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by Douglass Barre
Schneider had just begun to juggle a series of edged kitchen utensils when the man appeared in a blue flash of light. Thankfully, Schneider was a professional, and even as surprised as he was by the mysterious appearance, he was able to catch the cleaver and deflect the skewer and the carving knife onto the carpet, away from the Duke's court. Of course, the effort went unnoticed, as all eyes were upon the tall, handsome young man who suddenly stood before the duke.
The two guards at Duke Faraker's sides had drawn their blades and taken a defensive stance before the throne. The men of the court were hurredly escorting the ladies of the court outside, overtly to keep them safe from the danger posed by the strange appearance, but as Schneider thought to himself, a few of them did it to keep the women from swooning over the handsome newcomer. There was only the briefest moment of silence before the man kneeled, set down a strange round device that was in his hands, and looked up to address the duke.
"Milord," the man said in a strange dialect, "I bring you greetings from King Laran of the Dalencian Empire."
Schneider raised an eyebrow. He hadn't ever heard of any Dalencian empire, and Schneider made it his business to keep on top of most matters politic.
Duke Faraker, a young man himself, seemed equally taken aback. "Pardon me, young man," he said, leaning back in the oversized throne, "but I'm afraid that this is the first we've heard of your empire... let alone your king."
Schnieder grinned. Faraker was giving the newcomer the old laid-back-but-direct treatment that he had become known for in the two years he had ruled Nylevia. A far cry from his brother's reign, noted Schneider, though a welcome change.
The newcomer seemed unsurprised and rose with a grin. "We had little doubt that you had forgotten us, ah..." He seemed to grope for the proper form of address.
"Duke Faraker. Faraker will do."
"Very well... Faraker. As I said, it has been many years since our lands last dealt with each other. Ever since the Shadowwars."
That sobered up Faraker pretty fast, Schneider thought. Truth to tell, mention of the ancient wars against Shadow was something even Schneider would have been hard pressed to make amusing. The lad continued.
"We bring you greetings from the other side of the Great Wall." Well, if name-dropping the Shadowwars hadn't gotten the court's attention, the impossibility of life beyond the Great Wall certainly had. Thus, it was with a great deal of complaint that the court followed Faraker's next command.
"Will the court please leave... I would speak with this man alone."
Now, Schneider was officially considered part of the Nylevian court, so by ducal order, he was compelled to leave the main hall. Of course, he thought to himself, Faraker didn't say anything about coming back, so as soon as the grumbling crowd had moved away from the entry to the main hall, Schneider ducked behind the Arturian Tapestry and slowly edged his way back into the now-empty throneroom.
"...you see," the young man was saying, "the wall separated our lands from yours near the end of the wars. The religious hero Lodwar somehow delivered our lands from the reach of evil, where we have been held safe for the past thousand years."
"A thousand years?" Faraker asked, and by his relaxed tone Schneider could tell that he had already put his feet up over the side of the throne to lay back in it. Itwas a habit that Schneider encouraged and the rest of Farakers advisors prayed to end. "But the Shadowwars were only two hundred years ago!"
"Not for us, Faraker. Perhaps time moves differently for where we are. Who knows. Anyway, recently our mages' guild developed a way to breach the Great Wall at the edge of the world, and using some maps of your castle that we recently got..."
"Where the hell did you get maps of my castle?" Faraker yelled. Schneider knew that this was a touchy point with the duke, who had been having recurring difficulty with the unusual availability of blueprints to Castle Lianth.
"Ah, that's really not for me to say, Faraker."
"I understand, uh...Teneron was it?"
"Oh well. One of these days I'm just going to move. Let's see the Brotherhood of Gila invade my library then!"
"Excuse me?" Teneron asked.
"Never mind," Faraker sighed.
"You know, you're not at all what I expected for a duke."
"Well, you're not at all what I expected for this evening's entertainment."
Teneron grinned, but his tone became more serious. "I've brought you a message from my father, King Laran, emperor of the Dalencian Empire."
"Sounds serious," Faraker said, sitting up straighter in the throne.
"He respectfully requests your presence to discuss the matter of the Great Wall... and other matters."
"What other matters?"
"He wouldn't say. I'm simply here as an emissary."
"I understand. But how am I to travel there?"
Teneron picked up the strange device and held it forward for Faraker to see. Now that Schneider could get a better look at it, he saw that it was comprised of a series of strange metallic arcs and curves, suspended by thin wires around a central, slightly glowing blue stone.
