Narosan 1: Hsu Yia

The cool season had finally arrived in Dunlago, the Land of the Free Races of the Desert and the Sea. The prevailing breeze ensured that one could enjoy a stroll outside along the wharves of the harbor in relative comfort, even in the middle of the day.
Most of the guests at the Blue Mermaid sat outside at tables lined on a platform along the street under a verandah, either to sip a strong coffee or to look and be looked at. Any citizen of note would have been considered uncouth or downright boring by the higher society of Dunlago if he or she did not make the point to patronize the most famed inn of the nation at least once a week.
Ekan had more practical considerations in mind. Mumtaz had come down from the Palace for his bi-weekly visit to the Black Dragon’s kitchen. He was demonstrating to his friend the recipe of an unusual dish he had discovered during his long stay in Beaucastel.
Ekan was beating eggs in a bowl under the attentive eyes of Mumtaz, Naeem and the whole staff.
“Jonas, what do you call that dish?” the young chef queried.
“They call it an omelet in the south. First, you beat eggs, add salt and pepper and heat oil in a skillet. Count a tablespoon of oliva oil for each egg and wait until it is very hot. What we have here is a plain omelet, but the beauty of that recipe is that there are no limits to whatever you could combine with the eggs. Personally, I like it as simple as possible. A few freshly cut herbs should provide ample taste.”
He turned to the back door opened onto the large garden where a couple of children were busy helping Claudius the gardener.
“Mareeva! Matthieu! Bring us a few sprigs of thin leek, will you?”
The two children had come to Dunlago in the company of Ekan as the weather had turned cold with the approaching winter. Matthieu certainly did not complain to stay away from the castle and the impossibly crowded city of Beaucastel. It would have been perfect if Lieutenant Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon and Firebrand, his outlandish female dwarf companion had not joined their party on Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur’s orders. Whenever they could escape the clutches of their guardians, the two of them spent most of their time in Claudius’ company, in the kitchen, or playing with other children at the harbor or in the market.
They hurried inside with the herbs asked for by Mareeva’s father. They lingered to look, hoping for a tasty morsel.
Jonas chopped the leeks and included them in the eggs. He poured the mixture in the skillet and briskly stirred the whole with a fork. The whole population had adopted that kind of utensil in no time after some Elven merchants and diplomats had introduced them in the capital.
“The secret is to keep stirring them all the time, so that the hot oil nicely blends with the eggs until you obtain a light and fluffy omelet. If you just leave the eggs to fry on the oil, you will end up with a heavy and greasy piece of food impossible to present or taste properly!”
He expertly let the omelet slide from the skillet onto a plate and invited everyone to sample the treat.
There was enough for all to taste.
The two children already knew the dish but nonetheless savored it with delight.
Mumtaz was munching a second helping as he commented:
“I can see a lot of possibilities. Such food should please ladies in particular. Light but nourishing and delicious. Serve it with some salad in spicy dressing for our women, or with some stew and bread for our men. How do they serve it in Beaucastel?”
“They mostly eat it for breakfast with fried bacon and sausages on thick slices of grilled bread.”
“That could prove a good idea here, too! It could make for a hearty meal for those ravenous nobles of ours! Mumtaz mused aloud.
“We could adapt one of our traditional recipes by adding cooked vegetables cut in small cubes.” Naeem proposed. “If we fry it on a small fire instead, we should obtain some kind of soft hot pancacke. We could cut it in quarters before serving it along with some marinated fish and other garnish!”
“Good thinking, Naeem! I’ll tell you what: let us put our ideas into practice right away and offer the results to whoever happens to be sitting inside the tavern or under the verandah as a gracious service on the house! We shall be able to judge whether our customers will develop a taste for it or not!”
He turned to the children:
“You kids, come along with me! We need some more herbs!”
The three of them went out to join Claudius in the garden.
Mareeva was bent picking flat leaf parsley with Matthieu, when on an impulse; she lifted her head to watch her father.
Jonas’ imposing frame too was crouched over the neatly hoed lines of earth, a hand about to pick a sprig of leek, when his gesture stopped in midair. His eyes stared ahead of him.
Mareeva recognized the telltale signs.
Her fingers lightly tapped her friend’s arm:
“Father’s speaking.”
The two children were two of the very few individuals privy to Ekan’s true secret nature.
The Black dragon that Dunlago people called Jonas was not speaking. In fact, he was listening.
Someone was trying to reach him in mindspeech.
The call must have come from a very distant place as it came to him very weak. It must have originated from the east. But there was nothing but an endless ocean in that direction.
His brothers, sisters and parents’ messages were always clear, wherever they chanced to stay or roam in Alymndes. Even a message from the unknown South should have reached him sharp and loud.
Unless…
He suddenly remembered captain’s Adir mention of a hypothetical land far away to the East, beyond the strong currents that no Dunlago ship could hope to safely navigate across.
An urgent need to seek the source of the call overwhelmed him. He gathered all his will and powers toward this purpose and tried to project his mind in the general direction of the call.
Mareeva saw her father’s body grow tense and rigid.
She whispered to her companion:
“Matthieu, let’s join Father, or Claudius will notice something is amiss!”
They quietly moved to crouch on both sides of the black giant.
Ekan had all his attention and faculties focused on the search for the unknown entity who was trying to contact him.
Faint words entered his head:
“Long have I searched … creatures of my kind … wherever you are … I need your help … I need … Help…”
The alien voice suddenly vanished from his brain.
