Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Two: ‘Resound! Thy swelling regard...!’
Hector certainly had his hands full over the next few days. Due to the almost complete destruction of Dunehall, along with Moaban’s geographical isolation, the city had been deemed unfit for civilians, and the Sandlords had issued a mass evacuation. More than three hundred thousand people were in the process of relocating south to Egas.
Between trying to help people out of the city and all the meetings where his presence was requested, Hector didn’t find much time for sleeping or even eating--though the latter wasn’t so much of an issue after the first day, because the Moabanis just started giving him food. They were rather enthusiastic about it as well, even getting into arguments over it.
Apparently, word about the young black lord from a foreign land had gotten around, and now he couldn’t go anywhere without people recognizing him. It was even worse than back home. At least in Gray Rock, his skin color didn’t immediately give away who he was. Hector wasn’t sure he’d seen even just one other black person since he’d arrived in this country. There had to have been someone in the Golden Fort, though, he figured. That place was packed.
Still, at least all the attention wasn’t negative. As painfully embarrassing, uncomfortable, and distracting as it all was, it did feel pretty nice, at times. He just wished that he could hide in his armor again. That would have made it a little more bearable.
He’d been hoping that his materialization would just snap back to how it was before, but so far, no such luck. It didn’t seem to matter how hard he concentrated; at the moment, all he could produce was a bit of powder.
When he’d been in Ivan’s presence, he could have attributed the sudden weakness of his materialization to the Salesman’s insanely oppressive soul power, but that couldn’t be the explanation now. Garovel didn’t have any relevant knowledge on the subject either, sadly, which only made Hector even more convinced that this was Rasalased’s doing. To what end, remained to be seen, but Hector was trying to give the ancient Sandlord the benefit of the doubt. Surely, this was as intended. Rasalased wouldn’t have screwed him over like this... probably.
He tried not to dwell on it too much. Time would tell. Or at least, that’s what Garovel told him.
Primarily, though, the subject causing Hector the most concern was not himself. It was the Rainlords. Or rather, what would become of them. Several more Sandlords had arrived in Moaban not long after Abbas, and despite how supportive they’d been so far, Hector had seen the discontent in their ranks.
Those were the meetings that Hector was the most interested in. He’d been dreading what the Sandlords would decide to do--not just with the battered Rainlords but with Asad, too. And it didn’t help that so many of them were still unconscious.
Xuan Sebolt and Ismael Blackburn had not been the only losses that the Rainlords had suffered. Far from it, Hector had learned. Caster and Ivan had not been the only big threats in Dunehall that day. Hector had since heard about two other terrible opponents who were present, only one of which the Rainlords had managed to kill--through the combined efforts of Salvador Delaguna, Joana Cortes, Diego Redwater, and Horatio Blackburn.
But even that feat had not been accomplished before the Lord Delaguna lost his wife Elba and his son Lorenzo--both of them, along with seventeen of the man’s cousins, nephews, and nieces.
Word was, emergence had factored into that fight enormously, and Hector didn’t doubt it--especially after seeing for himself how vacant-eyed Salvador had become. He seemed like a totally different person, compared to the raucous man that had laughed while testing him in Luzo.
And yet, even with how badly House Delaguna had been hit, House Sebolt had been hit even harder.
Among the family’s thirty-nine casualties, Lord Abel and Lady Amaya had both been among them. Xuan, too, of course. Dimas, however, was still alive, though he had not yet awoken.
House Blackburn was having its share of fresh troubles as well. With Ismael dead, Darktide unconscious, and Ibai missing, the person who everyone expected to lead them was Lady Nere. But apparently, the woman had suffered a nervous breakdown, and now the family was in disarray. Garovel hadn’t been able to get all of the details yet.
And then, of course, there were the Elroys.
Quite possibly, Zeff looked worse than anyone. He didn’t just have bags under his eyes. He had bags around his eyes, as if the upper half of his face were trying to sink into itself.
Hector thought he felt tired. Zeff looked like he never intended to let himself fall asleep ever again.
