Narosan 3: Decisions

The dragon ships had dropped anchor in Dunlago for more than a week; only a token crew supplemented with local sailors manned the vessels. The entire Narosan delegation was too busy with trade talks to bother with maintenance and cleaning, particularly in light of their limited stay in the Capital. A voyage two more moons in length waited for them before they could begin looking after their interests in earnest back In Narosan.
Marcus had ordered a temporary roofed market square to be built prior to the arrival of the dragon ships. It offered enough sheltered space for craftsmen and merchants to exhibit their wares. It had been devised with a central alley wide enough to allow the easy passage of carts. One side of the market area was exclusively allotted for the Narosan merchants who displayed their goods on tables mounted atop trestles or on thick rugs graciously loaned by the city. Due to the general interest, mornings had been reserved for the sole use of local Guild members, as well as of traders and artisans from nations other than Dunlago, for interactive business deals, whereas in the afternoons the market lay open for everyone to visit and make purchases or just socialize. A palisade was fit between the pillars at sunset and taken off at dawn to safely close the place at night under the supervision of the Dunlago constables.
Upon seeing the completion of the mall a couple of days before the arrival of the dragon ships, King Gerhart had drawn his Dunlago counterpart aside:
“Marcus, do you realize that if you made a market place such as this a more permanent feature, it could prove beneficial to your own status?”
The Dunlago King had learned to heed his friend’s advice long before when it came to money matters. For all their titles and privileges, sovereigns still needed to keep their own coffers full, preferably through honest means if they wanted respect and some security for their own future. The new laws that they both had helped initiate could have them back to civilian life in as little as three years after all. Gerhart already owned his own private courier and postal network that now extended to Dunlago for Marcus’ personal advantage.
“You’ve come up with an idea that shall profit both of us, or perhaps I shall have to revise my opinion on you completely!”
Gerhart chortled.
“If we could expand the idea to our two nations, the more chance it will be accepted, will it not? Now, do not hesitate to interrupt me if my notion is too ludicrous. What we have here is a possibility of creating a whole network of official trade places. Open markets exist everywhere in Alymndes, even in Trade Fair City in the Steppes. But you will agree these can become messy affairs, especially when you have to clean the whole area the next day. Now, if each city should take charge of organizing a permanent mall with some kind of prearranged schedule to suit everyone without interfering with local business. The first and fourth days of the week could be reserved for food and agricultural produce only, the second and fifth days for crafts only. As for the other days, you could rent the place to special events, meetings and festivals, and so forth. The city would assume the responsibility for maintenance and cleaning for a determined fee, part of which would become revenue for local governments. The Guilds will soon see the advantage of such premises for a wider and more efficient exposure to their trades. It would also serve as a congenial meeting place for all citizens, regardless of weather conditions!”
Marcus scratched his shaved head.
“I can see the obvious boons to countries and citizens, but if I may allow myself a crass thought, where is our personal financial benefit in this project, which is still a lot of work!”
“Do you not forget that the two of us control most of the mail and urgent transport? More trade in cities will mean more orders, letters and delivery, right? Moreover, if you fit each mall with a Royal Mail Office, it would save both of us a lot of hassle, would it not?”
Big white teeth showed through the smile of the dark man.
“You have a point here, have you not?”
Qusan and the Lords of Narosan, on King Marcus’ advice, had opted to pay a visit to the Blue mermaid. They were only too glad to escape from the interminable parties and ceremonies held at the Palace to accommodate an endless procession of well-wishers and diplomats. It would also provide them with some absorbing encounters with relatively more ordinary citizens, a rare pleasure practically out of their reach in their country where soldiers simply could not mingle freely with lay people.
When they reached the tavern just before dusk, big was their surprise to realize that they were not the only ones to flee the Palace.
The verandah was already crowded with regulars who knew exactly when to come and grab the favored tables. The lounge was as much congested. They were about to turn heel in disappointment, when a voice familiarly called them from the taproom:
“Lord Qusan! Come and join us over here!”
They were astonished to discover that no less than King Gerhart of Beaulieu was hailing them from his seat at a long table on trestles with a motley bunch of friends sitting on long benches. Interestingly enough, they were all men. There were not the only ones shunning the Palace only, the veteran soldier wondered. Males were the same anywhere in the world, were they not?
He recognized Wilfred, Chief Constable Petren, Ironfoot in the company of a few Dwarves, Nepomucene de Beauvoir, Lieutenant Gratien de Salle-Lavauguyon without his fiery Dwarf companion this time, and even three of those dangerous-looking Tribesmen.
Sensing their surprise, Gerhart stood up and came to them in person. He put his arm around the shoulders of the Narosan officer to steer him to their table. The Lords of the Eastern Empire were only beginning to accept the familiarity of the Alymndes denizens, but a King almost embracing Her Majesty’s General? But after all, none of them were wearing any distinctive clothes or marks of authority. Even the Narosan men had adopted a very practical garb composed of a light cloth jacket over long pants of the same material, although the different shades and patterns painted their group into a very colorful walking tableau, which had the customers pause for a better look.
Counselor Makan’ shaved pate stood in contrast with his peers who all wore their long black hair tied in a loose knot on their napes. Their feet were set in unusual sandals with a cord passing between the first two toes, giving them great freedom of movement as they walked to the table.
King Gerhart genially ordered:
“Good Gentlemen, would you be kind enough as to make room for our guests!”
As everyone scrambled to accommodate the newcomers, Gerhart had Qusan sit at his right, while the other Lords of Narosan found themselves smoothly included in various companies.
Just as everyone was settled, Jonas appeared in the company of Naeem both with large covered dishes in their hands.
Lord Qusan found himself lost for words when he realized that the Black Dragon, whose true identity he knew, was working in the kitchens of a tavern!
“Ah, good man Jonas! What succulent treat have you concocted for our delight today?” exclaimed the King of Beaulieu, effectively interrupting the General’s thoughts.
Jonas readily explained as servants were putting bowls and plates in front of the new guests.
“These are clams,” he started as he uncovered the first dish, a very large and deep one “cooked in white wine with a little pepper and chopped herbs. Try them and if you appreciate them, I will prepare a second serving!”
The servants quickly filled the bowls and all began to masticate in unison, using the shells to scoop some of the delicious broth. The Lords of Narosan, great lovers of any seafood, ate in a solemn manner, savoring their food with deliberate concentration.
The first dish, being quickly disposed of, the bowls were taken away.
Naeem opened the second dish, a shallow and wide one, on which lay rows of cut shellfish.
“Sea ears!” a common cry came out of every Narosan Lord’s mouth.
General Qusan forgot all decorum:
“Good man Jonas! Have you any idea of the value of such a delicacy in our lands? Every year, divers have to venture further and further at sea to discover this rare shellfish!”
“Well, Naeem’s friends seem to find plenty of them! We are the only place serving them, although they are commonly found on the tables of our fishermen! They are a bit of an acquired taste in spite of their popularity!
”The least I can say is that I do not mind to eat mountains of them any time, when back home we would consider ourselves lucky to be served a single slice!”
Counselor Makan had to interrupt him:
“Qusan, if you do not cease your speech, we will never be given the opportunity to relish our hosts’ food! That is unless it is your wish to punish us for an unknown demeanor!”
Everybody laughed and began to eat in earnest. But before touching their food, Qusan and his retainers were seen putting their right hand under their jackets.
Was it a prayer of some kind? Gerhart wondered.
