Narosan 4: Suspicions

There was a knock at the door.
-“Come in!” Alfred de Vigny answered without bothering to raise his eyes from his work.
It seemed that his life had become an endless series of assignments in the whole of Beaulieu: Montjoie and Montreduc, Beaucastel, Villefranche and now Valmoray, without mentioning his last stay in Dunlago.
Hildegard was quite happy moving from post to post, used as she was to the military life of a Walkyrie. The only problem was that, as a woman, she was pretty hopeless at cooking or house chores, except for cleaning and maintaining her own battle gear when on mission duty. All the finery she donned when assuming the role of his personal secretary had to be washed by maids.
Two weeks had elapsed since King Gerhart had left for Beaucastel. Nepomucene, the new Baron of Valmoray had moved into a requisitioned building with Alf, Hldegard, Gratien and Firebrand as they shared the work of rebuilding the city. For their part, Maheut and Birghit had opted to stay with their troops encamped outside the town ramparts.
The unexpected sound of two pairs of heavy boots thumping on the tiled floor instead of his lover’s lighter footsteps, that is when she did not wear her riding boots, made him pause and lift his head to see who could have come in unannounced by her secretary.
He smiled when he found Firebrand in the company of a male Dwarf unknown to him.
-“Ah, greetings, Firebrand! What news bring you?”
The female Dwarf was one the rare individuals who could come directly into his office unheralded. Actually, in the case of Firebrand, Hildegard would probably grant her priority over everybody else, save maybe for Birghit or Maheut. The Walkyrie had quickly struck a very deep friendship with the only female dwarf they knew that dated back to the battle of the Wall. All men, soldiers, or not, had learned to carefully walk a tight line in their presence, not only on duty, but also, and probably the more for it, on casual occasions. Only their lovers did not seem to be overawed, although they dutifully kept their relations within strict accordance to rules and manners in public. Birghit and Maheut were known for their occasional liking of both sexes and never patronized Gardan or He-Who-Stands-Upright. Hildegard, for her part, had never extended rights on Alf’s person. The latter, on the other hand, suspected that Gratien would be in a lot of trouble if his fiery companion found out about a rival or even a casual affair. Alf had always wondered how these two compensated for their great difference in height, notwithstanding the fact that he found himself in the same situation, Hildegard, towering a whole head above him.
Firebrand replied in her typically brutal Dwarven manner:
-“Not good news, I’m afraid!” She turned to her companion to introduce him: “This is Steelgrip, one of the engineers commissioned by King Hammerblow on King Gerhart’s request. He was visiting the North of the Realm when fast courier reached him with the order to move and lend a hand in Valmoray at once!”
Alf formally saluted the Dwarf with his hand on his heart.
-“Engineer Steelgrip, greetings! From what Firebrand intimated, you are the one who is bringing these news. What might they be?”
The Dwarf banged his fist on his thick leather tunic.
-“Take a look at these!” he tersely said, stretching open his hand.
Alf saw three silver coins resting on his palm. They were all Crowns, a fair amount of money as they were worth more than a Gold Mark together.
Alf, as far as he could tell, could see nothing wrong with the coins.
-”Sorry, Steelgrip, but I don’t catch your drift!”
-“That’s what I thought! There is no way telling on sight, is it? May I use your scales?”
Firebrand would have told him beforehand that scales were available in his office. They were a piece of equipment to be carried along with him as a matter of course for all kinds of reasons pertaining to his work. He went to pick them from a windowsill where they stood in full view and placed them on his work desk.
-“Do you have a Crown I may use?” asked Steelgrip.
One more thing Alf always had handy for his work was a large amount of money. He pulled a drawer open and took a pouch out of it. He drew the requested coin and handed it to the Dwarf.
The engineer placed Alf’ coin on one of the trays, then put one of this three coins on the other tray. Alf’s coin dipped down with a small clang. Steelgrip’s coin was significantly lighter, although the two coins looked exactly the same. The Dwarf repeated the operation with the other two Crowns with the same result.
Alf was fuming. The coins had been minted less than six moons before, and someone was already counterfeiting them!
-“Steelgrip, where did you find these?” he grimly asked.
-“In Montauban.”
The Baronage of Montauban lay north of the Baronage of Motfaucon and west of the baronage of Marche. The city of Montauban directly faced the city of Montfaucon across the Anse River. What a coincidence!
-“Did you argue with the person who gave you these coins?”
-“No, I didn’t. For quite a few reasons. First, the man who paid me appeared genuinely honest. Second, I though it wiser to inform King Hammerblow before anyone else, as the Dwarves are in charge of all minting as agreed by our Embassies in Beaucastel. But then I received the King’s request. I talked to Firebrand here as soon as I arrived. She told me I had better inform you of the problem as she thought you should be able to elucidate it, or at least take the necessary steps for a quick investigation!”
-“Firebrand was right to bring you here and she has my personal thanks! If you had gone to King Hammerblow instead, unneeded tension might have resulted among the Dwarves. I am persuaded that humans fabricated these counterfeit coins, citizens of Beaulieu to be more precise. I have my own idea where they might have originated from, but I will need solid proofs first. Now, here is what I propose to do: Firebrand, Steelgrip, the two of you write a letter to King Hammerblow to explain the situation. Do it in your own language. I shall order it sent by Royal Mail with special guard. This will stay between the Dwarves, me and King Gerhart only for the moment being! I know I can count on your discretion!”
He took two more Silver Crowns out of the pouch.
-“Steelgrip, this is a refund for your lost money from the coffers of Beaulieu with the Realm’s apologies. May I have two of these counterfeit coins for King Gerhart’s reference as well as for mine? Keep the last one in your own keeping for future comparison. Finally, could you discreetly spread the word inside your community to keep an eye for other counterfeit coins and bring them to me for refund and investigation!”
The two Dwarves readily agreed with evident relief.
Before they took their leave, Alf asked the female Dwarf:
-“Firebrand, could you be kind enough to tell Hildegard to come to me immediately?”
-“Sure will!”
The Walkyrie soon arrived with a concerned look. Her lover rarely called with such urgency.
-“What’s wrong?” she queried.
Alf showed her the two coins he was turning in his fingers.
-“More problems from the north, I’m sorry to say!”
He repeated Steelgrip’s demonstration on the scales.
Hildegard let out a very unwomanlike expletive when she saw the trays moving up and down.
-“Where the hell do those coins come from?”
-“Montauban, but I doubt they originated from that Baronage?”
-“Marche or Montfaucon?”
-“Probably, but we need proof to substantiate our claims!”
-“You had better warn our agents, then?”
-“Yes, indeed! As if we needed the extra work!”
-“You ought to ask Gerhart for permission to send currency survey teams as agreed by the Embassies.”
-“You are right. But that means we have to delegate no less than sixteen of them as we do not want to raise an alarm by dispatching them to two or three Baronages in the north only!”
-“You have a point here. That will take some time, but it can’t be helped, can it?”
-“No, it can’t” Alf replied, aiming a kick at the desk. He barely checked himself. It would not do to break Valmoray’s furniture.
