The Devil's Dominion

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Chapter 24: Mastery

Norrin Shrevneer rolled over in his bed to prevent the early morning sun from disturbing his post-waking nap. But today, the early morning sun was not to be cheated out of its joy at forcing him into full wakefulness. Why had he chosen a room with east facing windows? He groaned as the sun, refusing to be eluded, found a mirror that Norrin did not remember having. He would, however, remember to find out who had put the mirror there and put the terror of the gods into them, even if that meant getting up before the midday bell. That was another thing he hated about being trapped in Dishmo Kornara. There were bells that rang every hour. He did not doubt that some of his fellow Morschcoda had liked to know the time, but Norrin had never needed to know the specific hour. He ate when he was hungry, and he went to bed when he felt tired. As a prince, his days had been more structured, full of pointless lessons and long-winded teachers hired by his father. Norrin suspected that that was the reason why he hated making plans to do something before he decided to do it. His days were random, unpredictable, and therefore, not boring. Why other people devoted their time waiting for bells to tell them that it was an acceptable portion of the Morschen’s thirty hour day to perform a specific act was one of the things he found most annoying about the species he belonged to; that, and the roundabout way that even commoners spoke to each other. He was glad that the Morschcoda Council had essentially fallen, if only because it rid him of the incessant banter and overly mindful cunning wrapped endlessly in strings of words that had both no meaning and too much. But, while the Council’s fall had rid him of interminable conversation, it had done nothing about the bells. And unfortunately, even with the Deshik invasion and their ceaseless patrols, he did not have a reason to order the bells not be rung. Because the city had been hidden by magic, no sound of the bells could pass beyond the circle of the walls. So, even as he tried to hide from sunlight beating on his eyes no matter which way he turned, the bells began to toll the hour. Unconsciously, he counted out the number of rings. Five … six … seven … Seven. It was only the seventh hour. Norrin groaned as he pushed himself into a sitting position, resigning himself to a miserable day, one which he had not wanted to start for at least two more hours.

Norrin’s guards were not the only ones surprised by their Morschcoda’s early waking. He tracked down his secretary and told the small man to remind him to yell at somebody about a mirror. And then he told his secretary to remind him to yell at somebody about the never ceasing ringing of the city’s bells. Finally, a servant with more sense than to stare at his master and wonder why he had awoken so early brought in a platter of food. He was soon followed by another servant with breakfast beer and wine.

Norrin stared at the plate, not quite comprehending its reason for existing in front of him at the ungodly hour that the bells had chimed. It took him almost ten minutes to realize that it held food. But instead of eating, he studied the contents of the plate, trying to wake his mind up. The bread was an ordinary loaf, small and round. Baked into the crusty top was the outline of a Lurnax claw. He took the bread as a sign that some merchants in the city still traded for Dothorin grain. The butter and honey that went with the bread had no identifying features to tell him where they came from, but he suspected that the butter at least originated in some form from Meclarya. Most livestock herds were Meclaryan or Eschcotan, but Eschcota’s plains were less suited for cows. Eschcotans raised pigs, which would be where his bacon came from. The honey could have been from anywhere, even someone keeping bees in Dishmo Kornara. Though he was charged with defending the city and making sure it remained hidden, Norrin hoped that trade continued with Remnant Anaria. In his mind, even with the danger brought on by discovery, nothing was worse than starving. Dishmo Kornara had vast storehouses, flocks and herds, and ways of growing food for itself, as did every major city, but those could only sustain them for so long, so he felt it was better that he continued to rely on outside sources to keep the citizens fed, for the present at least.

Once Norrin had washed down the last of his breakfast, his secretary returned.

