Alymndes 19: Affairs Of State

A lot of activity was witnessed inside the Embassy Hall, as was called the vast room where the representatives of the five nations of Alymndes had been meeting daily for the past two weeks.
The weather outside had turned cold and rainy with the coming winter. Soon the first snows would come although the capital did not witness the short but bleak change of climate endured by people further south.
All the representatives were quite happy to find themselves indoors, where heat was not provided by an inefficient roaring fireplace, as it used to be until the very past year, but by some strange pipes running through the walls.
When the five Dwarven envoys had arrived in Beaucastel, the first thing they set themselves to was the installation of a central heating system of their own design. That included a boiler they built in a room below provided by the King, who had had it cleaned for that purpose. Then they had fixed metal pipes to the contraption before having them run through apertures that they had forcibly pierced through the floor and around the four walls upstairs under the worried eyes of the Palace dwellers.
It had taken some time to explain the mechanism of hot water rising through the pipes and then descending back to the boiler as it cooled down along the walls. But Dwarves were patient teachers and humans would have to take over the task of feeding the machine with fuel and make sure the tank was full with water every morning before lighting the fire. The Dwarves, at least, had promised to take care of any regular cleaning needed. The truth was they were not yet ready to entrust that chore to dumb humans.
Nobody argued, as the Hall had never been kept so efficiently warm, and what is more, no one was disturbing their meetings to bring in wood and keep the fire blazing with the ensuing smoke and smell.
Without being asked, the Dwarves had blocked the chimney at its top to prevent any rainwater from dripping down or unwelcome drafts coming inside the room. A scribe sitting behind an enormous desk piled with parchments and documents presently occupied the space in front of the vast mantelpiece.
Gerhart had reflected that such a novelty would make recalcitrant nobles even more eager to find their names back in his good books, notably the ones enduring their cold rooms near the Fire Mountains.
On the first of their sessions, people had learned to keep away from those pipes and never touch them again. The Dwarves had suggested the King to ask carpenters devise some kind of light casing with plenty of vents to let the heat through and prevent careless occupants from singeing their hands and backsides.
All representatives, except for the Shamen, had been assigned their own rooms inside the Embassy, as was called the large building vacated for their needs. A banquet hall had been arranged with a vast kitchen and staff for their meals, but these could be brought to their chambers if requested. Four days each moon had been declared rest days to allow the Representatives to visit and enjoy the city. The denizens of the Steppes had had a large yurt erected outside the city on a large meadow completely fenced off to grant them freedom of movement and privacy. Special latrines and a bathhouse had been built for their use. It had taken some time and persuasion before they would make use of them. A quick visit by Umatar and a few stern words had helped to convince them it was in their best interest to adopt some of the finer traditions of civilization, although she agreed with their staying out of the cities. After all, each society had its good points. Dwarves were only too happy to dwell inside stone, while the Elves did not mind too much. The latter took advantage of their rest days to wander in the country outside, looking at new trees or plants. They had also taken a great interest in the gardens and parks found inside and outside the city and were already making friends with gardeners and growers. The citizens of Dunlago were not keen on venturing outside in this cold season, and spent a long time in bathhouses, where their stature and color puzzled patrons no end. Some citizens were already sharing their propensity for long talks held inside such establishments. All in all, every delegate, regardless of his race or preferences, mixed well with the local population. Even the dour Elf Prince Consort could be seen at local taverns savoring some dark ale, or more likely, a flagon of heady wine from the vineyards of South Beaulieu, in the company of new acquaintances. This in turn created unprecedented business in Beaucastel with a healthy contribution to the state coffers, thanks to the new tax system recently implemented. Which in turn paid for the upkeep of the many Delegates residing in the Capital. At that rate, Beaucastel would soon become a thriving cosmopolitan city, as these Representatives were already proclaiming its virtues and pleasures back home. A tight but discreet security enforced by the Royal Guards did help a lot for its reputation. Minor offenders constantly seen cleaning the city were enough a deterrent for would-be cutpurses or worse.
But the Representatives also had work to do.
The agenda of the day was concerning currencies and measures.
All representatives had agreed on an urgent need to reach a workable uniformity of those indispensable prerequisites for fair trade and prevention of any abuse or dispute.
Gerhart and Nepomucene de Beauvoir attended all those meetings as the Realm of Beaulieu was directly interested.
Marghrete, now heavy with her twins, preferred to keep to her apartments in the company of Amrel, spending the days discussing lore and preparing the clothes, napkins and other essentials that her children would need in great quantity. Her two guards were on hand as ever and seemed very happy to assume the role of ladies-in-waiting. Marghrete showed a remarkable liking for their company. They had so many stories to share too, that she could not contemplate the chore of enduring the incessant prattle of some other noble women.
Another person who was quite content with the arrangement was Gerhart who, like most men, felt very clumsy and useless near his pregnant wife, hesitating between treating her like a spouse or like a patient.
The present embassy meetings were good enough pretexts to make himself scarce in daytime, although he proved a surprisingly devoted husband at night, complying with her every request or wish, however bizarre, or downright silly.
Nepomucene served him faithfully as a secretary and jack-of-all-trades. To avoid any unpleasantries with older nobles, Gerhart had made clear once and for all that his personal aide-de-camp took no orders but from him. The young man was intelligent enough to keep as low a profile as possible, and was acquiring the skills of diplomacy very fast indeed. As it had been demonstrated to him before, he knew perfectly that his King would not hesitate to put any impudent bully back into his rightful place.
The discussion at hand concerned measures of length, weights and volumes. Whereas most wished to keep their own system and terminology, the practical Dwarves favored an easily divisible method, while keeping some names for the sake of tradition. Gerhart tended to agree and support the latter. He had had enough of daily complaints of swindling and embezzlements from his own subjects. Arnaud, who had been chosen as one of the five Representatives of Beaulieu, had discreetly confided him that he was sick and tired of all those disputes, which prevented a smooth running of his Court of Justice. He had also suggested that, once currencies and measures had all been agreed upon, each race or nation should designate a different commission of five representatives or Controllers to check the perfect functioning of the minting, and to conduct random checks all over the land of Alymndes. These Representatives could be given a special badge and be protected by a retinue of mixed guards, one from each race or nation. Any assault, bodily or otherwise, coercion or bribing would be subject to the highest penalty. Gerhart certainly concurred and was already thinking of making such a proposal to all suzerains, kings and chiefs when they would come to Beaucastel in the Spring.
Geoffroy d’Arcourt had had his fill of work these past few days and little time for Amrel. Ensuring the security of the city and of its august visitors was not too taxing in itself, as Birghit and the Royal Guards were more than competent. But his duties also included keeping his eyes and ears open all day long and paying impromptu visits to the taverns and inns, which had resumed business with the return of Beaucastel’s momentarily displaced population. The new visitors and their retinues had contributed to a steep rise in earnings for all professions. Some new and exotic shops could be discovered here and there: a spice seller from Dunlago, a couple of Dwarves offering glassware and even an enterprising Elf who was making a brisk trade in silks. Now that the new tax system promised by Arnaud was in place, he would ask for a detailed map of the city from one of the collectors. Thinking of it, mapping out the country could be the next task for the Royal Guards in time of peace. He was certainly looking forward to some riding in the plains and over the hills.
Night had fallen a few hours before when his feet brought him to the Seven Dragons Inn. He might as well as call on Jay since she must have come back from the Palace by then. He met Daville, the Taverner, who confirmed the Blue Dragon was in her apartments.
Thanking the man, he proceeded upstairs. Upon reaching her door, his ears caught the sound of another feminine voice from inside. Slightly disappointed, he nonetheless knocked.
“Yes, Geoffroy?” he heard Amrel inquiring.
How did she know he was coming? Ah, yes, she should know, he scolded himself. She’s a dragon, isn’t she?
“Yes, himself. May I come in?”
“Sure, you may!” Amrel’s laughing voice answered.
He pushed the door open.
Amrel was lying naked on her bed in the company of an also naked Birghit.
“Sorry!” stammered Geoffroy, who made to exit in a hurry.
“Wait!” The Blue Dragon exclaimed. “Now that you’ve come in, you’re certainly not going to go out before I allow you!”
“But, …”
“How does it feel to be ordered around by a woman, Captain?” mocked Birghit who was thoroughly enjoying her moment. It was the first time his superior had the occasion to see her in her natural state, and she had always wondered what his reaction would be when confronted with such a private encounter. For a long time she had carefully concealed the fact that he attracted her, for all the differences in character and rank that stood between them.
“Do you mind, Birghit? If you two are bent on making me the butt of a tasteless joke, I’m not interested!”
“What do you mean, not interested? I had always thought that you were more of a man than all the poor excuses I had to kick out of my bed so far!” she challenged him.
Geoffroy somehow managed to maintain a grip on his temper. He could not fathom what the two women were up to, but he realized he had better put up a good face, or he would soon lose control of the situation. After all, what was he complaining about? Three women were feared in the Realm, and two of them happened to care for him. And what is more, they were ready to share him. He corrected himself, sharing was not the proper word. Asking to join them was closer to the reality. Why were women so complicated?
He sat on the edge of the bed, scratching his stubby beard.
“Do the two of you want my death?”
Amrel grabbed his hand.
“Sure, we do!” she laughed, pulling him roughly between the two of them.
———————————
Ekan and Mumtaz were busy experimenting in the kitchen of the Royal Palace in Dunlago.
