By the time Nancy and Iskander climbed into the caravan they were reduced to fits of giggles. Neither could remember ever being so terrified and yet they had survived the encounter with the fearsome Oracle of Kinfos.
“So how many rules do you think we broke back there?” Nancy giggled, breathlessly.
“At least half a dozen.” Iskander replied, wiping tears from his eyes.
“I’m sorry she couldn’t help us get your sight back, Iskander.”
“So be it. As you said, there is more to me than my sight.” Iskander replied, a smile playing on his lips.
Nancy blushed profusely. “Sorry about that, I was just playing the Oracle’s game.”
“Oh and was that kiss just part of the game?” He asked, taking her hand.
“You kissed me!” Nancy gasped.
“Yes I did.”
He pulled her to him but Nancy pushed back. “Iskander please, it isn’t right.”
He released her and sat back. “You mean it is not right to kiss a cripple.”
“A cripple? Iskander you only lost your sight!”
“I only lost my sight. Is your realm so magical that blind men may regain the use of their eyes and still live a normal life if they do not?”
“Yes they do and it has nothing to do with magic! On my father’s ranch we had people who lost limbs, their hearing, their sight in battle and what they were still able to accomplish was astounding! They showed me that it takes patience, strength and perseverance to rise above their injuries and learn to live as normally as they could. Surely these are attributes possessed by the King of Shayn’del!”
Iskander sat quietly for a few moments before saying, “We must be at the Shumkarja Outlands.”
Nancy peered out to see an arid landscape that reminded her of the moon. Sure enough, the dragons touched down in the hot sands and Nancy helped Iskander from the caravan. Shielding her eyes from the sun she could just make out multitudes of people emerging from the rock face of a nearby cliff. Men and women both were dark and muscular and clad in primitive attire of fur and leather. Standing beside the cliffs were several large silver ships glinting in the light.
“My God!” Nancy gasped. “She did it, she found the Silver Fleet!”
“Well done, Isabel!” Iskander smiled. “Now if we can just reach our friends in Abiloth in time.”
Spotting the new arrivals, Lennox came over, bowed to the couple and clapped Iskander on the shoulder. “Glad to have ye back! Did ye have any luck with the Oracle?”
The two blushed furiously before Iskander replied, “If you mean have I regained my sight, the answer is no. What has happened since we parted ways? You were traveling to Mount Osera to find the Silver Fleet yet here we are in the Outlands.”
Lennox regarded them for a moment before replying, “The Lady Kendra has performed a miracle. Not only has she found and brought the Fleet to life but she overthrew a barbarian king and has been crowned Queen of the Shumkarja!”
“Well I’ll be damned!” Nancy exclaimed. “How on Earth did she manage that?”
“Isabel is a remarkable woman. She did what was necessary and won the hearts and minds of a nation.” Iskander smiled, the awe in his voice lit an unexpected spark of jealousy in Nancy’s heart.
Isabel looked normal enough. Like Nancy she had discovered she had inherited a troubled land, and for all intents and purposes had as much experience in questing and ruling a people as she did. Yet somehow she was managing to restore her family legacy, brought down an enemy and she appeared to be raising an army while capturing the heart of a handsome prince! Watching Alaric interact with the Yankee now made Nancy’s heart constrict. The tender way he held her hand, the complete adoration beaming from his face, no man had ever looked at her that way. Nancy suspected no man ever would.
“Some women are just more remarkable than others.” Nancy sighed.
Prince Alaric and Isabel approached and exchanged greetings with them before he asked, “How did you fare with the Oracle?”
“Well, we didn’t get much out of her except that the traitor will reveal herself in Abiloth and our friends are in danger.” Nancy replied.
Isabel frowned. “The traitor is a woman? We need to tell the Alliance.”
They followed Alaric and Isabel into a small room with walls covered by curtains of all colors. Piles of cushions lay along the floor throughout the room. A heavy stone table stood in one corner, adorned with a plethora of sun-bleached skulls and feathers of varying sizes and colors. Against the wall behind that stood several large bookshelves with all manner of bottles, boxes and pots. The air was sticky and heavy with perfume and spices. The atmosphere seemed to demand hushed tones.
“What is this place?” Nancy whispered.
