The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.
This is the eighth installment of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series.
Book VIII of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series.
(If you enjoy these extracts and want to read the whole thing, you can buy it.)
The next morning, they once again gathered in the private room on the first floor. At nine o’clock, confirmed as such by Morgan, Serpenita once again breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and twitched.
“Captain Alys. Who is there with you?”
“Your Majesty. I’m with Cullan, Kenyon, Morgan and Saldan. And Serpenita, of course.”
“Fetch your senior NCOs. Have Serpenita contact me when they’re present.” The spell ended.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Cullan said.
“Morgan, fetch Saggitta, Dalian, Hode, Roland and Boruta,” Alys told her.
“Important orders?” Serpenita asked. “Enjoy carrying them out.” She began to leave.
“Wait!” Alys stopped her. “Dashell only told us to get our senior NCOs in here, the only order He gave was for you to contact him again when they get here.”
Serpenita’s eyebrows shot up. “That sounds serious. What do you think it could mean?”
“Don’t know. Where is He, right now?”
“Ychiv, near the Chalgan border.”
“Any idea who’s with Him?”
Morgan returned, the two Sergeants and three Corporals close behind her. “We’re here,” she said, unnecessarily.
The Warlock nodded, breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and twitched.
“Captain Alys? Your officers and senior NCOs are all present?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“I am currently with King Aspartane of Chalgan and Duke Mattheus of Inpokkar. We have been in conference with Prince Gregor of Morat, Duchess Catherine of Yalkat and Princess Isabella of Demona via crystal ball. We will be shortly sending emissaries to both King Trent and King Ritalin of Akallmil, and We have requested a grand council of the Doronathan rulers. Emissaries have already been sent to Caliph Gygax in Hadin. Do you understand the implications of this?”
“An Alliance of the North.”
“Correct. We are well on the way to completing it – an Alliance so wide-reaching that every person in the North will be part of it. It is being formed for one purpose, and one purpose only: To defeat the fanatic-led Ras Nataran invasion that has been building for the last three years.”
“Then you did know about it when you sent us off with Saldan?”
“The intelligence was in our possession, but we did not know what it all meant until Saldan’s message began tying things together. Your reports in recent months have helped make things clearer. Our intelligence suggests that the new Sword Bearers have an army of close to one hundred thousand at their command, not including the Sword itself, and any assets they have escorting it.”
“One hundred thousand?” breathed Alys in disbelief. The four-nation coalition army that had invaded Morat six years ago had barely been twenty thousand strong.
“Shit,” muttered Kenyon.
“At least,” Dashell added. “With full mobilisation of all our armies, we should be able to match them – but that will require full co-operation between our nations, so that we have need to leave no more than token forces behind when we march to counter the Sword Bearer army. If one link of the chain fails, then only Turnobae-Galorndan, Chalgan and Inpokkar will be able to mobilise fully, and that will not be enough.”
“Have you tried contacting the Orc Clans?” Cullan asked. “They’d be up for a fight, and they’d like the chance for official recognition of their existence. It’d mean you’d need less troops to leave at home, too.”
“Most of them are in the Akallmil-Yalkat region,” Dashell replied, “and they have no great organisation. We will be sending emissaries, but we do not expect good results.”
“You should probably start with the Blade Clan, and mention my name,” Alys said.
“Noted,” Dashell replied. “In the meantime, We have a job for you.”
“I thought you might.”
“Captain Alys, the Burning Rose Armed Company, with Saldan to guide it, will travel to Scadmusa in Ras Natara and prevent the Sword from being unleashed. You will do whatever it takes to complete this task. In a best-case scenario, this will ensure the Sword Bearers abort their invasion of the North. In a worst-case scenario, they will simply invade without it. In any case, Our chances of defeating the military might of the Sword Bearers will be greatly improved. Do you understand?”
“Render the Sword Bearers unwilling or unable to use the Sword. Understood.”
“Good. All of your previous orders and instructions are still in effect. Tell Serpenita to Teleport over here for your new written orders.” Serpenita opened her eyes.
“Shit,” muttered Boruta. “Not asking much, is he?”
“Corporal! Nothing said in this room leaves it, understand?”
“Bad news?” asked Serpenita.
“He wants you to Teleport over to him to bring us our written orders,” Alys told her.
“And while you’re there,” Cullan added, “ask Him, ‘what about the egg?’”
Serpenita raised an eyebrow at this. “I assume His Majesty will know what that means?”
“If He doesn’t, then he’s probably an imposter,” Morgan muttered.
“Very well. I will be back shortly.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and disappeared.
“What the..?” Roland managed.
“The Imperial Warlock can Teleport,” Morgan told them. “Also, every time she ends a Telepathy spell, like the one she used to relay Dashell’s orders to us, she automatically casts another one so she forgets what she heard and said. Welcome to secure communications.”