But the same hand quickly came out holding an elongated kind of pouch, from which they extracted exquisite chopsticks of lacquered wood. By now people were used to such utensils in Alymndes, but the dexterity shown by the Narosan Lords in their handling was simply awesome. The long sticks seemed like an extension of their fingers, taking slices one by one to bring them to their mouths where they were firmly held to allow their owners to nibble at the food.
“I had better prepare a second serving of clams at the pace you are eating your food!” chortled Ekan who started towards the kitchen.
“Good man Jonas, please wait!” Qusan called.
Ekan raised a querying eyebrow, but patiently waited as the General asked something to the Lord of the House of Tsutan in quick words of their own tongue. The ever smiling Wan-Si, jumped off his bench and virtually ran out of the tavern.
While he was away, everyone returned their attention to the feast, although one could not fail to notice that the highest Commander in Narosan took on his own responsibility to keep the plate of the departed retainer filled with his share of abalone slices. No wonder Lord Qusan commanded such respectful obedience from his followers.
Lord Wan-Si came back soon enough, carrying a stoppered kind of earthenware bottle he immediately handed over to the General.
The latter stood up and asked Ekan:
“Good man Jonas, would you be kind enough to show me to your kitchen?”
The Black Dragon smiled:
“If you would care to follow me, General?”
Naeem was in the kitchen when he saw the two of them enter. He made to leave, but the Narosan Lord called him:
“Good man Naeem, could you please stay with us? It would be a great pleasure to talk matters of common interest with you!”
The request surprised Ekan’s friend, but he did not comment. If Jonas had let him into their sanctuary, there should be a good enough reason.
General Qusan addressed both of them:
“I could not help notice that your way of cooking shellfish was almost identical to that in our lands. Only the ingredients are very slightly different.”
He opened the bottle he held, picked up a goblet on one table and poured in a generous measure of a transparent liquid.
“This is rice wine. Would you mind sampling it first?” he commented, presenting the cup to Ekan who first sniffed, then took a sip. The Black Dragon turned it inside his mouth appreciatively for a while and then gulped it down. He handed the goblet to Naeem who sampled the liqueur in the same manner before venturing:
“Very tasty, indeed. A bit stronger than our wine, but a more delicate flavor. I actually like it. How about you, Jonas?”
Ekan grinned:
“I have a hunch it will taste even better after General Qusan has unveiled his recipe for our benefit!”
The staff inside the kitchen was too busy to catch the words, but they nonetheless wondered what an honored guest from a fabled land was doing in their work place.
“Shall I demonstrate first? If you like it, then you can cook a big serving as it is quick and easy to prepare!”
Naeem brought a wooden box filled with clams lying on a bed of fresh seaweed. Lord Qusan’s lifted eyebrows told him the General was impressed by the care taken in the handling of the shellfish.
Qusan grabbed a clean bowl from a nearby shelf and scooped a handful of clams into it and began to stir them around vigorously with his hand.
“If you make them dance this way long enough,” he explained, “the flesh inside the shells will detach very easily while cooking!”
After a while he asked for a pan and a lid.
He put the pan onto the fire and threw the shellfish in it and poured rice wine onto them before putting the lid over the pan.
“If I may have some chopped thin leeks, we shall add them when we uncover the lid and serve them at once!”
The cooking took only a minute, as the fire was very hot. He moved the pan away, took the lid off and added the herbs. Meanwhile, Naeem had brought some small bowls in which they served the shellfish for the three of them and Grazel, the matron of the place, who had just joined them out of curiosity. She certainly knew when a good morsel was about to come out of the two chefs’ experiments, and would not have missed it for all the gold in the world.
She closed her eyes as she masticated the shellfish. She ate them all and drank the broth. Lifting her eyes from the bowl, she met the laughing faces of the men who had observed her while eating from their own bowls.
“What do you think, Grazel?” Ekan asked.
“Forgive me for saying so, but you had better run and grab all the rice wine you can put your hands on! I can foresee a revolution in Dunlago’s cooking!”
The three men chuckled in agreement.
“Which brings me back to my idea!” Qusan began. “I know personally the Narosan merchant who brought this rice wine. I could get the bottle so fast as he is staying near that covered market your King has so gracefully provided. I shall talk to him and have him keep all he has left for your sole benefit! Instead of paying him in gold, I can see and even better barter that may profit us all. We have come here for trade after all, have we not?”
“What do you have in mind we can trade for your rice wine?” Naeem asked.
“Well, it is good you are the one who asked because you will be the key! We shall leave in less than a week now. Therefore, how many sea ears, or abalones as you call them, can you get your hands on?”
“If I ask everybody around, quite a few in fact, probably enough to fill two barrels. But how can you manage to preserve them?”
“Two barrels!” Qusan exclaimed. He could barely contain his excitement. “Provide me with one barrel of salt and I shall show you how to preserve them! Once the shells and the innards are disposed of, two barrels would just be enough!”
He thought for a while.
“The only problem is how can I pay for them?”
Naeem laughed:
“That should not be any trouble! I have enough money stashed to pay for them in advance! Why do we not form a partnership with your rice wine merchant? Tell him you are our sole agent. In this way, we can keep the trade benefits within a very small circle!”
Lord Qusan held his hand forward.
“Deal!”
Naeem took it with enthusiasm.
“Deal!”
“Now, gentlemen,! Grazel interrupted, “General Qusan had better go back to the lounge, or I can imagine some very pointed questions directed at him! As for you Jonas and Naeem, you ought to start cooking if you do not want our customers raising hell!”
The matron was crafty enough to realize this small chat augured even better for future trade relations with those outlandish guests. But it was a woman’s lot to keep a lid on men’s ardor, was it not? She had the satisfaction to see her opinion clearly vindicated by the sheepish smile on the General’s face. The man went as far as granting her with a slight bow before moving towards the door.
“We certainly could do with such women back home!” a voice rang inside Ekan’s head.
“Hsu Yia!” Ekan could not hide his pleasure, even in mindspeech, upon hearing the Eastern Dragon’s words. “I doubt it would be wise to bring changes to your society so abruptly! After all, a woman is already ruling it, are you not?!”
Later in the night, everyone in the Blue Mermaid was enjoying drinks after their evening meal, when a hush came from the general direction of the verandah. It was enough to alert the senses of King Gerhart, considering that nights in Dunlago tended to become fairly noisy affairs.
Soon the thumps of two pairs of heavy boots could be heard through the increasing murmurs of the many patrons still crowding the establishment.
Gerhart recognized the sound and he did not like it.
A fully armed Walkyrie emerged from the main room in plain view of the guests sitting at the table of the Beaulieu sovereign.
She was followed by the equally ominous figure of a Grey Legionary of the Races of the Desert and the Sea.
The Narosan Lords gaped at the imposing woman warrior with the flame red hair and rose tattoos on her scarred arm. Only a Kar-Ti fighter could have incurred the same reaction. They already knew of the Walkyries, but this particular specimen had nothing remotely gentle about her.
The two soldiers stopped a couple of paces away from the table.
The lady, if she could be called as such, addressed her liege:
“Your Majesty! Greetings! I have brought an urgent matter for your concern!”
“Lieutenant Birghit, at ease! You are in friendly company here! I believe you are coming straight from Valmoray. Only a matter of common interest to the whole of Alymndes could have made you travel all the way to Dunlago! What is it, then?”
The Walkyrie did not reply, but turned to the big dark soldier behind her.
The man handed her a small package wrapped in plain grey cloth.
She presented it in turn to her sovereign.