They had just taken rolls out of the oven. Mumtaz had been requested small pastries for guests as light food to accompany coffee served in the afternoon. The Black Dragon had suggested the addition of cinnamon and raisins to the light soft bread.
His new friend was about to taste one of them, hot, as it was, when the black giant restrained him with a hand on his wrist.
“Wait. I brought something for you!”
An intrigued Palace Chef saw Ekan extract a jar from the basket he used to carry all his findings.
“Look at what is inside, and smell it!”
Mumtaz saw a viscous yellow liquid inside the jar. He brought his nose close.
“Umh… That seems very sweet. I can also smell something like flowers in it.”
“I knew you had a good nose! It is made from flowers by small insects called bees. Have you ever heard of honey?”
“Yes, but I’ve not had the chance to see or taste any. Where does it come from?”
“Shahzad obtained it from a Beaulieu trader in exchange for spices. Although you can find it in the wild inside the trunks of trees far south near the Fire Mountains, some farmers have found the way to domesticate the bees and produce honey in large quantities. It is very sweet indeed, but far healthier than any sugar you could find here. They even use it as medicine for throat sore and other ailments. This is how they use it on their bread over there!”
He demonstrated by pouring a small amount on top of one of the rolls. He twirled the pastry around to allow the honey to spread all over the surface. He the handed it to Mumtaz:
“Taste it!”
The Palace Chef sniffed the bread and the brought it to his mouth. He bit a large chunk of it and started masticating.
His eyes grew wide. He stretched his arm holding the half-eaten roll:
“Jonas, would you mind adding another little dollop of that stuff?”
“Of course I don’t! But this is as far as you go, or you’d end up gobbling the whole tray!”
He poured some more honey on the bread. Mumtaz unashamedly threw it inside his mouth and licked his fingers like a child not wanting to miss any tiny piece of a rare treat.
He commented:
“Jonas, you had better urge Shahzad to acquire more of that treasure in large quantities! I can see all the gentry flocking to his shop, as soon as they get to know what honey tastes like! Can you think of any other uses, apart of topping rolls and cakes?”
“Many, actually. Any time you use sugar in sauces or drinks, you could replace it with honey, and you will find out that it is sweeter and healthier! Women would surely appreciate a dessert less fattening than some cakes I can see around!”
“Healthier? If I could support that notion, this would become a solid reason for starting a new trend of cooking, although we might have to face some resistance from the guild looking after the interests of the sugar cane growers!”
“I would not worry too much about the guild, as honey is a luxury, whereas cane sugar is a necessity. Now, the reason why honey is healthier comes from the fact that it has already been digested by the bees, thus getting rid of all impurities in the process. After all, honey is produced to serve as food for young bees!”
Mumtaz passed his hand over his pate with a dubious look.
“So we are eating something which has already been eaten?”
Jonas chortled.
“Yes. But you worry too much. If you knew how much we need these little things called insects, I’m sure you would lose a lot of needed sleep, figuring out what we cannot do without them!”
Just at that moment, a servant from the Palace entered the kitchen.
“Good man Jonas, the King requests your presence urgently!”
Ekan could not suppress an exasperated grimace.
“Just when the fun had begun! Oh well, it cannot be helped! Mumtaz. Let’s top all those pastries first!”
Turning to the servant:
“Good man, would you mind waiting for us and bring that tray to the King before I join them?”
The two chefs hurried while the underling patiently stood waiting in the entrance.
Before Mumtaz could pass him the tray, Jonas picked one of the rolls and handed it to the man.
“Eat it right now, but don’t tell anyone!”
The servant gratefully accepted it and wolfed it down. He then took the tray, but his greedy eyes showed that the way to the Kings rooms would be a long one indeed.
Once he had left, Jonas turned to the other chef:
“Mumtaz, if you want to start a new trend or fashion, always begin at the bottom and make sure the so-called gentry finds themselves scrambling around in fear of losing face!”
The two men parted in laughter.
The King and his Court, if the presence of Anthony and Gladys Vanenklaar could be defined as such, appeared preoccupied in spite of their evident pleasure with the novel morsels being served with their coffee.
Marcus informally signed Jonas to join them.
Ekan asked without waiting for the King to elaborate:
“Slavers’ ships again?”
“I’m afraid so, Jonas. A few of their ships have been sighted near Argo and Otago, south of Dunlago, but this time they did not dare land or attack any village or boat. The Judge has advised us to ask you what would be the best action to take since you’ve had first experience with them!”
Ekan’s voice was cold with anger.
“It had to come some time or other. Life at sea had been too quiet too long. I actually have more bad news: a hideout has been discovered inside a large mangrove between the harbor cities of Anse and Valmoray in Beaulieu!”
The news was certainly unwelcome as it raised more than one question.
Marcus looked sideways at Anthony and Gladys.
“These are bad tidings indeed. We will have to request help from the Beaulieu King, Gerhart. I’ve heard he’s already taken some very energetic measures and even fought off a dire peril recently.”
“You are well-informed, Sire.” Ekan replied. “But the King of Beaulieu is already in the know, and is sending an elite fighting unit he has just created with the best men and women among the Royal Guards and the warriors of the Steppes. I do not want to patronize you, but you had better send Petren and his Constables to that mangrove. It would do well for both nations, actually the three of them, if they take a concerted action to eradicate that scourge!”
“So, if I follow your thinking,” testily replied the King, who was seriously beginning to wonder who was in command inside the Palace, “I’d do well to send messengers to the King of Beaulieu, not to ask or offer help, but to coordinate our efforts?”
“You are absolutely right, Sire. Dunlago just cannot afford to live isolated any longer. If I may venture as far as to say that Beaucastel has come to the same conclusions, and will soon offer you an official invitation to seal an agreement on mutual cooperation. What with your representatives already in place at the Embassy, this could prove as a very fruitful exchange for Dunlago, not only political but also economical.”
Marcus became thoughtful.
His wife by his side had her eyes fixed on the stolid figure of the Black Dragon.
Of the four most influential individuals in Dunlago after the Judge, she seemed to grasp the situation the best. She had always shown a lot of respect to Ekan, but her growing admiration became tinted with fear.
Marcus understood a lot, but his judgments were still clouded by his monarch prerogatives.
Anthony’s vain nature easily got the best of his indolent nature, while Gladys, however clever she was, limited her interests to court intrigues.
The Black Dragon ruefully reflected that Marcus would have done better by entrusting his wife instead of his sibling.
It was not Marcus, but Atraxa who asked the question they all had in their mind:
“Good man Jonas, how do you happen to know that slavers are hiding in Beaulieu?”
Ekan realized his mistake.
He could not get revenge out of his mind, could he?
He had to act quickly.
“I was informed by the Judge this morning as I left for the Palace.” He replied in apparently easy tone.
At the same time, the Judge in his office heard a voice inside his head:
“Judge, this is Jonas. Can you hear me?”
The venerable man wildly looked around him. He was alone in his study.
He sensed panic overwhelming the official.
“Judge, take a grip on yourself!” commanded Ekan. “I have very little time! This is not a way of communication I particularly favor, but we have little choice! Are you going to listen to me?”
“Yes.” The Judge shakily answered.
“Good! I had to reveal a piece of information to Marcus, but you have to cover me if we do not want to raise suspicions. A slavers’ hideout has been discovered inside a large mangrove between Anse and Valmoray in Beaulieu. I said I got the information from you this morning before I left for the Palace. Now is the time to get rid of Marcus’ inefficient so-called secret service! Since I’m certain you are going to be called to explain your source of information, you will have to convince the King to send Anthony and Gladys as envoys to the Embassy. And tell him that you will be the one to provide all the intelligence he needs from now on!”
“Do you have any inkling of what you are asking me?” a deflated Judge replied.
“Yes, I do! And I also know that you are the only man who can pull off that trick! Unless you want more complications!”
“Alright! Alright! I’ll do it!” answered the defeated old man with his hands clamped on his ears.
The exchange had lasted only a few seconds. Ekan was listening to Marcus’ next words:
“I will have to make a call on our dear Judge very soon! There are too many things I do not know!” he said with an icy stare at his brother and sister-in-law.
———————————
A young man on a horse followed by a pack mule halted at the gate of Beaucastel.
Although he obviously had traveled a long distance before arriving at the Capital of Beaulieu, he looked unusually clean in spite of his short beard and long hair. He evidently changed and washed his clothes regularly. The guards at the gate were visibly impressed by the new arrival. The latter asked politely but firmly:
“Guards, a good morning to you! Could you be as kind as to tell me where I could find Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur!”
The senior guard replied equally:
“Good morning to you Sir! May I inquire as for which business do you wish to meet Lady Geraldine?”
William took a letter from inside his jerkin:
“My name is Robert de Glacis. I am a physician and was advised to meet Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur by Chief She-Who-Talks-Dragons. Here is my letter of recommendation!”
The guard looked at the letter without opening it or breaking its seal. He had seen enough. Every Royal Guard had heard of the vaunted “Queen of the Steppes” as some called her. He smiled at William as he handed the document back.
“Physician Robert de Glacis, I am honored to welcome you to our city of Beaucastel! We certainly need your kind of expertise here, if I may venture a personal comment! Would you be as kind as to wait for a moment while I send for an escort to show you the way and look after your steed and baggage?”
William smiled. It certainly felt good to be appreciated for one’s skills.
“Guard, my most profound thanks!”
The senior Royal Guard sent his companion to fetch the promised escort.
William alit from his horse to shake the fatigue off his legs.
