Neleh’s group approached the naga coastal city of Bluepearl. They had agreed beforehand with a representative of the naga that they would arrive at the city at this date. The naga had promised to handle their transportation from Bluepearl to Coral Palace. For Neleh personally it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to move underwater, since one of the things she had figured out about the blessings she had received from the gods, was that the blessing of Medea made drowning impossible for her. That said, as someone who used to be a being of fire, water wasn’t among her favorite elements. It was more a deep rooted bias against the elementals that signified the element than any sort of weakness on her part.
The city of Bluepearl was one of the largest naga settlements on the coast of the elven continent. It was also a major hub of trade between the two races, and as naga were the rulers of the oceans, it was very common for the trade ships of other races to dock in the naga settlements. Even if they were planning on trading with other races, it was safer to dock under the protection of the naga, and many of the trade convoys also hired the naga to escort their vessels during the perilous voyage across the oceans. Despite the danger, the trade between races was highly profitable. Although the races were largely self-sufficient on their own continents, certain products were only made by certain races and other products were higher quality when made by other races. Beastmen made the best alcohol for example, while the demon continent was the only source of Arcanite, a metal favored in crafting the most high end weapons.
The faerie and demon continents were connected by land, as were the beastman and human continents. Combined with the elven continent, these five continents formed the five major landmasses. Of course there were various islands, ranging from tiny rocks to islands large enough to defy the term, all situated between the five continents. These islands were usually the most common cause of war and struggle between the races, and most of them were held by either naga or humans at the current time. This was mostly because the humans were the last race to have successfully waged wars of conquest, though these islands were pretty much independent kingdoms not under the control of the human empire.
Due to the logistics of the land connecting the continents, one would assume that the humans and beastmen and faeries and demons would be each other’s most important trading partners, but their easy access in actual truth lead to most vicious hostility between the races. Partly because of this, and partly because their expert craftsmanship, the elves were the most favored trading partners of the other races. The naga were a close second, but their specialty wares covered a smaller selection, so elves tended to win by default.
As Jao’e’Tinukai was one of the most important trading hubs in the elven continent, and Bluepearl was one of the largest naga settlements, the harbor of the city was a veritable forest of masts of the trade ships docked with the city. Even now there were a dozen ships either entering the well protected harbor or taking off on their journey towards the other continents. The harbor was such a perfect shape of a horseshoe, with the mouth of the harbor protected by a pair of large structures, that Neleh was certain the harbor did not come by its form by natural means. The fort-like structures at the mouth of the harbor had chains running into the water, an obvious hint that the harbor mouth could be closed by raising the chain, barring the entry or exit of hostile vessels.
The city itself was an interesting display of naga architecture. It seemed that the naga either built tall or wide, but almost never both in a single building. Most buildings were built of wood only one storey high. The roofs were tiled with a brown material, and the wood of the buildings was also deep brown in color. Much of the walls were meant to double as sliding doors obviously meant to alleviate the heat. The buildings were elevated from the ground, apparently built so in case the water level rose. The wooden civilian buildings made up the bulk of the wide single storey buildings. The more official buildings and anything to do with military was instead of built of white or grey stone, and was instead built for height and not width.
As they entered the city through the gate, they noticed that the tall wall surrounding the city was very thick, meant to withstand magical siege. Within the city they noted that the city made wide use of smooth ramps where elven cities would have stairs. Of course the reason was obvious when one considered the obvious difference between naga and elves, mainly the lack of legs. Neleh had noted that Kanako had an intense dislike of stairs, even though she could navigate them without too much trouble. Something about the edge of the stairs being rather uncomfortable.
Neleh was quite sad that the naga girl had not accompanied them on the trip. At first, when Neleh had mentioned their trip to the land of the naga, Kanako had been happy and excited about the prospect of showing them around her lands. However, once she learned that their destination was the Coral Palace, she had immediately refused to entertain even a thought about accompanying them. Kanako had mumbled something about not being worthy of showing her presence in the court of the Eternal Empress. Only naga of certain position and rank were allowed entry into the Coral Palace, and even fewer were allowed into the presence of the Empress herself. Apparently even the servants within the palace were the younger sons and daughters of noble clans and families, and even they had to show great promise to be accepted into the service of the empress.