Ekan desperately struggled to reestablish the contact, but he soon had to realize that his own sole strength would not suffice. He would have to inform his kin as soon as possible.
He belatedly noticed that his body was profusely sweating and trembling. He looked around. The two children had come to join him and were effectively shielding him from the gardener’s attention.
“Thanks, kids!” he simply uttered in a low voice.
————————————-
The woman silently moved towards the sitting figure, her feet cautiously sliding on the waxed wooden floor. Had it not been for the open latticed paper door in front of her target, the room would have been in complete darkness. She had discovered long ago that the Empress entertained the quaint habit of not lighting candles or making use of light globes at night.
Which had offered her this unequalled opportunity to execute her Lord’s orders.
Holding her breath, she slunk forward in a crouched stance. At last she came within reach where a single lunge would enable her to stab the back of her victim with the thin barbed dagger she had taken out of the concealment of her ample sleeve.
The silhouette of the Empress had not budged an inch save for a few strands of her hair undulating in the night breeze softly flowing from the inner garden.
She sprang forward and without warning slammed into an invisible wall. She was hurled sprawling on her back by an unknown force. Her weapon had fallen on the floor out of her reach. She attempted to sit up. But something maintained her helplessly pinned down against the cool wooden slats.
With growing horror she saw the Empress spin around until she faced Hsu Yia, ruler of Narosan and the whole of Narosan archipelago surrounded by the five seas.
For the whole year that Kaluin had served in the house of the Empress as a chamber servant, she never had the occasion to confront the stare of Hsu Yia. She abruptly realized with shock why so few could bear the eyes of the revered sovereign. Even fewer had faced the yellow reptilian eyes coldly staring at her at the moment.
The servant of Lord Tanung, lord of the House of Wisan, thought that her doom had finally come. In a glimpse of unreal lucidity, she resented that her liege had sent her on a mission that he should have known too well to be impossible to accomplish. What did he want to prove by sacrificing her?
But all her training made her cast her doubts away and attempt a last time to kill the Empress. Her bare hands would suffice. The force pinning her down had relented. Calling upon all her strength and will, she jumped on her feet and threw herself at the woman, averting her eyes from the horrendous sight of the Empress’ face.
She had barely moved a step forward when once again she was hit full by the same invisible force and sent sliding along the floor until she crashed against the far wall.
She lay dazed for a while before an inhuman voice brought he back to her senses.
“Look at me, Kaluin formerly of the House of Wisan! Why did you attempt to take my life?”
The trembling would-be assassin kneeled and bowed until her forehead touched the cool wooden floor. She summoned the last shreds of her courage.
“I did it to save my House and fellow retainers on the orders of Tanung, Lord of the House of Wisan!”
“So a man has to send a woman to do his bidding! How low the House of Wisan has fallen, indeed!”
Hsu Yia made a brief pause.
When she resumed her talk, her eyes had come back to their human state.
“Kaluin, look at me!” she ordered.
The servant hesitantly raised her eyes. She could clearly see the face of the Empress in spite of the almost total lack of light. She understood she was not about to die after all, but what fate would befall her instead?
“You were trained as a Ka-Ti, were you not?”
Ka-Ti fighters were ruthlessly raised and drilled to become the most feared killers in Narosan. Very few survived the terrible ordeals they had to go through to attain the mastery of their art. They could be found all over the islands inside the five seas, although their number was extremely small in comparison with the teeming population living in the archipelago. Most of them chose a lord to serve, although a few worked as mercenaries to whoever could pay them. Some of their earnings they kept for their masters in the secret abode of their sect hidden deep inside the central mountains of Narosan Island.
Kaluin, one of only three living female Ka-Ti fighters, had chosen to serve Lord Tanung on the eastern shore of Narosan out of loyalty for her own people. Unfortunately, she had come of late to despise her employer when she realized how petty and treacherous a ruler he had proved to be even against his own. She had accepted the present mission far away from her homeland to stay away from the court of Lord Tanung and his conniving sycophants.
She did not feel the need to answer. The Empress already knew more about her true identity than anybody else in her entourage.
Hsu Yia went on:
“So you now know that I cannot be killed, do you not? How long have I reigned in Narosan? Do I keep any guards around my person? If you had sufficiently investigated before executing your mission, you would have discovered that I have never taken notice of the petty and bloody feuds so prevalent in my Empire. I have been assuming the role of a benign figurehead and distanced myself from any politics. Truth be told, I have always been kept informed by faithful servants, although I do not need any help to see all what is happening or brewing in my realm. But unfortunately external agencies have been interfering of late. Our lands are in great danger of permanently sinking into horror and chaos. The time has finally come for me to take our nation’s fate in my own hands! Therefore here is your doom: you are not to serve Lord Tanung any longer, but your own people and the whole of Narosan through me! You shall cast away your chamber servant garments and don the attire of the true warrior you are! You shall constantly stand by my side unless I send you on an errand. Understand that I do not require you for my personal protection, but as a proof of my involvement in my realm’s affairs. No one will be able to kill, maim or even so much as scratch your person. You will defer to no one but me. I trust that you will make good use of that knowledge. Now, Kaluin of Wisan, leave me. I will be expecting you at first light of the day!”
The Ka-Ti did not move.
Hsu Yia smiled. She had judged the woman well. She inquired:
“Do you wish to say anything before you depart?”
