Alymndes 14: Diplomacy

Amrel was holding a private meeting with King Gerhart, Queen Marghrete, Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Birghit and Alfred. The latter had just been introduced to the other members of that very small circle of confidants at the beginning of the gathering. The monarchs had decided long ago that the Blue Dragon had become the de-facto head of state and were quite happy to let her bear the burden of making decisions for the affairs of the nation since they were all taking an active part. All the participants to their assembly knew that each of them would be asked his or her opinion and counsel before any resolution would be adopted and enacted.
The order of the day was the new code of laws for criminals and the formation of a Council.
For once Geoffroy d’Arcourt, since he was directly concerned, dared to make his opinion known before the conversation became too involved.
“Gerhart,” he informally addressed his King, as had become the habit during their private talks, “before we discuss any new law, why don’t we decide how we are going to choose our government since they will be the ones who will officially devise a charter for our nation?”
The King was only too happy to answer,
“Actually, my dear wife here and I had an interesting discussion about that particular point last night, or I should say Marghrete battered my ears with her ideas… ouch!”
The Queen had just punched her husband in the arm, and forgetting his company, Gerhart reacted to the surprising pain naturally.
Amrel commented:
“I’ve heard of husbands beating their wives, but this is ridiculous!”
“Shall we say this is a gesture of affection?” replied a straight-faced Queen.
“You had better refrain from showing that kind of tenderness in public!” remarked Geoffroy. “I doubt it would be appreciated by some of your kin!”
“Talking of kin,” stated Gerhart, “has anybody heard from Simon de Montjoie yet?”
Alfred intervened:
“Sire, I’ve asked the Superintendent that very question, but by way of answer I was curtly told not to worry!”
“Well, you know what to investigate next, Alf, don’t you?” Amrel cut in. “Gerhart, I think it is time we check your intelligence service chief as well. I wonder if this man is really on your side and totally devoted to the good of the nation.”
“Come to think of it, I have to admit the reports and help I ask of him are becoming increasingly sub-standard and I haven’t met him in person in ages. While I’m not complaining, I’m afraid your existence has opened a wide schism between the two of us!”
“Well, I’m afraid we don’t need him anyway!” started Birghit. “When it comes to maintaining order, we are definitely more efficient and diplomatic than that slime!
“Alright, we shall delve into that problem in good time.” replied Gerhart, “Now if you’ll allow me, may I introduce Marghrete’s idea of choosing a government body?”
Seeing that nobody was ready to interrupt this time, he continued,
“To keep all classes of our society happy, we must give them equal opportunity in running the affairs of state. To strike a good balance, we should have an equal number of representatives for the nobility, the merchants and traders’ class and the farmers and landowners. Seven for each group looks to me as a good enough number and will allow the introduction of a single majority system for decision-makings.
Amrel asked,
“Fine, but how are you going to choose them?”
“How about if we decree that the King wishes the people of Beaulieu to elect an assembly or council to help him and govern the country and create a Code of Laws and Conduct for all to respect and obey? It shall take some time before we can make the decree known to all corners of our nation and then determine each of the seven areas or districts in which each representative will be elected. To instill some political sense in our citizens’ minds, we also ought to limit the term to four years. To avoid any vote manipulation, tenure should be limited to a single term. This would pare down the number of candidates to only the truly committed ones”.
Birghit commented:
“That sounds to me as good a start as we can devise. But why don’t you decree a new law on criminals’ punishments right now. That can always be amended or condoned by the Council later. The point is that we need this labor force right now!”
“You are right, but I shall personally confer with the Doyen of our Tribunal first. If we can get him to agree with our way of thinking, the more easily this particular law shall be implemented for good by our future government!”
“Not a bad idea.” approved Amrel, “Why don’t we begin writing down the decree at once to have it duplicated in enough copies by our scribes and have the Royal messengers carry and deliver them all over the country as soon as possible?”
It was in the middle of the afternoon. Ekan was lounging outside in the back garden in the company of his daughter Mareeva and Wolf while Glamrun was enjoying a conversation with the gardener, when Nicola, one of Shahzad’s granddaughters, who helped the venerable spice merchant at his shop, barged in through the kitchen. Her hair was disheveled, tears were leaving tracks in the dust on her cheeks, and sobs were racking her body. Shahzad’s shop stood at the very end of their street. The girl must have run all the way to arrive in such a sorry state. Ekan was immediately on his feet and took her in his arms before she collapsed with exhaustion and agitation.
“Grandfather… they are hurting grandfather! They are hurting grandfather!”
The Black Dragon instantly understood what was afoot. Turning to the kitchen door, he shouted:
Unaccustomed to such a harsh voice from the gentle giant, the head of an anxious Naeem came through the door.
“Yes, Jonas?”
“Call the Constabulary immediately and tell them to go at once to Shahzad’s shop!”
“Just shut up and run! And tell them I’m on my way, too!”
Ekan handed the girl to the comforting arms of Grazel who had also come out of the kitchen to find out what the fuss was all about.
The Black Dragon was about to launch himself when Wolf’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Ekan, stop!”
“Wise One, stay away from me, will you?” screamed Ekan in mindspeech.
Wolf’s voice brutally struck inside the black giant’s brain. The pain made him raise his hands to his temples.
“Ekan, son of Zamrel! Listen to me! You are a human here. Think and act like one!”
Glamrun’s voice joined the Wolf’s inside Ekan’s head:
“Wise One is right. You were about to forget yourself! Keep control on yourself or you will put us all at risk!”
Ekan belatedly calmed down. Answers were not needed. Taking a grip on himself he left at a steady pace.
The Wolf looked at the Old Wyrm:
“Ancient One, we are leaving for Beaucastel tonight! That conversation is sure to attract attention from unwanted quarters!”
“Do you realize that by going to Beaulieu Realm, we are actually getting nearer to danger!”
“Where there is little chance of anybody checking on us for a long while, since the first reaction would be to fly away from peril! They will just look over our heads!”
“You are right as usual.” admitted a disappointed Glamrun. “We’ll have to tell our children on the way, but we had better say our farewells to Mareeva, the gardener and Master Turgas!”
“I’ll take care of the little girl. Look after the big humans!”
While the Old Wyrm explained they had to leave immediately to a visibly sad gardener, the Wolf nuzzled Mareeva’s hand. The little girl’s hand moved to stroke the head of the animal, but the latter trotted away in the direction of the oliva trees. The Wolf stopped and looked back at the child as if to signal her to follow. A nonplussed Mareeva went after her friend. The Wolf halted and lay down in the shade of the trees looking at the child to invite her to join her there.
