It was the middle of winter when the first of Flos’ vassals began to reach his city.
Standing on the balcony on one of the higher floors of the palace, Trey stared moodily down at the procession of armed warriors entering through the southern gates. His eyes were good—too good in fact; Trey was a bit farsighted—and he could see these were a different sort of people. He stared down darkly, shivering a bit as a cold wind blew at his clothing.
The foremost leader of the procession was wearing some kind of veil. It might have been a she or a he—Trey couldn’t tell from this far up. And it might not matter, because he recognized the kind of people that were being cheered by Flos’ citizens.
Trey had met a group of them once before, weeks ago. Now he hated all of them, even if these ones weren’t slave traders. He knew they were one of the main races inhabiting Chandrar, along with the Garuda and human populations. Well, String People looked human too. Until you got close and saw the stitches keeping their bodies together.
Yes, they looked human, but they were made like Frankenstein’s monsters. Their bodies were cloth, and they could be made of any fabric, from tough wool to silk. That actually mattered to them socially; Trey supposed it was a class thing. But a String Person could be built, or repaired by someone with a needle and thread, so long as you had the right cloth.
Actually, according to Orthenon it was harder than that. But Trey hadn’t asked him for details. He wasn’t speaking to Orthenon right now.
Or anyone, really.
These String People, or Stitch-Men and Stich-Women—possibly Stitch Boys and Stitch-Girls although they didn’t look that young—were on foot. They had long, wicked spears and other polearms and they all had veils on their faces.
They were probably some elite band that had served Flos years ago. It didn’t surprise Trey that String People would call Flos their King either; no doubt he would have loved having them in his army. The String People were supposed to be fearless warriors, hardy survivalists, and all the things you said about anyone you wanted to talk up. They didn’t fear being cut to death; they could just sew themselves up, after all. In fact, the only thing String People truly feared with a passion was fire.
It was odd that a flammable people would live on the hottest of all continents. Chandrar’s days were filled with blistering heat, and the nights were cold enough to freeze to death on. But when you thought about it another way, Chanrar had less vegetation. Less things to burn.
Behind the group of Stitch-warriors, Trey spotted another band of people entering. These weren’t String People, but they were being cheered just as loudly. They looked like Humans, robed and holding an…Trey had to squint in disbelief. Was that an umbrella they were holding?
It made no sense. Winter in Chandrar didn’t mean that much snow, and though it could still get very cold, you didn’t need an umbrella except if you were trying to keep out of the snow. But Trey was used to strange things in this world.
These people looked like [Mages]. So two groups of his vassals were entering the city at the same time? Trey knew that meant more feasting, and Flos welcoming his vassals into his palace with open arms. He’d certainly thrown a big enough party for Venith and Maresar and they had only been two of his former vassals.
Trey scowled and gripped the railing tightly. He wasn’t happy. And he didn’t want to be in the banquet hall, sitting at the tables—the ones far from the high table—and have to listen to Flos laugh. He didn’t want to see the King of Destruction’s face right now. Or anyone’s. Right now, Trey hated this entire kingdom.
They were all slave traders.
Trey couldn’t believe it when he’d found out. Flos had slaves. To be more accurate, he sold people as slaves. He’d struck a deal with the Traders of Roshal to sell all the prisoners he’d taken captive in the battle for Reim. Some had been ransomed off, but the rest…
Slaves. Trey couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe Orthenon, or Venith, who had seemed so honorable, would allow people to be slaves! But no one had understood his outrage. And worse…
Trey closed his eyes. It had been over a month since that day when he’d realized the entire continent of Chandrar actively owned or allowed slaves. If some kingdoms like Flos’ were too poor to have many slaves, most nations had a good deal of slaves. People, held in captivity. And it had been a month since he and his sister had stopped talking, after they’d fought bitterly about that very issue.
That hurt worst of all. That was why Trey was alone, had been alone, for so long. Because he had fought with his sister. Because Teres wasn’t willing to condemn Flos for dealing with slave traders. Because she was just as bad as the rest of them.
It had been a terrible fight. It hurt Trey now. He’d had fights with his sister before. That was normal. But fights were supposed to end after a while. There might be tears, or hitting, but in the end, after days, or maybe a week at most, you’d make up. Trey and Teres were twins. Being apart was too difficult.
But this fight was different. It had been bitter and harsh, and the scars weren’t healing. Trey could remember every word he’d said when he was alone.
“You think it’s alright?”
Trey screamed at Teres and threw a chair. Not at her, but a wall. His voice was hoarse; he’d been screaming for a long time. So had she, but she screamed right back.
“You’re not seeing the bigger picture!”
“Fuck your bigger picture!”
Trey looked for something else to hurl, but he’d already broken everything else in the room. He turned to Teres, face red.
“He’s keeping slaves, Teres! Slaves! ”
“He’s not keeping them! Idiot! He’s just selling them!”
“Oh, just selling them, is it?”
“You heard him! He’s doing it for his people! Without the money from those merchants—”
“They’re not merchants. They’re slave traders!”
Teres was red with anger. She’d tried to ‘explain’ Flos’ reasoning to Trey several times before and he wasn’t willing to listen. She took a shuddering breath.
“Flos has to protect his people—”
“By selling other people, is that it?”
“He’s got to keep people fed! You heard Orthenon—we need the coin or we won’t last the winter!”
“So that makes slave trading alright then, is that it? Oh wow, I guess if I’m hungry I should see if I can sell some folks off for a bit of cash!”
“It’s the way things are done here! You don’t have to like it—I don’t like it! But we have to change Flos’ mind, not tell him no—”
“Bugger that! You think we should just let it go? You’re mad!”
“I’ve talked with Flos and he’s listening to me. You’re just making him put his back up every time you start shouting—”
Trey was shaking with anger. He felt betrayed. He pointed a shaking finger at Teres.
“I heard you. You think its okay? You think its okay to keep doing it? To tell Flos he can sell off thousands of people just like that? You’re as bad as the rest of them!”
Teres looked like she was on the verge of tears or lashing out. Or both. But Trey wouldn’t listen. His voice rose, cracking with emotion.
“You’re as bad—no, you’re worse because you know it’s wrong. But you’re bloody sick in the head. You’re so obsessed with Orthenon that you’ll watch his lot sell slaves without blinking twice. You’re not my sister. You’re a monster, you sick, twisted, addled cunt—”
That was when she drew her sword and Trey ran for it.
Later, Trey had stormed into the throne room and shouted at Flos. He remembered that, too, in anger though, and not regret. He’d marched up to Flos and yelled at him. At the King of Destruction. Somehow, he’d said his bit without Orthenon kicking him out or cutting him to bits, and Flos had quietly shaken his head.
“Slaves are part of Chandrar’s blood and body, Trey. I will not change that. Nor do I disagree with owning slaves. I have explained that to Teres and she understands. I hope you will too.”
Cold fury. Trey remembered shouting at Flos and Orthenon snapping at him to mind his tongue.
“You think its okay to sell and buy people against their will?”
“Better than letting them rot in a cell. That is what your world does, is that not true?”
Trey faltered. Flos’ gaze was piercing him like a needle. The King spoke softly.
“For years. For twenty years in cases of murder. Longer for some. Forty years? That is a lifetime. And these people must obey their captors, live by their rules, labor as part of their imprisonment. And you tell me that is not slavery?”
“It’s—it’s not the same.”
“Isn’t it? It sounds like hypocrisy, to me. Your world claims to own no slaves, but you enslave your criminals. Well, in Chandrar we do the same. Trey, you may have a different name for slaves in your world, and perhaps you do different things with them. But they are still slaves.”