Kaluin, her forehead still touching the floor replied:
“Empress, I may not use the name of Wisan as mine! I have no kin, nor right to claim it!”
The Dragon of Narosan coldly smiled:
“Straighten up! You will not bend to me any more, whoever witnesses your person in my presence! You are Kaluin of Wisan, and let anyone try to deny it!”
The woman warrior was about to bow in acknowledgement, but checked herself barely in time under the cold stare of the Empress.
She stood up and turned her back to Hsu Yia before exiting the room, an act that no one, even the vaunted General Qusan would have ever dared think of doing.
———————————-
That same night, if one had had the far sight of a bird of prey, he or she could have made out the shapes of seven large Dragons flying under the starry sky. But before accomplishing such a feat, he or she would have been compelled to voyage many days from the Dunlago shores in a straight line to the East where no sailor had ever dared venture.
“We should be far enough from the land to create a clear channel to funnel our thoughts through towards the east!” started Glamrun addressing Zamrel, the mother of the five younger Dragons.
The Red Dragon agreed:
“We ought to fan the whole East as Ekan does not know the exact origin of the message he received this morning. Let us join our thoughts into a single one, aiming first at our right directly to the South and then slowly sweep the sea in half a circle towards the North. This way we should be able to encounter any living creature beyond our sights! Now, let us concentrate and fuse our minds! Do not forget that we have to proceed at a deliberate pace, so as not to overlook any signs! It will take all the time it will need to!”
They projected their common thought so low as to barely skim over the crests of the highest waves they met lest they miss any inhabited island where their search might chance upon its purpose.
On the way they discovered the simple thoughts of the creatures of the sea. Some came out faint while others were powerful enough for the Dragons to pause and appraise them. They found large animals swimming in the waters, which were not fish. Numnir, the Flint Dragon, had to recall his brother Ekan back to his present task. The Black dragon, with an inner sigh, promised himself that he would come back on his own one day to explore all this vast expanse of waters concealing so many strange and wondrous beings.
They had at long last reached a direction almost fully to the East when they met a multitude of distant and faint thoughts.
“Humans!” an elated Umatar shouted in her kin’s minds.
They concurred with the Golden Dragon. They had finally discovered that many people lived somewhere far away where the sun rose above the horizon every morning.
“Steady!” Glamrun ordered. “We have to keep exploring ever more slowly. We do not want any clue to evade us!”
With renewed hope, their bodies maintained motionless high in the air by their inherent magic, the seven Dragons threw all their powers into a single shared thought.
They did have to proceed carefully, as they encountered untold numbers of human minds, small and noisy for most of them, with the exception of a few stronger and quieter souls isolated inside the teeming masses.
Worry and impatience began to creep inside the minds of the usually staid Dragons as they wondered how they could possibly uncover that pin of hope inside the haystack of jumbled minds, when suddenly an incredibly powerful surge crashed into their collective mind.
The Dragons of Alymndes, for all their preparedness, reeled under the sheer blow of unbridled might and had to summon all their strength to face the onslaught with equanimity and resolve. But soon they realized that were not fighting the assault of an evil entity, but had been met with unreserved joy of a long-pent up hope being at long last granted.
“I knew it!” exclaimed Ekan. “She is a Dragon like us!”
“She? How do you know she is a female Dragon, my dear brother?” an amused Dargelblad, the Silver Dragon, bantered in spite of the extraordinary event they were witnessing.
“Dargelblad’s right! You ought to be more careful! After all we know nothing of that dragon! What if it were a minion of Sacrach?” Zamrel tried to restrain her ordinarily temperate son.
But Ekan would not be gainsaid. For once, he threw all caution to the winds.
Ignoring the other Dragons, he gathered all his strength to cast an overwhelming response towards the source of the ecstatic cry that had answered their call.
“We heard you! I am Ekan! I am the one who found you first!” The Black Dragon screamed over the waves, freely offering his name.
The reply instantly reached them, filled with boundless joy and gratitude:
“I am Hsu Yia! I am the last of my kind in my lands! Where could you have possibly come from? There is no land, nor being living West of Narosan!”
“Yes, there is, Hsu Yia!” Ekan shouted back.
Puzzlement with a note of worry welcomed his words.
Amrel, the Blue Dragon, came to his help. She had a notion of how to prove quickly their existence to the faraway Dragon whose loneliness had struck her own female awareness.
“Hsu Yia! I am Amrel, sister of Ekan! Since you can communicate with us through mindspeech, you should be able to see through our eyes!”
They waited the time of a heartbeat.
A second explosion of unfathomable bliss resonated inside their minds.
“I can see! I can see!” an exquisite voice overflowing with delight exclaimed.
A longer pause followed before Hsu Yia’s voice was heard again:
“Seven!” They all felt like drowning in her awe and rapture. “Seven dragons! You are all so beautiful! And so different! Being alone of my kind, it would be difficult for you to see me through my eyes. Therefore I must come to meet you all at once!”
“But how could you?” Numnir questioned. “You seem so far away!”
“I can move very fast and far if I wish to! But show me the sky and the stars and I shall tell you how soon I can reach you all!”
They showed her the stars above their own eyes.
Her answer came quickly enough.
“Just as I expected! At the most, you must be two moons away by ship navigating in a straight line!”
“Two moons only! How fast are your ships?” a surprised Ekan could not help asking.
