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Meetings at Headquarters were drab affairs. The facade of the Mercenary's Guildhall was a granite stoneworks meant to resemble an old castle, tall and imposing, a monolith to impress upon the casual bystander the might and gravity of their duties. The result was the building was poorly lit, even in the middle of the day. A bright and sunny day in the Etoile Capital City, and Vance Randell found himself sitting in a dim conference room, squinting at a piece of parchment. He held it to the light.   "Aren't there other candidates for the cartography jobs?" He tossed the contract back onto the table. "I thought promotion to the first rank meant no more babysitting."   The older man across the room chuckled. "It usually means more." Siegfried of Archos was an imposing battlefield figure in his fitted heavy plate and a warhammer on his back, but in his city garb he gave the impression of being a kindly grandfather. "In any case, this contract's got a lot of money behind it. Funds allocated for the full season duration, private chartered Power-sail, and a Principality Master Trader on board. We, or you in this case, would be providing security."   Vance leaned forward. "A trade mission's more than a simple mapping, then. Why are the Cartographers hiring mercs instead of requesting an escort?"   Siegfried shook his head. "Some of the people out there past the frontier don't take kindly to seeing Principality soldiers. My guess is they want to play friendly." The old warrior pointed to the map on the wall. "There's an islander society a few days past Erimia Tradepost, and word from the District Commander there is that they have a new leader who wants to have closer trade ties with us."   "This sounds political. Now I'm really wondering why the Principality doesn't handle this themselves." Vance leaned back again. The chair he was sitting on made a strange cracking noise before buckling; the hunter quickly stood with a grimace. "Ugh. Or why they'd need our help, since we can't keep our furniture from collapsing."   "There's groundwork to be laid first." Siegfried stood up. "Constantine can't send formal delegations to every random group of frontier villagers who suddenly decide they want to become Etoilean."   "Hah, right, the 'majesty and grandeur' of the Principality has to be maintained." Vance kicked the broken chair away. "Fine. What's our payout?"   "Twenty six thousand florins plus expenses covered by the Principality during the deployment, within reason."   Vance whistled. "Now I'm interested. How'd we get that much for this kind of work?"   "The Cartographers said they wanted the best, so I made sure to milk them. Make sure you get this done right." Siegfried walked over and clapped the hunter hard on the shoulder; Vance winced. "It's a simple escort and security job from our perspective. Try not to think too hard about the rest of it, it's outside our paygrade."   "Just make menacing faces, got it." Vance dipped his thumb into the inkwell on the table and thumbed his print onto the contract. "Let's begin."   Siegfried eyed him. "Go get a fresh chair out of storage first, you broke the one here."   "It was *already* broken!"   ---   Normally, Vance would have taken the tram over the two miles to the Cartographer's Lodge, but Siegfried had decided that official business merited official transport. The spare power-wagon in the back of the Guild's coachhouse looked like it had seen better days, but its doors had the Mercenary's emblem painted on, and that was good enough. The streets were packed, of course. The Capital was infamous for the sheer number of power-wagons on the street. A harried looking guardsman signalled, and the power-wagon rattled its way forward over the cobblestones.   "Damn it." Siegfried cursed and pulled a lever, the wagons ahead were at a stop. A power-wagon had hit a pole and broken it, and a maintenance team was hastily trying to make repairs; power was out to the block. One of the rod pieces the pole was supporting was hanging loose in the air, twisting back and forth, still trying to deliver power through its broken linkage. Vance watched as one of the men gingerly extracted the crashed wagon's flywheel from the wreckage.   "More accidents recently." Vance shifted his weight. This power-wagon was an older model and was a bit cramped for passengers, and the slow going was magnifying every bump. "It's getting to the point where it'd be faster to walk."   An irritated grunt in reply. "That's why the licensing restriction rumor's going around. A test before you can operate a wagon."   "No way the Princeps would approve that. There'd be riots."   "That might be preferable to this mess. Finally!" A gap between two wagons had opened up in the intersection ahead. Siegfried yanked a lever back, and they lurched forward out of the commercial district. The streets leading to the academic ward were lined with robed researchers and students, who gave the wagon a wide berth. With a grinding noise, the wagon came to a stop.   The Cartographer's Lodge was a less imposing building than the Mercenary's Guildhall, a simple and charming estate with a small circular courtyard. In the center was a bronze relief of the continent of Saibh, positioned at precisely the worst possible angle to reflect sunlight directly into Vance's eyes. He held his hand over his face as he stepped off the wagon, following Siegfried past the relief into the building.   "Ah, the mercenaries have arrived." There were two women in the foyer of the building, relaxing on the overstuffed lounge chairs. The closer one stood up, holding out a hand. "Siegfried, it's good to see you."   "And to you as well." The warrior took off his boater and shook hands. "I don't believe either of you have met Vance here, so I believe a formal introduction is in order. He'll be your escort into the frontier."   Vance stopped and reached into his vest pocket to pull out his insignia. A small sword, held in a reverse grip with a mailed fist, painted yellow, the emblem of the Mercenary on a small chain. He held the chain in his palm, arm outstretched, allowing the insignia to hang freely before him, and bowed. "Vance Randell, Mercenary of the First Rank, Spear and Bow. At your pleasure." The two women had stood up and drawn their own insignias.   "Rathnait of House Numio, Master Trader of Etoile. The pleasure is mine." The taller woman gave a bow, the bottom of her fitted silk overcoat brushing the ground. Her insignia was a scale, lacquered in black, blending with her black tresses. She stood up with a click of her boots.   "Iocathe Black, Prime Cartographer. And mine." The shorter woman bowed as well, the sleeves of her academician's frock hanging low and loose. Her insignia was a compass and sextant overlaid, silver and gold respectively. She smiled brightly, brushing light curls out from her dark eyes. "It seems we've assembled a team of some merit."   "I would hope so." Rathnait pocketed her insignia. "It's essentially first contact. Korr has been closed to the Principality as far as anyone can remember, and we need to show them the best of us."   Vance raised a hand. "Pardon me for not knowing much about the frontier, but closed? I didn't know there were towns out there, and I was under the impression that the Principality had a policy of knocking by siege-sail."   Iocathe laughed. "That may have been the case during the era of the First Princeps, but we're in more modern times. And yes, there are a wealth of them." She gestured to the floor of the lobby, a massive painting of Saibh in meticulous detail. "There are at least fifteen towns outside the political control of the Principality scattered across the eastern expanse, and many more smaller societies. And no," she paused, "we try not to start off by killing people."   Rathnait shook her head dismissively. "Bad for business. The tribes don't concern this venture, though. Only the larger towns hold trade potential."   "Not tribes, societies." Iocathe wagged a finger. "Remember what the Askri said about this."   "None of us here are Askri, are we?" The trader leaned against the wall. "If they haven't started farming and still hunt and gather, they're tribes."   Siegfried sighed. "Academic semantics. In any case, now that the meet and greet's done, I'm finished here. You got the rest, Rathnait?"   "Of course. Randell." Rathnait turned to Vance. "Our power-sail is being spun up on the eastern side of the Canal, Pier Sixteen. We'll see you there in the morning?"   "Got it." Vance touched a finger to his forehead by reflex. "Anything I need to know or do right now?"   "Just be packed with all the non consumable supplies you need. Equipment's going to be hard to come by out there. I'm assuming you have armor, it wouldn't do for you to wander the frontier wearing a waistcoat." Rathnait paused. "Also, now that you're officially on this, could you stop by Central Post? Pick up whatever's bound for Erimia. Selunn will kill me if she misses her mail."   ---   The seas were fairly rough and the Meridian's crew was uninspired company, so the sight of a dock gave Vance some cheer. Two weeks of roiling ocean on the direct route had turned his legs to rubber, and Iocathe had the surprising trait of being a cartographer with seasickness. The endless blue expanse had lost its novelty, and games of Fortuna had become quite stale once everyone memorized the scoresheet.   "So that's Erimia? Very frontier-sy." Rathnait stood, stretching her legs. The Principality outpost looked like a ramshackle collection of wooden buildings clustered around the harbor, with wild jungle in the backdrop. Nobody was visible from offshore. "Is there even power here?"   The captain spat over the side. "That's the only reason to sail to this place. It's a slow wheel, it'll be some hours for a full recharge." The power-sail pulled in smoothly along the pier, and the captain pointed. "Or longer. Looks like their hookup is broken." The power clutch plate alongside the pier was visibly disconnected and rotating freely in the wind.   "Ugh." Iocathe stepped onto the deck. "No offense, Captain Kardu, but the longer we stay on land, the better." A sailor shoved the landing ramp onto the dock.   "Spoken like a true city girl." The captain gave a short bark of laughter. Vance sighed and picked up his pack. Rathnait was already off the ship, talking to one of the porters hauling down cargo.   "Where are we headed?" Vance looked around. Not a soul was to be seen from the dock, and the tradepost seemed oddly quiet, with only the sound of waves. "Something feels wrong here."   Rathnait seemed unconcerned, focused on checking a crate of goods. "Well, that's your job, right? The lodge should be at the center of town next to the District Headquarters. Go have a look, we'll meet you in fifteen." She waved him away.   Walking past the dockside warehouses, Vance turned a corner. A number of buildings faced a central square, but the most obviously important one was the white marble facade of Headquarters, the radiating sun emblem of the Principality front and center above the doorway. The coachhouse next to it had a power-wagon that looked like it hadn't been touched in seasons. Across the square was a lodge, the largest wooden building on the square, with a placard nailed next to the door, 'The World's End'. A guard leaning against the side of the lodge waved Vance down.   "You just get in? Sorry about the reception, everyone's at the fighting pit." The guard frowned. "That means we need to get the dock power link fixed."   Fighting pit? Vance relaxed the hand he had on his dagger-hilt. "I've just come from the Capital. We're on a Cartography mission into the frontier and need to resupply."   "Lady Eudelind will be happy to hear that. She's been going a little stir crazy." The guard gestured with his thumb. "You'll find her at the pit, let her know you're here and she'll get your affairs handled."   "My thanks." The arrangement seemed a bit informal to Vance, but perhaps he had spent too much time in the Capital. The hunter walked down the indicated pathway to the rear of the inn, quickening his pace at the sound of strikes and impacts.   The fighting pit behind the lodge was a roughly ten foot circle dug two feet deep, where a young woman was beating her opponent into the dust while roughly thirty spectators cheered. There was an obvious mismatch in skill, as the man she was fighting was too slow to block any of the incoming elbow and knee strikes, and any return strikes were easily parried.   "Yield!" The man threw up his hands after being thrown to the ground. The woman grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. "You need to go easier on us, Lady Eudelind."   "Why?" The woman smiled widely. "All you have to do is get better." The crowd laughed, and the man gave an embarrassed grin as he climbed up out of the pit. "Any other challengers today? I'm not done training. You!" She spotted Vance. "A new face, and with a spear at your back. Come down and let's have a fight."   "Not in the business for fighting without pay, and I'm on paid duties." Vance folded his arms. "You're Eudelind, then?"   "I'm the District Commander of Erimia, and if I have to I'll order you to get down here. Bring your spear." She gestured to the crowd, whom upon closer inspection had a motley collection of half healed bruises and scrapes. "The longshoremen are good sport but none are trained fighters, and you have the look of one."   Vance sighed and dropped his pack. He'd have to fight in his traveling leathers. "A warning. I'm quite good." He jumped into the pit, spear overhead.   "Ooh, boastful." Eudelind had strapped on a pair of fighter's gauntlets and shinguards, leather with riveted steel plates, but was otherwise unarmored, in only a tunic and breeches. She taunted with her left hand. "Visitor gets the first shot."   