He decided it would be a good idea to engage in small talk to occupy the time until people would come for him.
“Guard, pray tell me: I’ve heard that Lady Geraldine was having a hospital built inside your city. Has it been completed yet?”
“No, I’m afraid not. But I’ve heard that parts have already been finished and put to use. Moreover, Lady Geraldine has complained for everybody to hear that she was short of true physicians. So far, she had had to make do with our military staff! I can tell you that not only she, but we all, are quite content to welcome you!”
“You are most graceful, Guard! May I have your name?”
“Pierre d’Agincourt, Physician! I remember the de Glacis name from an old roll call I perused some time ago, although I have never had the pleasure to meet any of your kin. Where do you hail from?”
William was only too glad to oblige the inquisitive Guard. The sooner everybody heard of his assumed identity, the better.
“My family comes from the far north of Beaulieu. I was left an orphan at a very young age when my whole house was wiped out by a plague. This is the reason why I’ve chosen my present occupation. I have been an errant physician until I met She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons who counseled me to join Lady Geraldine’s hospital.”
“I’m sorry to have asked, Physician de Glacis!” stammered a contrite Guard.
“No offense taken, Pierre d’Agincourt! This is long past, and to tell the truth, I don’t have any recollection of any member of my family. But I see the escort you kindly requested coming to us. I sincerely hope we could meet again and talk at ease around an ale or two! I certainly would welcome more information about my new hometown. What do you say?”
“It certainly would be an honor, Physician!!
Turning to the two young Guards who had just come to them:
“Guards, this is Robert de Glacis, physician sent to Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur! Please take him to her present situation at once!”
The two soldiers, a Blue Knight and a Walkyrie in full regalia, smartly saluted. The Walkyrie took William’s horse reins as a matter of course while the mule docilely followed. The Blue Knight signed him to follow.
They walked till they reached the Royal Palace. William had plenty of time to observe his new city along the way. The cleanliness and the abundance of facilities impressed him no end. It surely proved a welcome change from other cities and villages in Beaulieu he had quickly passed through, following Umatar’s advice. If the monarch of Beaucastel truly intended to make the city a model, the capital would soon become a famed venue for all the inhabitants of Alymndes.
An impressive figure was waiting for them at the main entrance of the Palace. A tall raven-haired lady, all dressed in warm blue robes and cape, was standing under the porch. When the Royal Guards stopped to salute her, he sensed a very healthy respect for her person. Taking his cue from his escort, he halted and bowed, keeping his eyes onto the lady’s face.
Amrel’s mouth broke into a large smile:
”Robert de Glacis, welcome to Beaucastel! I cannot tell you how long I have waited for your company!”
She briskly walked to him, and throwing tradition and manners to the wind, she embraced the young man.
“Well met, lover of my sister!” she murmured for his sole ears.
The two young Royal guards exchanged a quick glance. Lady Geraldine was not known for granting such familiar greetings in public. This man Robert de Glacis could be more than they might have expected. Tongues were surely bound to wag.
As though she had read their thoughts, the Blue Dragon said:
“Royal Guards, would you be as kind as to take Physician de Glacis’ mounts and baggage to the Seven Dragons Inn and ask Taverner Daville to prepare a room for him on my orders?”
The two Guards saluted again.
“Yes, Milady!” They answered in unison before pulling Robert’s horse and mule along.
Amrel took William’s arm.
“You must be famished! The Royal Couple and their Court are just taking their meal. Let’s join them!”
Apprentice gratefully followed Jay’s lead.
—————————–
Ekan was lying naked beside Gladys who was dozing against his chest.
She had finally managed to drag him into her bed. Well, that was what he let her think.
The true reason why he had made love to her, or more aptly said, why he had shared a carnal experience with the courtesan, was simply because he had always been curious about that particular aspect of human relations. He knew that dragons mated for the sake of procreation when absolutely needed. But why did humans make it such a big event in their lives?
Now, he knew, and certainly would not fault his brothers and sisters for their sheer delight. Only Numnir did not seem interested. Well, at least for the moment.
Gladys stirred. She languorously stretched her body. Her hand snaked across the Black Dragon’s chest.
“Well, would I have known it to be such a rare pleasure with you, I would have made sure to catch you at the earliest opportunity! I understand you have to go back to that tavern of yours, so it is how far we will go today. But I just can’t wait until the next time!”
“I’m afraid there will not be a next time.” Ekan calmly answered.
A surprised Gladys, thinking of a teasing joke, rose on her elbow.
“What do you mean, no next time? May I believe I did not please you?”
Ekan sat up on the bed.
“Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed it all, and I’m sincerely grateful to you for introducing me to the joys and pleasures of love-making. But this will be the first and last time.”
“Why is that?” snapped the suddenly angry courtesan. It was the first time a man had used her, whereas she had used them since the very moment her body began to show an interesting transformation.
“For two reasons: first, because I had to satisfy a curiosity of mine. You probably noticed you had to teach me everything.”
“Of course, I did!” she cut in. “That’s why I had so much pleasure myself! What could be the second reason, then?”
“Our ways will part soon, and you will have so many new faces to acquaint yourself with that you would only be too happy to forget me!”
“How do you know that?” she asked, wondering what was happening to her. She realized that for once, she was not in control, and that it hurt her pride no end.
Ekan did not answer. He dressed up. But just as he was to make for the door, he rescinded and turned back to the courtesan.
Cupping a finger under the beautiful lady’s chin:
“Gladys, I have given you an invaluable piece of information in thanks for your favors. So prepare yourself for a novel and exciting life. I’m confident you will not regret it. You are becoming too indolent in Dunlago. You need a new challenge. Will we part as friends?”
Gladys looked inside the eyes of the black giant. Hard as she tried to find something, there was nothing to make a grab at. That man proved more of a mystery every day. She had never truly loved any man, and probably would never, but Jonas had become the first man she did not care to cross or make an enemy of. In fact, it might prove a boon to stay away from him. She was not too sure that she could keep a lid on her desires for very long if they resided in the same city. She believed him when he said that she would go to some place. She only started to understand why everybody shared so much awe and respect toward the quiet black giant.
“You will always be a friend. But I doubt I will ever forget you. May I still hope that I will be able to meet in that place you mentioned?”
He had not mentioned any place.
“Time will tell, Gladys. Time will tell!”
He kissed her lips and stood up. He walked straight to the door and left the room without a further word.
For a long time Gladys lay on her bed deep in thoughts.
Anthony’s voice brought her back on earth.
“Gladys, are you here?”
“No, I’m not!” she snapped.
Ekan had gone directly to the Judge’s office as soon as he had left Gladys’ apartments.
The tribunal personnel had been given orders to let him in without any questions, whenever he showed up. The Judge had come up with the official reason that he called Jonas to have regular reports on the Guilds’ activities.
But this time, the Judge (did he have a name by the way?) had not asked the Black Dragon to pay him a visit. He did not bother to hide his irritation, either.
“I haven’t met Marcus yet, but it shouldn’t be long before I will have to face him out. I admit it will be for the best in the long run for him to learn who is really taking care of the nation, but why this hurry to send Anthony and Gladys to Beaucastel?”
“For the simple reason that Gladys has been all over me recently. This is developing into a dangerous situation we cannot afford. Moreover, her husband is an idle spoiled brat and could prove detrimental to Marcus’ reputation and standing. You are blessed with a pragmatic and intelligent monarch and a brilliant lady in the person of his wife! If properly guided along, they should be able to take off a substantial burden off your shoulders. On the other hand, sending the King’s brother and his spouse to Beaucastel will provide them with a new challenge and make them useful for once. These two do not have to learn about the real powers-that-be, but must still be convinced they work for Marcus. Although I very much doubt the wisdom of such a decision, we might be forced one day to reveal the true situation of Alymndes to the Royal Couple. The later, the better, and I certainly will not do that without your express agreement!”
“I’m certainly grateful for that! And would you mind not to invade my head again! For the first time in my life, I felt completely naked and I did not appreciate it an iota!”
“I’m sincerely sorry and I pray you to accept my deepest apologies. I made a terrible mistake and had little time to mend the damage. I stand corrected, and if you care for another confidence, I’m in for a nasty hiding from Father!”
The Judge stared at him:
“Father?”
“He came to our city some time ago and left in the company of an unusual companion.”
The man’s eyes grew wide at the recognition.
“You mean that old man with the wolf is your Father?”
Ekan did not reply but kept smiling instead.
The magistrate passed a hand on his sweaty forehead.
“I should have known!” he begun with profound lassitude. “I’m getting old. How couldn’t I have guessed your relation? An old man with an outlandish pet comes out of nowhere directly into the Blue Mermaid, meets you there and takes a particular interest in your daughter. You, a man nobody would dare cross, show him deference and call him Mentor, although you bear no resemblance whatsoever. When I say, he comes from nowhere, both of you actually come out of I don’t care to imagine where!”
Ekan waited.
Should he smile at the Judge’s dilemma, or should he feel annoyed? Well, dragons could show infinite patience, couldn’t they?
His interlocutor seemed to recover. He faced the black giant squarely for his next question:
“How many of you are there?”
Ekan smiled. The old man would not break down easily.
“How many races are there in Alymndes?” he asked back.
The Judge defiantly answered:
“Five, aren’t they? I have to add your father to them and also a mother to conceive your lot. And don’t tell me you had more than one mother, I’m just not interested!” he said the last uncharacteristically throwing his arms in the air.
