Darius couldn’t sleep, in spite of the plush comfortable bed he had been given. He sat up, sweating profusely. The months spent in bandit captivity had not scared him. He’d even taken the quake and the destruction of Dharya in his stride. The Halans have a puppet king.
He had no idea why he was having a hard time believing it. It seemed plausible. They had brought Halaa to its knees in the last war, so it would be natural that fathers had imposed strong sanctions to avoid a war again. And trying to include the tribes in trade would make them less hostile. But try as he did, he could not wrap his head around it.
He muttered in irritation and walked out of his room. Tarvus had been allotted a room adjacent to his on his behest. In fact, all his requests had been met with great enthusiasm. All his men were brought into the city and provided quarters. The Halan Chief had also sent a few of his warriors to rescue the men stuck at the bandit village they had been first brought to.
Darius had offered the bandits the option to come with him to Sen-Tian and after the initial shock of realizing who he was had worn off, a few had even accepted. Rorash had however, true to his nature, spat at him and vowed to disembowel him the next time they met.
He walked into Tarvus’ bedchamber and shook him roughly by the shoulders.
“Scales of flying netters, why would you wake me like that, Darius.” The man rubbed his eyes, as Darius lit a candle.
“Did you know about this, Tarvus?”
“Know about what?”
“This entire situation. That I was being duped to think that I was coming into a land of savages, where in truth, this is land of tame cats.”
“No, of course not. Halaa was kept out of bounds for all except for trade. I’d assumed that Thaddius let them be after the last war. It wasn’t a very popular decision at the time, but now I see why he did it. But your hatred towards the Halans did border on the extreme. I guess they just wanted you to see it for yourself and decide.”
“But what about what’s been happening. You saw the village, you saw the chasm. Maybe the Halans are the cause for this.”
The captain shook his head. “Darius, clear your head. Why would they kill their own people? And such an insignificant village at that. You’re chasing tarpons.”
Darius grunted. He’d no idea what a tarpon was, but he imagined it was a fish that was tough to catch. He went back to his room but no sleep came.
But with first rays of the sun, came a woman’s voice at the door. “Prince Darius, if you would not be discomfited, the King would want to speak with you.”
The accent caught his attention. The woman’s skin made him doubly sure. “You’re from Sen-Tian.”
“Indeed, Prince Darius.” The woman stepped forward where the light from the windows hit her face.
“Thaleen! What in Sucellok’s name are you doing here?”
“Same thing I did for you and your brother when you were young. Teach our language to these men.”
Darius placed a hand over his mouth.
“Do you need some time to freshen up, Darius? I can get a bath ready for you.”
Darius nodded and within a quarter of an hour, he had a bath ready, full of incense which made him gag. But when he stepped out, he felt rejuvenated as if he had had a full nights sleep.
Thaleen escorted him downstairs to a small garden at the back, where the King lounged about looking at various paintings which had been set up.
“Good morning, Prince Darius. I hope I did not inconvenience you by asking you to come down. But I always find that a painting looks the most beautiful when seen in the first light of dawn.” He stopped at a painting of rough sea and a few boats riding the waves.
Darius was brought freshly cut fruits and he plucked a slice of an apple. It tasted as sweet as the best ones from the northern states.
“I did not call you to bore you with paintings.” The Chief smiled. “I know you still have doubts about the alliance we have with the Throddens. Which is why I have arranged for a short ride for you, if of course you want to go.”
“A trip to where?”
“Someplace which will show you that we were allies long before you and I existed. Before our ancestors warred.”
Darius looked at the man. He was smiling but it did not seem to be in jest. “What are you talking about?”
“The quakes opened up a cavern in the Haran Yamars.”
“The what?” Darius knew Yamars meant mountains but he’d no idea which ones these were.
“The Wall of Green you call it.”
Darius nodded. “So what did you find in the caverns?”
“Some sort of an abandoned city, but we aren’t sure.”
“So? Ruined old cities keep turning up everywhere. We’ve found a ton of them in Az’watha.”
“So have we.” The King paused and sighed. “But this one has the tribe crest all over it. My tribe crest.”
“So, it’s like your ancestral city?”
“Kind of…except it seems over a thousand years old.”
Darius started. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe your ancestors saw the mark from some other old relic of this civilization and picked it up for themselves.”
“Could be. Except it also includes your emblem. The wheel with spokes. A perfect amalgam. Maybe if you see that long ago, we were once allies, maybe even family, you will come to believe in this alliance.”
Darius nodded but his thoughts were far away. There was a remote chance that this was Scipio’s civilization.
“So, are you willing to go?
For the first time, Darius returned the smile. “How soon can we leave?”
“Ianthine is not to be attacked. By anybody, under any circumstance. Is that clear?” Fabius spoke firmly.
He looked around the tent at the three nobles and the Captains of their respective states. It had taken him and Lord Tremane two months to aseemble the nobles to a meeting to take a stand in relation to Ianthine. And even then Lord Ipniss of Mahars had declined to be a part of it. He had managed to take control of the Throdden Imperial Guard for the state though.