A small troupe of horse-drawn carts and mounted soldiers was ambling on the road skirting the shore between Otago, the last harbor south of Dunlago and Rocamier, the northernmost city of note in the Realm of Beaulieu.
Farmers working the rich land along the road wondered who might be the grand lady and the two youngsters sitting at the fore of the first chariot. As all riders and passengers wore plain practical clothing, the peasants could not have known they were looking at Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and the rest of King Gerhart’s retinue who had lingered in Dunlago after his precipitous departure to Valmoray.
The County of Rocamier was a peaceful land ably administered by Count Lancelain de Rocamier and his family who would have gladly welcomed the travelling party in their beautiful mansion. But Geraldine had decided to avoid any large city as she wanted to utilize the trip as a field study for her two charges.
-“Lady Geraldine, we are not using the same road that we took with my father on our first trip to Beaucastel. Why is that?” Mareeva asked the woman sitting on the other side of Matthieu.
-“Because the more of Beaulieu you see, the better! Unless you wish to go through the same landscapes over and over again! Would it not be more enjoyable and fulfilling to bring new drawings back from your trips?
Mareeva smiled, abashed by the realization of her childish question. But she still felt the need for another query.
-“Why do we not stop in cities, either?”
-“Life in cities might be easy and welcome, but there will always be times when you find yourself away from urban life and have to make do with whatever you have. The earlier you learn to fend for yourself, the sooner you will be free to fly on your own wings!”
Mareeva smiled again, but this time her grin did not contain any hint of embarrassment.
-“I know what you think,” the Blue Dragon continued, “but my figure of speech has nothing to do with my nature!”
The two youngsters could not help laughing. Riding soldiers looked at them in puzzlement. What on earth in Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur could have those two kids in giggles? They were further surprised to discover the smile on the Blue Dragon’s face. They were not aware that Amrel had kept a cold façade as a protection against her inner turmoil since the death of Geoffroy d’Arcourt. The arrival of Hsu Yia and her care of the two children had provided her a welcome diversion.
-“If you had kept your eyes open,” Amrel began after Mareeva and Matthieu had recovered from their mirth, “you would have noticed one more reason to avoid cities ahead of us!”
The two youngsters suddenly became very attentive and intently looked beyond their immediate neighborhood.
Effectively, at a bend of the road they espied the forms of an old man sitting on a large stone with a large dog lying at his feet.
Mareeva whooped in delight.
-“Grandmo …, Wolf!” she called as she jumped off the cart and began running towards the two Dragons in disguise.
-“I’d better stay with her!” Matthieu cried after a quick look at Amrel who smiled her assent to his abrupt wish to leave. She knew too well that the opportunity for some fun on such a long dreary trip was too good to miss for a healthy young boy.
One of the soldiers rode along her cart.
-“Mylady, shall I accompany the young ones?”
-“Thank you for your kind solicitude, Guard, but they are perfectly safe!” she equably replied to the soldier who bowed in acknowledgement.
The large dog which was in fact a wolf stood up and easily loped toward the coming girl.
-“Wise One, do you always have to hurry and spoil good man Jonas’ daughter?”
-“Let it be, Glamrun! She is my granddaughter after all! In any case, do we have to continue that rigmarole?”
-“Zamrel, it is part of our disguise! We do not know how long it will take Sacrach and his minions to raise again!””
-“Fine, fine, Ancient One! But I can tell it shall not be for a long time to come!”
-“I wish I had your confidence!”
The Wolf ignored the last comment and met Mareeva who threw her arms around her neck. The imposing animal licked the girl’s cheek in greetings. The two of them felt more at ease this way than when the White Dragon adopted her human shape which tended to overawe the young girl.
Matthieu joined them for a quick hug before walking to the old man. He felt a sincere fondness for the Red Dragon who was always entertaining him with such great stories and lore.
He bowed to the venerable man.
-“Greetings, Mentor!”
-“Greetings, Matthieu d’Arcourt! How fare you? It seems you have grown since the last time we met!”
-“Really? Thank you, Sir!”
-“Do not start flattering and spoiling him, Father! He still has a long way to go!” Amrel’s voice scolded in their minds.
-“Well, if Zamrel is allowed to coddle Mareeva, what should stop me from indulging Matthieu?”
-“For the simple reason that he is my charge and he is not a child any more! As for Mareeva, we do not have enough women around at the moment, so a little feminine attention is more than welcome!”
-“That’s not fair!” the boy protested.
-“You shall find soon enough that life has little to do with the notion of fairness!” the Blue Dragon sternly retorted.
Her cart reached them. She drew the reins and held her hand up to sign the small column to halt.
-“We shall stay here for the night!” she said in a loud voice for all to hear. “Matthieu and Mareeva, you know what you have to do!”
The two youngsters reluctantly left. Every evening Matthieu lent a hand setting camp and digging the latrines, while Mareeva helped with the cooking of the meal. The next morning they would have to do their own cleaning before they would be allowed to partake of their breakfast. They would have to fill the trench and break camp before spending another day on the road. By the time they reached Beaucastel, Amrel was confident the two of them would know all about a soldier or a camp hand’s life.
The two children had hit the sack as soon as the meal and the cleaning had been finished. Amrel left them fast asleep, both an arm around Wolf, a scene that had many a soldier’s eyes raised at the incongruous sight of the beast lying between such young children.
-“Not a very healthy habit, if you ask me!” Glamrun grumbled.
-“Have a care, Ancient One! I am not one of your flea-ridden mongrels!” Zamrel shot back in mindspeech.
Amrel could not help make her own remark:
-“Would the two of you mind? You are giving me the disturbing impression of two lovestruck kids going through their courtship rituals! Now, Father, do you purpose to travel with us for a while?”
-“No, we shall move east tomorrow through Tarse County and investigate the Baronages of Montfaucon and Marche. Count Valliant de la Tarse has long proved one of Gerhart’s stalwart allies in the North with Count Lancelain de Rocamier. But we have heard disturbing news about the two Barons. These particular two individuals have been kicked out of the Court in Beaucastel for good reasons!”
-“We ought to tread carefully there. I do not know how much we can interfere in Gerhart’s domestic affairs!”
-“Well, as long as those Barons do not threaten the safety of the Continent, I shall be happy to limit myself to informing the King and his Court!”
-Sacrach is still lying low. But we cannot predict when he shall arise again. The fewer traces of our influence we leave around, the better!”
-“Especially in the light that Hsu Yia might need our presence in Narosan any time!
-“General Qusan?”
The Narosan Lord almost jumped in surprise.
He had not figured out yet how Elves could creep behind his back without raising the slightest sound. Even after four weeks spent together on the Imperial Ship, they still managed to make him bolt any time they moved out of his eyesight. Compared to the Dwarves you could hear thumping along from bow to stern, or to the humans from Dunlago and Beaulieu who never bothered to hide their presence, those Elves, for all their courtesy, made him very nervous indeed. Only the Tribesmen could move this way on purpose. But since the three of them spent most of their time up in the air in a crow’s nest looking at the horizon ahead, sitting on a loft or hanging to a rope ladder, while their female counterpart immersed herself in the study of the Narosan language, he had little chance to meet them anyway.
