"But I want to go out!" Irey whined, leaning over my shoulder. "Why am I being punished again?"
"Ask your father," I told my niece, pouring myself a bit of Old Brew.
Irey scowled. She took the bottle from my hands and helped herself to a liberal amount. Pulling up a stool, she sat directly across from me.
Sometimes I felt as if the punishments my brother imposed upon his reckless daughter were meant for me rather than her. Irey was incapable of amusing herself for any length of time. She liked to read books, but she always finished them too quickly, and she would train with her sword, but never for more than an hour or so. When she was kept indoors for days or weeks, she invariably wound up loitering around my chambers, insisting that I entertain her.
"Tell me a story!" She ordered.
"Go back to your room," I replied. "I'm in no mood!"
"Uncle!" Irey protested. "Either tell me a story or take me outside!" She demanded.
"Feh! When will you stop trying to order me around?" I sighed heavily, my eyes drifting slowly towards the golden bowl that sat on the table nearest to my bed.
I remembered seeing that bowl when it had been new, centuries ago. In my mind's eye I could still picture what the Great Hall of Enessa had looked like, tables piled high with strange delicacies, the air full of the smell of exotic spices.
"When it stops working," Irey smirked.
She read the nostalgia on my face effortlessly – she could tell she'd already won. Then again, when one has four-thousand years worth of stories… it's never too difficult to think of something.
"I know I've told you about how the old city of Nanubath fell over two-thousand years ago," I began. "I was visiting my friend Kehshir's court when it happened. Of course, it was not officially Kehshir's court in those days… but his mother Nanashireh was very absorbed in the politics of Tirs Uloth and cared little for the day-to-day business of her clan."
"This story everyone knows." Irey nodded. "Two warriors were arguing over a round of veh'naak. You and Kehshir were discussing whether or not to break them up when a rock fell from the ceiling above their heads. It shattered the board. No one could tell who won, and that was the end."
"Ah, but that was not the end! The story goes on from there!" I laughed. "Several days later, another rock fell. It landed on the head of a drunken Iekayu who didn't even realize he'd been hit until one of his friends showed him his own blood. When we all looked up, we could hear a sound like a hammer coming from above."
Irey scooted forward. Already, she was intrigued.
"You must understand, in those days our cities were still growing very quickly. We didn't know that we'd passed beyond the walls of Nanubath and were currently underneath the town square of the Mage's great trade city. And likewise, the Mages never suspected that they were sitting directly on top of us. It was on the very same night that Lady Nanashireh returned from Tirs Uloth in a foul mood that a third rock came crashing down."
"Fortuitous timing," Irey observed.
"To say the least," I nodded. "You would have liked Nanashireh Dasyr," I told Ireval. "She was a very forceful woman, and although she did play politics with the best of them… she never lost her ability to fight. She did not tolerate weakness or laziness, and that night Nanashireh had cause to beat one of her warriors. The warrior had never respected his lady, and was unwilling to take the blows he deserved. He tried to draw his sword when she turned her back on him, but he no sooner reached for it than a very large rock fell on his head, killing him instantly."
"Serves him right," Irey smiled slightly.
I suspected she would say something like that. If I had not known her true nature, I would have said that Irey resembled her ancestress.
"Light streamed into the hall, and everyone looked up. Four Mages peered down at us through the hole in our ceiling. If you could have seen the expressions on their faces! The Mages were as surprised as we were, and before Nanashireh could find words to speak to them, they fled. Nanubath plunged into chaos. The city above tore itself to ruins for fear of "demons". The workers who'd discovered us were careless in their flight and knocked over a lantern, sparking a fire that burned through their marketplace. They told everyone they met with what they had seen and started a panic. In the city below there were eighteen fights, a small fire, two murders, and a suicide."
"An eventful night," Irey remarked.
"Quite," I agreed. "Of course, if we had found ourselves underneath any other city… well, things would have turned out quite differently, but the memory of the Fourth Mage War was still fresh in people's minds and many remembered the crushing defeat that the Old Master Bahrut had suffered at Nanubath."