Flos rose, staring down at Trey with cold eyes. Merciless eyes. The same eyes of a King who would slaughter an army that came against him. Why hadn’t Trey seen it until now? He hadn’t wanted to believe it.
“Slavery allows criminals, enemies of my Kingdom, to be used, Trey. They are a commodity. Locking someone away for twenty years is crueler to my mind, and far more pointless. A slave cannot be mistreated under a just ruler, and they may be freed if—”
“They’re still slaves! Who cares if they’re pampered? They don’t have free will! How could you sell all those people? I thought you were a better King than that!”
That had struck home. Flos’ eyes narrowed.
“Some will be ransomed. The Traders of Roshal are an independent third party. They may ransom those with wealth, and manage those who are not able to buy their freedom. My kingdom needs food and coin for the winter, Trey.”
“I don’t care. You think its okay? I think it’s completely wrong. No—I know it is.”
Flos exhaled hard. He threw out his hands, more exasperated than Trey had ever seen him.
“What would you have me do? My dungeons cannot hold more than a fraction of their number, and feeding them would beggar my kingdom further. Would you have me execute them all? I do not have the stomach for it, and I am the King of Destruction.”
“I’m not telling you to kill them all! You could ransom some of them, and the rest…let them all go if you have to. But don’t treat them like—like—”
In the end Trey had run out of words. He couldn’t explain why slavery was wrong to Flos. He told the King of Destruction the sky was blue, and Flos said it was green. The King had silenced Trey after a while with a wave of one hand.
“You may not like it Trey, but I expect you to live with my decision. It is necessary. Your sister has made her peace with it. So must you. I am your King. And this is my kingdom. So long as you are my subject, you will live by my rules.”
And that was it. Trey stood before Flos, and realized the truth. The terrible truth. He looked up into the face of a man he’d admired, grown to respect, and understand. And he’d shaken his head.
“You’re not my king. I still have a Queen.”
Trey turned and stormed out of the throne room. He hadn’t spoken to Flos on that day, or any day since.
Trey hugged himself as he stood on the balcony, watching the happy people in the streets below. Even now he remembered. And thought it was hard, and lonely, being at odds with Flos and his sister, he still knew he was right.
But it was so hard. Each day, Trey rose and woke up in a small room, apart from Teres. He ate alone, wandered the city alone, and slept alone. No one wanted to talk to him. He didn’t train with Mars, and she had given up on trying to make him do it. Orthenon refused to speak with him so long as Trey didn’t apologize to the King—
He was trying to make Trey give in. Trey could tell. It was like a pulling, a wanting in his chest that made him feel like rushing back to Flos and begging for forgiveness. It was what Trey imagined an addiction felt like; something that couldn’t be fought and tugged at your insides forever. He wondered if this was what Venith had felt like.
But Trey refused to give in. So he stood on the balcony, watching the procession meet groups of cheering people until someone spoke behind him.
The young man jumped. He turned and saw Gazi standing behind him. The half-Gazer smiled a tiny bit. She nodded at him.
“I have been looking for you. My King wishes you to join him in his throne room to welcome his vassals.”
Trey stared at Gazi. He hadn’t seen her of late; she’d been riding about, keeping track of the neighboring countries in case one decided to attack again. So far everything had been quiet. Everyone was afraid of Flos. But of course he would send her to hunt Trey down. He hesitated, and then shook his head.
“The King can go bugger himself.”
Trey flinched as he said it. He waited to be hit, but Gazi said nothing. Instead, he heard her sigh.
She sat next to him on the balcony. Literally on the edge of the balcony, balancing over the three story drop as if her back were against a brick wall.
“I have been away from the city. But your sister and Mars told me of your quarrel with the King.”
She was looking at him with all four eyes. That was uncanny. Trey turned his head, feeling her gaze staring at him. Staring through him.
“It’s not right. Owning slaves. It’s not right, but everyone here does it. They’re all wrong.”
“My King would say the same of locking people up for years. Isn’t that what you do in your world?”
Trey felt something hot and angry bubbling in his chest. Teres had told Flos’ argument to Gazi? He was furious because he didn’t have a good answer to that. He wasn’t a genius! He hadn’t studied the difference between prison and slavery. And it wasn’t about that!
“That’s because they’re prisoners. They’re meant to be punished. Okay, maybe it’s bad too, but slavery is different. It means you don’t have free will. That—that some people are worth more than others. It’s wrong. It’s inhumane.”
“An odd word. Especially to someone who isn’t Human.”
“I didn’t mean—”
Gazi held up a hand, still smiling. It was that fake smile she was wearing, the one that hid her real emotions. She paused, staring down at Trey as the wind blew across her armor and the young man shivered again.
“You know, some nations agree with your thinking. In Izril there are no slaves. The Drakes do not tolerate them, and neither do Gnolls. The Humans in the north rarely owned slaves, but [Ladies] such as Magnolia Reinhart put an end to it during her generation. Yet in Terandria, Baleros, and Rhir slaves are legal.”
Trey shook his head. He felt empty inside. Empty and alone.
“So? It doesn’t matter if everyone thinks that way.”
Gazi nodded, as if he’d made a good point. She went on, one eye turning to follow the parade below.
“Not all slaves are treated the same way, of course. In many nations slaves have no rights. But in Chandrar, and in my lord Flos’ kingdom, slaves cannot be mistreated. In fact, my King generally frees any slaves he takes an interest in. And in Rhir and Baleros, a slave can be freed if they fight in battle and prove themselves.”
More arguments. Trey closed his eyes. He searched for the fiery conviction in his heart and just felt tired. But it had to be said.
“Just because you’re a slave for a while—it’s still wrong. If you own someone, you’re not equal to them. Just because there’s a law, it doesn’t mean it’ll ever be right for someone who’s a slave. If you’re owned, someone could do…anything to you. And you can’t stop it.”
Gazi paused. She lost her smile, and looked impassively at Trey.
“I understand your thinking. So does my lord, even if he does not agree. He is very upset that you will not speak with him. He wishes you to rejoin his side.”
“And that is your decision?”
Trey opened his eyes and looked at Gazi defiantly, although he was afraid of her too.
“Yes. And you can tell that to Flos. Even if you—you drag me to him, I won’t obey him! I won’t pretend everything’s alright!”
“He did tell me to force you to come to him, although he asked me to persuade you first.”
Trey turned to run, but Gazi’s hand shot out. He yelped as she caught his arm. It was impossible to pull away from her; slim though she was and still sitting, she had a grip like iron. Gazi laughed softly as Trey gave up, and then to his surprise, let go. He stumbled back from her.
“He asked. But I am free to disobey. And I will on this matter, and this alone.”
Gazi remained seated on the balcony’s railing. Trey eyed her. He warily took a few steps back towards the doors, ready to flee, but she didn’t move. And probably everyone was on the lookout for him. He hesitated, and then slowly walked back over to Gazi. He stared at her, and all four of her eyes met his.
“Do you believe in slavery?”
She didn’t smile. For once, Gazi didn’t smile. She turned her head, and the corners of her mouth turned down ever so slightly.
“I believe in it. But I do not like it. I am alone in that opinion. I think my King has forgotten that. And so did I, until I heard what you shouted.”
Something. Trey felt something tug at his memory. Back then when Gazi had told them who the Traders of Roshal were, he’d seen her face. She hadn’t smiled then.
“You don’t like slaves either? Why?”
Gazi smiled. But it was a rueful smile. It was awkward, unpracticed, as if she seldom made that kind of face. And she looked down at the ground as she replied.
“I was a slave, once. Until my King freed me.”