“In other words, do not discuss things with her,” Alys explained. “She should be back any minute, then she’ll give us our orders and Cullan’s answer, then she leaves and we can talk. So hold your lip.”
Serpenita blinked back into the room three minutes later, carrying a scroll. “Here,” she said, handing it to Alys. “In answer to your question, His Majesty said that He is aware of the location of the egg and its’ progress, and is not currently concerned.”
“Thank you,” Cullan said.
“Dismissed, Warlock,” Alys ordered.
Serpenita inclined her head briefly but respectfully, then made her way out of the room.
Alys handed the scroll to Dalian. “Read it.”
The clerk carefully broke the seal and unrolled the scroll. From inside a small sheet of fine paper floated loose. Morgan caught it. “These are our real orders,” she said, after briefly scanning it.
“What do they say?”
“We are to magically disguise Saldan as a Galorndian noble whenever Ras Nataran observers might be near. We will then escort him along the main roads of Ras Natara towards Hdayr. We are to seek audience with the Sultan himself, and only in his presence warn him of the Sword Bearers and their plot to usurp his authority with a successful invasion of the North. Then we are to proceed inland to Scadmusa, and destroy the Sword.”
“The Sword can not be destroyed,” Saldan said. “It was divinely created, only M’hush or another God could destroy it. We may be able to return it to hibernation, or we may be able to kill it if we are lucky – but destroying it will be beyond any mortal’s capabilities.”
“What about a demon’s?” asked Morgan.
Saldan shrugged. “They are not mortal, but they have no divine power. They might help us to kill the Sword, but they would not be able to destroy it either.”
“But come on – we need to kill a dragon?” Boruta asked. “We’re never gonna manage that!”
Cullan grinned at him. “To kill a dragon? What greater chance can an adventurer have than to kill a dragon?”
“Since when are we adventurers?” Roland demanded. “We’re mercenaries, we do things for money, not glory.”
Cullan shrugged. “There’s usually very little difference. Most of the jobs we’ve accepted had a significant ‘fun’ component – but you’re right, that wasn’t the main reason we accepted them.”
At two in the afternoon, they finally received the invitation to audience with the Consul. Food and drink had been brought to the rooms on a fairly steady basis by servants, and so everyone was well-fed, rested, and hydrated. All five of them went to the audience, on the basis that (for the staff) the Envoy would not deign to go anywhere without a suitable escort, or (for themselves) that everyone would be in place to deal with any trouble should it arise. The major domo led them through more of the well-decorated corridors to a downstairs reception area. He knocked portentously at a massive set of gilded double doors, then signalled to two flunkies to pull them open with all the grandeur they could muster.
The Consul was sitting relaxedly in a large chair, built large enough for lounging in but still remaining imposing, behind a large marbled desk. A set of three silver goblets was on the tabletop, next to an amphora propped up on its’ own stand. Two slightly-less imposing chairs were in front of the desk. “Ah, Your Grace, welcome to Gerikka.”
“Thank you,” Saldan replied, smiling slightly and nodding.
“Do please sit down,” the Consul offered, gesturing. Saldan and Cullan sat, still trying to work out whether he was smiling just a little bit too much. “You will have to forgive me, Your Grace, for the late hour of our meeting. It is common practice here to do most of the normal business at night, to evade the chief portion of the day’s heat. Damnable, but one gets used to it.”
“My staff, of course, have verified your documents, and I am pleased to officially offer you and your retinue accommodation until the Ras Nataran military can assemble an appropriate escort for the next stage of your mission. But might I trouble you for a formal introduction?”
Cullan stood. “May I present, His Grace the Duke of Fisdnar, Envoy Extraordinary to the court of His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty of Ras Natara, from the court of His Majesty of Turnobae-Galorndan.”
“Ah, yes. And as Consul of the Realm of Doronatha, I, Duke Hector, do offer you welcome and accommodation for the course of your duties.”
“Thank you, Consul,” Saldan replied. “May I present my intermediary, my former schoolfriend, Lord Culnar.” Cullan gave a short bow to the Consul and sat down.
“Intermediary? Your Grace, surely you can speak for yourself?”
“I dislike doing so,” Saldan replied, “especially to those of lower station. Hence, Lord Culnar, whose job it is to fend off overzealous court lackeys and deal with my bodyguard.”
“Ah, yes, your bodyguard. You have some fine-looking men and women in your retinue,” Hector nodded appreciatively and leered at Morgan. “I trust that, as with all good bodyguards, they have been availing themselves of this house’s hospitality?”
“Yes thank you, Your Grace,” said Alys, speaking so as to encourage Hector to look at her, and possibly recognise her from four years ago. The Consul merely glanced at her before looking back to Saldan and continuing their conversation.
“Of course. But one hopes not too much use of hospitality, there are expenses to all things.”
“Quite,” Saldan agreed, “but these are very well trained.”