"Knowing of no other way to restore order, Nanashireh ordered the hole in the ceiling stopped up and the Mages replaced some dirt and rocks from their end. For some centuries an uneasy sort of peace existed… but ultimately, the canals dried up and the Mages were forced to dig new wells, which lead to the same sort of trouble all over again. Three-hundred years before Reydayin's fall, Nanubath had no more water and the Mages left. The sun did not burn in those days, so the lords of the Dasyr clan moved up into the old city and renamed their home "Nebatna", portraying themselves as proud conquerors…. which could not have been further from the truth." I paused. "To move into an empty castle, of course, is hardly the same as to take one in honorable combat."
"Where did the Mages go?" Irey wondered.
"Oh, some went back to Kalyzar. But most went to the nearby city of Enessa… which is where this story really begins. You know I am not fond of Nyhesa." I admitted, using our name for the city.
"Filthy Saedes," Irey snorted, pouring herself some more Old Brew.
I smiled slightly. Irey could be a terrible beast sometimes, but she was a beast after my own heart.
"Yes, well… in those days Hakuth Saede has just risen to the post of Steward. Though he and I have little love for each other, I will say this in his favor… he runs his city well. There have been precious few problems in Nyhesa over the centuries which is probably a good thing, because if there is one thing that old snake hates above all else, it is admitting that he cannot handle something by himself." I paused. "Such was the affair with the Mages of Enessa. We were able to avoid war in the end, but for a time it looked as if there would be trouble."
"You were afraid of the Mages?" Irey stared in disbelief.
"You would do well to be afraid of Mages," I informed her. "They are more dangerous than the Elves. Come, have a look at this." I motioned for her to follow me and gestured to the mirror on my wall. "As you see, the gold is Mage-crafted in a pattern of vines, but when I acquired the piece a large section of its frame was missing. And so I took it to the forge with a very unconventional request… I wanted to know if someone could repair it for me. One of the younger smiths volunteered for the task. Of course, I forgot to specify that I wanted the work done in gold, and when I returned to retrieve my treasure… well, there you have it!"
I drew the curtains away from the left side of the frame and Irey gasped. The pattern of vines was continued without interruption, blending seamlessly from the gold into a finely-worked black steel.
"Half in light, half in shadow," She ran her fingers across the surface of the mirror. "Like Inapsupetra herself."
"Ah… what an interesting comparison," I forced myself to smile politely, brushing off the chill that raced down my spine as she spoke those words. Usually, it did not seem that Irey realized she was the physical incarnation of our Goddess, but sometimes I wondered how much she really knew.
"So, tell me! What happened in Nyhesa?" Irey picked up a pillow from my bed and made herself comfortable. I noticed that she'd left her cup somewhere and had taken to drinking my Old Brew straight from the bottle. It would have been easy to accuse her of being too drunk to listen, but I knew that it wouldn't be true. Irey was never intoxicated unless she wanted to be, and to be thus accused would send her into a fit for certain.
"As it was, I had been sent to go speak with the Steward," I began. "Old Hakuth had been spreading rumors in the High Court which my father believed were responsible for the death of a lady he was rather fond of. Of course, since the massacre of the Tahruls, my father looked to blame everything on the Saede clan. Not that they weren't responsible, mind you, but his paranoia had begun to make him look weak, a thing which only encouraged his enemies to take greater risks."
"It was raining when I arrived at Nyhesa from Tirs Uloth. A slave came to take my horse, but so early in the morning, the halls were quiet and deserted. I informed the first warrior I passed to tell his lord that I had arrived and would be attending his court on behalf of my father. Then I went to the chambers which were kept for my father's use. They were supposed to be tended regularly so that the High King would be well-received if he ever chose to make an unannounced visit, but it was obvious to me that the rooms had not been cleaned for some time. They smelled very strongly of something too foul to consider.
I did not sleep long. Apparently, Hakuth was of the opinion that if I could send a Warrior to rouse him from his sleep, then he could do the same with me, despite the fact that I was the Prince of Tirs Uloth and had just ridden eight hours across the desert. Gritting my teeth a little, I politely informed the fool who woke me that I would come at my earliest convenience and then went back to bed. Very shortly thereafter, he was back.
And so I went to speak with Hakuth when the sun was still high in the sky. All of his Warriors and the lords of his court were gathered around him. Almost no one was fully dressed, and those who were looked as if they had not slept in days. Hakuth himself was sitting with his feet kicked up on the table in front of him and his arms crossed.