The little girl sat by the animal and put her arms around its neck. The Wolf licked Mareeva’s cheek.
“Mareeva, can you hear me?”
The child looked around to find who had talked to her but she could not see anybody.
“Mareeva, can you hear me?”
“Who’s talking to me?” the child answered in surprise.
The Wolf gave a light nip on her shoulder.
“I am talking to you, Mareeva!”
Mareeva’s eyes went round.
“But you cannot talk! You are not even speaking!”
Wise One’s eyes stared at the girl’s face.
“Close your eyes. You still can hear me, can’t you?”
The child nodded, her eyes shut. A smile came on her lips.
“You speak in my head! How can you do that?”
“Simple. Try and do the same. Just think your answers!”
Mareeva concentrated and soon found she could effortlessly communicate with her mind. What she did not know was that such a capacity had been offered to her by the Wolf.
“Now that you can hear me, listen carefully. Mentor and I have to leave immediately for an important reason that I cannot explain. You just have to trust us. One day, when you are a big girl, you will understand and approve. But for the moment we have to separate.”
Looking at the child’s sad eyes, the animal went on:
“Do not be so sad because the two of us will talk to each other in this way wherever we are, even on the other side of the world! But you must not tell anyone, even your father! Can you promise me to keep our secret safe?”
Wise One observed Mareeva’s face. Tears were about to flow any time but the little girl finally nodded her assent. The Wolf made to depart, but Mareeva clung to her mane for a last embrace. The animal patiently waited, licking her protégé’s cheek. The girl slowly released her friend and stood unmoving under the trees while the Wolf loped away.
“When are you going to be reasonable, you damn stupid old stubborn man!” screamed Gardan at Shahzad, the owner of the spice shop.
The thug’s two henchmen were holding the shopkeeper by the arms pinning him on a low stool over which the villain towered.
“Talk away, Gardan! You won’t get anything from me! I’m too old to be impressed by your menaces!”
But Shahzad’s battered body did not show the same resolution as his voice did. Both his eyes were half shut black and his nose was broken, oozing a trail of blood down to his chin. He probably had a couple of cracked ribs, as each breath was becoming excruciating. He nonetheless courageously went on in spite of his rapidly failing health,
“Your kind forgets that things have changed. Your pathetic strong-arm tactics will not force anybody into your obedience. Do you think that the other members of the Guild will submit or let you continue your criminal activities with impunity?”
This could prove wishful thinking on my part, somberly reflected Shahzad. If nobody came quickly, he would be done for.
Gardan emitted a cruel laugh.
“Ah! The Guild! Who hasn’t heard of that silly association of gutless merchants and taverners! And where are they now? Tell me! The only Guild that you will hear of is our protection! So if you don’t comply with our advice, not only you will have to answer to us, but we certainly won’t be here to guarantee your safety when less tender-hearted ones come to you!”
Shahzad spat at him:” You slime! You haven’t started anything yet! I just happened to be the first one in line! How far do you believe the three of you will go?”
Gardan’s face came close to the stalwart shopkeeper’s,
“You sorry excuse for a man, if you do not bend to our commands, I shall have all your bones broken as an example for your associates to witness at leisure! What do you say to that?”
A cold voice came out behind his back,
“Gardan, the Guild has come to you, and you are the one to be used as an example for the scum of your kind!”
Gardan turned to face the newcomer and to assault him in a rage over this untimely interruption, but he brutally stopped instead when he saw the large figure waiting for him inside the frame of the shop entrance door.
“Gardan, do you remember the day at the Green Anchor when I told you that I had marked you and never to come back in our street? Well, the day of reckoning has come to you!”
“You stupid mountain! I’m not Dravan! Do you think I’m afraid of you?”
“You should be, even if you have managed to convince yourself that everyone else is more stupid than you are!”
But Ekan grew tired of talking and before anyone could react, in one single bound, swatted Gardan aside, landed in front of Shahzad’s stool, grabbed his shocked tormentors by their necks and slammed their heads together. Dropping the unconscious bandits, he slowly turned to their leader sprawled on the floor,
“Gardan, your two comrades are lucky as they will survive that knock. But I cannot say the same for you!”
His left hand grabbed the man’s neck and slowly lifted the whole body until the thug’s toes lost contact with the ground and cocked his right hand back. The villain’s bloated face grew wild when he saw his death coming.
“Jonas, don’t!” shouted someone behind Ekan’s back. The Black Dragon momentarily stopped his fist but did not look behind him.
Constable Petren repeated,
“Jonas, don’t kill him! Don’t go as low as that filth! At least, relent for the good of the Guild!”
The black giant stared at his victim for a long time. For one terrible moment events seemed to stand in precarious balance, about to sway to any finality.
Petren and his guards held their breath.
Gardan’s face had grown purple, his tongue jutting out of his drooling mouth.
Ekan’s fingers relaxed. With a last look at the thug, he dropped him aside in profound lassitude. Ignoring the guards behind him, he came to Shahzad,
“Are you alright?”
“Well, I could be better,” bravely replied the stout old man, “but the bastards broke my nose and I can’t breathe properly. Well, I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
“Let me have a look at your nose.”
Ekan knew he had to reset it at once or it would stay crooked for the rest of Shahzad’s life. He gently took it between his thumb and flexed index.
“Shahzad, close your eyes and relax.”
Not waiting for his friend to comply, he reset the nose in a quick snap. The old man passed out.
“My dear friend, this is probably for the best. I shall be able to look after you more easily in this state!”
He gently took the falling body into his massive arms and proceeded to carry him to a more comfortable spot.
Petren’s voice was heard from behind him,
“Jonas, thank you. You did more than save Shahzad today! A lot of people will be grateful to you for that!”
The Constable added in a more somber tone,
“You know you will have to report to the Judge once again. I’m sorry, but this is the law. Will you come when I return to fetch you?
“I will, Constable Petren, I will. But pray do me a favor. Send a physician for Shahzad there. I shall take care of the rest.”
Petren saluted Jonas and signaled to his guards to carry away a babbling Gardan and his two unconscious henchmen.