Before Hector had even made it back to Dunehall with Abbas, Zeff had gone off in search of his children. After a few hours, he returned with Marcos and Ramira, who was finally able to receive proper medical attention for the wound on her foot. Since then, Zeff had been going out periodically in search of Emiliana. Hector, among others, had even accompanied him a few times.
But finally, it seemed, the Lord Elroy had given up. For the time being, anyway. Hector didn’t imagine he would ever really stop looking. It was probably just a matter of finding some kind of lead.
Currently, though, Zeff wasn’t letting Marcos and Ramira out of his sight. He would even bring them to meetings with him, despite the looks of disapproval from various Sandlords.
All in all, Hector had never seen so many devastated people in one place. The somber air was so heavy among the Rainlord encampments that Hector could practically feel it on his bare skin, as if their sorrow had somehow manifested physical weight.
Though, maybe it had. Garovel said that these were just the effects of normal human empathy, but Hector wasn’t entirely convinced. At this point, he wouldn’t have been surprised if soul power played some subtle part here, too.
Garovel had been noticeably preoccupied as well. Hector sometimes caught the reaper lost in thought, and whenever he asked about it, Garovel avoided elaborating. At first, Hector chalked it up to worrying about Chergoa, but after it kept happening, Hector decided to push harder.
‘Alright, alright,’ Garovel finally said. ‘I’ve just been thinking about our next move.’
‘Well, me too,’ said Hector. ‘There’s no reason for you to be all coy about it.’
‘I wasn’t being coy. I was being careful.’
‘...Somehow, I doubt that.’
‘Hey, fuck you. I’m being serious here. There are a lot of gears in motion all around us right now. A lot of things to take into consideration.’
Hector thought about giving him more crap but decided to just keep listening as he lifted a young family’s couch onto the back of a flatbed truck.
‘We might have an opportunity to do something that would have a big impact on a lot of people,’ said Garovel. ‘There’s a very good chance that the Sandlords will try to send the Rainlords away. Maybe helping them go into hiding, maybe just flat out exiling them. In either case, we have a place where they can lay low for a while, don’t we? We should invite them.’
Hector stopped in front of the couple’s old refrigerator and spared Garovel a glance. ‘Uh... well, actually, I was planning on doing that, anyway.’
‘What? Are you serious?’
Hector hugged the fridge tightly and lifted it. ‘Yeah.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’
‘Er... I thought you’d disapprove, considering we only met them like two weeks ago or something.’
‘Ah, well, that’s true, but I also have Chergoa’s judgment to go on. She obviously trusted the Rainlords enough to join up with them, and I trust her, so by extension, I think we can consider them trustworthy, too. And if they do end up betraying us someday, I’ll just blame her forever.’
Hector and Garovel had discussed the subject of Chergoa already and come to the difficult conclusion that there wasn’t anything they could do to help her right now. Garovel didn’t show it much, but Hector was pretty sure that he was extremely worried about her. The telling trait was how closely Garovel followed everything that Zeff was up to, because if anyone was going to find Emiliana and Chergoa, it was Zeff.
‘Hold on,’ said Garovel. ‘So you would’ve invited the Rainlords to Warrenhold even if I’d told you not to?’
‘Here I am, trying to be cautious and think through all the possible consequences of our actions, and you’re just jumping in headfirst, not even giving a shit.’
‘I gave a shit. I was thinking, maybe... I mean, maybe they could help us rebuild Warrenhold. If they want.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Or bringing so many people there at once will become total chaos. Or the Queen will get upset at us for not consulting her first.’
‘...Should we try and call her?’
‘Hell no. What if she tells us not to do it?’
It didn’t take much longer to finish loading up the Moabani family’s truck. They’d only needed help with the big things, and they didn’t seem to own very much in the first place.
Hector didn’t think that was a coincidence. Sure, they weren’t much older than he was, but at this point in the evacuation, there weren’t many people left in Moaban, and he’d begun to notice a trend among many of those who remained.
They all bore a distinctive mark on their left cheek.
