Chapter 16: Dandifrod of the Emberwood Trust


Creigal woke with a start. It was a comfortable room and the bright light of day washed through a large window. His bed was soft and comfortable. A pitcher of water and a fashionable mug sat on a small table to one side. Creigal cringed as he sat up in bed. His side was tight and protested the movement – but it no longer throbbed as before! Despite his soreness, he was astounded to note the aggressive burn of the rot was no longer there. Creigal peeled up his ruined shirt and stared at his abdomen. Indeed, the black lines of rot were all but gone! His flesh was pink and tender and there was a neat spider webbing of fresh scar tissue. So much for a painful and arduous treatment! The duke remembered nothing but a confusion of dreams.


Creigal took a long drink of water and considered his surroundings. Though he was sore and tired, he was stronger than he'd been in days. He thought Hazle had quite a nice cottage. The window looked out over a small garden with a high decorative fence. Beyond that was the high wall of a fort.


Creigal frowned as he noticed the guards. Most of the guards upon the tower wore the stylized uniforms of Minist shock troops. Immediately, Creigal thought of his bodyguards. Where was Carringten? Where were Baet and Toar? He had no recollection of what had happened. He was on a litter, bounced by the roughness of the road, as they made their way to Hazle's village. He could remember a bit of that – and then nothing. Just the sweet repose of the dreamworld, punctuated by incredible stabs of pain, and the faint whisper of unknown voices. What had happened? Where did they go?


There was only one door to the room. Creigal stepped out of bed and steeled himself for anything. He twisted the knob of the door. It creaked as he pushed it open.


"Come in!" called a sweet timbre – the voice of Daphne once more – was he still dreaming? He swung the door wide and half expected to see his daughter waiting for him. Was this not her voice?


Indeed, there were four women in a large room of ease and luxury, but none was his daughter. These women were dressed in gowns, with their hair done up. They looked to be sophisticated ladies. Two set aside books and pens. One turned from the work of a mortar and pestle. The last sat and played a lyre as she smiled at Creigal. She alone continued with her task.


"You must be tired. Here, come sit," the eldest woman beaconed Creigal to the large table. She had the sharp features of a Ministrian and also their dark hair. The other lady at the table was quite young. She was blonde, and had the large wide eyes of a Trohl. The third was a Saot with tawny hair and a mischievous smile. She was also quite young, but lacked the innocence of the Trohl. The fourth was also Ministrian and also quite young as she focused on her lyre. Creigal realized this was a house of Jays, servants of the Empress Seviticah, trained to seduce, manipulate, and kill.


Creigal knew many Jays of the Black Throne. Indeed, he had often entertained them. They were employed wherever the Black Throne invested – which meant they were employed throughout Saot lands. Creigal knew he was not in immediate danger. If his captors meant to intimidate or threaten him, a prison cell and a handful of guards was far more effective. Jays were better at getting information from those that were agreeable or unassuming. It was the velvet glove instead of the iron fist. This gave Creigal hope. If the Ministrians needed information, it meant they didn't know who he was.


"How are you?" The eldest Jay asked.


Creigal smiled. "I have been hunted, poisoned, and suffered strange dreams," he began in a grand manner. "Now, I find that the bugger rot is gone, and there are beautiful women all about," he grinned. "I must say, I am beginning to enjoy myself once more."


With a smile, the dark haired woman offered her hand. "My name is Meriona," she began. "This is Celesi," she said of the Trohl. Next, she pointed to the Saot. "That is Alise, and Karamina entertains us with the lyre," Meriona pointed lastly to the other Ministrian. "Are you hungry?"


"Famished," Creigal realized.


Meriona clapped twice. A man stepped into the room in the outfit of an attendant. "Inform Gliedian and Fedring that our guest is awake. Prepare something appropriately festive, yes?"


The attendant bowed and stepped out of the room.


"The High Commander, and the Corpus Majoris are quite interested in making your acquaintance," Meriona smiled.


Creigal made a mental note of their positions: High Commander was a military rank. Corpus Majoris was a member of the clergy. One of the Jays would be judge magistrate over the civilian population – Meriona by the look of it. Military, ecclesiastic, merchant... Despite his sickness, Creigal managed to attract the attention of all three branches of the Ministrian government. Then again, he held a good deal of money on his person, and the papers of a major Saot company. Such interest should be expected.


