The Master sat alone. Books lined the walls of his study while tattered flags of royalty sat beneath the seal of the Einarr, an ever-burning fire.
He shivered, eyes moving away from a long stack of paperwork. For every trouble a solution, for every solution two more troubles. The unwieldy beast of bureaucracy and governance could challenge even the great serpent Risar itself. At least Risar fed only once a year.
It made him envy those of simpler duties. Someone like the Zweiheln, greatest of warriors, their success could be measured and known in the clear terms of victory. The Zweiheln fought the person before him, but the Master wrestled with all in his domain with every decision he made. No one understood that weight.
Sunlight reflected down from a series of glass and mirrors, bouncing and altering colors until it touched the Master and his work. He stretched out, bumping the silver fork on his plate. Untouched veal in a thick brown glaze, and a spread of vegetables sat half eaten. He was too busy to be hungry.
The door to his study opened. A figure with a blank mask and short, red cape stepped in and bowed.
“Sir, I bring important news.”
The Master’s gaze fell upon Clarient’s champion, Veil. “Tell me.”
“Our suspicions have been confirmed, Lerian is behind the attacks on our people.”
“How did you find this? Can you confirm it to the council?”
“Yes sir. I tracked a fugitive from the city, Athia Fensa. She defeated a band of them and brought their leader back alive then attempted to be paid by our people in a farming commune. After spreading seditious thoughts.”
The Master lifted a pipe from his desk, ornate inscribed ivory. “How long until your doubles bring them both back to the city?”
“A day, but the woman escaped.” Veil’s mask stayed pointed at the floor.
“She must be slippery,” the master said. “You did well.”
Veil’s body tensed. “Sir, I request we eliminate this woman. She displayed incredible skill and cunning. While she may not work for Lerian, her employer is surely an enemy. I wounded her in her escape and know the direction she travels.”
The Master put a fire to his pipe. “Have her killed but send others. I need you to focus on the coming meeting.”
Veil didn’t move. “Yes sir.”
“And Veil, tell me, why do you think she is employed? We assumed that one was independent.”
“There’s no other reason to take such risks without gain. It serves no reasonable purpose.”
“For what purpose do you commit your acts?”
“For the dream, the world to be created.”
“And all of your others? Is that what they break themselves for?”
Veil took a step back, “of that I should hope.”
“Good. As I said, have the woman killed by someone else’s hand. You have more pressing concerns.”
The champion departed without a sound as the Master puffed his pipe. Once, he hesitated to give that order. Now it left like a shallow breath. He smiled, thinking back on the past. On the times when he thought the killing would end, when the people would greet enlightened rulership with cheers, when he could retire as the man that changed the world.
When the city went silent all those years ago, he wept. But not now. This would take decades, centuries. Let them be silent, this was not for them. The Einarr fought for tomorrow. If it never came, they would never stop.
This Athia would be another casualty on the road to progress. Let it grind her down, let the city never speak again. His dreams of seeing the new world died so long ago, he knew better now. It would take time, more time than he had.
He puffed his pipe, gaze moving to his balcony. And yet, what he wouldn’t give to hear his city live again. But it never would. They’d given up, and he would not. He would do what it took to ensure everything he did mattered. For someone.
. . . . . .
Athia made it across the border, pushing her stamina to maintain her power for so long. She spied chimney smoke before the day ended, leading her to a roadside inn on the path to Lerian itself. Recent tensions turned it into a makeshift fort, manned by Lerian soldiers. She didn’t much like the thought of stopping there, but it beat a night alone and injured.
After greasing a palm, she got inside the wall of upturned carts and fallen trees. The inn still operated while the soldiers gathered in a set of tents behind it, using the forest for cover. Offerings to the Wilds hung from branches; fruits to feed the birds, woven fall leaves, and symbols made of exotic woods.
Athia appreciated the sight as she entered a full lobby. People crammed at tables while other slept in bedrolls on the far side by the hearth. Ill humor permeated thick as old smoke. Pained moans came from the floor above, stretching nerves so thin they resonated in a frail chord.