Arnaud de Betancourt, Doyen of the Tribunal of Beaucastel, and effectively the highest ranked magistrate in the whole of Beaulieu, waited in the Antechamber of the Palace, a name given to a kind of parlor located inside the Palace of Beaulieu reserved for high dignitaries on official visits. Gerhart had sent him an escort to accompany him from his estates, a rare honor accorded only to individuals of the greatest importance. Those particular attentions made the Doyen ever so slightly apprehensive. The present King was showing more mettle than his predecessors. The magistrate had seen too many sloths and whimpering fools during his tenure that he did not know yet on which foot to dance with a King who not so long ago was following the steps of his ancestors. Actually, he welcomed a strong ruler, only so as to lighten his burden. In fact, Arnaud knew about the affairs of state as well as anybody else. He did not need a king or agents. In his business he just needed to keep his ears and eyes wide open since all miscreants were bound to face him someday.
He was deep in rumination when Gerhart made his entrance alone dressed in simple apparel with no visible mark of his rank.
Arnaud stood up.
Gerhart raised his hand and invited him to resume his seat Only then did the monarch sit down himself in an unadorned chair in front of the only authority really truly recognized in his Realm yet.
“Good morning to you, Doyen! May I presume to call you Arnaud, as I would prefer to be called Gerhart. I was born with that name and the title it carries. But let us be frank about it, I still do not deserve this damn title. I need your help to achieve any kind of recognition for my position if we are going to govern this nation as we should in these difficult times!”
The Doyen kept silent. He certainly expected more than rhetoric and great words before taking any kind of decision at whose advice to follow or orders to obey.
Gerhart understood the magistrate’s reticence.
“Arnaud, I shall not bore you any longer. Let me explain the situation as plainly as possible: as you have probably heard, we are planning to clean this pigsty we call our capital. To that effect our good new friends, the Dwarves, have agreed to devise a whole new system of sewers and water pipes as well as dig new wells, and do nothing less than equip every house with facilities both of us know we cannot do without, but consciously avoid to mention. But what you do not know is that we have suddenly found ourselves in the need to shore up our southern borders, namely at the place called the Pass. Although the Fire Mountains have protected us from invasions or attacks from the south for as long as our history can recall, dark tidings have reached us from that unknown land. Please do not ask me how we came to that information. The least I can tell you is that it was not provided by our dear secret service. Danger will eventually come from two directions: from the sea and from the Pass. For the moment, the sea is not too much of our concern, but more that of Dunlago’s, although we shall have to join forces and the sooner, the better. But the Pass will have to be blocked and fortified in the shortest time as possible. We shall have the help of the Dwarves again and expect a few more of them to come and join their kin. But even with their aid, we are still sorely short of labor!”
“Sire,… Gerhart, all this I easily understand. But I do not see where you need me, less a judge for that matter.”
“I’m sorry, but I had to go through those details, unrelated as they may seem, because to obtain enough labor, we shall have to change, or let us be frank about it if I may repeat myself, we shall have to create laws.”
“Do you wish me to write down a code of laws?”
“Meaning no disrespect, no. This would be tantamount to autarchy or despotism. We propose to decree the election of an Assembly or Council to survey the need, to create and implement laws, which means that the Tribunal, the King and everybody else will answer to the same laws. But the reason I’m calling on you is that we need to modify the punishments for committed crimes to supply us with labor.”
“You have me lost here, Gerhart.”
“Arnaud, how many people do we have in our prisons and jails?”
“More than I care to count, unfortunately!” sincerely replied the Doyen.
“Right, and what are they doing at this very moment?”
“Nothing, of course,… Oh, I see!”
“Yes?” answered a smiling Gerhart.
“You want me to change the sentences and commute them into forced labor, am I right?”
His interlocutor nodded his agreement.
“But” continued the magistrate, “I shall have to devise different lengths of service to the state, as you probably want to call them, according to the crime. Am I still right?”
“Arnaud, believe me, this is not flattery, but you have risen to your position for some very good reasons!”
“Humph!” retorted a deprecating judge. “I have nonetheless two questions for you.”
“First, what shall our dear prisoners do when they are not working?”
“We were thinking of having them serve as labor for one third of the day, clean their prisons and cells for one more third of the day where they shall learn about hygiene firsthand, and sleep the rest of the day. We shall provide them with proper food. Nobody will be allowed to accuse us of creating a new form of slavery!”
“Fine, I suppose it should work. Now, my second question: what about those sentenced for the gibbet?”
“Life sentence!” curtly answered a grim monarch.
The Doyen looked at his King, thinking hard.
A small grin came on his face.
“This is a fairly novel idea but worth a try. At least, we shall make those otherwise useless creatures serve our country and at the same time reduce crime to a great extent with such a deterrent! I shall order the Tribunal at once to write a new sentence-grading system.”
The Doyen rose. Gerhart did the same.
Arnaud held his hand forward.
“Gerhart, may I have your promise, as a King, and I hope as a friend, that you shall not take advantage of the new laws for your personal aggrandizement?”
Gerhart took the Doyen’s hand in his own in a solid grasp.
“You have my promise. May I count on you to advise me and keep me on the right path in the future?”
“This is a great honor you are making to your humble servant, my King!”
It was late at night. No more dinners were to be ordered. The kitchen was being cleaned, although Naeem was conducting a last check on the stores and the sauce stocks for the next day. The fisherman’s son had taken to cooking in no time at all, and his diligence and curiosity had endeared him to the female staff and other servants. As predicted, more people of all ages and abilities were applying for jobs at the Blue Mermaid and neighboring businesses. At long last, the innkeeper could take a few breathers and enjoy the company and chat of friends in the lounge, or at the counter where his older patrons enjoyed their beer standing in close proximity with the owner of the place.
Ekan decided to join Master Turgas at his bar.
As he entered the lounge he noticed Petren at a table on his own with a tankard of beer.
The Constable signaled to Jonas to join him at his table.
The Black Dragon filled two tankards with home-brewed dark ale and sat next to he City Guard.
“Good evening, Petren! This one’s on me. Cheers to your health!”
“That is much appreciated. Cheers to your health, too, although I’m not really worried about it. I just can’t imagine you sick or harmed!”
Ekan had the grace to smile.
“We don’t we see you here very often, Petren. Is it a social visit or an unofficial business of yours?”
“Quite direct, aren’t we? I suppose I deserve it. I came for both. Your ale is by far the best in town. You should make more of it and sell it. The other reason is that the Judge is probably going to sentence Gardan and his thugs and you will be called as a witness again.”
“Well, I hope the case is clear-cut this time. In fact, I’m glad you came here. I do have to ask you for a favor.”