No one acknowledged my entrance. I supposed it was something the Saede had put them up to, and so I said nothing, only clearing my throat a little as I stepped forward. The court responded precisely as I expected them to, they either bowed or went to their knees, showing what deference was expected of them according to their rank. Hakuth only scowled.
"It was not my wish to speak with you at such an ungodly hour," I informed him.
"You have a message for me?" He watched me like a hawk, his eyes focused on my nose. When he did such a thing, it made it seem as though he were looking me in the eye, a thing that I knew very well he could not do.
"I come on behalf of my father. Your presence is required in Tirs Uloth," I replied.
"Feh! And he sends you to tell me this, not one of his Warriors?" Hakuth snorted. "I don't believe it."
"He sends me because I am to ensure your compliance with his wishes. You have three days to put your affairs in order," I replied coldly.
"I see," Hakuth observed. "His prisoner, am I?"
"Not if you honor your lord's request."
"Hm. And I suppose you won't tell me what this is about?" Hakuth pressed.
"I am but a messenger,." I smiled slightly, bowing with a flourish. "Well… now that business has been concluded, let us all get some sleep!" I turned to leave and most everyone moved to follow me, only too glad to return to their rooms.
"Stop! Did I say that court was dismissed?" Hakuth snarled, rising from his chair.
"No," I faced him where he stood and caught him directly in the eyes before he could divert his gaze. More often than not, I intentionally softened the force I could put behind my words, but Hakuth was a bastard and needed to be reminded of his proper place. "I did," I replied coldly. "Go to bed, Steward."
He was absolutely seething with contempt, but he bowed stiffly and obeyed my command. As I left the hall, a familiar jingling sound caught my attention. Someone wearing an inordinate amount of jewelry was attempting to sneak up on me… a woman who walked with a great deal of bounce in her step. I paused for a moment and braced myself for impact.
"Hah, I got you!" Malaka giggled, throwing her arms around my neck. "Surrender at once or I'll tear your head off!" She ordered, putting me in a headlock… or at least attempting to do so as best as she was able, considering that her feet weren't touching the ground.
"Oh dear. It's Malaka the Terrible. I'm doomed," I replied without the faintest hint of emotion in my voice. Truthfully I wanted to laugh, but playing with Malaka was far more fun when I acted as though I didn't enjoy it.
"How'd you know it was me?" Malaka wondered, tugging on my ear. She let go of my neck and the bracelets on her wrists jangled as she dropped to the floor. The expression on her face was priceless. Though she was several centuries older than I was myself, Malaka Dasyr still looked girlish.
"I could hear you coming from a mile away," I reminded her, taking her hand and turning her around to face me. "You jingle."
"Ah, well… you know I like making noise!" She replied with a sly wink. My mind went exactly in the direction she had intended for it to go. Malaka wagged a disapproving finger in my direction and then hopped up and down and shaking her bracelets so loud that all of Nyhesa must have heard her. "Get your mind out from under the sheets!" She teased.
"You've got me! Stop, stop!" I laughed despite myself.
"Hah! I win again!" Malaka grinned victoriously. "Give me a hug!" She ordered.
"As you wish, oh great and powerful mistress," I replied, dropping to my knees.
"What are you doing, Elhil?" Malaka demanded.
"Coming down to your level," I replied without missing a beat.
"Oooh, I'm going to get you for that one!" Malaka laughed, rolling her eyes. Kissing the top of my head, she wrapped her arms around me. My face was about the level of her chest. Despite the fact that I was still kneeling on the ground, it was an excellent hug. "And how are you, my little tiger?" I asked, slowly rising to my feet.
"Dead bored. I've missed you. It's been ages since you've been here," She sighed heavily. "I wish I still lived in Tirs Uloth."
"Your fault for marrying a Saede," I informed her.
"Oh, quit it, you! You like Vaktah!" She reminded me.
"He's decent," I replied. "For a Saede, that is." In truth, I liked Vaktah very much… except for the fact that he tended to monopolize the attentions of my two favorite women in Nyhesa, Dacrah and Malaka. Though to be fair, Malaka was his wife.