"And might we ask who you are?" Meriona said.


"Goodness me! I forget myself!" Creigal said with a flourish. "I am Dandifrod, Emissary of the Emberwood Trust. I am commissioned to make a survey of northern lands, and have chosen the cities of Wibbeley, Ebertin, Hearthstone, Land's End and Hyber Pass for my purpose," he paused and considered the room. "Though I have finished with the first city, I must admit, the last few days, I've done a terrible job of it!" he continued with a sheepish grin. "And might I ask where we are?"


"This is Camp Calderhal, a fort on the outskirts of Bouge territory. We are a week west of Ebertin, and just as far from Wibbeley, give or take," Meriona shrugged.


"And what of you? Have you been here long?" Dandifrod asked.


"Some six months, though I've split the time between here and Ebertin," Meriona revealed. "Alise has traveled with me. Karamina has been here a year. She is charged with learning all there is to know of Trohls and their culture. Celesi has been here all her life. Her exposure to the culture is perhaps a bit too rich."


"Here at the camp?" Dandifrod asked.


"Heavens, no," Meriona smiled. "Here in Bouge lands. She will travel soon enough. The time is nigh at hand."


"West?"


Meriona nodded.


"She is bound for the capital?"


Meriona shook her head. "Tikatis for now. Would you like a drink?"


Dandifrod gave a nod and a smile.


Meriona turned to Celesi. "Be a dear and pour something suitable."


Celesi turned, collected several glasses and a decanter of wine. She poured for Creigal first, then Meriona and her sisters.


"Thank you," Dandifrod smiled as Celesi handed him a glass. "Are you excited to travel?"


"I am nervous," Celesi admitted. She glanced at Meriona as she spoke. As a novice, Celesi was trained to be succinct, yet honest in her answers. "Have you ever been to the holy land?"


"Yes, my dear. I have travelled all along the coast and seen much of Umsuppa. But I have not had occasion to travel inland. Not as far as Tikatis. I do hope you find it to your liking," he smiled.


Meriona smiled. "Celesi goes to the City of the Lake because she is unblooded. Do you know the custom?"

"I do," Dandifrod gave a nod. He turned to Celesi once more and raised his glass. "May you get your worth," he offered with a bittersweet smile.

"You seem a man of the world," Meriona sized him up. "What price do you think she might get?"


Dandifrod looked at Celesi through his glass of wine and shook his head. "She will not get the proper price," he said. "Only money."


This answer caused a stir among the younger Jays. Even Karamina took note. She stopped playing the lyre and sat up.


"What is the proper price?" Alise asked.


Dandifrod turned to the young Saot and replied with all sincerity. "The affection of an honest lover. No less. No more."


"Affection!" Karamina laughed. "Such a trite concept: to find affection between lovers!"


Dandifrod turned a critical eye to the young Ministrian. She sounded just like Daphne. So he was not imagining things...


Celesi gave Karamina a short look. "I think it is romantic..." She began.


"Oh? Shall affection buy you clothes to wear, a house to raise your children, and seeds for your garden?!" Karamina continued her mockery. "Yes, affection is just what a woman needs!"


Dandifrod watched the young Ministrian with a critical eye. Although she had the voice, the sentiments were certainly not his daughter's. They were judgmental and materialistic. He turned to Celesi, "And that, my darling, is the difference between the Empire and the Kingdom. In the Empire, everything is for sale. In my land, only love buys love."


Alise laughed. "The lies of a Saot!" she charged. "In your land, women sell their bodies, and when the men are not buying, they spit and call them whore! In the empire, they are kept by the Empress and given the title of priestess! We do not pretend there are things above money! We know money is equal to anything!" She waved a finger at Dandifrod. "Your sanctimonious air betrays you. I wager a lune you are from the east!"


Dandifrod smiled. "You have guessed correctly. I am from the land of Ewile. I'd gladly pay the bet, but I have misplaced my purse – among other things." Creigal turned to Meriona. "By chance can you tell me what has become of my men?"


Before the eldest Jay could answer, Karamina cut in. "Your men are alive and looked after," she stated. "And you are too hasty in changing the subject! We speak of Saots and their whores. Tell me, how is it in your lands? For these women? For these whores?"