For some reason, part of Trey had expected that reply. It was still a surprise, but after a moment it made Gazi’s character, her loyalty, everything, more understandable to Trey.
He thought for a second.
She looked surprised. All four eyes slowly looked Trey up and down, focusing on him. Gazi nodded.
“Yes. You are, aren’t you? That is surprising too. Few people are sorry to hear I was a slave.”
Trey hesitated. He wanted to ask.
“Were you—I mean, why did—”
“I was born a slave. But my King found me when I was a child. He bought me and freed me within a year. Ever since then I have served him.”
It was stupid to say the same thing again, but Trey was no linguist. He carefully rested his arms on the balcony. He stared at Gazi as the wind blew her hair slightly. The Gazer looked a bit melancholy, distant, and wistful. She was remembering. She wasn’t wearing a mask. And she was speaking the truth to him. Her truth.
“I was a slave. I know what you speak of, Trey. I have seen good masters and bad ones. I hate slavery. But my King has never been a slave. He cannot imagine it, and sees it as a fact of life. Slaves in his kingdom are treated well and they can be freed when he orders it. Why should he hate slavery? Venith, Maresar…even Mars and Orthenon have grown up knowing a slave can be well-treated and respected. But they have never been a slave.”
“Haven’t you told them what it’s like? Have you ever tried—”
Gazi nodded. She closed all four eyes.
“Many times. But is not an argument I ever won. Slavery is part of the wealth of Chandrar, part of crime and punishment. You may be executed if you wish, or you may become a slave. So it is framed as a choice, and there is a chance for freedom. But it is only that. A chance. An illusion. If I could end slavery, I would. Regardless of the cost. But my King will not hear of it.”
She clenched one gauntleted fist. Trey nodded. He had another question, so he asked it.
“Why can’t Flos just—I don’t know, fight against the slave traders? What if I—we—suggested that to him? He could free all the slaves, and take their money, and I bet the people would join his army.”
Gazi looked surprised, and then she laughed. She laughed, and it was a bright, cheerful sound that no one had heard before. Trey’s eyes widened. But then Gazi shook her head.
“The Traders of Roshal are a nation, a power unto themselves. They are similar to Wistram. You know of them? Well, Roshal is just as dangerous in its own way. They have their own army, and more money and wealth than most nations could dream of. They have countless magical artifacts hoarded away, and they would defend their possessions to the death. The Traders of Roshal are dangerous, Trey. Remember that for the future.”
Her eyes fixed on Trey and he nodded, feeling his heart skip a beat. Now Gazi wasn’t smiling, and the air around her was intense. Her eyes swiveled around, checking the balcony, the ground below, the very air. Then she spoke quietly.
“I was only a child, but I saw much with my eyes while I was a slave. The Traders have ways of compelling obedience, of defending themselves. Even Named Adventurers must tread carefully because those who break Roshal’s rules will die, no matter where they are. There are assassins and groups of trained killers that have slain monarchs who go against Roshal. And the Traders have countless thousands of years of knowledge. They know secrets of classes and leveling that my lord Flos does not.”
She fell silent for a moment, and then looked at Trey. And he knew she had not told what she spoke of next to anyone. Not even Flos.
“There are…classes which may be gained by doing the most terrible of deeds, Trey. They cannot be earned any other way. They are not real classes either. They are born of despair and filth.”
“Why are you telling me?”
She grinned at him, a true grin, like the one Mars always wore. Was there a hint of mischief in Gazi’s eyes?
“Because you and I think alike. Of my King’s trusted vassals, you and I understand one truth. And perhaps because I trust you.”
“But I’m just a kid from another world.”
“A child? Perhaps. But you are one Flos trusts.”
Trey shook his head, feeling weary and upset again. Everyone thought that. But they were wrong! He spread his arms, helplessly.
“I know that’s what Flos says, but look, Gazi, it’s not true. I mean, he thinks I’m special, or I can be. But I’m not. Teres might be special. She can use a sword, but I can’t. I’m just an ordinary fellow. I don’t have any talents.”
Gazi studied Trey.
“Everyone has their own specialty. My King finds it in people. Surely there is something in you that can be used, or shaped. He told me you are a scholar.”
Trey laughed despairingly, laughed in Gazi’s face.
“He said that. But it’s not true! I mean, I like to study. I like to play video games. I like. But that’s not the same as being good at something, is it? In your—this world, people know what they can do, what they’re good at. But where I come from, some people are just…normal. This world isn’t like mine!”
The half-Gazer pondered while Trey pulled at his hair. She nodded.
“Perhaps that is like this world, after all. Some waste their lives in the wrong class. Others mistake a small talent for a calling. Once I thought all I would do was obey and serve without choice. You are not so different from me, I think.”
Gazi smiled bitterly.
“Perhaps no one has spoken of it to you? Ah, but Orthenon would not. Mars does not care and my King…listen to me, Trey. In truth, I am the weakest of the Seven, among the living and the dead. I was always the lowest in level. The least able.”
“No. You? Really?”
Gazi shrugged and indicated the sword on her back and her armor.
“I am a [Scout]. Not a specialized class. See my arms and armor? My King had them forged for me, to make up for my weaknesses. But they are still there. I earned my reputation as a dangerous foe, but it is only partly deserved. I worked to make my legend worthy of my King.”
Trey edged closer. He was very close to Gazi, and could actually smell her in the cold. She gave off a metallic scent, from her armor no doubt, but there was a spiciness in the air. No—cinnamon. She smelled a bit like that. Spicy cinnamon.
Gazi laughed again, a sound like bells, or the very spirit of them.
“How did I make my name known? It is simple. Fear. All know the name of Mars, and only a fool would not know of Orthenon. But my name is whispered among those who spy and wander alone. Gazi the Omniscient. Of the Seven, my title was given not out of mockery, but hatred.”
Gazi grinned at him, showing off her classic smile. The scary one. But now Trey knew it was just an act. And that she did it on purpose. She looked at Trey, smiling.
“I did it for him, Trey. My King.”
“But he believes in slavery.”
“That is his one great flaw. But he is still my lord. I owe everything to him. So I follow him despite that. Can you understand? He broke my chains. He freed me—not just from being a slave in body, but in my mind.”
“In your mind? Like—how?”
“He told you once that there are secrets of rulers. Secrets only they know of this world and of leveling.”
How did she know that? Trey nodded. Gazi’s eyes searched their surroundings again. Then she leaned forwards and whispered to him.
“The great secret my King knows…one of them is the knowledge that a single class is best. But that is only half of it. The other half is that it is possible to remove a needless class. It is not easy, but it can be done. And only a [King] or other [Ruler] may do it.”
“He took away my chains. I am no longer a [Slave]. A [King] can remove needless classes to those who pledge themselves to him. Orthenon was a [Traitor]. Takhatres a [Cursed Outcast]. My King freed us all of our pasts and gave us a future.”
Silence. Trey understood a bit more. He looked at Gazi. Once, she had been a slave. She had no future, until he’d freed her. He understood that. And yet.
“I can’t forgive him for selling people.”
“I am not asking you to. But you cannot hide forever.”
Something in Trey agreed, but a part of him pulled back. He stared at Gazi, growing a bit angry.
“Is that why you’re talking to me? You’re still trying to persuade me to go to him and say sorry, right?”
A hand smacked Trey lightly on the head. Lightly, but it was still metal. He staggered. Gazi smiled at him. Genuinely.
“I am not forcing you to go anywhere. In fact, I think it will be good if you do not go to my King now. Perhaps later you will sit with me at dinner, but only then. You do not have to change for my King, and perhaps if you do not, he will. No one has ever been able to change my King—Flos—but himself. But perhaps you can.”