The grim face of the woman warned Gerhart that the matter might prove nastier than he had expected.
He took the bundle, and putting it in front of him on the table, he unfolded the cover.
He gasped in utter disgust.
His hands had revealed a black square of cloth embroidered with a golden hammer.
Except for the misunderstanding Lords of Narosan, the whole table went deadly silent.
He closed the folds of the wrap over the hated mark of the Hammer of Fate and handed it back to the Walkyrie.
“I presume the two of you have just disembarked. Sit down with us. You will tell us what happened in Valmoray while you eat and drink. The more who hear your story, the better!”
Ekan had just appeared from the kitchen.
Gerhart turned to him:
“Ah, good man Jonas! Be kind enough to bring solid fare and good ale for our two messengers here!”
“At once, Your Majesty!” The Black dragon replied without hesitation.
Before he turned back, his eyes locked on Gardan’s. He nodded to the former convict who replied in the same manner. Master Turgas behind the counter purposefully ignored the exchange. Chief Constable Petren, on the other hand, moved sideways along his bench and signed the two soldiers to sit by him.
As soon as she had settled, Birghit began to relate the recent events in Valmoray to an attentive audience.
Gerhart asked at the end of her story:
“Are you sure there were only three of those fanatics?”
“I am pretty certain as we have combed the whole place. I believe they must have been planted there a long time ago. If I remember well, communication is not their forte. News of recent events just had not reached them!”
“I see. What about the Valmoray family? Are you telling me there is not a single kin left alive?”
“I’m afraid so. If I may presume, either you declare the title of the baronage void, or you create a new one!”
“What would be your advice?”
“People in Valmoray have lived with a Baron at their head for so long that direct royal rule coming close behind the murder of a whole noble family might not be taken favorably in some quarters. Why don’t you name a trusted aide as the new baron like you did in the former Dukedom of Montjoie?”
Gerhart pondered for a minute.
“You have a good point here. The Valmoray case is not as clear-cut as was our problem down in Montjoie. But I think I happen to have the right man for the situation. We shall hone all the finer points during our trip to Valmoray!”
“When do you plan to leave?”
“The day after tomorrow. A day should suffice to explain our situation to our hosts and to offer our farewells to Empress Hsu Yia!”
The Lords of Narosan were clearly impressed by the informality of the exchanges between one of the most powerful rulers in the land and mere soldiers. To their credit, they could not have known that the two soldiers had shared a common fate with their kings at the Battle of the Wall. In the case of Birghit, it was not one but two battles she had participated in, with Gerhart‘s company.
At least they had gained an inkling of the troubles besetting Alymndes, and Beaulieu in particular, in spite of the great conflicts and victories they had heard of. It was a sobering thought to realize that your world was not the only one in impending danger.
The following morning, Shahzad felt a chill in his whole body in spite of the warmth of the day when he espied the big figure of Gardan behind an outlandish Walkyrie woman in full armor entering his spice shop. His worry turned to incomprehension when he discovered Ekan following them inside his small store, which suddenly became very crowded.
His granddaughter Nicola chose the very moment to appear behind him. He felt her hand convulsively holding his shoulder.
The female soldier bowed to him. Dunlago knew of Walkyries thanks to Frenegond who had lived in their city before losing her life at the battle of Villefranche, a death still mourned by the citizens of the Capital. But he did not know what to do of an evidently highly-ranked officer of King Gerhart’s Royal Guards.
Birghit did not let him wonder further:
“Greetings! I am lieutenant Birghit of the Royal Guards of Beaulieu, and I presume I have the honor of meeting good man Shahzad, eminent member of the Guild of Merchants! I have come to settle a matter of importance between you and a soldier of my company. Good man Jonas has granted us his company to vouch for our honest intentions. Would you be as kind as to listen to us?”
Shahzad looked at his friend standing behind the two soldiers. Ekan encouragingly smiled.
The spice merchant was not a grudging man at heart in spite of the very rough treatment administered by the former convict’s henchmen that left him with a broken nose and a few cracked ribs the last time they had met. He also happened to enjoy the reputation of a pleasant man of welcoming manners.
He pointed to the wicker table and chairs inside a large alcove that served as a guest room.
“Shall we make ourselves comfortable first?” he invited them before turning to his granddaughter:
“Nicola, would you be kind enough to prepare coffee for all of us?”
The young woman hesitated:
“But, grandfather, …”
“Nicola, when I said “for all of us”, it also meant “for you”, too. Therefore, would you please make some coffee for our guests and ourselves?” Shahzad gently but firmly ordered.
Nicola went to the back of the shop without a word.
Any Dunlago shop worth of its name always had some hot water handy to brew coffee whenever a customer of note or friend visited the place. Shahzad’s granddaughter was back within a short moment holding a large tray with five cups and a large pot of coffee. She poured the black hot liquid in each small silver goblet and served everyone and herself before she sat down.
The tradition requested each person to enjoy at least one sip before any conversation could commence.
Gardan put his cup down first.
“Shahzad, I shall not insult you by begging for your forgiveness for my past deeds.” He deliberately began. “I shall never be able to find the words to atone for my crimes and do not deserve your consideration, but as a token of my sincerity, it is my wish to propose to you a bargain.”
He took a purse from under his tunic and put it on the table before pushing it in front of the merchant. For the noise it had made, it obviously contained money, and probably a fair amount of it.
The spice seller made to push it back when Gardan intervened.
“Please Shahzad, wait until I have finished before you decide. I have not come to offer you reparation money and add insult to your injuries. The money inside this purse represents most of the wages I have earned as a soldier in the Beaulieu Royal Army. We are very well paid indeed, but frankly speaking, in spite of my past greed, all that silver and gold does not serve me well where I live now. This money shall be in your keeping as my share of a business partnership between you and me.”
His hand went to a satchel he had been carrying along. He opened it and placed its contents onto the table. They were small pouches. Their weight seemed light in spite of their bulging at the seams. Gardan had excused himself when Birghit went to give her last orders before boarding Captain Aamir’s Seafangs. He had confided her with his proposal during their voyage. She had warmly approved.
“Please open them!” He asked.
Shahzad took the first pouch and untied the laces. He looked inside. An unusual fragrance floated up to his nose. It contained an herb unknown to him. His curiosity taking over his initial reluctance, he opened the small bags one by one and inspected their contents. They were all filled with different spices new to him.
The former convict commented:
“These are herbs and spices from the lands south of Dunlago. There are more of them. Good man Jonas has brought some back here for his own garden at the Blue Mermaid. But even he shall not have the time and access I can benefit from during our constant moves. What I wish to submit to your judgment is the following: I can keep on sending you batches of those spices by Royal Mail which will ensure a fast and secure transport. I shall send enough to make a good trade of it, but not so much as to glut the market. The merchandise will reach you sealed for you only to open as I will have satisfied all the transport and delivery costs as well as all the taxes and fees. You shall be remitted with a sealed bill stating all expenditures. I entirely leave it to you as to how and to whom to sell our goods. Keep my share on your account books. If I have a sudden need for money, I shall send you such a request by sealed letter. The Royal Mails of Beaulieu and Dunlago are working in partnership and also operate such transactions. It is as well because I should not come back ever in all probability, barring a major upheaval. If I survive into old age, I should own enough money by then to retire and gently disappear out of view. What do you say?”
Shahzad leveled his eyes on the battered face of Gardan. A yellow tattoo on the former convict’s forehead displayed for all to see what he had been in a former life. Where did that man acquire such courage and humility?