“No, I do not want to plan out the rest of my week. You should know that by now. The only reason that I know time passes in this city is because of the—” the tolling of the eighth bell cut him off. “These cursed bells.” He supposed he should have gotten used to them. After all, he had not left the city since the aftermath of the Battle of Emin-Tal, but they still strained his sanity. “Has there been any word from Remnant Anaria? About anything? I don’t care how trivial it seems. I need some conformation that outside of these walls, time does pass.” The small man who looked like a mouse went through every piece of paper within his sight before finding something from outside of the city. “Morschcoda Calmi has entered into Meclarya, my lord. He has begun to take control of the land between Emin-Tal and the Dak River. And this letter … From Morschcoda Dalrey, master. It seems that …” Before he could finish, Norrin snatched the message out of his secretary’s hand and read it out loud to himself.

“I, Morschcoda Dalrey, the Storm Cloud, greet you, Morschcoda Shrevneer, Hammer of Eschcota. It has been two long years since we have seen each other, but I assure you, I have not forgotten your diligent watch over Dishmo Kornara. I know that you must chafe at what seems to be your confinement, but we dare not leave the city undefended, and you know well that yours is the only army capable of doing so. But the world has not left you behind. The Deshika inhabit these lands more thickly than ever, despite my attempts to drive them out of our lands. But I have perhaps stumbled upon a solution: my son. Eildar is a creative man, inspiring to his soldiers, though he seems to hate me. I hope it is only because I forced him to wait so long before giving him his chance against the Deshika. We have planned a trap. We know that spies watch the two of us constantly, so we will stage a falling out. He will lead his armies into Rista, hoping for new battles to prove his worth as a General, while I will advise caution and forbid him to go, though he will anyway. When the Deshika see my army weakened, they will not hesitate to attack, and then, my son will return. It is a daring plan, I think, but maybe too obvious. Still, if we do not score a decisive victory in the north soon, many more people will soon be hiding within Dishmo Kornara’s walls.

Erygan’s signature followed the final line, as well as his sigil: a sickle moon and a cat’s eye.

“This letter is old. Erygan already fought this battle, and more. Guinira’s new High General must be a brave man …stupid, but brave.” Norrin thought for a moment. “Guinira’s new General. Do we know anything about him?”

“Little besides a name: Hialed Volkure.”

Something sparked in Norrin’s memory. “Volkure. Small Armandan family. It dies out about every few thousand years and then comes back as strong as ever. Hialed Volkure … He’s one of the Zealots. The Mordak Hunter.”

“I believe so, sire. Rumour from one of your spies in An-Aniath has it that Queen Guinira has promised him the Princedom of Morieden if he defeats Morschcoda Dalrey.”

“Is there anything else?”

“Hm, oh, yes. This came this morning. From Governor Cabrinda of Alquendiro.”

Norrin nodded and dismissed the man.

Morschcoda Shrevneer, I know that we have never been formally introduced, but believe me, I am a loyal member of the Morschledu Remnant. I was Governor of Alquendiro long before the Deshika returned to Anaria. I’m afraid that this first communication between us, though, is hardly a pleasant one. Guinira herself is marching to war. We believed that she was marching on us here at Alquendiro, but despite our pride, we are not the threat we wish we could pose to The Kindler and his armies. Merchant Prince Ren Enschiva believes that Guinira’s army is marching on Braldish. I wish I could do more than warn you, but the era of the Brotherhood of the Mordak is gone. Drogoda can no longer ride to battlefields half a world away. We can’t even ride to stop an army crossing our own lands. No one wishes that we could do that more than I do, but I can at least warn you.

I hope this message gets through. Morieden Provence is closed to us, as I’m sure you know. If we had the Clans, Drogoda would be a different place. Comni Hargd has returned to Morieden City in secret, but I fear it will take her too long to rally the Clans; time we do not have.

I wish you luck, Morschcoda. Since Guinira is marching, she has three hundred thousand Deshika, if not more. She may even find more along the way. I’ve sent word into the forest that this army is marching, but I don’t know if they will receive that any more than I know that you will get this.

Norrin read the letter again. He had heard of Elshay Cabrinda, but not for a long time. A second page that had stuck to the back caught his attention.