And that was why she was here. Trey felt a huge burden on his shoulders, realizing what Gazi was suggesting. But he felt lighter, too. Because he wasn’t alone.
For a while the half-Gazer and the young man stood on the balcony, staring down at the last of the procession as it entered the city. It had been a long parade; Trey guessed there were at least several hundred Stitch-warriors and a good two dozen or more of those [Mages].
Gazi eyed Trey. She opened her mouth speculatively, closed it, then asked her question two minutes later.
“You have a [Mage]’s staff in your room. Do you know how to use it?”
“How do you—no, I don’t. No one’s taught us magic. Orthenon said he’d start, but I haven’t spoken to him for a long time.”
Trey felt bad about that. He wondered if he would sit with Gazi tonight. If only to speak with Teres. He didn’t have to say he was wrong. And he wanted to speak with her again. Gazi studied Trey and nodded.
“Perhaps I could teach you some spells?”
He blinked. Trey turned to Gazi.
“You know how to use magic?”
She grinned and one eye winked at Trey. It was a very Human gesture and it made him smile.
“Of course. My people—Gazers—are highly magical beings. They’re what you could call a race naturally inclined towards magic, like half-Elves and to an extent, Lizardfolk. But they send very few representatives to Wistram. Their magic is more…chaotic than typical [Mages].”
“So you could teach—”
“Perhaps. We shall see.”
They waited a bit longer, as the streets cleared below, and the sun set quickly in a winter sky. It was a pretty world, for all that it was harsh. Trey exhaled and watched his breath spiral up into the sky. Then he asked the question he’d feared the answer to.
“Gazi? What is Flos going to do now?”
She was silent for a very long time, as shadows lengthened on the balcony.
“He will go to war, of course. It is time. The army is ready. With the Serpent Hunters and Parasol Stroll—”
“The [Mages] and the [Warriors] you just saw entering the city. I recognized their companies. They are mercenaries now, but they served my King before.”
“I get that, but why Parasol Stroll? That’s their name? Why?”
The half-Gazer shrugged.
“Mages and names seldom make sense. However, in this case each mage in the band has a parasol—a thing to keep the sun away.”
“I know what that is. But why do they have one?”
“Fashion. And each one is enchanted in some way. They were powerful mages; each one above Level 20 at the very least. With their companies, my King will no doubt begin waging war.”
Trey’s heart skipped a beat. He paused.
“Those who made war against him.”
Six nations, then. Trey gulped. He remembered the smell of battle, the visions of death. He never wanted to see that again. But he felt he would. Over and over.
“Who’ll be first?”
“His fury is directed foremost towards the kingdom of Hellios and the people of Germina—especially at their leader, the Quarass. When we ride to war, and it will be in days, it will be against her, I think.”
Trey shuddered. His voice was very small and quiet. He felt something squeezing the words out of his chest. He wanted to cry, but it wouldn’t help.
“I don’t want to be here, Gazi.”
She looked at him with a bit of sympathy.
“I know. But you are here. And so you must follow my King. But remember this. You are not alone.”
And she held out a hand, and Trey took it. And the next day Flos did declare war, and Trey found himself marching with the King of Destruction. To the first war on Chandrar. And the news woke up a continent, and the world.
That was six weeks ago.
The coach that drove quickly towards the estate of the Melissar house was noted from a distance, and the gates were already open and servants were rushing out by the time it pulled up in front of the large manor where other coaches, carriages, and other modes of transportation were parked.
Perhaps a lesser [Lord] or [Lady] or some of the more well-respected and higher-level [Knights] and [Guildmasters] and so on would have had to identify themselves to the guards at the gates. But not so for the occupants of this carriage. The owner was identifiable at a glance, mainly because of the striking appearance of the magical carriage, not to mention the carriage itself.
It was pink. The horseless carriage, or rather, the carriage pulled by ghostly horses that used mana to travel at extreme speed, was painted painfully, eye-searingly, frightfully pink. It was said that [Bandits] and other criminals couldn’t bear to attack the carriage because of the color.
Which was a shame, because Magnolia Reinhart had standing orders with all of her carriage drivers to run over any [Bandits] they encountered on the road. Several hundred pounds of enchanted wood and metal approaching at speed tended to reduce crime in a drastic and often spectacular fashion.
Still, it was probably a good thing the carriage wasn’t covered in blood and bits as the door opened and a tall, stern [Maid] stepped out. After all, this was a social event, and Lady Magnolia knew impressions were important.
Not that she particularly cared. The [Servants] rushing to open the doors themselves backed off as Ressa held the door open for Magnolia. They knew the pecking order, and in that sense Ressa wasn’t a bird but a [Hunter] with a bow and arrow.
Magnolia Reinhart stepped out of her carriage, wearing a pink and green dress. Pink and green being colors to describe a dress that looked more like a work of art than actual clothing.
It was a long and flowing ball gown in truth, although it avoided the poofy, ruffled look that Magnolia so detested. One could fit down a narrow corridor without getting stuck, and the dress included actual sleeves and a neckline that didn’t swoop or dive, or even hover. Magnolia had no desire to flaunt anything, except for the dress itself.
It was pink and green. It started green from the bottom, the dark green of a forest mulch, or cavern moss, and spread upwards, lightening in color and texture, so that when the pink started, and it was a bright pink, a pink that practically shone in itself, you had the impression of a flower. A flower worn by a woman considered by many to be the most powerful Human female on the continent. And she was certainly a contender for a high rank in any world listing as well.
“Ressa, please tell these servants to go away and hurry up and open these doors, would you? I’m in a hurry and if I see a bowed buttocks, I shall kick it. Or order you to.”
The servants parted as Magnolia and Ressa strode up the stairs towards the manor quickly, ignoring their greetings and the head servant hurrying after them. Both [Maid] and Mistress walked as if nothing would stop them, and nothing did. Doors opened for them, and they strode into the estate of the Melissar family.
Magnolia was in no mood for formalities. She never was. She strode down the hallway, not needing a guide to head towards her destination. A [Lady] shouldn’t stride of course, but Magnolia was a high-level [Lady] and a good one at that, so she managed to stride with grace. One could call it gliding, or some other suitable appellation that might make it more acceptable, but Magnolia knew when she was striding.
She was in a hurry. She let Ressa field the harried [Head Butler] and crooked her fingers at the pair of servants standing at attention at the double doors at the end of the hallway. They opened the doors instantly, and she walked into a huge ballroom filled with the aristocracy of Izril.
“Lady Magnolia Reinhart!”
The [Herald] announced Magnolia without including any of her many titles, nicknames, or ranks. That was at her insistent request as well. The biggest fish didn’t need to announce itself. And when her voice was called, the room went silent.
This was the room. It was a marble floored room filled with low-hung chandeliers, magnificent inlays on the walls and pillars supporting the room, and in Magnolia’s opinion, decorated with some rather fine silk curtains that complimented the expensive glass windows that looked out onto the rest of the world.
It was a large ballroom—one of the largest around, and no doubt why the Melissar family had been chosen to host this gathering of the nobility. It was a sign of their influence and wealth.
For anyone who could claim to have hosted over a third of the [Lords] and [Ladies] of the north was powerful indeed. And that was who was present.
A sea of heads turned towards Magnolia as she calmly descended the steps into the ballroom. Ressa appeared by her side. The [Head Maid] had not changed her austere black and white dress, but she still attracted her share of glances as well.
