8.08 J

(Flowers of Esthelm, Book 3 of The Wandering Inn is coming out on audible! Click the link here to preorder it! Spread the word!)

 

It was still war. It was always war. And now—in the thick of the third war in as many months, they were beginning to remember.

King of Destruction.

He had lost a battle versus the House of Minos, and stalled in his Jecrass-Belchan offensive, even if Belchan was functionally no more.

Yes, every nation within two hundred miles had declared war. Yes, all of Reim and the King of Destruction’s empire were now embattled, from the newly-held Belchan regions to Reim itself, under threat from Nerrhavia’s hordes.

And still, the King of Destruction fought. War was endemic to his kingdom. And he thrived on it.

History taught lessons. And the [Historians] warned—it was repeating itself. Not in the same ways; the young [King] Flos Reimarch had never fought so widely at first. His had been a slow progression.

But the adult [King] had the Skills to at least force this war to drag out.

Nerrhavia was the first to realize the error in assuming his single defeat had spelled the end. They had invaded, practically overrunning the border with three hundred thousand foot and countless chariots led by the Silk caste.

They had then slowed their advance as Reim’s capital unleashed the thunderbolt defenses installed by Drevish. Similarly—the King of Destruction was pulling back his armies. He left Orthenon in the north, divided his command between Zamea, the Rustängmarder, Mars—

Gazi the Omniscient was noticeably absent, but everyone knew she would be slaying [Spies] and [Infiltrators] behind the scenes rather than leading from the front. And even the ‘lesser’ vassals like Venith and Maresar Crusland were a fearsome duo capable of stalemating a [General] or even routing an army of equal size with their battle experience and levels.

However, Reim was on the defensive. However, however?

His enemies ran out of time.

 

—-

 

At a pitched battle between Nerrhavia’s great hammer, they finally unleashed their true might in an effort to rout an army led by Venith and Maresar, which had struck and retreated time and time again to the aegis of the capital. The rapid speed of their movements had stymied even Nerrhavia’s infamous war chariots.

No more! Nerrhavia’s Queen Yisame brought forth one of Nerrhavia’s great assets she had not even used against Tiqr.

[Summoners]. The Will of Yisame was not a formal Unit; it was renamed after each ruler, but it was the kind of army only Nerrhavia could field.

Ten thousand [Summoners] of the Stitch-Folk, each who conjured warriors ranging from Silver-rank to even Gold-rank. Expendable warriors who could appear, fight, and die, along with [Sand Mages] who raised gigantic Sand Golems.

Countless chariots cut left and right, cutting off the [Bandit Lord], Maresar, who could normally pull back the army from such an attack. Venith Crusland fought in the vanguard, refusing to yield as countless foot soldiers of the Hemp-caste moved in, trying to drown Reim’s forces by the sheer press of bodies, fearless of blades.

It seemed even Reim’s forces would waver and break when he appeared. From the north, the King of Destruction raced into battle with less than two thousand [Riders], having come all the way from Jecrass, knowing Nerrhavia would be the greatest foe at this moment.

His arrival brought morale to Reim’s forces, but surely he would have been barely able to make a dent—let alone reach the encircled army. That was when the King of Destruction bellowed his Skill.

[Army of the King]!

Nerrhavia, and the combined nations had been too slow. A month had passed since the King of Duels’ fall, the House of Minos’ defeat. No—even less than a month. They had fallen into the trap of Reim’s forces; on the defense, they had stalled for time.

The King of Destruction had regained his most dangerous Skill. Flos Reimarch charged the enemy [General]’s position as Venith Crusland and Maresar ordered their forces to follow suit, heedless of tactics.

It was hard to say whose morale broke first; the army or General Val-Nerein. Both broke and fled within minutes, fleeing the battlefield in every direction or just surrendering rather than face the King of Destruction’s army.

This was all caught live on television, of course. The sight of Nerrhavia’s grand army breaking and running was a humiliation compounded by the fact that the King of Destruction had not, in fact, used his Skill.

How did everyone know this? Well, the King of Destruction gave an interview after the battle, with countless prisoners being marched to be ransomed or sold off.

“General Val-Nerein nearly had our forces dead to rights! But it seems his backbone should have been stitched of sterner stuff. Hah! Venith, that was quite a neat turn of phrase. If I can bluff a victory just by shouting, Nerrhavia should fall within the week.”

Never let it be said that Flos Reimarch was a gracious and humble victor.

Humiliated and furious, Queen Yisame ordered the [General]’s execution and reformed a second army of equal size. This time, she warily split it into multiple forces who assaulted Reim from multiple angles.

But the [Army of the King] had been used and the teleporting cat was out of the bag, so to speak. It could go back in, but would it?

No. The King of Destruction used the power in a protracted engagement between Medain and Orthenon’s forces. The King of Medain, the High King Perric, had forged a massive retaliatory force after his flight to his capital. However, the Skill manifested as his [Soldiers] and the Steward’s were fully engaged, with the King of Destruction far, far to the south.

The outnumbered [Soldiers] underwent a transformation on the battlefield. Medain’s army, first bewildered, then alarmed as they realized what was happening, saw some [Soldiers] grow in size. Others dropped their weapons and drew spectral or shining blades out of the air.

Broken armor mended and reformed itself in a minute. The [Steward] and his personal vanguard themselves were said to have howled like the Demons of Rhir as they broke the lines of Gold-rank adventurers. Like Nerrhavia’s host, Medain’s army broke within less than twenty minutes of fighting, but less than a quarter escaped without surrendering or being slaughtered.

A second incredible defeat in the north. At this point, armies from the Claiven Earth, Medain, Nerrhavia, and even further-flung nations such as Deimos and Lamult pushed in, seeking to gain ground before the Skill could be used again.

Of course, that was when the forgotten vassal of the King of Destruction, one of his Seven, Takhatres, Lord of the Skies and his tribe, appeared.

 

—-

 

Destruction from the skies. To an observer, and those watching from the scrying orb, it was an unnerving sight.

The skies turned dark, a rarity in Chandrar where clouds and rainfall were common only to the coast. From above came terrible shrieks. Nerrhavia’s [Soldiers] threw up their shields and raised their bows.

That was when the rocks started falling. Rocks, arrows, shot from archers far out of range of mundane arrows, and clay pots filled with oil or alchemical explosives. Nerrhavia’s bunched-up forces began to spread apart as the sudden attack rained down on them.

Above, the Garuda flew in a huge, circling swarm. They did not land. Nor did they even flap their wings much; they were hovering on hot air.

Thermals. [Mages] were casting weather spells and allowing the tribe of Takhatres to just…hover…high out of range and unload all their ammunition.

The Lekrei Tribe did not fight fair. Most Garuda didn’t; they had light bones and preferred fast attacks and retreats rather than sticking and fighting like the Stitchfolk who could make themselves tougher.

Even so. High-level [Archers] would happily blow the Garuda to bits with lightning arrows, or [Mages] do the same—or create wind, rain, bringing the Garuda down or forcing them to retreat. In a normal battle versus a Garuda tribe, that was what they’d do and they tried, to their credit.

[Mages] lifted wands and died. A [Strategist] surrounded by bodyguards dropped with a knife in her cheek; not enough to kill her, but certainly to unnerve and incapacitate. Something blurred past [Archers], cutting through one of their groups and beheading the [Archery Captain] before moving out.

The Lord of the Skies, the fastest warrior in all of Chandrar, or so it was said. While his tribe attacked from afar, his best warriors diving occasionally to wipe out separated groups, he ran in and out of the enemy army, beheading high-level combatants.

It was honestly like…bullying. Like a grown up running around children, cutting them to pieces. Takhatres moved in a different world than everyone else. Yes—he probably had a fragile body and might be wounded or even killed if an enchanted sword struck him.

But they would have to touch him first. And he was faster than horses, faster than arrows. His great Skill allowed his tribe to move as fast as he did—for five seconds.

They took no prisoners, just decimated the army and vanished. Now, Nerrhavia’s advance slowed.

Much like Ailendamus suffering the Griffin Prince’s ambushes, they had to be wary of a mobile force. And unlike the Dawn Concordat, Takhatres’ army was arguably the strongest and most complete of all that Flos Reimarch had fielded thus far.

Unfair. Unfair, unfair, unfair. You could say it and it was true. Flos Reimarch wasn’t starting from scratch. He was starting with his great vassals, the remnants of his Seven, who could not be matched easily!

Consider the following: in between fighting the Claiven Earth and holding back superior forces with a far smaller army, Mars the Vanguard forced the half-Elves to be wary.

When Belchan’s shattered armies arose and several border cities were taken, Mars the Vanguard retaliated by sieging one city, climbing the walls while ignoring the spell-defenses, and cutting through the garrison for two hours before retreating. Orthenon performed similar feats; one of the King’s Seven was an army.

As Aaron Vanwell commented to some of the other Earthers watching in Wistram, ‘it was like Flos was playing on New Game+’, a statement that confused the [Mages] to no end.

If he had a weakness, it was that he would bleed out of [Soldiers], not lose a decisive battle. The King of Destruction was being forced to stretch perilously thin.

Even so. Unfair. Not everyone had such gifts. Some people had lost…everything. And now nations teetered as the King of Destruction fought on.

That was what he did.

 

—-

 

Weeks ago.

Jecaina Leysars watched the first news reports dully. She was feverish, sick, bedridden.

…King Raelt of Jecrass, dubbed the King of Duels, is confirmed to be missing after the monumental battle involving…

She lay in her bed, pale-faced despite all of the attention lavished on her. [Servants] who would cook or fetch anything, potions—the River Wardens sent their personal [Healers], but their diagnosis was the same.

“Shock. It’s no wound we can heal. The [Princess]…the [Queen] is in shock. She must rest and recover.”

And why shouldn’t she be? Jecaina was feverish the first day, then the second, raving, sick to the point of nausea, plagued by nightmares, waking and in her sleep.

She had lost everything. Her father. Her guardian, the old, loyal Geril, who had sacrificed himself that she might escape.

Jecrass’ armies had been decimated. A third of their land was gone, taken by Reim in the conflict. And they were now at war with Medain and Reim. Their old ally of Belchan was no more.

Oh—and countless River Wardens were dead, and her father was a captive of Medain’s High King.

Jecaina knew all this and knew it was her fault. If she had not been captured by those Gold-ranks—if she had been stronger, wiser—

Her fault. She could not eat, or properly sleep, and the servants whispered and tried to cool the room, even as they piled sheets on her because she was shivering nonstop.

For two days, Jecaina wished she had died and her father were here. And that Geril was alive. She wept and listened to the news reports; Flos retreating, Nerrhavia announcing it would take Reim within the week—

On the third day, the River Wardens came to her.

 

—-

 

“Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass.”

A voice spoke. Not unkindly. Jecaina was sweating under the sheets. The room was darkened, but now someone raised the blinds. Light spilled in and she tried to hide under her pillow.

“Close the shutters! Leave me be!”

But then she realized. It was not servants who stood around her.

Eighteen River Wardens had entered her bedroom. Not all that remained, but the greatest of those that did. She knew some of them.

Warden Mulre, Warden Svinta, Warden Elaire—familiar people, few of whom she had ever really liked. Her father had had personal gripes with many, and often complained to her of their flaws and foibles in private.

But there were gaps in their number. So many dead. Warden Winta, Warden Telimt, Warden Dulfe—

Casualties of this war. Some dying heroically, to save Raelt. To save her.

“What—what do you want?”

Jecaina croaked through a dry throat and lips. She saw the River Wardens look at her, flushed, shaking, tears staining her face, eyes red. They looked at each other, and nodded.

Then they knelt.

“Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. King Raelt is missing. Perhaps captured. Perhaps dead.”

She flinched at the word as Warden Mulre, a man with a long scar horizontally crossing to his nose across his cheekbone, spoke. He went on, looking up at her with the others.

“Medain and Reim’s armies march on us! But Jecrass still stands. It needs a leader. It needs you, my [Queen].”

He looked at her. And Jecaina felt a terrible fear take hold of her. She tried to speak, but choked. Yet there it was. Even as she stammered, protested, they knelt. They wanted to crown her; a ceremony was held within the hour and a shaking [Princess], who looked like she was dying of the ague, saw the crown placed on her head—a backup. She stood in front of a balcony and [Soldiers], [Servants], and the people of the capital, who did not really cheer, but stared up at her with a horror like hers.

She would have denied it. But even before the crown had touched her head, as she blanked out, head lolling in the chair as [Servants] tried to apply makeup, she had heard it.

 

[Duelist Princess Level 26!]

[Conditions Met: Duelist Princess → Queen (Temporary) Class!]

[Skill – Kingdom: Desperate Rallying obtained!]

 

—-

 

A [Queen]. She was a Queen, now. And they called her ‘Queen Jecaina’, even though her father was alive.

Not dead! Not dead—Jecaina believed that with all her heart.

But a kingdom needed a ruler. And if the [King] was missing, she was [Queen]. There could be temporary regents if she was not of age—but she was. If Raelt was ruling from prison—but no one had heard from him.

A [Princess] could not stay a [Princess] when no one sat on the throne. She became a [Queen], or what was she?

Jecaina had not known there could be temporary classes. But she assumed that if her father abdicated…or was discovered dead…or perished…

She would become [Queen] in truth.

She did not want that. She did not want the class. After she had been crowned and then stood at the balcony and read a speech one of the River Wardens had written, Jecaina burst into tears in her room.

That was embarrassing. She hadn’t cried since she was too young to hold a rapier—not like this, at least. But it was too much.

She knew the River Wardens had crowned her to say Jecrass wasn’t anarchy. As they filed into the throne room and she sat on the throne, feeling how uncomfortable it was, how alien the position, how heavy the crown, she expected them to say how it was going to be.

They were going to seize power, after all. The nobility did that sometimes, and Jecaina didn’t know what to do. She waited.

They knelt. Jecaina hesitated. Either they were doing a good job acting or…

…Or, she realized, as they raised their heads and she saw the desperation in their eyes, they were as lost as her. Or they had crowned her because they didn’t want power. Not now. Perhaps they might have seized it last year, before the King of Jecrass had shown them he was King of Duels—before the King of Destruction and Medain invaded.

Now?

“My Queen, what is your will?”

Jecaina threw up in her mouth. The River Wardens waited; she tasted bile and looked around. She held her mouth shut as Warden Mulre, their spokesperson, stared up at her.

“My Queen?”

Jecaina looked around for somewhere to spit it out—but she couldn’t tell them to turn their heads. The River Wardens saw her gulp—and then speak. The first decree of Jecaina Leysars’ rule was a muttered voice.

“…I need a cup of water. And an orange.”

The River Wardens hesitated. After a second, one of the [Servants] dashed out of the throne room and returned a few painful minutes later with water from the well and an orange from the gardens.

Jecaina loved oranges. She reached for it, but the [Servant] peeled it as the water was presented on a little cushion.

It was painful, as the intervening time waiting had been her and the River Wardens not-quite-staring at each other in dead silence. Jecaina’s throat worked as she gulped the water and then bit into the pieces of the orange—her first real meal in three days.

Thus began her enlightened rule. All hail her highness.

Huzzah.

 

—-

 

The first four hours of her rule later, Jecaina put her head down on the war council’s table and tried not to cry. Again. Was she going to become a weeping [Princess]—no—[Queen], the kind she’d always despised?

But this was dire. Even if it hadn’t been her—she had seen how this war had wrung her father dry. And he had been a [King]. Fun fact?

They were not in a better place. Far from it. The desperate attempt to rescue her had cost more lives. And a [King] whose Skills had prevented Reim from stomping all over Jecrass. Now, Medain had him, Jecaina was installed…

The River Wardens had eventually realized she was paralyzed and begun offering…suggestions. Cautious ones, such as, ‘would your Majesty care to make a proclamation and have it sent across the nation’? ‘Should we move to the war council to discuss this very serious, very bad situation we’re in?

She hadn’t second-guessed any of it. Four hours had seen them showing her Jecrass’ depleted armies, [Messages] from General Lael and other River Wardens on the front, and spreading out forces from the capital to them.

Thank goodness Lael was alive. If she’d been dead—the River Wardens and Jecaina essentially did as the [General] requested. Then they had asked her what her plan was.

She’d looked at them in silence—until she realized she had to say something. So Jecaina had taken a shaking breath and spoken.

“My father is alive.”

The River Wardens stirred. Jecaina removed her crown and stared at it. It wasn’t even real gold, she realized. Just painted iron or something. The real crown was on Raelt’s head—or had been. She shuddered.

“He is alive. King Perric has him or…he is alive, and so Jecrass will have him back at whatever the cost. I don’t know how—but we will do that.”

“Does that mean submitting to King Perric’s will, Pr—my Queen?”

Warden Mulre had a flinty look in his eyes. Jecaina hesitated. Her fist clenched involuntarily.

“Not if I can help it. He kidnapped me and because of him—I would rather surrender to Reim than Medain! At least the King of Destruction does not stab his allies in the back!”

She had meant that personally. But the River Wardens had shot to their feet and applauded. Jecaina had been stunned, but they had bowed, swore fealty again, and left the room.

Now, she wondered what the hell she was going to do.

It was then that the door opened.

“Queen Jecaina? Your Highness? Might I…have a word?”

A familiar voice. Jecaina looked up and saw him standing there. Like her, he was worn. Wan, thinner—but Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan stood there.

“Lyfelt?”

He tried to smile. Jecaina pushed her chair back—but nearly fell over as she attempted to rise. He walked over, looking worried.

“You’re as pale as a Wight. Have you eaten? I saw you at the coronation, but when I asked the [Servants], they didn’t mention that.”

“No—no. I haven’t. Lyfelt? How are you…?”

It was all a blur. Lyfelt looked around, then called to the door.

“Someone fetch her highness a nourishing meal! And more water! Sit, Jecaina, my dear. Sit…”

Soon, Jecaina was blinking at one of her favorite meals, Estreke Almeat, the nomad’s hot, shredded meats with some cheese and butter sauce on top.

She ate, mechanically at first as Lyfelt urged her to, and then so fast she was nearly sick. She barely tasted the food and burned her tongue as she gulped it down and ate.

The world…resolved itself into more clarity as starvation ended and she began to process everything. She looked left to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. He was still there.

“Lyfelt? How are you…?”

He spread his hands on the table.

“I’ve been a political prisoner—more like a political refugee, really, thanks to your father—since the war began in earnest. He gave me sanctuary; I was in hiding for my safety in case the King of Destruction deployed Gazi the Omniscient…but I had to see you once I heard the news. I am so sorry, my dear.”

He almost reached out, but caught himself.

“Queen Jecaina, that is.”

“Don’t call me that. You knew me since I was a girl. You were…”

Jecaina blinked at Lyfelt. It was so good to see someone who was friendly, that she knew personally. At the same time…

He was the reason Flos had gone to war. Jecaina warred with two feelings and put one aside. Geril was dead. And he and her father were the first people she would have turned to. Without them…

“It was my fault, Lyfelt.”

She looked down at the empty plate. A servant put another one in front of her. Lyfelt shook his head.

“Don’t say that. It was High King Perric’s doing. That shady rat—he was always conniving, but this? If it wasn’t for the King of Destruction, all of Chandrar would be declaring war on him. He’s clever…but we’ll get your father back, don’t you worry. Even Perric isn’t stupid enough to execute a [King].”

That was Lyfelt for you. Even when insulting someone, he used their title. Raelt and Lyfelt had been old friends. Jecaina had thought little of it except that she liked to visit Belchan and had thought Lyfelt much more ‘fun’ than her father, if far less good with a sword—not at all, really.

But she had heard Raelt sometimes remark that Lyfelt could teach the Nagas something about cold-blood—that was when they argued. And she had seen…

“So you’re here to check on me? Help?”

Lyfelt smiled with genuine warmth as he rested his hands on the table. That was a [Prime Minister] for you—she supposed he might have his class if Belchan still existed, but even if not—he was the most charming man she had ever known. But she had grown up knowing him.

“My dear, oops, your Highness, again—”

He paused a second. This time, Jecaina didn’t correct him.

“—I thought you’d be lost, coming into the crown. Your father was, although he found his peace—but there wasn’t a war going on. The River Wardens thrust you into the crown because they had no idea what to do. Otherwise, they’d fight like pack rats over it.”

True enough. Jecaina nodded.

“They knelt to me. I thought they’d do just that. But they just asked me what to do.”

“Really? What did they say? They crowned you, met in the throne room—I anticipated that, then…?”

“We came here and talked about the war.”

Jecaina recounted the last few hours to Lyfelt. He nodded, drumming his fingers on the table.

“Sensible moves. They’re worried. Your father must have inspired them or they realize the real threat if they’re not trying to seize power. They might, in time. If they think Jecrass is doomed, they’ll surrender to whoever is most advantageous and try to keep their power.”

He spoke earnestly and quickly. Jecaina listened. Lyfelt went on.

“And you inspired them, another good move. You have your father’s gift.”

“I did? How?”

“Your proclamation to deny Medain, of course! That was what they wanted. It’s a nebulous goal, getting Raelt back, but it’s the kind of thing a ruler must do. Tomorrow, you should preempt them. Keep ahead of them so they start to follow. They’ll second-guess you if you let them think. So don’t.”

She blinked at him. Lyfelt had gotten up to pace, a habit of his. Her father had once joked, exceptionally privately, that he thought that was the only reason Lyfelt wasn’t pudgy. That, and his love of swimming in the pool at the capital.

She nodded to his suggestions too. That was smart. Lyfelt turned to her.

“You’ll want to talk to the servants, General Lael—all the people around you and in high positions. The city’s ruling body too, the Watch Captain—they know you. Now, they need to see their Queen. Figure out a schedule and get them to follow it. Everything from when you want breakfast to how they should contact you when an emergency arises.”

“Why? They know all that, surely.”

He waved a hand; he still had his rings of office on.

“You can use your father’s methods, Jecaina. But they need to know the system again. Your arrival has caused uncertainty. It’s time to do it your way. For instance—did you notice the throne doesn’t have a cushion?”

She blinked. She hadn’t, but come to think of it…Lyfelt grinned.

“It was no doubt hard as a rock. I pity you, sitting for hours on it! Raelt always complained, so he had a cushion placed there; it’s supposed to be put there and removed when he leaves so people might not notice, especially if they walk into the throne room without him there. He always talked about getting a really nice one—enchanted to be invisible! I was going to get one for his 40th birthday…”

Jecaina smiled despite herself. That was exactly like her father. She dipped her head.

“Thank you, Lyfelt.”

And she saw the white Gnoll in her mind’s eye. The dead tribe, the King of Destruction’s wrath as he made the villagers kneel and lifted the sword.

It was gone in a flash. But she had been horrified when she saw that. She had never doubted that Flos Reimarch’s wrath was justified. And Lyfelt had known—or he had not stopped—

His smile turned waxy. The man put his fingers together and twiddled them, then opened his arms.

“Jecaina, I know I’ve done some…terrible things. Believe me, I didn’t know it would lead to this. I made mistakes—didn’t check on things, lowered my guard. The Gnolls crossing Belchan…I never would have allowed villages to attack them. I truly didn’t know. But I want to make it up. I’m a [Prime Minister]—former, actually. I lost my class. But I have all the knowledge of how to run a country. Let me help.”

Jecaina blinked at him. And she thought a few things in a sudden flash.

Firstly, he’d just read her feelings towards him. She knew it was a Skill of his. If someone, people, had auras—Lyfelt could read emotions with his very eyes. He’d done it for her as a child, to delight, and impress her when he could tell when she was lying.

Secondly? He was trying to get her to appoint him into a position of power. Jecaina was not a fool. She might have been shell-shocked and grieving, but she felt Geril’s presence. The old [Retainer] would be grimacing right behind Lyfelt and then smiling serenely.

Thirdly? How dare he? An entire tribe had been slaughtered because he had told Raelt that the King of Destruction’s refugees were a trifling concern—that it was even fine to let them suffer duress!

Her hand twitched towards her rapier. But it wasn’t there. And—

Suddenly, her blood was pumping. Suddenly, Jecaina knew what had to be done. She mastered herself. She smiled—and threw up an aura.

She wasn’t good at it. Neither Raelt nor Jecaina had ever been aura-wielding masters, even innately, as Flos Reimarch was said to be able to kneel people with a single word.

But no proper ruler was taught without lessons in fighting [Charm] Skills or similar effects. Jecaina couldn’t project—her father had gotten a Skill which had begun to enhance his aura, but she knew the basics. Any person in the world could at least learn to…and a [Princess], a [Queen]…

Lyfelt hesitated as Jecaina exhaled slowly. She knew she had just gone blank to his emotion-reading Skills. Or she hoped she had. Similarly…she felt more goodwill towards him, nostalgia for the past, oozing out of her feet.

He’d been charming her already! Jecaina was furious. But she smiled.

“I feel like I’m already becoming a…[Queen], thanks to you, Lyfelt. And I do need help. Thank you. Can I count on you to help me? Tell me—discreetly—if I make a mistake, or about how to do…everything?”

The former [Prime Minister] hesitated, eyes searching her quickly, then beamed.

“I consider it a point of honor, Jecaina.”

I bet you do. She hadn’t missed how he was now calling her Jecaina.

The [Duelist Princess] had never liked or wanted to rule. She had flirted with her lessons, happily gallivanted around. But the war and watching her father had given her some maturity. More than that? Well—Lyfelt had made two mistakes.

The first was thinking she was overwhelmed and helpless. The second was in forgetting that she knew him. Skills that worked on emotion didn’t work the more you applied them. So, Jecaina was frightened and upset and grieving.

But she smiled and asked Lyfelt to help her. That was her first real move as [Queen]. Checkmate.

Actually, Jecaina didn’t play chess. But she had once ‘beaten’ her father by flipping the board. And she was pretty sure that might work on Lyfelt.

 

—-

 

Being a [Queen] was something that involved so many things no one told you about. Because a monarch could rely on vassals or helpers, yes.

But when things went south, or you needed to replace, hire, or train them? You had to at least know what was missing.

Jecaina was already glad on the second day that she hadn’t stabbed Lyfelt. She announced him as her advisor, much to the River Warden’s skepticism and dismay. They had not forgotten either.

However, Lyfelt was similarly dismayed that she had not made him [Steward], or [Administrator], or a dozen other classes she had fielded.

“But Lyfelt—I think of you as Belchan’s [Prime Minister]. And I fully intend to restore you to your lands if possible.”