"Ah, maybe I shouldn't be reminding you of this, but you are in Nyhesa, my lord." Her mock-formality was unmistakable. It was an excellent impression of Hakuth.
"Gods, I know it! My bed smells awful," I rolled my eyes.
"You'll just have to sleep in mine then," Malaka replied.
"Why, is this place completely uncivilized? I can't even have a bed to myself!" I sighed dramatically as she grabbed my arm and drug me after her.
"Oh no, it looks like I'm being taken into the tiger's lair!" I gasped in mock horror as we came to a stop in front of a familiar set of doors. As a lady of some rank herself, Malaka had a very nice room. The tigers that stood on either side of the entryway made it clear to anyone who passed by that they were in the presence of a daughter of Esruh, a dangerous woman to cross. Malaka wasn't prone to brooding like so many other members of her clan… but shewas a shapeshifter.
The game we were playing was an old one and one of Malaka's favorites. She
closed the doors behind us with a wicked grin, making a sound somewhere between a growl and a purr.
"The tiger is blocking the exit!" The two of us stood almost nose to nose. "Whatever shall I do? She'll eat me alive!"
"Oh yes!" Malaka stood on the tips of her toes and whispered into my ear. "Bit by bit."
We danced in the direction of her bed, undressing each other as we stumbled across the room. I let her throw me down and pretended to be terrified as if I believed she was about to make good on her threat. For a moment, her eyes appeared catlike. The last thing I saw as she drew her sheets over both of us was an orange and black striped tail. The cat thing Malaka does is… odd, even by my standards, but it doesn't particularly bother me. The fact that she enjoys it makes it worthwhile.
After all… I am a shapeshifter myself.
Then, just as I was about to make things a bit more interesting, Malaka's doors flew open, striking the walls with a sound like thunder. A sword that had been leaning against the wall fell to the floor.
At first I didn't see who had interrupted us, but as untangled myself from the sheets I realized it was Vaktah. It's always awkward, having a man burst in on you when you're fooling around with his wife… but Vaktah scarcely looked at me, and when he did, the expression on his face seemed to suggest that he wasn't surprised to find me in Malaka's room. I came to Nyhesa rarely enough and in a way, I supposed it must have been a relief for him to have someone else dealing with Malaka's boundless energy.
He was breathing heavily and his eyes were very wide.
"Vaktah? What is it?" Malaka wondered innocently.
"You'd better come quick. Both of you." He shook his head heavily. "Everyone's back in the hall. There's a Mage. A Mage here, in Nyhesa."
"What?" I blinked in disbelief. "How is that possible?"
"I don't know. But she's holding Lord Hakuth's son hostage," he replied.
I didn't waste a moment dressing myself. I still had one piece of clothing on and that was enough. With Malaka on my heels, I ran for the hall as fast as I could.
The sight I beheld defied all explanation. In the center of the room was a Mage woman. Her sun-bronzed skin and auburn-colored hair made her look like a living flame surrounded by so many pale bodies. She was barely dressed herself in a robe of blue silk and had the blade of her sword held across the throat of Hakuth's youngest son, a boy who couldn't have been older than five mortal years. Hakuth was standing only a few feet away from her, his sword already drawn.
"You will let me leave!" She spoke without hesitation. I understood her language, and from the expression on Hakuth's face I could tell he did as well. "I didn't want to come down here! One of your people came into my room!"
I assumed she was talking about the child she was holding hostage. "He stole something which belonged to me, so I followed him in order to take it back." The Mage said.
"Is this so?" Hakuth asked. The expression on his face made it obvious that he was worried for his child, but he would not make it known to the Mage that she had seized a valuable captive.
The boy nodded weakly and opened his fist, revealing a large sapphire set in gold. The Mage seized it from him with her free hand.
"Give me your word you will let me leave!" The Mage demanded, still focused on Hakuth. "Give me your word!"
Hakuth did not respond. Like most of his clan, he was convinced that Mages were insolent creatures and far less powerful than they believed themselves to be.
"You may go," I replied, speaking in Mage-Tongue myself. The Mage released Hakuth's son and nearly dropped her sword, searching the room to see who it was that had spoken. Two Warriors moved forward to apprehend her and I held up my hand, stepping forward so that they could see me.