The Black Dragon could not help laughing:
“Judge, if you continue acting that way, you will have to add one more to our merry company!”
———————————————
The Tribesmen did not like the sea.
They hated it actually.
They still could not admit they had to sail from Villefranche to Dunlago instead of riding through Beaulieu and the south of the Land of the Free Races of the Desert and the Sea. Their Royal Guard companions were more content to escape the task of crossing the Dunlago desert on horseback. Despite their special training and change of gear imposed by their new role and Geoffroy’s suggestions, they did not relish exposing their fair skin to the harsh sun prevalent in the region. The six of them had boarded the Hope, which just happened to be moored in Villefranche. They had been dispatched on urgent orders to insure proper communications between the Dunlago forces and the Golden Dragon Squad in charge of wiping out the slavers’ hideout inside the mangrove located between Anse and Valmoray.
Their ship was nearing the fabled city of Dunlago.
All were relatively young and knew only of rumors about the town they were sent to. The crew had had little time for the idle passengers, and the Royal Guards had had their hands full with their seasick companions. The latter were staring at the approaching shore, curiosity and wonderment taking over their predicament.
He-Who-Runs-Like-A Deer asked the Walkyrie standing by his side, her hands holding the bulwark rail. She was the only woman in their company.
“Frenegond, what is that long wall for?”
“It’s not a wall. It is called a jetty. Ships can moor to it safely, whatever the tide.”
“Tide?”
“Yes. The water will rise at regular intervals during the day and the night.”
The warrior looked at the woman uncomprehendingly.
She laughed at her puzzled face.
“Don’t worry too much about it! It just happens!”
Her flame-red hair was braided at the temples with thin leather strands and beads. The Walkyries of the Golden Dragon Squad had taken to Maheut’s hairstyle when they realized it to be more practical. They also welcomed that distinctive sign separating them from the other Royal Guards. The three warriors in her company took turns with an evident relish to change her braids daily. They could not tire of brushing her luscious hair. Which was as well since the two male Royal Guards cared little about her feminine quirks. No Walkyrie would ever ride on the left side of these two men. Each of the twenty companies of six members had been formed depending upon affinities on Maheut’s suggestions. That particular group was a bit out of the ordinary to say the least. Whereas each company had been carefully planned with a view to complement different skills and characters, theirs had been assembled for totally different reasons. The case of Thibault and Tristan was pretty obvious and did not raise a single brow among the Tribesmen. Warriors approved of brotherly love, although they might have asked some questions if they had known why the two young guards shared the same tent.
Frenegond had proved a matter of a different import. She had earned the well-deserved reputation of a lady with an insatiable yearning for the company of the opposite gender. Maheut had confided her dilemma to He-Who-Stands-Upright when choosing each company.
The warrior had laughed his belly out at the mention of Frenegond’s appetites. Maheut had asked somewhat primly:
“Why are you laughing?”
“I don’t understand what you are worrying about! What are your men doing? They should be glad to serve and please such a healthy woman!”
“Easy for you to say! What am I going to do with a Walkyrie who has a propensity to sow trouble among our Royal Guards?”
“Leave it to me!” had replied the still laughing He-Who-Stands-Upright.
The three warriors he had chosen for Frenegond’s company were more then happy to share the chore of serving their Walkyrie companion. And since Thibault and Tristan did not give a damn, they formed a remarkably cohesive group. They knew where their loyalties stood and would defend any other member of their group with weapons and body.
Their fierce mutual allegiance was the reason why their group had been chosen to help the Dunlago force establish communications with the Golden Dragon Squad.
“Frenegond, why do people live in all that stone? A tent would be more practical in that weather!” asked He-Who-Flies-Like-The-Wind.
Frenegond never tired of answering their incessant questions. After all, she had plenty of her own around their campfires when she quizzed them on their lore and traditions.
“This is a harbor, that is, a city where ships come. Many people live there. You have Trade Fair City. Well, this is the same, but on a far bigger scale. So you have to provide all these people with permanent abodes.”
“Do we have to stay in one of their stone houses, and what about their food?” asked a somewhat worried He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms.
“We all have to stay in their houses.” The Walkyrie patiently answered. “When somebody visits you in the Steppes, you expect him or her to sleep in your tent or yurt, right? As for food, I should not worry, if I were you. I was told we would stay in the best tavern in the whole country. I even heard that guests come from miles away just to sample the food there!”
“Well, that should come as a welcome change to all that smelly dried fish we had to swallow down for that whole trip!” Thibault commented.
Everyone laughed, drawing curious stares from the deckhands.
The Hope soon reached the jetty and smoothly glided along it, her crew expertly throwing ropes to be fastened around bollards by handlers waiting for them on the ground.
A welcoming party was waiting on the jetty. The gangplank was soon lowered and the Golden Dragon Squad Company picked their gear and walked down on slightly wobbly legs.
Petren was observing their group with a wondering look.
One woman soldier; three strange warriors from the Steppes; two young soldiers almost too beautiful to be called men; all in all, three pink and three brown. We’ve had the Dwarves. Now we have some more exotic landlubbers. That promised more talks and rumors in the city. And the Blue Mermaid would be even more crowded than ever as soon as someone sees them entering the popular establishment. We just need to throw in a couple of Elves to have the name of the tavern changed to Dunlago Circus, he ruefully thought. How am I going to keep my Constables quiet? He worried. By the way, I’d better not mention their color, or the Judge will have my skin, he corrected himself.
As soon as the outlandish group had set foot on the jetty, he stepped forward to greet them with a hand on his chest.
“Welcome to Dunlago, soldiers of Beaucastel and warriors of the Steppes!”
The Royal Guards smartly saluted back while the Tribesmen bowed their heads, eyes on his, with their hands on their hearts.
Frenegond took it upon herself to answer in the name of the company.
“Well met! Do we have the honor of acquainting ourselves with Constable Petren? My name is Frenegond.”
“Himself! May I have the pleasure to inquire about your names, since you already know mine?” he replied duly impressed.
Each member of the Golden Dragon Squad introduced himself in his standing order.
Petren suddenly felt some reservations about the wisdom of his request. All those strange names would soon give him a headache.
Cutting short their greetings, he invited them to unload their gear onto a mule-drawn cart that they had brought along, and suggested them to loosen their limbs by walking all the way to the Blue Mermaid. The soldiers and warriors thanked him and commented they would be very happy to go through the harbor at their leisure, as they were curious about the place. Which suited Petren fine. The presence of his own Constables would show the locals that the soldiers they were accompanying were guests with all the respect they commanded in spite of their strange looks.
The procession soon became a sightseeing tour of the harbor neighborhood. Petren and his Constables did not really mind, as it gave them ample occasion to learn more about their new comrades. The Tribesmen were most interested in the innumerable spices and foods on display on stands along the road. Thibault and Tristan lingered to admire and touch fabrics and clothes of all colors and textures. Frenegond spoke to the women selling all kinds of homemade wares. The dark-haired ladies of Dunlago could not keep their eyes off the flame hair of the Walkyrie, while some men were wondering at the amount of sheer muscle in her arms and legs. None of them carried any weapon, but citizens knew they faced soldiers from a faraway land. The coils of thin hard rope the Tribesmen kept hooked to their belts puzzled Petren.
Frenegond and He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer had halted at a stand selling ribbons, threads, beads and many other small accessories. The merchant, an imposing lady, a head taller than the Walkyrie, had her eyes riveted on the jerkins of the two soldiers.
She asked Petren a question in a strange dialect.
Frenegond guessed that the query concerned the two of them.
“What does she want to know?” she asked Petren.
The Constable translated:
“This lady is most curious of the nature of your jerkins. She wants to know what they are made of.”
“I see. This is suede, that is, tanned lambskin. It’s very soft and comfortable. Women in the Steppes make them.”
To demonstrate her explanations, she easily took hers off to let the merchant feel it at will. The large lady’s eyes widened at the softness of the fabric. She asked another question that the Constable obligingly translated:
“She wants to know where she could find the same.”
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer laughed:
“I will be glad to introduce her to my tribe if she wants to barter her ribbons and beads for our skins!”
The Constable was repeating his words, when a sudden fracas broke up the street.
They all turned to find the source of the unexpected disturbance.
They saw with horror a cart drawn by two horses rushing down the main thoroughfare lined by the shops and stands they were sightseeing. The driver had apparently completely lost control of the steeds.
Frenegond’s eyes fell on two children standing in the middle of the street transfixed into immobility by the danger falling on them.
Her soldier’s reflexes taking over, she slapped her companion’s shoulder screaming:
“The children!”
The two of them jumped through the crowd and covered the short distance separating the two children to grab them and roll back on the hard soil, their arms protectively embracing their charges.
The horses’ hooves missed by less than a hand span.
Just as the mad steeds ran past them, two lassoes whizzed over the Walkyrie and the Tribesman to fall around their necks. The horses and the cart skidded to a brutal halt. The steeds rose on their hind legs and threatened to break loose from their harness when two figures came running along both sides of the cart to grab their reins and check straps. For a while, the Tribesmen and Royal Guards wrestled with the two distressed steeds, with encouraging shouts but finally bringing them to a complete halt.
Poor sailors, they might be, but horse handlers beyond compare they are, an admiring Petren thought, running to their help.
Thibault was examining one of the horses when the Constable reached him.
The Royal Guard turned to him:
“Your knife, please, Constable!”
The authoritative tone compelled him to obey. Dunlago men knew little about horses, and these foreigners had shown enough skill to convince him he should let them take care of the situation.
