Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 5
It helped that he was a soldier of Aldis, that he had been trained that eventual peace was the only legitimate use for military force, and that peace meant compromise, most often with the people you least wanted to compromise with.
“Hmm. Seed stocks, mostly. Some ploughs and things. All farming stuff. And the cart, and horse. And myself.”
“Which of these things do you plan to return?”
“The cart, and myself.”
It helped that the clerk was keeping his eyes carefully fixed on his paperwork, never raising his head to the point where his gaze would meet Jorth’s.
“Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”
“Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”
“Remember before answering that I am capable of smelling lies, please.”
The vampire did turn his gaze up slightly then, enough for Jorth to see his mouth, raised in a pinch-lipped, fang-concealing smile.
“We’re here on private business, not on Crown orders.” he said, after a moment in which he once again reminded himself that fighting his way through the border checkpoint would not help, no matter what Kern had doing clerical work.
“Of course you are. Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”
“Spying, in Kern, is defined as the gathering or accumulation of information, including publicly available information, for purposes of political advantage-”
“If I say that I am, will it get me through this checkpoint any faster? Because yes, I’m going to see things and probably talk to the Queen about them at some point.”
The vampire resumed scribbling wordlessly.
“So.” said Jorth. “I heard there weren’t that many vampires in Kern these days.”
“Ah.” said the clerk, without looking up. “Doubtless you refer to Talis’s ill-fated treachery against our rightful and true king.”
“So, what happened there? Should I be worried about a coup while selling my stock?”
“Talis has been…dealt with. They say that the King locked her in an unbreakable coffin, then sealed it away in the Vault of the Forgotten, that she would remain forever trapped, forever thirsting. Her rebels are broken, the Silver Skulls shattered. But…there are others, who had grown used to the indulgences the king once allowed us. This is why the Black Gates closes at night, and why this search and these questions are deemed necessary.”
“Hmm. So I suppose you’re under watch as well? Or does Jarek just trust you to run the checkpoint without draining anyone?”
There was a leathery chuckle from the vampire, and a metallic rattle from under the paperwork-strewn desk. The vampire shifted and adjusted his leg, and Jorth saw the heavy manacle, inscribed with red-glowing runes, anchoring the vampire to the ground.
“The king is wise. He trusts no one, least of all my kind.”
“He locked you in here? What if some Jarzoni zealot breaks in?”
The vampire looked up then. Jorth had trained to fight such creatures, and reflexively looked away, but before he did, he caught a glimpse of a hollow, haggard face. If it had been alive, Jorth would have figured it to be starving.
“That…would almost be worth it. For in this brave new kingdom, where blood cannot be taken or even traded, but only sold straight from the vein, in tiny sips, and only by those the king had judged worthy and competent to do so, and only can be bought by those who have proven that their self-discipline can master their thirst. To face foul Jarzoni magics while bound and hobbled, but for the chance to feed again freely, if only once?”
The vampire sighed. “But that, alas, is not a choice offered to me this day. Adept Sethis, also of your esteemed kingdom, has been granted responsibility for agricultural development in this sector. When not afield, he dwells at the common house near Flinoc Pit, some twenty miles northeast of here. He will be able to tell you more about where your seeds and plows should best be directed. May your stay in Kern be profitable, Jorth.”
Wonderful. The vampire knows my name now.
“Everyone’s here? No confiscations? No one started any wars going through the border checkpoint?”
The cold stung his skin and the smog burned his eyes and his nose, but all things considered, it wasn’t that bad. He couldn’t help comparing it to the last time he had been in Jarzon; that had been in midwinter several years ago, and there would hopefully be far fewer horrible monsters trying to kill him or worse this trip.
“One time, just one time, and no one lets me forget it. And it was entirely Jarzon’s fault anyway. And no. Weren’t no sport in stabbing a chained-up vampire.”
“I got a name!” announced Albus proudly. “I was recommended to seek Adept Alais, at the common house near Flinoc Pit, in regards to some complicated and expensive artifice. The pay is apparently quite good for Aldis-trained Adepts.”
“Huh. I got Adept Sethis, same place, for agriculture.”