Nicola could not hold a gasp of surprise when she saw her grandfather stretch his hand forward. Gardan took it in his.
“Thank you, Shahzad! I truly wish you could know how much it means to me!”
Nothing else needed to be said. The two soldiers rose from their seats and saluted.
They were about to turn and walk to the entrance, when Birghit stopped in her tracks to address the merchant. Her forbidding face was enlightened by a rare smile.
“Guildsman Shahzad, you have my personal thanks! Incidentally, Gardan omitted to mention that he put all his retirement and pension money for his service to the Grey Legion in your name and Nicola’s in case he suffered an untimely demise!”
The soldier gasped in embarrassment.
“Birghit! I never told you! How did you know?”
“I’m your Lieutenant, aren’t I? Now, soldier, let’s move out!” She concluded, pushing Gardan ahead.
Shahzad watched their exit in the company of Ekan.
“Fate is having a laugh at us, isn’t it? You arrested the man, the Judge saved him from the hart and had him sent to forced labor!” The merchant remarked with a shake of his head. “And now he comes back a new man who might command respect one day for all I know!”
“He did fare through a lot since the Judge sent him away. For all the hate I felt for him before, I do believe he deserves a second chance!”
“What has become of all the other Dunlago convicts?”
“They all joined the Grey Legion. That is, the ones who survived the battle of the Wall!”
“How bad was that war?”
“Very bad. Worse even than the Battle of Villefranche. And that particular fight was awful enough. I doubt that the survivors of the Wall will ever feel the compulsion to describe in full what they witnessed!”
“So the tales are true! Our Kings and even a Queen did fight there to repulse an untold danger menacing us all!”
“Yes, they did. And Gardan and his fellow soldiers did, too!”
Shahzad seemed lost in his thoughts for an instant.
A grin came on his face.
“The other tales were true after all! Lieutenant Birghit is indeed the woman who gave our fallen men a chance to redeem themselves! And to think that a hero of the Wall has just graced my humble shop with her presence! Our world is changing fast, isn’t it?”
Ekan smiled his approval.
A wondering look appeared on the Merchant’s mien.
“Tell me, Jonas: I sense something between those two. Am I right?”
The Black Dragon laughed.
“Shahzad, you are a very wise man! But even a wise man sometimes has to keep his counsel!”
The merchant had the sense to chortle in mild confusion. He turned to his granddaughter.
“Well, Nicola, it is about time that you assumed a greater responsibility in our business! To start with, you will be in charge of the accounts of that particular partnership!” he said, handing her Gardan’s purse that he had not even opened.
The young woman took it without a word and walked to the back of the shop. Nicola would certainly need more time than her grandfather to forgive, and more to forget the past deeds of the reformed felon.
—————————————-
The only street in Trade Fair City was almost deserted at this advanced hour of the night. Most Tribesmen and Tribeswomen had retired to share evening meal before preparing for their sleep, but more than a few would sit around the ambers of their fires for long talks and tales.
It was Umatar’s favorite time to wander through the town on foot either alone or in the company of Boy. The lad was growing quickly, and although he had barely reached ten Springs, he was already standing a head above youngsters of the same age and promised to become a warrior of great stature some day. The Golden Dragon had never found about his parents who had been killed in one of those feuds or outright banditry she had put a clamp on. Boy had never opened his mind to reveal his life before she discovered him inside the mesa called the Mount of All Gods. The latter had been renamed as the House of All Tribes in an effort to suppress the Shamen’s powers and nefarious influence on the superstitious denizens of the Unending plains.
Those Shamen had finally been brought to heel, but some, to her consternation, had switched to adoring her and gone as far as raising altars in her name. She had come to understand that humans were in constant need of supernatural explanations or reasons for events they could not understand or control.
As for herself, she believed in magic, and magic only. And so did all her siblings, and Hsu Yia. On the other hand she could admit that dragons might be considered as the agents of a superior being who might have created the world. But their Father’s teachings tended to paint another picture. One could moreover argue that not all dragons were good and beneficial as Sacrach had amply demonstrated, and that consequently a constant battle against evil was a clear sign of the existence of what humans called gods or deities.
Apparently their mother Zamrel had found herself pitted from the very beginning against malevolent forces personified by the Dark Dragon that brutalized the South and was bent on the total domination of their world. The White Dragon had never deemed necessary to dwell on her past while Glamrun, their adoptive father, had only hinted in his own teachings to the knowledge to succor the creatures living in their world. If gods there be, then it could only be her parents, and she was certainly comfortable with the notion. She understood and accepted their mission to protect Alymndes and accordingly the South and Narosan and whatever other inhabited land they might discover from the evil of Sacrach. She abhorred the mere idea of total dominion and enslavement by a single entity. She had already promised herself retribution for all the despicable acts committed by the Inquisitors and Commanders in the South. What she had witnessed in William’s mind was enough to send her berserk over the Fire Mountains, and she would have done it had it not been for the restraint of her brothers and sister.
As dragons, they were practically invulnerable. Only Scarach or a catastrophe of unseen consequences could kill them. Unfortunately that did not spare them from the dilemmas and cares of the creatures they had chosen to personify. Amrel had already immensely suffered from the loss of Geoffroy d’Arcourt murdered by the Dark dragon at the Battle of the Wall. Dargelblad had steadfastly rejected Ellana’s love until it had become impractical for him to ignore. Even so, the Silver dragon had barely maintained an uneasy balance with the Queen of the Elves, and only her long life eased the pain of his long absences. So far Numnir, as a Dwarf, had little to worry about the eventuality of such a similar affection, and Ekan seemed to develop a healthy love for another Dragon. On the other hand, the responsibility he was assuming for his adoptive daughter Mareeva had only been made easier thanks to the help of the Blue dragon, his sister.
Hsu Yia, in spite of her long life, had apparently been forced to bear a terrible loneliness until they had discovered her. And now that she had resolved herself to come out of her reserve and take an active part in the life of her charges, what cares and grief were in store for her?
As for Umatar, had she been right to take William as her lover and what would become of Boy under her direction? Had she been right to get herself so involved even considering that her father had ordered her to do so? Was it right for her to become almost a living god among the Tribespeople?
But the immediate task at hand was Sacrach himself. Soon or late he would come out of his slumber he had vanished in. Would they prove strong enough to defeat him the next time they shall confront him? And what should they do with the South?
The starry sky suddenly appeared so inviting. Would it not better to spend one’s life soaring over the world and forget its people and worries?
With a very human sigh, she resigned herself to walk back to her tent where boy waited for her…
——————-
“Ekan, can you hear me?” a voice gently called in the Black Dragon’s mind.
“Hsu Yia?”
“Who else would you think?” The Eastern Dragon chortled.
“Apologies! Sometimes I tend to forget my other self. This human body of mine provides me with some pleasures such as sound sleep, even if my Dragon senses are awake!”
“I understand. I would not swap mine for that of any other creature but my true self! Even so, for all its magic, a Dragon is quite limited when it comes to benefit from the pleasures of our short-lived human friends.”
“Pity they are also assailed by so confusing feelings and thoughts!”
Hsu Yia chuckled:
“The world is not perfect, is it? Otherwise we would lose our reason to be!”
Ekan perceived he had to take the lead. Hsu Yia had not awakened him to discuss human philosophy.
“Hsu Yia, do you want to meet me in person? I mean, physically?”
“Can you spare some time for me away from little Mareeva?”
Ekan laughed.