“It’s the home of Temani, the Shumi Mirror Mage.” Isabel answered quietly. “We’ll need her to communicate with the Crystal Palace.”
A tall elderly woman entered the room, clasped her hands together and bowed to her queen who returned the gesture. Specks of silver glimmered throughout her long dark hair, which was braided down her back to touch her heels. Her eyes shone like onyx as she spoke and when she smiled Nancy saw she had no teeth. Her slender frame was wrapped in red and gold robes, and her feet and hands were painted with symbols. Nancy couldn’t follow the exchange between the two women, but when they were finished Temani went over to the far wall and drew back one of the curtains. She unveiled a large mirror before which she began to gesture and chant. The mirror went black, then dark grey and smoky, before lighting up. When the light faded they found themselves staring at a likeness of the Dowager Empress and a delegation of allies who greeted them with applause from the throne room of the Crystal Palace.
“My friends, the moment we have waited for is at hand.” Dowager Empress Ilythia began. “We have at our disposal the mystical Silver Fleet and a new ally in the numbers of a barbarian nation.”
The delegation roared with delight.
“None of this could have been accomplished, of course, without the efforts of a determined young woman, Lady Isabel, daughter of the Duke of Kendra.”
The delegation rose and gave Isabel a standing ovation as the Dowager Empress gestured for her to speak to the crowd. Isabel looked uneasily at the prince. She had not been prepared to make a speech.
“Thank you.” Isabel said as the people quieted. “Our worlds are facing a monumental threat. I began as an unwilling participant in this war, not sure what, if any, contribution I could make.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd.
“However, as the Dowager Empress said, with the additions of the fleet and our newest ally, we will show our enemies that we are a force to be reckoned with!”
Another standing ovation and as the crowd settled someone cried out, “How did you do it?”
“Yes, please tell us how you found the Silver Fleet and drew the barbarians to our cause!”
Isabel glanced at the Dowager Empress who nodded her consent. She cleared her throat and recounted her visit with Caeronvar and how Alaric fought as she made her escape. She told of her capture by the Shumi warriors and her own battle against their leader that determined her sovereignty.
“There was an elaborate ceremony to make it official,” she continued, and in the corner of her eye she could see Alaric shaking his head.
She glanced at him and when she saw him briefly shake his head again, mouthing the word “No” her patience wore thin. During their journey Nadhir had told her about the disrespect and abuse his people endured from the rest of society.
“They think we are animals, barbarians, because we choose to honor the way of the ancients. They think because we do not live in great cities and cover our bodies in silks as they do that we are primitive but I ask you, why should we change our ways?” He said. “It is as our ancestors have lived, how the Exalted One decrees we should live, and our society continues to thrive. Our people are happy, why should we change?”
In her own dealings with the Shumkarja Isabel had discovered the misconceptions she heard mentioned to be grossly untrue. Yes, their people lived a basic existence, but that certainly didn’t make them uncivilized. Their rituals and dances were beautiful, the people were intelligent and kind and very proud of their traditions. She had been ashamed of her own prejudices and didn’t like how the others spoke about and treated them. She vowed if there was something she could do to stop it, she would. She turned her attention back to the mirror.
“The Shumkarja tradition calls for their newly crowned sovereign to choose and consummate with a lifelong mate in order to be official with the gods. As their newly crowned queen I chose Prince Alaric as my life mate to symbolize the union between the Shumi people and the Crystal Palace Alliance.”
Gasps and murmurs rose up amongst the delegation and the Dowager Empress grew beet red while Lennox roared with laughter.
“Furthermore,” Isabel continued, raising her voice to be heard over the din. “in order to have a truly successful alliance, a few things need to change.”
The room went deadly silent. Yes, she had their attention now.
“It has come to my attention that the Shumi race is not well regarded or received in many parts of the world, including the kingdoms that make up this alliance. That ends today! As queen I cannot, and will not, in good conscience lead my people into a battle for freedom alongside those who refuse to acknowledge them as equals. You may need the strength of the Shumkarja number to win this war but they are not expendable. They are people with hearts and minds, family and culture, just like each and every one of you. They are entering this war because they trust the days of ignorance and discrimination are at an end. Put away your ill-conceived notions and prejudices and fight side by side with these good people and win, or continue your petty racism and perish. If the Shumkarja Warriors cannot fight as your equal they will not fight at all and neither will the Silver Fleet!”