He had grinned weakly at that.

“I believe my…tenure is over, either way, Jecaina. But let’s put that aside for now, I suppose. You can always announce it tomorrow…about your Skill. It’s not, er, the best. But it fits a temporary class. And it is useful here.”

That was one of the things he helped her with. He knew Skills and had quickly identified the nature of hers. It was obvious from the title, really, but—

“Let’s see. ‘[Desperate Rallying] allows for an embattled group to quickly rush to the aid of forces under siege or attack in fractions of the time taken. The highest-level version of the Skill identified was a Level 60 [General of Defense], General Noln of the Argoth Alliance, who could reach a city-state in hours where the march would normally take over a day at top speed.

He had a book—one of Belchan’s treasures, which, like the Book of Levels, detailed Skills and records. Jecaina nodded.

“I should tell General Lael. That means we can shift Jecrass’ forces from spot to spot—not [Archers] since they’ll still be outside the walls. But we can keep a mounted force with her ready, perhaps.”

“War is not my purview. But that is quite nice. Perhaps we should announce it? To boost morale?”

Jecaina looked at Lyfelt.

“No. That…does not sound strategically advantageous, Lyfelt.”

One of the other things she’d learned was that he was right about leading before people could think. Because the River Wardens and Lyfelt all thought they were right. Sometimes they were; they had experience Jecaina did not. But they always thought they were right. Lyfelt had just shrugged and begun discussing other Skills he hoped Jecaina might get if she leveled quickly.

She had listened, learned, and smiled at him. Then begun making plans of her own. She did not know what to do—but she did know at least what her father might do.

 

—-

 

Warden Mulre, Warden Svinta, and Warden Elaire had all been present at her coronation. They were also the three strongest River Wardens with all the deaths of the others. Jecaina summoned them for a private meeting after Lyfelt had gone to sleep.

She was just…following what he said to do, and the River Wardens, and Lael. Because she didn’t know how to fight a war or run a kingdom!

But she had always known her father relied on the River Warden’s support. It seemed to Jecaina that it was wise to copy that.

Raelt had faced challenges to the throne where River Wardens—led by Dulfe back in those days when he was a dreaded enemy—had tried to force laws helping them or curtailing the crown’s power. They could always rise up, after all, or boycott, or…

He had dealt with it, as a young Jecaina had observed, by playing them off against each other. There were always factions, and the River Wardens had longstanding grudges.

Jecaina had no time to do that. So she took the three greatest River Wardens and bluntly spoke to them.

“Former Prime Minister Lyfelt is advising me, Wardens. He is a knowledgeable man and a skilled diplomat, even if he is no longer a ruler. I accepted his service because I am in dire need and because of the longstanding friendship he had with my family. However, I cannot forget that his neglect led to the slaughter of innocents and…this war.”

She stumbled over the last bit; she’d been writing down speeches as he suggested and practicing them. The River Wardens looked relieved.

“We had serious reservations, Pr—your Majesty, and I am gratified to hear that. Very gratified.”

Mulre murmured. Svinta nodded stiffly. She was tall, a skilled [Rider], and older than the other two; Mulre, despite the scar, was more prone to indulgence, owning fruit orchards and the largest river which made him rich. Elaire raised magical animals, like Pegasi, Bicorns, and even Kelpies.

“Do you intend to hold him to account? The King of Destruction may have been forced to retreat, but his forces still hold part of Jecrass. Not strongly, but if he returns, it is that fool who will have damned Jecrass time and again. Your Majesty.”

Svinta frowned at her. Jecaina folded her arms defensively, then remembered not to show emotion like that—another Lyfelt lesson—and uncrossed them.

“I intend to use him, Warden Svinta, because he is helpful. But that is why I am also appointing the three of you to be my council among the River Wardens. A…check on Lyfelt in case he becomes too powerful. I do this because I hold the three of you—as my father did—in highest esteem.”

They murmured at that. Maybe they were using truth spells and seeing the half-lie about that last part, but Jecaina saw them preen a bit and doubted it.

“We will attempt to be the voice of the River Wardens and the people of Jecrass, your Majesty.”

Elaire bowed smoothly. Jecaina had smiled.

She thought of this in terms of dueling. Ruling, that was. She wished Raelt were here to explain more, or that she could have asked him—but without him, she was using Lyfelt’s lessons against him.

But this was simple. Lyfelt was a blade, a kind of…what, parrying dagger? Not much reach since she could order him arrested, but he had a lot of Skills that allowed him to build influence. You wanted to check that with the River Wardens, who could be a double-edged sword.

Attack and defense. But how was she to attack or defend?

 

—-

 

General Lael bowed so deeply in private that her head touched the rug.

“I failed his Highness, your Majesty. I hope you will accept my word that I did all that I could—and that I will strive for Jecrass in the future, if you allow me.”

The [Queen] waited a moment. She wanted to say…but no. Lael was a good [General]. But under-leveled compared to every foe she’d been fighting. So, she lifted her hand slowly.

Why didn’t you save my father?

“Rise, General Lael. I do not believe my father’s faith in you was misplaced. Nor do I think you will let me down.”

The formal speech still felt odd, but she was already falling into it. Lyfelt had suggested using the royal ‘we’; Jecaina felt it was pretentious.

She was trying to figure out what [Queen] she was. A reluctant one, a temporary one, she hoped.

It was strange. Lael was the woman who’d often had to clean up Jecaina’s antics, or at least, was one of the busy ‘adults’ when the [Princess] had been a [Princess]. Now, relief shone in her eyes.

Did she think I would order her executed? She had known Jecaina for—

Uncertainty ruled Jecrass. And Jecaina realized it that day.

“With your permission, [Princess], I hope you and I can speak of the realm’s defenses.”

“Let’s…can it be done while riding? Or at least, walking?”

Jecaina was sick of the war room and her throne, even with the cushion. She had never gone a day without a ride before now, or a run. She hadn’t even had time to pick up a rapier; there was no one to practice with and besides, little good she’d done.

“Of course, your Majesty. Allow me a moment to prepare an escort.”

Lael barely blinked. Thus—Jecaina learned two things. Firstly, that she would never ride around alone again. Second?

“Your Majesty, are you going for a ride? Considering the state of the nation, is that the safest—”

Lyfelt halted as the [General] looked at him.

“Her Majesty has decreed it. Former Prime Minister. I did not know you were present in the capital.”

“I am serving as advisor to the throne. Your Majesty—”

Jecaina saw Lael turn. The [General] bowed as a group of her best [Soldiers] knelt. They did that, the first time they met her. She inclined her head.

“I am going for a ride, Lyfelt.”

“I shall go w—”

Lael looked at him and Lyfelt hesitated. Jecaina felt refreshed.

General Lael had reminded her that she didn’t have to argue. The River Wardens obeyed, but they and Lyfelt had suggestions. In the presence of the [General], Lyfelt hesitated.

“I will send for you if needed upon my return, Lyfelt.”

Jecaina enjoyed seeing his expression. And soon, she was riding out of the palace.

Another experience she had not been able to achieve the last two days of her new reign.

“Where to, your Majesty?”

“Just ride, Lael. And then—around the city? Down the streets? Not far.”

Jecaina sped up to a gallop. Instantly, the [Riders] followed her. She hated that. But she let them; they were even worried she’d break her neck.

Was this what father had to live with, day in, day out? Jecaina wished she had been more understanding when he didn’t want to duel, or was so gloomy. No wonder he’d started throwing oranges at River Wardens from the balcony. She was half-tempted to do that too.

After her first gallop and sensation of being free, Jecaina slowed. She turned to Lael.

“General, you’re one of the few people I can trust. With my father…missing…and Geril…”

She swallowed hard.

“My father always said you were trustworthy. And I have found few people to trust so far. Please, speak candidly.”

She was uncertain, but the [General] looked relieved at the blunt phrasing.

“Your Majesty, I worried at what I might find upon my return to the capital. I am pleased that all seems well and that the crown’s authority is not questioned. I dared not move my forces or even return until I learned of your new Skill, but I brought three thousand [Riders] with me in case order needed to be maintained.”

Jecaina started. She looked at Lael—then the remaining [Trick Riders], and recalled that Lael had returned with heavy [Bicorn Chargers], [Armored Cavalry]; a vanguard for the [General].

Had she been intending to free Jecaina if it turned out the River Wardens had staged a coup? That just made Jecaina more hopeful she could trust Lael.

By the same token, a whisper in her head that sounded like Lyfelt made her wonder if the [General] might have held onto the reins of power if she had been forced to seize them…

No. No, trust that her father had at least known a loyal woman. Jecaina nodded to Lael.

“Thank you, [General]. I’ve read all your [Messages] and sent all the forces that could be spared. The River Wardens have contributed their forces to the cause, all they can. Candidly…what is the situation?”

They rode through the gates of the city and a cheer startled Jecaina before Lael replied. She looked up—and saw the City Watch on the gates cheering her.

Your Majesty!

Jecrass still stands!

It was a handful of voices, soon silenced. Lael turned to Jecaina.

“Apologies, your Majesty.”

“No, I…”

Jecaina rode through the capital of the Realm of Jecrass. And once again felt odd.

People turned out to see her. They came out of homes, the overcrowded city flooded with refugees or [Soldiers], lining the streets. Some cheered; many just stared, or knelt.

It was the legacy of the King of Duels. Jecaina might have feared they would insult her, throw things, blame her for the war. But the people still remembered how he had fought the King of Destruction twice. So his daughter they bowed to, even though…

We cannot continue. Jecaina saw how packed the city was, and recalled the orders to ration stockpiles of food. Already, this war had drained Jecrass, and that was with auxiliary forces, gold…Lael let her ride through the city, looking at her people. Jecaina had not the courage to dismount and talk with them that day.

Especially not with the great threat of war past the horizon and fast-advancing.

“Candidly, your Majesty. We are in trouble. Jecrass’ army is depleted and while we had been buying ample supplies, munitions, potions—I understand aid from foreign nations is cut off. May I ask the state of the treasury?”

Jecaina didn’t know. That worried her. Lael went on.

“Moreover—the King of Destruction’s forces have retreated from Medain. But I fear they have now regrouped. And Medain is at war.”

“What is to be done, General? What are our odds?”

Jecaina knew the answer before the [General] gave it. Lael bit her lip.

“Candidly, your Majesty, Jecrass alone would have struggled to repel Medain at full-strength. Now, we face a war on two fronts and nigh a third of our lands are embattled. Reim’s forces fell back, but it is essentially a warfront on the western edges. The only thing stopping him from taking the capital is the fact that every nation has declared war on him. Medain may well be wary of him…but not us.”

The [Queen] nodded. That was how it was.

 

—-

 

Lael’s suggestions were simple and to the point. Upon her return, Jecaina ordered more fortifications built at every fortress or city, creating a new line of defenses. Put the [Archers] behind walls, and keep a large, mobile force, the remainder of Jecrass’ army, to rush to a battle.

For now, that was all they could do. What she was mostly concerned with were the gaps in her knowledge.

“The treasury will last Jecrass quite a while, your Majesty. I was going to speak to you about delaying the [Soldiers]’ pay…”

She whirled on Warden Svinta and the others. Lyfelt was jostling for a chance to speak.

“And no one thought to bring up the treasury with me?”

“Your Majesty is in command of us.”

The River Wardens bowed. Lyfelt nodded.

“And any expenditures haven’t been necessary so far, J—my Queen. If you wished to spend money…”

Jecaina was annoyed because the assumption was she would discuss it with them before wasting money. But the truth was that Raelt had not spent the massive sums Yisame and the other nations had gifted him; he’d stockpiled as much as he’d spent.

Gold, more than Jecrass had, ever really had, sat in the treasury or was vouched for with the Merchant’s Guild. Not enough to hire an entire army; more than enough to continue a losing war with.

“Why would we hold the [Soldier]’s pay?”

“It is traditional, your Majesty, to ensure [Soldiers] do not desert if they are in arrears several months.”

Warden Svinta said smoothly. Lyfelt nodded behind her. Jecaina looked at General Lael. The woman grimaced.

“Your Majesty, we have not had large-scale desertions thus far. The army is loyal to Jecrass; this is their homeland. Holding back pay might decrease morale.”

Jecaina nodded.

“I don’t see any reason to hang onto their pay, River Wardens. Lyfelt.”

“But your Majesty—”

“Enough.”

She said it and they fell silent. Maybe because Lael was standing there—but Jecaina felt good. She took a breath.

“Enough. I have made my decision.”

They looked at her. Lyfelt looked peeved, the River Wardens hesitated. But they did bow their heads. Lael nodded at Jecaina and the [Queen] exhaled.

A small victory, enough to make her think she could actually do this.

 

[Queen (Temporary) Level 27!]

 

No Skill that night. But it was already a fast level—faster than Jecaina had in the last six years! That encouraged her too, that what she was doing was right.

The next day, the King of Destruction rode on Jecrass with an army.

 

—-

 

I wish to speak with Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass!

He roared from the head of an army of eighteen thousand. A paltry number compared to what he had been fielding; but General Lael and her entire army—what was left of it—stood ready to meet him.

Around sixty thousand, the rest spread to garrisons. Again, Jecrass had been depleted. Even so, they might turn him back…

But the Steward held Belchan, and Zamea stood with the King of Destruction. The rest of his forces were moving south at speed.

Yet he was here. Jecrass’ army wavered, but the King of Destruction had come under the flag of truce. And he wanted to talk to Jecaina.

“It might be a trap, your Majesty. Allow one of us to negotiate—”

“I don’t suggest speaking with him, Jecaina. The alliance against the King of Destruction is one place where Jecrass can find common ground, perhaps even aid. Compromising that—”

Jecaina ignored both River Wardens and Lyfelt. She rode stiffly across the ground, surrounded by a personal guard six times as large as his forces. Then, the two rulers rode forwards as both sides employed Skills to make sure the other was not treacherous.

In truth, Jecaina would not have done this for anyone but the King of Destruction. She doubted he would try anything; she had grown up listening to tales of his conduct in war. His honor…

She resolved the childhood admiration—even half a year ago—with the man who had slaughtered Jecrass’ people and brought war to her kingdom.

It was bittersweet. Because a part of her still looked up at the man sitting there in his saddle, imposing, regal even without a crown on his head. And she saw a hero out of tales. Part of her longed to believe in that.

The [Queen] dipped her head and received a nod in reply.

“I thank you for meeting me, Queen Jecaina. I understand that is your new title?”

“I was crowned since my father is unable to rule. Until such time as he returns, I am Queen of Jecrass, yes.”

The King of Destruction’s green eyes fixed on Jecaina. He noted her armor, her sword, the tense forces behind her in a heartbeat, and then studied Jecaina. Even sitting on horseback in front of him was hard. It was like trying to face the wind at full-blast with your eyes open. He was pushing Jecaina back without even trying.

“I see. Then, Jecaina, you have my deepest sympathies. I know what it is like to come to the crown too soon. And—if I may speak personally for a moment—I regret High King Perric’s treachery. Rest assured, if I am able to take Medain, I will free your father regardless of where we stand. But that is an unlikely scenario now, especially with that damned [Pirate] haunting the coast.”

Jecaina was taken aback at first by Flos. Especially by his sympathies, which seemed genuine. She swallowed.

“I had forgotten, K—Flos—”

How strange it was to address him so.

“—that you had come to your throne when your father fell.”

“Yes. An age ago. I found myself at war with Hellios as a boy.”

The man’s eyes were distant. He looked at her.

“A word of wisdom, if it is that. Listen, learn; your advisors may know what is best. Some will be treacherous. In time, you will know who to trust. But in the end, remember that you are [Queen]. No one will ever sit above you, and no one must tell you what to do.”

She nodded.

“Thank you, sir. King Reimarch. I have learned that, and will take it to heart.”

He smiled. They sat there, awkwardly. For Jecaina had not wished to like him. But she wanted to ask…

“So much for pleasantries. I cannot stay long; I must ride within the hour. We are at war, Queen Jecaina. Reim and Jecrass. It has been a bitter war, and a glorious one. Your father fought as few [Kings] have ever done. For that, I would salute him. But now, I think, it is enough. I come here to ask you to pledge Jecrass to Reim. Surrender Lyfelt, the high authorities of Belchan, and I will bring battle to Medain and cease the bloodshed.”

He looked at her and delivered his terms. Jecaina blinked—then recoiled.

“You still would make war, King Reimarch? After all this? Is Nerrhavia not marching on your rear at this moment?”

The King of Destruction shrugged.

“They are. You have already noticed my forces dwindle. But I am a [King] and I gave my word to my subjects who were slaughtered in Belchan. I do not forswear myself. Until peace is made—we are at war.

He leaned on his saddle horn and Jecaina and her horse danced back. His eyes were terribly frightening, then.

“I do not wish to kill more of Jecrass’ brave children, Queen Jecaina. Nor do I think your nation can stand against mine. Accept vassalization, as Germina and Hellios have and my armies will battle Medain and free your father! Refuse me, and I will take your capital, if I must.”

Her blood chilled. The border was still a ways from the capital, but if he beat Jecrass here, he might march on the capital; albeit with forces to his rear.

Could he do it with eighteen thousand men? She stared at Zamea as the half-Giant yawned, visible to all behind him, with four of her Nomads of the Sky.

Was she tempted? Part of her. If he had asked her to ride with him, as one of his Seven, to bring High King Perric to justice…

She still would have refused. The Queen looked at the King.

“Did you not just tell me that no one would ever sit above me, Flos of Reim? Do you think Jecrass is weak enough to be pushed into submission?”

Flos raised a hand, smiling ruefully.

“How I like to stab myself in the foot. I did say that—it is how I live. You would still be [Queen]. And I do not make light of Jecrass, Jecaina. But look. Do you really think you can hold both my armies and Medain’s at bay?”

He gestured to the half-Giants, his army. Himself. Jecaina quailed.

Still. Still…it was Jecrass. Her home! Perhaps if he had come with vast armies? Perhaps. But—

“You have spilled too much blood here, Flos Reimarch. I cannot kneel after all you have done. You made war on Belchan, yes. But now Jecrass? I refuse you. Nerrhavia’s armies are creeping up on your ass. Be done with them and take Jecrass if you can!”

She blushed as the rude words burst from her. To her surprise, the King of Destruction threw his head back and laughed. One of the watching bodyguards, a young woman who looked out of place, started, as did Jecrass’ forces.

“I have never heard it put like that! But then—your father was a different ruler. So that is your will? We will meet on the battlefield, Queen of Jecrass. Will you have the same resolve then?”

He looked at her again. Jecaina gritted her teeth so hard she swore one cracked.

“I will.”

He frowned…then exhaled.

“Will you at least turn over Lyfelt and the ministers of Belchan? I would sign a peace treaty for that alone.”

This time Jecaina was very uncertain. She bit her lip. Flos pressed her, riding a step or two closer.

“You know what he has done, Queen Jecaina. Is one man’s pitiful life worth more war? Especially that one’s?”

“I…I…”

 

—-

 

Her second refusal worried Jecaina. She refused to turn Lyfelt over, and the King of Destruction departed. For a tense moment…

But he didn’t have the forces to attack. Lael had suggested that, which was why Jecaina had dared him by refusing. He pulled his army back, riding south. Orthenon and Zamea would hold the north, along with the forces of Parasol Stroll, even the dreaded death-warriors of the Rustängmarder, perhaps. Jecaina didn’t know.

For now, Jecrass was relatively safe from aggression. But the war continued.

Why had she not given him Lyfelt? In truth, Jecaina had dithered. But when his life was in the balance, her father’s friend…she had caved in.

Not to Flos, but to her father. He had not given Lyfelt over at any cost. Did his daughter know better? Was she weaker, to reverse his decision?

She couldn’t do it.

Everyone congratulated her when it was done, even though Jecaina had felt like a leaf before a storm. To her bravery—as if not wetting herself was accomplishment enough.

Jecaina still felt a bit proud of the praise—there was even a banquet where the River Wardens made speeches, promising to defy Reim to the last! She did not level, to her disappointment, that day.

The next? Medain and the High King made their move.

 

—-

 

Raelt Leysars of Jecrass stood, flanked by two of the Golden Ranks of Medain. He wore manacles on his legs and arms—and the crown of Jecrass, the real one.

His clothing was not a prisoner’s ragged cloth, but neither was it regal; just a plain, if slightly expensive tunic and britches.

Jecaina nearly wept when she saw him. Alive! He was alive!

Prisoner.

The broadcast was being covered by Pallass News Network. Drassi, the Drake [Reporter], was leaning in. Raelt was standing on a platform in front of which the jeering citizenry of Medain’s capital were gathered. They were silenced as a [Herald] shouted his name.

Raelt was standing quite far away. Drassi turned to someone off-screen as Jecaina and everyone crowded around the scrying orb to see.

“Why’s he on the platform? Can’t we get up close?”

…[Mages] told to stand…

The Drake listened as Jecaina’s eyes flicked from Raelt to Drassi. The [Reporter] frowned.

“They can’t get close? That’s stupid. Is it that rat-[King]’s fault? Oh sh—er, High King Perric?”

She looked at the camera and smiled innocently. Jecaina wanted to smile at that. But she was staring at her father, and a pit of fear was in her stomach.

Was he going to be executed? The Golden Ranks had weapons. But it didn’t seem…surely…

No, it turned out. The [Herald] bellowed.

“His Majesty, Raelt of Jecrass, has a proclamation for his people of Jecrass, at war with the Glorious Kingdom of Medain! High King Perric has graciously given him the chance to speak to his subjects and urge reconciliation!”

Jecaina started. Reconciliation? Her father? He hated Perric—even before the High King had kidnapped Jecaina! But then she saw Raelt being pushed forwards. He stood there and…spoke.

“My people of Jecrass. This war has gone on long enough. After Jecrass’ defeat and the aggressions of the King of Destruction, I have decided war is no longer in either kingdoms’ favor. I urge my daughter, Princess Jecaina of Jecrass, to make peace with High King Perric…”

Jecaina sat back and stared. For a moment she felt like the world was turning upside down. Then—Lyfelt spoke.

“It’s an illusion.”

Everyone started. The River Wardens, Jecaina—the [Queen] sat up and realized he was right.

Something was off about Raelt’s voice. She hadn’t heard it in nearly a week—but that wasn’t her father. The cadence, pitch, were close, but like voices or faces, you could be so close as to be jarringly off if you knew someone.

That was the case here. Also—her father didn’t speak like this. It was too…polished a speech. He might read a pre-written announcement, but he liked to make it short and snappy. Also, he sometimes paused for a painful period if he was reading something he didn’t like.

This Raelt spoke without breaks. Also? She frowned.

His mouth was moving, and he stood there with the two Golden Ranks…but was it really moving?

“You’re sure?”

River Warden Mulre turned anxiously to Lyfelt. The former [Prime Minister] nodded, eyes fixed on Raelt.

“Someone write down the contents of what he’s saying. And we should make a proclamation to the effect within the hour, your Majesty, Jecaina. But I’m certain. That’s why the scrying [Mages] aren’t allowed any closer.”

Indeed, even Drassi seemed to suspect something was off. She narrowed her eyes as she shuffled her papers together as the announcement concluded and the link was abruptly shut off. Almost as if someone had told the [Mages] to cut the connection now.

“That’s an awfully convenient message from the King of Jecrass to the King of Medain. I understand they hate each other’s guts, but what do I know? Please stop writing in if you’re from Medain, incidentally. I’m allowed to give my opinions! Anyways, that was the ‘speech’…we’ll see what Queen Jecaina says.”

Jecaina sat back, head spinning. The River Wardens, Lyfelt—everyone wanted to talk. A proclamation had to be sent, and General Lael urgently requested a [Message]…

 

—-

 

It rattled Jecrass, to see their [King]. People who didn’t know Raelt half-believed it, even though their enmity towards Medain went back generations. They needed to be told it was fake.

Even Jecaina felt shaken. But in the hours afterwards, she realized a few things when talking to her advisors.

Firstly? This was definitely an illusion—Perric putting words in Raelt’s mouth. Raelt would never just surrender, not like that. Jecaina had no illusions; Flos would have vassalized Jecrass, but maybe let her keep her authority.

High King Perric wanted to make Jecrass into Medain, and he had already stripped two former monarchs of their power, turning them into puppets. He had kidnapped Jecaina—let’s not forget that either! Raelt would never forgive that so easily.

Secondly, and this actually brought her hope—Lyfelt pointed out a few details.

“Did you notice how poorly they copied his voice? A good [Mage] can do far better—but they didn’t. And Medain is not poor. They had to hold him in place, those Golden Ranks.”

“Why was the voice so poor?”

Jecaina asked—then realized before Lyfelt smiled bitterly.

Her father hadn’t said a word. Not one word, even perhaps under torture. That was why they couldn’t steal his voice.

She was proud of that. He was alive. That was enough for hope, to keep her going. What she feared was what he might be suffering or…or that he would not continue to stay alive.

And sure enough, High King Perric sent a personal [Message] to Jecrass hot on the heels of Raelt’s ‘speech’. The terms were simple, but none of the River Wardens would even listen to them. They stormed out of the throne room and Lyfelt read it in private.

Medain wanted Jecrass’ unconditional surrender, after which Raelt of Jecrass would be released as a vassal ruler to High King Perric. The terms added that if Jecaina signed the magical contract with her crown’s authority, he would be in Jecrass within the day.

Her blood boiled at the terms. Lyfelt held her back from sending a reply instantly.

“[Calm Mind], Jecaina. Calm. This is High King Perric’s strategy. He shoots for the skies—I suggest sending back an instant refusal, in polite wording.”

Polite? He told us to roll over and—”

“I know. That man is arrogant, but he has your father. Don’t antagonize him. He has a temper.”

That cooled Jecaina’s head. She let Lyfelt write the reply and went to stab the air with her dueling sword.

True enough, Lyfelt’s reply was followed by a counteroffer within ten minutes. This time, it was more acceptable. If only just.

 

To Princess Jecaina of Jecrass,

His Majesty, Raelt Leysars, is prisoner to our authority at this moment. His safety and health are assured so long upon our honor as High King of Medain, Protectorate of Venom, Guardian of…

 

She skipped down a bit.

 

…Jecrass will continue its war with the King of Destruction and refrain from engaging with Medain’s forces. Pending a signed contract of nonaggression, open borders to allow access of Medain’s armies, and a tribute of…

 

Tribute?