"Don't you remember what happened in Nebatna?" I demanded. "Do not make this worse than it already is!"
"Show me the place where you came down," I ordered the Mage, speaking in her language again.
"Who are you?" She demanded, approaching me with slow, measured steps. Her sword was a very beautiful thing, and the jewel she held clenched in her fist was one of the finest I had ever seen. Since the ways of the Mages are very similar to our own, her courage made me suspect that she was a woman of great status.
"Someone who can guarantee your safety," I replied. If she could not already tell that I was an Ithraedol, she did not have the right to know. More importantly, if Nyhesa and the Mages were about to have a war, I wanted to avoid having my name tied up in the matter. "Now show me where you came down." I repeated.
"It's this way." She gestured with her blade, still watching Hakuth out of the corner of her eye. I followed her where she led, down a narrow corridor to a hole in the wall that would have been inaccessible to anyone but the smallest child. Malaka and Vaktah followed me, but they stood at some distance. Hakuth followed them, listening carefully as I spoke with the Mage. I suspected he understood most of what we were saying but not all of it.
"I see. We'll have this filled right away." I informed her. "Go back at once. And… please say nothing of the matter."
"Oh, I'll hold my tongue. I know my history," The Mage nodded in agreement.
"It may be history to you," I smiled slightly. "I was there."
"Over two-thousand years ago? Why, you must be ancient!" She exclaimed.
"You wound me! How old do I look?" I teased. I hadn't had the opportunity to talk with a Mage in centuries and had almost forgotten how much fun it was to speak their language. Mage-Tongue is full of interesting words. "Surrender" is the same as "throw" and when spoken is the key component of a spell used to literally knock people off of their feet. There are fifteen words for "sand" but only one for "water" which can be written eleven different ways, two of which are incredibly offensive. Our languages are closely related and sound quite similar, but while Ekbahte is intuitive, as much "felt" as spoken… Mage-Tongue is full of double-meanings. It's very difficult to say one thing and think another in Ekbahte. In Mage-Tongue, sometimes that sort of deception is simply accidental.
"I know this may be presumptuous, but you speak excellent Mage-Tongue. Wherever did you learn it?" The Mage asked.
"From a Mage," I replied truthfully. "I used to keep one. As a pet."
I expected she would be offended when I said that, but she only stared at me with her eyes narrowed slightly as if she were thinking of something she wasn't sure it would be right to say.
"You'd best be on your way," I informed her, gesturing to the hole in the wall.
"You've been most understanding," She nodded in my direction. "Not what I expected from one of your kind."
"I try to set a good example," I replied. "But unfortunately, I'm often surrounded by idiots."
"That is something I understand," the Mage smiled slightly.
The Mage crawled into the hole. I could hear her breathing for a moment as she adjusted her position and then she was gone.
"Block that passage." Hakuth ordered some of his warriors. "Use the biggest rocks you can find, and make sure there are no other holes. What are you looking at?" He demanded, glaring at me.
"Ah. Well, I suppose a "thank you" would be too much to expect." I smirked slightly, stepping around him without a backwards glance.
"I was handling things myself!" Hakuth protested. "You had no cause to step in!"
"I had every cause." I replied coldly. "It was your child that went where he ought not have and stole what did not belong to him. The Mage came alone and stated her position clearly when she could certainly have assembled her sisters and caused us no end of misery. You fought in the last war, Hakuth. There is very good reason that we deal carefully with Mages. Their power and ours combined could all too easily destroy this world."
Hakuth did not respond. He turned on his heel and left me where I stood, presumably heading off to sulk.
I did not stay in Nyhesa very long. With Hakuth in a foul temper, I wasn't enjoying myself and even the thought of having some more fun with Malaka was not enough to convince me to stay. Though by my father's orders I should have taken Hakuth back with me to Tirs Uloth, I sent message to the court instead, saying that Hakuth was dealing with some business which could not be postponed and that I would be headed to Nebatna for a few weeks. I left out all mention of the Mage, knowing very well that my father was particularly sensitive about the issue of Enessa. He thought it would turn into a second Nanubath, and I was beginning to fear the same thing.