“Please do. I hope I can grant it.”
“I need to talk to the Judge on a personal matter. Do you think you could arrange a private interview between the two of us before the court takes place?”
“That is very irregular, indeed. But it just happens that the Judge is very interested in you. He knows you are behind this idea of a Guild and he approves. He has a few questions for you on matters that could help with life in Dunlago.”
“How’s that? Between you and me, I also wanted to propose a few suggestions. Some of them might actually please you, I must say!”
“Would you care to share your confidence?”
“Sorry, I don’t know what the Judge will say. But I promise you will be the first to be informed. Let’s hope he will agree!”
“Mysteries, mysteries! Oh well! I ought to be grateful in any case. How about late tomorrow afternoon?”
“Should be fine with me.”
“Alright. I’ll come myself to accompany you. Let’s make it official. We do not want tongues wagging, do we?”
“No, surely we don’t!” laughed Ekan. “My sincere thanks, Petren!”
“You are most welcome!”
Both men struck their tankards in agreement.
The weather along the shore south of Dunlago was gradually turning milder. The land had changed from sparsely grown expanses to rolling green hills where large herds of goats and sheep were busy grazing. Wolf had problems keeping her preying eyes from all that juicy food.
“Wise One, I’m afraid times of hunting in the northern reaches and free food at Dunlago are finished. But do not worry, I shall take good care of both of us! I have plenty of money to buy all the meat you want!”
“Ancient one, I will never understand this notion of buying your food!”
“Wise One, away in nature, you can hunt and eat your fill. Here, people are growing food and you must earn it!”
“Why do we have to go through that land, then?”
“Wise One, may I remind you that you were the one who wanted to leave Dunlago and travel to Beaucastel. This is the fastest way. Unless you want us spend months in the Steppes, where I’m afraid you’ll grow hungry all the time!”
“Why do I have to rely on somebody else for my food, please tell me!”
”This is what you call companionship. I provide you with the food. You grace me with your presence and good counsel!”
”Then why do I have the impression I am depending more and more on your good services?”
“Well, this is life, as humans would say!”
Ekan waited in a Dunlago Court room reserved for the Judge’s guests. Very few people were aware of the existence of that particular place. Petren had told him that only Anthony and Gladys knew of it, as far as he was aware. Of course the Constable’s predecessors must have used it but none was presently alive which suited the Black Dragon to perfection.
Ekan did not have to wait very long before the most feared man in the capital made his appearance.
“Ah, Jonas! Good to meet you again! It seems that this time both of us want to talk to each other. I cannot say that happens often enough, and I hope this time it shall be for our mutual pleasure!” he genially began.
He sat down at a low table next to Ekan where servants had brought coffee and cakes. The coffee was of the best quality and the cakes were a new experience entirely.
The Black Dragon waited until the man had drunk some of his own coffee before addressing the matter of his visit.
“Judge, I also sincerely hope, as you say, that we will enjoy this talk, although I would not dare to presume!”
The Judge lifted his eyes from his cup.
“You have come to mention the problem with those three thugs, haven’t you? I’m ready to make an example of their sentences if that is what you wish. I’m getting sick of this kind of criminal racketing, too!”
“You have put your finger on the right point as usual, but we might slightly differ on the example.”
“Make yourself clear, Jonas.”
“Sorry, I stand corrected. But before that, although your time is precious, I wish to speak on my own presence here first.”
“I see no problem with that since this was exactly what I wished to discuss. Tell me, Jonas, how can a man be so strong? However big you might be, I’m not ready to accept that one lone man can rip the head off another man like you did on that slavers’ ship! I’ve also heard about that tale of your crushing oliva tree fruit into oil. I have read reports of your treatment of thugs twice now. A man you call Mentor comes out of nowhere to meet you at the inn you work in. Totally alien Dwarves seem to know you and went directly to the Blue Mermaid. Shall I go any further?”
The Black Dragon looked at the Judge. He did not know whether to smile or frown at the man’s intelligence gathering expertise.
He opted to laugh.
“I’ve come to the right place, Judge. I see that Dunlago does not possess one but at least two secret agencies! But I’m inclined to say that yours is far more effective that the Vanenklaars’!”
The Judge’s eyebrows started to crease at this revelation.
Ekan continued on a more serious tone.
“I think I had better be honest with you Judge, and this is certainly no jest from me! The time is ripe for a few changes and both of us will have to work in close association if we want Dunlago, the Land of the Races of the Desert and the Sea and its people to thrive and prosper. We have a Monarchy in Dunlago, but as far as Kings and Queens are concerned, they come and go. You are the true power in this land and you have always made good use of it. You have always struck me as somebody out of the ordinary, if I may be so bold as to say!”
The judge stolidly listened, and only his deepening frown showed his deepening concern and edginess.
“Jonas, I’m afraid you are presuming a lot. I daresay you are coming very close to high treason, too! What allows you to suggest that we should ally with each other to rule this country?”
Ekan did not bother to apologize this time.
“Judge, as you have rightly guessed, I’m nothing of the ordinary. I could think of many ways to prove it and cow you into immediate obedience, but I hold your friendship and understanding too dear to me to pretend to bully you into my service!”
The Judge was about to make an angry reply, when Ekan suddenly laid the palms of both hands flat on the marble surface of the low table. That gesture seemed so strangely out of place that the venerable man checked his ire to look at them.
The hands were slowly changing. They were growing, not only the fingers but the nails, too. Black scales appeared on the skin. Long sharp talons materialized in place of the nails. Their pointed ends penetrated the marble with a teeth-shattering screech. The Judge recoiled from the table in growing horror.
“What magic is that? Are you trying to trick me or what?”
Where more common people would have fallen onto their knees or fled screaming, the Judge showed remarkable restraint and a stout heart in face of the unknown and perilous.
Jonas answered in a low rumbling voice:
“Since seeing is not believing, touch me!”
The Judge did not move.
“Touch me! Or shall I have to take you in my grip?”
The Judge, belatedly realizing that for the first time in his long adult life he was not master of the situation, approached the talon of the extended scaled paws. His trembling right hand reached for the obsidian nails, crept up along them to touch the scales under which he discovered the terrible heat of a dragon’s blood.
Snatching his hand back, he stuttered in disbelief:
“You… You are a dragon?”
“Yes, I am. At you and your people’s service.”
