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Chapter 18: Rose Kingdom

A single wooden carriage drawn by a horse-like beast rolled down the road escorted by a pair of horses, one of which was ridden by a blonde cat eared girl with similarly furred paws on her arms and legs, her golden tail flicking above the horses. On the driver’s seat sat a young woman with fiery red hair and ears, also with paws for hands and feet and a furred tail curled around her, and a little girl with brilliantly cyan hair in a similarly bright dress. The last girl, unlike the other two, lacked the cat ears atop her head and the paws and fur on her hands, waving pale skinned feet just above the floor of the seat. The horse in front of the carriages neighed and shook its mane as the woman driving pulled on the reins to bring it to a halt.

“Jasmina! Should we switch?” The red haired one, Princess Annabelle of the Rose Kingdom, called to the blonde catgirl.

“I'm fine, your highness!” She, Lady Jasmina of the same, replied. “We're making good time.”

“Right. We should be there by evening at this pace.” Annabelle agreed. “Let's change the horses at least.”

Jasmina nodded, bringing her own horse to a halt next to the stopped carriage. She then hopped lightly over to the previously unburdened horse, revealing that neither was wearing any kind of saddle, and guided the horse she had been riding over to the carriage where Annabelle had already dexterously freed the tired horse. Working together the two cat eared elfbeasts harnessed the energetic horse into the carriage and led the tired one with the reins, before returning to their positions of driver and escort and encouraging the beasts to resume their rapid pace down the road.

“We’ll be there by evening?” The cyan haired girl asked when Annabelle had regained her seat, her voice childishly high but steady with a maturity beyond her apparent years.

Annabelle nodded. “Yep. Your first sight of the Rose kingdom should be sunset, Arcane.”

“Wonderful.” Arcane, the cyan haired girl, replied without a trace of sarcasm. She then fell back and sighed toward the sky, kicking her legs even harder. “If only we could go faster.”

“Hahaha!” Annabelle laughed, waving towards the horses. “They're doing the pulling, not us, Arcane.”

“So I should tell them?” Arcane asked with a raised eyebrow with her head still tilted back.

“Maybe?” Annabelle teased, returning her attention to the road.

They ran in silence for a while, not having much to discuss. The trio of girls and horses had been riding since this morning, after camping for the night in a clearing and recovering as much as they could from a bandit attack that turned out to be far too well organized and prepared. At first they had been in a caravan, but it had been wiped out to a man except for them. According to Annabelle and Jasmina, the trio had only barely defeated the assailants. According to Arcane, there was never any danger in the first place. With the singular exception of the fossil fuel producing technique, nothing was outside of what she had predicted as soon as she sensed the ambush an hour beforehand.

Either way the fact was that they were now moving much faster than they would have been without the timely intervention of the bandits, and this translated into them approaching the Rose kingdom on the evening of the second day after leaving Jeffers’ presence. Thus, Arcane’s complaints about speed were not only useless, but somewhat spoiled as well.

Still, neither Annabelle not Jasmina expressed that sentiment. Both were simply grateful to return to their own country, for they had recently passed the border of the Rose Kingdom. The pair of elfbeasts were constantly flicking their ears and waving their tails in joy, a somewhat hypnotic movement Arcane had been entranced with studying sometime yesterday but had long since tired of today.

Instead, she contented herself with studying the terrain of the Rose kingdom, now that they were within its lands. Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly, it was not covered entirely in roses but a sort of palm like tree with high resin content. It would be easy to shape and very pliable, but a few experiments as they passed told Arcane it was unlikely to burn. Perhaps this flora was one of the reasons the Elfbeasts were so poorly off in the technological department; sparse fire making material would stymie any early civilization. Not that she excused their progress, either. Technological development (or at least progress of some form) was not only desirable but necessary for a species to survive in the universe. Without progress they would eventually be consumed by a disaster they could not overcome and vanish without a trace.

Of course even with progress species still vanished eventually. Ennui, calamity, internal strife, or simple the ravages of endless time made certain of that. It was one of the laws of reality: time unmakes all things.