Hsu Yia sent them an image of immense ships, by Dunlago standards, with dragonhead prows, sleek bodies and imposing sails.
“No wonder! We shall have lots to learn from your people!” commented Numnir who sent a picture of the comparatively clumsy vessels used by Alymndes sailors.
“Well, both of our people shall have plenty to exchange, will they not?” laughed Hsu Yia. “Now, please stay where you are and do not break our link! I am coming!”
Glamrun privately thought that Hsu Yia must possess incredible powers to be so confident of reaching them, knowing nothing of the land and the sea ahead with only stars to guide her. Then how could she not have managed to reach them long ago? Probably because she had surmised the absence of lands and people across the sea. She must have unwittingly limited her search to her own territory. It seemed that Ekan had only chanced upon her summons, believing then to be a message of hers.
They waited, projecting their thoughts ahead.
They sensed Hsu Yia approaching with the growing intensity of her delight.
Soon they experienced an overpowering wave of love and trust such as only dragons can offer, which swept their last doubts away. Instead, their impatience and expectations grew almost intolerable with the passing time.
Glamrun reflected that such a sentiment was not much in agreement with his teachings, but chose not to care.
Suddenly a light appeared on the horizon just above the sea.
It was moving at an incredible speed and so close to the water that it left two gigantic waves exploding in showers of foam in its wake.
Soon their incredulous eyes discerned an elongated shape undulating forward above the ocean. It did not possess wings and its long body seemed to swim through the air like a giant sea-snake.
It was a Dragon indeed, but not as they could have possibly imagined. At least its head could not be mistaken for that of any other creature. Long tendrils flew from its great snout and eye ridges. Short horns protruded between large drawn ears. Its maws regularly opened to reveal long regular rows of comparatively short fangs. But the most striking feature was its two eyes shining like enormous jewels in the night. Its whole body was scaled down to the tip of its tail, and its four short paws armed with wicked talons seemed to have been devised more for holding than walking on them. The colors along its flanks were constantly changing into hues of emerald, turquoise and ruby. Its back was lined with a double row of short white feather-like outgrowths rippling in the wind. The seven dragons savored every second of the spectacle of her coming.
She was a truly magnificent female Dragon and such was her beauty that one could not envy but only accept the mere sighting of it as a rare gift.
But they had little time to admire her as she soon floated in front of them; the forward half of her body erect and her triumphant head rearing back, her maw wide open in a scream of exaltation. The seven Dragons readily responded in the same manner, their cries tearing the air asunder and sending waves upward to explode in showers of foam.
It was rumored later by some Dunlago sailors that they had espied the sight of a great light illuminating the horizon and that their boats had been met by a series of waves coming from nowhere in spite of the fair night weather and calm seas.
Long the Dragons of the West and East rejoiced in their meeting, basking in the discovery of their worlds and knowledge. They realized that they shared the same mission of caring for their lands and people. Hsu Yia had never comprehended the mystery of her birth and coming to Narosan, although she suspected her fate to be similar to that of the five children of Zamrel. The difference stood in the fact that she did not know anything of her ancestors and had always stayed alone. Until recently she had been content with her situation, but of late a general darkening of events in Narosan had awakened her to the need of a more involved participation in the affairs of her world. But for that purpose, she sorely lacked counsel and help. Like the Dragons of Alymndes, she had enough power to impose her will, but refused to exercise it lest she was doomed to reign over an enthralled nation.
She understood she had acted well when she heard of Sacrach and his appalling aim of taking the whole universe for its own to subjugate to his pleasure.
Whereas the seven Dragons’ worries had become a clear-cut challenge, Hsu Yia was facing a more complicated dilemma. Her subjects, fractious and belligerent by nature, were openly warring with each other and some islands in her Empire had altogether seceded and waged full-scale campaigns and piracy against the rest of the Realm.
To make matters even more confused, she had to deal with the incursions and depredations of black wyverns.
Those wyverns, distant relatives of Dragons, used to be shy creatures of great beauty until one day when they flew down from their eyries in the central mountains of Narosan Island to prey on animals and settlers in the form of black horrors. They were spreading havoc among the many herds of animals vital to the life of the farming folk and preventing the smooth conduct of culture and harvest. Why the sudden change, she had no clue. But one thing was certain: she would have to face them down once and for all, whatever the consequences.
“I can see Sacrach’s nefarious influence here!” Glamrun commented. “He knew more than he has let us guess and had already begun his offensive in your land! Luckily for us all, he had spread his powers even thinner because of his unquenchable thirst for the domination of the whole world!”
Zamrel continued for him:
“But since he has gone into hiding for a foreseeable future, those black wyverns should be free of the shackles of the coercive force driving them into that unusual behavior of theirs. Therefore this is one source of trouble we could take care of fairly quickly!”
“Unless we want to run the risk of uselessly revealing ourselves, we shall have to think of a way or reason to visit your land!” the Red dragon retorted.
The eight of them shared their thoughts for a while.
It was Umatar who broke the silence with a peal of laughter:
“Why do we not do it the other way round? Hsu Yia ought to pay us a visit first, and only then, shall we have a valid reason to return the favor!”
“That certainly sounds more logical as long as Hsu Yia makes it clear to its people that her mission is to establish relations, diplomatic and economic or whatever, between our two worlds, and not seek help.” Numnir agreed.