The most feared single person in Dunlago passed his hands over his face drenched in cold sweat. The man possessed enormous strength and control in spite of his precarious position. Finally taking hold of himself the Judge ventured:
“Jonas, and of course this is not your true name, do you realize that today you are asking me to renounce the beliefs and convictions of a whole lifetime? How am I going to assume responsibilities, knowing a creature of unimaginable might will be constantly hovering above me?”
Ekan resumed his usual warm voice and replied with a smile:
“Judge, that is where you make a mistake. First, I certainly cannot afford to constantly reveal myself, lest I bring unwanted powers on our heads. Secondly, I definitely do not want to interfere with the affairs of my adopted nation! You will have to continue your work with the only difference that you will have a better grasp of the whole situation!”
“Jonas, since you have not answered to my hint about your real name, I shall desist on that particular point.” answered the Judge who was fast coming back to his senses. “But I’m not young. Actually, I only have a few years left. What are you going to do about my successors?”
Jonas raised his open hand, back to normal, to stop the magistrate.
“This is where you are making your second mistake, if I can call it so! You are going to live many years, more than you can imagine! For the simple reason that you are the only person qualified for your job, and that I know it will take many more years before you can nurture anybody to your level and standards! And this will be your first task! I still have two more tasks for you to take care of at once, and then I shall leave you in peace for a long while. At least, I hope so!”
The Judge, slowly reconciling himself with the enormity of the responsibility enforced on his person, replied with an increasingly tiring voice:
“Tell me, then. I have no choice, do I?”
“No, and I’m truly sorry. But somebody has to do it, so here we are! First, you must convince our King and whoever else is in charge, to build a large enough navy for the sole purpose of fighting and destroying the slavers’ ships and trade once for all. But the true reason behind that, and you don’t have to divulge this, is that we shall need a real navy in the very near future to be able to fend off an attack or invasion from the south!”
“What! Nobody has heard of anything like an invading force coming out of the south continent! We don’t even know if it ever exists!”
“Where do you think the slavers come from?”
The Judge looked at the mien of a very serious Ekan for a very long few seconds.
Faced with that terrible truth, he asked in a resigned tone:
“What is the last task?”
“About these thugs’ sentences…”
“ Bring the accused forth!” a stern Judge commanded the Guards behind Gardan and his two henchmen.
The Constabulary roughly pushed their charges forward.
Petren and Ekan were standing on the side. No jury was needed this time as the culprits could do nothing but accept the charges leveled against them.
“Gardan, you and your two comrades have been found guilty of racketing, assault, and causing serious injuries to a senior citizen and his business. Had I not been in a good mood, I would have made an example of your sentence to criminals of your sort and sent you to the gallows! Instead, and your punishment will be made public on this very day, the three of you are condemned to twenty years of forced labor to a community of my choice outside this city.”
Gardan screamed:
“What? That’s rubbish! There has never been such a sentence of forced labor…”
A Guard cuffed him on the back of the head to keep him silent.
The Judge pitilessly went on:
“The law has changed, if you want to know! And I can tell you that you shall not be alone! All sentences are going to be amended to become forced labor of varying lengths! The country has had enough of feeding your kind in jails for free! It is about time that you made yourselves useful! Dismissed!”
The Guards took the villains out of the Court Room, but Petren and Ekan stayed in.
The Judge turned to Petren:
“Petren, from tomorrow, I shall give you a daily list of prisoners whose sentences are going to be amended at once. I shall have a ship prepared that will take them all under your guard to Villefranche in Beaulieu. There, Royal Guards will take them to Beaucastel where they shall serve their sentences helping our neighbors rebuild the sanitation systems of their cities and later shore up the southern defenses at the Pass. The latter is for your ears only, but make their punishments known to whoever wants to hear it! It will also make everybody realize we care about our diplomacy!”
An uncertain Petren had some difficulty hiding his confusion.
“Judge, not meaning any disrespect to your person or any slur to Jonas, but why are you telling me all this in front of our friend?”
The magistrate crossed his fingers under his chin.
“Petren, from today Jonas is part of a very restricted circle comprising of you, me and him. Constable, I do not have to explain why the two of us have chosen to closely work together to the ignorance of the King and his agents until now. I have decided to include Jonas because of his obvious qualities and hidden talents. It is my belief that the two of you will complement and form the perfect team. Devise a way to communicate between the two of you. Nobody should discover the reasons behind your relations, except for the evident ones. Jonas, inform me through Petren only. We do not want people to see you too often in this building. Twice is enough. Thank you, gentlemen!”
Once they were out, Petren asked:
“Jonas, what did the Judge mean by “hidden talents?”
Ekan emitted a deprecating laugh:
“I suppose he meant the fact that I can write and read and that I have good ears and good eyes in the right places. During that interview I asked you to arrange, he asked me if I would be willing to work for him after I suggested that new kind of sentence. Mentor had told me about the innovation down in Beaucastel, and I thought we could smartly get rid of that scum once and for all without having to harm or kill anybody, and at the same time provide our neighbors with some needed goodwill!”
The Constable walked for a while in silence.
“I must admit that was a great idea, but why do I have the gnawing feeling it is only part of something far bigger?”
“Petren, sometimes you will have to forget your investigative reflexes. You see something sneaky everywhere!” replied a poker-faced Ekan.
“State your name and your purpose!” shouted a voice from behind the trees.
“I am Flint Ironfoot and these are the Dwarves from the Kingdom Under The Mountain! We have been sent to you by our King as a delegation of all the Dwarves Clans living in the Iron Crags! We are seeking a meeting with your Queen Ellana! Have the grace to show yourselves as we have come in peace!”
“How can that be? You are calling yourselves Dwarves, but we have never seen anyone of your Race! The lives of the Elves should be long enough to have remembered such of your kind! Nobody has told us of a Kingdom Under The Mountain or Iron crags for that matter!”
They were getting nowhere. The Dwarves had waited all day to be granted the entrance to the Elf Forest to no avail. The Elves had not shown themselves either, shouting from behind the trees. Numnir knew where they were, and the sentinels were sorely undermanned. That could explain why they did not want to reveal themselves. He supposed such a precaution should be accepted. After all, the Elf Kingdom would be in the thick of things if an open conflict occurred with whatever lurked south of the Fire Mountains.
The big Dwarf changed tack in spite of his reluctance to give away the smallest hint of his knowledge of the denizens of the Forest.
“Will you call Wilfred, Captain of the Army of the Elves, then? I’m sure he will vouch for me!”