“Of course, I can! She has Matthieu to look after her. They share the same room. Moreover, they can hear each other wherever and whenever they want without anyone being the wiser!
“Can they?”
“Yes. Actually, their mindspeech was our gift!”
“Do you intend to bless them with a Dragon’s senses?”
“No, we do not. It is best for them to live a normal human life. There are ethical limits to what kind of powers we can give them, in spite of great love. Human perceptions are too fraught with peril to be taken lightly. You already know that Amrel is barely recovering from the loss of Geoffroy!”
“Do you believe we ought to limit our destiny to our kin, then?”
“Forbid the thought! Sharing human feelings is a price we have to accept and pay, unless we wish to end up like the horror Sacrach has become!”
Hsu Yia, in typical Dragon fashion, abruptly went back to her initial purpose.
“What place do you have in mind for our meeting?”
Ekan did not require to think long.
“We could go to the place of our birth, in the Valley of the Blue River. The weather is always fine there, and no human feet have ever trampled its soil!”
“Show it to me!”
The Black Dragon sent her a carefully thought picture of a large river flowing along a wide valley encased between two impossibly high cliffs with snow on their tops.
“Stay closely linked with my mind as it is night, although your dragon eyesight should recognize the place at once! We are going to translocate to the sky above the Valley and then choose a spot of our liking!”
A heartbeat later, they were hovering in the dark starry sky over the silver flow of the river reflecting the light of the moon. They found a wide expanse of grass along one of its banks and landed together on the soft earth.
The two dragons lay immobile on the grass. Only their enormous luminous eyes betrayed their full alertness.
The noises of the night that had abated upon their arrival gradually resumed. They could see the shapes of small and bigger animals moving to the river to quench their thirst. Fireflies were flitting along the banks in surreal light patterns between the tall reeds.
“It is beautiful!” Hsu Yia’s voice sang inside Ekan’s head.
“Is it not? I would have liked to take you to the ledge where the five of us used to sleep on, but your long body just would not fit in!”
“Or shall we say that for once, you might find yourself overcrowded?” The Eastern Dragon replied with a chuckle.
Ekan changed to his human form as an answer to her tease.
Hsu Yia immediately took the challenge and appeared at his side in the shape of the beautiful Empress of Narosan.
She tentatively ran a finger on the bare skin of his chest.
“You certainly feel larger in your present state!”
“Would you like me to take a body more to your liking?” He laughed.
“Forbid the thought! Lest you wish to deprive me of my pleasure!” She softly retorted, bringing her face to his.
Hours later, the first rays of the sun over the horizon found them lying on the grass in each other’s arms. Ekan gently nudged Hsu Yia who was dozing, her head resting in the hole of his shoulder.
“Hsu Yia! Dragons can take their pleasure when they wish, but humans have some obligations!” He tenderly chided her.
She lazily stretched her limbs as she slowly opened her eyes.
“I’m hungry. I feel like turning back to my self!”
“I doubt this would be a good idea. Knowing a dragon’s appetite and love for hunting, you shall never make it back in time!
“Are we not serious today! Do you not ever feel for a little irresponsible frivolity sometimes?”
He playfully slapped her buttocks.
“Next time, why don’t you call me earlier? I shall give you your fill of indulgence, then!”
She made for a grab of his ear when he disappeared into thin air.
“Do not forget we meet at the farewell party inside the Blue Mermaid this evening!” His laughing voice reminded her inside her head. “Can you find your way back, or do you plan to fly all the way down to Dunlago?”
“As if I needed you as my chaperone!” She laughed back.
Ekan broke contact.
Hsu Yia sat up.
She took time to admire the scenery around her. Such pristine beauty, she marveled. Never in teeming Narosan had she truly enjoyed the pleasure to relish utter solitude in the midst of such a grandiose landscape. The valley of the Blue River ought to be called the Valley of the Dragons, she pondered. Here lay their true treasure, if there was one.
“Would you like me to show you more of it?” a feminine voice spoke in her mind.
“Amrel! Where are you?”
“Why don’t you look up? Mind you, I would have expected you to have detected my coming! Or may I presume that Ekan has dimmed your wits?” The Blue Dragon teased.
A highly amused Hsu Yia looked up.
A blue Dragon was effectively hovering high in the sky. So high that it appeared as a tiny speck edged by thin white clouds floating in the morning firmament.
“Why don’t you come down first?” she appealed.
“Certainly not!” Amrel exclaimed in merriment. “Judging from the state you are presently in, I might be tempted to take over where Ekan has left you!”
The Eastern Dragon immediately materialized beside the Blue dragon.
“I guess you are right. But I might hold you to your word in the near future!”
“Be always my guest, lovely Hsu Yia!” Amrel laughed in response.
The same morning, one hour before tide would allow the Seafangs to loose its ropes, Captain Aamir witnessed an impressive procession walking toward his vessel. Some of its members he already knew: Lieutenant Birghit, Legionary Gardan, King Gerhart and his beautiful wife Queen Marghrete. Others he would make acquaintance with during the following week that would take his ship to reach Valmoray: Nepomucene de Beauvoir, Judge Arnaud de Betancourt whom Judge Marsalis of Dunlago accompanied for a last farewell, Lieutenant Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon, presently the highest ranked officer of the Royal Guards and his outlandish companion, female Dwarf Firebrand. They were followed by a small retinue and a passable amount of baggage.
King Gerhart had said his farewells to Empress Hsu Yia as soon as manners had allowed. He had written a letter to each sovereign of Alymndes, expounding the reasons for his sudden departure. By now they all knew each other well enough to bypass unnecessary niceties. He would send another letter through the Embassies later to inform them of the results of his visit to Valmoray.
The ruler of Beaulieu walked up the gangplank alone while his followers shared a last word with well-wishers who had gathered on the wharf.
As he reached the rail, he saluted the Dunlago Captain with his right hand upon his heart:
“Captain Aamir, I am Gerhart de Beaucastel and wish to offer you my greetings and personal thanks for your great service!”
An impressed Aamir saluted back in similar fashion. No wonder he had heard so many tales about this stalwart king who fought like any other soldier to defend his land, shared the same food and drink, and still had the modesty to omit his rank and title when saluting a mere captain of Dunlago.
“Your Majesty, greetings! It is a pleasure indeed to put my humble vessel in your employment!” he replied, his white teeth grinning across his dark face.
Gerhart continued in a lower voice:
“Captain Aamir, may we talk in private?”
The Dunlago Captain held his hand in the general direction of the stern:
“If you would like to follow me to my cabin. But it might prove slightly confined for Your Majesty’s comfort!”
“Captain Aamir, for all my titles, I am a soldier, and I do not expect any privileges aboard a ship of Dunlago!”
Aamir led Gerhart to his cabin without further ado. They were soon sitting at a small table secured to the floor.
Gerhart took a pouch and a sealed roll of parchment from under his doublet.
“Captain Aamir, these are your wages and compensations for transporting us and missing on trade opportunities in the process! He said, pushing the purse on the table.
Captain Aamir loosened the laces and took a look inside.
He pushed the pouch back.
“Your Majesty! I do not need to count this money, as I already know it is far too much, even for lending my ship to your sole service!
“Captain Aamir, I praise your honesty, but this money is paid out the coffers of the Realm of Beaulieu and has been deemed necessary and fair payment on Lieutenant Birghit’s advice! I would have offered more but for my personal secretary’s protest!”
“Your secretary is a wise man. Overgenerous payments could make people greedy. There is only so much money as you can have and use!”