“And then we can all come, representing our different races in an obvious attempt to create lasting trade agreements, for example!” an enthusiastic Ekan remarked. “One more evident motive for Hsu Yia’s people to send us a delegation is that our ships cannot cross the sea separating us! Which also makes me think that you should come along with a few shipwrights to teach us how to build those ships of yours!”
The seven Dragons of Alymndes were about to all add further advice when Hsu Yia halted them:
“Kindred of Alymndes! My most profound and humble thanks for your inestimable succor in the direst time of need! For the first time in eons, shall I be able to live among my people in the secure knowledge that a brighter future awaits them all! I shall immediately fly back to my lands and begin to work towards that purpose! But before we part, I would ask you a last boon!”
The beautiful Dragon from the East raised her right paw to a spot below what could be guessed as her chest.
The shocked Dragons of Alymndes saw the talons enter the flesh until half her arm disappeared inside her body.
When it came back out, the claws were holding a large orb of great brilliance whose light engulfed them all.
“This is my vitality. As we need to be on the same plane of awareness to achieve an instant and perfect bond of communication, may I ask each of you to accept a part of it?”
“But this is your dragon self you are giving away!” An appalled Amrel protested.
“What is freely given is not lost, Blue Dragon!” Hsu Yia calmly replied. “And after all, I am sharing it with you, which means nothing is lost! Actually, if you consent, you shall share your own vitalities with me through it!”
Zamrel answered from them all:
“Hsu Yia, we shall accept your gift and do take whatever you may need from us in exchange!” The White Dragon exclaimed with finality.
Hsu Yia released the sphere.
It came to float in their midst. Slowly it divided into eight identical globes, which started to rotate slowly around an invisible hub.
“Now, beloved friends,” the Eastern dragon began, “all of us should concentrate their powers as a whole and single will on these. Each orb will choose its rightful owner!”
The eight dragons focused all their might on Hsu Yia’s vitality.
After a while they saw a change occurring. First the globes grew in size and then seemed to gradually gather speed. Soon they rotated at such a pace that they appeared as a single circle of sheer brightness. It expanded into an ever-growing blinding ring of incandescence.
It had almost reached the Dragons, when suddenly each sphere separated from the others and shot at the chest of a Dragon who reared back as they plunged inside their bodies in a last blast of light.
The darkness of the night surrounded them again.
Each dragon discovered himself or herself utterly altered. Their powers and knowledge had broken through previously unattainable limits. Long it would take them to realize the full extent of their new capabilities, but they also knew these would be put to a stern test in the future.
Hsu Yia broke their thoughts:
“I shall leave now. There is no need for me to linger here any longer, as we shall be constantly connected! Moreover, I must prepare our coming at once. We shall meet again in person within the next four moons. Until then, we all have work to do, have we not? Fare you well!”
She disappeared.
“She is right!” Zamrel started. “You all know that we ought to summon our human friends to her arrival!”
No further comments were needed. They vanished in close succession. Only Ekan tarried for a while.
Just as he was bracing himself to teleport back to Dunlago, Hsu Yia’s voice resonated inside his mind:
“Ekan, you were the one who found me! Do not ever expect me to forget it!” her laughing voice rang.
It was fortunate that Dragons do not blush, because even with his black skin, Jonas would have been hard put to hide his feelings.
————————————
Not all the Houses had answered the summons of the Empress. They had been given a full moon’s notice. Even so, only the truly faithful had turned up. Hsu Yia reflected that at least the pretense was over.
The Western Alliance, as was dubbed the party devoted to their sovereign were all sitting in front of her, their legs crossed and fists on knees, their backs erect and heads held proud. They were lined in strict accordance with their respective ranks held in the hierarchy of the Imperial Court. In front sat General Qusan, Lord of the House of Narosan, Chief Commander of the Imperial Army and Navy and venerable Counsellor Makan, his chief advisor on his right.
Further to his right were dour General Karna, Lord of the House of Kyosan and Vice-commander of the Imperial Army, flanked by youthful General Lamin, Lord of the House of Karamasan, and Vice-Commander of the Imperial Navy.
Behind them sat in a single line the six other rulers of the Western Alliance: enigmatic Nali, Lord of the House of Zor-Ta, scarred Appati, Lord of the House of Tursan, portly Kanung, Lord of the House of Kong-I, ever-smiling Wan-Si, Lord of the House of Tsutan, proud Mo-To, Lord of the House of Kai and shy Unna, Lord of the House of Shi-Uen.
The Houses of Kong-I, Tsutan, Kaisai hailed from the three islands of same name, otherwise known as the “Three Sisters”, whereas Shi-Uen was the name given to the long archipelago south of Narosan.
As for the Lords of the “Eastern Alliance”, the loose party formed by opponents to the rule of the Empress in the eastern part of Narosan Island and Kai Island, they all had sent lame excuses for not attending.
Hsu Yia knew that the Lords of Shuhan, the northern island, lay in wait to side with the eventual winners of the impending feud between the two Alliances. Finally, as for the pirates of Tong-Hi, the northernmost island, they would pay homage to none whatsoever.
Well, the dice were thrown, and it was up to her to force the issue and initiate the struggle for eventual supremacy. She saw eagerness and resolve in the eyes of her faithful followers. But if they had thought of immediate fighting and glory, she was going to disappoint them. The time for open warfare was not ripe yet.
The Lords had entered the Imperial room ahead of their Empress as was the custom. All had left their weapons in the care of the Imperial Guards outside. They had been bowing, their eyes fixed on a spot between their knees when Hsu Yia had made her entrance.