That may have been a part of the reason for Kanako to stay in Rhi’a’non, but Neleh suspected that wasn’t the main reason. If Kanako had gone to the Coral Palace, it is likely that she would have run into members of her family, and Kanako most likely didn’t want to show her face until she had gained a sufficient mastery of her magic to be a real asset. The relations between Kanako and her family were extremely complex. Aside from being a possible embarrassment to her family due to her magical affinities, she was also the youngest daughter of the family. Her brothers and sisters had gone on to do great things in the name of the Yumi family, while Kanako herself hadn’t accomplished much in her time among the naga. Even though her family privately loved her, to the other noble families and clans, she seemed like the useless daughter.
Kanako definitely didn’t want to be an embarrassment, so she approved of her gentle exile to the elven lands. She desired to return, but didn’t have the skill and power to do so yet.
“Didn’t you teach her some fire magic?” Azrael asked Neleh, when the topic of Kanako came up.
“I did, as a sort of compensation for always leaving her alone at the academy. I’m not a very good friend to her I’m afraid. And she did make some leaps in her fire affinity. That usually is the case when a person finds out what fire really is, and what fire needs to burn. Most people think that fire is just about making the biggest flame possible and throwing it at the enemy, but fire magic is all about the control of temperature and fuel. Usually the most dangerous flame is the smallest, but the hottest. Unfortunately I can’t teach her a bunch of fire spells, until she comes to terms with the deeper concepts. Once she does though, she can figure out the rest on her own. She’s not stupid.” Neleh replied, while looking out of the window of their carriage.
“I beg to differ.” Shiori said a little acidly. “Or should I say, at least she plays the role of a dummy. A little too well, I’d say.”
“Your suspicion of Kanako is both noted and understood. I would prefer if she was as she appears, and don’t quite agree with your suspicions, but do keep an eye on her if you feel that is necessary. Truth is, despite the time we have spent together, I still don’t have a clear picture of what makes her tick. Don’t be too hard on her though. Being wary is good, but being too suspicious will leave you alone in the world.” Neleh replied with a small grimace. She probably wasn’t the best person to advice on such matters.
They reached the local lord’s mansion, and were given rooms for the night. They would be leaving for the Coral Palace in the morning. Neleh and Estelar spent most of the evening planning on countermeasures against the bandits. Neleh had sent several locator spells in an attempt to find the bandits while they were traveling, but the bandits were taking stringent measures to hide their presence. It seemed the bandits had some mages skilled in magic designed to avoid detection among them. Neleh would be able to locate the bandits if she spent some time flying around the duchy, using more effective but shorter ranged spells, but that would take quite a bit of time. In addition, the bandits seemed to still be streaming into the province, so the problem would not be solved yet, even if they were able to kill the bandits currently within the duchy.
There was also the problem of what to do once she did find the bandits. Even with the help of Estelar and Azrael, who incidentally had no intention of taking part, she would be hard pressed to fight against that many bandits. Just killing bandits was one thing, but clearly the bandits had their own mages, and it was doubtful the enemy mages would simply stand still and let her cast wide area annihilation magic on the other bandits. Besides, she’d rather not turn large parts of her new duchy into a wasteland. Spells capable of killing off that many bandits also tended to have adverse effects on the surroundings. Dropping a meteor on people made a lot of dead enemies, but also a big hole in the ground. If she tried to use smaller spells, she would run out mana before battering down the defenses of the bandit mages. They might not be able to stop a high level spell, but they could defend against something smaller.
So they had to make more subtle plans. Most of them centered around starving off the bandits, and denying them good targets for attack. That many people required quite a bit of food. Once they were on the move, the bandits would lose one of the main advantages that bandits usually held compared to regular armies, that of secrecy. It would be hard to hide that many people when they revealed themselves, and they would most likely not be used to moving around such large groups of people, so their mobility would also suffer. Estelar’s plans consisted mainly of putting watchmen in every village and town, to evacuate the towns once even a hint of the bandits was detected. They would take along all the food and valuables, hopefully leading to starvation and loss of morale among the bandits.
They had received a word of soldiers dispatched by the empire, although from what they heard, the reinforcements might not be as heavy as they had hoped, and would take a while to get there. In addition, the army would need a target to attack. They weren’t able to cover the whole duchy.
“If push comes to shove, and they target a city or town you aren’t able to evacuate in time, are you able to stall them until the army gets around?” Neleh asked Estelar.