“In this case, shall we agree this is an advance payment for future services as well? Captain Aamir, I know you have fought at Villefranche. You should be cognizant with the fact that Dunlago ships have the free entrance of that particular harbor for the next two years.” Gerhart placed the rolled parchment in front of the sailor. “This document here bears my seal and that of Arnaud de Betancourt, Judge and Doyen of the House of Representatives of the Realm of Beaulieu. It states that the Seafangs has free access to the whole coast of Beaulieu free of taxes for the next two years whether on a Crown mission or not. This is nothing less than a contract with the Realm, which allows you to conduct your business as you see fit. What do you say?”
King Gerhart’s generosity was widely known in Dunlago, but such an agreement amounted to the offer of a very rich life indeed.
An embarrassed captain Aamir smiled:
“Your Majesty, this is truly a very generous offer, and I would be remiss to my people to ignore it! I shall gratefully accept your wages and contract, then!”
“Let us shake hands on that, Captain Aamir!” A happy Gerhart said, extending his hand. He would have to announce the deal to his friend King Marcus as he intended to open a regular naval route for the Royal Mail. Captain Aamir’s Seafangs would never navigate empty. Now that particular concern had been taken care of, he could concentrate on the bigger task ahead of them.
—————————————-
Captains Adir, Kamran and Petracan were looking at the graphs and figures printed on that thin material the Narosan shipwrights called paper. They would start work as soon as the Empress’ ships left anchor on their return voyage.
The three ships they were planning to build did not need to be as large as those of the Imperial Fleet, but they still would be dwarfing Dunlago’s biggest vessels.
They would first have to dig three parallel dry docks north of the city, complete with dock gates, caissons and deep enough to later allow the seawater to fill the docks till the ships could float on their own and go to sea.
The ship structure was thoroughly different in concept and materials right from the hull frames to the sails. A lot of wood and more metal than they would have thought would be needed.
The three Dunlago Captains had nonetheless come up with the original idea of recruiting experienced sailors for the building of those three ships. They would work in teams supplemented by craftsmen. That way, they would not have to worry about any maintenance and repairs on the open sea. The Narosan shipwrights had warmly agreed. What Adir and his friends did not know yet was that the craftsmen from the East, not only built and sailed ships, but also defended them. They in turn had heard of the awesome fighting abilities their burly Dunlago friends, and felt particularly comfortable with the notion that they shared a very similar philosophy.
The shipwrights reckoned that with the inborn ability and sheer manpower of the Races of the Desert and the Sea, they would set sail within half a year. By then, their new friends ought to be capable of building more ships without their supervision.
Marcus and Gerhart had agreed they ought to supply Dunlago with at least six ships before they could turn to building a similar fleet near Villefranche. If everything proceeded according to plans, they would benefit from constant trade with Narosan within the next two years.
The atmosphere reigning inside the Blue Mermaid was a singular blend of informality, quiet revelry and conscious lack of decorum. Some guests had to pinch themselves to believe what their eyes witnessed. Even in a vast land where shared hardships had nurtured a true spirit of tolerant understanding in a relatively brief span of time, one could have been forgiven for thinking himself or herself lost in the middle of a gathering straight out of a dream. For once, the whole tavern had been closed to casual customers to permit in guests with an occupation linking them to trade and crafts.
Ekan had struck on the idea of dispensing with most of the chairs and tables, and instead arranging long tables laden with food and drinks where people could freely serve themselves and return to one of the various groups that kept reforming themselves depending on the topic of conversation and the personal interests of its members.
Mumtaz had arrived at the kitchen in the morning with a few of his own cooks to lend a welcome hand to the preparation of an event which would stay in the annals of Dunlago for a long time to come.
In addition to the vast amounts of cold meats and pies, cheeses, some coming as far as the Steppes and South Beaulieu, and fresh, dried and pickled fruit and vegetables already set on tables, the kitchen was ensuring a constant supply of hot food that soon disappeared to be replaced by busy servants.
To facilitate access, drinks had been lined along the wall where small barrels were filled with four kinds of wine from the vineyards of Villefranche. Large tuns of red ale and stout had been broached beside a barrel of Narosan rice wine and another smaller one containing “burnt spirits”, a vastly stronger beverage that took the fancy of the Dwarves after General Qusan had opened it himself. The two parties were not surprised to find out that the process of its making was very similar to the Dwarves’ spirits extracted from mushrooms they cultivated underground before distilling them into the fiery potion that only the denizens of the Iron Crags could safely imbibe.
Domestics carried trays of clean cups and goblets made of Dwarven glass or Elven wood around and collected used ones for immediate cleaning.
Besides the wines, ladies were sampling a softer drink, a novelty just brought from the orchards of Beaulieu called cider, or apple beer as gentlemen derisively named it. But the Black Dragon had thought the occasion ideal to introduce the beverage as he was well aware that ladies had different requirements from men when it came to indulging into the pastime common to all Races in Alymndes.
In one corner of the main room, a small group of local musicians provided a gentle musical atmosphere to the sounds of harps, lutes, fifes and hand-held drums.
Matthieu and Mareeva had hoped to enjoy all the scrumptious treats that kept pouring out of the kitchen, but they were forced to revise their schemes to their immense chagrin when Amrel decreed that they would help with the serving of guests. After all, they were page and maid-in-waiting, and the Blue Dragon had pointed out this would make for instructive education. One day they would expect people to serve them. Therefore an insight in the feelings of a retainer would certainly help them become respected adults on that same day. That particular day seemed far away to the two youngsters, but they acquitted themselves with their duty well enough. Luckily for them, neither Gratien nor Firebrand were around to pile even more work onto them.
-“I wonder if life was not better down in Beaucastel!” Matthieu’s voice resonated inside Mareeva’s head.
-“I don’t know. You might be right, though. At least there are many places to hide around the castle!” His friend ruefully admitted.
-“How many times did I tell you to use your mindspeech sparingly and only in circumstances of dire need?” The Blue Dragon sternly reminded them inside their minds. “As for Beaucastel, know that we are going back there as soon as Hsu Yia has departed! Now stop your mooning around and go on with your work!”
Matthieu rolled his eyes. Their days of childish insouciance were truly gone. He and Mareeva were starting their education in earnest, it seemed.
Had they been older, they would have surely enjoyed such an informal party. All guests, high or humble, had been discreetly requested to dispense with their finery or any conspicuous sign of status and authority before joining the gathering, which suited most guests fine, heads of state in particular.
Umatar was engaged in an animated conversation with Hsu Yia and a Tribeswoman she had brought along all the way from trade City, south of the Steppes. The Golden Dragon had picked up the young woman one day she walked along the main thoroughfare of the town lined with tents where the denizens of the Unending Plains came to barter their wares. Although a female peddler was a common sight in the market, She-Who-Wanders, as she introduced herself, stood out because she wore the same goods that she traded in, namely the finest suede and skins that Umatar had ever had the chance to come upon. She had immediately proposed the very independent-minded Tribeswoman to accompany her on her trip to Dunlago. She-Who-Wanders at once proved the meaning of her name by enthusiastically agreeing. She had arrived to the harbor city along Umatar’s train, followed by three mules burdened with the wares her tribe had grown famous for.
Hsu Yia could not keep her hands off the soft material that she had donned at the gathering inside the Blue Mermaid. She had refrained from wearing anything other than plain skins. But even so, the sheer quality and simple elegance of the supple fabric enraptured the Dragon from the East.