The mention of the name of the mysterious Elf, who had arrived in their midst from nowhere a few months ago, certainly gained the attention of the Elves in charge of guarding their Forest. They had recently received orders from their Queen to tighten the security of their borders, although they felt quite confident that Ellana’s spells would suffice to repulse any unwelcome intrusion.
There were only three of them in that area and they could ill afford to send anyone of them to their Queen until relief would come. They had to stall those strange creatures for a while still.
Their leader called the Dwarves:
“How did you happen by the name of Her Majesty’s Captain? If you know so much about us, why do you need our Queen’s permission to…”
The Elf felt a light touch on his shoulder before he could finish his sentence. He turned to face the individual who had dared interrupt him so rudely. He froze when he recognized Wilfred towering a head above his own. Dargelblad was smiling.
“Thank you, soldier! I will take care of that!”
The guard found himself speechless. How could the silver-haired Elf have come behind him without being detected by any of them? Moreover, no sooner than this morning, he had been told Wilfred was patrolling the Eastern shore hundred of miles away.
The Silver Dragon remonstrated with the stricken Elf:
“Straighten up, soldier! What will our guests think of our vaunted army? Show some mettle! Now, if the three of you would follow me!”
Dargelblad resolutely went out of the trees followed the three apprehensive Elf guards.
He went directly to Numnir, and throwing all protocols to the winds, they heartily shook hands in the humans’ manner.
They chose to speak aloud in the common language of Alymndes, although the other Elves still had some trouble managing the tongue. The Dwarves, on the other hand, already had a good smattering of it, thanks to their sojourns in Dunlago and Beaulieu and Numnir’s constant lectures during their voyages and travels.
Dargelblad thought to ask Ellana to instruct her subjects to master the language as soon as possible, however uncouth it might sound to her haughty followers. Which also meant he would have to waste more time with that lot.
Looking at the bulky luggage the Dwarves were shouldering, he asked:
“Shall I send for help to carry all that baggage? I can’t start to imagine how much those packs weigh!”
Numnir laughed:
“If you want to humiliate our people, there would not be any better way! No, believe me, they’ll manage as long as they can enjoy the shade of your trees!”
“Well, so be it! No point waiting any longer. Just follow me.”
Turning to the guards:
“Soldiers, go back to your post and continue your vigil! I shall have the pleasure to recommend you for your steadfastness to our Queen.”
“That was smooth!” commented Numnir in mindspeech.
“My people are a susceptible lot. A well-placed compliment does work wonders!” replied his brother in the same manner.
Numnir and his Dwarves followed Dargelblad in single file into the mysterious Elf Forest.
The Elf Forest was in an uproar.
Wilfred had arrived the previous day with a group of the eleven of the strangest creatures Elves had ever met in their Realm, or so to speak outside. Creatures of legend they were. The tall people of the woods had a lot of prejudices against the other races, but the Dwarves evidently provoked extreme reactions with their short stocky bodies, their beards and their enormous feet that could be heard trample the soft forest soil from miles away.
Queen Ellana had sternly warned her subjects to behave in the most respectful and welcoming manner, but some individuals were sorely tried in their personal feelings. On the other hand, their Queen had proved the perfect host.
Her grace, gentility and deference had left the Dwarves dazzled and speechless. Fortunately, Numnir had smoothly assumed the role of the guests on their behalf, or the Elves would have thought his companions mute or dumb. The Court had a fair knowledge of the common language, so communication had not become much of a problem when tongues started to loose later.
The Dwarves had retired early as they certainly needed rest after having crossed half the Forest before reaching Queen Ellana’s Court.
Tents had been prepared for them, but it would take a long time for the inhabitants of the mountains to get comfortable under such flimsy protection in spite of the very clement climate.
The following day witnessed unusual activity. Queen Ellana had ordered a large tent to be erected to house all the guests at the banquet offered in the honor of their special visitors. The occasion in itself was not of great import as Elves were fond of revelry and never missed an opportunity to celebrate. What started to rouse the interest of the denizens of the Forest was that everybody had been firmly asked out of the tent just before the festivities were supposed to begin. Ellana’s subjects’ curiosity was further exacerbated when the Dwarves appeared, carrying boxes of all kinds and sizes out of their own abodes into the banquet tent.
Questions flew but no answers came. Everybody understood they would have to wait until the feast began and the usually staid Elves were openly fidgeting.
Their plight was mercifully ended just as the sun started sinking behind the trees when a herald announced the banquet was ready. Even so, proper decorum forced everyone to enter the cloth hall in a single file and in the order of his status. The Queen, Dargelblad and Numnir, as well the Prince Consort and the Dwarves were already seated, clearly demonstrating the importance accorded to the guests to the detriment and chagrin of the Elf nobility. The latter, to the last man and woman, had to walk to the Royal Seat to salute their sovereign before proceeding to his and her predetermined place along the banquet table. But once seated, every Elf could not help but observe and become further intrigued by a white silk cloth covering their dinner set, whereas Ellana, Aerdhel, the Dragons and the Dwarves were facing an uncovered set of elven-made plate, fork, knife, chopsticks, spoon and glasses. The Dwarves did not show any curiosity at their outlandish dining set as they had had plenty of time to examine and train with such unusual utensils before coming to the Elf Forest.
When at last all the guests had been seated, Queen Ellana rose up and addressed the assembly:
“Honored guests, faithful servants of the Forest! As I may presume you all know, we are here assembled today to welcome the vanguard and illustrious ambassadors of a great Race whose very existence we had all forgotten in our ignorance and self-centered pride! When I say vanguard, it is my sincere belief we are witnessing the advent of a very long and fruitful relation between our two people. By illustrious, this is how you shall call our guests once you have seen what they had brought us, in spite of what some of you might have thought or said, for which I wish to offer my heartfelt apologies!”
The Queen was not known to apologize or reckon her faults if she ever had any, and her words put a few of her courtiers to shame on that day. Some could feel her displeasure and discovered they would be accounted for.
“But I am quite certain that all who had doubted our guests’ intentions and abilities will be the first to offer their thanks and friendship!”
The sarcasm was not lost. What was supposed to be a source of festivities was quickly turning into a masterly remonstrance of her subjects.
“I know Dwarves are people of few words but of great deeds. Why do you not lift the napkin in front of you to discover what presents they have brought all the way from the Iron Crags for your sole pleasure!”
Every courtier, with as much grace and restraint they could muster, obeyed their Queen to unveil what was under their napkins.