He turned to face the impossibly tall Elf merchants who had boarded along with the rest of the Alymndes delegation.
Had it not been for the color of their hair, the General would have been hard put to differentiate one from another.
Sarnedin sported hair as red as some of the Walkyries seen back in Dunlago among the personal guard of the Beaulieu Royal Couple, but Glimloel’s gold mane was almost white. Finally Maerdhel’s hair consisted of long glossy black strands braided on the temples. Qusan suspected they had their hair dyed. Such diversity could not be natural.
He attempted to conceal his embarrassing alarm with feigned joviality.
-“Greetings, gentlemen! Now, if this is going to become one of your long-winded conversations about to happen, you had better sit down before we start or I shall end up the day with a creaky neck and a sore back trying to keep my eyes on your faces.
The three Elves smiled their agreement and sat themselves on the stairs leading to the aftercastle without further ado. Used to live outside as they were, they did not object to sitting on bare wood.
Qusan stood at ease, a hand on the stair ramp.
-“Well, gentlemen, what is it you want to discuss with me? Last time, if I remember well, we talked of chopsticks and bamboo. I wish we had some of our women aboard since you never seem to show a healthy interest in anything remotely military!”
Sarnedin laughed while his companions’ grins widened.
-“Honorable General, for once you might be wrong! This time we would like to ask your advice on silk!”
Qusan genuinely looked confused.
-“Silk? But this is a garment that our people will fall upon each other just to be able to touch! I have seen what you have brought aboard, and unless you plan to use it for our standards, I just cannot start to imagine what military use we can have for it!”
-“Well, there is silk and silk, General!” Sarnedin replied. “I will show you!”
The Elf merchant unlaced the top of his shirt. A light brown shining fabric appeared between the lapels covering his chest.
-“This is woven with triple-thread silk. Even a Dunlago man would have difficulty to tear it! “he commented. “Now, have you noticed that all Elves, Tribesmen and Beaulieu Royal Guards wear one under their shirt, tunic or armor?”
General Qusan’s sharp eyes had actually discerned the garment coming out of more than one uniform, but had dismissed it as a peculiar fashion he would be rude to be too nosy about.
-“I understand that silk is exclusively made by Elves. But why would Tribesmen and Beaulieu soldiers wear such fabric?”
-“Elves and Tribesmen have worn it under their clothes from time immemorial. But it is recently that King Gerhart’s Royal Guards have made it a compulsory piece of their armor after all the good soldiers lost to Southern arrows!”
The General became slightly puzzled.
-“Armor? Arrows?”
Sarnedin did not reply but kept smiling. The Narosan Lord was a veteran soldier. He would let him find out for himself.
Qusan furiously thought. His intelligence was being tested.
His eyes narrowed and a grin slowly stretched across his face.
He gazed at the Elves squarely:
-”I assume you have brought one of your silk shirts with you as I might ask for some kind of proof?”
Glimloel chortled as he took out a folded garment out of a side pouch.
-“General, we have always known we were not underestimating you!” he praised a he handed him the bundle.
The Narosan Lord opened the carefully folded silk shirt in front of his eyes.
The fabric did not look much different from the silk he had seen among the rolls brought aboard. The shirt, for all its apparent flimsiness, barely stretched. He understood at once that he would not need to exert any further strength to find out that the cloth would not rip, barring using tools.
But he still needed more evidence to convince himself that he had indeed come into the possession of an inestimable artifact that would revolutionize the concepts of warfare back in his land.
Wrapping the shirt over his forearm he invited the three Elves:
-“Gentlemen, if you would follow me?”
The three denizens of the Sacred Forest readily went after him as he briskly walked to the centre of the deck.
General Qusan began to shout orders in the Narosan language that the Elves easily understood by then, although the same could not be said of the humans or Dwarves yet.
-“Clear the deck! Bring a shooting model target!”
The immediate effect of the order had all hands clear the centre of the deck, but soon two solid rows of curious soldiers formed along the vacated space. For all their discipline, the Narosan sailors would not miss this opportunity to relieve the monotony of their daily routines.
A vaguely human-shaped shooting target was erected in front of a mast.
General Qusan himself slid the silk shirt over the hard-packed straw bust before moving back fifty paces away.
He called for a bow and an arrow. The Elves noted that the length of the bow was less than half the height of an average Narosan soldier and was made of thin layers of hard wood glued together into a peculiar shape with the holding hand behind the actual outside rim of the bow. They wondered about the maximum range of the weapon.
General Qusan was about to let his arrow fly when a murmur through the crowd held him in check.
Soldiers on his right parted to leave the way to a strangely clad Hsu Yia in the company of She-Who-Wanders,
The Empress had donned an almost identical garb to that of the Tribeswoman. For all the Dragon she was, she had not been able to keep her hands off the skins and suede the woman from the Unending Plains had brought with her.
She had taken She-Who-Wanders apart after a couple of days at sea to ask her:
-“She-Who-Wanders, I wish to wear the best clothes you can devise with the finest among your skins and suede. What would you like in return?”
The Tribeswoman, somewhat startled at the request from a being who could demand anything she fancied if she wished so, rested her eyes on the eerily beautiful face of the Empress.
An equivocal grin lit across her tanned mien:
-“Her Majesty’s company!”
It was the turn of the Dragon of the East to be taken aback.
-“My company?”
She-Who-Wanders chortled.
-“Yes, your company! That is, I wish you to teach me your language, your customs, your history and all I need to know about your lands. Empress Hsu Yia, I know who and what you are behind the appearance of the regal ruler of Narosan. Only an equal could have talked and behaved with She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons the way you did! I do not ask you to do it through magic. I want to learn like any human would do!”
-“Ah! I see! You had me mistaken for an instant! I shall be glad to teach you anything you wish, although I must confess I would enjoy your company like any human for other reasons! You seem a very strong-headed woman to me!”
-“Well, I’m a Tribeswoman, and as such, I have to prove the equal of men if I want to walk freely in the Steppes!”
-“Even to your three companions?”
She-Who-Wanders burst into unrestrained laughter.
-“Ah! Her Majesty should know that these three Tribesmen are a living legend in our Tribes! Their tale has already run like the wind all over our land! They never shall be called my companions! They have loved a Walkyrie, and only a Walkyrie they shall love again if they ever found one!”
Hsu Yia had She-Who-Wanders move to her own quarters that very day. The Narosan soldiers thought little of it. Actually they felt more comfortable knowing that their Empress could behave like a lady now that she had found a companion of the same gender whose main merit was to keep their eminent ruler out of their way.
The same ruler was presently asking in an amused tone:
-“General Qusan! What do we have here? Are you holding an archery contest with our good friends to while away the monotony of our voyage?”
The venerable soldier bowed to her:
-“Forbid the thought! Her Majesty is about to witness a remarkable change in our martial traditions if I am not mistaken!”
-“You have me intrigued indeed! Please, do proceed, General Qusan!”
The Narosan Lord did not tarry and pulled the string of his bow taut before letting his arrow fly.
It shot straight across the bridge to hit the target right in the heart with a muted thud.