The delegation at the Crystal Palace exploded and suddenly Ilythia rushed towards the mirror so fast Isabel stepped back.
“How dare you!” The old woman screeched, her once elegant visage now twisted and ugly. “Some dirt scratching heathens crown you queen and you think you can make demands of the Alliance? You think, churl, because my son bedded you that you have the authority, the power to change anything? You dare to threaten us with the Silver Fleet? I should have you whipped for your insolence!”
Isabel placed her hands on her hips and glared at the woman. “You disappoint me, Empress! I would have thought a woman as fine and elegant as you pretend to be wouldn’t hesitate in treating your new allies with respect. Now I wonder whether choosing a side in this war is literally choosing between two evils. The Shumkarja trust me to do right by them and damn it I am not about to lead them into battle for a cause they know nothing about simply to be used as cannon fodder!”
Isabel had had enough. She threw up her hands and stormed out of the room. Just outside she found Yin and his entourage waiting. Alaric practically ran into the back of her and began speaking but she held a hand up to silence him. She was not in the mood for excuses and it was obvious the High Priest wanted to speak with her. Isabel and Alaric fell in stride with Yin, his entourage falling behind them, as they strolled towards the Silver Fleet.
“Great One, the gods grow restless. There is a terrible evil coming.” Yin said as they walked.
Isabel nodded. “I know. The Oracle of Nerys Island spoke of a prophecy.”
She recited the words that had distressed her.
“What does it mean?” Alaric asked, frowning.
“I suspect the troubles plaguing Izan shall soon be upon us all,” the Priest responded.
Isabel was surprised he knew about Izan as no refugees had made it into the region.
“Yes, the Alliance has begun to turn its attention to that corner of the world. Typically we do not interfere in the interests of other kingdoms, however, if the Church of Ore is as greedy and monstrous as they say…” Alaric trailed off.
“I only hope the situation doesn’t become worse before we’re ready to face it.” Isabel blanched.
Nancy gawked at the turmoil that just unfolded before her. She couldn’t believe Isabel would speak to the Dowager Empress that way. Of course she would be upset to learn her son had married a commoner and then to make demands? It just wasn’t done! The Yankee had obviously not been taught any manners when it came to the genteel. She didn’t actually care about the primitive Shumkarja but she did care about her cousin and her kingdom.
The mirror had gone dark as soon as Isabel had left the room and Nancy asked Lennox, “Can you ask Temani to get the Dowager Empress back? We still need to alert her to the traitor’s whereabouts. Nerissa could be in danger.”
Lennox had been holding his sides with laughter during the debacle but he sobered up and nodded. “Yes of course.”
He spoke to the Mirror Mage who seemed reluctant at first to comply but eventually agreed. The mirror glowed once again and this time the Dowager Empress was sitting before her vanity mirror in her bedchamber.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” Nancy said, coming to stand beside Temani. “I hope we haven’t disturbed you.”
“Valeska, no of course not.” Ilythia responded pleasantly while still looking a bit frazzled. “You have news?”
“King Iskander and I have seen the Oracle of Kinfos. She told us the traitor will reveal herself in Abiloth.”
Ilithya frowned. “She did not name the traitor?”
“I’m afraid not.” Nancy replied.
“I will reach out to King Jarek at once for an update on conditions there.” The Empress nodded thoughtfully.
“Your majesty,” Lennox called as he came forward, “would it be amiss to ask that I be sent to Abiloth to guard Princess Nerissa until the traitor can be found?”
Ilithya nodded slowly as she pondered the suggestion. “No, that is an excellent suggestion. We can say you have been injured in the battle on Mount Osera and must recuperate in the life giving springs of Abiloth. You can stand guard over the princess and the enemy will be none the wiser.”
“Temani, will you do us the honor?” Nancy asked and Lennox translated.
“Yes, of course.” The woman responded curtly.
“Valeska, where is my son?” Ilythia asked.
“I’m afraid he’s gone after Lady Isabel. I’m sure he can convince her to change her mind about the Fleet.”
“Let us hope so.” The Dowager Empress replied bitterly before the mirror darkened.