The nobles nodded their assent meekly. Two of the Captains stood at attention, their emotions masked. Fabius had expected no more from them. But Captain Nermo, flinched at the order. He wouldn’t speak out of turn but Fabius could read the dissent on the face of gnarled veteran.
Fabius could ill-afford to have dissention of his orders when his forces already stood paper thin. “Do you have any concerns, Captain Nermo?”
The captain jerked up straight but looked straight back into Fabius’ eyes. “Ianthine has been pillaging our produces and stealing them away. I do not wish to see our farmers and peasants go hungry, simply because you order so. We have a right to take back what is ours.”
Fabius gave a sweeping look to the rest of the people in the tent except Tremane. “Do you support and endorse the view of your captain, Lord Sheamerg?”
The pudgy noble shifted uneasily in his plush chair. The other two nobles passed silent snickers at their counterpart’s disquiet.
Fabius sighed. The nobles of north were so far removed from the heart of the kingdom that even the basic nuances of politics were lost on them. The nobles and lords near Sen-Tian would never openly mock their counterparts, though undermining each other was done with as much malice if not more. Even he knew better.
“Very well. Captain Nermo, I have taken your point into consideration. You are allowed to defend your crops and produce even with violence, if required. For the things already stolen, Lord Sheamerg shall cover the losses for the peasants and the townfolk from his own coffers.”
Lord Sheamerg’s eyes widened in surprise even as he opened his mouth instinctively to protest the extra expense.
“If my memory serves right, you received a grant from Sen-Tian to compensate for the low produce last year. Now, I am not questioning the veracity of your claims, but I do believe that the grant was sizeable and given the size of your estate, I think it was enough to support your entire population twice over. Except of course, your own interests in mining mica.”
Fabius smiled. Hanging around pubs and barmaids had proved its worth. He barely stopped himself from passing a glance at Lord Tremane.
Lord Sheamerg turned a deep shade of red and nodded vigorously. Captain Nermo gave a sharp bow. But Fabius wasn’t done yet. He had to cut down the grins of the other two nobles.
“And Lord Bolvar and Cremain, both of you will provide financial aid for covering any future losses. After all, we must support each other in times of need. If either of you face attacks as well, then I am sure Lord Shearmerg will be happy to contribute to your aid.”
The statement wiped the smiles off the two nobles, while bringing back some cheer to the pudgy face of Lord Sheamerg.
“Now, all of you are dismissed for the evening. Please keep me informed of any developments.” Fabius turned and walked out of the tent, followed by Tremane.
They walked together to his tent before the old Lord spoke. “Well played, Fabius. You are wising up to the situation.”
“This turn isn’t complete yet. We have to keep Captain Nermo’s attention. We need a man with a connection to the people on our side. The nobles might give me an army but the Captain’s going to get me the support of the people.”
Tremane twirled his beard and nodded, his eyes twinkling with the same look of mischief that Fabius had seen in Lushrow. “I will take care of that, Fabius. But what made you decide not to attack Ianthine immediately? Your forces include the Throdden Imperial Guard from five states including these three, mine and Mahars, not to mention the armies of these three stooges. It is large enough to mount an assault on the city.”
“Because we don’t know of all the pieces on the board yet. And we don’t even know what this bloody magic enables the sorcerers to do. Unless we find their weaknesses, claiming Ianthine might only lead to the power falling into worse hands than it is currently in.” Fabius did not mention the third reason. His heart did not want to believe that he had lost Elena. He planned to turn secure Ianthine without any war and he hoped the non-attack order would show Elena his intentions.
A messenger was escorted to them. “My Lords, I bring news from the outspost of Starrack. A large army over ten thousand strong is marching towards Ianthine.”
“What?” chorused Fabius and Lord Tremane.
“Have fathers broken through the barrier? Is it the Throdden army?”
“No, the spies report that the army flies no banner and they all emerged from the bandit lands of Nordan.”
Fabius looked at Tremane. “Bandits? How can they have this large an army? And whatever do they want with Ianthine?”
The showman’s brows creased. “We never kept a tab on how large their forces were. I know we should have. But if they are marching towards Ianthine, it is clear they want one thing – control of magic.”
The messenger cleared his throat. “Actually, Prince Fabius, I’m really sorry for bringing this up but…” the man sighed, “but my wife insisted I show you this.” He pulled out a black and red silk scarf with patterns of jasmine flowers on them and handed it to him. “A woman turned up in our village, weak and bloody and my wife has been taking care of her. When she heard I was coming to meet you, she told that I give you this.”
Fabius rubbed the silk. He had seen the scarf before. “What in Sucellok’s name is Mariam doing in the northern lands?”
The messenger looked surprised. “You do know her?”
“Yes, and I want her moved to this camp as soon as possible.” Fabius took out as many gold flowers as he could find from his pocket. “Make sure she travels comfortably.”
The messenger gawked at the flowers, saluted and left.
“I suppose you want to know who this is?” he looked towards the showman.
“If it is not the Mariam, your brother planned to marry, then please let me know.” The showman replied, dryly.
Fabius smiled. “You don’t always have to show-off.”
“Actually that’s been my job for the past three decades.” The old Lord replied walking out of the tent.