Dandifrod frowned as he was uninterested in a discussion of the oldest profession. Still, he acquiesced as the others all waited for his response. "I will not defend the actions of so many of my brothers. Treatment of prostitutes is sadly wanting in most parts of the world. Yet, I do not set policy anywhere outside my house. I cannot do anything for most women..." Dandifrod said with a shrug.


"What are the laws in Ewile?" Karamina asked, unwilling to drop the subject.


Dandifrod turned an eye to Meriona, but the eldest Jay did not intercede. Instead, she gazed into her glass as she took a long pull from her wine. She seemed to enjoy his uneasiness. Still, it was better than an investigation into his own person, and so Dandifrod answered. "I mustn't claim to be an authority on the subject, but if memory serves, the laws are sad and contradictory. Still, they are not so bad as one finds in Rottershelm, or among the Dans and Kelmish, where fines, jailing, and corporal punishment are common. Of those I know I think the Brecks have the best approach when it comes to the regulation of whoring."


"The Breck!" Meriona scoffed. "The Breck have almost no law regarding women of pleasure! And there is no tax at all!"


"No laws?" Alise gaped.


"Three laws," Dandifrod corrected. "Anyone soliciting must be clean of the nine plagues, there is to be no unsolicited violence, and all parties involved must be of at least sixteen years."


"It is so little!" Alise gaped. "There might as well be no laws at all! How does the government benefit?"


"What are the nine plagues?" Karamina cut in.


"Now ladies, this discussion becomes too grim!" Meriona cut in. "We veer far from the original topic."


A long pause ensued. Alise broke the silence as a frown crossed her face. "Of what were we speaking, your grace?"


"I ask again, what price do you think Celesi can expect in the markets of Tikatis?" Meriona spoke to Dandifrod.


Dandifrod turned to Celesi. "I have not engaged in the market, though I was privileged to see a class of priestesses auctioned in Umsuppa," He began. "It was quite an enchanting spectacle to see the ladies dressed and primped, I assure you," Dandifrod eyed Celesi critically, which made the young Trohl uncomfortable. "She is old, but not so much that it is a disadvantage. Might I ask your age, my darling?"


Celesi blushed to hear her elders speak of her sexual experience – or her lack of – so candidly. She answered with her head bowed, "I am nineteen, your honor."


"Indeed, that she is nineteen and unblooded is rare for a Ministrian, is it not?"


"It is not as rare for those of foreign blood," Meriona noted.


"Among Ministrians, I suspect she is quite exotic," Dandifrod continued. "There are few blondes in the Empire. She is going to be a Jay, I presume, and not a mere priestess?"


"That is her path," Meriona nodded. "We shall see for how long and how far she continues..."


"And if I answer, we shall discuss my men?" Dandifrod asked.


"We shall discuss whatever you like," Meriona gave a mock smile.


"I'd say she can expect a minimum of three sovereign. If she smiles at the right time, if she has a flattering outfit, and if the sun shines upon her just so, I think she may get as much as a sol," Dandifrod concluded.


Karamina gaped to hear it and Alise shot a look of envy at the young Trohl. Celesi blushed. She'd heard many estimates, but few so high. "Thank you, my lord," she said.


"Whatever the price, the man that gets you is lucky indeed," Dandifrod lifted his cup. "I only hope you feel the same."


"A sol!" Karamina laughed. "Now there is no need to take her to Tikatis! Promise a sol, and we will deliver her now!" she offered.


Dandifrod turned on the young Ministrian. She sounded so much like his own daughter – but her words were always so haughty and counter to Daphne's attitudes. It was a shock to his system each time she spoke. "I think I should be a bad match for the lady," he finally said in regard to Celesi. "I have not taken a lover in years."


With that, Celesi realized she liked him more than many of the baradha she'd met, with their eager hands and vulgar words. Suddenly, she thought bleeding on him might be so much better then going all the way to Tikatis. "You are not so old, and you are quite nice," she noted. She looked to Meriona, "I must say I am not contrary to such an arrangement..."


"The Gods bless your soul!" Dandifrod laughed. "But you are younger than my own children!"


"That would not stop many! In fact, that'd entice most!" Alise snorted. "Saots are so very strange! I should be thankful I know so little of my own people!"


"Come now! Remember your manners," Meriona chided the young girl.


"It is all right. She is simply being frank," Dandifrod shrugged. "Besides, she is wrong about her own countrymen. Many among my nation would indeed be enticed by such a beautiful youth. I fear that I am an outlier in this no matter the land."