No one knelt as Magnolia entered the room. She wasn’t royalty, after all. But heads bobbed and some people curtsied. [Lords] dressed in fashionable suits of armor or wearing cloth suits that were enchanted to be just as protective, bowed to Magnolia as she passed by. [Ladies] dressed in every fashion from the voluminous and wide gowns Magnolia hated so much to sleek dresses that left little to the imagination—not that Magnolia bothered imagining—made their own greetings.
At another dance, or gathering perhaps the style of the season would be in and everyone would dress alike. But this was a different sort of meeting, and personal uniqueness and flair trumped all. Magnolia’s rapid pace slowed to a gentle crawl as she scanned the room.
At first, the room would appear to be a jumble of bodies to the casual outsider, or someone not used to such gatherings. But Magnolia saw the currents in the room. In this room, there were tables set up with tasteful and exotic appetizers, an open central area to dance in, and many places where groups of people stood and mingled.
But it was the groups that mattered. There was an unwritten code here, and a hierarchy. In every circle, there was the most influential, the most powerful, the most high-level or simply the most politically powerful individual who commanded the attention of others, at least for the moment. Politics in Izril was a game of connections and intrigue, of strategy and alliances.
Magnolia had no time for any of it.
“Ressa, find me one of the speaking gems if they haven’t started debating already. I’ll say my greetings to our hostess, but I don’t have time for other nonsense.”
Ressa turned. There was already a servant hurrying towards Magnolia and Ressa with a pair of sparkling amethysts cut into circles and lined with silver. Ressa plucked the two coin gemstones off of the pillow and handed one to Magnolia. The [Lady] sighed as she gently placed it on the front of her dress where it began to glow with a soft inner light. All of the people around her had a similar gemstone on some part of their garments.
“No one’s talking. Well, good. Now, where is Lady Patricia Melissar?”
She looked around. So did Ressa.
“She’s not dancing.”
“No, and I would expect her to be finding the most handsome men right now. Odd. I wonder if she’s indisposed?”
Magnolia kept looking, and she frowned as her eyes alighted on a man standing alone, drinking from a cup. She sighed as she nudged Ressa with an elbow.
“Ah, there’s Lord Tyrion. How unexpected to see him here…or perhaps not. He’s not dancing either, I see.”
Ressa’s expression didn’t noticeably change, but her mouth tightened in a way only her long-time friend, Magnolia, would notice. Magnolia felt the same way.
“I believe there are few women of sufficient status present he would consent to dancing with. If milady wished, I have no doubt you could invite him to a dance.”
“You do have the most dreadful ideas, Ressa.”
The maid smiled ever so slightly.
“I could obtain some suitably heavy boots if you wish.”
Magnolia laughed lightly, and the people hovering close to her but not so close as to be assumed to be eavesdropping chuckled as well, just in case she’d said something worth laughing about.
“You know, I heard of these wonderful shoes from our guests a while back. Stilettos. I’d love to wear a pair, although I wonder if the points can be sharpened further?”
“I shall inquire at the first opportunity.”
Magnolia sipped her drink, eyeing Tyrion Veltras, scion of one of the Five Families of Izril, and technically, as powerful as she was. Perhaps more or perhaps less. For all those in the room, that was a question whose answer would be worth its weight in diamonds.
“Why don’t you dance with him, Ressa?”
“Even if I ordered you to?”
The pair’s casual banter might have attracted Tyrion’s attention, or he had simply heard the announcement. Magnolia sighed as she saw him glance around and felt his piercing gaze settle on her face with very little love. She returned the glance, with no love at all.
“He’s coming over. Duty bound to offer greetings, no doubt.”
“Shall I attempt to stop him?”
“Best not to risk an altercation, Ressa. Besides, he’s not as weak as he used to be. You can’t push him around and I rather fear he could lay waste to this entire room with all the artifacts he has on him. Allow me to employ a gentler touch.”
She walked over towards Tyrion. A group of [Lords] and [Ladies], noticing Magnolia Reinhart and Tyrion Veltras approaching each other and realizing they were in the way, immediately shuffled at speed to one side. There was little love lost between the two, and so it was with stiff formality that Tyrion bowed to Magnolia and she gave him the slightest nod.
“Lady Magnolia. I am honored to greet you on this day.”
“Lord Tyrion. I’d rather hoped you would have eaten something ghastly and exploded by now, but fortune hasn’t been kind to either of us, has it?”
The man’s eye twitched a bit, but he covered the motion by passing a gloved hand over his mouth. He was dressed much like Ressa, which was to say, all in black. He was also a head taller than Magnolia, which annoyed her because it left a crimp in her neck every time she talked to him.
“You are as thorny as ever, Reinhart.”
“Only to you, Tyrion. Don’t tell me this was the crisis that pulled you away from your estates?”
The man glanced impassively around the room.
“I considered it an important matter. I should have expected you would be present, however. You seldom missed such events as I recall.”
“I never do.”
Magnolia retorted, noting the people watching and listening to their conversation on the peripherals of her vision. She knew many people here had Skills or an artifact that allowed them to eavesdrop. Not that she feared saying anything important—but it would be just like Tyrion to say something devastating without a second thought. Information was currency here, and someone might make their fortunes based on a sentence carelessly let slip.
Tyrion Veltras studied Magnolia, not looking too pleased to see her. He really did think it was a [Lord]’s duty to greet her as a peer. How tiresome.
“How long has it been since we’ve met?”
“Four years, I believe. I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of your wife. I hope your two young sons are in good hands.”
He stiffened at that, and the metal cup in his hand bent. Magnolia saw fury in his eyes and saw Ressa moving towards her quickly, a hand in her dress. Magnolia stopped her maid with a flick of a finger.
“What do you mean by that?”
Magnolia remained cool as she stared up at Tyrion.
“Exactly what I said. That was a sincere comment from the heart.”
He paused, and she could see him visibly readjust, grow calmer. He bowed his head slightly.
“Then I shall take it as such. My apologies.”
A [Lord] does not question a [Lady]’s word. Magnolia sighed out loud.
“You really haven’t changed. As pleasant as this is Tyrion, I think I shall go walk barefoot on glass shards for a more delightful change of pace.”
“Until we next meet, Reinhart.”
They left it at that. Magnolia walked back and Ressa met her in moments.
“That was fun.”
“It will become even more enjoyable in a second.”
“Oh, what now?”
Ressa’s warning came a moment before another person swept towards Magnolia. A lady and a man, both dressed in bright clothing, came striding towards Magnolia. Both she recognized, and it was with a smile that Magnolia greeted them. A smile the lady did not return.
“Bethal! How wonderful it is to see you!”
The [Lady] gave her the most perfunctory of curtsies and the man bowed to her slightly. Magnolia kept smiling, but she noticed the expression on the other woman’s face. It was not happy.
“You seem upset, Lady Bethal. May I ask why?”
The woman replied curtly.
“I do not know. Perhaps you could explain the hooded figure that my guards found in my gardens two days ago. They gave chase and slew the intruder when they fought back. An [Assassin], as it turned out. Did you have anything to do with this, Magnolia?”
There was a feeling in the air that grew strong as Bethal spoke. Not just a feeling. An aura that surrounded the woman. The word for it was spiky. It was as if invisible edged blades filled the air—it wasn’t just a feeling either. People around the two ladies began moving away at speed, but Magnolia simply smiled.
“Lady Bethal, if I sent an [Assassin] after you, would I be so foolish as to send one? You and I have not quarreled and I do believe we are friends. That [Assassin] was not mine, believe me. In fact, I am quite grateful you killed him. Or her. Or it?”
The [Lady] studied Magnolia’s face.
“Her. She was a human.”
“I am pleased you came to no harm. And I trust neither did your guards?”