She cried out. Perric’s second demand held short of Jecrass’ entire surrender. But he wanted too much.

Jecrass would effectively have to go to war with Reim, allow Medain to march through its borders, and promise not to attack as well as provide a tribute to Medain—all to ‘assure King Raelt’s health’.

“He’s threatening to torture or execute father if I don’t.”

She turned to Lyfelt. Her blood ran hot and cold, with rage and fear for Raelt’s safety.

Lyfelt was tapping his fingers together rapidly as he thought. The River Wardens—the inner circle of three—were listening intently. They were ready to kill something…but Perric had them.

It was the [Prime Minister] who had the diplomatic suggestion. Jecaina hated it the moment it left his mouth.

“I would suggest crafting a reply from her Majesty. Asking…pleading with the High King to reconsider the terms of the agreement.”

She looked at him.

“Pleading, Lyfelt?”

He both smiled and spread his hands wide.

“Not you, personally, Jecaina. I would be happy to write it myself. But…let’s see. A personal missive, with your signature, informing High King Perric that you cannot agree to the entirety of the terms, but offering some compromise. That’s what he wants. He knows this is onerous, but—”

“Pleading. Me?”

Jecaina’s temper flared. Lyfelt tried to soothe her, but River Warden Svinta was also furious.

“A woman of Jecrass—let alone our ruler—does not beg! Especially to foreign powers who kidnapped her! Is that what you are suggesting, Prime Minister?”

She was halfway to drawing her long dagger on him. Lyfelt backed up quickly.

“River Warden Svinta, Queen Jecaina, consider the diplomacy of it. High King Perric is…predictable.”

Jecaina held herself back from snapping. She made Svinta sit down and Lyfelt explained.

“I know High King Perric. I’ve met the man. He does not think…the world of women. He might—and this is me using my Skill [Take His Perspective] in view…”

His eyes flickered.

“Yes. High King Perric might well assume he can lean on Princess Jecaina. He would believe that the River Wardens have authority, and that he can use Jecrass as a shield against Reim’s aggressions. Is it not worth encouraging that perception?”

“You want me to pretend I’m a child he can bully into doing what he wants.”

Jecaina said through pale lips. Lyfelt waved a finger.

“It’s manipulating him, your Majesty. Jecrass can make sure King Raelt is safe as well as prevent Medain from being overly aggressive. If he thinks you are pliable…”

“You are speaking to the Queen of Jecrass! Is her authority worth nothing, man? Should Jecrass pretend its ruler is a weak-willed woman?”

Warden Mulre leapt to his feet, face-flushed. Jecaina sat there, vibrating with anger, as Lyfelt began to argue. Warden Elaire on the other hand, was quiet.

She voiced her support for Lyfelt and then it was split. Well, not including Jecaina. She did not know what to do. She hated it. But after a night of thinking, she told Lyfelt to craft the [Message]. She was barely able to read it, but she sent it and Medain became…more accommodating.

 

—-

 

Jecaina hated it. And she was conceiving a hatred of Lyfelt the more she and he interacted on a daily basis.

He was like a grassviper. A snake! He was charming and intelligent…but he used his charm and skill at diplomacy to manipulate people.

How had she never seen it? How had Raelt? She let him employ his plan with Medain and it worked.

That was what she hated. High King Perric’s next message was a cross between condescension and superiority. Of course he understood Jecaina was unsure and the River Warden’s objections. He let her know that her father was perfectly safe and would remain so, as long as she was willing to cooperate.

“You see, he has a harem of women, and my interactions with him in brief were quite noticeable. My wife did not care for him at all, and I understand Queen Yisame quite irks him. Which is revealing; he does not see her as his superior, despite Nerrhavia being the power of the region. That is more than just a [King]’s arrogance as well; if you look into his command structure, you find one woman in twenty. And of those—many have relationships with their superiors or himself in the case of the [Generals]. The nation follows the crown.”

Lyfelt taught Jecaina and she listened. He had things to show her, but…

“Where is your wife? Your children? Are they safe? I hadn’t asked after them. Nomna? Er…”

Jecaina forgot the kids’ names; they were far younger than she. Lyfelt hesitated. He hadn’t brought them up.

“Quite well, Jecaina. They’re under protection. I left, but Nomna stayed with the children; dangerous to be about.”

He never left the palace, and Jecaina knew he was not well-liked. She nodded and left it at that.

Well, that now meant that Medain and Reim were accounted for. Lyfelt handled the communications while only needing Jecaina’s signature—and she told him to start forging that. She wanted nothing to do with the begging, fawning appeals to Perric’s masculine authority he was increasingly crafting with more flourishes.

By the same token—the River Wardens were now taking a hand in the realm’s defense.

 

—-

 

“It is time to revitalize the army, your Majesty. To that end—I hope you will see fit to allow us to begin training replacements for our most vital forces.”

River Warden Svinta and Mulre came to her with the request. It involved a lot of gold, and the ability to recruit the most skilled [Riders] and [Fighters] and so on among the youth.

A conscription. Jecaina was interested in this. The River Wardens had been contributing their personal garrisons to the war all the time, but now they seemed to feel it was their time to make up for Raelt’s absence.

“To what end, River Warden Mulre?”

He smiled.

“Why, to replenish the ranks of Jecrass’ [Trick Riders], of course!”

The [Trick Riders] of Jecrass were one of the unique classes and fighting groups Jecrass employed. Each nation had one, like the Golden Ranks of Medain, or their [Armored Soldiers].

The Realm of Jecrass was sprawling, plains and rivers. Thus, it needed a fast force to mobilize. That was how [Trick Riders] had been conceived.

Able to stop on a dime, turn, thread the needle in battle, even use ropes, nets, and other tools to immobilize foes.

Jecaina had seen them tripping half-Giants up—even stalling Mars the Vanguard! She nodded.

“Of course. How many were lost?”

Mulre grimaced.

“Too many, your Majesty. They were at the fore of every battle, defending King Raelt. And when they came to your aid…but I intend to replenish, no, double their numbers! They will be the fastest, most elite forces Jecrass has to offer! If the crown can spare the gold, I will have our [Trainers], veteran [Trick Riders], and so on get to work training a new generation at once.”

He beamed at her. Jecaina nodded.

“And you, Warden Svinta?”

“Warden Elaire and I wish to do the same—only with [Bicorn Riders] and flying Pegasi.”

Jecaina blinked. Then stared.

Pegasi?

They were rare, even in Jecrass, which bred horses of all kind. Bicorns weren’t even technically horses…well, they were a horse-bull hybrid, giant, chargers with a temper.

“We saw them match—even defeat Medain’s best armored lancers, your Majesty. We have never had many…due to the Bicorns being more difficult to breed. Jecrass has many breeds of fine horses—the best in all of Chandrar!”

Jecaina nodded. It was not an idle boast. If House Walchaís in Izril was known for horseflesh, so was Jecrass—to someone who loved horses, they were on a shortlist of groups you went to. Svinta went on, eagerly.

“[Magical Horsetamers] and [Beast Masters] who can raise such animals are rarer, but give me leave and I will have flying [Pegasus Riders] and shock Bicorn troops who can push back even the best of the King of Destruction’s forces—and Medain’s!”

She and Mulre looked at Jecaina. Both of them wanted a good amount of gold from the treasury. Jecaina had to think it over.

General Lael certainly wanted both groups. Lyfelt, as always, didn’t want to spend too much money, and cautioned her on that. But faced with gold she couldn’t use—or only to bribe Medain with or hire expensive [Mercenaries]? Jecaina advanced both River Wardens the gold and heard within the week that the first [Riders] were being transitioned to new steeds from the existing stocks, and breeding programs set up.

Excellent, excellent. Jecaina oversaw the redistribution of some of the refugees, made sure that food was being supplied, and after six days, felt like she was getting a handle on things. The day after agreeing to the new initiatives by Mulre and Svinta and placating Medain, she fell asleep and heard it again.

 

[Queen (Temporary) Level 28!]

[Skill – Kingdom: Quickened Breeding (Animals) obtained!]

 

A lot of parenthesis—or however her mind interpreted it—but she woke up smiling. Over breakfast, Jecaina received word that Reim had taken the largest border-fortress. The next day, Medain’s forces pushed in from one of the two passes and swallowed fifteen miles around the pass.

 

—-

 

Shepherd Zamea led an army against the stronghold with Orthenon, the King’s Steward. General Lael circled, unwilling to fight the King’s Steward, who could summon an army of ghostly warriors—he had come in full force with Parasol Stroll sending spells shooting across the distance.

But neither side actually engaged in a melee. Zamea and six of her kin took the stronghold fortress, fortified and garrisoned with Jecrass’ troops—from a distance.

She hurled huge stones with her kin, smashing them into the walls. A catapult! Lael saw defenders hunkering down as the quickly-erected and ensorcelled fortifications began to crumble.

She made a quick decision and ordered the evacuation. There was no choice. Orthenon was ready to smash Jecrass’ army. He let them go; this was a free fortress for his troops and he was shooting across to Belchan in another moment to fight the half-Elves and other armies.

Jecaina wanted to retake the fortress; Zamea had gone to fight Medain, so why not retake it? She sent Lael and three River Wardens to take back the stronghold, at a key point along a river.

Lael found a fortified keep in its place. Where Jecrass had built a quick wooden fort, having lost its actual border-forts in the west, along a riverbank…the fortress was now made of stone and had been reversed to defend itself against an attack from Jecrass’ side.

Stone parapets with sniper positions. Elevated ground and blockades to stymie horse charges. A few thousand could hold off ten thousand, and that was just the outside.

[The King’s Architect]. Jecaina had no idea what had been done until they all recalled the King of Destruction’s new Skill.

He had used it across Chandrar. She put her head in her hands. Especially when it turned out that Reim was using that as a choke point to stymie counter-raids and fall back to.

Unfair, unfair…the King of Destruction had done it again.

“It’s like the days of his conquests. Drevish the [Architect]. He did this all the time. The King of Destruction would take a valuable position and turn it into an unassailable bastion so he could pull back and hold the enemy there.”

“Can we take it? What about Pegasus Riders? Warden Svinta?”

The Warden looked uncomfortable.

“We have eighteen fliers ready to go, your Majesty. We wouldn’t be able to ferry troops in or assault from above for…”

Jecaina realized they had lost another fort. And that meant the lines had to be altered; neighboring forts were at risk, and they had to build another defensive line.

More gold, more headaches. More fear. That was bad enough.

The next day, Medain marched forces down the Merrina Pass and seized the land around it. They didn’t take the border-city or try the walls, but they began fortifying their own area. Lael was poised to attack, but Medain had sent heavy, heavy infantry and an army of equal size to all Lael could muster.

The entire day, Jecaina was shouting at Lyfelt. The former [Prime Minister] was shooting off desperate communiques. But the truth was—he’d messed up.

High King Perric wrote to Jecaina privately. His exact words were ‘fortifying against Reim’s aggression that Medain might come to Jecrass’ aid’. And certainly, he was threatening Reim.

However, Warden Svinta put it best. The old woman snapped at Lyfelt as, hair a mess, he tried to explain it.

“You made him think her Majesty didn’t have the will and he swept in and took our pass! You gave him an inch, now he wants an acre!”

Jecaina feared she was right. Lyfelt spluttered.

“It—it looks bad. But he still is being more reasonable and not using Raelt against us. We have to weigh the benefits and negatives, your Majesty, Wardens.”

“As in, losing part of Jecrass? What if he does it again?”

“This is where I have to convince him that the repercussions to you would be too great, your Majesty. Give me another chance…”

Four days passed. Then, almost like they had timed it, Reim, a force with Zamea, Orthenon, and the others again, took the border fortress adjoining the first one. They had to manually fortify, but left a half-Giant and skilled [Archers]. Medain, to ‘counter their aggression’, informed Jecaina they were taking the city along the pass.

She had the choice of fighting—which Lyfelt urged her not to do so for Raelt’s sake and Perric’s ego—or evacuating it.

She did the latter. Jecaina sat in her rooms at night and stared at the pieces of Jecrass’ map that had just vanished. She realized something else at this point.

Her Wardens, Lyfelt…even General Lael. They weren’t enough.

 

—-

 

Here was the question. Was it Lyfelt? Was it a River Warden? Lael?

Did she have traitors who were manipulating her?

Jecaina actually wished it were so. Because she feared the truth was they were outmatched.

Lyfelt might have failed, but he had done his best. She felt like that was so, and she had read all of his sickening letters in her name to Perric, and the High King’s superior responses—but even trying to be ‘kind’, assuring her that her father was well, that he had personally checked in on him…

And indeed, Medain was not threatening the other passes, just the ones closest to Reim’s held Jecrass territory. So her fear was not treachery—not entirely. It was just the same issue that had plagued Raelt.

They were outmatched. Plain and simple. Put them up against each other. General Lael vs Orthenon. Warden Mulre—dead gods, Mulre, Svinta, and Elaire and two dozen others against one Zamea. Lyfelt vs Perric.

Loss, loss, loss…

“We have to pit Medain and Reim against each other.”

Lyfelt came to the same conclusion as Mulre and the others. He framed it as a ‘good thing in disguise’. He hated admitting failure or that something was bad. The River Wardens were more blunt.

“This is a disaster, your Majesty. But we can salvage it. Medain and Reim are staring at each other. Time to let them fight and hold this line.”

Jecaina nodded. They pulled back more, so Medain and Reim swept into the new ground and were now locking borders. They waited.

 

—-

 

Neither nation fought. Oh, Medain was clashing along the west and trying to take Belchan. But along the Jecrass border? Neither Orthenon, Zamea, or Medain’s forces there engaged.

Because, obviously, they weren’t idiots. They knew Jecrass would take any weakened position. Why bother when you could eat Jecrass? In short, to make an analogy of it, why would two Nightmares eat each other when there was a sheep nearby? Nightmares were the carnivorous, nocturnal hunting horses, incidentally.

Warden Mulre suggested raiding Medain or Reim poised as the other’s forces. General Lael advised Jecaina not to try it.

“They’re too intelligent to fall for an open ploy, your Majesty. Our forces would have to ride in from their side and if they were caught or a single one identified…”

So they didn’t do that.

“What am I missing, Aca?”

Jecaina turned to the [Housemistress] during a bath. The woman hesitated.

“Pr—my Queen?”

Jecaina looked at her. Bathing was a luxury that Jecrassians could afford thanks to the river. She looked at the [Housemistress]

“About the war? About my advisors, as I was saying? You were listening, weren’t you?”

“Yes, my Queen. Only…”

In her desperation, Jecaina had turned to the servants, to her friends. She spent most of her waking hours talking to her advisors. Yes, to lesser commanders, the Watch Captain, head of the Merchant’s Guild, Mage’s Guild, [Treasury Keeper] and so on, but—

She didn’t have more personal advisors than those. She had tried.

But her friends? The riding companions, dueling partners? Some had enlisted in the army and were in far flung locations where she would have to recall them.

Some had died in the war. And she hadn’t known.

She might have sent for them anyways, but Merib, a friend of hers, had just repeated the same basic advice.

“I don’t know, Jecaina—I mean, Queen Jecaina. What if you…shot arrows at Medain with Reim’s fletching?”

They were her friends. But they weren’t great leaders in the areas of war or diplomacy. They were as young as she.

So she turned to servants. She missed Geril and cried for him more than her father. Her father was alive. But Geril…

She would have listened to him above all the others. More than Lyfelt, the River Wardens, even Lael. He had known her grandfather! He had known…everything. And she had been so ungrateful.

“Aca?”

She prompted the [Housemistress]. But the woman just shook her head, nervously.

“It’s not my place to say, your Majesty. I’m sure the River Wardens know what to do. Sh-shall I have one of the girls scrub your back?”

Jecaina sighed.

Aca was not Geril. She was a lovely woman, good for gossip, young at heart as Jecaina was. But the idea of giving advice in war to Jecaina terrified her.

“I need…high-level advisors. There have to be some left besides those still fighting.”

She knew General Lael was over Level 30. She had a Level 27 [Lieutenant], a [Master Archer] of Level 32, Verrod the [Horsemaster], Level 45—who was helping with Svinta and Elaire’s projects.

Jecrass, like every nation, had high-level individuals. A few. But they were always a handful over Level 30—over Level 40?

Jecaina had demanded the [Trick Riders] and Bicorns and Pegasi when both nations had begun swallowing parts of Jecrass. She had been assured there were thousands of candidates in training—Mulre even had lists. And that stables, areas of land, had been donated by Svinta and other River Wardens for the new breeding projects, and they were even asking Oteslia for more breeding stock.

Nothing at the moment. Desperately, Jecaina listened to her advisors.

Medain took more ground. Reim’s Steward was moving back this way, perhaps for another attack-and-swallow.

Sixteen days after the King of Destruction’s defeat, an age or so it seemed, the Queen of Jecrass paid a visit to someone.

 

—-

 

“Your Majesty?”

Nomna, Lyfelt’s wife, looked wide-eyed at Jecaina as the guards let her into the rather nice guest-estate. She and her children bowed deeply, Jecaina lifted a hand, not even bothered at this point.

“Don’t bow, Nomna. It’s…good to see you. Are you well? The guard told you I was coming.”

“Of course, your Majesty. Please, come in. We don’t have much to offer, but I did what I could…it’s all been provided, and we have to thank you for our very lives.”

The two children of Lyfelt and his wife, Nomna, welcomed Jecaina into their small household. They had been living here since Raelt rescued them at the capital.

It was not a grand estate, but it was still a rather large one for a single family. Jecaina thought that, looking at the padded couches, rather lovely ceiling—two floors plus a cellar! Then Nomna shook her head.

“Oh no, your Majesty. Your father—King Leysars gave us this estate with the other…leadership of Belchan. They and their families share this space. It can get a tiny bit crowded—I believe they are helping at the farms.”

“Farms?”

It transpired that Raelt had practically arranged for all the people threatened by Flos’ execution order to live here. Families as well as those responsible. Most were in the fields, apparently.

“There is a shortage of hands, you see, your Majesty, so we volunteered—it was that or sit about and argue.”

Jecaina appreciated that. She sat, and was offered some dried dates and a bit of goat’s cheese by a timid girl…eleven years old? Jecaina blinked at the reserved girl.

“Is that you, Presca? You look—older.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The girl curtsied politely. Her younger brother was more nervous and kept staring at her. Jecaina looked at a Lyfelt’s family and realized she had aged too.

“What brings you here, your Majesty? We were in the fields, but you wished to see us? Is it…are Reim’s armies that close? Or has Lyfelt done…something?”

Nomna was clearly afraid. Jecaina tried to smile to reassure her.

“No, neither. Lyfelt has been…helpful.”

Yes, that was how she’d say it in front of his family. Nomna nodded cautiously.

“That is…good, your Majesty. We were afraid when the King of Destruction came—”

The children looked at her. Jecaina’s stomach twisted.

Give me Lyfelt and those responsible. Did he mean the families? She shook her head.

“No. I would never put you in the way of—Lyfelt has been advising me. Conducting diplomacy. I may make him a [Royal Advisor] or…something.”

She hadn’t done so yet. Nomna nodded cautiously.

“That would be something he would enjoy, I am sure.”

The way she phrased it made Jecaina hesitate.

“Surely he’s told you about his work. He hasn’t visited, but I thought he would at least write. Or is it not safe to travel? I can arrange an escort if—”

Presca made a sound. Nomna looked at Jecaina and her eyes widened.

“Lyfelt didn’t tell you? Your Majesty. We are divorced now. He left this estate as soon as we fled Belchan. I have not spoken to him in months.”

The [Queen]’s eyes widened.

 

—-

 

“I could not continue…even the [Guards] looked at us like monsters. I didn’t know. Believe me, I would have told him otherwise. Some of the people here—we don’t speak to them.”

Nomna told Jecaina all of it. She had divorced her husband in the days after the war with Jecrass began, because of what she had seen.

Divorce was not permissible in some Chandrarian nations—at least not for a woman to divorce her husband. It was in Belchan, ironically one of the laws that Lyfelt, considered rather liberal, had refused to ever alter.

In Jecrass too. But it still astonished Jecaina.

“Was that the only reason, Nomna? I’m sorry, but Lyfelt said nothing of this. And…I did not come because I suspected him of anything. But should I?”

The children had been sent away. Nomna hesitated.

“Lyfelt? I wish I could say, Jecaina. He’s not the man I thought I knew. Or perhaps he is…I can’t say. It’s just that after I saw those Gnolls—the children thought he was a monster.”

She shook her head.

“Tell me. Even if it’s a hunch, I’ll weight it with what I know. Please, Nomna.”

Jecaina urged her. The woman pursed her lips.

“If he wants to be a [Royal Advisor]—do I think he would sell out Jecrass? No. But Lyfelt is ambitious. He would never settle to be a [Senator] when he could be a [Prime Minister]. He probably thinks you’re his last avenue to safety and power after what happened. I don’t think he’d ever betray you. He was Raelt’s friend. He can be ruthless, but he doesn’t betray. Or so I thought. After I saw those Gnolls…I don’t know.”

That squared with Jecaina’s thoughts. She sat there. Another strike at Lyfelt? Perhaps, perhaps not.

“I’m in a bind, Nomna. Lyfelt is the best advisor I have—for politics. My River Wardens try, and General Lael, but…I was hoping you had some insight.”

“Me, your Majesty? I’m a [Socialite]. I can throw a party, be entertaining—not more than that! If dates were arrows, I’d be more use.”

The woman sighed. Jecaina had to chuckle. The dried dates and cheese from the rations had tasted excellent thanks to Nomna’s Skills.

“I just lack for high-level individuals, Nomna. Flos Reimarch has more levels than any two—maybe any three of my advisors. I need someone who can give me insights. Advice. I need…”

Jecaina realized she was raising her voice and blushed. She sat there, tiredly.

“My dear, you look run down. Have something more to eat.”

Nomna urged her. Jecaina nodded. The woman rose.

“Let me see if I can help at all. I can’t do much, but…”

The Queen of Jecrass blinked up at her. But soon she had her feet up and was dozing as Nomna pulled something out and consulted it.

“Lyfelt didn’t even have a bag of holding—it was confiscated. So these were left behind. I may not be an [Administrator], but part of my class was entertaining people like Grand Mage Esiela and our high-level individuals. Each one is a nation’s strength and we had records…aha!”

Jecaina stirred. Nomna was poring over the list of high-leveled people. She offered it to Jecaina as the [Queen] rose.

“Dead, dead, dead…in service, fled, dead, fighting under Lael…”

Many she knew. They were [Stable Mistresses], [Horse Breeders]—Jecrass used them, but having met many, Jecaina had little hope that one could add themselves to her cabinet. At least she knew…

“Wait. Go back to that entry.”

Jecaina stirred. She stared at a single name on the list. And the estimated level of—Nomna saw the [Queen]’s eyes come to life.

“Your Majesty? You know this person?”

“I know the area. And their…thank you, Nomna! I have to go. Say goodbye for me. I have to…”

 

—-

 

An oddity in the war between Jecrass and Medain and Reim. Jecaina had seen it in the war reports and General Lael speaking, but now it manifested itself as she stared at the map.

A fortified, moving border had been established between garrisons and the advance of armies. The war had slowed down so both sides had tried to entrench—for all the good it did when Reim’s full hammer came at them.

However, there was a southwestern section that had never really been fought over. When Flos’ armies had come, they had essentially just passed it by rather than building forts. In the same way, Lael’s armies did not seek to fortify it.

One of the open plains areas was held in strength. But not quite by Jecrass’ forces. Jecaina herself rode south with a heavy escort to see if her memory was correct. It was.

The Nomads of the Sky, the half-Giant group led by the fearsome Zamea, were not the only nomadic people in Chandrar. Far from it.

This was known as the People of Zair, who, like Gnolls of Izril, had essentially moved about this part of Jecrass for the last century or two. They travelled from spot to spot, and, Jecaina understood, numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

She had visited their camps before; they were swift and loved to race, and raised their own breed of horse. Zair-bloodlines, who had a tendency to outrun most other breeds over the long term.

Ironic, or maybe weird given that they were Centaurs? But then again, who better than a Centaur to care for four-legged animals like them? The People of Zair fit Jecrass, arguably more than even the Humans. Centaurs, to race about the plains.

They had always been a people unto themselves. Not reclusive, but separate. Jecaina mostly remembered River Wardens didn’t like them, leveling all the common complaints at nomadic outsiders. Thievery, banditry, and so on.

What she wanted to know was why Flos had never tried to take this area of land. Or, apparently, recruit the People of Zair. And why her father hadn’t done so either.

The answer was the entry in Nomna’s book. It was in Herdmistress Geraeri. The great leader of their group.

A person over Level 50.

 

—-

 

“Your Majesty. I greet you, and offer condolences for the capture of your father. We sent gifts to your coronation—I am Herdmistress Geraeri of the People of Zair.”

Her ‘hut’, one of the temporary buildings, was more like a mansion. Enchanted to be larger on the inside than outside, perfectly cool, filled with expensive furniture. All fit for someone with four legs; the Herdmistress ‘sat’ on pillows, rather than anything as arduous as a chair.

The main base of the People of Zair had seen more people, more relaxed and contented than Jecaina had seen in months. In addition, their guards and hunters and so on had outnumbered even the retinue Lael had sent. Enchanted weapons. Mounted in a sense; well, you couldn’t call Centaurs infantry.

“Herdmistress, thank you for meeting me at such short notice. If I may ask—will you share your full class with me?”

Geraeri hesitated. She was old, in her sixties, but looked like a younger woman in her forties. She was certainly hardy as the best of her tribe.

Level 50. Youth, authority, a vast nomadic tribe—Jecaina kept staring at her. Enchanted earrings, magical cloth clothing—

This was a woman who could change events. Flos Reimarch and his Seven might still eclipse her, but why, why…?

“It is no secret. Yes, your Majesty. My full class is [Stonesoup Herdmistress of the Greatland].”

Jecaina blinked. That was…a mouthful. Geraeri smiled.

“Not the class you expected?”

“It is—lengthy, Herdmistress. May I ask about it? How did you come to this class? And level?”

“Of course. They tell this story in the camps. Here—I share with you the drink of our peoples.”

Zair’s people drank a custard-like sweet milk-substance. Jecaina tasted it, and it was good, and listened.

