At times, life could be frustrating.
Especially when life lasted long enough.
In ages past, it would have been normal to simply take a resource when it was discovered. The stone-flint blade, the bronze speartip, and the iron axe-head would claim what words or inheritance could not.
But things grew more complicated with each passing age.
Now, one could hardly turn around without needing to consider a dozen factors, reactions and ripple effects.
In some ways, that was its own challenge, but in other ways, Baelin missed the direct method. He ran his hand over his bronze beard clasps—each older than the city itself—as he waited for his companion.
‘Calm yourself, you old goat,’ he thought. ‘You chose this way, and you’ve seen its benefits. Do not let youthful impatience creep back into you now.’
Yet, it was difficult to tamp it down.
When was the last time that such a paradigm changing discovery dangled so close? And yet, it could all be denied to him and his colleagues if one little ruler—who’d received his authority only by springing from the right loins—decided not to engage with them.
He’d had foul dealings with such folks in the past: too much crown and not enough brain beneath it. And with Thameland’s penchant for religious fanaticism…
Well, best not to purchase trouble beforehand.
After all, unlike most things in life, ‘trouble’ costed nothing. It tended to find one all by itself.
The door opened in the waiting room and he looked up to see a wizard entering at the head of a long procession. Accompanying her were several of her most elite battlemages, while Baelin’s seat was flanked by two of the university’s most experienced Watchers of Roal.
“Kartika.” He stood, greeting the short woman with an offered hand. “You are right on time as usual. I trust all is ready on your part?”
“It is.” She clasped his hand in a tight grip in two of six chestnut-coloured hands. The other four arms remained folded behind her back, covered in part by her long, black hair. “It is good to see you again, Baelin, you do not visit the council enough.”
“Ah, you know how it is,” he said. “As we get older, the work only piles up higher around us. If only we were dragons, so that we might hoard gold and power, instead of paperwork and burdens.”
“Indeed,” she said. “But at least we are the first to see exciting times.” She glanced at the timekeeper on the wall. “Thameland’s court wizards should be sending the guide any moment now.”
They waited for only a short time before Baelin felt the stir of mana far in the distance, a tiny ripple of someone reaching out from well beyond the ambient mana and magical auras within Generasi.
A heartbeat later, there was a shimmering in the air and a middle-aged man appeared in the centre of the room, glancing around him.
He blinked for a moment, adjusting to his surroundings and then bowed deeply to Kartika. “Council-wizard Kartika, a pleasure to serve you again.”
“Marcellus, good to see you again. I trust that the waiting area in Thameland is readied?” She asked.
“It is.” He turned to Baelin. “Hail, chancellor.”
Baelin nodded in return. “Hail, my fellow wayfarer.”
“Let’s not waste any time then,” Marcellus spread his hands. He spoke the incantation for the teleportation spell with precision, and Baelin felt the magic circuit form and power the spell around them.
An instant later, they were all flying through a tunnel of whirling images until he felt his hooves touch ground again. Millenia of honed habits kicked in, and he scanned the immediate surroundings with his senses, ready to strike out at any traps with terrible vengeance.
They were surrounded by a large gathering of soldiers, clergy, and knights in what appeared to be a large city square.
Beyond, he saw…a surprisingly dreary looking place.
The capital of Thameland rose around him—buildings of stone and wood spreading all around—with a few towers and great structures rising above the other rooftops.
He noted the towering cathedral that lay to the east, and the parapets of the stone castle that rose to the north. At one time, it might have appeared to be a pleasant and fairly advanced city.
But the scars could not escape his eyes.
Many of the buildings had been recently patched, and blackening—from fire, magic or both—touched many of them. The streets were empty save for armoured and cautious warriors marching along dirty cobblestones.
He noted that many of the helmeted heads were glancing up.
They were checking the skies.
Then there was the mana…
Very little ambient mana hung in the air, which was fairly normal for most places in the world away from a mana vent or some other great source of mana.
…but there was a certain magic that touched the air.
A very subtle magic.
“We have arrived in Ussex, the capital of Thameland,” Marcellus announced. “Are you able to take care of your further transportation needs, Council-Wizard, Chancellor?”
“Of course,” Baelin said, having filed the images of the surrounding area into his memory. He would now be able to teleport here himself without issue or any chance of mishap.
“Indeed,” Kartika said. “You may return to City Hall for the other half of your payment.”