-“She-Who-Wanders, you must come with us to Narosan! I am not asking you to reveal the secrets of your Tribe to our people, but anyone who as so much touch that suede will beg you to barter it for anything you might take your fancy to!” Hsu Yia almost implored.
Umatar laughed at the Dragon’s wonder.
-“She-Who-Wanders will actually board your ship in the company of our three other sailing Tribesmen as they will represent the Free tribes of the Steppes!”
-“Is that true?” Hsu Yia feigned to be gladly surprised. In fact, the Dragons had already discussed and agreed on who would join them back to Narosan.
-“What would you wish to barter your suede and skins for?”
The Tribeswoman did not answer at once, but stared at the combs that held Hsu Yia’s long hair in place.
-“Yes?” The Dragon of the East encouraged her.
-“May I ask Your Highness to show me the combs she keeps in her hair?”
-“She-Who-Wanders, my name is Hsu Yia, and I shall be very happy to let you see and touch anything I wear that pleases you!” She genially replied, taking one comb from her hair before handing it to the Tribeswoman.
She-Who-Wanders turned it inside her hands, marveling. Its color was golden and a small dragon was seen undulating above the teeth, with small pieces of mother-of-pearl inlaid all along its rims.
-“What is it made of?”
-“Sea turtle shell.”
-“It is as strong as bone or horn, but so soft and smooth to the touch. I could exchange my skins for anything made of such material! I certainly would become a much sought after trader back in the Steppes! Such combs would make a grand wedding present. I am sure that even important Tribesmen would give a lot to possess such a little treasure!”
-“Well, the only difficulty I see would be an embarrassment of choice! Not only we make combs, but also pins, buttons, rings, and would you believe it, even armor! You should also have a look at our mother-of-pearl and jade crafts!”
She-Who-Wanders smiled at both Dragons.
-“Not meaning to patronize you, but I cannot wait to board your ship!”
She handed the comb back to Hsu Yia. But the Empress of Narosan closed her own hands around the hand holding the small masterpiece.
-“Please keep it as my personal welcome present! The small dragon you see on it has been designed for my sole use. Therefore, if anyone sees one in your possession, he or she will know you are my honored guest!”
The Tribeswoman flushed in confusion.
-“Your Hi…, Hsu Yia, How may I thank you?”
Hsu Yia’s smile illuminated her beautiful face:
-“Make good trade with my people, and you will have thanked me a thousand times!”
—–—————————-
The citizens of Valmoray who had assembled on the large square in front of their deceased Baron’s mansion tower certainly did not feel in a festive mood.
The Seafangs had reached the harbor the day before.
Although only Birghit and Gardan had disembarked, everyone by now knew that the ship had brought the flower of the Realm. Instead of preparing some sort of welcoming ceremony, all citizens of note had been told in no uncertain terms to assemble on the square the following afternoon by grim Royal Guards knocking at every house door and issuing the King’s orders in curt and cold voices, barely within civility. The inhabitants of Valmoray had already spent two harrowing weeks cleaning the dungeon, extracting the corpses of Rodolphe de Valmoray’s whole family and giving them the last rites before igniting the pyres on the wharf facing the sea.
What was about to befall them this time?
A long platform had been erected in front of the tower with four large chairs in its center. The crowd had already been facing the empty dais for more than a full hour, when they heard the clatter of many hooves coming from the harbor.
A short while later, an imposing mounted troop materialized around the Baronage building to stop a few paces from the square. Riders dismounted while soldiers of the Golden Dragon Squad and of the Grey Legion held their steeds.
The booming voice of a herald was heard over the growing silence of the crowd.
-“The King!”
Whereas a detailed recitation of Gerhart and his followers’ titles had been expected, the mere two words shouted over their heads filled the audience with more apprehension of their immediate future.
Had it not been for the grim faces, the pageantry displayed would have deserved the epithet of magnificent.
Gerhart stepped first onto the dais closely followed by Marghrete. The King carried a gold crown around his bare head. He wore the full armour of a Royal guard with a long sword in its scabbard hung to his belt. His surcoat bore the Arms of a verdant tree with fruit of gules on a field of argent.
Matghrete de Pontaven for once had donned her formal Walkyrie attire she had worn at the battle of Montjoie where she had fought alongside her husband. A delicate gold and silver coronet adorned her luxuriant raven hair, which had been braided on both sides of her haughty mien. She bore her arms in a lozenge as was proper for a noble spouse with Gergart’s Arms parted with those of Pontaven, an argent fortified bridge crossing a river of the same on a field of azure.
Gerhart waited for his wife and Judge Arnaud de Betancourt in his formal court robes to be seated before he took his place on his own chair, his sword laid across his lap.
Nepomucene de Beauvoir sat on his right. He sported his own Arms, a golden chevron over a field of azure over his full armor. Lieutenant Birghit with a plain grey surcoat over her breastplate and Lieutenant Maheut wearing a golden dragon on a field of argent stood by their Walkyrie Queen in the company of Hildegard, also in battle gear, and Alfred de Vigny whose short height and almost plain accouterment made him inconspicuous in such grand company. Lieutenant Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon, harboring an argent trefoil on an a field of gules, and He-Who-Stands-Upright stood tall on both sides of a forbidding Firebrand, her arms crossed over her chest and her face hidden behind her full steel mask.
In front of the dais stood a row of soldiers of the Golden dragon Squad with Maheut’s aides in their center.
Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux had decided to wear the same Arms as Maheut, signifying his true allegiance. She-Who-Walks-Alone on his left looked more impenetrable and dangerous then ever. In fact, no one showed as much as a hint of compassion or pity.
The citizens realized that not only they were witnessing for the first and probably the last time the largest array of heroes who fought at the Wall that would ever come to their town, but also that the men and women who had risked their lives for the salvation of their land held them in utter contempt for their despicable lack of concern for their neighbors. The Royal Guards had made it very plain for all to hear that Valmoray and its inhabitants were in for some dire changes. As for the soldiers of the Golden Dragon Squad and the Grey Legion, they did not even bother to acknowledge the mere existence of any citizen whose way they happened to cross.
Deciding that everyone should be ready, Gerhart signed to the herald to continue. The King would not grant the city and its dwellers a simple salutation of his own, furthermore humiliating the people under his cold eyes.
-“Judge Arnaud de Betancourt, Doyen of the Royal tribunal of Beaulieu!” The herald declaimed.
The venerable magistrate stood up, unrolling a parchment he had held on his lap all the time.
-“Men and women of Valmoray! I, hereby, in the name of King Gerhart of Beaucastel, ruler of the Realm of Beaulieu and as the representative of the Council, declare the following!”
The proclamation could have been disputed on the technicality that the Council had not read or agreed on it yet. But Arnaud had decreed that this was a clear case of extreme urgency, for which he assumed all responsibility and had taken on him to persuade the Council later back in Beaucastel, even if he had to apologize to every member in person for his apparent high-handedness.
-“For their total lack of concern and basic social sense of duty, which allowed murderers to take the life of Baron Rodolphe de Valmoray and his entire household in all impunity, the men and women of this town have been deemed unworthy of their title of citizens! Until the Crown judges that the populace has deserved the privileges of citizenship, the city and the whole Baronage will be placed under martial law! The title of Baron being vacant for lack of kin has been awarded to Nepomucene de Beauvoir who is to be called from now on Baron Nepomucene de Beauvoir-Valmoray and will assume the responsibility of governing the Baronage under the supervision of the Crown!”