Geraeri’s tale was the tale of someone who had risen to her level despite adversity. She had not been born into the line of succession. She had not even been related to her [Herdleader], how they reckoned such leadership.

“It was a cold winter. And cold winters. We were poor, starving. Our [Herdleader] died; a plague ran through the herd, and at that time the People of Zair were infighting. It got to the point where River Wardens fought us, and the crown debated expelling us from the land. We were no asset; this was the time of your grandfather, your Majesty.”

Jecaina didn’t even remember that, but she had heard about a terrible winter era from Geril. She nodded. Geraeri went on.

“They tell it more fancifully. But the simplicity of it was—I rallied my herd. I kept us alive. We began to trade again. I negotiated an end to fighting, unified the herds around mine. I was, oh, Level 30, and younger in years, when the [Herdmaster] of the People of Zair decided I was trying to usurp our way and declared a civil war.”

“And then?”

Jecaina saw the older woman smile.

“I won the war.”

 

—-

 

Geraeri had reached Level 50 through time and hard work. Under her, the People of Zair had turned in decades from a nomadic tribe that could be accused of banditry and thievery and certainly was poor, into a power on its own level. They were rich, prosperous—she put it down to the struggles.

“I leveled up fast in those lean years, your Majesty. The civil war helped me—though I wish it had never come to that. We were also lucky in how we were needed to replenish horse stock after the plague. The truth was, the civil war put me up to Level 40. It took me thirty years to get the last ten levels. And that was only because the People of Zair were so large. I will not get to Level 60, I think. Not unless worse happens and I would rather it not.”

Jecaina nodded. It was an impressive tale.

“But why…”

[Stonesoup Herdmistress of the Greatland]? Geraeri had a simple explanation too.

“Before I became Level 50, your Majesty, I was an [Eternal Rocksoup Cook] and a [Herdmistress of the Land]. I suppose they were just mashed together. And the [Rocksoup Cook] was a rare class. I did nothing as extraordinary as my early years when I earned the [Cook] class. But it defines me now, so I keep it in my class.”

“Rocksoup…?”

Then the old Herdmistress laughed.

“Have you not heard that the People of Zair will never go hungry as long as I live?”

Jecaina had heard something…like that. But she had never given it credit. She watched as, prompted by her question, Geraeri showed her why she had her class.

 

—-

 

Rock soup. Most stories had it, or some variant. The idea was…a rock soup.

When times were lean, you put a rock or maybe grit into soup. Or—there were actual ways to cook with heated rocks in cauldrons.

But there was always that tale of the cunning [Trickster] who had a rock he made some kind of mishmash soup out of, getting other people to contribute ‘just a bit’. A carrot, some flour or meat…and thus avoided starvation by getting everyone to put in a bit of something. So a ‘rock soup’ could feed a village.

A parable. Except when you had Skills.

Look and wonder. Geraeri brought out an old, polished rock, smooth, but plain. She put it in a cauldron filled with water and covered the lid.

It was a vast container, and hundreds of Centaurs gathered around as the fire roared. Steam rose—and when Geraeri removed the lid, a wonderful soup appeared in front of Jecaina.

She gasped. The People of Zair had seen it thousands of times, some every day since they were born. But they laughed to see it impress the Queen and guests. They served it and it was good to eat!

“A cornucopia Skill?”

“Just so. But it fills more than even most artifacts, or so the King of Khelt once told me. When I first had it, it really was a rock that just made the water taste of something. As I leveled—it became my great Skill. And I have many Skills, your Majesty. Those to allow my people to feed vast flocks, to prevent fighting, to defeat plague. But this is why my people do not grow hungry. In every herd, once per day, they can drop a rock into water and eat.”

That was the power of Level 50. Jecaina’s skin chilled with the awe of it. It was not the ability to summon an army out of thin air—but she had just watched the woman turn water into food for over a thousand, and it could easily be two meals. And every herd?

“It is an incredible Skill, Herdmistress. Thank you for demonstrating.”

Geraeri waved a hand.

“In truth, your Majesty—it is not. I know of greater classes and Skills. I have reached mine, but I am humbler now than the woman who united the People of Zair. I am content for this greatness. I have at least two decades left! I intend to spend it living fat and well!”

She looked at Jecaina then. And the Queen knew that Geraeri knew why she had come. She put down her bowl, and sat formally. So did the Herdmistress.

“Herdmistress Geraeri. I am Queen of Jecrass. You know the Realm of Jecrass is at war, that my father is kidnapped—that the King of Destruction and Medain threaten us and advance, day by day. I ask you to lend Jecrass your might; you have surely done so already. But now I ask for the People of Zair to help repel these foreign nations. I offer—and ask that you join my private council, and I will give you great rewards in exchange.”

The Herdmistress nodded and heard Jecaina’s offer out. She waited a beat.

“I must refuse, your Highness.”

Jecaina stared at her. And then it hit her. Your Majesty or, ‘Your Highness’ was how the woman had addressed her the entire time she had been visiting.

Never ‘my Queen’.

“May I ask why, Herdmistress? If Jecrass falls—”

“Your father asked me the same, your Majesty. I refused him. Just as I refused the King of Destruction when the Shepard Zamea approached me.”

Jecaina stirred.

“He asked you to—”

“To fight for him. Provide for his armies. And I would receive vast lands of Jecrass as a reward.”

Geraeri’s eyes glinted as she looked up at Jecaina from her drink. Jecaina swallowed.

“You refused.”

“Of course I did. And I will refuse you, Queen Jecaina. Just as I refused your father.”

“If Jecrass falls—”

“The People of Zair will not fall with it.”

And there it was. The [Herdmistress] sat there, drinking, hosting the [Queen] of the realm…with no intention of going to her aid. The Human [Queen] argued with the Centaur [Herdmistress], desperately trying to make her see the danger.

“What if Medain conquers Jecrass? The King of Destruction?”

“We will bow to whomever rules. If Medain wins, we will trade with Medain. If the King of Destruction wins, Reim. Your Majesty, I mean no offense.”

But offense had been given. Lots of it. Mountains of horse crap of offense. Jecaina began to grow angry.

“Do you have no loyalty to Jecrass? You have lived here nearly a century!”

“We love the land, your Majesty. But we have never benefitted from its protection. We are nomads. If the time comes, we will move.”

The Herdmistress retorted. Jecaina half-rose.

“What if High King Perric decides he needs no nomads? You know the man.”

“He might.”

Geraeri allowed. She sighed.

“If that were the case, we would move to another land and he would lose our trade and what we provide. Make no mistake, your Majesty—we have been contributing to the war. In goods, crafts—we gave much of the food your armies eat for gold. We are a benefit. But we will not take sides.”

“And what if Jecrass falls and Medain seeks to wipe you out?”

“They may try.”

The [Queen] saw Geraeri reach for her side. She drew a knife and placed it before them. It had a sepia glow.

“I fought in a war between my people and I have fought armies as well. The People of Zair are no weak force; the Nomads of the Sky are strong, but few in number. I would not put us below them. If any nation wishes to challenge us, we will fight and leave. But we will not be forced. The King of Destruction might have the strength, but we declined to join him and he did not push us. What does that tell you, Queen Jecaina?”

“That he didn’t want to waste his strength when Jecrass was fighting him?”

The Herdmistress snorted.

“True enough. We aren’t as strong as a nation. But we will be independent, your Majesty. I wish someone had told you, that I did not have to refuse you to your face.”

“So you will let Jecrass fall.”

“Do I take pleasure in it? I am independent, your Majesty. I think of my people. We love life, not war. I have had to defend my people from countless aggressors. Even Crelers. I am…”

 

—-

 

“—stubborn, old, prideful, arrogant harridan of a—”

Jecaina shouted insults the entire way back to the capital. She had argued with Geraeri, pleaded, offered incentives for three whole hours.

The woman had refused her everything. She did not want promises of land or concessions if there was the risk her people went down with Jecrass.

She was stubborn, independent, and, Jecaina hated to admit it, far too powerful to anger. She could seal Jecrass’ fate if her people were angered. She was too strong to offend; no wonder the war went around her lands and she could refuse all comers.

If the [Queen] had ever gone to Liscor and talked with the Council there, or the Watch Captain, she would have been able to commiserate about a similar problem. Or—former problem. Crossbows solved problems and created them.

Jecaina returned to the capital in time for Reim to take another fort. This time Lael tried to fight it.

The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll called down lightning and her forces fell back.

 

—-

 

Jecaina was drunk when she summoned Lyfelt. He paused uncertainly as he saw her sitting in her room.

“You wanted to see me, your Majesty? Jecaina?”

“Come in.”

She half-slurred. Jecaina had realized something.

If she wanted a drink, no one could stop her. She had a royal permit to access the wine cellars or the bottom of any bottle she damn well pleased and it was on her head. Or it had been.

The crown had been tossed onto the carpet. Lyfelt stared at it; she’d dented the painted metal.

“Is…something wrong, Jecaina? I’m here to talk.”

“Oh yes. You are good at talking. Just like that [Herdmistress] was at making soup. Rock soup. I heard you once talked a [Bandit Leader] into becoming a [Soldier].”

He smiled at that.

“I told you that as a child, didn’t I? It was true—it wasn’t Maresar, but he served in the army. Still did when…yes.”

Lyfelt scooped and picked up the crown. Jecaina laughed as he placed it on a table.

“That’s a powerful Skill. Like making rock soup for free. It’s the best—until someone can call an army of ghosts or sail a ship onto land!”

“Military might does beat softer power directly. But I am trying, your Highness. This is salvageable. There will come a time when Medain or Reim seek to negotiate. If, say, Hellios rebels or the Claiven Earth begin to look at Medain—”

“Shut up. Just stop talking. I’m sick of hearing your voice.”

Lyfelt halted. He looked at Jecaina. Then he noticed the sword lying across her lap.

The [Queen] rose unsteadily. She aimed the rapier at him as he backed up. Her hand wasn’t that unsteady, even though she was heavily drunk.

“It’s all so clear after I drink. Why shouldn’t I turn you over to Flos? It solves…everything. His armies fight Medain. Jecrass is at peace. Why not? All he wants is your head. And a few dozen others.”

The former [Prime Minister] backed up to the door. But he’d closed it.

“Jecaina—Jecaina, listen, my dear. You’re not thinking straight. The King of Destruction won’t just let Jecrass be. If you turn me over—”

She laughed.

“What, I’m in a worse spot than I was before? Then I only have to fight Medain!

“And they will sweep over Jecrass if High King Perric thinks he might lose you as a buffer.”

Lyfelt spoke urgently. He gestured to one of the war maps Jecaina was using in her private rooms to track the war.

“You can make peace with Reim and he might turn on Medain—but he won’t be able to destroy it. Not with the other nations. Perric will destroy Jecrass—or try to—in order not to have two enemies. He has the numbers to hold off Reim and do so.”

“How convenient. You know, I met your wife. You didn’t tell me she divorced you.”

“You met…Nomna? Whatever she said, Jecaina—”

“It is your Majesty, Queen of Jecrass!

She shouted and slashed the air. He flinched. Jecaina looked at him, breathing hard.

“Do you—do you even feel guilt for what you’ve done? At all?”

He was huddled up, raising his hands as if it would stop her. She could run him through. The [Queen] swayed.

It wasn’t fair. He had no skill at arms, or even a weapon. Drunk—she could murder him. And it would be murder, wouldn’t it?

Lyfelt had done nothing.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know—I swear. I’ve had nightmares, Jecaina. Please—put down the sword.”

He begged. Jecaina stood there.

“It was your nation. Those poor Gnolls…Flos would kill you.”

“I know. And is that fair? I…I might need to be judged. I admit that, your Majesty. But is now the time?”

Lyfelt dared peek as Jecaina lowered her sword to the carpet. She sat back down and stared at her cup. She felt too sick to drink more. She wanted to, to embrace oblivion. But she had a duty to—she pushed the cup away.

“Why didn’t my father do it?”

“He was too close. He and I were friends. He told me he would rule—after the war ended. But he didn’t hand me over to die. A poorer man might have. But your father was a great man. A great ruler. He was exceptional…”

“No, he wasn’t.”

Jecaina muttered it. Lyfelt didn’t hear her. But Jecaina sat there with the drink giving her a kind of weird clarity. Raelt Leysars had not been a great [King].

He had been a good man. A decent [King] who kept his kingdom running. But a great [King] was one who did extraordinary things. Raelt, her father—was a great [Duelist].

Not a great [King]. She looked at Lyfelt, whom Raelt had protected even though it meant war, even though people had died and there was blood on his hands. The [Prime Minister] fled. Jecaina realized that he was her father’s mistake.

It hurt, terribly, to know your father wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t even his blood-daughter, but she had always…

The [Queen]’s head lolled and she slept.

She did not level.

 

—-

 

She did not hand Lyfelt over when she woke. She pretended not to remember and Lyfelt was only too keen not to remind her.

Was it foolishness? Yes. Probably. But Jecaina…her father’s will was hard to overturn.

More than that, it was her failing. She did not like feeling as though Flos was pressuring her into handing over innocent people to die to end the war.

Perhaps she had to. But on the day after her drunken outburst, she sat, hung over on her throne and too embarrassed to ask for a cure.

Aca brought it for her and Jecaina would have kissed the [Housemistress] if everyone wasn’t…

Well, they actually weren’t here. Lyfelt was keeping well away, and the River Wardens were busy in defense of the realm.

She had to do something. But an unusual event presented itself because of her outburst.

“Some [Messages] for you to review, your Majesty. If you wish it.”

“Bring them to me.”

Normally Lyfelt handled diplomacy and sorted through [Messages]. This time, Jecaina wanted to see Perric’s next demand-request, or…

You might assume that the great and powerful did not get trivial [Messages]. You would be wrong.

 

To Her Majesty Jecaina of Jecrass, I represent the Viole Company, Battle of Brilend, War of Onerous Aggression (Hellios, Germina), and I am offering my services to you with my entire company, subject to a modest retainer of…

 

…healing potions and other wares directly available to you in large quantities if you will provide transport from the port of…

 

…fifteen thousand [Mercenaries] at your disposal! This is a limited-time offer for both of us, so act now and—

 

Discount on arrows! I’m offering a 16% discount for the brave soldiers of Jecrass and the King of Duels’ legacy—

 

…your hand in marriage. I can provide my protection for…

 

That last one actually made Jecaina stare. Then she realized the next six [Messages] were marriage proposals.

Not just from the ruler of…a small nation she had never heard of. A [Merchant], an [Emir], and a [General] all thought they were also good as heirs to thrones. They offered gold, transport to safety, or amazing leadership for someone in your difficult t—

She crumpled up that last one. It sounded like Perric.

“Damn this! I’d rather marry—the King’s Steward than any of these suitors! What, do they think I have vaults filled to the brim with gold?”

“It’s a seller’s market for [Mercenaries], your Majesty. In desperate times…should I not give you the rest?”

Jecaina collapsed into her throne.

“There are more?”

She’d wondered if Lyfelt was playing her wrong, but she had asked to see his missives in outgoing and incoming [Messages] more than once. She wasn’t stupid.

As it turned out, he had screened a lot of stupid from her eyes as well. But another note made Jecaina stop.

 

To: Queen Jecaina of Jecrass

From: Her Great Eminence, Her Majesty Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen…(see attached titles.)

Subject: Nerrhavia’s Protection

To her Majesty, Jecaina of Jecrass, Nerrhavia’s Fallen is willing to undertake the defense and liberation of King Raelt of Jecrass if the Realm were willing to undertake immediate vassalization by the Great Empire of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. As a fellow Queen, I would assure your ranking within Nerrhavia and…

 

“She wants to make Jecrass a vassal-state?”

It was the most handsome vassalization offer she’d gotten so far. Albeit Medain, Reim, and Nerrhavia being the only offers.

But Yisame actually tried to entice Jecaina, whereas the two [Kings] had been more about threats. Unlike them, not only would Yisame guarantee Raelt’s return and the protection of Jecrass, she would install Jecaina as ruler of the region, give her the following titles in Nerrhavia’s hierarchy…

Jecaina spat out some orange juice all over the floor. Aca rushed for a cloth as the [Queen] exclaimed.

Four hundred thousand gold?

A [Servant] nearly dropped the orange juice pitcher.

“For what, your Majesty?”

“I—me?

Yisame was offering Jecaina four hundred thousand gold pieces to sign over her crown, and more aid for Jecrass.

It was tempting. Jecaina wasn’t going to do it—but it was tempting. The letter even had a bit offering condolences that seemed more…personal than the business offer. Maybe Yisame had added that last bit in?

Jecaina read it, and actually told Aca to send a polite refusal and counteroffer of nonaggression, trade—she doubted Yisame would bite, but it opened a dialogue and she felt like she did something.

“Well, that at least lightened my mood. I’ll sign that if I have to. Better Nerrhavia than Reim or Medain, maybe.”

The servants actually smiled. Jecaina wished she could believe she wasn’t serious.

“One or two more, your Majesty…let’s see. Here.”

Jecaina sorted through the last of the [Messages]. Most were useless, but the Mage’s Guild apparently filtered countless even more trivial [Messages]. One could not send a [Message] to Jecaina if you were a common citizen; only those of wealth, power, and so on could even get to her.

Which was depressing if you thought about it because Jecaina would have loved a [Message] from some child who’d saved up all their coins to tell her they believed in her.

…Or that their family was dead and they blamed her.

Mercenary offer, marriage offer, bill—bill? For a Pegasus from Oteslia—she handed that one off. Then she blinked at a weird [Message].

“‘Cordially offering you my congratulations on your ascent to’…huh?

The last [Message] was not a threat, offer, or…anything. It was, in fact, a polite nothing. A lengthily worded congratulations for her ascent to the throne, complete with reminiscences about the ‘lately detained King Raelt’, and a cordial invitation to visit the sender at her leisure, if she retained the throne after the end of the war.

She stared at the sender. And blinked.

Fetohep of Khelt.

 

—-

 

She knew Fetohep. She had never met him—but her father, Raelt, had spoken to all the rulers in the region. Fetohep was actually one of the rulers that Raelt had liked.

Or at least, had no gripes with.

He had liked the previous Quarass, for all she was manipulative, for reasons Jecaina had never known. Hellios was…strained…as Queen Calliope had been the sometimes-enemy, sometimes-friend of Jecrass.

But Fetohep? Jecaina sought out Lyfelt. He was only too happy to explain.

“The Quarass? Germina was never our constant ally. I never knew Raelt liked her. But then—he did like people who didn’t bother him overly long unless they were friends. And the Quarass—even the one before the present one—knew people. She was probably straightforward with him.”

“Ah. And Fetohep? I know Khelt…”

The land of the dead. The kingdom of the unliving. A paradise few had ever seen. Lyfelt shrugged.

“I’ve never been. Did he send you a [Message]? Fetohep does do that. He offered me a chance to visit. I think.”

“Did you?”

Lyfelt scratched at his head. Bemused, he frowned.

“Wait. No. He didn’t. He sent one to Raelt, but not to me! I don’t think [Prime Ministers] count. He is an enduringly polite [King], though, but…peculiar. As arrogant as the King of Destruction in the few times we’ve directly corresponded.”

“You’ve talked?”

“Oh, of course. Normally it is through lesser channels, but he does involve himself from time to time. Never directly, but he buys water from Jecrass each year. If it were possible, I’d suggest selling some. No one would raid Khelt if he provided the transport. Khelt is not to be trifled with.”

Jecaina knew that. She knew the stories. Once, Khelt had been larger, but even now—they did not attack unless threatened and were isolationist. But take one step beyond the border and the dead would rise. Even the King of Destruction did not try to claim Khelt.

Anyway, it was a strange letter. Lyfelt waved it away, more preoccupied with the vassalization offer from Nerrhavia and Jecaina’s reply—he was peeved she’d done anything without talking to him.

Jecaina sat, reading Fetohep’s letter. It was…funny.

 

…I am minded to recall your Great Great Grandmother’s sojourn at the beginning of her reign where she was kidnapped to Terandria. I trust the Realm of Jecrass shall likewise endure from a female influence upon the land.

 

He knew her great, great…Jecaina actually had to walk through the halls of portraits to find out who it was. But Fetohep had lived when she was alive.

Also, he’d written essays like a [Historian] on lovely paper. Just beautiful. Someone had put wood shavings into the delicate paper, and the ink had some kind of strange quality that made it easier to read. Jecaina sniffed it and smelled a pleasant fragrance.

Had he scented it? Who took this much time on a letter? Even the seal had gold flakes sprinkled into Khelt’s national symbol.

The lengthy letter took an hour to read. And Jecaina was not a slow reader. She realized as she unfolded it that the thin piece of paper was also enchanted to keep unfolding; Lyfelt had unfolded the first, official greeting and hadn’t realized—

She had to stop and laugh despite herself when Fetohep listed the other times Jecrass had been invaded to this extent. And hadn’t she seen Fetohep? No—heard his voice?

Actually, after asking Aca, the woman provided the answer.

“I believe he was featured three times on Pallass News Network, your Majesty. I watch it all the time when I can—they take in viewer responses. Fetohep of Khelt—I remember the name. The Drakes had to cut off his responses because they were so long.”

Jecaina smiled. Then, as she was nearing the end of the missive, something caught her eye.

“…‘as fellow rulers, I remain open to communication if you so desire’. Huh—what is this at the bottom?”

Aca blinked at it. She had no idea. But the [Court Mage] supplied the answer.

“I believe it’s a key to a speaking stone, your Majesty. The Mage’s Guild can tune a speaking stone to it.”

“Really? And he just wrote it down…”

Jecaina broke off as her River Wardens filed in for the day. More bad news. Medain looked like it was going to push further in, and they had begun loosing arrows at Jecrass’ forces to keep them back.

She dealt with that, and the news that there was an outbreak of something amongst animals and people in the crowded cities—they had to send for [Healers], make sure it didn’t reach the horses…

Miserable, depressed, Jecaina found the letter in her pocket later when she was staring at another bottle of alcohol. She had sent Lyfelt away after he’d failed to answer her if he could stop Medain. The River Wardens weren’t fun company.

So why not? She summoned the [Court Mage].

“Has Queen Yisame responded?”

“Nothing yet, your Majesty.”

Jecaina nodded gloomily.

“Then—will you tune a speaking stone to this thing? And tell Fetohep of Khelt I thank him for the [Message].”

She did it mainly to see what happened. From what it sounded like, Fetohep sent these things out of pure etiquette. She didn’t expect anything.

The speaking stone was placed in front of her. The [Court Mage] bowed, and showed Jecaina how to use it.

“If it is tuned correctly—and we believe we have followed the procedures—one can simply speak into it, or tap it to turn it ‘off’. Like so.”

He turned it on and off for her. Jecaina nodded. She hesitated over the stone.

“…Hello? Your Majesty, Fetohep?”

The [Court Mage] left. Jecaina stared at the stone. Then she laughed and felt foolish. What was she doing, talking to the undead ruler of another nation? She went to put it d—

Queen Jecaina of Jecrass. We are pleased our missive was delivered to you. We are King Fetohep of Khelt. I greet you in confidence in this dark hour for your realm.

She jumped. That had been seconds! She stared at the speaking stone.

Somewhere, many miles away, in the land of Khelt, the eternal, sleepless King of Khelt, two nations over…had heard the speaking stone’s brief comment and responded in a moment.

Why?

Because he was very, very, very…

Bored.

 

—-

 

Fetohep of Khelt, the unliving monarch of the empire which lived by the fruits of undead labor.

Jecaina knew all the stories. But she had never met someone who’d actually come from Khelt. A [Merchant] could boast they’d been allowed through the border once or twice. But Khelt was so closed off as to be forgotten.

Now, she spoke to the ruler of that nation.

He was surprising to Jecaina. She found herself sitting in her bedroom—now the royal bedroom since she had refused to move to her father’s quarters and ordered it kept for him—on her bed, nervously speaking to the stone.

“I…apologize if I am interrupting you, King Fetohep.”

She didn’t know his last name. And a monarch could greet each other informally, or in that way.

What was unnerving was how Fetohep seemed to leap around conversations. He replied, his tone faintly echoing, but precise.

“As we speak in confidence, Queen Leysars, I would not take it amiss to be referred to as King Khelt—it is traditional for rulers of Khelt to abandon their names of family as we serve our nations with no personal bias. Fetohep would also be acceptable if you will entertain the informality.”

“I—would appreciate that, Fetohep. Thank you.”

“Then I shall refer to you as Jecaina, Queen Leysars.”

An odd mix of formal and anticipatory. For instance, in that one exchange he’d read into her uncertainty of how to address him, provided the answer, but then proceeded to negotiate the forms of address.

Her father would have hated doing that. Fetohep seemed to act as if there was no other way to be. Jecaina swallowed, aware he might hear that slight sound.

“As I said—I connected us via…speaking stone to thank you for your letter. It was most refreshing to receive.”

“The formalities of state cannot be ignored. I did wait the customary two weeks before sending it. I trust the ongoing war did not delay its reception unduly.”

Jecaina blinked and realized—the letter had been included with the [Messages], but it had to have been hand-delivered. By a Courier?

“Not at all, Fetohep. Two weeks…? Is that a customary wait?”

She realized she had inadvertently revealed her ignorance. Normally, she would be afraid to do that and she bit her lip hard. But Fetohep replied without missing a beat.

“Perhaps the custom has fallen out of date? It is customary to my understanding to wait two weeks before congratulating a new monarch on their ascension to the throne.”

“Wh—”

Ah. Jecaina fell silent. Just in case they were replaced just as fast.

And it hadn’t been a sure thing for her. Fetohep might still have wasted a large amount of time and gold sending that letter. She fell silent, reminded of the present.

It reminded Jecaina of one of those state dinners where she had to sit and talk with some ambassador. Raelt would be wooden unless he actually liked the person, and the River Wardens would fill the air, or the [Courtiers] and so on. Jecaina, like her father, had trouble if there was a lull in the conversation.

Fetohep did not. After the silence lingered for a few seconds, he spoke, not at all bothered by what was awkward silence to living people.

“I understand both Medain and Reim have continued to gain ground on Jecrass’ soil. A distressing turn of events. Do you believe the war has a chance of victory for Jecrass?”

The question lanced Jecaina like a sparring wound. She stared at the speaking stone. It lit up as Fetohep continued.

“Of course, if this is a matter of national secrecy, I quite understand. However, Khelt reveals no secrets.”