Morschcoda, I don’t know if you can do anything, but … If Braldish falls, so does the Remnant. You know too well that Braldish is the key to the mountains. Through it, The Kindler could unlock the Garuthen Trade Route, and then he’s on the doorstep of Galzeen and close to Toredo. I wish I could do more, I wish I could do anything, but as I said, the pride and strength of Drogoda was crushed at Emin-Tal. I’m sorry.

Norrin walked over to his window as he thought about the letter. The line about the Remnant falling with Braldish was no exaggeration. Dothoro would be surrounded, and Torridesta would be open to a new line of attack. The thought of Braldish falling made Norrin angry. As he gripped the windowsill, he realized that he was crushing it underneath his fingers.

“Is there any other news with this letter?”

Norrin’s secretary shuffled through his papers. “Vorteez is marshalling what remains of his army after Nasheem stole the Whip Crackers.”

“How many does he have left?”

“Over four hundred thousand.”

“That hardly constitutes ‘what remains,’ Maarin.”

“Of course, Morschcoda.” He shuffled his notes and continued. “Rumours about Makret Druoth marshalling an army of rogue Caladeans to join Vorteez’s armies. Rumours about Makret Druoth marshalling an army of rogue Deshika against Vorteez’s armies. Oh! This is interesting.”

“What is it?”

“Guinira has put a price on Makret’s head; twenty-eight thousand paroes.”

“Why?”

“It’s for a live capture.”

Norrin laughed. “Any Hunter who can bring Druoth in dead should be paid that much. Alive? It can’t be done. But I think we can guarantee that Makret isn’t raising an army to join Vorteez.” He stepped away from the half-destroyed window and walked over to a small stone table in the corner of the room. On it was a Mastery board that he had made himself, one of the few things he had ever actually done with his training as a stonemason. Ten circles, each overlapping two others made up the main part of the game board. Each of the circles had a different design representing a different one of the Ten Nations. Each of the ten circles was a different colour and had matching pieces representing armies and, in a real game, legendary captains and commanders from that country’s past. Since Norrin had made the pieces himself, Makret and Guinira already had their respective commander tokens. He moved Makret’s to the dot in the centre of the Caladean circle, which represented Ra-Diavere, and then moved Guinira and three newly carved Deshik pieces to where Drogoda’s circle joined with Eschcota. The two ways to win Mastery were to either conquer the entire board so that no opponent could play more pieces, or to kill all ten commanders of each opponent. But Norrin was only keeping track of the movements of power. Only Taren and Erygan had ever habitually played Mastery, though out of tradition, all of the Morschcoda knew the complicated rules of the ancient game. Thinking of Taren, Norrin opened a drawer and pulled out another commander token, placing Taren’s Warship on its side on the only open circle: the white of Rista. Norrin had only twice actually played the game, both times against Taren, and he had lost both. It required as much skill as luck, and skill could still tip the balance if one was unlucky, but it also required the will to risk everything. One of Norrin’s only good memories of Taren was the older Morschcoda talking to him after just beating him at the game. ‘Ruling a country and winning a game of Mastery are the same thing, Norrin. If you can risk everything on one strategy and make it work, you’re going to do well. If you want to play, know the rules. If you want to win, know when to ignore them.’ “Yes, Taren knew when to ignore the rules. Too bad he couldn’t pass on that ability.” Suddenly, Norrin realized something. “This whole time, Taren was just playing a game. He was using the other nine Morschcoda as his commanders. Why didn’t we realize it sooner?”

“My Lord?”

“I can’t sit by while Eschcota is invaded.”

“My Lord?”

“Guinira has the strength to take Braldish, unless it gets reinforcements. I’m going to be those reinforcements.”

“But Morschcoda, Morschcoda Erygan ordered you to stay here.”

“Taren’s been using us to play out a game of Mastery against The Kindler. He still has nine commanders left. I have to do what Taren would do. I have to ignore the rules. I have to go to Braldish.”

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