At first, he didn’t think much of it. Maybe it was some kind of popular tattoo--maybe like Asad. But then he saw the way other people were looking at them. Avoiding. It wasn’t a tattoo. It was a brand. And it was intended to humiliate them.
When he asked Garovel about it, the reaper was able to explain further. The brand meant that these people had broken the law in some way, and if they ever attempted to conceal their brands, they would probably be beaten or arrested, depending on local law or custom.
It made Hector wonder what this young couple could have done to earn such a harsh punishment. They looked harmless enough to him--both very gaunt with wary eyes, as if they expected Hector to turn on them at any moment. Their baby certainly looked plump and healthy, though.
He never exchanged a single word with them. They probably didn’t speak Mohssian, he figured. He was content to leave at that and be on his way, but as he turned to go, the husband raised his voice and began speaking in Valgan.
‘He’s saying you smell like the inside of an old diaper,’ said Garovel.
Hector had to stop himself from squinting.
The baby-holding husband came closer and grabbed Hector’s hand, shaking it up and down while nodding furiously. He looked like he might start crying.
‘He’s telling you to go eat your own shit forever. Like an ouroboros made of your own feces. Man, this guy sure has a mouth on him.’
The husband let him go, making room for the wife to come in and wrap her arms around him.
‘Yeah, she hates you, too. She’s not really saying, but I can just tell.’
The woman was sobbing into Hector’s shirt now.
Hector just kind of stood there, trying not to move. This was way more physical contact than he’d bargained for, but he was hoping he could just clear his mind and wait it out.
It took a while, but she did eventually release him.
Hector remained frozen there, trying not to look traumatized by a hug.
‘Wait a minute.’ Garovel floated across Hector’s vision. ‘I may’ve been mistaken.’
Hector didn’t stay with the young family for much longer. There were still others in need of assistance, but the encounter certainly left a lasting impression on him. Hector had been a bit reluctant to ask Garovel for more details, but now he was simply growing too curious.
As he was helping a similarly-branded old man with a large stack of boxes, Hector had to ask, ‘Can you tell what crime these people committed? I mean, like, does the brand specify or something?’
‘Yes, it does.’ Garovel allowed an appreciable pause. ‘This guy you’re helping now defaulted on a loan from the state.’
Hector had to stop and look at Garovel. ‘What?’
‘The Sandlords take debt very seriously. If you fail to pay off your debts, you’re considered untrustworthy. It’s a pretty strict cultural taboo.’
Hector eyed the old Moabani man another time. If anything, Hector felt even worse for him. The brand didn’t exactly look recent, and the old man looked about seventy years old or so. After a moment, though, Hector set back to work loading boxes into the back of the old man’s station wagon.
‘So that couple we helped earlier couldn’t pay off their loans, either?’ asked Hector. ‘That’s horrible. They’re so young, and this is gonna follow them for the rest of their lives?’
‘Yep. But their brands weren’t for debt. Women can’t be branded for debt. Only men can.’
‘Well, it used to be that women couldn’t even take out loans in the first place. These days, though, they can. And the branding laws haven’t changed to account for them. Which, I suppose, is a good thing. Sort of. It created a new kind of gender inequality, which is unfortunate, but the branding laws are pretty fucked up in the first place, so. It’s good that more people aren’t getting branded, at least.’
‘Huh... Then what were their brands for?’
Hector nearly dropped the box he was holding. ‘Oh...’
‘Uh... I don’t, uh...’
‘They... they had a baby with them...’
‘They sure did.’
‘Er, I mean... I’m not judging...’
‘You’re kind of judging.’
‘Well, it’s--I, ah--it’s... uh--’
‘Yeah. It’s weird. And the Sandlords don’t exactly smile upon it.’
‘There are reasons for that, too. Historical reasons, that is.’
‘Wait... You’re not just telling me all this because you wanna give me another history lesson, are you?’
‘Hey, I’m not telling you anything that isn’t true. If a history lesson just evolves organically out of my own scholarly truthfulness, then who are we to go against that? Is that what you want, Hector? To go against the laws of nature?’
‘...“Truthfulness,” huh? I seem to recall you lying right to my face not too long ago.’