Marcellus bowed to her. “Then I take my leave.”
With another quick incantation, he was gone.
“Welcome to Thameland, Council-Wizard Kartika, Chancellor Baelin.” An elderly man stepped out of the gathering, his long braided moustache blowing in the cool wind. “I am Court-Wizard Errol—second-advisor-in-magic to the royal family of Thameland—and am pleased to make your acquaintance after all these months.”
He glanced at the city.
“Your presence is most desired, and I pray to Uldar that the negotiations go well.”
Kartika nodded. “We shall work toward that.”
“Indeed,” Baelin said, though his attention was divided.
That strange magic continued to interest him. As his senses examined it, he realized there was a slight familiarity to it. It was almost like…a family resemblance…to Alex Roth’s golem, Claygon.
But what was it doing?
“Excuse me, Errol, is there a dungeon core nearby?”
“Thank Uldar no, you are perfectly safe,” Errol said. “The Heroes were able to clear all the area surrounding the capital from The Ravener’s influence.”
“I see,” Baelin said, though his own safety was the very last thing he was worried about here. Very few things could make him feel unsafe these days. “There…is a strange mana that touches the air.”
Errol’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You must have honed your senses well for you to pick it up so quickly. That mana belongs to-”
“The eternal enemy.”
Another voice—deep and cutting—interrupted Errol.
Robes rustled as another man stepped from the circle, tall and bearing a powerful presence. There was a narrowness to his features—like a dagger—and his eyes seemed unnaturally small. His white robes were pristine—almost divinely so—and the symbol of Uldar hung from a platinum chain around his neck.
“I am High Priest Tobias Jay, and what you feel is the presence of The Ravener, Chancellor Baelin,” he said. “Its darkness falls upon the entire land.”
The chancellor paused, considering those words. “Do you mean to say that this mana—however thin it might be—covers this kingdom from coast to coast?”
“It is indeed so,” the high priest looked toward the cathedral. “Even as great Uldar’s light shines down upon us all, so does his greatest enemy’s presence infest every hill, forest and glen. Until it is cast into the icy void once more.”
“Indeed,” Baelin mused.
His mind filed away that information for later evaluation.
‘My, my,’ he thought. ‘What antics have been brewing just beyond my notice?’
The thrill of a new mystery struck him and—for a brief moment—he felt young again.
King Athelstan Merciex of Thameland was a surprisingly young man, though almost any mortal was by Baelin’s standards. The monarch had perhaps only just reached his late thirties, but the weight of his duties slumped his shoulders, giving him an older man’s slouch.
Baelin had seen much the same in many kings and queens: half a decade of rulership seemed to age them a dozen years at a time. Yet, despite an obvious spreading grey in his red hair, the king’s eyes held a steely pride and vigour.
Good. Monarchs were not suited to being mice; mice were for the lab, not the negotiation table.
And it was obvious the king had come prepared to negotiate well.
The room he had chosen for the meeting was a demonstration—or perhaps a monument—to Thameish history, tribulation and triumph. A display of security and power. Its walls were covered with paintings of Heroes and kings from past ages, showing scenes of them battling The Ravener, its monsters or other foes.
A spread of food and ale filled the table they were seated at, and Baelin was sure he could hear it groaning beneath the weight of the feast. Servants stood at the ready to pour or serve as needed, and guards flanked every door, their plate armour showing the latest advancements in armourcraft was polished to an obscene shine. They were also quite tall for humans; a further display of strength.
The king sat at the head of the table, flanked by Court Wizard Errol and High Priest Tobias. An empty seat lay at his right hand and there were several more empty chairs between them and the representatives from Generasi.
“Welcome to my kingdom; were it that these were easier times in which we were greeting the delegates of Generasi,” King Athelstan said. “I shall ask your forgiveness for my wife’s absence: the queen has taken ill in the past month. She recovers, but the sickness is stubborn.
“Think nothing of it,” Council-wizard Kartika said. “I could arrange a healer of fine credentials from Generasi to offer assistance if needed.”
Baelin watched the king react to her words, wondering if they would be seen for what they were: an offer of help, a show of good faith…but a possible favour to be owed.
“I thank you for your generous offer,” the monarch said. “My court physician, the priests of holy Uldar and my own first-advisor-in-magic care for her. She is in the best of care, and I am afraid that the invitation of an outsider might indicate…distrust in their fine work.”