The fauna of the kingdom gave hints as to their meat eating culture. Herbivores dominated, many imposing and formidable beings filled with cultivated energy and physical might. Hunting these things for food would grant far more benefits than the pathetic harvest that could be gained from the flora, where there were edible flora. Arcane would have expected the rare to be luxurious and the common to be, for lack of a better work, common, but in this world it seemed that amount was more important than rarity. The large amounts of meat that could be obtained from slaughtering herbivorous fauna led to it being the staple food of every class of elfbeast except the absolute lowest, who would be given the scraps of fruit that existed. Or perhaps it was a symbol of oppression, as only the well to do could afford to raise fruit or vegetables and therefore they would be the only ones who could keep slaves, and the slaves couldn’t leave them because they would then have no food.

Arcane shook her head. None of those scenarios seemed at all likely in the end, indicating that some other factor was likely at play. One not present in a mere observation of nature. Or observation of what was lacking, more like. The farms, villages, and small towns that would be the expected majority of population centers for a civilization twice as advanced as this one were all missing. Of course she had expected farming to be far from popular, but this was ridiculous. What of husbandry, raising animals, any of the other acts which prevented hunger? How did this society even manage to build towns, much less possess the full infrastructure of a civilization?

Arcane mentally rolled her eyes at herself. Cultivation, of course. She forgot about that method’s ridiculously troublesome ability to eliminate the basic needs of living beings in return for a singular push to gather more energy from the surrounding world. Its ability to blur the lines between animal and plant was one of the many controversies surrounding its practice. She herself had been remiss in forgetting about it until now.

Not that it was a good sign, unfortunately. Looking over at the totally unconcerned Annabelle, Arcane realized that neither the ruling class nor the common people so much as noticed the problem with this state. The crippling dependence of their society on cultivation not only for political power, but also for life itself, didn’t enter into their eyes. Arcane, as an outsider who had seen thousands of worlds and peoples, could see and understand problems far better than those who had never known of a world outside their own existing, much less the benefits and detriments of various practices and technologies.

Soon they came into sight of the famed (in the company of Annabelle and Jasmina) Rose Kingdom. While Arcane was lost in thought on technology and civilization the carriage came up to the gate of a small city, larger than the port Jeffers ruled but tiny in comparison to those flowing through the mind of the cyan haired girl sitting quietly next to the fiery haired elfbeast. At a gesture from Annabelle Arcane and Jasmina both descended from their mounts and set off on foot into the city, which was without walls or guards. Apparently anyone could enter, something Arcane did not find surprising, though she was sure they would be more strongly questioned once they reached the castle itself. Until then, she spent her time watching the people of the city, trying to understand the lives they lived from what she could see and hear.

Dirt paths formed the major streets, some covered with rocks although most were not. Carriages did not seem to be common, the few she saw being given about the same precedence as pedestrians. They moved slowly, towering over the triangular furred ears swiveling atop humanoid heads but also not moving much faster than the crowd around them. Arcane quickly realized why Annabelle had left the carriage and the horses outside the city proper, the trio able to quickly slip past the people walking slowly on the street without occasioning comment. The houses themselves were made of crudely cut wood, more log cabins than actual construction, with more expensive properties having layers of stone or mud bricks. Simplistic construction, to be fair, but still quite sufficient for the needs of this society. From the gently sloped roofs Arcane determined that the minimum temperature was likely above the elfbeasts ability to withstand with just the fur on their bodies, though she couldn’t tell anything about the maximum. Given that it had cooled down during the boat trip she assumed they were further from the equator, meaning it was probably not that high either.

The elfbeasts themselves were not quite the same as she had seen in the port town. Obviously suspicious individuals were few and far between, many of those wearing cloaks gathering gazes from the commoners and many spear-bearing elfbeasts wearing a red uniform Arcane assumed to be guards. Poverty, too, seemed to be lower, with the upper class and merchant districts taking up a significant portion of the city. The market had fresh meats of various types, as well as many cooking booths which sent an aroma of burnt flesh into the air. Arcane gave it a single glance; noticing a severe lack of fruits or vegetables, or even the rice of the coastal ports, she turned away. Her one taste of street elfbeast prepared meat was enough for her.

As for the attitudes, Arcane looked at the ears and the tails. The more they moved, she had found, the more positive the emotions the elfbeasts were feeling. The repeatedly flicking ears, the waving tails from every market stall and wandering customer, the easily relaxed paws without a hint of claws all served to indicate the Rose kingdom was a place where the people were far happier than the little port town they had first arrived at.