Few people in Alymndes could boast they had ever seen a truly astonished Elf in their life. But what the Dwarves were witnessing was the whole of the Forest nobility and authority gaping in mute surprise and wonder.
The knife, the fork and spoon were lying in their normal place, but each plate was of enameled pottery with patterns, motifs and colors of their own. The Dwarves had chosen subjects drawn and submitted to their skills by Numnir, as the Dwarves knew so little about the outside world before they began to heat their kilns. Some nobles were lovingly tracing their fingers along the leaves, fruit and plants so dear to them. Next, as their eyes went beyond their plates, they discovered a pair of chopsticks made of a substance they had never seen. Pottery they knew, although enamel was a discovery, but glass intrigued them endlessly. Each set of chopsticks was made of that substance in many colors interlacing each other as if they were flowing through and away. Next as each napkin was completely lifted, a drinking glass appeared to further heighten the astonishment of his recipient. Each drinking vessel had been manufactured with flash glass of two different tinted layers over a transparent one. Motifs had been cut and carved out the glass at varying depths to make them appear in rich lights and shades. Every Elf was holding his glass in front of his eyes, unendingly twirling it in the light of the fire globes hung to the roof of the tent which soon resonated with the amazed exclamations of joy of the happy Elves.
Those, who just a short while ago had come to sneer at their visitors or worse mock them, were presently unashamedly vying for their attentions, full of praise and questions, although Court rules prevented them to leave their seats and join the beaming Dwarves.
Ellana raised her hands to command silence.
“Gentlemen, Ladies! Are you forgetting your station and manners?”
She continued in a thinly veiled mocking tone:
“Behold! Long have I waited to witness the flower of the servants of the Forest throw their reserve and pride to the winds and at last show some true admiration and modesty for something not of their own making! I shall cherish this precious moment for the rest of my life! I hereby pray the Kingdom Under The Mountain to accept my humble thanks and proclaim all Dwarves Elf-friends!”
Turning to Numnir:
“But words are only words. Dear Flint Ironfoot, Ambassador of Drumbeat Hammerblow, King of all Dwarven Races, would you be as kind to repeat for the benefit of our audience what you so eloquently advocated to us last night?”
Numnir stood up and bowed to the Queen.
“Your Majesty is too kind when she praises the Dwarves for something they have done all their lives. We have come to your Forest, not only to offer you our crafts, but also to discover your arts and culture and propose an exchange of skills as well as combine our efforts into the creation of new artworks.”
The assembly went silent for real. Numnir had the satisfaction to discover he had struck a chord in the Elves’ hearts. He had their attention riveted to his words of art and crafts. However, there were other aspects he wished to discuss.
“I sense that my speech is of some appeal to you, so if you would allow me to continue in spite of all the great food and drink waiting for us, I shall make an outline of what we would like to submit to your judgment. The material used to manufacture the chopsticks and wine cups is called glass. The technique, as for enamel, the material covering your plates, is not too hard to replicate. The problem resides in the forges, ovens and intense heat needed for long periods to achieve perfection. As far as I know, only Dwarves can endure long exposure to such extremes in temperature. Natural crystals holds few secrets for you, but they are brittle and hard to fashion, whereas glass, although breakable, can be molded into any shape and tinted in any color. It is easy to polish, cut or carve. We dwarves are proficient with knives, chisels and hammers, but when it comes to minute details or treating silver or other soft metals, our big hands are too clumsy. Now for a start, if we could for example fashion chopsticks, wine glasses and mirrors with silver or copper holds and frames, we would create an unequaled product to sell or barter. We have already seen how quickly our crafts have become popular and in demand in Dunlago and Beaucastel, and our kin there have standing orders for at least a year. I know your love of the wines of Beaulieu, the spices of Dunlago and the soft skins of the Steppes. Shall I continue? As a last word, I have to confess trade is the main reason why we Dwarves have decided to come out of our mountains!”
The Elves were gaping at the Flint Dragon’s words. Rarely had anybody brought them to think and reevaluate so suddenly that they had great difficulties to organize their thoughts and to formulate the questions that crowded their heads. Their Queen saved them from more confusion
“Flint Ironfoot, Ambassador of the Kingdom Under The Mountain, many of us, if not all, will remember this day when somebody had to come among us from so far to provide our Forest with some greatly needed challenge and mettle! Why do we not start celebrating our good fortune? Gentle servants, bring us drink and food! Musicians, to your instruments!”
As the guests and Elves got down to the serious business of eating, drinking and reveling, Ellanna, pointedly ignoring Aerdhel, turned to Numnir.
“Pray tell me, good Ironfoot, how long have you known our dear Captain Wilfred?”
Taking his time to savor the fine wine in his glass, Numnir chose to answer indirectly, looking at his brother instead of Ellanna.
“For quite a while, have I not, Wilfred?”
Dargelblad kept smiling in silence.
Queen Ellanna flippantly retorted:
“If you have known Wilfred that long, am I right to assume you are of the same kind, or maybe that you are kin?”
Numnir faced the beautiful Elf.
“Ellana, how careless of you! Even in the sanctity of your Realm, would you think it absolutely safe to proffer such questions? If you believe we are kin indeed, why do you have to ask? I have immense respect for you and you are very dear to, shall I say, us, but time is not right for revelation.”
The Queen was about to answer in anger when Dargelblad interfered:
“Ellana, you asked for that! Ironfoot, in his single sentence, has told you more than I have told you myself! He is a very direct sort and cares little for refinement or manners, but that is all you will extract from him!”
Numnir bowed to the Queen.
“Ellana, accept my profound apologies, but Wilfred is right. Would you allow me to address another subject of more immediate importance?”
Ellana stared at the Flint Dwarf, but try as she might, her magic could not pierce the barrier erected in his mind. There was little point in wasting her energy as Ironfoot was evidently of the same brand as her intractable Captain.
Her inborn political acumen took over. She raised her glass in acceptance as a warm smile lit her face.
“Well, at least, I hope you will prove more cooperative than our good friend Wilfred! I’m all ears, Ironfoot!”
Numnir returned her smile.