"The north grows cold when the sun sets," Karamina smiled and winked at Dandifrod. "If you do not like Celesi, we have many priestesses of every age. I'm sure there are many that might teach you the rituals of the true gods, if only for a few nights." Karamina turned toward Meriona. "Surely one of his station deserves nothing less, and since he has misplaced his purse, let us provide the fee – so long as he stays with us?"


Celesi and Alise turned to Meriona, curious how she might answer.


Karamina continued before she could answer. "In fact, if he doesn't want the Trohl, or some random priestess, let me share his bed," Karamina stated. "I know as much of the ritual as most, and I will not charge at all."


"Too kind!" Dandifrod bellowed with a raucous laugh. "You are too kind in spades, I assure you! But I fear I shall be of little sport for some time. I have been quite under the weather, and I imagine tonight will be my first opportunity to sleep a deep, sound sleep. I fear I should pass out before our entertainment could properly commence! Honestly, I am all too happy that I no longer knock at death's door!" Dandifrod raised his glass. "Your healer has done an exquisite job! That such questions are even open to me... Indeed, I wish to thank the good doctor that has restored me! I do hope I can meet your surgeon," He continued, determined to escape the topic of sex altogether.


Meriona gave a cold smile. "Unfortunately, it was none of our masters that managed such a feat. Considering your advanced condition, we thought it best to leave you in the hands of a local, one more experienced in dealing with the sweet rot of the waokie. I fear our own surgeons are at a loss concerning the rot – especially a case as advanced as your own. We do apologize for taking such a risk with your very person."


"Considering the outcome, you are quite all right," Dandifrod smiled. "It looks as if Lady Fate has use for me yet."


"For years and years to come, I hope," Meriona smiled. "To life," she lifted her cup. The five drank.


Dandifrod took a sip, but there was little left in his goblet. Noting that his cup was empty, Celesi poured him more.


"Now, about my men..." Dandifrod began.


The door opened and cut him off. Several attendants filed into the room. They held platters of food and set them about the table. The first of the attendants turned to Meriona and whispered in her ear.


"Is Fedring still unwell?" Meriona asked, her curiosity piqued. "I thought he was all better..."


"I do not know the cause for his cancellation," the attendant noted. "If you like, I will forward your concern to his grace."


"Do give him our blessing," Meriona said with a wry grin. "Well, I fear it is just the lot of us until Gliedian makes his way. Dandifrod, will you invoke your gods, that they may bless this meal?"


Dandifrod gave a slight bow. "Twin gods of the sacred song, grant us strength, and curse our enemies," he said. "Amen."


"Succinct," Karamina said with a nod of approval.


Dandifrod beamed at the various foods on the table. "I cannot remember the last time I was offered such a marvelous spread," he admitted. His stomach rumbled with anticipation. The food smelled fantastic!


"Is it common for a Saot to serve the true gods, Ooroiyuo and Naharahna?" Celesi asked as she forked food onto her plate.


"Honestly, I am not much of one for religion. I fear most would call my views heretical, but I esteem the Twin Gods in my own way – as much as any other gods of peace and truth," Dandifrod said as he speared various foods and placed them on his own plate. "Is it common among the Trohl?"


"No. The Yak tribes worship a pantheon to rival that of Borzia – or so I am told," Celesi explained. "Among the Trohl, the highest of all is the one true god and his saint messanger, the Tallian bodi, Jeiju. the one true god is said to be everywhere, but only those with unclouded eyes can see him."


"Yes, the Lord of Nine Fingers! A soft and passive god indeed!" Karamina laughed. "Still, there are some Trohl that accept the true faith of the Ministrian."


"My appetite shall be severely disturbed if we must talk religion the entire time," Alise complained.


Meriona shot her a dark look.


"Come now," Karamina began. "Dandifrod is a sophisticated man. He only entertains these common superstitions for our amusement. Let us talk of other things," she said, and licked her lips.


"This is a fine spread," Dandifrod said as he piled his plate high. "What a lovely dinner!"


Dandifrod asked after many of the dishes as the Jays answered his questions. Some of the foods he knew quite well. Some he'd never seen before. Most he loved. A few he avoided. As the dinner proceeded, the door opened once again. Two formidable guards flanked a man of truly average build. The guards had an array of weapons about their persons. They were heavily decorated with pins, ribbons, and medals. The third man had but one medallion on his shirt: Twin Fangs – one done in gold and one done in silver. Dandifrod knew the symbol. This man was a baradha, one of the true leaders of Minist.