"With this, D... Faraker. The Lord High Wizard Zazoo and the Secret Council developed it. It allows teleportation beyond the Great Wall." Faraker took the device and began playing with it. Schneider looked on enviously. Both Faraker and himself had always had a fascination with magical apparatuses, and over the last year or so it had become a contest between the two to get their hands on as much as they could. Despite the streak of maturity that made Faraker such a good duke, Schneider knew that he was a kid in a candy store when it came to magic.
"When does your father need a reply?"
"He expects me to return in one month's time. According to the mages, that should be six days on this side of the wall."
"And he was so sure that we would be hospitible for such a time?"
"He had it on good authority."
Again, Faraker began to inquire about Teneron's information, but a look from the young prince told him that it would be fruitless to ask, at least right now. Schneider, of course, knew a good mystery when it presented itself, and had already decided that he was going along on this trip, whether Faraker knew about it or not.
"Well then, I shall use that time to collect an envoy party to greet your father and to present Nylevia in its glory. Until such time, you are welcome to stay here... I'll arrange for someone to show you about the city and have a room in the castle prepared for you. Or do you already know where the guest chambers are?"
"Haven't a clue, Faraker," the young man smiled.
"Great." Faraker reached for the grey bell pull, and within moments, a servant had entered.
"Tamsyn," Faraker addressed the servant, "please show Prince Teneron to the banquet hall, I believe there's some lunch left over, and have a room prepared for his stay here."
"Yes sir." The lad bowed and turned to leave. Teneron smiled at the duke.
"Believe me, Faraker, when I say that this trip was a lot more pleasurable than I had expected."
"We seek to please," Faraker chuckled. The prince followed the servant out of the room.
"You can come out now, Schneider," Faraker sighed, leaning back in the chair once again.
Schneider sheepishly crept out from behind the curtain. "What gave me away, boss?" he asked. "Let me guess... you used mental powers beyond those of mortal men."
"Your shoes stuck out from under the curtain. I was praying the whole time that Teneron didn't notice."
Schneider looked down at the oversize bright red shoes that he was wearing. "They matched my shirt," he smiled. Nothing matched Schneider's shirt, a mish-mash of bright colors in a floral pattern reminiscent of the palm trees in the Montas Archipelago. His breeches were a pastel plaid, and the mask that he always wore, a bright orange. Schneider had long ago decided that "matching" was a concept that he would do better as a jester without, and the bright colors drew people's eyes away from wondering about the face hidden behind the mask.
"So what did you think?" Faraker asked.
"Well," Schneider said, furrowing his brow behind his mask. "First, this can't be the first incidence of the Great Wall being breached, or else they wouldn't know about the castle or your hospitality. Someone who's been here before has been talking to them."
"Agreed," Faraker frowned. "Continue."
"Nothing Teneron said contradicted itself, and either he's really a good liar or I'm forgetting how to read an audience. He believes what he told you."
"Again, I agree."
"But it seems odd that he would come here to request your presence there. Court ettiquette would call for them to journey here."
"Do you really think that they came from the other side of the Wall, Schneid?"
"Man, I sure hope so. Just think of all the possibilities! Just think about all the new audiences!"
"I'm going to get a merchant and a diplomat for the envoy... to gauge the political and economic ramifications of a new world like that opening up. Also, it might be good to have a priest along..."
"You just want an excuse to see Rhynwa again, boss. Don't try to fool the fool."
"Fine. But a representative of the Nylevian pantheon would be useful. Who knows who they might worship?"
"Sure, but a death priestess?"
"Hey, she's saved my life on more than one occasion... and the lives of everyone in this city, I might add."
"You just like the black makeup, boss."
"Guilty as charged. Anyone else you think would be good?"
"Bodyguards. I don't trust these people. There's something suspicious about the whole thing."
"I'll bring Max along as a bodyguard."
"First Rhynwa, now Silverhammer? You looking for a reunion of the Significants?"
"No. Just people I trust. When you fight a demon army with people you get to know them pretty well."
"Just the same, I'm going to hire you some extras. You know, the ones who get killed early in the story? I know this ex-gladiator who works cheap..."
"Whatever. Get on it. You want to go?"
"Well, boss, I don't know..."
"Give me a break. If I didn't invite you I'd be eating hot peppers for a week."
"Come on, boss... that was only five days. And by the end your mouth was really tough, huh?"
"Get packing, Schneider."