Great had their surprise been when she directly addressed them:
“I shall not have my faithful servants bow to me in private! Proud Lords of Narosan, face your Empress as is your due!”
Their surprise had turned to astonishment when they had discovered the Dragon of the East dressed in full warrior’s attire for the first time in the memories of Narosan. The woman sitting on a low stool, fists on the knees of her legs planted squarely apart, was not the distant and beautiful form adorned with innumerable long dresses of intricate colors and designs they had been accustomed to raise their eyes to, but the fierce figure of a war lord come straight out of legends. She wore the full armor of a General composed of plates of hardened leather reinforced with scales fashioned from sea turtle shell, the whole painted with black lacquer. Her breastplate was inlaid with the image of Dragon of the east in its full glory. Its body reflected an ever-changing pattern of hues while the talons of its right paw held a sphere of mother-of-pearl. Her helmet rested on her lap. Her hair usually seen flying loose around her perfect face was held in a long ponytail by a ring wrought of gold and silver. She wore no make-up in contrast to all her ladies-in-waiting who powdered their faces white and shaved their eyebrows to paint them higher on their foreheads. Her stark beauty had contributed to a reputation of coldness and unconcern for earthly needs and wants.
Which was untrue.
Whenever she felt the urge, she could make a man or a woman in a distant land very happy indeed. In spite of her seemingly eternal life, certainly no one was aware of her true nature and powers, but cared little to discover.
On the other hand, her audience wondered who the personage kneeling on the floor was, her chest erect. They knew she was a woman under the black armor. She wore the same apparel as Hsu Yia, with two slight differences. The dragon on her breastplate was black and could be distinguished only through its relief. Her face was concealed behind a sheer black veil attached to the light bonnet of the same color resting on her head.
Their experienced eyes guessed a Ka-Ti fighter.
What was a hired assassin doing here? So, the Empress was truly preparing for war!
Many a Lord secretly rejoiced at the sudden metamorphosis of their sovereign.
At long last, the time of reckoning had come to pass!
As if Hsu Yia had read their minds, she declared to their amazement:
“No, we are not met today for a council of war! We have a far more important task at hand!”
The Dragon of the east let a smile bare her perfect white teeth in amusement at the effect of her statement.
“You have heard me well!” she resumed, “Now is not the time for bravery and military exploits, but to voyage to another world west of our shores!”
General Qusan could not contain himself any longer.
“Your Majesty speaks in riddles! We are met here to discuss the fate of our land and Your Majesty wants us to travel to nowhere instead! There is no land west of Narosan!” The last was almost shouted in indignation.
Hsu Yia raised a hand in appeasement.
“Dear General Qusan! I do not speak riddles! There is a land, and a very large one at that, about a two-moon voyage distance from here. In our vanity, we have never deigned imagine the mere possibility of its existence! But I can tell you that it is there for us to discover! Unless you doubt my word …”
She paused. The meaning of the last words was not lost on her audience. They had no other alternative but to believe her or else.
Hsu Yia relentlessly went on:
“Therefore, General Qusan, General Karna and General Lamin, you shall make our largest ships ready to leave from Narosan harbor within the next moon! All of you in this room will board the ships!”
“But Your Majesty is asking us to leave our lands uncared for in these times of dire danger!” uncharacteristically protested dour Lord Karna. The Imperial Army being his charge, he was particularly alarmed at the idea of leaving it to its own devices.
“My dear General!” Hsu Yia sharply pointed out. “I do not have to tell you that a good General should always be prepared for the eventuality of his absence, do I? I am pretty certain that you left your Army in capable hands!”
“What about the possibility of a mutiny, then? Lord Karna stubbornly continued.
“Are you telling me that you do not expect complete loyalty from your charges?” she challenged him.
The dour General faced her for a short instant. A thin smile appeared on his weather-worn face.
“My Empress, I stand corrected and beg your clemency! But I still do not comprehend why this venture to an unknown land holds priority over the safety of the Empire!”
Hsu Yia addressed her whole audience:
“All of you think carefully! In what way might such a voyage greatly benefit our realm?”
She was answered with blank stares.
Let them work it out for themselves, she mused as she patiently waited.
Then, out of the blue, the room rang with the laugh of Counselor Makan. Hsu Yia allowed herself a smile. The venerable man, in spite of his advanced age, was not the faithful advisor to the most powerful General in the Empire for political reasons, but because he happened to be the real brain behind most important decisions taken in the name of the Empire.
A miffed Qusan turned to his companion:
“Makan! Of all the people present here, I would have expected some restraint from your part!”
“Ah! But I have good reasons to rejoice, General Qusan!”
“Then, would you be as kind as to teach that dumb student of yours?”
“False modesty does not sit well with you, General Qusan!” the old counselor irreverently replied. No one else would have dared chide the Emperor’s most trusted aide, but Makan, although he would readily offer invaluable advice of anyone soliciting it, bent to no one’s will, except that of his sovereign.
The Counselor pursued:
“If I were sitting in the place of our dear enemies, I would seriously worry about my opponents leaving en masse for a faraway land. Especially if they had made it known to all before departing. Their subjects would expect great riches to come back with them, a share of which would be denied to whoever did not participate. Our armies and subjects, having a reasonable hope for better life in the near future, will not need to be encouraged to keep our lands secure while we are away! Her majesty shows a lot of cunning when she orders us to get ready within a moon time: enough time to advertise our mission and not enough to uselessly linger. Our people and opponents will surely become enormously impressed by our speed and decision!”