Arcane found herself smiling along with Annabelle and Jasmina, infected by the happiness of the kingdom and the pride the two girls were feeling from it. While the two were still hiding their faces with the hoods they had put on at the entrance to the city, their overall peaceful demeanor dispelled the suspicion the guards directed at them without effort and allowed them to easily continue through the city.

After what seemed like far too short of a time to Arcane, they came to a massive castle surrounded by imposing walls of solid stone. Despite its appearance, Arcane immediately noted that it was useless for defense, what with its too square walls and wide windows. Built for appearance, she decided, immediately raising the supposed wealth of the Rose kingdom by a few notches.

Annabelle and Jasmina walked right up to the guard placed at the small entrance door, the young male scowling suspiciously and leveling his spear at the two.

“Halt! Even if you are of the seventh tier, I must request you identify yourself to proceed!” The youth said in a trembling voice, clearly declaring his will to fight if they prove hostile. His tail and ears were stiff, Arcane noticed with amusement.

Jasmina bristled, but Annabelle smiled and held her shoulder. “Young man, I mean you no harm.” She said in a clear voice, stepping forward and looking around cautiously. “Perhaps we can speak somewhere there are fewer eyes.”

“You… You… I will stop you here!” The guard said, Annabelle’s words obviously having the opposite effect. He stabbed forward, his legs trembling and his strike barely managing to come near Annabelle, but that was enough for Jasmina to leap forward and throw it into the ground.

“You insolent…” She started, but was yanked back by Annabelle a half second later.

“Stop! Our apologizes, young one, but we would prefer not to show our faces here. Go get sir Deadridge, tell him the ‘Rose blooms like a bell’.” Annabelle instructed the young man, who hesitated, realizing they were probably not enemies but still uncertain of what he must do. His dilemma was solved a minute later by a group of guards arriving to surround the gate, obviously attracted by the earlier commotion.

“Jasmina…” Annabelle muttered reproachfully.

“Sorry, highness.” Jasmina whispered back, bowing her head and regaining control of her temper. “Why don’t you just…”

“I have no desire to announce my return, you fool.” Annabelle reminded her, hissing the words under her breath.

Jasmina nodded, but still continued. “I understand, but I’m sure that insolent guard would…”

“As it is obvious you do not, be silent.” Annabelle declared at last, silencing Jasmina with a harsh look. As the guards gathered around them, she raised her voice and repeated what she had said before. “I have no desire to cause trouble, and I am not your enemy. I cannot reveal my face here, but I would ask that you send for Sir Deadridge. He can vouch for me.”

Arcane tilted her head at this insistence on speaking to a single knight of the castle, when it was likely that any senior officer would be able to support her story, but decided not to mind it. The stone spears being leveled threateningly at the trio posed no threat to her, and so she contented herself with simply examining their reactions to see what would come next. Fortunately, one of the newcomers seemed better in control of himself and his men.

Hesitating, he turned to one of the others and spoke. “Go find Sir Deadridge. Tell him one of his spies is trying to report in.”

Arcane felt the light of comprehension at those words. A spymaster… of course that would make for a good cover to explain two mysterious figures returning to the castle, obviously high in cultivation and skill. The only surprise was the revelation that a civilization that had yet to develop agriculture already had an established method of espionage. Agents and bribed officials, perhaps even traitors, Arcane could have understood; Spies, though, required a bit more of an information based infrastructure. Then again all power in this world was based around cultivation, so perhaps stealing those by sending false disciples into other sects was a common practice. As there were no easy ways to identify a person’s heart, it was entirely plausible for them to infiltrate when they were young and eventually bring the fruits of their search back when they had grown up. Hostages were probably held to ensure they succeeded or died. As always, a dark and dirty enterprise.

Annabelle and Jasmina waited, calm whilst being surrounded by a dozen spears (well, Annabelle was; Jasmina was barely managing not to kill all of them). Nobody noticed Arcane, standing between two spears without a single one pointed in her direction. Arcane rolled her eyes at that, noting the excessive impact of her enchanted blades which not only made her power undetectable, but hid her own presence as well. Soullessness was the simplest way to hide one’s presence, people tending to ignore anything without a soul the same way they ignored a piece of furniture. A few trained in perception might be immune to the effect, but simple guards such as these who had never encountered soul magic of any form were not among them.

A few minutes later the guard sent off returned with an older male elfbeast in tow, his fur greying and somewhat patchy on his paws and feet. He walked through the guards easily and looked at Annabelle suspiciously.