“Ellana, I’m talking to the Queen right now. I’m not teaching you anything new when I’m telling you that Alymndes consists of five distinct nations. Some have long been established while others are still in the making. You probably have already deducted that five entities are influencing and trying to steer each nation onto a common path for our mutual benefit, and sometime in the future to coordinate our overall defense against an unknown but real peril. To accelerate this process, we thought to create an Embassy in Beaucastel, which is both a convenient focal point and in efficient proximity to coming danger. The people in Beaulieu are already rebuilding their cities to standards acceptable by all other Races. So you had better think of whom to send as envoys of the Forest of the Elves. This is not an order, but since you find yourselves directly in the fire line, I’m confident you will understand the need to join our forces and resources. Incidentally, Wilfred and the Free Tribes of the Steppes have effectively begun to do so along the Western Seas shores.”
The glass stayed poised at the Queen’s lips as she intently listened to Numnir’s explanations. Her eyes wondered to Dargelblad who discerned elation that Ellana did not bother to conceal from him. The Silver Dragon vainly attempted to discourage her by slightly shaking his head. The Elf woman spared him a mocking look of triumph.
“I’ll pay you for that, Brother!” Dargelblad said to the Grey Dwarf in mindspeech.
“Well, as long as you can provide me with as great and beautiful a companion as Queen Ellana, I shall not mind a bit!” laughed back Numnir in similar fashion.
Totally unaware of what was being said around her, Ellana spoke to Numnir.
“Ironfoot, I must concede that you possess a better understanding of the outside world and I’m convinced you are the voice of reason when you suggest such an Embassy. You have explained a short while ago the advantages of exchanging skills as well as the possibilities of greater trade. But constant and tangible diplomatic ties are the key to the prosperity of our people and to the safety of our lands!”
Turning to Aerdhel:
“And who is better suited to represent our interests than our highest-ranked subject, Prince Consort Aerdhel?”
With that single sentence, two individuals had felt themselves cornered and their fate sealed, although for entirely different reasons. The Prince Consort knew he was being sent away from the Queen and her Court under the guise of the official envoy of the Elves, a position he could not afford to refuse in public, lest he wanted to fall into sudden disgrace.
He bowed to Ellana:
“Majesty, I feel honored!”
“Aerdhel, you are honoring me by accepting this heavy burden! You ought to think at once of whom you shall need by your side as it will certainly not do to send you alone! Work and responsibilities should be equally distributed among your most trusted servants and friends!”
At these words a few heads nearest to the Royal seats turned to their monarch’s in evident interest. Suddenly a lot of Elves felt the urge to explore the outer world. A position in the first Embassy in Alymndes was not to be scorned at, especially in regards to some very profitable opportunities it would entail.
Evidently someone’s misfortunes worked to the advantage of others, reflected Dargelblad when looking at the Prince Consort’s face. Now he will have to deal with an amorous Queen bent on the prey of her love. Oh well, he mused, that might as well make things easier in the long run, but how the hell was he going to manage to keep their coming relation discreet in the middle of that rumor-hungry coterie of idle courtiers? Unless he could find some work for them…
Dargelblad and Ellana lay naked inside the Silver Dragon’s abode carved out the bole of an enormous ash tree, a place rarely occupied recently, but that the Queen had chosen for him the very first day he came to the glade of the Elf Forest Court. It consisted of a single room, as Dargelblad, or any other elf indeed, did not need that much space to sleep. Elves were more content to sleep outdoors as long as the weather permitted. Moreover, their revelries kept them awake far later in the night than humans or Dwarves. Even so, they usually spent the rest of their nights under tents or inside lodges built inside tree boughs in inclement weather. Dargelblad’s quarters were an exception to the rule, and he suspected a deliberate choice from Ellana.
The Elf Queen had come late after the end of the banquet when everybody was supposedly asleep, which he very much doubted. He had expected her and had been standing waiting for her when she parted the curtain of the entrance to enter his chamber.
They had embraced without a word. Ellana had furiously made love to him as if she had to release some long pent-up frustration of her desires. He had gladly submitted to her, as his very scant experience of the other sex did not allow him much to venture in the mysterious world that human or Elven relations were still to him.
Ellana broke into his reverie:
-“Wilfred, tell me, is Ironfoot really a Dwarf?”
The Silver Dragon smiled.
-“Ellana, you are certainly choosing the wrong moment to interrogate me! I know little of females of your kind, but even so I have learnt you are a persistent lot and you tend to fully use the instants your males seemed to be at their weakest and most forgetful! In any case, you probably have guessed much, but I shan’t tell you anything so close to danger!”
Ellana was about to retort when he put a finger on her lips.
-“Ellana, as much as I am fond of you and your people, there are things I shall never be able to or wish to concede, and one of them is submission to your whims!”
-“You do not love me, then?”
-“My Queen, the word love bears little meaning to me. But if it signifies possession and duty, it most certainly disagrees with me. I accept as you are, so the least you could do is to reciprocate. Moreover, eternal betrothal as is your custom, is simply impossible for me to contemplate. Coming to it, aren’t you betrothed to Aerdhel?”
-“Not at all! It is only a political arrangement. Everybody knows I have never shared his bed! I can be rid of him and nominate another Prince Consort any time if I wish!”
-“Which would be bad politics, indeed! Talking of politics, who is going to assume Aerdhel’s role in the Forest?”
-“No one is. From now on, the Prince Consort shall be the official Ambassador of the Elven nations in Beaucastel. Our women’s magic shall take care of the Forest’s security. The male Elves will obey my orders as they always have done, with the difference being that I shall directly issue such orders instead of having them relayed by a Prince Consort. Except for the safeguards of the Forest, I need little to interfere with everyday affairs. Our subjects will be too busy with the Dwarves to waste time on court intrigues, as they have been wont to do until now! It is about time I enjoy my freedom myself!”
-“Freedom to follow me?”
-“Since you are not coming to me, what else can I do?”
-“Take care, Ellana! Do not let your feelings blind your eyes into neglecting your duty to your people! This is no time to irresponsibly flit around!”
Ellana languorously stretched her body along Dargelblad’s. As her hand lightly stroked the Silver Dragon’s chest she murmured in his ear:
-“Wilfred, do me a favor: let’s be as irresponsible as possible until dawn before we recover our serious selves?”


One Response to “Alymndes 14: Diplomacy”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Interesting. This could get very interesting. Ellana really needs to grow up a little. Her powers and position have gone to her head. I think that will happen soon, and won’t say more about it, except maybe as mutterings to myself.

    I was up all night reading this, and only slept because I couldn’t hold my eyes open anymore. I can’t do that again, and will do my best to either finish tonight or leave it until I have more time.

    Happy writing!

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