"Yes sir." Schneider bowed before the duke. "Oh, sir, you've got a spot there on your shirt." Schneider pointed to Faraker's chest.
He always falls for that one, Schneider laughed to himself that evening as he began to pack for the trip.
Palmer Khan was sitting behind the battered oaken table that served as a desk. It had been about two weeks since there had been work for a bodyguard-for-hire, and suddenly Khan was trying to find work for two. Across the office, lying back in a chair was a pale, tall, dark-haired man that if Palmer didn't know from his time back in the Rimbor City arena, he wouldn't have wanted to be in the same room as. The man was named Luthien, and if all the rumors Palmer had heard about him were to be believed, he was a sorceror of death, a necromancer.
That didn't bother Palmer as much as it might have bothered most people. Palmer had made a living out of taking things in stride, and it was that cool collectedness that made him one of the best mercenaries in Lianth. Even he had been a little startled when Luthien came by a few weeks ago asking for work. He remembered Luthien from the end of his "stay" in Rimbor City, but he remembered him as a tall, strapping tan brown haired lad, not the nearly-white, grim, gaunt spectre that he had become. But, Palmer thought to himself, a gladiator is a gladiator, and that's a bond that I'll never be able to break. So it was with a slight smile and a nod that Luthien became the first employee of Palmer Khan Protections.
Now if he could keep the necromancer from scaring away his customers.
There was a rap on the door and Palmer leapt from his desk to answer it before Luthien had a chance to. The necromancer showed no offense taken. Palmer opened the door and a meek man in regal garb greeted him. "Help you, sir?" Palmer asked.
"Ah, yes, I, uh, are you, I mean, uh, I'm looking for, ah, er... Palmer Khan?"
"Ah, yes, then, uh, good. I, um, well, the duke, um..."
"You're looking for a bodyguard."
"For the duke."
"There's been an assassination attempt."
"Major festival coming up."
"No, uh, he..."
"Wait, let me guess." Palmer pressed his rugged hands to his brow. "Ambassadorial trip."
"Well, actually, ah, yes, he..."
"I charge 20 marks a day, for ten extra you hire my partner here."
The man looked at Luthien and paled. "I... um.... er..."
Palmer looked him in the eye. "For ten extra you hire my partner here."
"I think, uh, that, er, that, uh..."
"We'll report by the castle tomorrow morning."
"Thank you for the business. Do you want a receipt?"
By that point the man had raced off down the street towards the castle faster than Palmer had thought he could have run.
"He wouldn't have lasted five minutes in the arena."
"Three," Luthien countered.
The face in Khyrisse's mirror was not her own. Nor had it been for the last fifteen years. The skin was a smooth pale white, like alabaster, and her hair had paled similarly. The cheeks, once smooth and full, had grown sharp and gaunt. Her lips were thin, hardly noticable except for the dark red lip rouge she applied daily. No, this wasn't her face, she thought looking at herself. This was Eric's.
She looked down at the wedding ring on her finger. For fifteen years she had been trying to remove it, and the curse that changed her features and did lord knows what else to her. Even Khyrisse wasn't sure of all of the ring's effects. She cursed Eric aloud and slammed her fist into the mirror. The blood on her hands spread slowly over the white skin and Khyrisse felt a tingle on her fingers. Wiping them clean, she saw that the cuts had already healed. Damn Eric and his bastard eternal soul!
Khyrisse shook herself out of her morning reverie of hate and turned to the business of the day. It was nearly time to open the shopfront she was currently operating out of, and if she wasn't downstairs to see to the latest shipment of silk, Sessu would cheat her out of thirty percent. True to form, Sessu was already talking to the Diarian merchant. Khyrisse interjected herself.
"Rylee, welcome," she smiled with false sincerity.
"Many thanks, Khyrisse," the Diarian replied, pronouncing her name Kier-ee-see, in the Diarian convention of ending womens' names with a long vowel. For some reason it drove Khyrisse nuts, but for a ten-thousand crown silk sale, she was willing to deal with the oft-xenophobic ideosyncracies of the Diarians.
"When last we spoke, you quoted me a price of six thousand crowns. Correct." This was a statement, not a question, and as was common in Khyrisse's line of work, a complete lie. Eric had taught her that quite well, thank you.
"My Nylevian must not be so good," Rylee responded, sounding quizzical. "We had spoken on twelve thousand for the shipment. Was I incorrect in my understanding?"
Khyrisse knew that Rylee had as much difficulty understanding Nylevian as she herself did trying to remember prices. Which is to say, none.