“... State your case.” He spat out, looking the two girls up and down without noticing that he nearly stepped on Arcane, who was glaring at him from where she had dodged to the side.

Annabelle stepped towards him, causing the guards to tense, then looked around at them and smiled. Clearing her throat, she said in a plain voice. “Rose blooms like a bell.”

The older man, likely Sir Deadridge, paled and nodded quickly, before catching Annabelle’s cutting motion with her hand. Nodding in agreement, he turned to the guard leader. “They are indeed my spies, carrying highly sensitive information. I am sure you all know what would happen if word of this were to get out?” He said in a threatening tone, to which all the guards nodded frantically.

“Excellent. If two would follow me, I’m sure we have much to discuss.” He gestured towards the gate, leading the way past the still nervous youth and into the stony castle. Arcane followed silently, just ahead of Annabelle and Jasmina.

They walked in silence through the halls, Annabelle stopping Deadridge every time he looked to be about to say something. In a few minutes they came to a small office like space without a window and stepped inside. Once they closed the door, Annabelle and Jasmina threw off their hoods and took a breath.

“Phew… I thank you for your discretion, Sir Deadridge.” Annabelle expressed her gratitude, falling into the chair behind the hide covered desk.

“It was my pleasure, Highness. It is good to see you alive and well again.” Deadridge said, bowing and standing to the side of the desk. He looked over at Jasmina and raised an eyebrow. “And you are?”

“Lady Jasmina, Count of the kingdom.” Annabelle answered easily.

Deadridge did not seem to recognize that until Jasmina corrected, “Merely a viscount, Sir.” Then he nodded in understanding.

“I see, I see. May I assume you were among those kidnapped along with her highness?” He asked, taking a feather and hide and starting to write.

“I was. It was pretty horrible.” Jasmina said.

“I can imagine. It’s quite fortunate you managed to escape. Was it only you two, or…?” Deadridge asked, not looking up.

Annabelle and Jasmina both turned to Arcane, who had seated herself in a chair by the wall and was nibbling on one of Jeffer’s apples. Annabelle smiled at the girl. “The kidnappers were wiped out, to a man, Sir Deadridge. Everyone managed to return to Tidewalker port, where we managed to steer the pirate ship.”

“You wiped them out? That is impressive.” Deadridge said, looking up in surprise. Then he gasped as he finally saw Arcane sitting to the side. “What! When did…?”

“How does she do that?” Jasmina wondered aloud.

“Your guess is as good as mine. Sir Deadridge, this is Arcane, the architect of our salvation. She’s from beyond the great desert.” Annabelle explained, a bemused smile on her face.

Deadridge looked from Annabelle to Arcane and back again. “Architect… beyond the great desert… she’s…”

“A powerful artifact wielder with the ability to manipulate sand dragons. She slaughtered the pirates when they made landfall in the great desert halfway to the western continent, or the dragons did. I’m not too clear on what exactly happened either.” Annabelle continued, ignoring Deadridge’s inability to speak. “She’s proven herself quite powerful and helpful during our journey. Oh, and don’t worry about not noticing her. Nobody does until she wants them to.”

Deadridge seemed to take control of himself at that point, closing his mouth and scribbling frantically on the leather hide. Arcane herself seemed not to be paying any attention, carelessly eating her apple without flinching at the commotion around her.

“I believe that should be enough of a report. I’d like to see my father immediately.” Annabelle said once Deadridge finished writing, looking up into the stone ceiling.

Deadridge seemed to pause and consider what to say, before slowly shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, highness.”

“Why not?” Annabelle demanded, surprised.

“His majesty…” Deadridge started, before taking a deep breath. “His majesty did not take your disappearance well, Highness.”

“All the more reason for me to see him immediately, then.” Annabelle interjected.

Deadridge nodded. “Of course, but if you would perhaps give me a day or so to prepare his majesty for your return…”

“Nonsense. I will see my father now. Make it happen, Deadridge.” Annabelle declared, in a tone proclaiming she would ignore all objections. Deadridge seemed to deflate and bowed his head.

“As you wish, your highness.” was all he said, opening the door and gesturing for them to proceed him out into the hall. “I hope you aren’t to disappointed by what you see…” He muttered in a low tone that only Arcane was able to hear.

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Acarnina

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