“Really? I do not recognise the livery, where are they from?”
“From Galorndan. They are the Burning Rose Armed Company, recently detached from Royal bodyguard duties.”
“Ah yes, Dashell’s great movement in response to some imagined threat.”
“It is not an imagined threat, sir.”
“Really? Regrettably, His Majesty is paranoid, and sees plots and threats everywhere. We have spies of our own in Doronatha, and we have seen nothing to trouble us.”
“Of course – Dorontha is well known for its’ trade in information. But His Majesty likes to be prepared, and if he sees a threat it is well to take heed.”
“Take heed, certainly, but not at every start and shadow.”
“Then you have not noticed anything out of the ordinary yourself, when you go into Gerikka to complete your own business?” asked Saldan. “Surely one such as yourself must have noticed what the spies and agents of King Dashell have?”
“There are more Saracens on the streets, the peasants are hurrying hither and yon looking afraid and whispering of purges and holy war and what-have-you. Nothing unexpected.”
“Your Grace,” Cullan spoke, “perhaps you could enlighten us as to the nature of your business here? If your dealings are with the right sort of people, it is possible they may not be affected by the business His Majesty has sent His Grace here to address the Sultan about.”
“My business here is unrelated to anything that His Majesty may have sent an Envoy about. Please do not trouble yourselves over it.”
“Of course,” Cullan agreed.
Hector smiled widely and benignly, and clicked his fingers at the major domo, who hurried forward to pour the wine. “We should properly mark this occasion,” he said. The three took a goblet each, and with a brief tip to the room, drank. “Excellent vintage,” he acknowledged. “From my own vineyards, of course – quite some leagues north of here.” After another sip each, Hector stood. “Well, thank you for joining me here, Your Grace, Your Lordship. We should continue this at a later date, perhaps?”
Cullan and Saldan also stood. “Thank you, Your Grace,” Saldan said, “but, alas, I am by habit a solitary person – and yet my King calls on me to talk to people. You will forgive me, sir, if I do not appear to emerge from the excellent accommodations I have been placed in?”
“Not at all, not at all,” Hector agreed. “I do hope your stay is enjoyable, and passes quickly.” He gave a quick half-bow, and stepped out of the room.
The first person who wanted to see them was an assistant to the Vizier of Foreigners, who wanted to know why His Grace’s mission could not be dealt with by his master.
“His Grace’s words come directly from His Majesty King Dashell,” Cullan explained, “it would not be appropriate to speak them to a mere Vizier before the Sultan has heard them.”
“My master the Vizier may be considered to have His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty’s total trust and confidence,” the assistant said.
“My master the Envoy will not make that consideration,” Cullan countered.
“We will see about that!” the man said, storming out with a significant look at the Shah.
“We must wait here,” he said, with a wide smile.
“Nice comfy chairs,” Cullan remarked. “Just the thing when waiting to answer unexpected questions.”
Five minutes later, the Vizier of Foreigners himself turned up, trailing the assistant, two slave girls scattering rose petals, a fan bearer, and two bodyguards. He stopped in the middle of the room and glared imperiously at Saldan and Cullan until the two of them completed bows to him. Then he rattled off something in Nataran to his assistant, who translated it for them.
“My master wishes it to be known that there is nothing you can tell His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty that will not be told to him, so you may as well speak your piece now.”
“The Envoy’s instructions are to speak his piece only to the Sultan Himself,” Cullan countered. “Where the Sultan passes that piece afterwards is entirely up to him.”
The Vizier rattled off another string of Nataran. He speaks our language, Cullan realised.
“My master insists that anything you can say to His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty can be said to him. He is the epitome of discretion, and would not dare relate your message to anyone but the Sultan himself.”
“In that case, we should cut out the middle man, and relate our message to the Sultan himself.”
More Nataran from the Vizier. “My master asks if you are really so arrogant to believe that you can behave as you wish in the very palace of the ruler of a land that is not your own?”
Cullan managed to look scandalised. “But we are not behaving as we wish, Vizier; we are behaving according to the established dictates of diplomatic protocol, and in accordance with the instructions given to us by our master in Turnobae-Galorndan.”
The Vizier rattled off some more Nataran, and he and his entourage left. Cullan looked to the Shah for a translation. “He said that you should learn the ways of the nations that you visit, rather than following the ways of a home no-one calls their own.”
Cullan nodded. “Ah, I see. Well I’m sorry, but His Grace wasn’t able to locate anyone to scatter rose petals in front of him.”
The Shah actually laughed at that – a small laugh, but a laugh nevertheless. “Other ministers will want to see you,” he told them, “please, sit and wait.”
The next person to come and see them was the Deputy Minister of Protocol. Cullan saw how he should play this at once.
“A deputy to a Minister? Really? Is that how we are to be treated? Not ten minutes ago we were conversing with a full Vizier, and now we are only worthy of a deputy? His Grace will not stand for it! Fetch your master immediately – if he wishes to interview us, he can do so himself, not second-hand through a minion!”