‘Oh, yes, well, exemptions from the truth can be made when something is hilarious. Everyone knows that.’
‘It wasn’t hilarious.’
‘It was to me.’
‘I’m gonna get you back for that, by the way.’
‘I’m shaking in my nonexistent boots.’
Hector just sighed. At least he was almost done loading up the old man’s car.
‘So do you want my history lesson or not? It’s super interesting. You’ll like it. C’mon.’
‘Fuckin’... yeah, alright. I’m sure you’d just tell it to me, anyway.’
‘Okay, so back in the day--we’re talking, oh, 1700 years ago or so--a little group emerged from the then-very-powerful Valgan Empire. You may have even heard of this little group. They were called the Sandlords.’
‘Nope, never heard of ‘em.’
‘Their rise to power was facilitated by the discovery of their “divine ability.” You know the one.’
‘Explain that to me again.’
‘Well, it’s the materialization that Asad--’
‘I was joking, Garovel.’
‘Never joke about asking me to explain something, because I will always take you seriously and explain the shit out of it, just in case.’
‘Anyway,’ said Garovel, ‘the point I was trying to make was that the Sandlord’s divine ability used to be even more important than it is nowadays. It was how Sandlord families distinguished themselves from the “common folk,” as it were. It was a really crazy time, actually. A poor family could, literally, be propelled into the upper class overnight if one of their bloodline manifested the ability.’
‘Naturally, this created all sorts of chaos. Fraudsters and the like tried to capitalize, if only to flee the country with a handful of riches. It didn’t usually work out well for them. We’re talkin’ public executions with barely even a trial. Beheadings, torture, tying people to a post until the sun cooked them to death. The Sandlords’ displeasure with such criminals became pretty well known, even in distant countries.’
Hector didn’t have a hard time believing that.
‘So of course, the Sandlords became very suspicious of others and, well, elitist. Even more than they already were, that is. When everyone considers your bloodline “divine,” I imagine it’s pretty difficult not to get at least a little full of yourself. And it just grew worse over time. The Sandlords became more and more isolated from society.’
‘Which is where incest factors in?’ Hector guessed.
‘Basically, yeah. Trying to keep their precious bloodlines as “pure” as possible.’
‘There was about a 150-year time period where incest was commonly practiced among the Sandlords, and at its peak, some Hahls were so paranoid that they wouldn’t even allow marriage with any of the other Hahls. They would actually force siblings or first cousins to marry, and it would be treated like a status symbol.’
‘I’m guessing all this didn’t end very well.’
‘No, it did not,’ said Garovel, ‘and for two big reasons, madness being the first. There were a LOT of insane Sandlords who cropped up during this time period. And a few of them were fun. Or even brilliant. In fact, one of them built Dunehall. Others, though... not so much. They started to fight--sometimes with each other--and frequently neglected their subjects. Or worse. The most famous example was probably the family that began a tradition of cannibalism.’
‘Hahl Rahhak. They don’t exist anymore.’
‘That’s good, I guess. They really ate people, though?’
‘Yup. Story goes, a famine gripped their land for several years, so they resorted to cannibalism as a means of coping. But then the famine ended... and they just kept on eating people, anyway. Acquired a taste for it, apparently.’
‘Yeah. The story of how that family was finally destroyed is pretty interesting, too. It was an elaborate plot of Hahl Duxan--which does still survive to this day, by the way. And it was pretty dastardly on their part, I must say. But in a good way, y’know? Since the Rahhaks were a bunch of man-eating assholes ‘n all. I guess I should give some context on the conflict between the two families, though. Basically, it started when the head of Hahl Duxan allowed the Rahhaks and many of their subjects to take refuge in--’
‘Hey, ah, hold on,’ said Hector, sensing that this tangent was going to derail the conversation entirely, ‘what about the second thing?’
‘What second thing?’
‘With, um... how all the incest stuff ended badly?’
‘Oh! Right. Yeah. Insanity was the first reason. The second reason, you probably know already. Ever heard of the Wiseman’s Plague?’
‘Uh... sounds kinda familiar.’