Athia said, “It Below, everyone here is miserable! What’s the news?”
People quieted and turned to the loudmouthed interloper.
A middle-aged woman said, “the Einarr blocked off the road, they’re claiming this as their own lands.”
Someone added, “we’re stuck here.”
Athia groaned and sat down at the first spot she found, between some grandpa looking fellows. “Anyone here know healing? I got jumped on the way here and my knee is killing me.”
Medical attention cost a lot in the circumstances, but Athia paid. A healer wrapped her knee with a paste made of herbs and infused by a symbolist. It took the edge off the pain and would promote speedy healing, getting her back on her feet within a day or two instead of the expected week or more.
Food also came at a premium, the local supply running thin. Clarient’s military pushed out toward Lerian. Neither province projected much power compared to the larger holdings of former Loiys, meaning they were each other’s preferred target. Lerian would have been incorporated somewhere else already if one of the stronger successors felt confident in taking the former capital.
The people of Lerian lived between the Einarr who hungered for expansion and consolidation, and everyone else who knew it a blunder to siege Clarient. While the House of Lerian might deserve the mess, Athia decided the locals didn’t. She helped with the wounded after her meal then opted to sleep outside. Forgoing an inn room served both to help and to cut costs.
That night, strange things bumped against their ramshackle palisades. Rumbling groans floated in from the woods, frightening the guards into focus. A long shadow swept over them in the moonlight, sharp points passing over like an unwelcome gaze. Chains that didn’t exist rattled on great stones that were not. And Athia fell asleep under her blanket and spare clothes, leaning against the back outer wall of the inn. She dreamed of hot pie and woke up the next morning with a growl in her stomach. Her knee still hurt but she could use it again without too much issue. Though she knew to take it easy for at least a day.
Soldiers stood inspecting the outside of the wall. They whispered in low tones, pointing and shaking their heads. When she approached, the officer waved her away with a stern expression.
“Either stay in the walls or leave, we don’t need you people moving in and out.”
Athia grinned with half her mouth. “They won’t come in if you keep your wits. Not everything is after you.”
“And who are you to say that?”
She held up a thumb. “Leitis Renna, hero, adventurer, slayer of lurkers. For hire!”
“Get lost lady.”
Athia’s eyes narrowed. “Enjoy your spooky nights.”
Ahead, a small group approached the inn. They wore heavy cold-weather robes and toted bags over their shoulders. A soldier grumbled about refugees while Athia headed inside. The owner haggled with hungry guests about prices. He argued limited stock and they replied with hunger and the uselessness of money in their situation.
Athia decided to leave soon. She found another group sharing that goal and sat down with them as they discussed their plan. The others differed to a man with a stylized Tricorn tattoo, trusting in the guild’s reputation. A ragged group of five, stinking of old sweat and wearing blankets to make up for a weak hearth.
He scratched at his wiry beard, two fingers missing on his left hand. “Lurkers have been active, or I’d try to cross the forest into Tricorn lands. Best bet is to head south, try to outrun their net. Shouldn’t be too hard if Lerian’s men respond to the incursion. Don’t know if the old man can win though.”
“Surely Lerian will stand,” a younger man said. “The people would fight to the death before they accept Einarr rule.”
Another added, “they’d likely die even if they submitted.”
Athia’s eyes flicked back and forth as she followed the conversation.
The Tricorn sipped at a watered-down ale. “Don’t be so confident. Ol’ Lerian is counting his coins, not his people. They might fight, but he won’t risk himself.”
A soldier glanced at the Tricorn, eyes dark. The guildman looked back at the soldier, Tricorn tattoo bulging on his forearm. The soldier caught himself and his eyes shot forward with a quick breath. Anyone else would have been beaten.
“As I was saying,” the Tricorn continued, “cut south. Let them skirmish and distract. If we get caught here by the Einarr they’ll kill or imprison us. You’d be better off dying than getting captured by them. I’ve seen what they do.”