The deputy bowed nervously and left, returning five minutes later with the Minister. This one only had one slave girl scattering rose petals, but she was topless. As Fortran had warned them they might encounter something like this, both Cullan and Saldan leered appreciatively.
“Hasana? Lima va gan sharounake mina aldrooli an dazajni?”
The deputy translated. “The Minister asks why you felt it necessary to disturb him?”
“Us disturb him?” Cullan asked. “It’s the other way around! We are here to speak to the Sultan, not be pestered beforehand by Ministers and Viziers who think we should be speaking to them.”
The deputy translated back, the Minister asked a question, and the deputy translated again. “The Minister wishes to know how you can possibly speak to His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty without knowing how to do so properly?”
“His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty is a person, as is His Grace the Envoy whom I have the honour to speak for. We know the proper forms of address for such a person, we are aware of where to stand, how deeply to bow, and all the other details that such an audience entails.”
Translation, statement. “The Minister says you only know the correct forms for addressing the, er, less-civilised rulers in your own lands, you do not know the correct forms in this seat of culture and learning.”
“Then the Minister will be pleased to learn that we have received additional instruction on this matter by His Excellency the Ambassador resident in this city. We know what we must do.”
Translation, question. “Then how many paces from His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty’s person must you stop advancing and bow?”
“Eight,” Saldan replied, sounding bored, “and women may not raise their eyes from the bow until given leave.”
Translation, question. “And how many paces must you retire before turning away from His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty?”
“Four, twelve in total from His Majesty’s person.”
“And what actions are you to take if approached by one of His handmaidens?”
“Avert our eyes, so as not to look upon their form.”
Translation, question. “What are you to discuss with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty?”
“That is a matter of concern only to His Grace and His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty,” Cullan replied. “If His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty wishes to share the matter after we have spoken, that is, of course, His prerogative.”
More translation, a statement. “The Minister wishes you to know that His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty will not discuss certain matters with Foreigners at certain times of the day. If the matter you have been sent here for involves one of those matters, you will not be able to address His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty at all.”
“Then it would be helpful to know what said matters are, that the Sultan will not discuss them with foreigners at certain times of day.” Translation, another statement. “The Minister insists that you tell him of your purpose here, so that he may determine if the matter is suitable for His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty’s ears.”
“His Grace the Envoy must decline that invitation, but if the Minister were to tell us which matters are unsuitable for the Sultan’s ears, we would know whether to wait or not before discussing our purpose with Him.”
Translation, angry tirade. The Minister turned on his heel and stalked off, the slave girl hurrying to keep ahead. The deputy remained behind and offered an apologetic translation. “The Minister feels that you are too arrogant and if all were right under the sun you would not be permitted to see His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty, but this is the way of the world we now live in, and I’m sure you gather the general thrust of the Minister’s remarks.”
“We do, and thank you for relaying them so succinctly,” Cullan told him. “Will the Minister attempt to block or delay our audience with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty?”
“No, he has not the power to do so, but rest assured, his complaints will be heard.”
Cullan nodded in acknowledgement, and the deputy left. The Shah was trying not to smile as he motioned them to be seated again.
Twenty minutes later, a large man with a huge beard came in. That he was wearing the armour and tabard of a Saracen of the Crescent Legion was obvious, especially from the way their guide suddenly stood up straight and ceased to look amused. What wasn’t obvious was his status in the Legion, nor whether he was a Sword Bearer or not, as the beard extended to his belt, concealing all trace of insignia. He came marching up to the pair of visitors, waited until they were on their feet, glaring down at them, then barked a question.
“So, you want to speak to His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty, do you?” he asked, with an atrocious Doronathan accent.
“Yes,” Cullan replied, “and who might you be?”
“I might be anyone, but I am the Eali-Shah of the Crescent Legion who is charged with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty’s safety. Why do you wish to speak with Him?”
“That is our business and no-one else’s,” Cullan repeated, “but if after we have spoken to Him, the Sultan wishes to share our business, He may, of course, do so.”
“That’s not good enough, you could be assassins!”
Cullan raised an eyebrow. “Pray tell how does one follow on from the other? Where is the logical connection in your line of thought going from ‘they wish to speak to the Sultan’ to ‘they could be assassins’, when you have no more information now than you did five minutes ago?”
“Why do you wish to speak with the Sultan?”
“We have instructions from our King, Dashell of Turnobae-Galorndan, to do so.”
“On what matters?”
“The matters we wish to discuss with the Sultan, are matters that we will discuss only with the Sultan.”
“All Northerners hate Natarans, why do you wish to speak to the most important Nataran, and give no reason?”