Smiles lit all faces around in recognition.
Only Kaluin did not rejoice. She would stay behind on Her Empress’ orders.
———————–
Petren, Chief Constable in Dunlago, was not in the best of moods to say the least.
A short-tempered bear of a man at the best of times, his patience was being sorely tried to its very limits. Although he could not really complain if he remembered what Royal Guards had to go through in Beaucastel when delegates from all over Alymndes arrived prior to the Battle of the Wall. Jonas was on hand to advise him, too. But his job was security, not that of an innkeeper or taverner.
The Tribesmen had been easy to look after as they had chosen to stay under their tents outside the city. But the nobles from Beaulieu were quickly becoming a pain in various parts of his anatomy with their constant complaints about the heat. He was more than fed up of running after elusive Elves. As for the Dwarves, as long as they had enough to drink and eat, they left him in peace. To top it all, there had been a recrudescence of petty crime among his own people. But that last predicament had been brutally taken care of as he put any would-be thieves or bullies to work at cleaning the streets and public facilities.
He was presently quaffing ale at the Blue Mermaid after an interminable day of toil, when Ekan came to join him at his table. He had brought a dish full of succulent-looking brochettes.
Petren had a long look at them. He had learned long ago to expect new treats from his friend and never refuse whatever the black giant concocted.
“Now, what did you cook today, Jonas? These look scrumptious, although a bit too dainty for my person!”
“This is a Tribesman’s favorite!” Ekan laughed. “They are pieces of chicken, leek and thick bacon broiled with a spicy sauce. They are perfect with ale. And I can tell you that they have already become so popular that I had to reserve these for your sole benefit!”
“My thanks! I certainly need them!”
Petren took a stick from the pile and engulfed the whole in his mouth. He chewed appreciatively.
“Hmmm, a beauty, aren’t they?” he commented as a second stick quickly disappeared in his maw.
Ekan knew his friend’s enormous appetite and patiently waited.
Judging that Petren was at last ready for some conversation, he asked:
“How are the preparations for the reception for our eastern visitors going along?”
“As far as I am concerned, we shall be ready when they reach the harbor.” The Chief constable replied.
Eying Ekan suspiciously, he ventured his own question:
“Jonas, how much do you know about them?”
“As much as everybody else. Their land lies two moons away from our shores, at least by their reckoning. Their ships are a lot bigger and faster than ours and are capable of crossing those currents that have always repelled our own vessels. They are human like us, although of a different build and skin color. Their society is of a very martial kind and they obey a single ruler, an Empress called Hsu Yia.”
Petren held up his right hand.
“Jonas, that is the official line! Spare me from such talk, will you? Now, how the hell did we ever happen to know of their existence? Have they sent messengers we were not aware of?”
Ekan eased back on his chair with a contrite smile.
“Petren, you should know better when asking me about state secrets!” he uttered in a low voice.
The Constable’s temper threatened to boil over and Ekan thought best to assert his authority.
“Quiet!” he hissed. “People are listening! Just know that all the rulers of Alymndes are in the know and have been invited to Dunlago because it is of the utmost importance that they be all concerned with the success of this first encounter!”
Petren contained himself with difficulty. Taking pity of his friend’s frustration, the Black Dragon continued:
“This I can tell, but it stays between the two of us. Even the Judge does not know as much: the nation east actually consists of many islands covering more land than you could imagine. Their ruler, the Empress Hsu Yia resides in a place called Narosan, which incidentally is also the name of the main island and that of the Empire. Now, there are enormous benefits in trade and knowledge to be acquired for our nations as you can guess they have things we do not have and vice-versa. You are a soldier and you should be curious of what kind of ships of theirs can cross those currents, should you not? As you will in all probability be part and member of our maiden voyage to their land, you will have a particular interest in the study of their military methods and weapons. Need I say more?”
The Chief Constable stared at his now empty jug. He suddenly banged his fist on the table.
“Master Turgas! Another ale if you please! And make it quick!” He boomed. The unruffled taverner nodded from behind the counter and filled another jug from the broached barrel at his side and brought it to the table himself.
“In a quirky mood, aren’t we today, Chief Constable?” he commented with a straight face. But his eyes were twinkling with amusement.
Apparently Jonas had been teasing the grizzled soldier again.
——————————-
“No wonder we needed four ships!” exclaimed General Qusan when he saw all the cargo being loaded.
They were assuredly carrying more than they needed for a two-moon voyage. And some of the goods included were certainly not for their use.
Bales of tea, barrels of rice wine and lacquered boxes full of accessories and jewels made of tortoise shell had nothing to do on dragon warships.
A two-moon voyage was bound to become a long and boring affair even by the standards of the experienced mariners of Narosan. Hsu Yia had deemed all that idle time at sea as a good opportunity to learn the common language of Alymndes. She had devised a manual of her own and had it printed into small booklets she intended to use to teach her generals as well as the engineers, shipwrights and merchants joining the venture. She might as well include all crews and soldiers as well, she had concluded. Narosan had discovered the secret of paper made from wood pulp long ago, and developed a printing system with wooden plates and presses. Most people in Narosan, at least the citizens in need of that particular knowledge, knew how to write with brushes and read the phonetic language common to all islands surrounded by the five seas. Each island and sometimes village had its own dialect, but the Narosan tongue was learned and spoken by all.
