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Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 3

It had been a bitch of a march, Jorth considered. Even with Nycillia’s magics, Shari’s scouting for villages, and Albus half-killing himself to repurpose the carts to carry additional passengers, it had been hard. Not enough soldiers, fights, arguments, people running off in the night, the discovery that one of the refugees was an imposter who had murdered a friend and hoped to take his place…

And then there was the old man, nearly blind, who got around with the aid of two young Night Folk girls, who he described as his daughters, with a milky-eyed glare that brooked no argument. Most of the rest of the refugees had observed the soldiers saluting Jorth and decided it was healthiest to avoid anything that might attract his attention, but the old man either hadn’t seen, or didn’t care.

“Forgive,” he had said, “but my Aldean is not so good, but I must know. They say in Aldis there are schools. Yes, schools. Schools like…” the old man paused, searching his limited vocabulary. “Like factory-water, or bad soil.”

Jorth had harrumphed, and prepared to explain that the schools of Aldis, while perhaps not as good as the private tutoring the children of nobles and aspiring nobles received, was still perfectly adequate, when one of the girls had chimed in in Kernish.

“Yes! Free. There are schools that are free? That do not need pay?”

Jorth swallowed his words, and the lump in his throat. “Free. Free for all.”

The old man broke into a gap-toothed smile. “Good! My daughters, they will learn all the King wants. And more. Very smart girls, very smart.”

Jorth considered how to reply to that. Did he not know that Aldis currently was ruled by a queen or was he referring to Jarek?

“They can learn whatever they choose.” he ventured eventually.

“They do choose.” said the old man. “Lady Nycillia, she come to Kern, with great knowledge, great power, and trade it to King for freedom for others. Now, my daughters have freedom, and they choose to go to Aldis, to learn from free schools, good things, useful things, and trade in turn, free others as they have been freed. This they choose.”

“This they choose!” chimed in one of the girls.

Jorth swallowed again. It was nice, in the middle of this bitch of a march, to be reminded why he had gotten into the heroing business in the first place.

—-

And now it was over. Albus’s contacts had come through and a makeshift camp had been established. The soon-to-be new citizens of Aldis were being cared for by professionals. As such, it was not surprising when the quiet message arrived telling him to arrive at a particular tent, at a particular time, discreetly, after contacting his companions.

He hadn’t expected Queen Jaellin to be there, nor for her to be surrounded by her spymasters. She waved off his and Albus’s bows and Nycillia’s curtsy.

“Nycillia,” said the queen, “I need information. You, right now, are the foremost expert on King Jarek. I need to know what you know of his power, and his intentions.”

Nycillia was silent for a long moment. “Your highness, I do not know if Jarek can do as much damage as he claims. But I do know that he can move mountains with a wave of his hand. And I believe that if he is thwarted and not slain, he would take the field against Aldis himself, knowing it would mean his capture and destruction. But if he is not thwarted?”

She took a breath. She had apparently considered this carefully. “He is evil. He is callous, even by the standards of walking corpses. But he wants something from us, which he cannot achieve by force alone. And more than that, he is prideful. He has suffered a blow to his pride, and to respond with mere violence or treachery would not prove him the cleverer, only the more brutal. And while he does not shrink at brutality, nor does he glory in it.”

“Do you believe he can be trusted?”

“No, your highness.” said Nycillia, as a brief, joyless smile quirked her lips. “He told me so himself. If he ever found a way to gain true immortality, or even preserve his own wretched unlife a little longer, and it would require him to betray his sworn word and all he held to be right and honorable, he would do so in an instant. He is not trustworthy. But he is…predicable. He will not break his word if he sees profit in keeping it.”

“So be it, then.” said the queen, with a sigh of her own. “Send the response to the Jarzoni ambassador. We will not be joining them in their war. And as for you, my capable and honored agents, I am sending you back to the Capital for the time being. The political situation is going to soon be very complex, and I will need your aid once more.”

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