For all the great marksmanship, a few among the onlookers could not hide their bafflement. They had expected a neat thwack from the arrow as it pierced its target. Moreover, the dart had not penetrated the hard-packed straw as deep as foreseen. Had the General’s arm grown weak?
Although well aware of the perplexed looks aimed at his person, the imperturbable seasoned soldier calmly walked to shooting target. He paused in front of it, his hands on his hips in a theatrical posture. A hush hovered his audience.
Judging he had everyone’s attention by then, Qusan grabbed the silk shirt on both sides of the bust of the target and pulled.
The arrow popped out easily.
There was barely a scratch on the fabric.
Had it not been for the attendance of their Empress, the Narosan sailors and soldiers would have jumped forward for a better look. Nonetheless their discipline did not prevent them from making loud comments and queries.
A triumphant Qusan bowed again to Hsu Yia.
-“If Her Majesty would deign to take a look at the shirt on the target?”
The Empress smiled.
-“General Qusan, I owe you an apology! I had known of these silk shirts since we embarked!”
She turned to her Tribeswoman companion.
-“She-Who-Wanders, could you be kind enough to show everyone?”
The lady, if she could be called as such, readily complied and began undoing the laces of her light skin blouse. Some soldiers averted their eyes out of respect or for some more basic reasons.
They should not have worried. The Tribeswoman’s breasts were barely discernible under the fabric.
-“As you can all see,” the Empress resumed, “not only the Elves, but also the people of the Unending plains wear these shirts. Although this cloth is exclusively woven in the Sacred Forest, the Tribesmen were the first to commandeer them!” I have also heard that the Royal Guards of Beaucastel wear them, too!”
She turned to Sarnedin:
-“Good Elf of the Forest, how many such shirts do you carry in your luggage?”
-“Only two scores, Your Majesty! We had only planned to introduce them as an additional possibility to our trade which deals mainly with silk!”
Hsu Yia looked at him quizzically.
Elves do not blush, but Sarnedin felt his ears grow uncomfortably warm under the piercing eyes of the Empress.
Hsu Yia relented.
-“Sarnedin, Glimloel, Maerdhel! I hereby declare the import and trade of your silk shirts the sole benefit of the Empress of Narosan! I shall immediately purchase all those you have brought along and will order more upon our arrival! My people will have to earn them from now on, not merely acquire them through barter or with all the gold they might come up with! Tell me your price. I shall gladly assent to it!”
The three Elves deeply bowed, while Sarnedin replied:
-“Your Majesty is too kind! But as we would never dare to formulate such a request to our own Queen, we may not ask such a base thing to the Empress of Narosan!”
Hsu Yia smiled.
-“I see that the Elves of the Forest are graced with better manners than most of our own merchants. As I consider it a personal honor to trade with the subjects of Queen Ellana, we shall confer forthwith in private and write down a proper commerce compact between our two nations!”
Turning to the Lord of Narosan:
-“General Qusan, if you and your trusted aides would be as kind as to follow us to my private quarters?”
Hsu Yia then asked the Tribeswoman:
-“She-Who-Wanders, may I request upon you to serve as a witness from Alymndes to our transactions?”
The skin trader bowed low:
-“It shall be an honor and a pleasure, Your Majesty!”
The smile on the face of the Dragon of the East would have struck any man on the ship with jealousy, had he possessed the keener eyes of the three other Dragons on board. The latter kept a straight face in spite of their amused realization.
More down-to earth individuals, on the other hand had come to understand that their Empress had discovered a very subtle way to reward her most faithful servants. A barely visible armor it might become, but the Elven silk shirts would soon prove the ultimate recognition of power and trust in the whole Empire.
The Imperial Fleet was still one week away from their destination when some unusual agitation brought the Dragons onto the upper deck of the Imperial ship. Numnir was the first to reach the prow where General Qusan stood in loud discussion with his aides .
-“General Qusan, what is this commotion all about?”
The grizzled soldier turned to the Flint Dragon:
-“Greetings, Ironfoot! It seems we are running into some unforeseen trouble, but what kind, we do not know yet! See those small dots on the horizon? They are ships, but what can they be?”
Numnir knew too well and he had come prepared. He took a long object out of a scabbard-shaped pouch tied to his belt. He handed it to Qusan.
-“Try this and you shall find out!”
The general looked at the alien contraception.
-“What is this, Ironfoot?”
-“It is called a telescope. Direct it to the horizon and look through the small opening!”
A dubious Lord of Narosan complied. It took him some time to catch the object of his concern through the lens. When he finally succeeded, a loud expletive in his native tongue had all his trusted retainers looking at him in worried askance.
An imperturbable Numnir asked:
-“What is it, General?”
-“Tong-Hi pirates! And no less than a score of them!” Qusan almost shouted.
-“Tong-Hi pirates? But they are coming from the northernmost island of the Empire!”
-“I would not call their island part of the Empire if I were you! That slime is roaming all the seas at any time of the year, however far they might find themselves from their homeland! But twenty of them right across our route? How could they have known and come up in such a tight group?”
-“You have been away from Narosan for more than four moons. I suppose that should have been sufficient for them to navigate around and bar your way!”
-“Yes, but only reliable information could have enticed them to sail such a long way from land in such numbers!”
Numnir looked straight ahead, unanswering.
It was Ekan who chose to reply:
-“Well, this is a question you shall have to elucidate later. Now, what are you planning, General? Find a route of escape or face them?”
Qusan looked at the three Dragons in turn.
-“How can you be so calm about it? Our ships might be almost twice as big as theirs, but they are outnumbering us five to one. If they choose to engage us, we will be very hard put! These are bloodthirsty murderers! No one has been able to cow them into submission yet!”
The cold voice of Dargelblad broke in:
-“The more reason to teach them an everlasting lesson before you deal with them once for all in due time!”
Qusan almost exploded:
-“I don’t believe my ears! You are already planning a war expedition against a foe you do not know or have even faced!”
Counsellor Makan chose the moment to intervene:
-“General, these are the seasoned soldiers of no less than three separate full-scale campaigns. If they are so composed about it all, they must have some good idea of how to deal with our present predicament!”
The Lord of Narosan was about to boil over when the three intent pair of eyes gazing ahead suddenly reminded him of whom he was facing. A chill ran through his back. What were his ships bringing to Narosan? His thoughts were broken by the sound of many people coming from his back.
He turned to find Empress Hsu Yia leading the whole contingent of Alymndes merchants and envoys to join them at the prow.
In a surreal moment of lucidity his mind grasped the ludicrous notion they were hosting a small alien army on board.
He would not care to face any of the Dunlago giants, Dwarves, Elves or Tribesmen, or even She-Who-Wanders. As for the three seemingly inoffensive Beaulieu merchants, he was having second thoughts. Why had they been chosen as an embassy? Two of them owned obviously noble names and must have benefited from a martial education. Indeed all of them appeared to share a very unhealthy interest in the impending bloody encounter.
The Empress brought him back from his dark thoughts.
-“General Qusan, what is it?” she asked straightforwardly.
The Lord of Narosan succinctly explained the problem at hand.