"Gliedian, I presume," Dandifrod stood. He gave a slight bow and offered a hand.


"And you would be Dandifrod of the Emberwood Trust," the Ministrian said with a strained smile. He took the hand, and gave it a weak shake. "A pleasure perhaps," he turned to Meriona. "I apologize for my tardiness. I fear without my continued vigilance, this camp would dissolve back into the wilds in a matter of days. It is truly an impossible task the Empress sets before me. And with so little coin!" Gliedian took up a plate and half-heartedly gathered food with a frown. "But enough of business! What has transpired in my absence?"


"We discuss this bounty, and before that, we spoke of the gods," Karamina said with mirth in her eyes. "Would you care to instruct us on the true religion, my lord?"


"I would not," Gliedian waved her off. "If you should like to talk of the gods, bother Fedring. Instead, I would like to hear what brings our good cousin so far north. Do you believe Trohl lands are the best place to invest Soat monies?"


"My opinion is of little consequence," Dandifrod admitted. "I am merely here to evaluate possible investments for a consortium of nobles. It is they who will make the final decision."


"Might I ask whom?"


"The Emberwood Trust," Dandifrod smiled. "I take it you have had much of this from my men?"


"I have," Gliedian stared at Dandifrod for several beats. "And I would have it from you too. This trust of yours – who is in it?"


"Several Ewile lords, a prince of Gaur, an Earl and a Viscount of Danyan," Dandifrod shrugged. "If it is names you seek, I apologize I can give you little more than the name of our trust. It is not my place to reveal my employers so specifically. I can say that we have offices in Gaetilly, Danyan, Balliwex, and Crimsith Peak that are more than willing to answer all inquiries. But for reasons of security, I am sworn to keep certain secrets."


"Yes. Dandifrod, the northern envoy. And what is it you hope to find in Trohl lands? Are your interests agricultural? Do you seek manufactures? Medicines? Conquest?" Gliedian asked with an upturned eyebrow.


"We seek all manner of investment. Money is our interest and all manners of making it – especially if it furthers the spread of the true religion," Dandifrod answered.


"Indeed," Gliedian noted. "And which gods are these?"


Dandifrod smiled, "The ones that increase my coin, of course."


"So you seek to improve my position, for the making of monies?" Gliedian smirked. "I have the Black Throne behind me, the influence of the Empress herself. If you wish to add something to my campaign, I implore you, seek to do so within proper channels. Take your requests to Umsuppa and petition the Empress herself."


"Oh, to see Empress Seviticah!" Dandifrod exclaimed. "I should certainly like such a thing! I hear her beauty is unrivaled!"


"Yes, her beauty," Gliedian waved him off. "But I can say what she will do. She will ask you deliver your coin to her. Otherwise, she will instruct you to invest closer to home, to change the culture of the Saot. Do you think the true religion has no interests that need attending among your own people?"


"There would be many," Dandifrod agreed. "But an intrepid man such as yourself could certainly use better funding and achieve better ends. You have admitted the throne provides only the barest of necessity."


"I shall work within my mandate," Gliedian answered. "I have no interest in extracurricular activities. For your sake, I say return home and engage in local affairs."


Dandifrod set his fork aside. "To your points, some men are worthless at home, and yet, find themselves oddly effective on the road, conducting the world's trade. I had not expected to find Ministrians so far north and east, but Ministrian investment creates a great many opportunities. Our efforts need not be in competition or counter to the goals of your Empress. Indeed, we could do much work that is difficult or simply not of interest to you and yours. We need only know what you'd have us do. If you prefer not to engage with us, that too is fine. I shall look for other opportunities, as I shall also honor my mandate. Besides, there are other envoys of this consortium, including those that petition my King and your Empress. Perhaps it is folly to travel north into Trohl lands – I have certainly suffered dangers. But I will do as I am charged and bring my lords the intelligence they seek. The decision to invest so far north is up to them. There is no guarantee. They will do as they wish. Perhaps my report will convince them of what you say, that their monies are better invested closer to home. Or perhaps they will decide on some other point of the compass. Truthfully, it does not matter. I am here simply to be well informed. I have given my word and I am bound. This is what I will do. To do anything less is a dereliction of duty."