Bethal hesitated. The dangerous aura around her faded. She smiled at Magnolia and laughed lightly. It was as if her fury of a second ago had never been there, and the effect was disconcerting if you had never met Lady Bethal before.
“Of course not! How silly of me. Here I was worked up about the issue, while my dear husband assured me you would never have anything to do with that!”
“Not for all the gold in Baleros.”
“Then let me say how wonderful it is to see you!”
The two traded light kisses on the cheek, Bethal exclaiming over Magnolia’s dress. The woman turned to the man standing beside her.
“And of course you know my husband.”
“[Chevalier] Thomast. Of course! How are you, Sir Thomast?”
“Very well, my lady Reinhart.”
The elegant man in the doublet bowed and kissed Magnolia’s proffered hand. She smiled at him and then turned back to Lady Bethal.
“Have you seen Patricia? I should welcome her before the arguing starts.”
Bethal shook her head, pursing her lips.
“I have not seen her. But her daughter is over there.”
She pointed. Magnolia turned and saw a young girl laughing demurely with some other girls her age while they eyed the dancers in the center of the room. Magnolia smiled as her eyes fell on one with flowing brown hair.
“Ah, young Eliasor. She must be eight now.”
Ressa murmured as she and Thomast nodded to each other. Magnolia sighed.
“Ah, to be that young. I won’t go over and scare her, Ressa. Perhaps you can go and ask a servant where Patricia—”
She broke off. Someone was speaking. In fact, every head in the room turned and almost all of the conversations ended at once. Because the person who was speaking could be heard by everyone who wore a jeweled broach, as if they were standing right next to the speaker.
“The King of Destruction has returned. Are we supposed to simply pretend this isn’t an issue and chat idly? Let us discuss this crisis already!”
Magnolia looked for the man who’d spoken. She recognized one of the more aggressive [Lords], a proper war hawk, who’d grown impatient waiting. Many people were frowning at him, but his standing probably hadn’t been damaged by speaking the thoughts on everyone’s mind.
By custom, the absent hostess should have initiated the debate. But once it had begun, voices began speaking. Usually it was only one or two voices at once, but the conversation en masse could become an indecipherable hubbub as well. It was to this Magnolia listened, letting the first speakers make their points and reserving her words for when they mattered.
“If you must bring the subject up, Lord Relt, then begin with the facts. Has the King of Destruction returned?”
“Every report say so. Unless you have no spies in that region?”
“My informants claim he was awake months ago.”
“If it’s a game of guessing when he awoke, I won’t bother. But this is the first moment in which he’s taken action similar to the past.”
Someone spoke up sharply. Magnolia saw Lady Wuvren snap the handheld fan she carried. The crack made all the listeners wince.
“He destroyed a nation and beheaded its [Queen]! The Quarass of Germina is dead and the capital lies in ruins! And the King of Destruction is already marching on Hellios! What are we to think, if not that the King of Destruction is destroying nations again?”
Silence. Someone coughed and then spoke.
“It was a war of retaliation.”
Wuvren rounded on the speaker.
“A war? It was a massacre! He destroyed the enemy army in a pitched battle in a single day!”
“After six nations sent an army after him.”
“Yes. If that doesn’t confirm the King of Destruction has returned, I imagine few things will.”
“So then, your point?”
“The question was whether the King of Destruction has returned. I would say he most emphatically has, and he hasn’t changed.”
Relt spoke into his stone, overriding the next speaker. Magnolia winced and wished there were a way to lower the volume the enchantment produced.
“No, he has not. And he must be stopped now, or he will once again destroy nation after nation and threaten our shores.”
This speaker was another [Lord]. He was a minor one, but he held his ground as Relt glared at him.
“You don’t fear the King of Destruction, Lord Halast?”
“I don’t fear a man on another continent, surrounded by nations which have every reason to want him dead.”
“Those are the same thoughts that let him engulf all of Chandrar last time!”
Halast spoke curtly.
“Last time we didn’t know what he was capable of. Now everyone knows the danger posed by the King of Destruction. The nations will unite, and defeat him. He doesn’t have his armies any longer, and as far as I know, only a few of his vassals have rejoined him.”
“He has his Seven—”
“Five now. And I’m told that Amerys is still residing in Wistram.”
“She hasn’t joined him?”
“Or perhaps the [Mages] have convinced her to stay. Either way, the King of Destruction is not as dangerous as he was.”
“That was what was said last time. If you’re foolish enough to believe he won’t succeed—”
“He slew one ruler. Not a [Queen]! It was the Quarass of Germina, hardly royalty.”
“What’s a Quarass?”
Magnolia opened her mouth to respond, but Lady Bethal by her side spoke into her stone first.
“The Quarass is as important as a [Queen]! She is a tribal leader—”
“A [Chieftain] is hardly comparable to a [Queen].”
Bethal’s voice could have cut iron.
“The Quarass is a position revered and acknowledged across Chandrar, Lord Luden. She, along with five other leaders of the tribes are considered part of the Shelter Kingdoms, which hold sway over a great deal of eastern Chandrar, if only politically. Once upon a time, the Quarass and the other Shelter Kingdoms were each powerful empires, capable of challenging Dragons. Her death will cause ripples throughout the entire continent!”
Magnolia murmured to Bethal as the conversation lulled for a bit and Lord Luden flushed red. Bethal smiled at Magnolia and whispered back. She didn’t have a finger on her stone so her words weren’t carried to the others
“I do pay attention to women I admire.”
At that Magnolia had to cough so her eye roll wouldn’t be noticed. As far as she understood, the Quarass was not a woman to be admired, at least, not by anyone who thought honor and decency were more than words.
The argument began heating up. It was always like this, and Magnolia listened with one ear as she watched the [Lords] and [Ladies] who’d come to the gathering argue about what was to be done about the King of Destruction.
“We could send gold to a nation—”
“Gold hardly buys arms and soldiers. A small nation can only do so much.”
“What about the Emperor of the Sands?”
“What about him?”
“He’s at war with the King of Destruction.”
“If he is, it will be a long time before they meet. And if he triumphs, I hardly imagine an [Emperor] would be an improvement over the King of Destruction.”
“I am saying we must act in some way.”
“Are you proposing to send an army across the sea?”
“I am proposing we act in some measure, even if it is to condemn the King of Destruction—”
“A signed treatise? What use would that be?”
“A united front—”
“—won’t be part of any declaration—”
“—funding a mercenary company from Baleros—”
“—see what Wistram has to say—”
“May I offer a course of action?”
The voice that interrupted was deep, low, and booming. He silenced every other speaker. And Magnolia’s head turned. She turned, searching the crowd and saw the speaker standing by a pillar, alone. She hadn’t seen him before, but upon hearing his slightly nasal, deep, deep voice she knew who—and what—had to be speaking.
Quite carefully she turned and hissed to her [Maid].
“Ressa, why didn’t you mention the Minotaur to me?”
The woman shrugged.
“I assumed you’d spotted him.”
“I would have eventually, but it helps when you point such important people out!”
The Minotaur was speaking now. He was dressed in a suit tailored for a Minotaur, emphasizing his physique and biceps. Magnolia eyed it—not in appreciation as Bethal was doing—but thoughtfully. Here was a Minotaur who had been financed to attend such events. Odd.
“I hesitate to interrupt, but I have been sent by my [King] to address this auspicious gathering. My role is as an emissary. The House of Minos is prepared to go to war against the King of Destruction, that he might never threaten the world as he did in the past.”
Gasps rang out across the room. Magnolia’s brows shot together as a low murmur sprang up throughout the room.
“If that’s the case—”
“The armies of Minos? Will they sail all the way to Chandrar?”
The Minotaur spoke, carefully touching the stone.