-“We do seem to have a problem, do we not?” she laconically commented.
Her sheer calm stunned the seasoned campaigner. As far as he could recollect, the Empress had never directly participated in any warlike expedition or marked any battle with her presence. She must have realized that her fleet stood in the very danger of being annihilated, and all she said was that they had a “problem”!
He collected himself before he replied. If they were to die that day, he surely would make their foes pay dearly for their temerity. And if somehow he and his Empress escaped unscathed, there would be some reckoning to attend to at home. No such pirate flotilla could have assembled in this precise location without some solid inside knowledge of their mission.
-“Your Majesty, I must confess we have only one option: engage them. Their ships are as swift as ours and we just cannot run away from them forever! Now, if we force our way headlong, one of our ships might make it to Narosan!”
-“Do you have in mind to sacrifice the other three ships in order to allow me back to safety. General Qusan? That will not do!”
The lord of Narosan was about to face his own Empress regardless of consequences when Dargelblad’s discreet cough interrupted him.
-“Your Majesty, General, if I may presume to interfere in affairs of state, I recall that the Dunlago ships confronted a similar dilemma off the Villefranche coast when fighting the armada from the South. How long is it going to take before our respective fleets clash?”
Qusan absently answered:
-“Two hours at the very most.”
-“Now, do these pirates use the same type of bow as yours?”
-“Yes, I am pretty sure, or I would not hold my command if I were not fully cognizant of my enemies’ weapons!” came the terse reply.
A thin smile came on the face of the impossibly tall Elf.
-“Good. Now, what is the maximum range of your bows?”
-“Fifty paces for an accurate shot. Fifty more paces beyond that, and the arrow could go anywhere.”
-“That is what I thought.”
Wilfred turned to Sarnedin.
-“If I remember well, you have brought some of our long bows in your baggage for some hunting, have you not?”
-“Yes indeed, Marshall. Half a dozen to be exact.”
Turning back to Qusan:
-“Now, General, when our ship comes within three hundred paces of theirs, our foes will be confident that they are out of reach. That is when we will strike!”
-“Three hundred paces! What kind of bows do you have?”
-“They are made of yew, a tree you probably do not have in your forests. They are a man high and can easily reach their target more than three hundred paces away. We have here three Elves and three tribesmen who are quite proficient with such a weapon. Three bows at the prow starboard and port sides should be plenty!”
Qusan raised his hands almost in supplication:
-“But what kind of damage can six mere bowmen inflict with arrows, however far they can shoot them?”
The deep voice of Ekan resonated:
-“But it is not arrows they are going to shower them with!”
Qusan stared at the black giant in confusion.
Ekan patiently pursued his idea:
-“General, what is the greatest danger for a ship at sea?”
The Commander looked at him for a long time.
His eyebrows suddenly lifted in recognition.
-“Yes, fire!”
A hard grin bared the General’s teeth.
-“But this is evil!”
-“Yes, truly said. Evil indeed!” the Black Dragon grinned back.
Ekan took it on himself to organize the operation. He sent the Elves to fetch their bows while he asked the Dunlago and Beaulieu men to set pots of pitch on both sides of the prow under the Dwarves’ supervision.
Sarnedin and his comrades soon came back with six long bundles and six narrow but shorter cases.
As they carefully unwrapped the layers of thin oiled cloth, long unstrung bow and their strings appeared for all to see. Many a Narosan soldier gasped in sheer astonishment. Each bow was taller than the tallest man among them. None of Qusan’s charges would be able to use one.
The three Tribesmen joined the Elves to bend the bows and string them. It took some time of them to prepare each bow. Then the Elves unwrapped the cases to reveal long arrows of unsurpassed craft.
Qusan and many a retainer shook their heads in disbelief at the sight of such perfection. The Elves willingly allowed anyone wishing so to touch and handle the weapons. But no one dared try to pull a string. The Imperial Navy soldiers were too seasoned campaigners to make any foolish attempt at showing off their prowess.
When She-Who-Wanders made for a bow for closer impression, a light tap of Hsu Yia’s fingers on her arm stopped her in her tracks. The silent message in the Empress’s eyes was clear enough: it would be bad politics to put the Narosan soldiers to shame by witnessing a mere woman pulling one of those incredible bows.
The Elves had brought three scores of arrows, which in Ekan’s view would be far more than needed. Pieces of cloth were distributed and every citizen of Alymndes prepared a couple of arrows by securely tying each piece of cloth around shafts just behind the sharp metal points.
Ekan addressed Qusan:
-“Now that we are ready, General, how do you plan to confront our foes?”
The accent on “our” was not lost on the Imperial Commander.
-“Since you have had the experience of such a fight, I would be more comfortable to hear your advice first before running headlong into the pirate fleet!”
Wilfred and Numnir had sensibly moved away from the conversation, apparently busying themselves with the positioning of the firing squad. Hsu Yia and She-Who-Wanders had also stepped back to a polite distance in the company of Qusan’s faithful aides. The time had come for decisions only a General could take, even with the evident help of an outsider.
Ekan explained:
-“What you want is your enemies to come to your fleet in a tight pack for greater surprise. How about sailing at a slant towards them in a single file staggered-like formation with the Imperial Ship ahead at starboard? The enemy fleet will have to progress at a slant, too, to follow and approach us. When we have closed the gap to about six hundred paces, you order the ships to veer starboard and to run straight at the pirates in an absolute unswerving file, each ship on the tail of the preceding vessel. The pirates will scramble to either face us, open the way, or avoid us altogether. In any case, when we are within three hundred paces of their ships, we start firing!”
Qusan looked at the Black dragon in admiration.
-“Simple but logical! You are truly a mariner! I shall order flag messages at once! I shall also have some sail trimmed to slow us down a little and allow that scum to join the fun later!”
-“Good idea, but have those sails unfurled as soon as we start veering. The sudden acceleration will confuse them even more!”
The next instants saw all kinds of messengers scrambling to and from the prow to relay commands, which roused all hands to an almost feverish but nonetheless extremely disciplined activity. A variety of flags were wavered in intricate patterns from ships to ships. Soon the four vessels moved towards the enemy flotilla at a slant as schemed, with one out of three sails trimmed.
The Tong-Hi sea rovers took the bait and altered their route as one to meet the imperial fleet starboard.
General Qusan surveyed their foes all along with the telescope riveted to his right eye.
He turned to Nunmir:
-“Dear Ironfoot, I wish we had such a device all the time! What an advantage over our enemy!”
-“Please do keep it, then! Consider it as a personal present from the King Under the Mountain!”
-“Your King is too gracious!” he thanked the Dwarf with a bow. “I shall order one such telescope for each of my officers as soon as we have reached land!”
-“Order noted and accepted!” laughed Numnir.
The two fleets were still a mile apart when Hsu Yia who had discreetly vacated the deck while soldiers got ready for the coming battle, reappeared closely followed by She-Who-Wanders. She had donned the full Imperial armor she had worn for the meeting shortly before leaving Narosan. Her long raven black hair had been knotted into a single tail on her nape, leaving strands freely flowing in the breeze. Her left hand rested on the handle of a naked sword, its pommel fastened to a ring on her belt. The fully armed figure of the tall Tribeswoman ambling close behind gave the Empress an added aura of solemnity and determination.
