow. But only if Khelt and Reim are neighbors. Not hostage’s to each other’s will.”
Flos held the dead gaze. Fetohep paused. Gazi held her breath. In her carriage, the Quarass stared at his back, waiting. And Trey looked at a picture on his phone.
“Khelt’s fields will feed your subjects, Flos of Reim. Thirty thousand bushels per month for eight years. In exchange for your oath in blood to never take arms against Khelt.”
Gazi blinked. All four eyes focused on Fetohep for a moment. The Quarass exhaled in a rush and sat back. Flos’ eyes widened slightly, but the next moment he was smiling and laughing.
“To begin with, certainly! Although thirty thousand is a small number given Khelt’s bountiful fields. We shall negotiate the matter, perhaps for some other small concessions—?”
“Be silent. Appreciate your small victories, boy.”
Fetohep snapped. Flos stopped, but he was still smiling. The Eternal King leaned on his horse’s skeletal back, peeved.
“I shall watch you. And your oath I still demand. Signed in blood. The Quarass shall negotiate the terms. She at least has some grace. And your servant shall attend to me for another week.”
“Done! Although it may not be a full week; I have need of Trey in my kingdom. But I shall arrange his visit. And Teres as well if you so desire. Although she is much like me!”
Flos laughed. Fetohep stared at Teres and she flinched. He shook his head.
“Of such thoughts nightmares trouble even the undead. Begone from my border, Flos of Reim. I tire of your face.”
He rode backwards as Flos, laughing, rode back to Teres and Gazi. Fetohep stopped by the carriage. The Quarass nodded to him, relieved, and he nodded back. He looked at the young man in the carriage. And he smiled.
A fun trivia fact. The first royal selfie in this world was of a young man from London smiling next to an undead ruler whose eyes burned gold.
“Come, Trey Atwood. Let us speak about…bandages.”