He hastily handed his knife hilt first to the Blue Knight who started cutting the neck strap and the fork holding the breast collar. They came down soaked with blood, when a furious carter came down from his seat screaming at them:
“Hold on there! What do you think you are doing, pink bastard!”
Thibault did not even turn around.
“Constable,” he grimly started, “keep that idiot off my back, or I will take care of him myself!”
Petren recognized the sound of a trained soldier’s voice in spite of his youth and beautiful looks. The carter might be almost twice as big as the slender Royal Guard, but he doubted it would be a fair fight for the Dunlago man.
“Constables, hold him!”
His burly guards were on the screaming driver in a flash and pinned him against his vehicle.
Petren asked:
“Thibault, what is it?”
“Look at the horse’s neck! The straps have cut the skin all around. That man doesn’t know his job! His horses haven’t been brushed for days! With all that sweat, the straps must have chafed like hell! No wonder the horses finally got mad! From the look of them, I doubt they even have been properly fed or watered!”
Patting the Royal Guard’s shoulder, the Constable turned to the carter held by his men. He signed them to release the culprit.
The man had not fully been set free, when he started screaming again:
“Constable! What are these savages doing to my horses and cart? Are you going to let them damage my life’s earning?”
Petren’s face did not change as he approached, but his right hand suddenly shot forward to grab the man’s throat and slam him back against the cart.
He growled at a suddenly very frightened carter:
“You criminal idiot! Your negligence almost killed two children! If it hadn’t been for those savages, you would be facing their parents’ wrath! Those same savages happen to be soldiers coming to help Dunlago! Would you like to meet the Judge or the King for insulting guests of honor? You are lucky I am here, or they would have had the right to push your words back down your throat here and now!”
Just as he finished his words, he could hear some angry comments and shouts from the crowd assembling behind his back. It could turn ugly for the carter soon.
His hand released the man’s throat.
“Constables, take that man away from my sight at once!”
While two of his men immediately complied with his order, Petren turned back to the crowd:
“Back everybody!” he shouted. “Nobody has been injured! No property has been damaged! The culprit will be judged! Now, all of you, resume your occupations in peace and quiet!”
Turning to his guests:
“We’d better leave right now, or we will never be able to reach the Blue Mermaid before the night!”
The six soldiers docilely followed the Constable, but many people spontaneously clapped in thanks and admiration along their way, some big Dunlago men going as far as slapping them on their shoulders with grateful words. They were now in a hurry to leave the place, lest they would suffer from bruised backs for a whole week.
Marcus Vanenklaar stared in disbelief at the Judge.
The two men were alone in the King’s private room as the Magistrate had requested a private meeting. The venerable official had decided to go and face the King as he estimated he had waited long enough.
Apparently, even Marcus, for all his title of King of Dunlago, was not in a hurry to meet him again.
“You are asking me to send Anthony and Gladys to Beaucastel as official ambassadors of Dunlago! But you surely know how important they are to me!”
“As your secret agents? Pardon me my saying so, but the only pieces of information they care for are bits and pieces about petty court politics. They seem to have completely lost sight of the greater picture recently!”
“Meaning?”
“Have they informed you that smugglers have been pilfering your marble quarries to sell valuable stone to some lords and barons in the northern part of Beaulieu for their castles and mansions? Have they told you that King Gerhart has devised an ingenuous postal system of his own, insuring him a regular private income in all legality? The Constabulary has discreetly solved the first instance and a few smugglers have joined the work gangs. As for your own personal revenues, or that of the state, you could do well with keeping in touch with your neighbors’ innovations!”
“Where do you hold that from?” a deflated King asked.
“Jonas.” The Magistrate did not mention that the Black Dragon had offered him those tidbits in case he needed more arguments to convince Marcus.
“Jonas?” an astonished monarch repeated.
The Judge refrained from any comment. He patiently waited. He knew Marcus to be far too intelligent to lead him by the nose. Let him draw his own conclusions, he thought.
Which Marcus was presently doing, as his face reflected his thoughts. He was past bothering to hide them. Anger was gradually changing the color of his mien.
“So all that time you were better informed because you had your own service, am I right? Jonas is not at all what he seems to be since he can provide you with facts that no one else is aware of. I tend to believe that until the very moment he boarded Captain Adir’s Seadragon, he had been wandering all over the land, whereas what has happened since has been an extremely clever cover. Would you care telling me who else do you have up your sleeve?”
“Only one. I do not need anybody else.”
“And this individual is …? You want me to guess, if I’m not mistaken?”
He furiously thought, his fingers restlessly tapping on the arm of his chair.
His face abruptly turned rigid.
“What a fool I have been all that time! Of course, only one more man was enough to serve you! And who could it be but the man in charge of the safety of the city: Petren! Well, you can be proud of yourselves! The three of you have completely duped me!”
The King was about to burst in rage.
“Judge,” he coldly began, barely keeping a grip on himself, “I know and accept that you are the real power-that-be in Dunlago. You have seen many fools take that seat in turns. How many of their downfalls have you contributed to?”
The Judge realized the time had come to set things straight once for all.
“Marcus Vanenklaar, I have other concerns than playing the kingmaker! Monarchs have come and gone because our citizens have deemed so! But times have changed! Why do you think I have decided to make revelations for your sole person’s benefit? Why do I take the risk to antagonize our King? Would you please calm down and clear your head! For our people’s sake, think!”
The two men stared at each other in silence for a long moment.
But the Judge had assessed Marcus well. The King of Dunlago was slowly calming down.
He resignedly uttered:
“Do you think me worthy of my title, for all what it is worth?”
“Sire,” the Magistrate replied, emphasizing the rank, “you are the first king to show a genuine care for our nation for as long as I can remember, and I am not ready to lose you! We need a strong hand recognized by all in this moment of dire need!”
“Do not contradict yourself. I am at the mercy of our citizens’ fickleness!”
“Which means we need a new order!” The Judge bluntly retorted.
Marcus stared at his interlocutor:
“A new order? Now, I just don’t get it! Would you mind explaining?”
The Judge raised his hand to placate his suzerain.
“Marcus, once again, would you mind calming down? I’m not your teacher. You’re not my student. We are both grown enough to talk like responsible men!”
Marcus slowly sat back in his chair.
The Judge stolidly continued:
“What we have to instate is a new constitution to strengthen your position as a King. It is absolutely essential we follow a democratic process to that goal. Why don’t we take Beaulieu as a model? I can tell you they have shown some noteworthy good sense in that land we tend to look down upon. They are presently blessed with a king who has himself initiated the creation of a parliamentary monarchy with the help of some outstanding individuals. I will propose the following system to our Chamber of Representatives: they will elect a King for a term of three years, renewable as often they deem their monarch fit, or until he himself steps down. The Chamber of representatives will themselves be elected for a single year term to give our citizens a true sense of civic duty. The Chamber will delegate a certain number of their own as the King’s counselors. You will be given the right to veto any Chamber’s decisions to a maximum of three times, by which time such decision will be adopted if submitted a fourth time. We also need a more efficient coordination between the Justice Department, the Constabulary and the Chamber of Representatives. But the first task for the present Chamber will be to vote a war tax.”
“A war tax? But we are not at war, as far as I know!”
“Are we going to wait until war comes to our doors before we request money to help build some kind of full military national army with professional sailors, soldiers and engineers?”
“You’ll never get the Chamber to agree to such a tax!”
“Oh yes, we will! Note I say “we”, because you will have to explain that slavers have already established a base very near our coasts. We will take care of that particular thorn in our side very soon. But we know that more will come, maybe as soon as spring comes in south Beaulieu. Now, if we want to protect our trade with our neighbors, we had better act fast! No tax, no navy, no trade! Simple as that!”
“You do have a point there. We’d better stress the loss in trade if drastic measures are taken at once! But what do you mean by “taking care of that slavers’ outpost very soon”?”
“Beaucastel has already sent us a squad of their own very special forces to help coordinate a common assault in that mangrove. We must eradicate that scourge and destroy their hideout once and for all!”
“And I suppose that special squad of theirs is already here in Dunlago?
“You are right! You will meet them tomorrow!”
“In the company of Jonas, of course?”
“Yes, and Petren, too. It could prove beneficial to invite Anthony and Gladys to that meeting before you tell them they will depart at once as ambassadors to Beaucastel.”
“And leave me alone to fend with you!”
“Not at all! Atraxa should be invited!”
“My wife? What has my wife got to do with affairs of state?”
“More than you think, actually. A Royal Couple will lend more substance to the new constitution and the image of our country. You seem to underestimate your wife, but she certainly is more clever and attached to the welfare of our nation than Gladys will ever be!”
Marcus threw his hands in the air. The Magistrate realized he had done the same thing with Jonas.
“All right, Judge! I give in! But since I have to start from scratch all over again, would you be kind enough as to keep me cognizant of any information necessary to my elevated position?”
“That’s the spirit, although I wouldn’t mind your getting rid of those cheap sarcasms! You will soon find out that your status will pertain to a lot of personal work!”
“Like what?”
The Judge chortled.
“A lot of bureaucracy to start with! You should see your counterpart in Beaucastel! Gerhart is bickering all day long with five different delegations, including his own, on a common set of currency and measures to help regulate trade!”
“What? But nobody has informed me of that!”
“Which just shows how effective your present embassy in Beaucastel is! That is why you have to send Anthony and Gladys there with urgent orders to participate in all meetings and faithfully report on all discussions, bargaining, and decisions reached there! We do not want Dunlago to lag behind and lose any authority, do we?”