King Gerhart, after a short deliberation with the Judge, had announced the decision to his faithful aide-de-camp aboard the Seafangs.
Nepomucene had vainly tried to protest. Gerhart had cut his objections short by declaring that he was the only man fit for the task of restoring the name of Valmoray. Alfred de Vigny was relieved to hear the King could not spare him when the Royal Aide stubbornly argued that he was more qualified. The man whom everybody now called the Crown Internal Affairs Chief already had enough on his hands with the organization of Montjoie and Montreduc still to be completed on top of his intelligence gathering responsibilities.
Gerhart had concluded the conversation by advising his Aide to alter his Arms as soon as the declaration would be made, and ordering him to occupy all his time during the following week on the ship with designing a government bill for his approval before they landed at Valmoray.
-“Militias and constabularies shall be placed under the direct supervision of Lieutenant Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon until eventually judged adequate.” The Judge continued. “The dungeon shall be completely dismantled and a plaque erected in its place to commemorate the sacrifice of Baron Rodolphe de Valmoray and his whole household! A baronage mansion shall be built in a different location under the direction of Firebrand, Special Envoy from King Drumbeat Hammerblow, Ruler of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, who will shortly be joined by engineers from our allies to equip the city with the same facilities as found in Beaucastel!”
The citizens of Valmoray found themselves wondering at the unexpected generosity of their King in spite of his obvious wrath.
Or was it a thinly veiled lesson in civic duty?
The Judge left them little time to ponder on the days to come:
-“From this day on, all petitions, claims or complaints by individuals or Guilds will have first to obtain the approval of Baron Nepomucene de Beauvoir-Valmoray before being processed. Martial law shall be lifted and civic freedom restored only after the Crown has been satisfied that the City of Valmoray and its inhabitants have proven the responsibility and altruism expected from all the citizens of the Realm!”
One unsavory case still had to be dealt with.
-“As pertains to the fate of the three murderers who soiled this land, they shall be hanged on the morrow on the wharf, and their bodies later dispatched at high sea as they do not deserve the purification of a funeral fire!”
The King and his retinue had vainly tried to interrogate the Hammer of Fate fanatics the preceding night. It was realized that, short of abominable torture, they would never obtain anything of value from the ranting followers of Sacrach’s horrific cult. They all knew what they faced. The quicker they got rid of that scum, the better. They certainly did not deserve to be saved from the hart and be sent to forced labor.
Arnaud de Betancourt rolled the parchment and turned to bow to the Royal Couple. Gerhart stood up, followed by by Marghrete and Nepomucene.
The King held his hand forward to the Judge to invite the magistrate to precede him and the four walked down from the platform, signifying that the talks were ended. Gerhart had little will or concern to address the inhabitants of Valmoray. He had given strict orders to all soldiers of any rank and officials to pointedly ignore the men and women of the city, barring affairs conducted through the proper channels for as long as the martial law would be enforced.
Gerhart and his whole retinue would stay for a whole week to supervise the running of the town and Baronage although they would all reside in a camp outside in front of the gates. The local populace would learn quickly what it meant to be completely overlooked by citizens worthy of their names.
—–
The rider was observing the harbor of Morenin from the safety of the forest bordering the Fire Mountains in the northern part of Thalamus.
A short man of indeterminate age, his face was painted in deep red under the black hair, which fell in matted locks over his forehead and along his cheeks.
All his companions dominated him by at least a head, even when sitting on their steeds, but the deference and respect they willingly accorded to his person was proof that size was of little matter when dealing with Saramin, chief of all outlaws in the Kingdom of Thalamus.
The other riders had all their faces painted in red, too.
The color of blood.
The color of the blood drained from the bodies of their families, kin and friends they had lost to King Kalrong and the Hammer of Fate before opting to become the sworn enemies of their King and minions.
-“Saramin,” the man on his left began, “what are your intentions? You’re not planning to attack Morenin, are you?”
The outlaw chief emitted a mirthless laugh.
-“No, Casilgar! It is not an attack I’m planning, but an invasion!”
-“An invasion? Have you lost your senses, or are you making a jest? What kind of invasion can we mount with our bedraggled bunch of runaway outlaws?”
-“Calm down, will you? We are not going to invade any place, but someone else will! Haven’t you read the signs?”
-“What signs? All I see is more death, more slavery, more bloodthirsty inquisitors and their savage Commanders!”
-“Casilgar! Open your eyes and ears and make that thick brain of yours work! Now, tell me: what happened to King Kalrong’s vaunted fleet the last time they went north?”
-“For all I know, the lost his entire trireme fleet. As for the sailships, only two made it back. Kalrong had its two captains quartered alive as soon as they came back with the news of disaster!”
-“Which means they had finally met their betters! Now, Kalrong will have to look south in Zannaran for new slaves, unless he is fool enough to send another fleet north!”
-“And since Kalrong and Zammat are already at each other’s throats, that promises some fun! But I still don’t see any advantage for our position, and even less anything supporting your notion of invasion!”
-“Fine, I suppose we shall have to go through it in detail: have you seen any of those walking dead recently?”
-“You mean the slaves used for rowing the triremes or building Kalrong’s palaces?”
-“Yes! Which means?”
-“That they are all lost, I suppose.”
Saramin looked at his companion.
-“I would tend to believe that the evil behind their existence is not here any more to hold them standing! Which also means that the Inquisitors’ powers and dark magic are not of their own making!”
Casilgar pondered on his chief’s comments.
-“That could explain their recent savagery. If they had effectively lost their powers, we could expect them to instill more fear into the hearts of our people to retain their grip on the country since they are the real rulers. Kalrong is only one of their former Commanders after all!”
-“Add to this the rumors of that army which never reappeared from the north of Drastan, and it seems to me that the powers of our world are about to undergo a dramatic shift! That is, if we can contribute our own little share to a chain of events, which looks like going in our favor at long last!”
-“Such as?”
-“Since whoever live north of the Fire Mountains are strong enough to eradicate two whole armies in such a short time, they ought to come south and give a lasting beating to our oppressors, and why not?, free all the lands under the hold of the Hammer of Fate!”
-“And why would they? Moreover, they appear to me as not being very warlike in spite of their apparent might, since they did not press their advantage and venture south to take a just revenge!”
-“I would say they showed a lot of good sense since they know practically nothing of us!”
-“That’s not much of a help, is it?”
-“That is why they have to be informed that conditions are propitious for their coming!”
-“And who could inform them? Moreover, how?”
Saramin did not reply, but kept his gaze on Casilgar’s face.
The latter looked back at him quizzically.
A thin smile stretched across the short man’s mien.
Casigar’s eyes widened in shock.
-“You …, you are actually planning to go there yourself! Of all your mad schemes, that will stay as the worst one!”
-“How many of those mad schemes of mine have failed us?”
-“Not many, I must concede. Very few, in fact. But how do you plan to go there?”
-“By sea, of course! I certainly do not wish to fry myself dead in the Fire Mountains!”
-“What about the harpies, then? And what about the sirens?”
-“And how do Thalami sailors manage? As for the sirens, you only need to stuff your ears with candle wax. Harpies never venture far at sea. All I need is a diversion to keep the little horrors away as long as I need to steal a small sailboat and make it off to the north!”
-“And where do you plan to grab that sailboat?”
-“In Morenin, naturally!”
Casilgar shook his head in disbelief.
But the glint in the eyes of the outlaw chief convinced him that they were all in for another race for their lives.

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