“There’s a bounty on black trolls out of the Nightpit, apparently. Although I think the vampire was just pointing me at some place far away, incredibly lethal, or both.”
“I received a message from Jarek.” said Nycillia, drawing instant silence from her companions, with only a quiet cough from Albus as some smog went down the wrong way. “It is unopened. I would prefer a second opinion on the wards placed on the parchment. Albus, if you would be so kind?”
“Hmm. Interesting!” said Albus eventually. “There are the standard preservative spells, and…ah! There’s something in the seal. I don’t think…ah! It’s a variant of the Arcane Mark locking, and it’s…hmm…fading? No, gone! I’m just seeing the discharge!”
“Aye.” said Nycillia grimly. “So, some ward on this message was deactivated a few minutes ago. Presumably, when I picked it up. The question that remains, then, is how this message came to be so sealed, since I am quite certain that I did not seal it myself, and Arcane Mark wardings are supposed to be unique to a caster.”
“Vampires aren’t supposed to do clerical work, and yet here we are.” said Albus with a shrug. “It’s the difference between the natural world and artifice, I suppose. Nature mostly makes sense.”
“Well, since I’m apparently inexorably enmeshed in Jarek’s schemes, I may as well open this.” said Nycillia with a sigh, before pulling the seal from the scroll, unfurling it, and reading it.
Welcome back to Kern! I’m a bit tied up with some ‘minor business’ at the moment, and will likely be so until the turning of the year, or more if the Jarzoni are unusually uncooperative. Still, I’m glad that you’re back! I won’t be able to negotiate any long-term contracts for Crown wages until I’ve been freed up, but I have kept your cell open at the Palace if you need a place to stay. There’s even food now!”
“Cell?” asked Shari.
“Jarek…the old Jarek…if it matters anyway…he used to keep cells for interesting experimental subjects near his living quarters. There was nowhere else remotely private or with any kind of amenities on his floor of his palace, and I didn’t want to waste energy going up and down stairs, so I borrowed one. Also, there is more.”
“I’ve dropped a few of these letters around, so you may get this message multiple times. If you happen to get one after the turning of the year, something’s probably gone terrible wrong. In any case, enjoy your stay in Kern. I’d tell you that you’d earned a vacation and should relax and see how much progress your disciples have made, but we both know that’s not going to happen.”
“Disciples?” asked Jorth.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” said Nycillia.
“Be well! Signed, Jarek.
P.S.: The ‘minor business’ is actually quite large.”
“Hmm. No titles.” commented Shari.
“I still can’t take Jarek seriously as a cunning and insidious sorcerer when he feels the need to explain his irony in postscript.” mused Jorth.
“Which is, you have to admit, exactly the kind of behavior a really cunning and really insidious sorcerer would adopt.” pointed out Albus.
“True. Well, it sounds like Flinoc Pit is our destination, for now at least.” Travel, Jorth knew, would soon settle people’s misgivings. No matter how subtle or insidious, Jarek couldn’t be everywhere, and Jorth knew that having to focus on the rigors of travel in Kern, even this new, peaceful, marginally-less-poisonous Kern, would keep his companion’s attention focused quite firmly on the now.
“I figure we’ll sell the horses with the tools once we reach a good place. We could ride ’em, but…uh.”
Jorth paused in his planning, rubbed the smog out of his eyes, then stared into the gloom again. There was a shape in the darkness, and for a moment it had looked like…
“Is that…good gods above, it is! So that’s what Jarek must have been talking about!” said Albus. He gestured, and light sprung up around the figure, illuminating it through the murky gloom. It was a statue, roughly human-sized, and still bearing the marks of the crude mining tools that had apparently been used to sculpt it from the harsh basalt of the mountainous terrain. The pose, the regalia, and the devotional symbols around it clearly marked it as Maurenna, Summer Queen, primordial goddess of summer, agriculture, and community. This statue, however, had Nycillia’s face, smiling serenely.
“What? What is…I didn’t…I never…I’m not…what? How? Why?” babbled Nycillia.
“OK. New plan. First answers, then Flinoc Pit.” said Jorth.