“Well, we are lacking soldiers currently, but I myself should be enough to buy time. I might not be enough to defeat them by myself, but I can put on a heck of a defense.” Estelar assured Neleh.
Neleh pondered for a while, and then tossed something to him. “Take that. Say my name with a clear voice, and that ring will allow you to contact me even if you can’t locate me for a normal message spell. Don’t worry, the message will be secure. I left several doorways on the way here, and if you run into trouble that you can’t handle on your own, you can contact me. I’ll make another doorway and return immediately. Try not to send word for every little thing, since I am supposed to be meeting the Eternal Empress and all. Besides, messages with that thing sound just like someone was yelling right by my ear, so I quite dislike using that spell.” She grumbled.
Estelar gave an amused grin while looking at the ring. It was a plain golden band with a small gem that was used as a well. The inside of the ring had several markings, accommodating the spell. “Should I take this as a proposal?” Estelar asked with his grin widening.
Neleh gave an amused chortle. “Hardly. If you want my hand in marriage, you better come up with a ring that is a lot better than that.”
In the morning, the naga took them to a weird looking vessel. It looked like a normal ship, except with no sails and something resembling fins on the sides. Apparently this vessel moved entirely with magic. The naga didn’t have a need for any vessels while traveling underwater by themselves, and they rarely took passengers, since most races performed trade at the naga settlements on their coasts. Most of the non-naga traveling to their underwater empire were going there on official business. Hence there was rarely any need for vessels capable of transporting members of other races. When asked, the captain of the vessel explained that this vessel was sent here specifically for them, and had arrived the previous evening.
As soon as they were on board, the ship gently glided out of the harbor. As soon as they had made enough distance from the coast, the vessel smoothly dived underwater, with a bubble of air forming around the ship. Neleh was intrigued by the design, because it bordered one of the ideas she had been planning for use in her duchy. The armies of the various races used some flying mounts for various purposes, although their use was limited against races with natural powers of flight. Sending your best people into the sky wasn’t a very bright idea when the enemy army of celestials or faeries was able to send their whole army to surround that person. However, how would the battlefield react to ships similar to the one they were on, except capable of flight? That was one of the more outlandish ides Neleh had been considering, and she wasn’t even sure if it was something she wanted to try. Still, it was nice to see something vaguely similar was already in use.
Despite her bias against water, Neleh could appreciate the beauty of the ocean when seen from within. The oceans of this world were so pure, and clear of any pollution, and the water was teeming with life. The clear water allowed quite a bit of the light of the sun to pass through the water, and it was far from dark. The view of the sandy bottom rich with plant life, the wide reefs of coral and the schools of fish flitting around like colorful waves were breathtaking. They could see some naga patrols or fishermen every now and then, until they went further away from the coast.
Even with the speed of their travel, it still took them almost three weeks to reach the core of the underwater empire. Neleh had offered to give them a little boost when she saw the naga mages at work, but the captain had politely but firmly rejected the offer. Apparently the naga had planned their reception according to their expected arrival time, and if Neleh did hurry them along, those plans would be messed up.
They reached the naga lands without much trouble, and they started to see naga cities long before reaching their destination. Some of the cities were submerged and fit more into their surroundings with caves dug into the reefs and underwater hills. Other cities were surrounded by magical domes that kept the water away, and the architecture resembled the city of Bluepearl more closely. The further into the naga lands they traveled, the more common the domed cities became, and more luxurious the cities looked.
The captain of the vessel explained that the naga actually preferred the domed cities, both because the added security and more comfortable homes, but the domes took quite a bit of effort to both make and maintain, so the smaller and more distant towns couldn’t have them. When the captain talked about distance, he had this curious emphasis on the word, so Neleh asked further.
“The distance in naga lands often means the distance from the Coral Palace. The naga empire radiates outwards from the Coral palace in a circular formation. The further away you are from the palace, the lesser the power and rank of the clan controlling the lands. The wealth and power gathers towards the center of the empire. The clans holding lands adjacent to the Coral Palace are also the most powerful. When you hear a term first rate clan, it literally means a clan that holds land in the zone closest to the palace, second tier in the next zone and so on.” The captain explained.