“My [King] is prepared to send an army capable of defeating the King of Destruction. However, he understands such an act would be considered a declaration of war by many kingdoms. He has tasked me and others to approach other assemblies and request formal support.”
“In what fashion?”
Magnolia spoke sharply into the stone. She sensed heads turning. The Minotaur bowed to her.
“We would ask for a written treaty allowing us to sail without hindrance, and a small contribution to our army. Arms or gold would allow us to ready ourselves for battle.”
“So you are approaching us as mercenaries, is that it?”
The Minotaur paused. It was a touchy word for them, but Magnolia was watching his face across the room for his reaction. She saw him give her and the others a polite smile which revealed nothing.
“We would like to consider it more a manner of honor than anything else. To defend peace, our people are willing to fight. It is an offer made in good faith.”
And that cast her into an unfavorable light for questioning him, didn’t it? Magnolia narrowed her eyes as people began to express relieved support.
“I’m sure we could offer some small token of thanks—”
“An open-ended agreement from our houses should not be an issue. What say we put it to the vote?”
Magnolia didn’t know if she wanted that. But she could sense the mood in the room and it was immediately swinging towards this unexpectedly convenient solution. Too convenient. She glanced at Tyrion. Magnolia knew if she voted against the resolution—and she didn’t have a solid reason to—she would be able to pull quite a few votes with her. But it would only work if another scion of the Five Families were present, and in this gathering there was only Tyrion.
He was watching the Minotaur warily. But when it came to a vote, Tyrion voted to support the Minotaurs, and so did Magnolia.
Ressa frowned at Magnolia as the discussion went on as to how much to give the Minotaurs and how to word a declaration that the humans of Izril were against the King of Destruction.
“A problem, milady?”
“How much do we know about the Minotaurs, Ressa? They’re always fighting their enemy down around their isles—but recently?”
“A few engagements at sea. Their failed war with Baleros around fifteen years back. A war with Terandria which Izril participated in twenty eight years ago. Numerous skirmishes…”
“They tried to take over the world once. But then, which race hasn’t?”
Magnolia studied the Minotaur, frowning. Ressa stared impassively at him. The Minotaur was giving nothing away. He was a trained [Courtier] or some similar class, Magnolia had no doubt. And that was odd. She’d never seen a Minotaur in a diplomatic function.
“You think this is a trick?”
“Possibly, but it’s probably a trick in the sense that they’ll honor their word and then demand something else when they’re in a good position. The lands that belonged to Flos, perhaps. That would give them quite a bit of territory, which is what the Minotaurs always wanted.”
“Do you believe we should not have voted for them?”
“I think we’ll have to wait and see. And I might have to see about finding some spies willing to visit the islands…although they would stick out like a sore thumb.”
Magnolia sighed as the conversation came to a close. The people in the room seemed generally relieved by the resolution, so she decided to stir up the pot. There was more than one reason she’d come here today.
“Before you leave, [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, let me put another important matter forwards.”
Heads turned apprehensively towards Magnolia. She looked around the room, watching the Minotaur out of the corner of her eye.
“Have you all forgotten that there is a Goblin Lord raising an army just south of the High Passes?”
Silence. Then someone spoke.
“We are aware, but that is a Drake issue, isn’t it? With all respect Lady Reinhart, I had heard the Drakes were taking care of the issue.”
“Oh? Are you so certain they will defeat the Goblin Lord?”
Magnolia’s tone was icy. The Minotaur wasn’t changing his expression at all. She cursed inwardly.
“They’ve sent two armies to fight him. Together they should crush a Goblin Lord.”
“And if he escapes? A Goblin Lord is one step away from a Goblin King. And I have heard different rumors as well. Or has no one else heard of a troubling tale? That of a so-called Goblin Great Chieftain? One who fought with the last Goblin King in the war?”
The Minotaur twitched ever so slightly at the mention of the Goblin Chieftain. Around the room Magnolia could hear some people gasping who hadn’t heard the rumor.
“A Great Chieftain? Is that a class?”
“With the last Goblin King? Why would we have not heard of a Goblin like that?”
“To support the Goblin Lord? If that’s the case—”
“Are you suggesting we send an army ourselves to deal with the Goblin Lord, Lady Reinhart?”
That last question came at Magnolia. She broke away from eyeing the Minotaur who’d gone back to impassively watching to smile at the speaker.
“That is the question, isn’t it? Do we send an army? The Great Chieftain is on our lands. I believe he must be eradicated no matter what, and I am sure you are all in agreement. As for the Goblin Lord—”
“Let the Drakes deal with him.”
Someone cut in. Only one person would dare. Magnolia turned to Tyrion, but he returned her gaze without blinking. He spoke confidently as all eyes turned towards him.
“Even if the Goblin Lord destroys both Drake armies, let him go. Unless he comes north—and if he does, he will most likely destroy Liscor—we will benefit.”
Outraged voices rose.
“Destroy Liscor? If he heads north, our southernmost cities will all fall as well! Esthelm was already destroyed! Are you suggesting we let that happen to every city in the area?”
Tyrion’s voice was calm.
“Esthelm did fall, but the people have retaken the city. They fought off another of the Goblin Lord’s armies.”
Shock echoed through the room at this. Magnolia ground her teeth together. Tyrion would know about Esthelm. She knew what he was doing but she couldn’t stop it. The man continued calmly.
“Our cities can defend themselves. They knew the risks of being closer to the border. If the Goblin Lord comes north, we will muster an army to defeat them. And if he does come north, he will have done more damage to the Drakes than we. And that is all to the better, once war comes.”
“We do not need war with the Drakes! We need allies, not more enemies!”
Magnolia snapped into her speaking stone, but the mood was against her. People were in favor of leaving the Goblin Lord alone, especially if it meant trouble for their southern neighbors. Tyrion abandoned the conversation, job done. Magnolia tore the gemstone off her dress and stormed towards him.
“You are an idiot, Tyrion Veltras.”
“And you don’t see the danger the Drakes pose, Reinhart.”
His voice was cold as he spoke to her. Tyrion eyed Ressa and the [Maid] gave him her coldest stare which didn’t faze him an inch. Magnolia took a deep breath and tried not to kick the man.
“Sending an army to pointlessly kill thousands of Drakes every few years does not help this continent, Tyrion. What do you expect will happen if you win this time?”
“If we beat them at the Blood Fields, we’ll take Liscor. We just need the upper hand and we will push past the High Passes. They’ve held it this long, but the Goblin Lord is the opportunity we need.”
Tyrion stared calmly at Magnolia. She opened her mouth to tell him Drakes were not the enemy, when someone screamed.
Her head whipped around. Someone was standing at the double doors. A man in black, with a sword in hand, dripping blood. His face was wrapped in a black shroud, and he was unmistakably an [Assassin]. He shoved the [Head Butler] aside, and the man fell, a wound in his chest. The [Assassin] lifted something with his left hand and threw it.
A head flew into the center of the room. It landed wetly on the ground. More people screamed. Magnolia stared at the head and then saw the blur.
Ressa leapt, but it was Tyrion who caught the dagger. He swatted it out of the air with a gloved hand, interposing himself between Magnolia and the [Assassin]. She blinked at him.
“Did you just save my life, Tyrion Veltras?”
He turned to her as the [Assassin] began to flee.
“A [Lord] does not deal with underhanded murderers and plots. If I kill you, it will be out in the open.”
Magnolia nodded. Then she seized Ressa, who was guarding Magnolia’s back.
“Find the others. There must have been more!”
“I should guard—”
“Tyrion is here. Go!”