"Informed? So information is what you seek?" Gliedian clapped. An attendant entered the room and turned to the baradha. "Clear my plate," he said as he stood.


"My lord?" Meriona asked, somewhat shocked. As Gliedian stood, the Jays did the same.


"No. I am tired of this deception, and my appetite suffers. Let us give this man his information, that I might return to my duties," Gliedian snapped. "We take this land for the Black Throne because we can. It does not matter why the Duke of Gaurring sneaks into my camp. It does not matter what you think you do here. Our plans will proceed uninterrupted."


Hearing his title, Creigal frowned. He turned to see the two heavyset guards standing over him.


"Yes, I know who you are, Creigal berDuvante," Gliedian charged. "If you choose to use false names, I will entertain you for a time. But know this: the Bouge are currently at war with the Saot throne, a war your king knows and cares nothing about, because it is merely a piece of theater to convince the commoners of great danger. And we, the Empire, are here to save them! We insert ourselves at the Muaha's side, as allies!"


"Yes," Dandifrod nodded. "I have heard much of this, and I have seen Ministrians in mock Saot uniforms."


"Indeed," Gliedian smiled. "Because we must present the enemy from time to time. But what is better than the genuine article? A true noble of the Saot, here to destroy everything the Bouge hold sacred!"


"I am aware of the tactics and strategies of the Empire," Dandifrod interjected. "Still, I do not understand why you confuse me with this Duke of Gaurring. I am Dandifrod of the Emberwood Trust, Esquire of the Ewile Court, Friend of the Black Throne. What do I care of your conquest?"


Gliedian leaned forward on the table and looked Creigal in the eye. "I have letter from Count Drefford of Wibbeley. It says that Creigal berDuvante may attempt the road to Ebertin. This Creigal brings two distinct men with him: the first carries two stone throwers of delicate and accurate crafting," Gliedian opened his thin coat and produced Thunder Maker from its holster. "The other man is a master of multiple weapons, and his skin is black as night. Both of these men arrived with you.


"But that is not all Count Drefford wrote," Gliedian continued. "He asked if I should find you that I arrest you and your men. I am asked to make sure that you never leave these lands. Unlike you, Count Drefford already invests heavily in our project here. I consider him a good friend as we often treat each other with such small favors," Gliedian stated. "But it is never wise to simply throw away a man of your stature. Instead, I have thought of a use for you. If you insist on playing a part, let me describe a new bit of theater! You will play the enemy, and your execution will be a public affair! The Bouge will forget themselves all the more, and kowtow at the protecting feet of my shock troops. You see, this land belongs to the Black Throne – only the Trohls do not see it."


"I see it," Celesi intoned as her blank look stretched across the table.


Gliedian frowned at the young Trohl. "No, not you. Not all. But you are among the elect, the chosen of the gods. Even among the Trohl, there are chosen. But most are oblivious. Most are always blind to the true condition of the world. Is that not the way of it?" Gliedian turned to Creigal.


Creigal shook his head. "You are mistaken. In so very many ways, you are mistaken."


"Am I?" Gliedian smiled. "You are a smart man, but in your plotting, you should be careful not to bring along someone as novel as a Borz. His kind are too rare so far north. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have real work to attend."


Gliedian stood and approached the door. With the knob in hand, he turned back to Creigal.


"You are a royal person, and so the conditions of your captivity will be of a suitable fashion. Play along and the road will be one of leisure in a carriage with these fine ladies for company. As for your execution – it will be prompt and professional. However," Gliedian glared at the old Saot. "If you test my patience, we will drag you through the streets to suffer the scorn and mockery of the commoners. You will linger in the darkest, dankest hole we can secure, and when we finally get around to carrying out your execution – a thing you will view as a great kindness when the time finally comes – know that it will be botched and messy affair despite the high skill of my best man. Cross me and you will wish the sweet rot killed you. The choice is yours. I leave you in genteel company, with fine food, rest, and leisure. But if you think to escape, you will walk the long miles to Ebertin barefoot with the lash of a taskmaster at your back. I will also be cruel to your men. I will see them tortured, reduced, and finally killed. Are we in agreement?"


"And if I play along, what becomes of my men?" Creigal asked.