While I have no great love for the Saede court, Nebatna is the home of the Dasyr clan and a number of my dearest friends live there. There was a great feast when I arrived. Nanashireh was away again, and Kehshir was only too willing to break out some of his best bottles of Old Brew in honor of my arrival. I drank until I could not stand and two of my lady-friends helped me back to my chambers. Someone had drawn a hot bath for me… a rare luxury, and the air smelled strongly of sweet wood-smoke and perfume.
Several days passed in this manner, but not as many as I would have liked. My friend Kehshir's favorite wife, the notorious Hehkala "of many husbands" brought me a lovely little book of poetry recently composed by one of her sisters. I was in the middle of reading it when a knock came at my door.
"Yes?" I said, not bothering to rise from my bed.
"There's a messenger for you." Kehshir's voice replied.
"Oh?" I was intrigued. Not that I hadn't expected as much but… nevertheless, it was nice to have a new diversion. While I do enjoy lounging around and indulging myself, I have inherited from my father an insatiable desire to be in the midst of things, a luxury only rarely afforded to me in those days, being that I was his second son and by no means the most important person in his court. "Send them in."
Grinning wickedly, Kehshir opened my door and slipped inside, followed by his brother Gau who carried two bottles of fine liquor, one under each arm.
"You're the messenger?" I smiled slightly, turning to Gau. He was not a great lord himself, but he did have some rank. "Is this a new fashion amongst Red Robes?" I laughed. "First I am sent to Nyhesa, now you are sent here? At this rate the dogs and the slaves will be ruling all the courts!"
"They aren't already?" Kehshir feigned surprise. The three of us laughed.
"Oh, I wasn't sent, I volunteered!" Gau admitted, cracking open the first of his bottles and passing it to me. He took a seat across from where I sat and Kehshir did the same. "I was on my way to see my brother anyway." Reaching into his robe, he pulled out a piece of paper, rolled and sealed with wax. "My instructions were to give you this." Gau explained.
I carefully removed the seal from the paper and looked over the letter's contents.
"I'm being called back to Nyhesa?" I frowned. "Why so soon?"
"Well, the wall that old Hakuth ordered sealed did not stay that way." Gau admitted. "Zatuk Eylchaur opened it back up."
"Isn't he supposed to be kept on a leash?" I demanded. There were few Warriors whose names I knew, but everyone was familiar with Zatuk. He had been permanently banished from both Nebatna and Tirs Uloth for his persistent trouble-making, and there was much talk in the court as to whether or not he should simply be killed.
"Mm. It would have been better for him if he had been. He's dead now, the poor lunatic." Gau nodded.
"Dead?" I blinked in disbelief.
"Oh yes. The Mages killed him. That woman you spared… as it turns out, she's the daughter of the Governess of Enessa. She came to our gates with damned near a hundred of her finest just to return his tak na. Says her mother wants to negotiate some kind of settlement."
"Has word been sent to my father about this?"
"Vaktah has already gone to Tirs Uloth." Kehshir nodded. "He left Nyhesa at the same time I did."
"Good. At least Hakuth had the sense to send someone respectable," I paused, considering what I heard. "Anything else I should know?"
"Nothing I can think of. My orders from the Steward were only to give you this paper. Also, I am to tell you that the Mage requested your presence at the negotiations, though she did not ask for you by name," Gau continued.
"Tell him what she really said," Kehshir elbowed his brother.
"Of course." Gau grinned wickedly. "You're going to love this, Elhilom. The Mage said, and I quote… that it would be in the best interests of Lord Hakuth if he would either fetch his lord… meaning you, or at find someone with better manners than himself to speak with the Governess."
"He must have been positively furious," I smiled at the thought.
"With the way he spoke, I thought he was going to break a tooth," Gau laughed.
"So when are these "negotiations" to be held?" I asked.
"On the last day of this month, outside of Enessa's gates. At the hour of sunset." Gau replied.
"Tell Hakuth I'll be there," I nodded. "And… someone send word to my father. Let him know I'll be taking care of things personally."
"I will." Gau agreed. "Bloody Eamos, Hakuth is going to be pissed."
"I know." I laughed, taking one last drink from the bottle I held before passing it to Kehshir. "Isn't it wonderful?"