A palpable wave of awe seemed to float over all standing along her way as she regally walked towards the prow. Narosan soldiers bowed, some of them visibly overwhelmed by the majestic sight of their Empress for the first time publicly displaying the true nature of her rank and status.
Hsu Yia smiled and acknowledged everyone with a glance of recognition, which had each officer and soldier lost in momentary wonder and gratitude. Their Empress was going to fight at their head!
Spontaneous cheers arose from behind the first rows of soldiers and soon all hands aboard were chanting:
-“Hsu Yia! Empress of Narosan! Hsu Yia! Empress of Narosan!”
The Dragon of the East quickened her pace. As she reached the bottom of the stairs leading to the forecastle, She-Who-Wanders smoothly left her to join her countrymen.
The three Tribesmen welcomed her with a grin of recognition and pride. The woman was no homebound weakling, but a true warrior of the Steppes as her lasso and throwing axes hanging to her belt clearly denoted. Had the Narosan sailors had the faintest notion of what weapons were concealed on her person, they would have wondered at the rightfulness of her presence in their midst.
Hsu Yia was greeted by General Qusan as she reached the upper deck. The other dragons had left them a wide berth.
The Empress briskly addressed her faithful retainer:
-“General Qusan, I shall stand at the foremost point of the ship for all to see!”
-“But, Your Majesty, this is the most vulnerable area of the ship!”
-“General Qusan, I shall be perfectly safe there!”
Noticing the dubious look on the Commander’s face, she added:
-“And no one needs to know why, General!”
Qusan, recovering his wits, contented himself with a smile as a response. Grinning back, Hsu Yia continued:
-“When the ships are ready to veer, I shall raise my sword above my head, and when all vessels are all aligned and ready to gather speed towards our enemies, I shall lower my sword and point it forward! Now, we had better get ready, have we not?”
General Qusan bowed low, and as Hsu Yia moved towards the prow of the Imperial Ship, he shouted his last orders.
All hands hurried to their stations and waited, their eyes fixed on the magnificent silhouette leading them, erect and unmoving, her arms crossed over her chest.
The gap between the two fleets steadily narrowed.
General Qusan, one flag in each hand, waited. He had ceased looking at the enemy. His gaze was glued on his Empress only.
Hsu Yia’s hands moved to her sword.
The sun caught the blade as she brandished her weapon high in the air.
General Qusan raised a black flag.
The Imperial Ship immediately began veering starboard, imitated by the other three vessels.
The Tong-Hi fleet must have been expecting a totally different strategy as Ekan saw the rival fleet stutter as their ships scramble to face the advancing Narosan Navy.
Hsu Yia lowered her arm, pointing her sword straight ahead.
Her commander raised a red flag.
The boom of the suddenly unfurled top sails resonated overhead and the vessel leaped forward.
The gap between the two fleets melted away.
Five hundred paces. The Tong-Hi had finally completed their change of course and were running headlong into the straight line of the four Narosan ships.
Four hundred paces. The six archers from the Sacred Forest and the Unending Plains nocked their arrows whose wrapped extremities were dripping with tar. The advancing Tong-Hi ships had somehow regrouped into two straggled bodies with a breach in their middle just wide enough for the Imperial Ships to go through. They obviously intended to make a close pass before turning about and chase them.
Ekan’s white teeth appeared through his cold grin. The plan was working to perfection.
Three hundred paces. The arrows were lit. The strings were pulled taut. Qusan looked at Ekan. The Black Dragon nodded.
-“Fire!” Shouted the Commander.
Three shafts were seen flying in the air from each side of the Imperial Ship.
The two nearest Tong-Hi vessels ran directly into their path, totally oblivious of the pending danger.
The flaming arrows hit their topsails. The fabric instantly caught fire. The blaze had not yet spread to the other sails that three more burning shafts hit the lower sails with ghastly results. Soon the decks were showered with kindled debris, spreading more murderous havoc.
The Elves and Tribesmen had already loosed their third volley aiming at the advancing second row of enemy ships with the same plain and deadly outcome.
The pirate ships, belatedly sensing their doom, attempted to scramble away from the path of the Narosan fleet. But the archers had time to hit two more vessels before the Imperial Navy literally flew out of the mass of burning boats vainly trying to avoid each other in the confusion caused by the unexpected and lethal attack.
Ekan glanced back at the Tong-Hi fleet.
A few more ships had caught fire in the unmanageable chaos of a packed fleet attempting to dismember in impossible conditions. Half of the Tong-Hi force was blazing. Some vessels were already helplessly listing.
The whole affair had not lasted fifty heartbeats. The enormity and finality of their victory seemed to have struck the Narosan soldiers dumb. An eerie silence reigned over the deck, only interrupted by the sounds of a ship speeding across the sea.
The stillness was suddenly broken by the ululations of celebration by the three men and one woman of the Steppes, soon rejoined by the rousing cheers from the other Alymndes denizens.
The Narosan sailors at last awoke from their torpor to answer with their own cries of triumph accompanied by the din of many swords striking shields.
Many casks of rice wine were broached as the sun sank over the horizon. No one slept that night indeed on the Imperial Ship. The Narosan mariners had suddenly developed an unquenchable thirst for Alymndes lore. Various groups had formed around each delegation according to their affinities, but stories would certainly be swapped later during the rest of the voyage. Legends would be borne out of those accounts.
She-Who-Wanders helped translate He-Who-Flies-The-Wind, He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms and He-Who-Runs-like-A-Deer’s tales of Fredegond who loved men too much and of Thibault and Tristan who loved men only. The Courting of Maheut by He-Who-Stands-Upright had to be repeated twice under the pressing requests of Counsellor Makan who had judged such good stories ought to be recorded. It would take him the whole remaining voyage to Narosan to chronicle the whole lore and include the Villefranche Battle as related by Qaisar, Artemius and Ashraf of Dunlago, the Rape of Montreduc as told by Paul d’Avray, Guillaume Leschene and Raoul de la Tour, who although merchants by trade, had joined the d’Estrees Brothers to the rescue of King Gerhart, the Eradication of the southwestern invaders as revealed by Sarnedin, Glimloel and Maerdhel, and last but not least, the Building of the Wall as narrated by Hammerhead, Coalfire and Strongarm. Other stories would surely follow and Counsellor Makan seriously considered sharing his time between General Qusan and the Embassadors of Alymndes. He had discovered a worthy occupation for when his old bones would refuse at last to follow his good friend Qusan in his incessant campaigns. Knowing his countrymen and women’s lust for history and myths, he had a second career for the taking. He also had a notion that the following moons would make a nice contribution to the annals relating the Empress assuming the charge of the Empire at long last.
General Qusan was enjoying a cup of rice wine in the company of Numnir on the forecastle away from the crowded upper deck when the Flint Dragon asked:
-“General, please forgive me if I intrude in affairs of state, but do you have any idea why these Tong-Hi pirates had tried to ambush the Empress at such an opportune moment and place? I cannot help thinking there is something very fishy about the whole affair, if you would excuse my corny expression!”