The captain’s words proved to be accurate, since the luxury of the lands kept increasing as they neared their destination. The vessel was not allowed to dock with the Coral Palace directly. Instead they were forced to stop on the lands of one of the first rate clans, and they traveled the rest of the way on a weird egg shaped carriage, ironically drawn by seahorses. Several guards accompanied their carriage, not allowing for much of a chance for sightseeing. Interestingly, their escort stopped just before a zone of empty space, where they were met by a small squad of the largest naga they had ever seen. One of the Kenshin, or sword saints as the imperial guards were called, explained briefly that they were the only military force allowed within the grounds of the Coral Palace.
Once they drew close to the Palace, they saw a large complex of buildings. The palace itself was surrounded by a fortress of coral, which looked much stronger than normal, obviously enhanced by magic. They saw several Kenshin patrolling the surrounding waters. The palace complex was one of those dome covered areas, with a huge amount of the one storey buildings surrounding the palace proper on all sides. The palace itself was one of the rare buildings made by the naga that was both tall and wide, looking like a fortress with several tiers rising towards a central castle. The fortress grounds held a large amount of Kenshin in a parade formation ready to greet them.
It seemed every Kenshin not required for patrolling the surroundings had been gathered to receive them. They exited the carriage on the edge of the dome, and were lead onward by their escort along a central path leading through the center of the Kenshin formation. Banners were lining their path, and the tiers were interestingly separated by stairs instead of ramps. Despite their isolationist nature, the Coral Palace was clearly built to awe any visitors with its majesty and grandeur. The others were suitably awed, but Neleh couldn’t help that think that the sight reminded her a little of the warlords she had met in her old life.
They met both the left and right chancellors on the gate to the central castle. After a polite exchange of pleasantries, they were asked to relinquish their weapons, and were lead on through the long corridors towards the central chamber. They were instructed to not approach the throne of the empress too closely, and to stop to bow on the send tier down from the throne.
The two chancellors lead them into a large throne room. There were several tiers descending downwards from the throne, the first tier around the throne left empty, while the other tiers downwards were filled with high ranking naga. Neleh could see that the naga had arranged themselves by faction, with the members of the highest ranking clans, and the leaders of the factions towards the front. The central path leading towards the throne from the door was left open. The chancellors stopped on the second tier bowing their heads, both chancellors standing on their respective sides, close to their own political factions. Every naga in the room, aside from those on the tier with the empress were in a position reminiscent of a one knee bow, with both hands clasped in front of their chest and eyes cast down, except of course the naga didn’t have knees. Neleh’s companions took the hint and performed a similar one knee bow.
Neleh on the other hand remained standing, and looked straight at the highest tier. The empress herself was shrouded from view by a curtain that showed her silhouette and nothing else. Several high ranking priestesses were surrounding the empress, keeping watch on the assembled people. The sides of the room were lined by Kenshin standing guard.
“Eternal Empress, may you live forever. We greet you and present to you the visitors you requested.” The left chancellor also rattled off their names and ranks. Neleh’s rank as Chosen brought a murmur from the assembled nobles, greatly amplified when they noticed that she wasn’t kneeling like the others.
The empress gave a little gesture, and one of the priestesses announced in a loud voice. “The Eternal Empress, may she live forever, requires a meeting with the one known as Neleh Khalidor in private. Everybody else is to leave the room.” This brought a shocked murmur from the gathered nobles.
Neleh noted that this had clearly been planned. The empress was making a point, dismissing everyone in such a public manner instead of simply having them not attend at all. She also made her wish known to Neleh, that her companions should leave also. Neleh gave a small gesture to urge them to leave.
After everyone except the priestesses and the Kenshin had filed out, the empress had another surprise. “That means everyone, including you my seers and guards. This room shall hold me and the Empress of Immortal Flame alone.” Came the clear and firm voice of the empress. This was apparently a surprise to the guards and priestesses, but they did not protest. The empress’ word was absolute.
As the last person had left and closed the large doors behind them, the empress came out from behind the curtains to greet Neleh.
“Good to see you little sister.” The woman said, giving a small smile.
Her form might have been that of a naga, but her aura and spirit clearly were not. The eyes of the empress also told their own story. “Well, well. This explains the eternal part. Who would have thought the empress of the naga was in fact not a naga herself. Greetings elder sister.” Neleh replied with a smile.
This was a dragon that had taken a humanoid form. In addition, this dragon was not the same kind as the ones Neleh had seen in this world before. This one would have a real form closer to the serpentine dragon of flame Neleh was currently able to assume for short times.