"I believe Khyrisse is correct in her recollection," Sussa chimed in. "Six thousand was quoted to us."
"Sailing to Lianth from Diaria is becoming more difficult. The Cynystrans are patrolling Diarian shipping lanes again, and we fear another war... This makes reaching Nylevia with goods all the more difficult. Six thousand would be below cost! I can bring it down to eleven thousand crowns, but less would be impossible while matters lie as they do."
"If anyone knows the Cynystrans, Rylee, I do. I was married to one once." Khyrisse felt that it would be against her best judgement to mention which Cynystran she married, knowing how Diaria/Cynystra relations were. She bit her tongue and held back a curse but remembered it for later. "Even if they prepare for war, it will be years hence. I suppose that I can afford, say, eight thousand. But Lianthi economy is difficult these days as well." There were limited markets on Ataniel; the Great Wall to the north and Deepsea to the south kept trade along the narrow coastal area that really afforded commerce only with the three major nations: Cynystra, Diaria, and Nylevia. Certainly Rimbor had a few goods,as did the Northlands, but the elves of Dyved produced little, and the Shadowlands... well, even since they were destroyed, nobody dared venture there. There were tales of other lands, but nobody seemed able to find them. Most merchants who sailed into Deepsea never returned. This diminished trade somewhat, but Khyrisse had played the system for fifteen years, and knew how to squeeze blood from a stone.
"Perhaps we could go down to ten thousand, but we wouldn't even be able to pay the shipmen with that and make a profit." Khyrisse knew then that Rylee needed to unload the silk badly, and tried to hide her smile.
"I'm sorry, Rylee... that's simply more than this humble trading house can afford. I guess that it's no sale." She lowered her head and started to turn from the silver-haired Diarian.
"Wait! Perhaps... perhaps eight thousand would be acceptable. But only this once."
"Sussa, get the papers." Sussa ran off, and Khyrisse turned to see sadness in the grey Diarian eyes. No mercy, Khyrisse reminded herself. It was what made her one of the best merchants in Lianth. No, mercy had been distilled from her long ago. Triumph and victory had replaced them in Khyrisse's heart and she felt ample of those now.
Sussa returned, and Khyrisse and Rylee signed the necessary papers to seal the compact. Rylee promised the silk to her warehouse by sundown, made a brief blessing to Harkryn, the Diarian god of commerce, and left. No sooner had Rylee gone and Khyrisse turned to get herself some wine, but a short, scrawny man in a tunic bearing the royal crest knocked on the door.
"Is this Coccoon Trading Company?" he asked meekly.
"It is." Khyrisse felt a swell of anticipation. A royal trading contract would do wonders for business!
"May I speak to the lead trader?" the nebbish asked.
"I am she," Khyrisse glowered. The man noticably wilted.
"I'm, ah, looking to hire, uh..."
"Out with it."
"The, um, duke is looking for a, uh, well-versed merchant to, ah, open up a, uh, new trade route. The, um, word is that, uh, you're one of the, ah, best."
"I am. Where is the new route? Have the Eastern Diarians deigned to trade with the outside world?"
"By, uh, royal order do you, um, swear to silence?"
That piqued Khyrisse's interest. Curiosity had killed the cat and done a lot worse to her, but she was still easy prey to it. A secret trading route? What could be going on here?
"I do so duly swear on the crown."
"The, um, duke has found a way through the, ah, the Great Wall."
Khyrisse was stunned. She certainly hadn't expected anything like that. Who knew what markets lay beyond the Great Wall to be exploited. Who knew what possibilities there might be for lifting her curse! She had expended every venue available in the known world over the last fifteen years, and here was a chance to go to a new land, full of promise, full of... hope. It was such a rare feeling for Khyrisse that she didn't hear the rest of the royal nebbish's explanation.
"I'll do it," she said. "When do we leave?"
Shannon wasn't the only thing on Janther Moria's mind, but she was certainly in the top three. After all, it was hard to put a woman as beautiful and passionate as Shannon out of your mind. Doubly so, when only a month earlier, she had stabbed you through the heart both figuratively and literally, and left you, dead, in a barrow in the green hills of Bryttanwych.
The orator and hero of the Bryttanwych revolution hadn't stayed dead for long, though, and that was what had brought him to Lianth. There were friends here who thought him... or rather, they thought her dead, and now that she was a he, they...
Janther started to get a headache trying to phrase the experience he had been through in the last few months, and being an orator and man of words, that upset him no end.
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