A smooth refusal that caused no offence while establishing the strength and competence of the king’s own resources. Subtle hints that outside help might insult those already working on problems within Thameland.
Kartika’s eyes lit up as she too caught the signals.
And so negotiations had begun.
“Come, feast and drink,” the king gestured to the fine food. Even Baelin had to admit that the venison soaked dark-wine gravy, leeks and peas smelled and looked delicious. The bread was steaming hot and appeared hearty and soft. “It is tradition in Thameland to never begin talks of governance and trade on an empty belly.”
“Ah, what is that Thameish expression?” Kartika asked, though Baelin knew well that of all the councillors in the city, she was the one who’d know the most about this distant realm. There had been purpose in her selection as delegate. “‘Never trust someone who negotiates on an empty belly?’, I believe?”
“Why, yes.” The king’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “When you have good food filling you, it sends the blood to your middle and away from-” He tapped the side of his skull. “-and tends to make people more honest. If someone’s offering you food before negotiating and not partaking themselves, well they’re probably just seeking advantage.”
In a practiced motion, he picked up a sharp knife, quickly carving away a piece of the venison roast and placing it on his plate.
He speared it with his fork and ate the meat with a few quick bites. “So, shall we begin our feasting then? Get that blood into our middles?”
A display of good faith.
“I should think myself half-mad if I bandied words while hunger still lay within me,” Baelin chuckled. “The scent would addle my brains.”
“Agreed!” Kartika said, reaching for her own knives.
The food was indeed rich and as delicious as it smelled. Baelin was glad he’d brought his appetite with him. He took a moment to reflect on the meal and enjoy it to its fullest. There had been many, many times in his life when hunger had squeezed his stomach into nothing more than a knot of acid and pain.
He was more powerful now, but one never knew what struggles would drift to him across the infinite seas of time. It was best to enjoy food, wine and other pleasures while one could; sometimes only those memories would keep one sane in leaner times.
Athelstan and Kartika spent the time in what passed for small talk among rulers: polite sharing of experiences in rulership, facts about their realms, and little anecdotes about their stations and duties.
It was a common language, save for one difference. Athelstan often worked in little stories about his children, painting their merits. That was a common topic when those of hereditary rulership met: a trained script that showed off their heirs, and advertised for potential advantageous marriages.
Kartika, meanwhile, spoke of deeds that she and her team had accomplished during her time in office—subtly, but with humility—but still painting an image of her own competence. She also spoke of her own resources, and her fondness for her connections in Generasi. That was a common script between elected officials: underscoring their own competence and merits, while also indicating that they would likely hold office for some time. It put others at ease knowing that this familiar, competent person would be in their position of authority for a while.
Warlords tended to speak of their own armies and their best and brightest military commanders: shows of strength meant to impress rulers that could challenge them, and intimidate those that could not. Demon Lords spoke of their own deeds and the great wonders and horrors they had worked over millennia; displays of power to ensure that their equals would think twice before moving to strike them down.
Deities tended to prattle on about worshippers, or the might of their own domains: sea gods detailing how many fish swam their seas, or goddesses of the heavens speaking of how many lightning bolts they’d cast across their skies.
There was a pattern and a script to all of it.
If one grew old enough—and powerful enough—one tended to hear them over and over. Baelin counted himself lucky that he could meet such patterns with amusement instead of boredom.
He engaged himself by talking to Errol and Tobias, curious about these two older men of power: one in wizardry and one in divinity. The ancient wizard was careful to bury his…distaste for Tobias’ patron: such a reaction would only muck up matters.
And that distaste would be brought out soon enough.
No need to sour things just yet.
They were halfway through the meal—with Baelin packing away much of it, being by far the largest person at the table—when the king finally gave indication that the ‘script’ had come to an end.
His eyes flashed with sudden alertness.
“So, then, before we begin in earnest, might I ask you a question, Chancellor Baelin?” he asked.
“I am a teacher, a chancellor and a sage,” Baelin chuckled. “It would be poor form to deny you a question, your majesty.”
Even as he said this, his mind raced through hundreds of possibilities as to what the king could ask. He’d made a mental list of what questions and topics could arise weeks ago.
“Of course, of course.” The king shared a pleasant smile…but that sharpness never left his eyes. “I do wonder if you could enlighten me on one fact. In our communication, you indicated that your university had obtained a sample of the remains of a dungeon core. I ask, how did your institution come by such a thing?”
Ah, so it was question forty-one, then.