The soldier chortled.
-“Flint Ironfoot, spare me the niceties! I know too well that you shall be part of our so called affairs of state for a very long time to be, and that includes Marshall Wilfred, good man Jonas and I don’t know who else! Mind you, I certainly do not complain! One should never spurn a little help, as dear Counsellor Makan would remind me. As for the pirates, I, for one, am sure they would not have come at a better moment. Had they succeeded, no one would have been the wiser back in Narosan. I can’t wait to discover a few long faces back home!”
-Well, as far as I can recollect Hsu Yia’s explanations, you never had made a secret of your expedition. Therefore our enemies had plenty of time to organize themselves. You should have some well-founded suspicions as to who commanded such a trap?”
-“I have indeed, and I plan to expose them! Some people made a fatal mistake by declaring war onto the Empress herself! As for the Tong-Hi pirates, I suppose we shall have to deal with them once for all! But it promises to be a bloody encounter!”
-“We might be able to help you again there, if I may say!”
Qusan looked at the comparatively tall Dwarf. Who had told him that the denizens of Iron Crags actually welcomed a fight at any time?
-“Well, a few of their boats should have escaped and gone back to spread the tale of your fire arrows. We shall need a different surprise to cow them quickly into submission. However big an invasion you plan from the sea, the advantage lies with the enemy entrenched on the coast!”
-“General Qusan, have you heard of catapults?”
The soldier looked at him in puzzlement.
-“Never heard of them. What are they?”
-“They are machines for throwing projectiles to and from a long distance to break ships, walls and barricades. We can build such devices to equip your ships. But their manufacture will have to be done in utmost secret and concealed until the very moment you use against your foes!”
An excited general replied:
-“Keeping a secret is not a problem in the Imperial Navy! What do you need to build them?”
A few pirate ships did make it back to the Tong-Hi Island up in the north across from the Shuhan Island.
Aboard the ships were scared men who came back with the tale of the Empress of Narosan standing on the prow of the Imperial Ship, her sword spraying their vessels with deadly fire. They were also aware they had made a horrendous mistake to believe some Narosan renegade lords that that they had an easy prey for the taking.
Now they would probably have to face the whole Imperial Navy bent on retaliation in the bargain.
But until then, some would pay dearly for daring to make fools of the Tong-Hi.
The dark-skinned man lying on the ornate reed bed, his head and back comfortably resting on large cushions, was not asleep.
Outside, the city of Marchees lay in torpor along the sea coast in the heat of the early afternoon. No one would be found outdoors under the scorching sun.
Which suited him fine as he had a lot of thinking to do.
Zardor had spent the last six moons navigating along the shores of the whole southern continent as far as Thalamus in the east and Andragon in the west in his sleek and fast ship.
Trade had been good. Very good, in fact.
Now he could enjoy some rest inside his whitewashed house overlooking the harbor from a ledge situated half up the hill below the Palace of King Staganat. The proximity of the seat of power in the Kingdom made it clear enough he was a citizen held in respect, although a keen observer would have noted that his abode stood at the end of a path, not above the main thoroughfare leading towards the Royal Palace.
Zardor had always maintained a safe distance separating him from the bloody feuds besetting any individual of importance in the capital. He despised the numerous Commanders and the few Inquisitors who prowled the land. But no one could have guessed his true feelings towards the murderous plague when he regularly paid obedience to the tax collectors and various inspectors boarding his ship as soon as he reached port from one of his voyages. He answered all questions from the sinister agents seeking information both for the Inquisitors and the Palace, but he never offered anything else but asked. He actually knew more, far more than he would permit that vermin to realize. However, he would not have survived his two score years if he had entangled himself into any politics or petty feuds.
As a matter of fact, the tall and elegant man had become a bit of an enigma to his fellow citizens. He had not married yet in spite of his wealth and good looks. Some had tried to curry favors from his person by sending young women and men to his estate. But all had been politely turned back to their immense chagrin. He was cognizant of some snide remarks concerning his sexual prowess and chose to ignore them whereas another man would have asked for swift reparation. He was both a merchant and a sailor and he did not feel the need to explain where and how he took his pleasures when away from the Capital.
His right hand went up to smooth his neatly trimmed goatee, a habit of his whenever he was pondering in earnest.
The signs were troubling.
Last time he had visited Andragon, the universally feared Commander Rasgon was nowhere to be seen and some boats had definitely been missing inside the harbor.
A whole trireme fleet sent north had never made it back to Thalamus and the Captains of the only two returning sail ships had been quartered alive for all to see as soon as they reported to King Karlrong.
The Blood Faces, as the outlaws near Morenin were called, had been active again.
Relations between Thalamus and Zannaran had started to sour for the worst, in spite of a striving trade. Some slavers’ raids had been reported south of Brahat, the northernmost city in Zannaran.
And what of that enormous army that marched north of Drastan never to return?
As for the three kingdoms in the south, Thyr, Marchees and Ipson, nothing seemed to change, following the same routine of feuds, intrigues and personal vendettas.
Why did he feel deep in his bones that he ought to cut his rest and embark at once to gather more information? Things were moving, and very fast at that. He also was too aware that his wealth and health had been acquired and nurtured thanks to constant care for details and hidden signs.
With a resigned sigh, he pulled at one of the cords hanging overhead.
A bell was heard somewhere in his house.
Soon a middle-aged couple entered his room.
The man asked:
-“Merchant Zardor, you have called?”
Ignoring the slightly obsequious query, the trader stood up to address them:
-“Ah, Magir! Has all our cargo been delivered to our clients?”
-“Of course, merchant Zardor!”
-“Good!” Turning to the female domestic: “Mizana, has all the money been collected from those same clients and have all the taxes and dues been paid?”
-“All payments and expenses have been accounted for this morning, Merchant Zardor!”
-“Good work as usual! You have my sincere thanks again!”
For all his enigmatic character, the trader commanded unreserved loyalty and honesty from all his servants, employees and sailors, a rarity in this land where thievery was more on people’s mind than genuine will to work for a living. In spite of his aloofness, Zardor’s men and women granted him grudging respect for his fairness and business acumen.
The trader continued:
-“Now, Mizana, could you please buy all the dry fruit, palm oil, flax linen and spices you can put your hands on? Magir, have them loaded and inform me as soon as we are ready to go to sea again!”
-“Bur Merchant Zardor, you have been back only three days! You ought to take a break. And your sailors, too!”
-“I agree with you, Magir. But you know that my hunches never fail me, and this is one of them! As for our sailors, you have a point. I’ll tell you what: offer a bonus to all those who agree to board on this trip!”
A resigned servant acquiesced.
-“it will be done, Merchant Zardor! May I ask you where you are heading to this time?”
-“You may, you may! I shall go as far as Morenin!”
-“Morenin! But that is on the other side of the continent! You will be away for at least three moons!”
Zardor laughed at his employee’s distress.