The [Maid] hesitated, and then became a blur that leapt towards one of the windows. More people cried out as glass broke and Tyrion stared after Ressa with narrowed eyes.
“The [Assassin] will escape. Is that your plan?”
Magnolia was breathing a bit heavily. She saw people running after the [Assassin] now the shock had ended. The Minotaur was running, although he could hardly hope to catch the killer.
“No. He won’t get away.”
A voice rang out above the shouting. A man strode forwards, rapier in hand. Thomast, Lady Bethal’s husband.
“[Affair of Honor]!”
The man in black had reached the doors. But he paused, mid-step when Thomast used his skill. The Chevalier’s voice rang throughout the room.
“Turn, murderer. There can be no retreat until this matter is settled by blade.”
Magnolia saw the [Assassin]’s shoulders slump. He turned, and the Chevalier Thomast strode towards the man in black, rapier in hand. The room parted for the two to meet.
Magnolia did not watch the assassin die. She strode over to the head on the floor pushing aside the people who’d formed a wide circle around it. Magnolia stared down at it as a [Lord] and a female adventurer inspected the head carefully, neither actually touching it. The [Lord] looked up, saw Lady Magnolia, and stood up to bare her path.
“Lady Reinhart, please stay back. The head may be warded or enchanted to do further harm upon being touched.”
“Then check. But I wish to see the deceased.”
“Stop wasting time.”
Someone pushed past her. Magnolia turned and saw Tyrion. He strode into the circle of onlookers and despite the adventurers’ protests, bent and picked up the head by the hair.
Something flashed on his hand. A ring blazed and then the light from within faded. Tyrion inspected the head and then turned it to face Magnolia. She felt a lurch in her stomach, but controlled the feeling. Instead of fainting, retching, or staggering away as some of the people behind her were doing, she simply sighed.
The dead woman’s head was white, drained of blood. Her features were contorted in horror, but it was her face. Magnolia would have known it anywhere. She had been a friend of Magnolia’s.
And now she was dead.
Tyrion stared at Magnolia.
“Is the [Assassin] another one of your plots, Reinhart?”
“No, some enemies of mine seem to want to kill me. And my friends too, it seems.”
Magnolia spoke automatically, while one phrase flashed through her mind again and again.
The Circle of Thorns.
“This is no business of mine.”
He turned, and handed the head to a [Lord] who nearly dropped it. Tyrion strode out of the room as Thomast bent to wipe his blade on the dead assassin’s clothing. A capable killer he might have been, but Magnolia knew there were few who could match someone of the [Duelist] class in a one-on-one bout.
In the end, Ressa returned empty-handed. The head disappeared, and the room was filled with shock and fear. Magnolia ignored the eyes turned towards her and the whispers, and found Lady Bethal with her husband.
“Lady Bethal. Thomast. Thank you for disposing of the killer.”
The man’s eyes were shadowed as he bowed.
“It was my honor and duty. But I regret Lady Patricia’s death.”
“Yes. And she had no husband. So there is another matter which must be dealt with now.”
Magnolia turned and Ressa pointed her silently towards a group of girls, one of whom was weeping uncontrollably. Patricia’s sole daughter, Eliasor, tried to curtsy when Magnolia approached her, but the woman waved that away.
“No formalities now. Eliasor, I am sorry that your mother was killed in such a heinous way. But now that she is gone, there is something that must be done.”
She touched the gemstone Ressa handed her and spoke into it loudly, cutting above every other voice in the room.
“Ladies and lords! Lady Patricia’s life was cut untimely short! However, her daughter, Lady Eliasor still lives. She is now the head of the Melissar family. I bid you all welcome her as a peer!”
There was a pause, and then by her side, Lady Bethal cutsied to Eliasor. The girl stared at her, wide-eyed, and then at Lady Magnolia as she did the same. Around the room, the [Lords] and [Ladies] remembered their duty and bowed or curtsied, acknowledging Eliasor.
It was a painful sight, to see the girl try to respond as tears still ran down her face. Magnolia spoke to her more quietly.
“I know this is hardly the time to think of such things, but you are your family’s sole heir now, Eliasor. If you wish it, I will send my own guards and [Maids] to assist you in the weeks to come.”
The girl opened her mouth, choked, and kept crying. Magnolia paused.
“I fear your mother’s death was my fault. Lady Patricia was one of my confidants, a trusted friend. She had a place in my circle, and I hope that one day I may offer you the same. But I swear to you, Eliasor, I will find the people who ordered your mother’s death. And I will kill them all regardless of where they hide. You have my word on that.”
“Thank you—Lady Reinhart.”
Magnolia nodded down at Eliasor. She hesitated, and then walked away.
“Lady Bethal, Lady Pryde, Lady Wuvren, Lady Zanthia, to me.”
They came out of the crowd, people parting to let them pass. Magnolia looked at some of the foremost [Ladies] of Izril, and nodded towards the doors.
“Let us leave Eliasor to her grief. We must talk.”
They strode out of the room, people parting to let them pass. Magnolia’s face was carefully blank, and she kept the emotions tightly held in her chest.
“It’s too harsh, leaving her to govern her entire house like that. Must she really become a [Lady] in the moments after her mother’s death, Magnolia? Couldn’t it have waited a week? Or a month? Or years?”
Bethal murmured as they walked down the corridor. Lady Zanthia, tall and old and willowy, but tough as a tree, nodded, looking sympathetic. Magnolia’s voice was a bit sharper than she had intended as she replied.
“What would you have me do, manage the girl’s affairs for her? Or let a distant relative or friend do it? How would she ever become a proper [Lady] then? No. No, she must either rise to the challenge or fail alone. Our help can only be that. Help.”
She walked on, speaking as the fire built in her chest. The gall of it. An [Assassin], sent to kill at a gathering of the nobility.
“This is Izril, ladies. Not Baleros or Chandrar, where war is a part of life. Not Rhir, where struggle is part of life. And not Terandria, where monarchs dictate who lives and who dies. Here we fight with words and thorns. We know peace, but peace with Drakes and Gnolls is bloody. We must struggle alone. Alone, even when we are together. To survive. And those who cannot survive, die.”
Heads rose. Four of Magnolia’s escort, her entourage that she seldom made use of, stared at her. Magnolia looked around.
“Summon your most trusted protectors, your own soldiers, my ladies. Bethal, your husband’s Knights of the Petal will be needed. The same goes for the rest of you. I had planned to tell you after the meeting, but there is a war going on. I am reforming my entourage. Prepare to move at once and together. No one else will die. No one.”
They nodded and began to stride towards their carriages as their servants ran to meet them, their guards armed and wary. Ressa walked to stand next to Magnolia. She looked at her mistress, and saw unshed tears in Magnolia’s eyes. But Magnolia’s voice was steady and she made no mention of them when she spoke to her [Maid].
“It seems my enemies are far bolder and resourceful than I would like, Ressa. I need an army, and not just one fielded by my entourage.”
“What are you intending?”
Magnolia took a breath. She knew what she had to do, but she didn’t like it.
“It’s time to go back to the family estate. My grandfather has an army, and I will have it from him.”
“Didn’t you swear you’d never go back unless you were dragged kicking and screaming?”
“Broken promises. A friend is dead, Ressa. One of my people, one of my allies. I’ll have an army, if I have to beat that old man to death myself.”
“Well then, I shall begin sending [Messages].”
Magnolia nodded. She felt tired, distracted, and worried. She stared back towards the ballroom, and felt a tightness in her chest. She never knew what to say to children. She should have said something. But nothing had helped when her mother had died. Magnolia turned away and stared out into the fading sunset.
“I fear it’s going to be a very busy spring, Ressa.”
The maid just nodded in reply.