Marcus emitted a small laugh:
“I will enjoy the look on Anthony’s face when I tell him that for the first time in his life that he has to earn his keep!”
He thought for a while before adding:
“I wonder if King Gerhart is beset with the presence of a judge of your kind!”
The Magistrate burst into true laughter.
“He actually is! And they even call him Judge!”
The King of Dunlago could not help smiling.
“Then, it shouldn’t be too difficult for me to make friends with King Gerhart!”
“And I can tell you that your wives will be very happy to make acquaintance, too!”
Marcus ruefully commented:
“Judge, why is that you have to shower me with cold water every time I have reason to rejoice?”
It was early the next morning when Mareeva noticed the newcomers assembled on the veranda of the Blue Mermaid.
Despite the sun, which promised to come down hard and hot later in the day, the Royal Guards and especially the Tribesmen had opted to take their breakfast in as open as possible a spot.
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer and He-Who-Flies-With-The-Wind were busy rebraiding Frenegond’s luscious hair.
Thibault and Tristan were lounging, enjoying the cool air.
He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms was sitting idle, when he saw the little girl approaching them from the kitchen.
He smiled at her. She answered with her own shy smile.
She could not keep her eyes from the Walkyrie’s hair. Not only her skin was pink, but also her hair was the color of flames. And why did the two pink men have hair, one like gold, the other on as black as a raven? She came to regret not to have taken her color chalks and board with her.
The warriors did not intrigue her too much, although her fingers were itching to feel the soft skins of their outlandish clothes.
He-Who-Laughed-At-Storms greeted the little black-skinned girl:
“Good morning to you little one! What’s your name?”
“Mareeva. Good morning, sir!”
“You are very polite, Mareeva! Are you living here?”
“Yes. My father is working in the kitchen.”
“So he must be busy. I’ll tell you what: you have very interesting hair. It’s long, dark and straight like a little girl of the Steppes. Would you like me to braid it?”
“Braid?”
“Sorry. See what the two warriors are doing to Frenegond’s hair? Will I do the same for you?”
“You will? Oh yes, sir! Please!” she replied, clapping her hands in delight.
The laughing warrior sat on a high chair and asking Mareeva to stand between his legs, he opened a side pouch and produced a brush to part Mareeva’s hair from the middle of her pate.
An hour later, both sets of braids had just been completed when Constable Petren appeared in the company of a group of people in front of the tavern.
The Golden Dragon Squad soldiers all stood up to greet him.
Petren saluted them and proceeded to present the Dunlago citizens following him:
“Royal guards of Beaucastel and warriors of the Steppes, I would like to introduce you to the family of the children you saved yesterday!”
He told each of their names to the two fathers and mothers and their kin. The soldiers were feeling embarrassed and did not know very well how to behave properly.
Petren, sensing their uncomfortable reaction, briskly went on:
“Their families beg you to accept a small token of their gratitude!”
He signed one of the fathers holding a bundle wrapped in cloth to move forward and hand it to Frenegond, who accepted it with a slight bow.
The Constable then said:
“You are supposed to open it!”
The Walkyrie helped by her companions unfolded the cloth wrapped around the contents. She almost dropped the offering when she discovered the numerous rolls of cloth of many colors and designs, the ribbons, the threads and the beads. Their quality and beauty were unknown of in the Steppes or in Beaulieu. They were presents fit for royalty.
Frenegond stammered:
“But this is worth a fortune!”
A man’s voice resonated behind them:
“Please accept it, guests of Dunlago! The life of a child has no price!”
Mareeva, who had been looking at the scene all the time, turned to the new arrival.
“Father!”
“Mareeva, my dear daughter, you look beautiful! Have you thanked He-Who-Laughed-At-Storms?”
“She did, sir! She did so many times I have lost count!” replied the warrior, wondering how this black giant could know his name. He must have been listening. But why didn’t he hear him coming, either?
After many bows and more thanks, the grateful parents finally departed.
But a man stayed in the Constable’s company.
Petren introduced him. His serious tone made everybody attentive.
“This is Manzanar, Master of the Guild of Transport and Messengers. He represents the carter whose horses you so efficiently brought to control in spite of their handler’s unforgivable neglect. The Judge has decreed to leave the decision of choosing a punishment fit for his crime to your discretion!”
The soldiers looked at each other in surprise. They certainly had a peculiar way of handling justice in this country. For a while they thought of a joke to test their sense of duty. But the faces of the two dark-skinned men did not show as much as a smile or a twinkle in the eye.
Thibault had an inspiration.
“Since the man’s negligence did not result in injuries or damage of property, you ought to teach him a lesson. Why don’t you have him take care of every horse in your stables for the next six moons, as well as have him sleep with them? By then, he should become the best handler in town!”
The large smile breaking across Petren’s mien told him he could not have handed down a better sentence.
Manzanar stepped forward and deeply bowed to Thibault.
“Royal guard of Beaucastel, your clemency has no equal but your skills and courage! You have my most humble thanks. I will take it personally that our carter becomes the best horse handler ever seen in Dunlago!”
Frenegond intervened:
“Guildmaster Manzanar, do not thank Thibault! I would care little for your carter’s punishment. We all had to go through that kind of apprenticeship as pages, and I can tell you I surely would not wish to go through that all over again!”
The Guildmaster took his leave after Petren cut his thanks short to the evident relief of the Golden Dragon Squad soldiers.
The Constable addressed the Black dragon:
“Ah, Jonas! One more thing before I leave. The two of us have been ordered by His Majesty to escort our guests to the Royal Palace this afternoon!”
“In that case, why don’t you join us for lunch? As these meetings tend to impossibly drag into uncivil hours, it might be a good idea for all of us to fill our bellies first as we don’t know when the King will be kind enough to release us! Moreover, I’ve prepared something special for the Tribesmen to make them forget all the fish they complained about last night!”
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer laughed:
“You’ve got long ears as we say in the Steppes, sir! And you are very kind! What did you prepare?”
“Jonas is the name, He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer. You will have spicy fowl, deep-fried tubers, preserved lemons and olivas, herb bread and plenty of fruit. What do you say to that?”
Frenegond commented as the Tribesmen were clapping each other’s back in delight.
“Good man Jonas, knowing my companions, they will make a song about your meals and hospitality to be heard all across the Steppes!”
“Well, you’d better tell them to mention Dunlago, then! After all, you are guests of the nation! I will send someone as soon as lunch is ready. I presume you prefer to eat on the verandah?”
“Definitely!” answered Petren. “As we might take advantage of the time left to discuss a few things, this is probably the best place. Jonas, would you please arrange for the other guests to leave us a wide berth until then?”
“Of course, Petren. Mareeva, would you please come along?”
“Yes, Father!” the little girl answered, waving good-bye to He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms.
——————————-
Amrel was taking William to the Embassy to witness a work session.
They could not have come at a better time.
Twenty-five embassy members, the full contingents from all five nations of Alymndes, including King Gerhart, were in an uproar. Only the scribe sitting behind the large desk set in front of the now unused fireplace welcomed the commotion. He did not have to worry about work, and was, to put it simply, enjoying the rest.
“What’s going on, Jay?” the young physician queried.
“They are obviously arguing about an important issue. We might have chosen the wrong time to pay them a visit!”
They were about to leave, when Gerhart noticed their presence.
He waved at them before leaving the fray to join them. He looked more like escaping from his duties than anything else.
“Jay, Robert!” he started. “You might be the blessing we all needed!”
“What’s that fuss all about? How did you all manage to disagree at the same time?” mocked the Blue Dragon.
A slightly embarrassed King replied:
“We seem to have reached an agreement as far as currency is concerned, but when we started discussions about measures and units, it just got out of hand! Nobody wants to abandon his own system! If you haven’t seen a true argument in your life, wait until you see a Dwarf and an Elf almost coming to blows!”
“I was afraid it might come to that!” commented the Blue Dragon. She turned to William:
“What do you think yourself?”
“Me?” her companion answered in surprise. “I’m not a politician, I’m a physician!”
“Which makes you the best-qualified person in this room, since measures should be one of your main concerns as a healer!”
“She’s right, you know!” enthusiastically approved the King of Beaulieu who thought he had found the perfect scapegoat. “As a physician, you do have your priorities when it comes to that problem. What would be your advice?”
Both he and Amrel looked at him expectantly.
William could prove a very level-minded individual when needed. Amrel had quickly come to appreciate his hard working and unruffled attitude in the few days they had been toiling together at the hospital, whatever the tasks or the patients at hand.
“I have a notion, if you care to hear it, Sire.” He ventured, a hand pensively smoothing his short beard.
“By all means, by all means! Save me the day and you can ask anything from me!”
“Well, I might hold you to that.” He said with a wink to Amrel. “There are still quite a few things we need at the hospital for example.”
Gerhart was past caution. He had had a bad enough day.
“Never mind! Please tell me!”
“Well, you should begin with a unit of length since distances will be your first concern during your exchanges, whatever their nature. Since you are working on a unification system, why not use each Race as a symbol? Measure the step of one representative for each nation. Add the steps and divide by five and you obtain an average unit of length. Make a point to choose the tallest representative of each group. Call it a yard, a length or a long step, it won’t matter much then if you all agree on that first unit. I would also advise you to adopt a decimal method to help you multiply or divide that unit.”
“A decimal method?” asked a puzzled King.
“Yes. Make all measures a multiple of or a divisible by the number ten.”