‘Hmm. Maybe you know it better as the Great Green Sickness.’
‘Oh. Yeah. I read about that in school. It sounded horrible.’
‘An understatement if ever there was one,’ said Garovel. ‘Having witnessed it first hand, words can’t really express how awful it was. For a while, there was a widely prevailing belief that humanity was just... done. Hell, even I was starting to think so. It genuinely felt like the end of the world, at times.’
‘Really? Even though servants couldn’t be killed by it?’
‘I never said my belief was entirely rational. You have to understand--it was like being in a nightmare. Literally, it felt like that. Surreal. Because, just, everywhere I went, people were suffering and dying. And I went to a LOT of a places. The Great Green Sickness ravaged all of Eloa and Ardora and most of Qenghis. Eventually, though, I did find out that Luugh had made it through untouched.’
‘Damn. What about the Undercrust?’
‘Untouched as well. But that’s not so surprising, I guess. Anyway, the point I was getting at, was that possibly the worst pandemic that humanity has ever known occurred while the Sandlords were widely practicing incest.’
‘Ah... that means... what does that mean?’
‘It means that genetic variation within their ranks was at an all-time low. None of them were immune--or even mildly resistant, for that matter. So the plague simply DECIMATED them. Every single non-servant among the Sandlords was dead in under six months.’
‘Holy fuck, indeed,’ said Garovel.
Another question occurred to Hector, and he figured he should ask it before Garovel started blabbering on about something else. ‘When was Rasalased in relation to all this? I mean, when did he... er, happen?’
‘Oh, he was born right before all this shit went down.’
‘Really? Does that mean he’s... uh...?’
‘A product of incest? Possibly. I don’t know. I bet Qorvass would, but let’s avoid bringing it up, shall we? He might not appreciate us asking that kind of question about one of his most beloved ancestors.’
‘I wonder what he and Asad will think about the fact that we actually talked to the Dry God,’ said Hector.
Garovel chortled. ‘I hope they’re jealous.’
Soon enough, Hector had to start heading back. Garovel kept going on about history, but Hector was only half-listening now. His mind had returned to worrying about the present. The Sandlords were scheduled to reconvene this afternoon, and now that the evacuation of Moaban was nearly finished, their excuse for delaying was more or less gone.
Hector could understand their reluctance to make a decision. They were stuck between the Vanguard and the Rainlords. One way or another, they had to betray someone’s trust. And of course, the well-being of their own subjects was at stake--and wasn’t that a lord’s priority?
It was enough to give Hector pause. He was a lord, too. Technically. This whole time, he felt like he hadn’t really understood what that meant--the responsibility it implied. And the potential consequences. He certainly didn’t envy the Sandlords’ position right now, but he was realizing that he might very well find himself in a similar one, someday.
He arrived at Dunehall again as the sun neared the height of its arc in the sky. From the outside, the castle looked largely the same. Hector supposed that was one advantage of being covered almost entirely in sand: structural vulnerabilities were hidden. Apart from the scarcely noticeable lump or depression in the sand’s surface, Dunehall seemed no different.
Most of the Sandlords were waiting in tents all along the castle grounds. The Rainlords were no longer here. They’d headed for Egas the previous day, while Hector and a handful of representatives had stayed behind at the request of Abbas.
The separation had been rather sudden, but it couldn’t have been helped. The Sandlords had learned that the Vanguard was much nearer than anyone realized. Apparently, they had been repelling Abolish forces in Calthos for the past few days, keeping them away from the border with Sair.
Hector heard the names Iceheart and Lamont a few times. They both referred to the same person, he eventually realized, and according to Garovel, Lamont was a Vanguardian who wielded as much power as Ivan or Gohvis.
And even though there’d been no official announcement, the Sandlords seemed to believe that Lamont would show up in Moaban any day now--probably due to all the media attention surrounding the attack and subsequent evacuation.
When the meeting finally began, Garovel translated for Hector as usual. A few arguments broke out among the Sandlords, which weren’t exactly new, but this time, they had more vitriol behind them. Hector could feel the growing dread in the air, the desperation. Several times, they talked about how there could be no more delays, how Iceheart would make the decision for them if this stalemate continued.