“All Northerners are curious about Natarans, if you choose to interpret that as hate, that is your affair. We wish to speak with the Sultan because we have instructions from our liege-lord to do so, and our reasons are not to be shared with anyone but His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty. If He then chooses to share them with you, that is His decision.”
“You have no answers! You just parrot your stock of lies like the deceivers you are! You wish to gain audience with the Sultan so that you may assassinate Him!”
Cullan drew himself up to his full height and looked the Eali-Shah square in the throat. “Sir! That is an outrageous accusation, and if you do not withdraw it, then diplomatic immunity or no, I will meet you on the field of honour in single combat!”
The Eali-Shah glared down his nose at Cullan for a few seconds, then broke into a laugh. “Hah! No idiot noble from the North would ever look like that if he were to try and assassinate the Sultan! But you will bear no weapons in audience!”
“We removed our weapons and left them at our embassy,” Cullan told him.
“So be it!” He turned to their Shah guide and rattled off a string of Nataran, then bowed in salute to Saldan and Cullan, and marched out.
“Please tell me he was the last one,” Cullan said as the Shah approached.
“He was not,” he replied, “but I may now take you to the final obstacle to your audience with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty. If you will step this way?” He gestured towards the door of the waiting room they were in.
“Certainly. Who must we sit-up-and-beg for now?”
“The Sultan’s personal priest. He must make sure your visit is religiously acceptable.”
They headed off down the corridors again, and soon found themselves in another well-furnished waiting room. The Shah left them in there, with two guards stationed at the inner doors, as he backed out and shut them in. As soon as the outer doors were shut, the guards opened the inner doors. Since no-one came through, Cullan ventured a step towards them. The guards did not appear to try and stop him, so with glance at Saldan over his shoulder, he led the way through. The room on the other side was dark, lit only by a few candles in the corners. The main part of the floor was sunken, reached from four steps descending from all around the outer perimeter. Cullan hesitated at the edge of the pit. “Hello?” he called.
“Come down,” an elderly voice croaked, drifting up out of the darkness in the centre of the room. Cullan turned to Saldan, who nodded, and they made their way carefully down the steps. As soon as they left the outer perimeter, the guards closed the doors behind them, plunging the room into deeper gloom. At the bottom of the steps, it became apparent to them that there was a large couch in the middle of the room, on which lay an old man in rich voluminous robes. They approached carefully, the gloom making every step seem hazardous.
Cullan stopped a few paces away. “Greetings. May I present His Grace the Duke of Fisdnar, Envoy Extraordinary to the court of the Sultan of Ras Natara, from the court of King Dashell of Turnobae-Galorndan. I am Lord Culnar, his intermediary.”
“Ah, yes, I was told to expect you,” the old man said. He raised his hand in a feeble gesture, and two barely-clad handmaidens appeared out of the shadows. They guided the two visitors to small stools right next to the couch. “Forgive the gloom, my old eyes are sensitive to anything brighter.” They sat down, and the handmaidens melted away into the gloom. “Now, why do you wish to speak to His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty?”
“We are here to discuss certain matters with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty that King Dashell feels would be mutually beneficial to both Their kingdoms,” Cullan said. “The exact details are to remain undisclosed until we have discussed them with the Sultan, but He may choose to share them with whoever He wishes afterwards.”
“Of course, of course. I am not interested in politics, only in the state of His Majesty’s eternal soul.” Cullan’s eyes made out the old priest’s fingers working silently above his chest. “To that end, I must make sure that you are not here to corrupt it. Are you?”
Cullan paused as a wave of dizziness passed over him, and a cloudy feeling enveloped his mind. “We intend to corrupt no-one’s souls with our mission.”
“What you intend and what you will do are two different things. How do I know that your mission, from a twin country presided over by both of the squabbling celestial brothers who rejected M’hush, is not a mission to persuade His Majesty to reject the holy teachings of our God?”
“To the best of our knowledge, no such rejection will be asked, and our mission could offer another opportunity for the Sultan to advance the course of his eternal salvation.”
“Really? Then you are not here to persuade His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty to renounce the Sword Bearers and abandon the crusade against the North?”
Cullan felt a tug at his jaw as he opened his mouth to answer, and changed his words. “Iii... That is, we, would like to know what you know about the Sword Bearers.”
“Hmm? Do you not know about them already?”
Again, Cullan felt his jaw trying to run away with him. “Only from second-hand sources. We have no direct experience of them, save the Shah who guided us here.”
“So you know what they are?”
“We are aware that they are a separate community within the Crescent Legion.”
“You are misinformed. So you are not here to discuss the Sword Bearers with the Sultan?”
“The details of our mission are to remain undisclosed except to the Sultan, in confidence.”
“And do those details include warning the Sultan of the Sword Bearers’ plans?”
“We are not empowered to discuss the details with anyone but the Sultan.” Cullan breathed a soft sigh of relief as he felt the cloudiness leave his mind.