“I…I…that is a direct question to ask, Fetohep of Khelt.”

Jecaina got mad, and she couldn’t have said reasonably why. Fetohep’s reply was deadpan.

“I assume it is a practical one, however, Queen Jecaina. War is not so nebulous a thing as to be constantly obfuscated. If you would like me to present my opinion, there is little to bet on. If one were to try to gauge the outcome of Jecrass’ conflict.”

He was right. It was just stunning to hear someone say that. Lyfelt always said there was a new angle, a new plan. The River Wardens? Resist until the end! Defiance! Glory to…Lael was grimly determined. She didn’t couch her words as much as the others, but even she had not said it.

“Would you tell me what you see, King of Khelt?”

The undead ruler did not pause to soften his words. He did not hesitate, or change his level tone. There was something terribly cold and frightening about that.

“As it stands? Jecrass will fall within the month. Unless a change takes place that unseats how the war has unfolded since King Raelt Leysars’ capture.”

He said it, and Jecaina knew it was true. She sat there, and faced the truth no one had been willing to tell her.

 

—-

 

Fetohep hadn’t factored in a conversation with Queen Jecaina of Jecrass in his schedule, but he felt he could justify it in between his now-daily walk, betting on the three Pomle matches, two gladiatorial arena bouts in Nerrhavia, and watching the news.

In fact, it might kill a whole hour. He found the [Queen] to be somewhat like he expected. Young—allegedly free-spirited, but mostly fitting to a young [Prince] or [Princess] of her age.

He delivered his stark assessment of the war and began to elaborate. He, of course, had been watching all the current wars and was more interested in the Ailendamus conflict, frankly. There were more variables at play there.

“Given that Jecrass has no remaining reserves to call upon, I find it difficult to believe they can break the Steward or bring down a half-Giant in battle, aside from pure luck. Reim’s forces will slowly take fortification after fortification; Medain’s army is more rapid in advance, but they may fear a full battle. It only depends on which nation takes the capital and key positions first; Jecrass cannot endure if either army brings its full might to bear. The best it can hope for is a delayed conflict of attack-and-retreat over a narrowing span…”

Was it fun? Was watching the news, gambling, fun? Well, the gambling, a bit. There was always unpredictability. But things like the Jecrass conflict, Fetohep had seen thousands of times before.

Thousands? Perhaps hundreds. Enough to know how they almost invariably played out. Fetohep was going to speculate about the odds of Jecrass managing to overwhelm Medain’s heavy infantry in a pitched battle—of course, they’d lose the second and third ones due to sheer attrition—when he heard a sound.

It sounded like a sniffle. The undead ruler stopped.

“Queen Leysars?”

He hesitated. He had definitely heard a suppressed sound, like a sob. Very quiet, but it was not one that he, Fetohep, had really heard for a long time.

Tears did not exist in Khelt. If a child fell, they would be tended to. He heard a muffled reply.

“Nothing. Thank you, King Fetohep. Your reply was most…illuminating.”

She made no reference to the sound, but her voice was thick. Fetohep’s glowing eyes dimmed a fraction.

“I have been uncourteous. You have my apologies, Queen Jecaina.”

“No, your Majesty. This is the truth. No one else would speak it to me. I understand the fate of Jecrass. I wish I did not wear the crown at this time. But we do not run from the truth.”

It sounded like she was quoting someone. Fetohep inclined his head, though his figure was obviously unseen.

“Just so.”

Silence again, and this time it was Fetohep who felt the discomfort of it. Presently, Jecaina spoke.

“Thank you for speaking with me, Fetohep of Khelt. It has been most—illuminating.”

“Of course, your Majesty Leysars. If you should desire to again, I shall of course have the time to speak.”

She was surprised at that. He almost heard a chuckle.

“I…thank you, King Fetohep. That is actually most welcome. But I must go. Once more…thank you.”

“I express the same sentiments as my letter, Queen Jecaina Leysars. Congratulations on your crowning. May your reign be prosperous.”

He heard a sound. It might have been ‘thank you’. He heard her fumbling with the stone. Then silence.

King Fetohep sat there for a moment. Then he turned on the news. He felt less comforted when he saw the conflict in Jecrass. He listened to Jecaina’s name with more attention.

The next day, Reim and Jecrass clashed. And the Queen of Jecrass took to the field.

 

—-

 

Jecaina did not so much as swing her sword once the entire battle. She was there, as they tried to defy Zamea and an army who wanted to expand Reim’s reach yet further.

But Lael refused to let her near the conflict. Jecaina was surrounded by a heavy bodyguard of [Trick Riders], and she had sworn to leave if the half-Giant came towards her.

She was there for morale. And the [Soldiers] of Jecrass fought.

Still, Jecaina had seen battle only a few times before with her own eyes, and most recently was when her father had tried to save her. Then, she had been fighting for her life.

Now she saw what Raelt had seen all the war. It was sickening, horrifying.

The half-Giantess kicked through a battalion of [Soldiers]. Lael had tried to keep them away, harrying the half-Giants with [Riders], but she had to put the infantry in some position to fight Reim’s foot soldiers. And Zamea ignored the [Riders] and strode in. She and three half-Giants raised their bloody weapons and turned formations into strewn bodies.

That was a horror of its own. But the fighting itself—Jecaina saw a [Soldier] of Reim go down screaming with a javelin in his gut. He rose, bloody, and hacked at a [Soldier] until someone put an axe in his head.

Gore. Death—Lael fell back. So did Reim. They did not go for the fortress; Jecrass had stopped their advance for once.

But the cost? Over two thousand dead. Reim’s half-Giants were impossible to turn back without casualties.

And yet, the River Wardens called it a great victory. Warden Svinta had ridden with Jecaina and she raised a spear, shouting, and the [Soldiers]…

They cheered her. That was when Jecaina felt sickest. Bloody, wounded men and women.

The Daughter of Duels! Jecrass stands!

Queen Jecaina Leysars!

‘Daughter of Duels’. That was what they had dubbed her, in honor of the King of Duels. Though she had not swung her sword—and she didn’t have the courage to overrule Lael.

She was not her father, who had actually killed a half-Giant in battle, fought the King of Destruction. Jecaina owned a silver bell, not a golden one.

She was sick, afterwards. But she let no one see. She threw up in a potted plant in the palace.

The worst part was that she had told Lael they had to stop Reim, and the [General] had agreed. They had done it—so they might do it again.

Fetohep was right. And it was his words which had given her the truth which drove her to…

Well. First she got drunk. She did not dine in banquet; the official line Lyfelt put out was that she was fasting in honor of the dead, even as celebration should be had for repelling Reim.

In truth, Jecaina locked herself in her rooms and…

 

—-

 

“Is it on? King Fetohep. You were right. I saw a battle today.”

The slurred voice surprised him at first. But he replied just as quickly.

“Queen Leysars. I know. It was spoken of, in the news.”

“Really? Did they watch?”

No. In fact, it was a footnote and his own [Informants] had been more detailed than Pallass News Network. It was a small skirmish really, compared to all that had come before it. No half-Giant was wounded, casualties were ‘low’.

But he heard in her voice a mortal horror. It had been so long since he, Fetohep, had fought his first battles that he struggled to empathize.

Sympathy was easier.

“I—I could not fight. They call me Daughter of Duels, but I’m not my father. He could fight—I would be trampled or captured.”

“There is wisdom in that. A [General] or [Ruler]’s fall means the end of nation or army. Does your General Lael take to the front?”

Fetohep found this conversation more…personal. Probably because she was drunk. Jecaina had no one to speak to she would not dismay in the palace. She made a sound through the speaking stone. Perhaps a snort? Fetohep did not need to breathe.

“I should be ashamed. I am. My father taught me how to duel. How to fight and I thr—I couldn’t even watch the battle without flinching. I’m not a [Warrior]. I’m just…”

 

—-

 

Jecaina heard the voice reply calmly. She was just ranting, complaining. But the undead ruler’s words were…

“It is not shameful to decry war, Queen Jecaina. Great heroes of battle have often done so afterwards.”

“But I am a [Duelist]! I couldn’t even watch as they—”

The sight of blood and death filled her mind. And again, Fetohep’s response was reasoned. Even helpful.

“You were taught to wield a blade like a craftsman a tool. Did your father teach you to respect your opponent, to learn, to be humble and enjoy a sport where blood is not the goal—or did he teach you to kill?”

Jecaina stopped, lips on the wine bottle’s mouth. She lowered it.

There was truth. That battle had not been glorious, a display of arms. It had just been slaughter. If there had been anything that it gave—a sense of victory, honor—she might have rationalized it.

All she had seen was bodies piling up to delay the battle another day. She said as much and Fetohep agreed.

“Jecrass did not have the might to hold back the Nomads of the Sky or Reim’s forces. If they wish to force Reim back, more strength is needed.”

The implication that she didn’t know stung her. Jecaina snapped back.

“We’re trying. I have River Wardens reforming the [Trick Riders]—we will have Bicorn and Pegasus riders soon—”

She realized too late that she had given secret war information out. Jecaina was horrified, until she heard a sigh.

“A laudable notion if Jecrass were at peace with no war threatening for two or more years. Not the decision I would have come to in the interim, your Majesty.”

“What? What?

She put a hand to her head. The world was spinning—she looked around.

“But we need [Trick Riders]. The war cannot be won without elite forces.

“And will this initiative provide them?”

“Of course it will!”

Jecaina fumbled with a cork. She took a swig, gagged—Fetohep made a slight sound. Taptap—was he tapping his fingers on something metallic?

“Let me rephrase my statement, Queen Leysars. Will this initiative by your River Warden provide [Trick Riders] in sixteen days? Or sixteen months? Unless you have a River Warden of outstanding talent in elevating new [Soldiers], your revitalization of Jecrass’ ‘elite’ will take too long.”

The Queen stared at the speaking stone. And she sobered up. The potion in her hands, placed there by Aca to do just that, nearly spilled onto her bed before she stoppered it.

“But we need them.”

“Certainly. But they will not arrive in time to end this war. So, if that was the goal, Princess Leysars, it was in error.”

A cold flash struck her. She knew that was also correct. Warden Mulre had been so convincing, though…

“Similarly, Pegasi and Bicorns have breeding times which will eclipse the end of the war by months, even if they are already impregnated.”

“I have a Skill—breeding of animals—”

“Perhaps a mistake to hope for and rely on that, Queen Leysars. Ah. I do not intend to demean Jecrass’ efforts.”

He caught himself, perhaps to stop her from bursting into tears again. Jecaina didn’t—but she felt like he was still pushing a stiletto into her heart.

“Then both plans won’t work.”

“Not unless Jecrass can withstand for over a year. And if it can—there are better uses for such funds and manpower in the interim.”

Her face flushed. He sounded so—so—arrogant, lecturing her when he wasn’t at war!

“It was the only option we could think of at the time! What would you do, then, Fetohep?”

“I would look for existing veterans within my army and form a force out of them. And hope, count on the formation of a Unit. The [Trick Riders] have fallen. But that Reim and Medain do not sweep over Jecrass means some element of Jecrass’ army is keeping them at bay. Do not build what will be washed away by the tide in a moment, Queen Leysars. If I were you, I would fortify what still stands.”

She sat there, staring at the speaking stone. After a few seconds, she hung up. Fetohep didn’t realize for about thirteen minutes.

 

—-

 

What annoyed her was when people were right when she thought they should be wrong. Jecaina spent the next day, relatively hangover free since she had terminated her drinking, reading Lael’s more detailed reports.

Jecaina had learned to skim over certain details since so many figures came in. Now, she unlearned that bad habit. She had been at it all night and napped—but by the time Aca found her, she had found what Fetohep was talking about.

There were veterans who had endured from battle to battle. As in, more than the survivors of a [Trick Rider] group who kept being folded into smaller and smaller bands, or [Veterans] who were added and reinforced with newer [Soldiers]. The war killed even the most experienced [Soldiers], so there was no looking to one particular band to keep surviving.

Or so Jecaina had assumed. So Lael and the River Wardens had assumed, hence needing to replenish their numbers in the project Jecaina now knew would take far too long.

But this? She summoned Lael’s replacement in the capital, a [Strategist of Mobility], newly elevated by leveling in the war.

“Meroon. I would like to meet with some of the soldiers on the front who are resting here. Is that possible?”

The [Strategist] was a Centaur, possibly from the People of Zair, but a true Jecrass citizen. He bowed.

“Naturally, your Majesty. To hearten them and inspire?”

He looked at her and was surprised when the [Queen] shook her head.

“No—I want to meet with them to understand something. Can you provide…the Neer Riding Group, the Galmut Regiment, and…?”

 

—-

 

They were assembled for her, and knelt when the [Queen] arrived for them. She saw the gaps in their number; they would be replenished ere they fought.

“You fought Zamea at the battle. I was there.”

She felt stupid, but the [Captain of the Charge] bowed deeply.

“You inspired us to victory, your Majesty!”

Daughter of—

Jecaina ignored the cheers. She wanted to shake her head, but she instead shook the [Captain]’s hand. Awkwardly, she gestured.

“Your sacrifice, Captain, and that of your soldiers inspires all of Jecrass. I know this is an imposition while you rest, but I have brought something to express my gratitude for all those here…it isn’t much…”

Lyfelt had made this a public relations opportunity. The [Soldiers] saw dates, fresh fruit like the oranges everyone knew that the royal family loved so much, being placed on the table by [Servants]. They crowded around before the [Captain] tried to restore order.

“No, please, let them eat. I only wonder if I could speak to some of your people, [Captain]? Afterwards?”

He was all too willing to agree, and while many helped themselves, Jecaina found herself looking at nearly two thousand survivors of the battered group. And they were almost entirely intact…

Only about two dozen of them retired with oranges and glasses of grape juice in hand—plucked from vineyards rather than made into wine to support the war effort—in a more private setting. Jecaina found herself face to face with Fetohep’s veterans.

“[Horse Archers].”

The [Lieutenant of the Bow] bowed deeply.

“Yes, your Majesty. We got out of the last battle mainly intact.”

“And you haven’t taken nearly as many casualties as any other group in the war.”

The [Mounted Archers], [Rider]-[Archer] composites, some of whom had been one or the other but were gaining levels in both, bowed their heads. They looked guilty.

“No, your Majesty. The truth is…”

It was plain tactics. [Horse Archers] didn’t take casualties nearly as much as [Lancers], [Trick Riders], who raced into the fore of battle. They retreated from half-Giants, shot arrows on the flanks—their only real danger was an enemy cavalry charge or other [Archers].

“We’re ashamed to admit it, but we’ve let our brothers and sisters die while we shoot from afar.”

The [Lieutenant]’s cheeks were red. Here, at least, Jecaina could do something. She thought of what Lyfelt might say, and changed it to be actually genuine. She put a hand out and touched his shoulder.

“Lieutenant, you fulfilled your role in battle. If others fell before you—you will have to fight all the harder for the living and the dead. I think Jecrass has need of your bows, so I am grateful you are all alive. I would rather not one more [Soldier] died, so don’t regret it. Please.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

He bowed again. And Jecaina looked at the group of [Horse Archers], all of whom wanted to thank her for coming. And she knew what to do.

 

—-

 

Lael came to see her personally two days later. She expressed her concerns bluntly; the war had worn down any niceties she used to employ at court.

“Your Majesty, you’ve disassembled every mounted archer group in all of my forces and replaced them with new [Archers]. Am I to understand this new battle group will be under your direct command?”

“Not mine, Lael. Yours. But it will be this.”

“A mounted archery group?”

It was Jecaina’s idea. Strategist Meroon had made it more possible. Centaurs knew this kind of fighting.

“It’s hardly a new idea. The—Maelstrom’s Howling company in Baleros is famous for this kind of fighting force. They’ll harry our enemies. Loose arrows, flee. I intend to make them a Unit if I gain a Skill. Or if you do.”

“Begging your Majesty’s pardon. But we have [Trick Riders]—”

“Not anymore, Lael. We need a strong, veteran force and all of our old groups are worn away. They are high-level—higher level than any of the other soldiers by an average of six levels. Meroon has ideas…”

It was simple. Make up smaller groups, each led by someone with fast movement Skills. They would then shoot and run, and harry anyone but the [Steward].

Change the strategy of the war. Lael sighed.

“Your Majesty, we can do this. I would love to harry both Medain and Reim the instant they leave their camps. But they can catch even fast [Riders]. I would be much more comforted if I didn’t think I’d lose [Horse Archers] on each skirmish, despite their formations. And arrows—we’re starting to need to think about those, too.”

Jecaina bit her lip. It wasn’t a bad idea, Lael assured her. But it wasn’t perfect.

So Jecaina went back to Fetohep to complain.

 

—-

 

“Queen Leysars. It is a pleasure to speak once more. To what do I owe this call?”

She wasn’t drunk this time. And his ire over being hung up on had abated enough for him to stiffly acknowledge her—although he’d kept her waiting fifteen minutes this time.

“King Fetohep, I took your advice—”

The undead king blinked. Or his glowing, golden flames in his eye sockets actually winked out for a second before reigniting.

“You did what?”

“The veterans. The army—you were correct, King Khelt. But you see…”

He listened. Of course, he’d meant what he said when he pointed out there had to be some group that survived, some more elite army that was leveling. Mobile archers, of course. That her [General] hadn’t thought of it was probably a reluctance to experiment during a war.

“But we’re running low on arrows, and unless we can ensure the safety of our [Riders]…”

Ah. He saw the issue. The [Queen] had made a good effort based on what he’d told her, but she’d still ran into naturally fouling problems.

It was a fun puzzle. If only it was a hard one. Sadly, Fetohep didn’t even get to think on it because he knew a few answers. Time, history, was a teacher and he was an old student.

“Arrows can always be bought or obtained, your Majesty. But if you fear counterattack by [Archers], simply vary the composition of your mobile forces. You might be able to rapidly expand their numbers as well, by inducting youths that might hitherto be unsought.”

“How so? We can’t afford to simply redistribute armor or new weapons, King Khelt…”

He summoned one of the undead-drinks and sipped at it as he illuminated her.

“The simplest answer, Queen Leysars, is often the most expedient. You may be forced to purchase ammunition for those [Archers]…but the simplest ammunition has always been free. If the enemy may pursue or shoot back, do not allow them to.”

 

—-

 

The answer, and the first surprise-attack on Reim’s forces—then Medain’s—which stopped them from fortifying their stolen land, then attacks on their supply trains, was [Slingers].

Every [Shepherd] had a bow or sling. Slings were cheap, ammunition was a rock, and they featured in most armies as a kind of off-bow unit. Of course, bows had more range, you could enchant arrowheads, and so on; slings against heavy armor was like uh, rocks versus steel plate.

However, you could hurl a rock pretty damn hard into a helmet. It was just that—how would that help? [Mounted Slingers] and [Mounted Archers] had the same issues being ‘if I can hit you, you can hit me, or race after me with a spear and poke me’.

To that, Fetohep had simply answered with experience.

The first sorties of the new archery group saw them appear, using stealth or sheer speed Skills to attack the enemy. They loosed arrows, even drew blades and attacked if they thought the enemy was completely unguarded, and ran.

…But that was basic. Orthenon was no fool; he had [Riders] to compensate for half-Giants’ slow speed and they were Reim’s veterans, as nasty in the saddle as Jecrass’ best.

They raced after the [Mounted Archers], exchanging arrow fire, running them down; they just had to catch or cut them off! And there they received the weapon of Chandrar, cheap, unlimited.

Sand in the face.

[Slingers] hurled powdery balls of the stuff, covering enemy [Riders] in dust clouds. Try shooting with sand in your face. It was coarse…rough…it got under your armor…

It wouldn’t have worked if the [Mounted Archers] weren’t so experienced from the war. And Jecaina had called for all the [Slingers] across Jecrass—even those not in the army and asked boys who guarded flocks to practice this trick.

It was one trick, but it slowed both Medain and Reim down, and annoyed the hell out of the half-Giants, one of whom got a faceful of grit and nearly trampled their allies. Of course, they began to take countermeasures; a simple barrier spell blocked the sand-in-the-face trick.

So Jecaina ordered a [Sniper]-type [Archer] to hit [Mages]. Reim had to disguise them…or figure out different methods, or just not leave workers and groups without a lot more archer and cavalry support. Which slowed them.

And suddenly, they were reacting to Jecrass. Just a bit.

Well, it worked right until Zamea lost her patience and broke another fort in two. And Medain was still grabbing land.

 

[Queen (Temporary) Level 29!]

[Skill – Unit: Bows of Sand obtained!]

 

And they became more obnoxious still. Especially when it turned out the Unit allowed [Archers] to fire ‘sand arrows’ just as well as the [Slingers].

Sand in the face!

It was a valid tactic.

 

—-

 

Twenty four days into her rule, and Jecaina was calling Fetohep once, even multiple times a day. It surprised her that he had this much time, but she couldn’t help it. She kept telling herself it might be a bad idea to take advice from another ruler…but who else could she turn to?

Fetohep was surprised for different reasons. Mostly, that someone else had time to talk at all hours. Kevin didn’t. Even the news had lulls.

But what really surprised and even gratified him was…Jecaina of Jecrass was listening to his advice and acting on it.

He’d actually seen the reports of Jecrass’ successful raids in the news. Which gave him a curious sense of immense satisfaction.

Did Kevin listen to his platitudes on artisanship and act on it? Not that Fetohep could see. So, he listened to Jecaina talking about the war.

“It’s Medain and Reim. They’re both attacking Jecrass; we can’t fight both at once!”

Fetohep was playing chess against an opponent from afar. He moved a piece and it was sent via [Message] spell in chess notation. A new thing proposed by Chess Weekly, from Liscor. He was, of course, winning. Good opponents were hard to find. Some fancied themselves skillful since they had practiced every day since it had been invented, a few years ago by Niers Astoragon.

Fetohep practiced while they slept.

“Jecaina Leysars. If two mongrels attack you from either side, let them bark at each other before finishing the wounded victor.”

He rather liked that old platitude. Jecaina snorted at the comparison to the two nations and their leaders, whom Fetohep held in pretty much that level of esteem.

“Your Majesty Khelt, even my River Wardens and advisors suggested that. It didn’t work. I’m afraid neither side is that stupid.”

They played with how they addressed each other. Fetohep checkmated his opponent.

“Queen Leysars. Stupidity may be encouraged. If a tactic does not work, I suggest employing methods to make it succeed before abandoning the idea outright. A fool uses a spear to simply jab; every tool can be utilized in many ways.”

“How so?”

Jecaina fumbled for a piece of paper as Fetohep smiled. Well, he was always smiling—but this time he meant it.

 

—-

 

The Glorious Army of Medain roused themselves to take another piece of land the next day. They had been bored; marching in, seizing cities, demanding their surrender…but the Queen of Jecrass, who was rumored to lack any of her father’s spine, had wisely not provoked Medain as of yet.

Aside from skirmishes, perhaps ordered by the damned River Wardens and the sand-[Archers], no large-scale conflict had taken place.

Of course, the [General] knew it was going to happen at some point. Jecrass, or Reim. Jecrass was weak so it wouldn’t be more than 1-3 battles. But Reim? He was sweating fighting the half-Giants, [Mages], and the Steward, but High King Perric had engaged Reim on Belchan’s front so if it came to that, Medain would bring the hammer down.

The next city they came to would fall like the first. A [Messenger] was sent bearing the flag.

“Surrender to the Kingdom of Medain or face the consequences! High King Perric seizes this city!”

The man roared up at the walls. The defenders—what few of them remained, Jecrass having apparently abandoned the place and run with their tails between their legs again—shouted back. The [General], having a drink in the summer’s heat, heard them shout back.

“…But we’ve already surrendered!”

“What?”

The [Messenger] stared up at the walls. The [General]’s head snapped around. Had another part of his army—his cheeks bulged and he spat out his wine.

Reim’s flags were on the walls. The people within shouted that Reim had already taken this city.

“Do we take it, sir? It doesn’t look garrisoned—they might have known we were coming.”

“Hold—we have orders not to battle Reim until we take the capital or his Majesty orders. Move…”

The [General] was cursing. He decided to take another stronghold and sent [Riders] ahead to force the surrender.

That city was already Reim’s. And the next…Medain’s army came to a standstill as the [General] realized that Reim had swept in and taken every border settlement. Medain’s army was effectively surrounded by land now held by Reim, not Jecrass.

“How did it come to this?”

He sent urgent word to the capital as he sent more [Scouts] ahead. What he found made a pit open in his stomach.

Jecrass’ forces were in full retreat across the border to the capital. Reim was advancing non-stop and apparently, Queen Jecaina was considering surrender. To Reim!

They must have lost a huge battle. If they took Jecrass—

The capital had the same thought as the [General]. They had to take Jecrass first! Medain’s army changed directions.

They ploughed straight into Reim’s battle lines to slow Zamea’s advance while more armies were mustered and sent to end the war.

 

—-

 

The first clash between Medain and Reim in Jecrass probably surprised the hell out of Shepherd Zamea, leading the forces there. But she must have concluded Medain was ready to fight at last.

Jecaina was mostly surprised the ruse worked. What if Medain called the bluff? What if they realized those were stolen flags, or just decided to take the cities?

“A man or woman roused to haste makes mistakes never borne in slow certainty.”

Fetohep explained it to her in another of his platitudes. The fact that Jecrass would pretend to be defeated—the audacity had sold the lie as much as anything. Moreover, it was here that Lyfelt’s posturing as Jecaina had actually paid off.

Ironically, he hated the idea. Because, the [Prime Minister] pointed out, this meant war. Medain would now be going for Jecrass’ capital to end the two-pronged conflict.

Sure enough, more armies began coming down the pass and Jecaina amended her policy to fight both Medain and Reim. At least Reim and Medain were now battling it out. But was she in a better place?

Perhaps. Because the King of Destruction used his [Army of the King] and sent the southern battle lines into an uproar. He crushed Medain’s army on the Belchan front with his [Steward].

And a month later, Jecaina was still [Queen]. When even Fetohep had predicted Jecrass would be destroyed.

But they were still giving ground—fighting—people dying. Jecaina felt thirty years older, not thirty days.

 

—-

 

The [Queen] of thirty days was also looking forwards to Level 30. She understood her class was temporary—so too might be her Skills.

If she became a [Princess], she might change her Skills and certainly her class. If she became…[Queen]…she would keep it.