General Qusan had questioned the presence of engineers and shipwrights aboard their ships. Merchants, he understood well that they had to be part of the trip so as to establish solid trade relations as soon as possible. He had asked his sovereign when the two of them had found a rare moment of relative privacy, only broken by the silent figure of Kaluin.
“Do you intend us to make all those trips by ourselves in the future?” the Empress had answered. “They do not possess big or powerful enough ships in the West. Therefore we need to help them build as many of theirs as possible. As for engineers, I am pretty certain they shall be willing to acquire all unknown knowledge and whatever new skills they might discover! We mainly use wood and bamboo here, whereas their main building material is stone. That opens quite a few possibilities, does it not?”
“Your Majesty has made a very good point indeed. What about their warring skills? I do not expect them to come and help us solve some of our military headaches, but there must be plenty of techniques to be learned from them!”
“Truly! But do not forget that all the weapons and tactical know-how you might acquire in the West will have to become a well-kept secret back in Narosan! I do not need to impress on you the importance of confidence from all who participate to this mission, soldiers or not!”
The General thought for a while, pondering on his Empress’ advice.
But before he left, there was one more question he had to ask her for his own peace of mind.
He braced himself.
“Your Majesty, pardon my indiscretion, but as your Commander, I must verify: who is this woman always sitting or standing at your back?”
Hsu Yia let out a small laugh.
“My apologies! I ought to have introduced you to each other, ought I not?”
She motioned her black-clad companion to come forward and lift her veil. The woman did as asked but did not bow to the Lord of the House of Narosan.
“This is Kaluin. She is a Ka-Ti fighter and hails from Wisan.
Lord Qusan missed a heartbeat.
“But she is an assassin from the land held by one of our sworn enemies!”
“She is not!” Hsu Yia cut sharply. “At least, she is not any longer! She answers to me and to me only, and you had better accept her as she is going to work with you on a permanent basis. She is to be the one who stays behind to keep eyes on one and all. She will not always appear as she presently does, but you had better memorize her features since I do not intend to run after everybody when we come back from the West to settle a few disputes once and for all!”
Lord Qusan bowed in acknowledgement. He trusted his Empress’ motives, but he still did not have to like it.
————————-
Alfred was poring through the reports lying on his desk in the room graciously provided by Marsalis, the Judge of Dunlago, inside the Court House, when he heard a knock on the door.
“Come in!” he answered without raising his eyes from the parchment. He knew who it was.
His guard and lover, Hildegard, entered.
For once she was not wearing her Walkyrie armor or civilian clothes prevalent in Beaulieu. Instead she was adorned with a white stole cinched high under her breasts and clasped at the shoulders in Dunlago fashion, leaving her arms free.
He could not suppress a smile.
“Hildegard, are you trying to charm our guests, or send them an obvious message to behave?”
A puzzled Walkyrie stared at her diminutive superior in official life. The man had a lot of power in Beaulieu and elsewhere as the Crown Internal Affairs Chief, as he had been nominated recently. A good word to cover intelligence-gathering work ordered by Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur, the de facto right arm of Gerhart, King of Beaulieu. What both did not know was that Geraldine, or Jay as they called her in privacy, was the Blue Dragon. Alf had an inkling of her true identity though, having once faced her in very particular conditions.
“And would you mind making yourself clear, Crown Internal Affairs Chief!” she coldly answered, towering over her sitting lover who would barely reach her shoulder if he stood up.
“Hildegard, spare me, will you? You are just demonstrating my point. That garment you wear is a very nice idea, and it suits you well. I would say you look very alluring. The only problem is that if you continue to flex those arms of yours in plain view, you are going to frighten a lot of people away!”
“Is it not one of my responsibilities?”
“Down in Beaucastel, yes. But here in Dunlago, we ought to be a little more lax as we are guests in a relatively peaceful country. I would say we are more part of a diplomatic mission than a security agency, although we keep reporting to Gerhart!”
“What would you suggest I wear, then?”
“I‘ll tell you what: I have to pay a visit to King Marcus. We shall ask his wife Atraxa if there exists some kind of stole or toga covering shoulders in this part of the world. You never know, we may even start a new fashion! And later on, I shall take you to a jeweler that Jonas mentioned!”
“What for?”
Alf rolled his eyes.
“Hilde, if you want to look like a woman of Dunlago, you have to wear at least a bracelet and an arm band. Come to it, forget the last one. We would not be able to find one of adequate size. I was thinking of something for you hair, but judging from the look of envy from some of the local ladies we met at our last function, we need not worry about that!”
“Have you finished?” the Walkyrie retorted, menacingly moving around the desk. Soon Alf would be within reach of those big strong arms.
But the small man was undeterred.
“Unless you wish to revert to your Walkyrie garb, I am indeed finished!”
He stood up, and smoothly walking around her, he playfully slapped her rump before she could react.
“Come on, my lady! Let us get some fresh air! I’ve had my fill of desk work for today!”
She made for a swipe in the general direction of his head, but he expertly ducked under her arm and rested his hand around her ample hips. It certainly felt better than Walkyrie leather armor, he mused.
Hildegard put an arm around his shoulder. But before Alf could evade her again, her fingers grabbed the lobe of his ear to pinch it hard.
“I’ll get you later for that!” she commented with an evil grin.
Alf laughed.
“Promises, my lady! Promises!”

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