He turned to Athia, “what about you? You’re the newest here. Any word we haven’t heard?”
Athia held her chin in her hand, finger taping her cheek. She considered his question, picking what she could and couldn’t say.
“I didn’t know about any of this. Some Clarient soldiers attacked me on the road, had to run. How long have they been moving this way?”
“A few days now.”
The Einarr must know, Athia thought. They had to know it was Lerian, not lurkers. She’d seen to that herself. Maybe this was a show of force to please the mercantile states who wished to trade? It must be. That or a distraction while they negotiated. But if they knew, how could they waste their limited strength by stretching even further? To try and dissuade Lerian or seek some retribution?
She mulled that over as the conversation continued. They talked about their route, what supplies they could gather, how fast they could move. Something bothered her, a mental itch she couldn’t reach.
Could it really be so simple? Lerian trying to sabotage the talks by raiding, and then Clarient finding out and attacking. A blunder by the less than impressive Lord Lerian, capitalized on by the Einarr. It made sense, but-
But Clariens were worthless and, as the Tricorn said, Lerian counted his coins. Basic rule of banditry. Coins came first. Loiysian rens were good just about anywhere, as where Closian marks, those were the prizes. Anything that needed to be sold was a liability. Took up extra space, required you to go somewhere to trade it, and raised suspicion.
Lerian’s hired bandits couldn’t be making a good living, and they certainly couldn’t profit. And why would any of the mercantile states make a trade deal with an isolated city state with worthless money?
So then, what was this all about?
“Lady, if you want to join us you need to pay attention.”
Athia looked up at the Tricorn and said, “sorry, just thinking.”
“About how bad this all is. You think, maybe, Lerian or the Einarr will finally make a real move?”
The man said, “no one takes Clarient as long as it’s guarded and the Einarr don’t have numbers to hold much land. They’re threadbare doing this nonsense now,” He scratched his beard. “But, if the Einarr ever came out in force, that is a good time for Lerian to do something. He can’t take the city, but he could probably win in the open. Take a lot of ground.”
That settled on Athia’s mind. This benefits Lerian.
Someone said, “Ms. Fensa?”
She turned, “yes?”
The travelers from outside stood before her, three in total. Their leader smiled a bashful smile and said, “we’d like to hire your services.”
Athia stood, rolling her shoulders to loosen up from her concentration. Words formed in her mind, then died.
She knew better than to answer to Athia while here, but her last name? Asking while she focused on something else, clever enough.
Still, she smiled at the man.
“Sure, what’s the job and what’s the price?”
“Help in finding a thief, we’ll pay handsomely.” He gestured out with one hand, a broad sweep.
Meant to pull her attention to the side. She knew better.
A barbed blade shot from behind his baggy robes, straight for her stomach. She twisted to dodge and kept the motion moving into a hard elbow. It broke the man’s nose while his allies pounced. They stabbed from either side. She jumped to the table behind her, back landing on it with a crash of plates and splatter of food, then she flipped backward to get distance.
The Tricorn grabbed one of the two and slammed his face into the heavy oak table. A bystander shouted and fell from his chair, disrupting the final assailant. Athia charged and put a knee into his face, breaking a cheekbone and taking him to the ground.
Her feet touched down and she spun, just in time to catch a crossbow bolt before it took her in the neck.
One of Lerian’s soldiers put his sword into the back of the assassin with the crossbow.
Athia took quick breaths, eyes frantic and scanning. She found her spikes already in either hand without a thought.
Soldiers descended on the others, beating them with cudgels and sword hilts.
The Tricorn asked, “what was that about, why’d they attack you?”
Athia moved her jaw back and forth. “I’m wanted in Clarient. Badly I guess.”
They almost got her. The distraction, the proximity, well considered and executed. Smart of them to try and do it like this, instead of risking an open fight where Athia could escape if not win outright.
And that scratched her itch.
Lerian and the mercantile states planned an assassination.