“But does your mission involve persuading the Sultan to oppose the Sword Bearers?”
“Sir, as I have stated many times before, we can neither confirm nor deny that to anyone but the Sultan Himself. But surely, as his personal priest, he will confide fully in you?”
The old man growled. “You place far too much trust in the piety of rulers, young man.”
“Someone has to,” Cullan told him.
There was a sound like water gurgling down a half-blocked drain. “I see. Well done, young man, you have passed my tests. I see no reason to delay your meeting with His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty any further.”
Cullan and Saldan stood up. “Thank you,” Cullan said. They turned around and cautiously made their way back out of the room. They knocked on the doors at the top of the steps, they were opened, and they stepped back into the light.
Saldan shook his head and blinked many times as the doors behind them closed. “That was close,” he muttered.
“Yeah, that room could benefit from a window,” Cullan said. He’d had his eyes closed when the doors were opened, and so wasn’t blinking, and had noticed the panel in one wall sliding shut. “We are overdue for our audience, Your Grace,” Cullan said slightly louder than necessary. “Let’s find that Shah and be on our way.”
“Oh? Yes, of course,” Saldan agreed.
Cullan led the way to the outer doors and opened them. The Shah was standing sentry just outside, waiting for them. “Ah!” he said, turning to face them. “Did your talk with the priest go well?”
“He said he could see no reason to delay our audience with the Sultan further.”
“Good! Then we shall make haste. This way.” He marched off.
“How old is the Sultan’s priest?” Saldan asked as they went.
“Rumours say he is nearly a hundred years old,” the Shah replied. “Personally, I believe him to be sixty, and crippled by a lifetime of salacious activity.”
“If only more of our priests were like that,” Cullan said, “it might make them less uptight about what the rest of us get up to.”
They turned a corner into a very wide and short corridor that ended in another massive staircase. Cullan had long since lost track of where they were in the building, especially since neither of them had seen a window since they came in, but he suspected they were now directly above the huge entrance hallway. The stairs ended at a round concourse, bringing together several corridors in front of a massive pair of gilded doors, guarded by a dozen men. The Shah led them towards the doors, and they stopped before them to be inspected by another guard who was standing by a table. “Kanat tanna hamma luhear a’slekar,” their guide said, and the guard backed away, signalling to someone unseen. There was a clunk, and the massive gilded doors began to swing open.
“You may enter,” the Shah told Cullan. “Remember all of the protocols when speaking to His Most Excellent and Learned Majesty. He speaks your language well.”
“Thank you for your assistance,” Cullan told him. He gestured for Saldan to go first, and they entered the Sultan’s presence.
Just over three months ago, the Burning Rose had retrieved a record of an expedition by the Paladins of the Green Cross into Ras Natara, that had found a tomb of one of the founding members of M’hushtlamism. In it, there had been a drawing of the final chamber where the important sarcophagus was kept. Apart from a throne instead of a sarcophagus and sand moat, half a dozen guards and two dozen sultry naked handmaidens instead of lesser caskets, the Sultan’s throne room looked exactly like the drawing in the book. They stopped and stared for a few moments, before recollecting themselves and making the required obeisances. They approached the throne, eyes down, until they were eight paces away from the foot of the throne. They bowed deeply, and only then did they look up at the Sultan.
“Well?” he asked.
“Your Most Excellent and Learned Majesty,” Saldan began, “I am here as Envoy Extraordinary from King Dashell of Turnobae-Galorndan, here to speak with you in private about a matter of mutual concern, and mutual benefit, to both our countries.”
“Your Majesty, I regret that I cannot, with so many of your servants in attendance. King Dashell was most insistent that what I have to say be said to Your ears only.”
There was silence from the throne for several seconds. “Dashell is an intelligent man, I remember him well. He was also rather over-confident, but such is the way of young men destined to lead. Age brings caution – that is something I have learned well.”
“Your Majesty, King Dashell has also grown cautious with age, that is why He was insistent upon only You hearing my mission.”
More silence. Then, “if Dashell is growing cautious, he must surely appreciate that no man of import will closet themselves with strangers from hostile foreign powers with no one to bear witness.”
“Your Most Excellent and Learned Majesty, Turnobae-Galorndan is not hostile. In fact, we wish to be the opposite of hostile.”
“Ah, and you have at last revealed the purpose of your mission. Something that my most skilled wheedlers were not able to prise from you.”
“Your Majesty, opposition to hostility between our nations is not the sole purpose nor whole objective for our mission. Please, allow us to speak in true privacy.”
There was yet more silence as the Sultan considered. “Very well. I will speak with you, Your Grace, and you only.” He stood, and Cullan and Saldan both bowed and backed away four steps. “Your aide will wait here while we confer in a private chamber.”
“Thank you, Most Excellent and Learned Majesty,” Saldan said.