Level 30 might give her a Skill worthy of fighting back Reim and Medain. It might.

But in truth, she knew her father had hit Level 30—had changed to a new class and still he had failed to stop Reim alone.

The war continued, and she held on. She did better than anyone could have dreamed, but not because she was that brilliant.

Rather, Jecaina had learned a truth known to only a few people. Trey Atwood being one of them. And it was this: Fetohep of Khelt had excellent advice.

Not just ‘good advice’. He wasn’t just ‘smart’, but a six hundred year old ruler. When he gave you a battle tactic, or idea, he had seen it work or fail. He had the best advice she could hope for, and his little flourishes had turned ideas her advisors had into workable plans. No single grain of wisdom was an enchanted arrow—but they added up.

He was so helpful. And she had begun to respect the King of Khelt, who was clearly bored as could be. She had, in fact, talked with him more than even Trey Atwood at this point.

That was why Jecaina knew Jecrass was still going to lose. Advice was helpful. But it still didn’t stop Zamea from swinging her axe. The King’s Steward was still leading his forces and he was using his Skills.

A strange calm had descended over the palace. One of the bastions along the River Celed had fallen and River Warden Mulre was defending his lands.

Another defeat in a litany of defeats. But then, why was the [Queen] smiling?

It was not a happy smile. But the [Servants], racing about to placate the angry or distraught, stopped. The River Wardens halted in their urgent war council.

“You are dismissed for the day. I know what must be done.”

They opened their mouths to argue—and looked at their [Queen]. Lyfelt was the only one who voiced a protest. Perhaps because familiarity had blinded him.

Queen Jecaina sat on her throne. The speaking stone next to her. A voice began speaking the moment she turned it on.

“Ah, Jecaina. Good. I was reviewing the last battle. General Lael did her best, but it seemed to me on the eighth replay of the battle that a few elements could stand to be improved. Are you familiar with the Cavel Charge formation? That, and if you changed the placement of your fortifications…”

“Fetohep. Thank you, but it won’t be necessary.”

In his throne room, the King of Khelt was offended.

“Do you intend to cede more ground, Jecaina? Or is my advice no longer necessary?”

He huffed. Jecaina smiled. And it was in her voice.

“It is not necessary, Fetohep. Because it is over. Your advice has prolonged this war. But I am only fighting Zamea. More of Medain’s forces arrive day by day. You helped me fight Reim and Medain. But I will never win.”

“If you reach Level 30—”

“I will be twenty levels behind the King’s Steward. And still behind Perric. This war was lost, even had you personally commanded my armies and I followed your every word from day one.”

He was silent. This time, the young woman told him the truth. At last, he sat back and thought about the thirty days that had passed.

“It is a strange thing. But we began talking and I suppose I began offering comments, from monarch to monarch.”

“Yes. Fetohep—Jecrass is dying.”

He knew that too. But why did it pain him, all of a sudden? Nations rose and fell. Jecaina spoke, abruptly.

“Fetohep of Khelt. I speak to you not as Jecaina. But as Queen Leysars of Jecrass.”

He did not sit up; his posture was perfect. But Fetohep focused on her voice.

“Then we greet you as Fetohep of Khelt.”

She nodded. As he had taught her, she spoke smoothly. Ruler to ruler. A month ago, she had been a [Princess]. Raelt’s child.

“In the name of the Realm of Jecrass, I thank you for your support. I will not forget what you have done for Jecrass. And yet, my kingdom is ending. And I am not my father. Fetohep of Khelt, I see few routes into the future that do not end in the deaths of countless people, fighting to the last. Tell me. What would it cost for Jecrass to summon Khelt to war?

He froze on his throne. In distant Khelt, Fetohep’s golden eyes burned. He turned his head—and for a second, the warriors living in death stirred at their posts.

For a moment. Then, Fetohep sat back. And his answer was the same.

“…I regret, Queen of Jecrass, that Khelt does not—that is to say—we do not go to war for foreign interests. Only for Khelt’s safety. Thus it has been and ever is.”

“I see.”

Jecaina nodded. It was not the first time she had asked. It was an obvious thought.

But it was the last time she would ask. She had hoped…but she knew Fetohep by now. She smiled.

“Then, Fetohep, I fear I must make my decision.”

“Reconsider, Queen Jecaina. Whatever you plan, always think in calmness.”

He urged her. Fetohep drummed his fingers on the armrest of his throne. Such a strange, living gesture.

“If Jecrass should fall—it is not the end. A captive people can still rally. Vassalization is likewise not the end. If the war drags on, your advisor may be right that Medain will sign a peace treaty for the gains it already has. And ultimately—should the throne fall—I offer you sanctuary in Khelt.”

It was Jecaina’s turn for her eyes to open wide.

“You mean it, Fetohep?”

He had not conceived it a moment ago, but in the second he spoke, Fetohep was sure.

“Yes. Does Jecrass fall, I offer you the safety of Khelt no matter who might follow. Merely cross my borders and you will be safe as long as Khelt endures. That is the promise of Khelt’s ruler.”

She exhaled. He meant it. If the King of Destruction brought an army and demanded her…

But only Khelt. So she smiled and thanked him.

“You are kind, Fetohep. It seems at this point the wisest thing to do is…kneel. To Medain, Reim, Nerrhavia, even.”

“Sometimes one must. Khelt has knelt.”

“Yes. So why can I not?”

The [Queen] stood up. She carried her speaking stone through her palace, talking lightly, walking, nodding at [Servants] who bowed, and watched her. She came to a hallway where the sun was visible, where a [King] used to toss oranges on people’s heads. She lingered there, a moment.

“I know what is practical, necessary. But—I think I took the King of Destruction’s words too much to heart, Fetohep. I cannot bow. My father, my family, guarded and tended Jecrass. I love this place. It’s silly to feel like it’s mine—but I can’t bear to throw it away. Not me. I would rather die. But I know what you would do. Because you love your people.”

He was silent, listening. Jecaina gulped and went on.

“Better to be a vassal. Yes. I am not an idiot. I will not let stubborn pride kill my people, because it would be my fault. But Fetohep—thank you for your offer. But I could never be your subject.”

He stirred.

“I would not expect you to be.”

She nodded. Jecaina saw Jecrass glimmering in front of her. She gulped.

“I still hope—Fetohep? I hope though, even if I am never your citizen? I could count you as a friend?”

“…Of course. I already do so.”

“Thank you.”

Fetohep listened, as the young woman made mortal sounds. Gulping. Breathing heavily. They were not so foreign. Not so unpleasant as they had been in his long death.

“Fetohep. You have helped me more than I realized. Because now, today, at last—I know what I am. I know my value. I know the weight of my words, the breadth of my knowledge. And because I know myself—I know that I am not enough to win this war. I am not wise enough. I am not smart enough. I am not strong enough. But—it might be vanity. Yet I feel that if I had enough time…I might have done a better job. If I had a year, half a decade…but I don’t. I do not deserve my kingdom. I wish I did.”

Tears ran down her cheeks. Jecaina spoke.

“Thank you for helping me, Fetohep.”

“Jecaina, I—”

She turned off the speaking stone. Placed it on the balcony, and stepped away. With heavy steps, she did what must be done. Fetohep didn’t know what it was.

Half-risen from his throne. He stood there. Then, the King of Khelt seized the speaking artifact. He hurled it across the throne room, seized a weapon from one of the undead guards—

His servants cowered. Fetohep split the floor of his throne room.

His fury was over in a moment. But it was a rage of despair, more than true anger. He stood there, not breathing hard, but eyes flaring bright in their sockets.

“If only.”

That was all he said. Measured words even as he calculated the cost of repairs, the necessity—but inside a voice was screaming.

If only! If only Jecaina Leysars had the time not afforded to her! If only she had—for she might be a great [Queen]. Her words had echoed what the best of them had said.

He stood there, head bowed, for a long time.

 

—-

 

Jecaina Leysars, who would be the last [Queen] of Jecrass, had no more Fetohep. She had relied on him—but a [Queen] leveled by herself. That was why she had not hit Level 30, even though she had begun to act as one.

She knew herself. And that knowledge was power. She knew her ignorance, and the limitations of her advisors. And that was a strength.

She knew a great man, a ruler, who sat dead on his throne was wiser than she. She knew her enemies might be grander—and it was not a poor thing to admit this.

If there was any wisdom Jecaina had, she would put it to use today. An end to it.

It was harder than she thought. Oh, some of it was not. Jecaina went to her study and wrote down a few words. She checked them—reread them, made them better.

Lyfelt had taught her that. Write down speeches; some people were good at impromptu lines, but you made mistakes. She thought about that as she prepared [Messages].

“Aca. Tell the [Court Mage] these are to be sent with highest urgency to the following. Have the [Court Mage] report to me instantly when he is done; I will have him accompany me so I can respond. And—this to the Mage’s Guild, I suppose.”

She handed missives out. Aca hurried them along. Jecaina sat back.

The Mage’s Guild was fastest as the [Court Mage] got to work. They…gave her their regrets. Wistram decided.

“Send a [Message] to Wistram, then.”

Jecaina heard back from them almost instantly. She read the reply and grimaced.

 

…Wistram Academy is not able to afford scrying [Mages] to all parties at this time…

 

A stock response. Well, it was a slight delay. Jecaina sat there. She waited, tapping a finger on the chair. She did not have to wait long.

Queen Yisame was first. Then another…another…half replied in the hour. Yisame had questions; they all did.

Fetohep had taught her how to talk to rulers. Direct, diplomatic—unyielding despite being a broken kingdom in war.

A speaking stone was arranged. A male voice, surrounded by the chatter of an entire court.

“Does this one speak to her Majesty, Queen Jecaina of Jecrass? I am Minister—”

Jecaina instantly handed the stone off to the [Court Mage]. She refused to speak to the man. After some negotiation, she heard a female voice, bemused.

“I am Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Do I speak to Queen Jecaina of Jecrass?”

“Yes, your Majesty Yisame. Thank you for speaking with me. May we converse of matters of state?”

The woman audibly hesitated. Unnerved by Jecaina’s poise, perhaps expecting a different person from what she understood.

“It is permissible, yes. Your [Message] intrigues us. We agree with reservation. How shall it be done?”

The [Queen] smiled again. She adjusted her crown and spoke. That was unimportant, really.

 

—-

 

Wistram Academy was used to fielding requests for airtime by now. They didn’t even keep track of who asked unless you were royalty or important.

And even then—Queen Jecaina, labeled as ‘Princess Jecaina’ was shuffled to the bottom of a list a bored [Mage] was keeping.

There were more important things to do! A schedule to keep! No one had time for your little parade or—

“Excuse me, High Magus—we just received word that Queen Yisame is requesting a scrying mage? From Nerrhavia? She can supply the image herself, actually.”

The High Mage sat up.

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen? You verified, of course?”

“Um…”

Now this was what his job was for. He sent a quick [Message] to the team working Pallass News Network that they might need to adjust their broadcast. Of course, even Yisame had to wait, but Wistram treated with her carefully…

High Magus! The King of Destruction is demanding a scrying mage!

The High Mage promptly forgot about Yisame. He spun.

“Is there a war? A battle? Is he just bored again?”

“He says it’s a matter of state! He wants the one with him to begin broadcasting on the hour!”

“Queen Yisame—”

“Tell her to wait. Er—that we cannot accommodate her now.”

The [High Mage] was sweating. He hurried over to the [Mage] taking the [Messages]. But the first one called out.

“No, High Magus. The King of Destruction is saying that Queen Yisame and he both want another [Mage] in…Jecrass.

Now the High Magus slowed. He turned and pointed a wand at his head.

“[Amplify Hearing]. What did you say?”

The [Mage] held out the [Messages] helplessly.

“Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen in conjunction with the King of Destruction demand that scrying mages be sent to the following kingdoms and rulers…”

A prickling feeling ran down the [High Mage]’s back. He stared as a third [Message] came in. This one from…he turned.

“Get me the Pallass News Network team.”

 

—-

 

Jecrass had been unable to secure a single Wistram [Mage] even asking in advance. It turned out that other rulers could get whatever they wanted from Wistram just by speaking, not even bothering to shout.

And the King of Destruction did shout. And Wistram, despite being officially at odds with him, moved. They did not know why they were moving, first. Nor did Pallass News Network.

High King Perric was waiting to see his army’s glorious push into Jecrass; he had informed them of the timing. What he got was a yawning Drassi, sitting up and dully reporting the advance. Perric scowled. He hated her.

The feeling was mutual. The Drake’s eyes opened as someone began to whisper off-screen, though. She sat up, excitedly.

“Hold on, people. We might not be watching Medain right now. I’m getting word of a live event taking place. Chandrar—stay tuned. Wait. Wait…Jecrass? Slow down—we’re covering—no? The King of Destruction?”

Parts of Perric puckered up at the name. That man! That man had better not—

The image of Medain’s army marching and singing praises of their High King vanished. Perric rose from his seat with an oath.

“Get me the Wistram Mage! Now and—”

His words were choked off as Flos Reimarch’s face popped into view. He was staring at High King Perric. The man nearly climbed out of his throne until he realized—

This was the broadcast. Drassi herself recoiled in the foreground.

“Aha. So it’s working, is it? Am I first? Good.”

Flos Reimarch boomed. Someone spoke.

“Your Majesty, you’re too close. Please—allow us to—”

They backed up. The King of Destruction appeared in view. He was standing, in a war tent, location unknown. Perric’s hands clenched into fists at the sight of him.

That damned man! He had humiliated Medain and beaten him—now he was upstaging Medain’s hour of triumph again? Were there no limits to how far he would sink?

Perric was about to castigate the Wistram [Mage] and demand to know what was going on when someone else appeared. And the screen—split.

Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen appeared on the left side of the screen. Flos on the right. he was staring at something and blinked.

“Ah. I see her! And myself! Queen Yisame.”

“Flos Reimarch.”

The [Queen] blinked a few times, and then sat back. She was on her throne. It was perhaps the first time the two rulers had met face-to-face in an age. Perric stared.

“Fascinating. I am here. So are you—are we waiting on the rest?”

“It appears so. King of Destruction, it pleases me you acceded to this moment despite the war between our kingdoms.”

“Ah, well, it is gracious of you to do so. Besides which—would you mind ceasing your invasion? It is getting rather tiring, swatting down your chariots as they buzz about like flies.”

She smiled thinly.

“Nerrhavia will see Reim fall within the month, King of Destruction. But perhaps this is not the time to debate your kingdom?”

He gave her a wolf of a grin.

“What in the name of Selphid’s foul tits is going on here?

Perric roared. The High King saw another face appear. And this time it was—

“Femithain?”

Yes! Magus-Crafter Femithain of Illivere sat back at his desk, adjusting his spectacles.

“Ah, I see I am…‘connected’. Thank you, Magus.”

He nodded to someone off-screen. The rulers seemed to be using stationary artifacts rather than the shakier ‘live [Mages]’ who could broadcast events.

Yisame blinked at Femithain. She tried to speak, but was drowned out by Flos as he crowded closer to the camera again.

“Is that Magus-Crafter Femithain? Finally, a ruler who hasn’t declared war as of yet!”

Yisame frowned in the background. Femithain blinked. He inclined his head.

“Your Radiant Majesty, Queen Yisame, King of Destruction. Greetings. I assume I am not late?”

“Not at a—”

Not at all. Incidentally, Magus-Crafter, I hear your Golems are quite extraordinary! Would you care to sell some to me? Illivere hasn’t responded to my requests. How is Nsiia? I trust she is being treated well?”

Flos was louder than Yisame, to her clear annoyance. Femithain hesitated and was spared having to answer as someone else appeared.

The screen split further. Drassi actually disappeared as more faces popped into view. Perric stared. He realized each one was a ruler of their land.

Next, was the leader of the Claiven Earth, their Treespeaker or whatever his name was. He appeared and Flos jabbed at the half-Elf, who ignored him completely to greet the other two leaders.

Then—and then—six rulers appeared.

 

Flos Reimarch, King of Destruction.

Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Femithain, Magus-Crafter of Illivere.

The Treespeaker of the Claiven Earth.

Orjin of Pomle, the Strongest balancing on a pile of rocks.

…And Fetohep of Khelt.

 

Perric recoiled at the sight of the last ruler. Even Femithain blinked; Yisame was not so subtle, nor the Treespeaker.

Orjin didn’t appear to care, but Flos frowned.

“You’re attending this too, Fetohep? I didn’t know you were invited.”

“I have acceded to this meeting of thrones, King of Destruction. Not for your benefit. Far stranger that you are present when the Quarass of Germina is not. Perhaps she is busy.”

Six rulers. Perric knew the Strongest of Pomle, even if he didn’t know Orjin. Why was the man balancing on rocks? Yisame kept staring as well—not to mention at the fact that Orjin was relatively bare-skinned.

“Is this appropriate for the meeting, Strongest of Pomle?”

The Treespeaker of the Claiven Earth looked similarly uncomfortable. Orjin opened his eyes.

“I am not sure what this meeting is about. My [Secretary] informed me I should take part. So here I am.”

A Drake hurried to whisper to him. He leaned over, still balancing on one leg.

Six rulers. And High King Perric realized they were not including him in this, but it was a number of powerful rulers in his region. And second—they were waiting for someone.

“Are those Wistram [Mages] not in position yet? They’re covering the war! Whom do I have to shout at?”

“The King of Destruction is, for once, correct. Nerrhavia does not wait on ‘technical issues’. Where is her Majesty? We have all agreed to come here at her request; does Wistram seek to offend all our thrones?”

Yisame snapped at an unseen speaker. Perric frowned. Her Majesty? Orjin frowned.

“What are we doing? Explain it slower, Salii.”

“Strongest of Pomle, this meeting was agreed to by all the rulers—and one [Secretary], it seems—to decide—”

Femithain was addressing Orjin as Flos shouted something in the background. The Speaker of Trees was frowning around, trying to get a word in edgeways as the first mass-call devolved into chaos. Fetohep was engaging in a lengthy greeting to Yisame, who was trying to listen while addressing someone off-screen—

Then she appeared. Princess—no—Queen Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass sat on her throne. Perric stared.

The rulers looked up.

“Ah. There you are.”

Flos grinned. Fetohep’s golden gaze locked on her. Jecaina stared at something—a glowing scrying orb, and then looked up.

The camera and her personal viewing lens were not in the same place. And she was sitting on her throne—a bit away from the ‘camera’.

High King Perric stared. What was going on?

“Rulers of Chandrar, your Majesties, Magus-Crafter, Speaker of Trees, and Strongest of Pomle. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting.”

Queen Jecaina spoke. She inclined her head and all the rulers did likewise, even Flos. They knew what was going on.

Perric did not. But he didn’t like it. And—seeing Jecaina now, instead of the fawning letters begging for this or that—she did not seem like a helpless young woman overwrought by her crown.

Another copper penny dropped. The High King realized a lot of things in that moment. He might have acted on the rampant fury rushing through him, but everything became clear to the audience—and himself—the next moment.

Queen Jecaina looked at the scrying orb. She was smiling—but it wasn’t a real smile. It was unhappy, and she looked young and old. The crown sat on her head, as if she had forgotten it was there, so much it had been a part of her.

“Hello. I am Queen Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. To those watching—I have called upon six great rulers of Chandrar, wise and knowledgeable leaders of their nations all. Each one I trust for different reasons, even if we are at odds—”

She nodded at Flos and he inclined his head with a smile.

“—to weigh in on a decision that has haunted me since I was crowned. I am young to the throne of Jecrass, and have not reached a verdict in an issue of…morality. Judgment. Thus—I asked for the aid of a council of my peers.

High King Perric felt something was wrong here. Where was he, Perric? Medain? Hello? He called for the Wistram [Mage].

But no one was answering his [Message] spells. Jecaina went on.

“The issue is the heart of the war between Reim and Jecrass. A tragic—no, horrific incident for which my father was forced to go to war over. An event we all witnessed. Please—bring him in.”

She turned her head. And Perric, the watching world, saw a man slowly led forwards by a pair of [Soldiers].

Lyfelt of Belchan. The man was terrified. Also—gagged. He stood there, staring at Jecaina. Perric sat back.

“Dead gods, she’s going to execute him in front of everyone.”

He was of course, wrong. He did not know Jecaina.

 

—-

 

Fetohep of Khelt had not been told what was happening. He had agreed, instantly, but the King of Khelt, to some, their first time realizing that an undead held the throne, sat there, eyes flashing golden as he and the others listened. Jecaina did not need to speak overly long.

“All know Lyfelt of Belchan. That my father defended him—or the slaughter of Belchan’s rulership and their families—”

“I reneged on the families.”

Flos interrupted. Jecaina looked at him and he sat back. He was quivering with fury. Jecaina spoke on.

“—my father, King Raelt of Jecrass, did not decide Lyfelt’s fate. The King of Destruction would have his death—and all of his officials—to end this war. I refused, just as my father did. Jecrass should not give up a man’s life even when threatened. Yet. The issue weighed on me, because injustice was done. A tribe of Gnolls, slaughtered nearly to the last. More victims. How am I to judge a man who was my father’s friend? Who raised me? Who…might not have known?”

Her head bowed for a second. Then it rose.

“I understand that I do not have the scope to pass judgment—or the impartiality. Thus, I requested six of the most trusted rulers available. You sit now, rulers of Chandrar, in judgment. Seven thrones shall decide Lyfelt of Belchan’s fate. Whether he is guilty or not. I shall abstain, unless a deciding vote is needed.”

This was television! Drassi was dancing in her studio since she wasn’t on air. And she wanted to be part of this one.

But this was a time only for the rulers. They were live. Their people—other rulers, viewers watched this. A man’s fate. Lesser [Kings] were not invited.

And Jecrass’ people watched Jecaina. So did Lyfelt. He looked accusing. Betrayed. Pleading…Jecaina met his gaze.

“So. Then. Let there be justice for all to see, from minds wiser than mine.”

She met Fetohep’s gaze. And he bowed slightly to her.

 

—-

 

The trial of Lyfelt of Belchan was simple. Chaotic, yes, confused, yet.

Half wanted to speak first. Some spoke over each other, in outbursts—at one point, the Speaker of Trees’ son came in to ask if he wanted to pick—he was hurried out of sight.

Orjin of Pomle began practicing punches until he was asked to stop. Nsiia poked her head in to stare at Flos.

Wistram’s viewer-count was skyrocketing. They were breaking all records. War? Forget war. The life of a single man was at stake here.

Gnolls were watching. And Jecaina presided.

She hadn’t thought she would, but when Fetohep kept calling Flos ‘boy’, or ‘child-king’, someone had to stop Flos from retorting. Someone had to—so she ended up asking people to wait, or be silent.

They all spoke. Flos first. He did not need to speak overly long.

“I will have Lyfelt’s head. And no force will compel me otherwise. I will have his head—the head of his officials—you saw the slaughter. Need I describe it? Need I ask the boy who watched his tribe die? If I must, to convince you that he is dead, I will. Even if every nation tries to oppose me, I will lead my kingdom to Rhir’s hell to see him dead.

It was not a classic trial as Earthers knew it. Because the defense was Lyfelt himself. And he spoke.

“I did not know, your Majesties. I did not. Believe me! I may have been…flippant…but how was I to know what one village would do?”

Cross-examination was every ruler. Some spoke more than others.

Some were more at home than others. The Speaker of Trees was actually far more comfortable than Femithain. Both decided matters like this, but Femithain didn’t like being on air all the time.

Orjin likewise. Yisame seemed equally unsure, but she actually played to the audience, reacting to the other rulers.

Fetohep was most at ease. As if he was born to be seen by countless people; then again, he had no mortal tics. He vied for the most speaking time.

You could spin out the trial into a story of its own. A long debate. Arguments. Pettiness. But the end was all that mattered.

Lyfelt begged. He pleaded. He insulted the King of Destruction, trying to play to his audience, use Skills—but his judges were rulers far removed. He stood firm, shrank back on his convictions.

Jecaina saw him clearly. He was not a bad man.

No—that wasn’t right. He might be, but he had not set out to be one. He had compromised morals she would not. He was greedy, careless…

Did that mean he should suffer for ignorance? In the end, six rulers spoke.

“I will have him dead. Nothing said sways me.”

The King of Destruction was predictable. Femithain, the Magus-Crafter, somewhat likewise. He stared at Lyfelt, and there was dislike even behind his eyes after all was said and done. Lyfelt’s hair was messy, he was sweating and pale.

“I say that as a ruler, laws passed, crimes committed under your governance reflect on those at the top. This tragedy was eminently preventable. I do not vote in favor of death, and I do not hold all of Belchan’s leadership to blame, as I have reiterated. But I do find Lyfelt guilty of the crimes laid at his feet.”

It seemed split then, and then the Speaker of Trees stood. Lyfelt turned to him and Flos frowned deeply, because the half-Elf had seemed as peaceable as Femithain.

And Jecaina had sworn to break the tie, or uphold a majority. The half-Elf looked into the camera, and spoke.

“As one of two non-Humans present—”

He nodded to Yisame. The Stitch Woman inclined her head.

“—I can only present my understanding of Belchan. I speak for the Claiven Earth in this matter, because I must, because I was asked. Because my insight may supersede other’s. With this in mind, I find Belchan’s attitude towards non-Humans telling. Gnolls were slaughtered, while Humans made their way to Reim with far less aggression. Lyfelt of Belchan knew of this. Children have died. Enough…I am a father. I say enough. The Claiven Earth do not suffer him to live.”

The former [Prime Minister] turned white. He looked at the Treespeaker. The half-Elf stared at him, then his viewpoint turned dark. He did not even stay to watch.

Orjin of Pomle was next. He stood there, clearly unhappy with his decision. The big man spoke, at last, as [Martial Artists] stood, watching, behind him.

“I am a [Martial Artist]. Strongest of Pomle. I rule on matters like this. When murder occurs—I rule on intent. Always, there is an option to let those accused seek death in a way they find honorable. But Pomle does not kill unless necessary. I cannot weigh this man’s crimes.”

He looked at Lyfelt. The man choked.

“Strongest—”

Orjin ignored him. Jecaina slashed a hand and Lyfelt was gagged. Orjin went on.

“Ignorance. Law. These sound like excuses. I do not believe Lyfelt is innocent. Nor will I see him dead. However he is punished—let it be so. Give him to the families of the Gnolls, and that will be his death. Give him to the King of Destruction, and let that be his death. Or give him a chance for his own end. But he is guilty. That I cannot see the weight of it does not mean it is not there.”