Hector also noted that Jada Najir, despite attending every meeting as her Hahl’s representative, never spoke. She only ever observed. Which might have been for the best, he figured. The other Hahls were not exactly pleased with Asad and his family at the moment, even if no legal consequences had been discussed as of yet.
As the meeting drew out and familiar talking points were retread, Hector began to feel his attention slipping. This was going to be another day of indecision, after all, it seemed. If he’d known that, he would’ve put this time to better use.
Then Garovel stopped translating for him, and Hector’s attention snapped.
‘...Garovel?’ said Hector.
The reaper’s skeletal face wore an expression that Hector didn’t recognize. Was that... annoyance? Mixed with anger, perhaps.
‘I’m going for it,’ said Garovel.
‘Going for what?’ Hector asked.
Instead of answering him, Garovel drifted forward and began speaking rather loudly in Valgan. Whatever the Sandlords had been saying was lost as everyone turned to Garovel.
Of course, Hector couldn’t tell what was being said, but there was only one thing that he could imagine Garovel would be telling them here and now.
All things considered, the Sandlords hadn’t required much convincing. If anything, they seemed relieved. Perhaps they’d been hoping this whole time that Hector and Garovel would take the Rainlords off their hands and had just been too polite to come right out and ask.
As soon as they had their consensus, the entire atmosphere of the meeting shifted. Word was sent almost immediately to the Rainlords in Egas about the offer of asylum, and from there, the meeting became about how they might actually be able to sneak four hundred fugitives from the Vanguard out of the country.
It was very quickly agreed upon that simply trying to fly everyone to Atreya was not going to work. Even if the Vanguard wasn’t watching all their borders like a hawk, the Lorentian government’s Air Traffic Control would certainly be suspicious of a sudden fleet of private jets in their air space.
The Sandlords were talking about splitting the Rainlords up into several groups and trying to sneak them out separately in all different directions.
But Hector saw that expression on Garovel’s face again.
‘Please excuse my use of Mohssian here,’ said Garovel, ‘but I would like my servant to understand what I am about to ask of you.’
A heavy silence elapsed as the Sandlords waited. Lord Abbas gave a nod from the other end of the table.
Garovel returned it gratefully, then addressed the bearded man on Abbas’ left. ‘As I recall,’ said Garovel, ‘Hahl Duxan controls a passage to the Undercrust, no?’
The question made Hector’s eyes widen.
The Lord Duxan’s answer was in Valgan, but it did seem to be an affirmation.
‘Our home has such a passage as well,’ said Garovel. ‘I believe that is our most discreet option available here, though I will need to make a call first.’
A rumble of voices passed over the Sandlords as they discussed it amongst themselves, but they soon came back with a nod from Abbas and a few more Valgan words for Garovel.
Garovel answered in Valgan this time, too, and then moved away from the table, motioning for Hector to follow.
Hector excused himself and exited the tent with his reaper. He’d mostly followed what had happened there at the end, but the details had eluded him. He shielded his eyes as the harsh sun greeted him again.
‘Tell me you still have Gina’s number,’ said Garovel
Hector searched his pockets for his phone. “Yeah...”
‘Call her. I need to talk to Voreese as soon as possible.’
Hector hesitated, frowning.
‘What’s the matter?’
“Nothing. It’s just... international rates are ridiculous. I think I lost like thirty troas just letting Ramira browse the internet for pictures of spiders the other day.”
Garovel’s bony face twisted impossibly. ‘Really? THAT’S what you’re worried about? Since when do you give two shits about money?’
“Since I need it in order to rebuild my busted-ass castle. Not to mention, uh... feeding everyone who’s apparently gonna live there.”
‘Yes, well, I’m glad you’re trying to be so financially mindful, but a couple hundred troas isn’t going to make much difference with that, either way.’
“Wait, what? A couple hundred?!”
Garovel shrugged. ‘It might be a long conversation. I dunno.’
“Agh. I need a better data plan...”