“That’s a great idea!” Amrel intervened. “And so simple! Gerhart, you must impose such a system!”
“Impose?”
“Wrong words! Why don’t you tell your dear friends that your physicians, who are sick and tired of errors and mistakes caused by different systems, have suggested this system! After all, if one of them falls sick, he or she will have to face us!”
Gerhart looked at the young man in sincere admiration:
“Robert, if you were a woman, I would kiss you!”
Amrel took William’s arm.
“And it’s about time we leave! It’s when Kings become maudlin that real trouble starts!”
————————-
Marcus Vanenklaar harbored some doubts when he saw the outlandish group enter accompanied by Petren and Jonas.
His wife, the Judge, Anthony and Gladys were already in the Royal Room to greet the new arrivals. Whereas Atraxa was polite and reserved in her observations, her brother-in-law and spouse were almost comical in their wonder.
The Judge kept an impassive face as usual. Actually he was thoroughly enjoying himself. As were Petren and Jonas.
The Constable nonetheless kept a straight face when he introduced the soldiers, taking care of slowly enunciating the Tribesmen’s names in particular.
Anthony could not help a snide remark:
“These are the special forces that are sent to help us!”
“Anthony!” cut his brother. “Mind your manners!”
Petren took on himself to spell a few details.
“Sire! These are professional soldiers, and they actually welcome Anthony’s doubts! The greater the surprise when people find out! If you are still unsure of their skills and prowess, you should go straight to the harbor market street and ask citizens there about a certain demonstration!”
The King turned to his brother:
“Another thing I was not made aware of, was I?” he acidly remarked. “Well, in that case, why don’t we all sit down and refresh ourselves while our dear Chief constable tells us the story?”
While Petren patiently related the events to a captivated audience, Jonas observed the listeners. Marcus and Atraxa were sharing a genuine interest. The Judge already knew but nonetheless kept an attentive ear. But Anthony and Gladys were already off-track and looking at their guests with a different if not totally improper eye. Well, if Gladys hoped she could ensnare the two young Royal Guards, she would be sorely mistaken. Whereas love for one’s gender was practically unheard of in Dunlago and the Steppes, and even less under the Iron Crags, Elves and humans in Beaulieu matter-of-factly accepted it and did not make an issue of it. Now, if Anthony thought of an unshared tryst with the Walkyrie, he ran the infamy of becoming the first Dunlago man beaten senseless by a mere woman. Although it might prove as a good lesson before he ventured in Beaucastel.
Marcus thanked Petren as he finished his tale before his next question.
“Not meaning any disrespect, but can our guests understand our tongue?”
“Yes, we can.” Answered Frenegond. “Our training includes languages, although we have barely started. But we had plenty of time to practice during our voyage on your ship!”
“You are quickly becoming an endless source of surprises, aren’t you all?” commented Marcus.
He turned to the Judge.
“But can we discuss affairs of state in their presence?”
“Sire, these soldiers are all members of the Golden Dragon Squad and as such, sworn to secrecy. Nothing will come out of this room. As far as their mission is concerned, everybody in Dunlago by now knows they have come to help us eradicate those slavers for the simple reason they could be very well be the next to suffer from them! But the Royal Guards and the Tribesmen of the Steppes you see here have already shared their common lot of fighting to defend their land against dangers lurking from the South. If you were still seeking a proof of our common goal, you have it in front of your eyes!”
Jonas raised his hand.
“Sire, if I may?”
“Sure, good man Jonas!” replied the King, wondering what kind of revelation was in store for him from this increasingly mysterious individual.
“Thank you, Sire. I just want to point out that what we are most certainly facing is an all-out war, the forerunners of which we are only beginning to witness.”
“An all-out war?” Marcus could not hide his surprise. Anthony and Gladys were finally coming back to earth and did not conceal their worry, either.
Ekan grimly went on.
“Yes, Sire. Allow me to paint for you the whole picture: the Elves and Tribesmen have already repulsed an invasion on the Western Shore. Well, actually they exterminated it, erasing all traces of their coming and the ensuing fight. But you can expect more events of the same vein, come spring. The Elves have also eradicated a reconnoitering party inside their own Forest, which, would you believe, had flown over the Fire Mountains. More seriously, the life of an Elf Prince had to be ended when it was found that an alien evil spirit possessed his body and mind. Remember those slavers? They are similarly possessed. As was the Duke of Montjoie and most of his retainers, who had to be killed to the last one. Those monsters had tortured and murdered a whole city before attacking King Gerhart. Ask these Golden Dragon Squad soldiers: they all took part in the fights from first to last! Now we have the slavers openly sailing Beaulieu and Dunlago waters, notwithstanding that outpost of theirs in the mangrove. But all these are only skirmishes before the main assault!”
“Where would such an assault take place, then?”
“The only feasible opening that our enemies can use for a massive invasion on land is the Pass south of Beaucastel. This is where they will most certainly concentrate their main thrust, at the same time knowing they will keep vast forces pinned down all around Alymndes, lest they are allowed to attack simultaneously on many fronts!
Ekan had Marcus’ full attention now. To the black giant’s satisfaction, the monarch did not waste time before his next question:
“What would be the role of Dunlago and how much can we contribute to the general defense?”
“Take care of the Eastern Sea, as our boats and ships are better-equipped for speed and warfare than those of Beaulieu, and lend a hand to the protection of their shores. If we can blend a solid land opposition with an organized harassment on the sea, we will be able to crush them between hammer and anvil!”
“Simple but effective, as well as giving us leeway for improvisation. But I suppose we have to improve on our fleet. What would be the requirements?”
Jonas turned to Petren, who took his cue.
“Sire, we need two types of vessels: both fast, but one type should be a large ship for heavy fighting, and the other type a small one to harass our enemies in hit and run tactics. The latter we have aplenty in Argo and Otago. Only a few minor alterations will be needed. As for the large kind, we would need at least three of them. These can be built in Dunlago only.”
“But these ships will never be ready when spring comes in Beaulieu!”
“Yes, they will, Sire.” The Judge intervened. “We could not afford to waste time, so I took it upon myself to order the building. The ships will be ready come spring!”
Anthony stood up.
“But this is tantamount to bypassing Royal authority!”
Marcus coldly turned to his brother:
“Anthony, would you mind sitting down? For all my own embarrassment, the Judge couldn’t have acted better! It pains me no end to admit it, but we are being taught a harsh lesson in politics and state affairs! Knowing our citizens, if we do not act sensibly and quickly enough, replacements will be crowding at the Palace door! As for you and Gladys, you are leaving for Beaucastel tomorrow. Choose three dependable individuals, and order that bunch of fools we have as ambassadors to pack up immediately! I will find them plenty of work here!”
“But, Marcus, what about …?”
“You are still in charge of that, but in Beaucastel, from where I expect that you will dispatch daily reports and recommendations for my immediate perusal! And do not begin to think I’m taking some kind on revenge on your persons. Simply put, you are the only people I can trust for that vital work!”
Taking advantage of their confusion, he added:
“Would you refuse the official title of Ambassadors of Dunlago in the only place where all nations of Alymndes are represented?”
His eyes dared them to gainsay him, but Anthony and Gladys lowered their faces in mute acquiescence.
That will clear the way, and at the same time ensure a proper representation with our allies, Jonas thought.
Atraxa’s face did not betray any change of mood, though her eyes were fixed on her husband.
Good! The Black Dragon rejoiced. Now we have two strong Royal Couples in charge of the most sensitive areas. Hammerblow and Brighteyes are a team of their own. The Tribesmen will follow Umatar without any questions to the destiny she has chosen for them. Queen Ellana has taken Dargelblad as her liege and lover.
At last, we can start things moving!
Marcus turned to the Judge:
“That reminds me: we will have to face our Chamber of Representatives for that war tax of yours very soon!”
“Yes, indeed! Why don’t the two of us meet them tomorrow at their morning assembly?”
The monarch chortled:
“You are right. Especially when thinking that we are already spending the money they will agree to grant us!”
Becoming serious, he inquired:
“But can Beaucastel take charge of their fortifications and defense alone?”
“I doubt it, Sire.” Answered Ekan. “But we have some people who will be glad to give us a hand as soon as we explain the situation!”
“Who might they be?”
“The Dwarves, Sire! When they hear their own trade and livelihood will be in danger, they will drop their work at once, and take charge of all land defenses. By then all we will have to do is give them a few pointers and leave them at that! I certainly do not want to walk in the slavers’ shoes when they face the wrath of the little critters, as some of us still call them!”
“You know them well, don’t you?”
“Well, they eat and drink every day and night at the Blue Mermaid!”
The Judge said:
“Sire, why don’t you invite them all officially at the Palace to ask for their help in person? Understanding the situation will prove enough a reason, but a request from the King will make them doubly proud and keen to comply!”
————————————–
Two shallow barges were slowly progressing along the man-made channel through the mangrove. The three tribesmen were crouching at the prow of the first one, while all the other passengers stooped as low as possible in the gloom of the night. They had left their oars at the entrance of the waterway and were paddling with only their hands to avoid any unwanted noise. Six Dunlago Constables occupied each barge with three of the Golden Dragon Squad. Eighteen of them all had been a sufficient number from their end of the trap they were slowly pulling around their prey.