Hope—if there had been any for Lyfelt—dwindled.

Queen Yisame and Fetohep were left. The [Queen] looked as though she had been planning to give a speech, but the eloquence of the others had made her reconsider. She looked into the camera and slowly extended a hand.

A single thumb, pointing down. She delicately withdrew it and sat back.

A gladiatorial gesture. Death.

The last was Fetohep. Some people turned away rather than stare at the revenant [King]. But he sat there, among the peers of Chandrar, a valuable voice. Jecaina smiled, but not really, at him.

“And what will you, Fetohep of Khelt?”

He waited a second, before replying.

“Wisdom from my peers. It has been long since such a gathering of Chandrar’s rulers was called. And it was to rule on the fate of a throne then. Queen Jecaina of Jecrass.”

He nodded at her. Yisame, Flos, Femithain—all of them blinked at the gesture. Fetohep went on.

“You invoke Khelt’s ruler. I rule as if it were one of my subjects, who art beloved, who committed such a crime. For a deed such as this?”

His eyes flashed golden.

“I would not even take their bones in service to Khelt, but bury them outside my realm in a place forgotten to time. Those who rule are responsible for the lives of all who pass in their domains. If they grant safety, their word is their bond. Lyfelt of Belchan dies.”

It was done. Not even 1-5. Only Femithain and Orjin had even spoken out against death. By any measure…

Jecaina rose, slowly. She looked at Lyfelt. Let me speak, the man’s eyes begged. Let me try one last time…

Now, the audience waited. The [Queen] looked around.

“The leaders of Chandrar have spoken. Nothing more need be said. Lyfelt…”

She stumbled over her words.

“Dies.”

The man collapsed. Flos Reimarch smiled.

“Let it be an end to this war, Queen Jecaina. The fate of the others we may debate. I will even accept the ruling. But Lyfelt—I shall order my armies back. Give him to my Steward and—”

“No.”

The King of Destruction stopped. Jecaina turned to face him.

“King of Destruction, I called this conclave of authority to weigh in on Lyfelt’s fate. It is not for you to execute him. That burden—that responsibility is mine. My father fought a war in the name of his principles. I will not give Lyfelt to you.”

“But he will die.”

“Yes.”

The King of Destruction folded his arms. After a long moment, he nodded.

“Very well. My cause to war with Jecrass is then—”

“The war?”

She interrupted him. Jecaina stood there, looking at Flos. She half-laughed.

“King Reimarch. This war has gone beyond one man’s fate. Even the fate of Belchan! You have brought death and destruction to Jecrass! Now, the vultures and hounds circle! You may believe there is no more cause to war with Jecrass, but we have cause to war with you!”

He stared at her. Queen Yisame bestirred herself from her throne. Jecaina went on.

“If you had not made war—if you had suggested this—if you had asked my father to ride with you, or simply asked to exist in peace, perhaps we would have been allies. But King of Destruction, look at what you have done. You know how many of Jecrass lie dead. I do not accept your call to end the war. And you will return Jecrass’ lands.”

Flos Reimarch blinked at her. Yisame applauded quietly. Orjin, Femithain, Fetohep, waited. The King of Khelt was grinning.

And yet. The King of Destruction shook his head lightly.

“I understand your rage, Jecaina of Jecrass. But one of those dogs is barking from the north. If you will not make peace, then I caution you. Takhatres has returned to me. My Steward advances. Do you wish to make war despite knowing that?”

She just looked at him.

“I will not let Reim rule Jecrass, King of Destruction.”

His eyes flickered. What had been something like admiration turned to…

“So be it. It grieves me—but my Steward shall see you before I. Let us hope whatever you intend can stop him. Either way—I thank you, Queen of Jecrass. Let justice be done.”

He turned. His viewpoint went blank. But no one had missed the look he gave towards Queen Yisame. She looked at Jecaina. Fetohep slowly watched as all the viewpoints in the conference call turned dark.

His was last of all. He stared at himself.

 

—-

 

Thirty three days after her ascent to her throne, Queen Jecaina had shown herself to be a [Queen]. At least, so they told her.

It was time. Medain was coming for her. High King Perric had realized she was no dancing puppet, no frail girl.

The [Steward] was coming too. Her River Wardens had been admiring and horrified.

Jecaina was neither. She was calm. She knew what had to be done.

Tell Queen Yisame…

She didn’t say it just yet. She just sat there. The best option, after all, was the most expedient. But how bitter.

She had felt like a [Queen] there, just for a moment. And then…

Lyfelt was dead.

She had not televised that. She had not made a spectacle of it. She had asked him and he had taken poison. She had not watched, but been told when he passed.

And she had wept for him. She had wept for her memory of the man. That it had come to this.

But it had been…justice. As just as she could give him.

Fetohep had called her, afterwards—well, all of the rulers did, except for Orjin. To congratulate, talk—even the King of Destruction had asked her to reconsider and join him.

Oh, fleeting glory. But Fetohep had made her feel proud.

“Well done, Queen Leysars. I did not suggest such an event.”

“You inspired me, King Fetohep.”

“But you have remade history on your own. For that—I express my candid admiration. May you reign well.”

And they both knew what was coming. Jecaina had fixed her hair. She doubted Yisame would…

If only. She wanted to be [Queen]! That was why. Jecaina had felt the level up building in her very marrow. But she hadn’t slept. Not with Lyfelt. Not with…

It mattered not. Tomorrow, she would find out what she was. Today, she greeted the dawn. If only. She thought of the one king she would have ever…but she meant what she said.

Not even Fetohep would rule her. Could not, if she was who she was. Could Jecaina be a [Princess] again?

What would her father do? She stood there a moment. Then, she had an idea. It came down to her as she beheld Jecrass, green lands, the rivers, and in the distance, the smoke of approaching war. As she thought of the Herdmistress, the lack of time—

Her conversations, the other rulers. The [Queen] of thirty days turned as Aca approached, pale.

“Your Majesty? Yisame is waiting.”

“Tell her to wait a moment longer. I have one last…”

Queen Jecaina spoke one last time. Then she spoke to Queen Yisame. And delivered the bad news.

 

—-

 

Chandrar was still buzzing from the notable meeting of leaders. ‘The Deliberation of Belchan’ was the working title that Pallass News Network was going with.

So there were eyes in place to see. The first word of it was the weather, fittingly enough.

A sandstorm blew over the land. So vast that it kept everyone indoors. Even Flos Reimarch, King of Destruction, wouldn’t fight in that kind of weather.

He was supping with Teres for lunch, waiting on word from Orthenon—even he would probably halt to take Jecrass’ capital. Flos Reimarch was moody; he had ordered the [Steward] not to kill the Queen of Jecrass, but her words had bothered him.

Your Majesty!

Mars herself tore open the tent flaps. Flos looked up and was on his feet with sword in hand in a moment.

“A sandstorm attack?”

They were clashing with Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Teres had her sword out nearly as quick. Mars strode over to him.

“No. Worse. Flos…”

She spoke. Teres heard a ringing in her ears. That couldn’t be true. It just…

The King of Destruction stood there, eyes wide. He looked at Mars. And then he exclaimed.

“Of all the ways and things I imagined—is this the end of my kingdom?

 

—-

 

The first sighting of them was the border of the Shield Kingdom of Germina. [Scouts], the few of them on this border, more watching the Great Desert, were hunkering from the storm, but watchful for tricks.

They did not have to be keen-eyed. The whipping storm of sand, the most intense here—began to reveal shapes. They stared as figures emerged from an angle they would have never dreamed of. They raised the alarm. But Reim—Germina—no one knew what had caused it.

But the first giant made of bones, coated in gleaming armor, walked over Khelt’s borders. And then another. And behind it came the legions of Khelt. Warriors without end.

Not the scrap warriors. Not the broken warriors that would drown enemies in numbers.

Khelt’s army. Clad in shining armor. Warriors in life and death.

First ten thousand. Then a hundred thousand. Then—

A shape pierced the sandstorm as Wistram’s news network arrived on the scene. [Mages] recoiled. Drassi screamed.

What is that thing?

It looked like no creature she had ever seen. Tall—taller even than the giant skeletons! A moving fortress of dead, chitinous armor. Bone and chitin, moving, gigantic legs, tearing through the dust—

“That…might be one of the Jaws of Zeikhal. The greatest predators of Chandrar.”

Sir Relz adjusted his monocle. The vast war monster crawled forwards. A creature mortal armies would tremble to behold. And—it had been altered.

A kind of…saddle…no, throne, was installed on its head. And guess who sat there?

Fetohep of Khelt. He carried an enchanted halberd and wore the armor of kings. Behind him marched legion. He saw the few forces at the border of Germina cower at the sight of him.

I am Fetohep of Khelt! Who will stand to bar my way?

His voice split the air. The watchers from Wistram, the forces of Reim, Germina…fell back another mile. Fetohep saw the great beast he rode cover hundreds of feet with a single motion.

His armies marched. And standing with him were six figures. An archer, a warrior-mage, a…

They were dead. Their skulls showing, fragments of skin clinging to their bodies. They were not as mighty as some of the greatest of Khelt’s protectors. But they stood with the king on his throne.

They were his comrades. Fetohep’s mortal friends. Bodies still bearing their death-wounds.

“We ride again.”

He told them. They didn’t move. They stood there, awaiting his orders. They were not Revenants. They had died before they could be made into ones with him.

His Queen had apologized for that. Weeping, if she could but still shed tears. Fetohep reached out to one of his friends and tried to recall…

“If only you were more than bone and decayed flesh. If only you had joined me in my long service, my boon friends, my companions unto death. What might I have been then?”

He mourned them, even as they went to campaign once more. Fetohep halted and the countless undead, seemingly limitless in number, halted. They had crossed over Germina’s border. Now—the King of Khelt looked down at the few mortal figures among the legions. Commanders of Khelt all. They looked up at him.

Warriors of Khelt. We ride in Khelt’s name. Quicken your pace.

Below him, the first ranks of undead warriors—skeleton warriors, perhaps even at the level of Ghouls—moved forwards. They began to walk. Then advanced to a trot.

Then they ran. They sprinted across the ground. The second rank followed. They sped up—and never slowed down.

Khelt’s army began to advance at a fast pace. As fast as a skeletal body could sprint. Slower than a horse. But they did not slow the first hour, or the next.

While he rode, the King of Khelt received a speaking stone call. He’d brought it along, on the assumption it was needed.

“Fetohep of Khelt. I cannot speak long. But—what are you doing?”

The Quarass’ voice was breathy. She had to have noticed the…army…sprinting across her lands.

“I am engaged in the business of Khelt, Quarass. I would have asked permission to cross your lands, but this involves the safety of Khelt. I swear by my people no harm shall come to Germina save that it is offered. Will you allow me passage?”

“The business of…yes. But how is this Khelt’s security?”

“You will see.”

Fetohep rather enjoyed hanging up on her. He continued his advance.

 

—-

 

“…No idea what has set Khelt off, is there, Noass?”

“None, Sir Relz. And this—I didn’t know an army of undead could run like that. How is it possible?”

The King of Khelt was why. Normally, Khelt’s strength lay only in its borders. But Fetohep had taken to the front in the first time in…centuries.

And every nation in this region of Chandrar had stopped fighting. Nerrhavia, Medain, the Claiven Earth—all were watching to see what was happening.

Reim’s armies were pivoting, trying to regroup. But—the [Army of the King] had been used.

If ever there was a time to strike, it was now.

For two days his army marched. Only the living suffered. Yet they moved with fervor, after their king. He spoke to them, to the skies. To his long-dead companions.

“They make much of Nerrhavia’s hordes! Mine are without limit! Medain is said to have all the treasures of a lifetime. Khelt’s vaults stretch beyond imagination. Reim’s forces once took all of Chandrar and the world by storm, but Khelt’s soldiers have gone further than the King of Destruction ever dared dream.”

They had forgotten that fact. Fetohep’s head turned. He spoke.

“The world shall remember Khelt anew. And to my subjects who idle from passion to passion—they shall never want. Never yearn for needs. But let them dream. Let a passion be born into their hearts. Let the topic of every hour be war, and their dreams of glory. And let those who will it take up arms.”

He was enacting decrees as he rode. For the first time, Khelt was calling its citizens who so desired to lead, to fight—if they wished it.

Some would die. But for any who enlisted and fought for a year’s time, the right to bear children would be given.

After two days, the army of Reim met Fetohep’s at the border of Hellios and Belchan. Fetohep had ignored former Queen Calliope asking his intentions, refused all hails for two days.

Now, he came to a stop. And he saw the Nomads of the Sky. The Steward of the King of Destruction—

Not the King himself. But he was ready to ride on Fetohep’s flank. The Steward, Zamea, Parasol Stroll—they were all there. An army brought low only once in recent memory. Half-Giants, the legacy of old—

The army of Khelt advanced and Reim shuddered for the first time in memory. For look up—and remember.

“My kin? My foremothers and forefathers?”

Zamea whispered. She stared…up…at a giant of bone. Fetohep heard her voice from afar. He would have laughed.

All species had come to Khelt, large and small. They had been welcomed, the tallest of the world. And the rulers had only asked for their service in death.

Fetohep of Khelt! What are your intentions?

The [Ruinbringer Steward], Orthenon, bellowed. Fetohep did not reply. Orthenon turned.

“Go.”

A single rider shot across the ground, bearing a white flag. Fetohep watched the person advance.

Bone giants, bearing enchanted javelins, aimed, tracking—but he overruled the authority of the living.

“Let her come. Halt the army.”

He dismounted from the great war monster and claimed an undead horse instead. He rode through the silent ranks as the young woman bearing the white flag, Teresa Atwood, approached.

Flos had sent her north, believing only one person could speak to Fetohep if…she was panting, winded from near non-stop travel.

“Fetohep. What—what are you doing?”

The King of Khelt’s eyes were shining brighter than she had ever seen him. He was…imposing. He stared down at her, garbed in armor, holding the halberd.

He had been a great warrior in life. Teresa stared at his army and quailed.

“My business is that of Khelt’s. Tell your Steward and your ruler, Teresa Atwood, that if they stand against me, I shall destroy them.”

She flinched. Fetohep did not lie.

“Is it…war?”

Her voice quavered in the air. Fetohep tilted his head.

“That depends on what his Majesty Reimarch wills. If he is amenable—I shall allow him to flee without bringing him to battle.”

“What does that mean?”

He told her. Teresa’s jaw dropped. She looked over her shoulder.

“You can’t just—”

“It is done. I will not tarry, Teresa Atwood. Will the [Steward] retreat?”

“He—I think he will.”

He had to. Orthenon was staring up at the giant of Chandrar, and Reim had fought 6-to-1 odds. But…a hundred to one?

“This isn’t war with Reim.”

Teresa had to clarify. She was already turning her horse, which was terrified of Fetohep’s dead one.

“Not necessarily. But tell me. If I did tell you I intended to take Reimarch’s head—what would that man have said?”

Fetohep was curious only about that. Teresa hesitated.

“If you were going to destroy Reim…he told me to tell you that, ‘he did not think you were that petty a man.’ Then he would have asked you where you wanted to end things.”

“I see.”

Khelt’s army began to march slowly behind Teresa as she rode like an arrow, giving her time to relay his words. Orthenon stared at Fetohep.

“He cannot be serious.

Zamea rumbled.

“Oh, but he is. Fall back.

The Steward cursed. Reim’s forces looked at him. He raised his spear.

Fall back!

It was not Reim that Khelt had come to destroy. Not necessarily. But as Fetohep’s army crossed through Belchan…it became obvious where he was going.

Jecrass.

 

—-

 

High King Perric of Medain had come personally with the bulk of his armies. He did not know why Khelt was marching. But he espied an opportunity.

After all, Medain had no quarrel with Khelt. And the undead were tamed, their teeth pulled so long as no one interfered with…with…

He realized Fetohep was making for him. His armies formed up.

Queen Jecaina of Jecrass brought her smaller forces to the side. Medain did not attack, even though they were close.

Fetohep of Khelt advanced with an army so vast you could not see the end of them. It was then that High King Perric, his forces having taken all of Reim’s fortifications, poised to take Jecrass once and for all, sent a [Messenger].

King of Khelt! What are your intentions towards Medain?

The High King stood with his Golden Ranks, sweating. Was Fetohep trying to take Jecrass for himself? He received a reply—not from the person on horseback, but from the King of Khelt himself.

Fetohep spoke, and his voice boomed across the ground and his army. Audible to all.

King Perric of Medain. Your armies stand upon my lands. Remove yourself before I turn Medain to ash and dust. You will release Raelt of Jecrass or I will cast your head into the sea.

Queen Jecaina had ridden all the way out here just to hear that. To see the distant ‘King of Adventurer’s’ face and reaction.

All the golden pennies dropped. Perric looked at Jecaina, in the distance. At Fetohep, who had come here on the ‘business of Khelt’. Defending his…

You whore! You sold yourself to that undead thing?”

He howled at Jecaina, and he was lucky his voice was not audible to Fetohep. Perric, High King, raged.

And he was once again wrong. He was right in a small way. For a small man with no imagination.

For look—

Here was the [Queen] of Jecrass. Jecaina rode at the head of her army as they looked at her. But she was…

[Queen of Covenant]. And she was still a [Queen]. No longer temporary.

Perric did not understand. But Jecaina did. It was so simple. She stared across the new border between Jecrass and Khelt.

She had sworn not to kneel to anyone, even in vassalage. And she had found a way to refrain from doing just that.

The funny thing was that she didn’t even need to marry Fetohep. As funny as that might have been—no. The King of Khelt was a practical undead.

“You sold him Jecrass?”

Warden Svinta looked like she wanted to faint as the heralds finally shouted the news for all to hear. Jecaina turned her head. Was that the People of Zair in the distance?

“A fourth of it. Maybe a bit more.”

“To the undead?”

“To the only kingdom who would guarantee Jecrass’ autonomy, Svinta. And who could bring Medain to heel now.

The High King was bellowing insults at her. Right up until one of the bone giants hurled a javelin. It soared high, high—everyone’s heads turned up to watch.

It landed among Medain’s army and exploded. Jecaina blinked.

Advance. Let us see if Gold-rank means anything in this day.”

Fetohep’s legions began to charge. Medain’s combined armies wavered—and began to retreat.

Jecaina was grinning madly as Medain’s forces raced for the pass, abandoning…everything. She would speak to Fetohep soon, but he had sworn to return her father to her.

Return her father, protect Jecrass from Reim and Medain. That was the cost of a fourth of Jecrass. And…

“You have sold our lands, the lands we were born on, Queen of Jecrass!”

Herdmistress Geraeri realized it first. The People of Zair had wisely moved out of the way of Khelt’s armies, but they couldn’t miss where Fetohep was claiming ground. Jecaina nodded at her.

“Firstly, you are nomads, Herdmistress. Your people move from place to place. You told me that yourself.”

“We have lived there for decades!”

“And you may still. If Fetohep of Khelt allows you. I would not anger him, by the way. For all the People of Zair’s might. And he might allow you to stay.”

It was part of the proclamation being put out. The people of Jecrass who lived in the lands under Fetohep would be allowed to stay if they wished it. But they would be people of Khelt. Fetohep would rule them—and he would rule this place. The rivers he now controlled meant Khelt would never go thirsty again. And if he established his undead dominion…who would take it from him?

On the day nearly forty days after taking her crown, the world was reminded of the nation of death, Khelt. They stared at the first expansion to the kingdom since most could remember.

Undead. On this day, Khelt declared war on Medain and began to invade, to rescue the King of Jecrass, while claiming—no, fortifying the land they had been sold by Jecrass.

As for the [Queen]? She was [Queen of Covenant], Jecaina Leysars. Queen of Jecrass.

They had known her as Princess Jecaina, the [Duelist Princess].

They had called her the Daughter of Duels.

Now, they called her the Arbiter Queen of Jecrass.

Death’s Friend.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am full dead. Normally I’m half-dead after a chapter…this is full dead.

A few things. Normally, I don’t talk about writing and more about whether I’m hungry. But this is a case where you can see why I wrote the Revenant and the Naga. To set this up by talking about Fetohep…

Also, I wavered on one thing. Which was the ending. I could have held it to a later chapter and done the meeting—and I was already about 10,000 words past where I wanted to be.

But this is the volume of plot advancing as fast as undead armies! And that’s pretty fast. They can outrun horses over time.

Anyways. Let me know what you thought. I threw a lot into this chapter. I keep aiming at the moon and the problem with that is that someone’s going to shoot back one of these days!

But I hope you liked it. Until next time! Short chapter! Short chapter! Short…why do I even try to lie to myself? Thanks for reading!

 

Ksmvr, drawn by Zelanters, commissioned by pirateaba!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Zelanters

Tumblr: https://zelanters.tumblr.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zelanters/

ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/zelanter

 

Emotes to react with by Plushie! (Plushie doesn’t like Perric…)

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Boppins

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Jecaina, Rie, Magnolia and more by Tomeo!

 


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102 thoughts on “8.08 J

  1. Leave a typo for the Arbiter Queen and High King Pooric! Don’t look at me, readers came up with that other one.

    (Monarch readers: Gorexn, MrWiggles, Scott Crawford, Kaitiaki, Radivel, tithin, Jim, Niello, Maladal, Patrik Axberg, Prince Pondincherry)

    • OH MY GOD THIS CHAPTER
      THIS kind of resolution, this SCALE is why the Chandrar chapters are my favourites. You can’t keep getting away with it! Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you for your hard work. This author doesn’t create cliffhangers unless it truly adds to the story. This chapter is better than most books I’ve read.

    • “Jecaina found herself face to face with Fetohep’s veterans.” -> “Jecaina found herself face to face with Jecrass’s veterans.”

      Or were you alluding to the supposed veterans mentioned by Fetohep?

    • Hey, uh, I just noticed, you know the main artwork for Rags? Yeah, pretty sure the artist who ‘made’ it actually stole it from Strathorax. He’s an author on SH and also an illustrator, and it’s actually a drawing of Opal, character from his story, DREADWOLF.
      This person – who goes for either Imperfect Magic, ExplosiveVent, or both, just changed the name on the drawing and swapped the fishing rod for a crossbow. Might want to check out what’s up with that.

      • The artist who drew that picture, Imperfect Magic, posted it in 2019. DREADWOLF, as far as I can find, didn’t even start being written until 2020. So unless you have a source from Strathorax that dates before 2019, its the other way around, Strathorax stole the picture and replaced the crossbow with a fishing rod.

        • Well blimey, you’re right. It’s weird tho, doesn’t the fishing rod look way more natural than the crossbow I’m the pictures? It even has a spot for the goblin to out her raised foot in and everything. Also Strathorax has made a bunch of other illustrations for his characters using the same style. Weird…
          Still, it’s undeniable that Rags’ version was posted first.

    • “Jecaina had been stunned, but they had bowed, swore fealty again, and left the room.”
      swore -> sworn

      “So, if that was the goal, Princess Leysars”
      Fetohep keeps changing the way he addresses her; I can’t tell if it’s deliberate the other times, but this instance seems wrong, he’s generally recognised her as queen.

  2. I didn’t consider it fully in my excitement reading the ending of this chapter, but Khelt’s population control was so strict and necessary because of their water restrictions! With these new rivers in his territory, no wonder he’s willing to provide childbearing rights to so many of his new soldiers, as well as accept the current population of those areas! Khelt is about to have booming prosperity!

    This was an incredibly satisfying chapter. The early despair was painful, yet slowly built into hope when presented with Fetohep’s advice. The peaks and valleys of this chapter, along with the worldbuilding shown, have made this one of my favorite chapters of The Wandering Inn thus far.

    Great work. Rest well, and in peace, full-dead author.

    • The population control is because in a utopia far fewer people die. If everyone could have children willy nilly the population would explode and beggar the kingdom. Khelt had plenty of water. Vast underground reservoirs have been mentioned in previous chapters fed by a continous water import.
      Sure this water rich land will be useful but the main reason to give children rights is that people will die as soldiers, although I dont know who is brave enough to face Khelts army. The new land may lack the massive undead protection khelt provides as long as Fetohep is not there personally

      • IRL the observation has been that the more developed the nation, the lower the birth rate. Its why Japan, for example, is facing population decline. Today many scholars think that the global population will stabilise at about 11 billion, and the 12th billionth person will never be born.

      • It was also done because it would give people incentives to work and not just laze around doing nothing. It’s part of why they have basic commodities but need to work and earn money to pay for luxuries, even if luxuries are somewhat common in Khelt. Even if they could give those benefits to everyone, the ruler refrains from doing so to prevent having a population that doesn’t contribute anything, which would in turn mean that eventually the utopia would collapse on itself.

  3. This was glorious, part of the twitch stream was deleted prematurely so I waited for the full release. I’m sad I missed seeing this written out but I loved being able to read the last third all at once.
    2nd longest chapter

  4. God, but this was a good chapter. That ending was excellent, even discounting the fact that Fetohep was his usual excellent self during the chapter.

  5. Great chapter, I thought Jecaina was going to accept vassalage under Khelt or yield her throne to the centaurs. Amazing outcome, glad to see Fetohep getting more involved.

    Most interesting for me is that this means Khelt no longer has geographically contiguous borders. I predict that’s going to cause problems, might even incentivise them to annex more territory.

    • Yeah, in real life such scenarios are always a powder keg bound to blow up.

      At a minimum, Khelt needs an aqueduct that crosses Germina, Helios, Reim and reaches Jecras. Otherwise, the new rivers wouldn’t be much use to the mainland.

      If diplomatic negotiations over the “Water of Life” transnational pipeline don’t go well, war seems inevitable.

  6. I am SO happy! I’ve been eager for a Jecaina chapter for months–honestly, since the moment Raelt was captured. And it was well worth the wait, a fantastic story of growth and adversity from The Wandering Inn’s second formerly-immature princess. So good.

    • Same here! And the way the chapter was structure, with over a month of events in one chapter, made the wait worth it in my mind.