“Your aide may refresh himself with the aid of my servants,” the Sultan said, raising one arm in a gesture to the nearest clutch of them, then beckoning Saldan after him. “Come, there may not be much time.”
The two of them disappeared through a door on the far side of the chamber. Cullan spared a glance at the approaching handmaidens, intending to brush off whatever they were offering. To call them naked was actually to do a disservice to some jeweller somewhere – or more likely, dozens of jewellers in the depths of the palace. Each of them wore a tiara, long earrings, a torc, several necklaces of increasing length that rested in their cleavage, nipple rings, armlets, bracelets, bangles, rings, a navel stone, waist chains (including two pairs that looped around their thighs) anklets and toe-rings. They probably each wore as much weight in jewellery as Cullan did in armour, all of it designed to highlight and accentuate their curves. Two of them were sashaying towards him, swinging invitingly. He followed protocol and looked down, backing away a few paces slowly.
He felt a prod in the small of his back. “Don’t say a word,” Morgan’s voice hissed in his ear.
Cullan froze. He had been completely unaware of her presence, and hadn’t even noticed when she had cast whatever Illusion spell she was under in order to follow them. He looked up using only his eyes. The handmaidens were only a few yards away, and their skin was glistening with oil – but only on their arms. He parted his lips slightly and whistled the short double-pipe of Intel Branch’s response to a “contact waiting” signal, to show that he understood there was a problem, but not what it was.
“The oil is a contact poison,” Morgan whispered, hurriedly “don’t let it touch your lips or eyes. Stay clear of them, I’ll warn Saldan.”
Cullan felt a slight wisp of air movement as she moved away from him. A shapely leg wearing a years’ salary in gold entered his line of sight. He raised his head and arms, and began backing away. “No thank you, ladies, my wife would kill me.” The handmaidens had their arms out, as if ready to embrace him. They kept themselves fit, certainly, and got plenty of full milk and greasy meat. Cullan decided to drop his smile, but not his arms. “Ladies – no thank you!” They continued approaching. He skipped back a couple of steps, and turned to look for the nearest guard. “Hey, call them off!” There was no response. “Hey! Anyone speak Northern? Or Silicate? I’m under oath not to be kissed by random women!”
He turned again, and saw that the handmaidens were nearly in range again. Suddenly, one of them fell flat on her face. Cullan dodged aside and hoped that the guards hadn’t noticed what he had – the flick of the end of Morgan’s staff just below knee level as it tripped her up. The other handmaiden instinctively stopped and checked on her companion, whereupon the chains looped around her thighs leapt up and tried to throttle her. All they did was wedge in her crotch, but the waist chain they were attached to was now lodged under her ribcage, and seemed to be pulling her backwards. She screamed, and began flailing in panic. Cullan made a sign in the air, in the hope that the guards would interpret it as warding off the evil eye, and took the opportunity to get some more space between him and the handmaidens.
The doors out of the throne room opened, and the Shah was there, along with four guards, swords drawn. He took in the scene for a moment, then asked, “is there a problem?”
“Ah, Shah, good! Could you please thank these ladies for their hospitality, but I am under oath to only be kissed by my wife. I cannot accept their advances.”
“That is a shame, they are worth accepting,” the Shah commented as he came towards Cullan. “Where is the Sultan?”
“He agreed to a truly private audience with His Grace, the Envoy,” Cullan answered. Something flew past his ear and smacked the Shah square in the face.
“Ach! Shaitan! My nose!” He dropped his sword and clutched the broken organ. Cullan noticed that the item that had done the deed, now spinning to a stop on the floor in front of him, was one of the handmaidens’ nipple rings.
“Shah! Are you alright?”
“Gah! What is happening?” The Shah straightened up, eyes watering, still clutching his nose with one hand. He noticed the handmaiden straining to stop her jewellery try to become intimate with her, and the other one half-risen, rubbing her left nipple as if soothing a sore spot. “What is wrong with the women?” he demanded, then repeated the question in Nataran. One of the guards replied, and was probably about to explain the situation, when a great shout came from the private room the Sultan and Saldan had withdrawn into.
“Kiyinen! Wasaf a yookun laday k’shay min hertha! Ekrej!”
Everyone bar the struggling handmaiden froze. “Well, that doesn’t sound good!” Cullan said. The door on the far side of the room opened and Saldan exited at speed. The Sultan appeared close behind, brandishing a large jewelled knife. “Your Grace!” Cullan called. “I assume things did not go well?”
“We are leaving, Culnar,” Saldan answered, back-pedalling towards the main doors as fast as he could manage.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Cullan said, bowing to the Sultan. He turned to the Shah. “Good Shah, there seems to be some malevolent force at work in this room. May we prevail upon you to escort us from the building?”
“Yes! Yes, this way. Of course, this way.”