-“Magir, do you really need me around and interfere with the good work of my servants and employees? I know I cannot do anything without you. But I also know you cannot do much with me in your legs all the time! I’m sure you already have an endless list of orders from our clients ready for my perusal. I might as well as read it aboard our ship!”
-“But, Merchant Zardor, there are forms and traditions to respect!”
-“Magir, how many times have I told you what I think of such obligations? Now, be a good man and start work for our mutual benefit!”
He did not have to tell his faithful servant that this time business would be a cover for his personal investigation. Most traders in town sent their ships away to count their money at home day after day. But those same traders would be the first to lose out through petty avarice and ignorance of the larger picture that bore a direct influence onto their tiny lives.
Something big, really big was about to happen. And he certainly was not prepared to be left out of it!
The market place was as crowded that morning as it was every fifth day of the week when farmers and craftsmen erected their stands along the street leading to the castle of Baron Philippe de la Marche, ruler of the city and Baronage of the same name. The air was getting hot and tempers shortened. Sylvana shouldered her way through the throng of shoppers. She wondered whether she would manage to come back to the Baron’s kitchens in time for the mid-day meal. She would have to put up once again with the nasty remarks of the petty nobles and their minions, not to mention the dirty jokes and pawing hands.
Talking of pawing hands, some unsavory characters were taking advantage of the congested thoroughfare to take some liberties with her person and body. She was going to shout a few pointed comments at a particularly insistent lecher when she almost slammed into a man who seized the opportunity to fondle her right breast inside her bodice. She made to slap the insolent, but restrained herself halfway when she discovered the face of the rascal. They had already met a couple of times, although very shortly. Like her, he was one of Alfred de Vigny’s agents.
The man winked at her before melting into the crowd.
She resumed the role of an outraged female by uttering a striking epithet on men whose hands were the sole proof of their manliness that had a few bystanders laughing and leering at her.
Tell the truth, she could have enjoyed meeting the man at some length as he was handsome and to her liking. Unfortunately, Alfred’s agents were discouraged from mingling with one another.
She felt something lodged between her breast and her bodice.
Here was not the place or the time to read what was to all appearances a message on a piece of parchment. It would itch all day, but that could not be helped.
Later in the evening, once she had finally managed to retire to her quarters, she took the piece of parchment from under her bodice. She brought up it to the meagre candle that tightfisted Baron had ungracefully granted to each of his servants.
No one knew, especially the baron and his men, that she could both read and write among her many well-concealed talents. She was also blessed with good ears, sharp eyes and an acute sense of quick analysis, all essential prerequisites for a spy, or an agent depending on which side you stood.
The message was succinct and precise enough: “currencies and measures inspections on their way. Fake coins discovered. Investigate on your own and report through usual channels”.
Interesting, she thought. Some people were finally overreaching themselves. She lit the parchment with the candle and twirled the burning missive between her fingers until she dropped the ashes onto the rush-covered floor where she stamped them with her foot for good measure.
She was going to take a special pleasure in her work for the next few weeks. She might have to hover around the Baron at a later hour than usual. She would give him and his friends more reasons to paw her and make them believe their attentions welcome. She wondered what the pigs would think of themselves if they realized she was taking a devious pleasure in arousing their perversions after such a long show of resignation on her part. Their apparent discovery of a suddenly amenable wench would make them the easier to trap. Not only Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon, but also that conniving slime of a merchant called Jehan Desmesne, would crawl at her feet and blab as much as she wished. The surprise would be the greater when at the time of their fall they would learn that she was also of noble birth.
She had approached Alfred de Vigny of her own volition when she heard through her private sources that he was recruiting agents. King Gerhart’s, and Geraldine’s, chief spy had readily hired her as he ascertained her readiness and ardor for the task, regardless of the lengths she would have to abase herself to in the process of obtaining precious information for her sovereign.
He moreover entertained an absorbing notion of how to reward her when the northern barons would be revealed for what they were and definitely fell from grace or worse. The irony of it all would be a sweet revenge to savor.
A warm breath gently blowing in his ear awoke William from his deep sleep.
He lay on his bed, a real one, in his own quarters at the Royal College of Medicine by a window overlooking the Beaucastel Royal palace.
-“You should not utter my Dragon’s name aloud, William Clonderbie, alias Robert de Glacis, my former apprentice and now the Chief Practitioner of the Royal College of Medicine of Beaulieu under the direction of my dear sister, Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur!”
William, now completely awake, laughed.
-“Have you translocated all the way from Trade City to enunciate the whole genealogy of the Realm?”
-“Aren’t we using difficult words tonight, lover? I think that your elevated status has finally caught up with you and befuddled your big head altogether!”
His arms roughly drew her to his chest.
-“You did not come because of a sudden interest for my thoughts, did you? Therefore, shall we take care of the true reasons for waking me up at such a late time in the night?”
The Golden dragon playfully bit his left ear.
-“You had better please me then, or I will fry you alive!”
Thinking of it, she could, but William had enough heat in his body for two to reflect on a Dragon’s abilities.
A couple of hours later, he was so utterly exhausted he wondered whether he would declare himself unfit to work. But he knew too well that he could not afford to miss even a single day at the College, especially when Geraldine was away on a long trip somewhere between Dunlago and Beaucastel.
He sighed.
Umatar’s head moved on his shoulder.
-“What’s wrong, lover?”
-“Nothing much. Just thinking of tomorrow’s work.”
Changing the subject, he asked:
-“What is becoming of Boy? Have you found a name for him yet?”
-“Oh, he is doing along nice and growing as fast as the long grass of the Steppes. He must have added a hand span to his height since you left! As for his name, he will have to merit it, I suppose, unless he or someone else comes up with a befitting one! He is sharing his time between Trade fair City where I have a mentor teach him his letters and the House of All Tribes where he learns the lore of the Steppes.”
-“Do you still fly around with him?”
-“Naturally! There are still many Tribesmen and Tribeswomen to instruct in lost corners of the Unending Plains!”
-“Have you met He-Who-Sees-Furthest at the fishing village recently?”
-“I visit him regularly. His people have become a thriving Tribe and a living tale throughout the Steppes! The boats we gave them brought them so much wealth and respect!”
William was lost in his thoughts for a moment.
-“Do you regret leaving the Steppes, lover?” Umatar softly asked.
The man, who had fast become the most respected practician after Geraldine in the capital, took some time before replying.
-“Yes and no. I’d love to meet Tribespeople now and then, but at the same time my work here offers me plenty of satisfaction. On the other hand, I have no idea how long it will be before I feel the urge to move on again.”
The Golden Dragon’s eyes rested on her lover’s face.
-“Still thinking of home in Andragon?”
William’s voice came out heavy with old grief and pain.
-“Home? No, I shall never be able to call a place home in Andragon. But one day, I will go back and make sure it becomes my folks’ home!” The last words were said with a fierceness that wakened a long dormant fire inside the Golden Dragon’s heart. Her arms grasped his shoulders in a tight hug.
-“William Clonderbie, Dragons will not leave a single stone unturned to find and carry retribution to all those who have scourged your land!”
-“I know, but will we ever be able to understand the meaning of love, peace and justice after so many years in the dark?”


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