    • It’s also fascinating if you compare Jecaina’s journey with Lyonette’s this volume. Both are thrust into having to take over their kingdom (“kingdom” in Lyonette’s case, since I’m not sure the Inn can count as a kingdom, but what do I know?) all of a sudden as tragedy strikes, both struggling with it at first because they have no idea what do to and then slowly growing into it.
      Jecaina learned valuable lessons about herself, her people, other monarchs… and where to get some damn good advice in a pinch. That to rule, sometimes you have to make compromises you’ll hate and sometimes you cannot make a compromise at any cost.
      Lyonette learned how to dance on the political floor in her own way, not as a copy-cat of Erin, but as herself, with her own style. She’s learned what she can do and new ways of applying her abilities she probably never would have thought were a thing.

      Both chapters ended very well, with that often mentioned mix of satisfaction, sour notes and foreshadowing of future issues that may arise from today’s events.

  7. This is again another novella where, in a persistent world, something new and enlightening can occur. Thoughts and character put into play with ease. TWI, almost misnamed at this point, always seems to somehow marry a story within a story and a grand plan together.

    Kudos.

  8. It… is kinda fucked up that she sold the land of what are essentially an independent and indigenous people without their consent.

    The ending was extremely cool, and that was a clever way to get out of it all, and I liked that chapter overall.

    I just hope that that gets discussed later, and that she faces some kind of punishment or headache or something. Because even if they’re nomads, even if Khelt is chill to them, even if they didn’t help Jecrass out… it’s still fucked up, especially considering how similar groups of people have been treated in real life.

    • I get where you’re coming from, and I absolutely see the parallels, but I think in this case it’ll probably work out, as it is only the land that is changing ownership, and will likely have no difference in law or treatment of the people. On top of that, this was happening anyways, since either Flos or High King Perric would have ended up in control of that land.

    • Independent, but not necessarily indigenous. There’s no mention of the centaur society predating Jecrass. Additionally, they were not a sovereign entity, were content to live in land considered to be part of Jecrass and not contest that fact, meaning they benefitted from Jecrass’ existence in terms of safety and stability, but were unwilling to contribute to its defense.

      So… I mean, if you were the ruler of Jecrass, this is just the obvious, more rational solution. They won’t help you, then fuck them. That’s how geopolitics works.

      • From the text:

        – “Firstly, you are nomads, Herdmistress. Your people move from place to place. You told me that yourself.”

        “We have lived there for decades!”

        and

        – Under her, the People of Zair had turned in decades from a nomadic tribe that could be accused of banditry and thievery and certainly was poor, into a power on its own level.

        So, quite likely not indigenious. I don’t have enough data obviously, but it seems more, that the centaurs wandered onto the land belonging to Jecrass less than a century ago. And while I appreciate their desire to be independent, this is not a realistic goal when living in a feudal country.

        • While they lived there they did not aid. They benefited by selling food for gold, picking the winner after a fight and using an army to protect their land if anyone tries to reclaim it.

          At best they claimed they would leave whenever they wanted… So why not sell the land since they said they would ditch them if things got ugly?

          They wouldn’t let you use it or benefit yourself and Knelt bought water even wth the underground reserves as they needed to keep refilling the water supply.

          Better the undead you can trust then the living you van not trust.

          • Exactly. Since they were content to allow Jecrass to claim the land they were in, they gained benefits, while contributing nothing. If they had been a *true* independent group, that claimed those lands as their own and refused to acknowledge Jecrass, I’d have more sympathy. But they were perfectly willing to *use* Jecrass for protection, and felt they owned nothing in return.

    • I don’t consider it fucked up at all. They were living on Jecrass land, not their own. They didn’t want to help? Well, that’s what you get. The Stonesoup woman wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. Now her greed and dismissiveness gets her no cake. And it’s entirely due to her own arrogance and bad decisions.

    • For one thing, I don’t think the distinction of them being an “indigenous” group really means much, seeing as the people of Jecrass are just as indigenous. Further, this was their choice. They said they weren’t willing to defend the land and would move on somewhere else if necessary. Jecaina decided to cede that land rather than losing all of it, and especially losing land that the inhabitants actually cared enough to fight for and depended on due to their sedentary society. Lastly, they aren’t forced out of the land. They paid no allegiance to the crown of Jecrass despite living on their land so a change of rulership shouldn’t unduly affect them.

    • “Independent and indigenous” really doesn’t apply. There’s no real life equivalent to a bunch of magical nomads that have infinite portable food.

      If there is any comparison, it’s that they’re squatters. It’s not like Jecrass just showed up and claimed it recently, then sold it. It’s been part of Jecrass for ages.

      So– should Jecaina receive some “moral divine punishment” because she made use of their territory?

      Seems ridiculous to think that. These nomads were hypocrites and got what they deserved.

    • They got what they deserved. Without responsibilities, there are no rights.
      Otherwise yes, it was clever move. No wonder she finally become a [Queen].

    • Not indigenous, squatters that moved in decades ago which is less than one full lifetime. The River Wardens are the indigenous population, they fought, bled and shed blood over generations to keep that land.

      If anything, the centaurs are somewhat peaceful invaders, AKA squatters. They didn’t exterminate the true indigenous population but also didn’t lift a finger to help them. In fact, their ruler even said they don’t care who owns the land so long as they get to squat on it. Well, they can try negotiating with the ruler of Khelt now. Or move on, as they are used to doing, being nomads.

    • She doesn’t deserve any punishment.

      “We love the land, your Majesty. But we have never benefitted from its protection. We are nomads. If the time comes, we will move.”

      “If that were the case, we would move to another land and he would lose our trade and what we provide. Make no mistake, your Majesty—we have been contributing to the war. In goods, crafts—we gave much of the food your armies eat for gold. We are a benefit. But we will not take sides.”

      They didn’t seem to have any love of their land right there, what’s wrong with selling it legally?

  9. That was an amazing chapter!

    For a second I thought Jecaina had accepted becoming Khelt’s next ruler since Fehothep had offered her citizenship and their sucession laws would allow it if I recall correctly. That would have also solved the ‘Raelt is still King and Jecaina doesn’t know what she is yet’ issue.

  10. So, after the rescue of Raelt, will Jecaina remain Queen of Jecrass, or will Raelt takes back his throne?

    Will Raelt let her rule Jecrass?

    What do you think people?

    • It might be a good idea, to let Jecaina remain Queen, since she was the one who struck the bargain with Khelt. Also she made a rather hard choice with regard to Lyfelt and while I feel with Raelt, ulimately I think, Jecaina made the right decision. Where her father was a good [King], she just might turn out to become a great [Queen]. We shall see.

      • All the characters (Including Jecaina) seem to have forgotten it in this chapter, but Raelt was *absolutely* prepared to give Lyfelt to Flos. And even the rest of the high leadership. He only balked because Flos demanded their families as well, and basically every minor functionary and official in the entire kingdom.

        • To be fair, I don’t think he was incredibly transparent about that distinction. It makes a lot of sense to me that the difference got lost somewhere between Raelt refusing to give over Lyfelt plus others and Jecaina becoming queen.

        • I think that’s the case because Raelt didn’t get to talk about it. If I remember correctly, he had this talk with the Quarass where he decided he would loose less sleep over surrendering Lyfelt tahn keep throwing Jecrass’ people into the meatgrinder for him. Basically right after that Jecaina got kidnapped, so it’s understandable if he didn’t clue people into his decision.

    • Jecaina would likely remain [Queen]. Raelt never liked being [King] even after he became the King of Duels. He has more of a [Champion] or even [Hero] personality.

    • I keep thinking that a nation can have both a [King] and a [Queen] at the same time, but the power dynamics are usually well-established when that happens. (Usually the society is patriarchal and so the [King] is ultimately in charge, but I assume it’s happened the other way as well.) With Raelt being both higher-level (assuming they get him back soon; Jecaina is leveling quickly) and the father, I’d assume he would be the ultimate authority, but Jecaina has gotten a taste of not bowing to anyone (and no longer has a temporary class) and has arguably been a better [Queen] than he was [King], so I don’t know.

      I’m still inclined to think they’ll share power in some fashion when and if Raelt is rescued. However it works out, it will definitely be awkward. Considering a [King] and [Queen] are usually married when they share the throne, this would be an entirely different dynamic.

    • Well, her Class is [Queen of Covenant] so it seems like a Class that’s pretty open to sharing power.
      Raelt is her adoptive father (and biological uncle), so either way she is the heir of the throne.
      I think they can share responsibilities and rule as King and Queen, they don’t really need to be married to share authority over the nation. There have been periods of history in some societies where a Diarchy has happened, having two rulers for the nation.

      In practice, it would be no different than Jecaina being a princess but actually taking an active role in the government of the nation instead of fooling around, which was actually something she should have been doing already, considering her age, in order to smooth the transition of power from Raelt to her and to prepare her for the task of ruling the nation. She simply has a more powerful Class than [Princess] now.

      If not, then the most likely scenario is for Jecaina to remain in power and Raelt abdicates to take some position in the government as an advisor, minister, or as a champion of the army.

  11. But it had been…justice. As just as she could give him.

    Lyfelt’s trial was just a pretext to give Jecaina the guts to kill him (there was no way any of those rulers were going to side with someone who’d been associated with such a public massacre). This lets Jecrass rid itself of Reim’s cassus belli and make itself palatable to Khelt.
    It’s the same decision that Raelt came to, but he wasn’t pretending it had anything to do with Justice. It was an expedient decision that he made for the sake of his people. He recognized it as such. Jecaina appears to be deluding herself.

    • I’m going to disagree with you. It’s justice because Lyfelt got judged by a standard and assembly of his peers. This is communal justice where the hierarchy of a state or territory cannot apply because none involved are subjects of one another. He was judged as a ruler by the rulers of Chandrar according to the customs and culture of the land.

    • Not completely sure, maybe it played a part. But with this very very public trial she has managed to get a lot of public recognition at a time when Jecrass had been all but written off as lost by international politics. (see how tough it was for them to get a scrying mage).

      Perhaps you are right in that it helped her bring up the guts to kill Lyfelt, but I doubt that it was the main purpose.

    • If a criminal is to be on trial for murdering children, and everybody knows that they will inevitably be sentenced to death, should we not throw them a trial and instead simply throw them in an unmarked van to extrajudicially execute them?
      Is that justice?

  12. This was a fantastic chapter! The highs and lows were balanced well, and you did a great job explaining how everyone was competent in their own ways, yet had their own flawed thinking.

    I absolutely adore Jecaina’s brilliant move of selling land to Khelt that wasn’t doing her anything. It was a great Win-win as Khelt got an essential water supply while essentially doing the same defense as they typically have.

    By all means, take it easy after that enormous chapter; thanks for writing it!

  13. Stuck between a rock and a hard place she didn’t have a lot of options, but she did well… Maybe too well. Her father told her to go with people she trusted and Khelt showed to be the only nice neighbors who gave her what she needed to hear instead of what she would have liked to hear.

    She talked with those who traded with Khelt to see how he treated people and neighbors before choosing which ally would best honor their word.

    It just wasn’t her fault that the best person was an undead king. Though to be fair he also came with his own army, honored his agreement, and allowed her to stay queen at just the cost of a fourth of her land… Sold of course.

    I would say that was a killer deal, but that would be excusing the return of her father and the priceless look on the [king]’s face who just got snubbed, his armies beaten back, and hostage taken back with nothing to gain for it.

    • In retrospect the Selling of the land is probably a reminder of just how damgerous and powerful [king] or just basic [Insert Land Skill] as just getting ownership allows you to do a lot more crazy stuff in Innworld then in our world.

      Just selling the land allowed the undead king to work his magic in making the undead respawn army tactics and even then the Fae put importance of ownership of the land.

      This in itself might cause more benefits that we have not realized… And makes the actions of Geraeri a little bit worse sense she benefited from the [Boon Skills] without owing fealty or doing anything for the current owners of the land.

      And we have seen a lot of Boon Skills for [Kings] and [Queens] especially in this land since the desert does not provide a lot of sustainability to the people there.

      As for the final bit? The Trial was the best move as while it probably had to be done the major thing it did was put Jecrass on the map while getting the new [Queen] A bit of weight to her crown.

      People had now taken notice of her… Especially since Khelt came to their aid. The only question now is if she had put a target on her head for getting Khelt to start moving once again.

      Because while The King of Destruction is new game plus+… Khelt is endgame, plus multiplayer, and then New Game Plus++… As everyone stopped fighting when there was an army just one hour away from launching a full out attack.

      That everyone stopped what they were doing as they watched Khelt march its army for days to announce what the giant undead army that terrified everyone… What the End Game Boss was doing so out and early in this war.

      While Jecrass might have bowed out of the war for now to recover… They did so at the notice of the world… Who may not forget this action latter on.

      Final note… Quickened Breeding (horses)… Anyone else find that skill funny since Khelt now made it so that the soldier can breed after one year of service?

      Also best line. While in paradise people can still dream.

      • The thing with Flos being new game+ is, that he shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly superior to the other people around him, it’s just too weird that Flos’s vassals and the few elites he has are capable of slaughtering a bunch of soldiers without issue, but apparently no other nation is capable of fielding anyone even close to them in strength.

        For example, Takhatres was able to fight against the armies of the Empire of Sands with only his tribe for months without issue, when the Empire of Sands should have been able to field people of high-level, great strength, and skill.

        Flos’s elites being powerful is one thing, but they being the only powerful ones around is absurd.

        • it wasn’t just takhatres, they actually started hurting takhtres and the tribe so they joined the various rebilions and groups that work against the empire (cause its a ever expanding empire that is taking other people land)
          this was explained in one of the earlier scenes.

  14. These last few chapters have been getting better and better, I find myself thinking each week that this last slew of chapters have been some of the best I’ve ever read in a webserial, and they just keep getting better.

    It’s hard to convert properly in writing, and I don’t have the words to put my feeling to ink (or pixels), but bravo, and I hope you’re as happy with these chapters as you’ve made your readers.

  15. I’m reminded of the discussions between Lord Hamster and Stanley about rulers in Erfworld. No matter how competent the underlings are and how well they can run a war or a country, it’s still the ruler’s job to define grand strategy-the ruler has to at least come up with the high-level goals of the nation so the underlings know what to plan strategies for. And Jecaina seems to be learning that here—“get Raelt back” is a good high-level goal, more optimistic and proactive than “conserve our forces” and “survive,” which is all they could do without a grand strategy goal.

    I love how Jecaina is slowly stumbling into good governance by a combination of following her father’s advice (and the advice of others) and doing what comes naturally. She totally didn’t even consider that riding through the city with her [General] would raise morale in Jecrass far more than Lyfelt’s suggestion of proclaiming that she got a new Skill. (Which is VERY good in this situation, especially for Jecrass, no matter what Lyfelt thinks.)

    Lael’s suggestions were simple and to the point. Upon her return, Jecaina ordered more fortifications built at every fortress or city, creating a new line of defenses. Put the [Archers] behind walls, and keep a large, mobile force, the remainder of Jecrass’ army, to rush to a battle.
    For now, that was all they could do
    -Simple, but effective. Again, Jecaina’s new Skill is GREAT. It’s good enough to shape the nation’s entire defensive strategy around.

    It’s good that despite starting a war they couldn’t win, Raelt had the good sense to stockpile a lot of the money.

    In truth, Jecaina would not have done this for anyone but the King of Destruction. She doubted he would try anything; she had grown up listening to tales of his conduct in war. His honor…
    -I wonder if Flos realizes this is his reputation working for him or if he thinks Jecaina’s too desperate and new to realize this would normally be a bad idea.

    “Did you not just tell me that no one would ever sit above me, Flos of Reim? Do you think Jecrass is weak enough to be pushed into submission?”
    -I was wondering if she was going to go this route. It also reminds me of how Raelt decided he couldn’t compromise his morals because he too was a [King].

    I’m somewhat surprised Jecaina didn’t turn Lyfelt over. I’m guessing it was largely out of now wanting to overturn her father’s decisions as King like that.
    Oh hey. I guessed right.

    Right around when Jecaina got to level 29, I realized she basically has to get an extremely useful level 30 Skill to have a chance here.

    I don’t think Jecaina realizes that taking advice remotely from another ruler is another way she’s just like her father.

    Yes, yes, I now understand why the Revenant parts of The Revenant and the Naga were relevant. I still think they detracted from the tone of that chapter and made it less coherent, but it set up excellent foreshadowing for this chapter.

    Unless I’m misunderstanding, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee Jecrass’s safety. It seems to me that she sold all the border regions that Reim had conquered, but surely they could just go around, right? I assume the geography makes that inconvenient, and Reim is mostly fighting a defensive war so they probably won’t, but it could happen.

    Actually, if Perric was smart, he’d probably see the benefit in this. He now HAS his buffer zone between Medain and Reim just like he wanted, and it’s completely impenetrable. Sure, he can’t go through it either, but he can still fight Reim in Belchan (and he’s still at war with Jecrass, which will only get worse once he gives back Raelt.)

    • I found what I missed:

      Return her father, protect Jecrass from Reim and Medain. That was the cost of a fourth of Jecrass

      – So Jecrass IS safe now. Nice. They have time to heal, rebuild, finish up their new breeding initiatives, and so on. I’d say they could have peace, but Jecaina was pretty adamant that Jecrass was still at war with Reim. I suspect their contribution to the war will be severely limited for the next few weeks at least. Maybe they’ll take the time to build up and then be the proverbial and literal cavalry that show up to stop Flos from defeating his other enemies.

  16. You know… this has nothing to do with this particular installment of the story, but something very odd about the Earthers has occurred to me.

    Android phones are vastly, vastly more common than iPhones, but no Earther who’s been abducted to Innworld has had anything other than an iPhone. Apple is clearly in collusion with the King of Rhir!

    • You are not digging deep enough. King of Rhir is just a useful fool that was used and will be discarded at first opportunity. Apple is clearly colluding with god of magic.

    • I believe at least one Earther had an Android and thus completely missed the group call.

      Absolutely no clue which chapter this was mentioned in, though.

      • I don’t remember that, sounds plausible. I do remember one chapter with the Earthers in Magnolia’s mansion mentioning what an absolute pain it was to sync all the content across iPhones, Android, Macbooks and Windows devices.

        So we definitely have all kinds of people, even though the first teleconference was iPhone exclusive.

    • I don’t believe in such conspiracy :)
      There’re a lot of people here without any device. And, if I remember correctly, some group of Earthers (in Magnolia’s mansion?) said that they synchronised apple devices, but couldn’t do it with android (I might be wrong).
      And connection through iPhones came out because Aaron had one when he appeared in Winstram. Had he Android there could be another story:)
      I guess Ryoka’s estimation after the first call are correct. of the thousand *guests* little have iPhones

  17. Well, that’s that settled.

    Unless I badly misunderstand something since the area is now part of knelt fethop can maintain a standing undead army functioning at full strength there without needing to personally March out to war again.

    shame he is bound to khelt’s interests only and prevents all possible harm to the citizens.

    would have really liked to see him stomp flos and put the imperialist/colonialist bastard’s corpse to work cleaning toilets.

  18. Great chapter! Last chapters are indeed mind blowingly amazing and unexpected. The reaction of Fetohep can be anticipated from The Revenant and Naga, but still it left me surprised. It is good to see how Jecaina has grown from princess to Queen you can respect and who can act for her people, despite her initial admiration of Flos.
    Thank you very much!

  19. Another great chapter! Very neat misdirection with all the talk of vassalage and submission, I didn’t see the mere commercial transaction that solved it coming up at all. Good surprise.

    I was curious for the longest time whether Khelt had any higher tier undead than basic skeletons and zombies. Sure, an army of millions of these would be enough to intimidate any mortal kingdom but not be unstoppable, with all the crazy op [Skills] and magic… If it was only that, Flos wasn’t completely deranged for thinking he could intimidate Khelt (back when he wasn’t fighting on all fronts) but now that we know for certain they’ve got elite undead, it seems somewhat ridiculous that he thought he could ever threaten Khelt.

    It’s a neat showcase of power. Makes it more plausible why Khelt is one of the Shield Kingdoms against dragons. Lesser undead, no matter their numbers, are unlikely to pose any threat to a full-grown dragon.

    As one question is answered, more come up: does Khelt make use of [Necromancers] to command/raise the undead? Or is the undead king doing all of it himself? Is there a caste of [notPriests] that keeps the undead animated and under control?

    For that matter, how are the undead so loyal and obedient? Natural undead are filled with a desire to slay all the living. So is it an artefact, a ritual or a [Skill] that keeps them faithful?

    • Khelt isn’t a Shield Kingdom. There are only four existing Shield Kingdoms: Germina, A’ctelios, Merreid (Djinni Labyrinth), and Qualvekkaras (Garuda).

      If I remember correctly, Khelt has a ritual to grant the next Ruler of Khelt some form of Undead King Class. The ritual makes it so they can’t level but it gives them power over all the undead in Khelt.

      • The horrible conclusion that may be drawn from this is that Fetohep may be Khelt’s Achilles heel. You’d hope they would have some safeguards to ensure the undead remain loyal in the event of regicide, but just imagine what would happen if some ambitious upstart necromancer like Az’Kerash managed to off him and seize control…

  20. Wonder if we gonna see a swarm of nations selling themselves to Khelt. Given that everyone knows Khelt is a paradise, and how hard it is to get citizenship otherwise

  21. I realise it is very amoral to even think, not to mention admit, but i am still rooting for the Rat-[King]’s death.
    How many thousands of people died because that jerk wanted a woman to be his?
    I say it because i don’t belive there would be a miracle that would change the man.
    On a lighter note, Raelt could finally be free in the [King] sense xD Even though he seemed to be attuning to his class before the whole disaster began i don’t think he liked where it led him.

  22. Does anyone else have the feeling that the world was sleeping and now starts to awake?
    – Earthlers as the spark
    – Terriach awakening / doing something again
    – Wistram might be shaken up extremly depending on how cognita goes on
    – Chandra has the ancient ruler rise, and a forgotten King
    – Ancient Customs return to [That Cthulu City]
    – Ancient Demons and Banes are rising again
    – The necromancer is taking up slack, and it seems belavier wants to take a more active role, too.
    – The God’s reawaken
    – Maybe the dungeon will be relevant again? We never got to figure out what lay at its hearth
    – Probably a lot of stuff I’ve forgotten

    The only continents safe from ancient crap seen to be baleros and talandria, atm.

    Also loved that chapter.

    • Not sure that’s fair. In Baleros, we see the Selphids starting to act as a group and return to some of their old ways, and not to mention there’s an entire great company we haven’t seen anything about yet. Could be all sorts of crazy is happening, as indicated by- it seems – there being by far the most Earthers there. As for Terandria, I suspect that Ailendamus has more interesting motivations behind their war than we’ve seen so far. They probably have captive Earthers of their own. It was also heavily implied that the Thronebearers come into their own when pushed, so who knows what kind of crazy we’ll see coming out of there soon.

  23. Great chapter, I used to not like the Chandrer ones so much as the Izril story plots till the King of Duels battle, now they are gripping, though someone needs to kill Flos already, then again it’s always good to have a bad guy… Flos is like the baby bad guy, at least he has some good qualities, where as the King of Rhir is the ultimate bad guy.

    • out of curiosity what good qualities does he have?

      the only vaguely good’ish quality I see is that he has a code of honor and having one doesn’t really correlate to being a terrible or good person.

      he is hypocritical imperialist with colonial ambitions who spreads misery and death for no purpose except his sense of achievement with no plans or intention of actually creating anything let alone anything that will last last past him.

      he loots every area he conquers to siphon the riches to the imperial core and his plans are to forment and encourage as many racial tensions as possible, formerly only in the colonies he intended to make off continent but now he is actively importing previously non native races to use as enforcers on his continent to be targets of hate and depend on his rule or brutal ethnic dictatorship once he inevitably fucks off to maintain their control of the land he depopulated to give them.

      fucker has no redeeming qualities beyond apperantly being being ‘honorable’ and charismatic and his nations wide mind control makes that one extreme questionable
      (see how his entire country is apathic when he doesn’t care and can be roused immediatly when he feels like it or his power to declare how much his people would want to breed and have babies and enforce it on the spot)

      he isn’t the unquestionable worst most destructive ruler only because the field is so crowded with monsters like “triple genocide, let’s start a continental war” Tyrion or the blighted king or the world’s biggest slaver whose greatest ambition is to make sure things never change for the better.

  24. This is one of my favorite chapters and im glad Jecrass finally got a good ending.

    But …
    Khelt wouldnt accept that deal. Expanding is dangerous, people leave Khelt alone because they think its just an isolated country that will leave them alone if they leave it alone. If all it took for Khelt to to expand was buying some land, they would have done so a long time ago. Them doing so now shows that its a personal favor to Jecaina.
    Would Fetohep risk his country for something like this?
    Maybe, dude has been getting more and more human by each chapter but probably not to the point where he would risk his beloved country.
    Dont get me wrong, i loved this chapter but she should have just taken the deal with Yisame.

  25. Thanks for the chapter!
    I love how Jecaina replied to Geraeri.

    Geraeri was like “no we can’t help you cause we’re nomads”
    And Jecaina was like “we sell the land you live on cause you’re nomads”
    And she really became a [Queen] huh I wonder what her level 30 skill is.

    And Erin can really level huh Geraeri took 10 years to level from level 40 to 50 and she only took what? less than 3 or is it 2 years to level from nothing to level 45.

    • Erin’s been levelling for less than 2 years because so far the story had only one winter season. Although, I think there was something about Innworld seasons being longer, so maybe more than 24 Terran months have passed.

      I think Erin managed to “exploit” the system to the breaking point with her [Inkeeper] class:
      – it’s not a royal/noble/leadership class, so it’s not supposed to be dfficult to level, no experience gain penalties;
      – however, it allows her to level like a leadership class (indirectly) through the actions/achievements/deeds of all her friends/guests/regulars
      – also, she does do a lot of amazing things herself.

      So it’s little wonder that she levels more than Geraeri who, presumably, managed to stabilise her tribe by the time she hit level 40 so she didn’t stumble upon so many challenges as Erin keeps having to deal with.

  26. Huh. Something always ticked me whenever Jecaina was on stage. And I see it now.
    She reminds me of Ryoka. Not good with words, so I can’t explain it, but that’s who she reminds me of.

    Anyways, as always, Chandrar chapters have very Chandrar scales.

  27. Is there a list of what each chapter designator means, some are obvious some are not.
    ” G for Goblins or Rags”
    “E for Emperor Laken”

  28. “this is the volume of plot advancing”

    You really mean it!? read through the other volumes and ALOT happened in them but anything to do with the main plot is never resolved, just new arcs keep popping up

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