A ship had taken them from Dunlago to Anse north of the mangrove, where a couple of Tribesmen messengers had met them to confirm that a large contingent from the Golden Dragon Squad had encircled the mangrove and were waiting to move in. The Royal Guards and Tribesmen had estimated it would take them two days to come within arrow shot of the clearing. Petren had made the same estimation for his own group to travel first from Anse to the mangrove entrance and then paddle up along the waterway.
He had arranged for a half dozen ships of fair size to go past the small Beaulieu harbor, close to the shore slowly enough for them to catch on in their smaller but swifter vessel. This show of force ensured that no slaver ship would venture in the proximity for the next few days at least, and at the same time force their foes to lie low inside their hideout.
The fleet slowly moved past the hidden waterway at dusk. Their ship dropped anchor ahead of the other boats, which proceeded along their port side in a single file, effectively concealing the two barges being lowered over starboard side. The soldiers were swiftly transferred with their equipment to quickly man the oars and glide over the shallow waters while their ship raised anchor. The whole fleet would voyage straight forward for half of the night, before returning to survey the entrance of the waterway.
Either, the mission would succeed and the ships were to take in the whole military contingent back to Anse and Dunlago, or they would move in force after noon.
It took some time for the two barges to reach the narrow channel. When they finally found it, they planted their oars deep into the sand at the entrance to mark it, in case help was needed and moved ahead with the help of short paddles.
As they had surmised, their foes seemed to have all retreated to their camp, as sentinels would have run the risk of being spotted along the sea where the trees were still too sparse to provide enough concealment.
But now, if their information was correct, they were only a few hundred lengths from the rock island and were pushing their barges forward with the help of their hands only. The Dunlago men were big and their hands were more than adequate. Moreover, their black skin made them invisible in the dark.
They had chosen their moment well.
The night was moonless and offered them the best cover possible.
He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms raised his hand.
The two barges came to a stop.
Petren noticed the Tribesman taking out a strange device from under his jerkin. He also saw the other two Tribesmen do the same.
The chirping of insects slightly increased in the night.
After what seemed like ages, the sound abated back to normal.
A smiling He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms turned to the Constable. It took him some time to make his discoveries known through gestures to the big man. But the time was well spent. A cruel smile snaked across the black face of the Constable. The Royal Guards and Tribesmen had surrounded the whole island, hidden at a safe distance. The channel was clear all the way to the camp where the slavers had moored their own barges. They had counted forty of them, sleeping in the huts or around small braziers. They concluded that some new slavers had recently joined their comrades. Apparently, their mission had not come too early.
The channel was veering right about fifty lengths from the camp.
They should wait behind the bend until the next signal.
The attack was planned to happen a couple of hours just before daylight. The Tribesmen had told Petren they could mark the time through the position of the stars in the sky directly above their heads.
A cold chill ran along the back of the Dunlago man. He had realized how dangerous foes these Tribesmen would prove. He felt almost relieved to have them on his side.
He told his men to rest and set watches.
A few hours later, a light tap on his shoulder asked for his attention.
He turned to see He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms pointing to the sky to signify time had come.
The Tribesman took his device out of his jerkin again. Petren saw him press a small metal tongue against a wood piece to release it and produce the sound of an unknown insect. Soon answers came from around them. After a while the signals apparently stopped.
The Tribesman gestured to Petren that all the Dunlago men were to slide down from the barges to stand in the shallow water and pull the barges along. The Constables complied in silence. As they started dragging the vessels along, the Tribesmen and their Royal Guards companions drew bows and arrows out of their oilcloths and laid them on the bottom of the barges. He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms motioned the Dunlago men to stop and pull the two barges across the channel to tie them end to end and secure them again to trees along the waterway, to form a platform on which they would stand to back them up.
They then passed weapons along to their allies and told them to hold on in the water.
He-Who-Laughs-At-The-Storm waited for a while before clicking his device again.
Their barges were still thirty lengths away from the rock island.
Suddenly, lighted arrows swished in the air across the clearing to thud into the huts. More arrows followed, and soon flames bust from the shelters where the slavers were sleeping. The men lying on the ground woke up in alarm, and began shouting in alien tongues. Naked men jumped out of their huts in disarray, wondering what was happening. Volley after volley of arrows rained on them from the trees around them. The barrage soon took a deadly toll on the slavers.
“Petren! Move in!” Frenegond shouted. “We cover you!”
The Dunlago men waded in the water as fast as they could.
Some slavers who had understood the suddenly untenable situation tried to run to their barges.
Frenegond and her companions concentrated their shots onto the vessels of their foes, forcing them to jump into the water where the Constables met them in a furious onslaught. The disorganized slavers did not stand a chance. It soon became a horrific slaughter.
But orders were orders. The Golden Dragon Squad knew too well they had been chosen and trained for a specified purpose and were grimly acquitting themselves with the task at hand.
Soon arrows were not needed any more, and Royal Guards and Walkyries in Tribesmen garb were seen moving in across the water, swords in hand. But they did not have to participate to the fighting when they reached the island. The Constables had already finished their grisly duty of dispatching anybody still alive. Although it had not been requested from them, they showed mercy by killing their foes in the quickest fashion. It looked like a ritual cleansing. The Royal Guards and Walkyries just looked on. They chose not to interfere with the Dunlago’s justified wrath.
After a while, Maheut was seen climbing onto the rock promontory.
She had no difficulty to recognize the leader of the Constables in the middle of the razed camp.
She saluted him:
“Maheut, Sergeant of the Golden Dragon Squad!”
There was no need for compliments or other niceties.
Petren saluted back.
“Petren, Chief Constable of Dunlago! My heartfelt thanks for a job well done!”
“What are your orders, Chief Constable?”
Although technically they were in Beaulieu, Maheut had rightly chosen to show respect to a higher-ranked officer. Petren duly appreciated.
“Sergeant Maheut, I wouldn’t presume on giving you orders. May I suggest you make use of our two barges and our foes’ vessels to start moving your forces to the entrance of the channel? How many are you?”
“Six squads, that is, thirty-six of us.”
They had been a total of no less than fifty-four highly trained fighters to assault the slavers’ camp. Quite an overkill, he reflected.
“All right, you go first. We will take care of that place. Ships should be coming soon to pick you up all. Wait for us aboard!”
The Walkyrie saluted and signed Her Royal guards and Walkyries to move to the barges.
She whistled between her teeth.
Concealed Tribesmen came out of the trees. She gestured to join their comrades.
All orders were obeyed in silent discipline.
Petren was truly impressed. These soldiers certainly could teach them a few things. If he knew his constables well, they would have picked a tip or two for their own benefit. With the Dwarves joining in, he felt confident that Dunlago and Beaulieu could fend off any slavers’ invasion.
As soon as their allies had left on the barges, he told his constables to burn anything still standing, but ordered the bodies of slavers to be left alone. Every one of them held so much repugnance at even touching them or whatever they had possessed, that they were relieved that their officer felt the same.
The crabs and other animals in the mangrove would soon take care of the corpses, whereas burying or burning them was not even practical.
Petren divided his forces into two groups to move along the willow channel. They felled trees at regular intervals to block the way so as to prevent any other recurrence of a hideout.
It took them half a day to complete their task. They felled trees again at the mouth of the waterway and sunk the slavers’ barges across the channel. Only then did they board their own barges to rejoin the Dunlago ships.
Maheut was standing at the prow of their ship as it approached the small harbor of Anse. Their horses would be waiting for them there. Their mission had gone well. Their squad had shown a discipline and thoroughness unequaled in Beaulieu and maybe in the whole of Alymndes. She sincerely hoped they would not be too many occasions to prove their worth again. She had been warned their role would entail some unpleasant duties, but she did not have to enjoy them.
He-Who-Stands-Upright at her side saw her face grow hard. The two had become so close, that words were not necessary.
“Where do we go now?”
“We disperse again and roam the country until new orders!”
“I was wondering if we could avoid cities for a while. It would be nice to visit your forests, mountains and prairies!”
“You are right. That would come as a nice change to all that so-called socializing. Actually we could do some good work for Geoffroy. I know he would be happy to have some proper maps of Beaulieu. That is certainly a task I would welcome!”
“And we could spend so many nights in the open with the sky as our roof!”
Maheut laughed.
“You never can wait, can you?” she joked with a light slap on his buttocks.
She saw Petren with Frenegond at his side approaching.
The other Walkyrie addressed her:
“Sergeant! Chief Constable Petren has just told me that our platoon is to continue to Dunlago!”
“Yes, Frenegond. Our dear Constable has been so impressed with your soldiers that he has requested for you to stay for a while to help him train his men in our techniques. I thought that it was a good idea as you could do well with learning our big friends’ skills! I also thought that spending the next few moons in warm Dunlago instead of cold Beaulieu would make for a nice reward for your good work!”
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer, who never stayed far from his Walkyrie companion was heard to say:
“Sergeant, we are not going to sail again, are we?”
Maheut mocked him:
“If you are still seasick after all that voyaging, you don’t deserve to be a member of the Golden Dragon Squad!”
Frenegond turned to her friend:
“What are you complaining about? You’ve been battering our ears days and nights with good man Jonas’s food and all the goodies found in the harbor market, haven’t you?”
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer sheepishly smiled.
“Frenegond! You’re not fair! Talking of food on a ship!”
Petren slapped the warrior on the back, almost sending him sprawling on the deck.
“Have you already forgotten our promise? You teach me your messages with your little toys, and I tell you our lore and stories of the desert and the sea. Did you think I was going to let you escape so easily?” he laughed before he added: “I also know a little girl who will be happy to meet you all again. You can’t disappoint her, can you?”

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