"They are military men. If they are agreeable, they are worth a good deal of coin. They can join our army in Hof Hebrin, or one of our other operations. If they fight well, they will earn food, drink, coin, women..." Gliedian shrugged. "If they are troublesome, we shall disembowel them and hang their corpses as examples to the other slaves."


Creigal did not reply.


Gliedian turned to Meriona. "Now, if you'll excuse me, we depart for Ebertin before the setting of the sun, and I have several matters to attend before we go." The baradha pulled a letter from his pocket and set it on the table in front of the senior Jay. Meriona pulled the letter to herself. "With your permission, we take Alise and Karamina with us."


"Me?!" Alise huffed. "I don't want to go back to Ebertin! Take Celesi instead!"


"Celesi goes west, not east," Meriona stated. "Go pack."


For a long second, Alise glared at Meriona. "Fine," she hissed and slapped her fork against her plate with a clang.


"I see the ladies prosper under your tutelage," Gliedian snorted as he opened the door.


Creigal turned as the baradha left and caught a glimpse of a familiar men. Garf turned toward the duke. He locked eyes and flourished a bow with a mocking grin. The man next to him turned, and Creigal caught sight of Banifourd's face decorated with faded bruises. Creigal kept his face blank. The door closed as Gliedian walked out.


Creigal felt sick. His head throbbed anew and suddenly he realized why. "Ladies," he began, "I know it is frowned upon in the lands of the Empire, but since we are far from native Minist, might I ask a small favor?"


Meriona tilted her head and waited for the rest of the question.


"Might any of you possess fio? Mind you, not the white sort used in Minist, but the green of the Trohls?"


The Jays instinctively turned to Celesi. The young Trohl blushed, though she knew not why. Before this moment, she'd never heard of fio.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


"We got him!" the Saot hollered as he swaggered about with a half empty bottle of courage in hand. "We got him, and now his hoity-toity highness is gonna swing by the neck!"


The sun set below the mountains. Darkness approached. Despite his obnoxious behavior, the Saot was left to his own devices as he staggered about the Invader's Fort. Word among the guards was to leave him be unless he caused any real trouble, which few thought was possible, considering the degree of inebriation.


"Now I'll be rich! I'll buy women like you by the dozen!" He leered at a passing priestess. "By the dozen!" He hollered as she hurried away, concerned and confused by his uncouth and foreign tongue. The Saot took a long swig from the bottle and staggered between storehouses. For several seconds the Saot stared after the pretty Ministrian. "He gon' swing in the breeze," the Saot muttered. "I'd like to swing in your breeze," he thrust his hips at the priestess as she disappeared around a corner. The man found himself once more alone in the growing dark.


Something struck the man in the back, a painful blow, just off his right shoulder.


"What the devil?" The Saot noticed a small rock as it settled in the dirt. Something shifted above him, and he looked up just in time to see another rock falling from the sky. The Saot dodged the rock as it dropped into the dirt and rolled to a stop. For half a second he stared up into the heavens, until he caught another stone arching out of the shadows. He dodged. "You gonna put out my damn eye?!" He roared at the darkness.


The Saot pulled a sword from his belt. "Come out and fight like a man!" he shouted. He had violence on his mind as he stepped toward the dark. He expected children, out late, taunting their betters. He thought a good lashing was in order. He planned to beat them with the flat of his sword – if not worse. "Come on out! If I have to come in after you, it's gon' be real bad!"


There was no reply from the shadows. The Saot made his way forward, but there was nothing there. There was nothing – something flashed forward. The shadow was big, much bigger than a mere child! Panic washed over the Saot as he realized he was in serious danger. He swung his sword in a long arch.

The shadow dodged back, then, before the Saot could do anything about it, the creature was within his guard. A fist struck the Saot in his throat and he gagged. He dropped his bottle. An arm wrapped about his neck and cut off his air. The beast swung the drunk man around and banged his sword hand against the ground. Again and again his hand smashed into the dirt until his sword dropped from his grip. The Saot reached for his dagger, but the dark thing caught his hand and kept him from the weapon. The arm about his neck continued to squeeze. The world faded to black as a familiar voice whispered in the Saot's ear.


"Goodbye, Bence," the voice whispered. Bence knew that voice – Carringten's voice! Bence tried to cry out in alarm, but no sound escaped him. The world went dark. Bence ceased his struggle as pain and panic shifted and dissolved into nothing.