Saldan reached a safe distance from the irate Sultan, made his bow, turned and strode as quickly as he could after Cullan and the Shah. The throne room doors closed behind them with an echoing thoooom, and they were escorted rapidly and silently from the premises.
“Where are we going?”
“To remind ourselves why we need to win.”
They left the embassy, and he led her through the city to the wizard that Morgan had been reporting through. After a few minutes of negotiation by Cullan, they were standing in front of a shallow silver bowl with a gem-encrusted rim that was full of water. The wizard made a few passes over it, then withdrew. The water in the bowl clouded over, and revealed the image of a well-built man in late middle-age seated in a comfortable coach. Next to him was an attractive woman half his age, and on his knee was a small boy. Both the man’s and woman’s attention was on the boy.
“Father!” Alys cried. Everyone in the image looked up.
“Alys!” Landry exclaimed. “This is a nice surprise,” he continued, his voice sounding tinny. “We were just on our way to see you.”
“There’s no ‘just’ about it, father, it’s a six week journey – at least.”
“You’re in Darash, aren’t you? Four weeks,” he shrugged.
“I don’t think they’re in Darash,” the young woman said.
“We’re not,” Cullan confirmed. “We’re on a mission, can’t talk about it. We figured we should let you know before you came too far.”
“Ah? Not going to be back before the new year?”
“We’re a long way from home,” Alys said, mindful that even if there weren’t ways to spy on magical communications, there were ways to listen at the door. “It might be best if you look in at the court of King Dashell. I’m sure He’d welcome you, especially if you bring some of your Company with you.”
“I never make the journey without a couple of dozen,” Landry assured her, “especially with such a precious cargo on board.” He gripped the boy under the arms and stood him up on his lap.
A pair of massive genuine smiles plastered themselves on Alys’ and Cullan’s faces as their son, whom Landry was looking after for a few years, was presented to talk through the spell.
“Hello, Walter,” Cullan said.
“Walter,” Alys echoed.
“’lo mumma, ’lo dadda,” the young boy said, waving.
“How’s your granddad treating you?” asked Alys.
“Good!” he beamed.
“Has he given you any knives to play with yet?” asked Cullan.
“He says it will be my Westnight present!”
“Really? Good timing.”
“Is he teaching you things yet?” Alys asked.
“Balance! Riding! Aim!” he shouted excitedly.
“I’ve started him on crossbows,” Landry explained. “He’s fast, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to be strong. He’ll be a good scout.”
“Good! The world needs more people who find things out before hitting them.”
“I gotta new mor’star!” Walter told them happily.
“Morningstar,” Landry corrected.
“Why have you got a new morningstar, Walter?” Alys asked.
“Old one was too small!”
“Oh! Are you getting to be a big boy now?”
“Wonderful! Tell your granddad to keep feeding you red meat, and you’ll get big and strong.”
“Yes, red meat.”
“Will be good, then I get red meat!”
“Yes, be good, and eat your meat.”
“Yaay!” Walter plonked himself down on Landry’s lap again, prompting an, “oof!”
“So how are you, Margrite?” Alys asked the young woman – one of her childhood friends, who had married Landry a few years ago.
“I’m good, thank you, Alys. Glowing, even.”
“Glowing?” In the image, Margrite nodded happily.
“Congratulations,” Cullan said. “And at your age, Landry.”
“Yes, congratulations,” Alys told them. “Are you sure? How long have you known?”
“We’re sure. Found out just before we left.”
“Congratulations! I hope it goes well for you.”
“So do I, thank you, Alys.”
The image flashed, and began slowly to dim.
“We don’t have much time left,” Cullan said. “Landry, listen, Dashell will be very pleased to have your company, don’t let it go to waste. Archer six, floating on hairpins, blackbird drop, with ninepence on the hat. Got that?”
Alys was looking at Cullan with raised eyebrows. In the image, Walter was oblivious, and Margrite was looking very confused. Landry, on the other hand, had paled. “Are you sure?” he asked quietly after a moment.
“As we can be at the moment,” Cullan confirmed equally quietly.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Landry nodded solemnly.
“Good, thank you.” Cullan brightened up. “Goodbye, Walter! We’ll try and get back as soon as we can, but don’t hold your breath.”
“Goodbye, Walter! Be good, and stay safe!” Alys urged.
“Goodbye, dad. Bye, Margrite.”
“It was good to see you,” Margrite said.
“Stay safe,” Landry said.
“We will,” Cullan nodded.
The image faded out completely.
Alys put her arms around Cullan and brought him into a hug. “What was that code?” she whispered to him.
“Dwarven military reporting code,” he whispered back. “Landry knows it – I needed it for Intel Branch a few years back.”
“What did you say?”
“Basic sitrep. We need all the help we can get.” He kissed her forehead and pulled away. “Come on. It was nice to see the family, but we really should be getting back.”
“Yes. Yes, it was. We should.”
© Brian Wakeling. GURPS® is © Steve Jackson Games.