Vance didn't take the bait and kept his spearhead low to the ground, circling Eudelind. He was significantly taller and had a longer reach than she did, but her specific style of unarmed combat was unfamiliar to him. He dropped low and attempted a sweep; she checked the strike immediately, his spear ringing off her shinguard. Vance rolled to the side; she had followed up her check with a spinning kick which grazed the top of his head.   "Interesting style. Your own?" Vance found himself retreating as Eudelind pressed the attack, parrying the jabs but unable to make room. She was *fast*, much faster than he anticipated, and he couldn't get his spear readied for a thrust.   "No. This is Freeport style Pugilism." She aimed a knee at the gut and Vance brought his spear to contact, with a sharp scraping noise as the spearhead gouged into her shinguard. Vance used the opportunity to lunge forward into a shoulder check; Eudelind rolled with the hit and stepped backwards into a three point stance. "You're the first real fight I've had since I've arrived here." She grinned and knocked her knuckles together, the steel plates echoing in the arena.   "Good to know." Vance planted his spearhead into the dirt and leaned forward.   "Tired already?" The woman feinted to the left on the approach. Vance yanked the spear out of the ground, flinging a spray of debris onto Eudelind's face. She ducked underneath and threw a low wheel kick, but Vance had already sidestepped to her blind side. He extended a quick thrust at her exposed neck. Eudelind twisted and slammed her fists together to catch the spear between her gauntlets, inches from her throat. Vance pressed forward, forcing the woman into the ground.   "Nice try, but your eyes betray your footwork." He shifted his rear hand to the butt of his spear, ready to drive it home. "Do I hear a yield?"   "You can get into a lot of trouble for killing a Commander of the Principality, you know." Eudelind's gaze was locked on the tip of the spear in front of her. "Yield."   Vance pulled his spear back and with a practiced motion looped it onto his back harness. He clasped his hands together and gave a quick, mocking bow. "A pleasant fight, Commander Eudelind." He offered a hand.   The woman snorted, pulling herself up and tossing her gauntlets aside with a grimace, but there was a twinkle in her eye. "I'll win the next bout. In any case, allow me to wash up and meet me at headquarters. We can get your paid duties handled there, and I would learn your name."   ---   Headquarters Erimia was little more than a single office with a single oak desk, overflowing with paperwork. The three travelers sat on small rattan chairs positioned haphazardly around the room, interspersed between discarded books, packed boxes, and general clutter. Vance had the nagging urge to lean back, but these were the kind of chairs that would probably disintegrate if you looked at them funny.   The door banged open, and the fist-fighter from the pit stepped into the room, now wearing her official garb as an officer of the Principality, red waistcoat over black leggings, a belt slung over the shoulder and looped around the waist, brown braid topped with a pointed cap, inscribed with the Etoilean sun. She looked significantly more regal than she did in the arena; Vance stood by reflex, and Iocathe came to attention as well. Rathnait simply put a hand on her chin.   "Welcome to Erimia, travelers." She presented her insignia, the radiant golden sun of Etoile, but did not bow. "I am Selunn Eudelind, District Commander, and the voice of the Princeps."   "Vance Randell, Mercenary."   "Iocathe Black, Prime Cartographer."   Rathnait smiled. "You know who I am, Selunn."   With that, Eudelind pocketed her insignia and immediately grabbed Rathnait in a bear hug. She was smaller and shorter than Rathnait, but stronger, so Vance watched the trader get squeezed like a melon as Eudelind lifted her off the ground. "Ah, it's been soooo long! How *are* you doing, Rathnait?" She sounded like an excited schoolgirl.   "I'd be better if you weren't trying to force my breakfast out." The trader had a pained expression; Eudelind let go, and Rathnait patted her on the head. "How are you doing, kitten?"   "Kitten?" Iocathe cocked her head.   "We grew up as neighbors." Eudelind circled the desk and sat down, and motioned for the others to do the same. "Two little girls with dreams of the world, and now look at us," she grinned, "at the world's end!"   "That explains the name of the lodge." Vance relaxed a bit. Eudelind was a far cry from the stuffy bureaucrat he was expecting. "So how did you end up out here on the frontier?"   "You first." Eudelind leaned back into her chair, an ornate piece made with hardwood and velvet. "Our resupply power-sail only comes by three times a season, and you're off schedule. What are you doing here, other than delivering my mail? Much appreciated, I must note."   Iocathe frowned. "This is a Cartography expedition? We were told that Korr had reached out to you to open trade relations and establish formal first contact. We're the initial contact team." She blinked. "Didn't you request this?"   "No, nothing of the sort." Eudelind shuffled some of her paperwork. "This may be a bit embarrassing, but the last letter I sent to the Capital was a modification of my journal subscriptions some weeks ago. And the Korr?" She muttered. "They're the last group of frontier folk who would want to establish contact."   "Why is that?" Rathnait leaned forward. "We've done them no harm."   "We, the Principality of Etoile, representing the Princeps, haven't. But according to the archives here, they were victimized by pirates some time ago," she said, "Pirates that sailed in power-sails, who apparently claimed to be Principality representatives before looting one of their temples of its gold and jade." Eudelind sighed. "Word of that tale has spread among the other local villages, and it explains why this tradepost is so barren of activity. The men have little to do, the market is empty, and I've been reading the archive here, bored out of my wits. The situation isn't ideal."   "Pretending to represent Etoile is a remarkably dangerous game." Vance sat up, thoughtful. "The last thing any pirate should want to do is get marked for a punitive expedition."   Eudelind rested her head on her hands. "The other potentiality is that it was the Etoilean Navy itself."   "Unthinkable!" Rathnait had a taut expression. "That would be treason against the Princeps!"   "Only if anyone found any proof." Vance flexed his right hand. It felt a bit sore from the sparring earlier. "But who sent that message to the Capital, if it wasn't you? The locals?" He paused. "And you didn't tell us how you ended up out here."   Eudelind tossed her hat onto the desk. "Long story short? Rathnait, you remember that fool captain's son from the gala two years ago?" A nod. "He somehow lost most of his teeth after somehow finding himself doing something he shouldn't have been doing." Eudelind flicked her quill across her desk and scowled. "Of course, big scandal if that got out, since our families are such 'exemplars' of Etoilean nobility, so I got a nice promotion to District Commander. And wouldn't you know, I'm assigned somewhere where I can't make trouble, at least for a year or two."   "Exile, then."   She clicked her tongue. "Principality politics as usual, and to be honest some time out of the City is good for the constitution. As for your travels, the power linkage to the dock will be repaired by nightfall, and the supplies here are at your disposal. Rooms at the lodge will be allocated to you and your sail crew. Korr is a few days north of here along the eastern trim, and you'll likely find answers there, one way or another." Her expression lightened briefly. "This is so dramatic, isn't it! A team of adventurers sailing for secrets in dangerous waters. I wish I could come along!"   Rathnait laughed. "Hopefully we won't need two sets of hands to cave skulls in, Selunn. We're not here to pick a fight, just to take a look around."   "I know, I know, you can't solve everything with a fist. A pity. Vance." Eudelind gave him a stern look. "Keep these girls safe, will you? I don't like how this all feels."   "They hired the best. You've verified that yourself." Vance tried his best to give off an air of easy confidence. "There should be no threat out here in the frontier that the Mercenaries can't handle."   "Other than the Navy." Iocathe had a troubled look. "I'm not sure how to handle making first contact if the people in question don't want to be contacted. This is a novel situation."   Rathnait stood. "In the worst case, we pay tribute, get home safely, and report our findings. We have the full backing of the Principality, and the locals will be accomodating one way or the other."   "'One way or the other'? What do you mean by that, Rathnait?" Iocathe raised her voice. "Surely we're not already at the point of threats?"   "Stop." Vance held his hands out. "Do you two mind if we actually visit the place before we decide anything?"   ---   Korr was a small coastal village and the moored power-sail was easily visible on the horizon, so there was a group assembled on the rocky shoreline waiting to greet the landing launch. Their island was one of the larger in this part of the archipelago, according to Iocathe, so she suggested landing on the other side and travelling on foot to try to be less conspicuous. Rathnait had vetoed that idea, as it would have meant slogging through miles of open beach or crossing a significantly sized mountain and its surrounding tropical forest.   "That's quite a crowd. I count at least fifteen." Rathnait handed her spyglass to Iocathe. "Anything out of the ordinary here?"   "Everything lines up with what we already know. Their dress is fascinating!" The men on the shore were wearing robes covered in ornate curving styles in vibrant primary colors, while the women's robes had cross hatch patterning. "Especially strange given the humid climate."   "I don't see any weapons." Vance squinted, hand blocking the sun. "They look friendly enough." One of the men on the beach waved as the launch got closer, and Vance waved back, causing the boat to rock a bit. Iocathe turned her head sharply and grabbed his arm.   "Don't do *anything* unless we know exactly what it means. For all we know, waving might be a sign of hostility!" The cartographer's brow was furrowed to a degree where Vance feared it was permanent. "Let me take lead on this. We have to tread lightly."   "They're people, Iocathe. Not some strange race of monsters." Rathnait waved as well. "Captain Kardu, how long will we have here?"   The captain stopped rowing for a moment and frowned. "We'll be moored offshore for eight days. Flag us for pickup anytime from now till then and we'll return to Erimia to recharge the flywheel." He gave a dubious look at the shore. "If things go poorly, what's the course of action?"   Rathnait reached into the pocket of her coat. "If we're not on the shore for a pickup in eight days, return to the Capital and file this with the cartographers." The trader handed the Captain a folded note. "Everything that the Principality needs to know is here."   "Understood. Good luck, then." Captain Kardu pulled the oars with a last great heave, and the bottom of the launch scraped against the loose pebbles. Vance climbed out of the boat to give it a push onto the shore, and the launch shuddered to a halt on the rocky beach. Iocathe and Rathnait stepped off the boat to greet the approaching locals, while Vance and Kardu moved their bags off the launch.   Two of the Korr stepped forward. The larger of the two was an imposing man with a full and shaggy beard that made him look somewhat bestial. The other was a woman, of height with the man but younger and rail thin, as though she would fall in a breeze. One of her eyes was a pale milky white; she was blind in the left.   Iocathe bowed deeply. "Greetings to you from Etoile. Aho. K'ian. Talissm. Oriadle." Vance recognized the second as a greeting in Old Askri, but the other words remained foreign. Not receiving a response, the cartographer continued. "Illadh. Deemis alar. Rassafil rrhakirre." Rathnait raised an eyebrow.   "Hold. I and others speak some Etoilean, though your language ability is...good? No, impressive." His accent was thick, and his sentences ran together. He raised a hand, palm outward. "A greetings, woman of Etoile, I am Urrthus, a fisherman of Korr, and this is my wife, Sphira." He clasped his hands behind his back and nodded. "We would like to welcome you to our small village, but what is your reason for being here?"   Iocathe bowed again, deeper than before, her curls touching the rocks. "Thank you for receiving us, Lord Urrthus. I am Iocathe Black, a Cartographer of Etoile, and these are my companions. The Principality had received a message stating that Korr wished to open trade relations. We hope to learn more about each other and establish a trade to our mutual benefit." Vance watched Urrthus intently, but he betrayed no emotion. "Before we continue, however, we would like to know if that message truly represents the intent of your people. If Korr remains closed to us, we will leave at once."   The villagers behind Urrthus exchanged whispers. Their leader scratched his beard, but Sphira spoke up in a thin, lilting voice. "Your arrival makes a.....problem, for us, as we cannot give an answer and know that it is the will of all of our people." Urrthus nodded, and turned to the other Korr as she continued. "Yet we will open Korr to you and yours and share our food and hearth, as honored guests, while we explain this...issue further. Agreed?" The villagers murmured their assent.   "The honor is ours, Lady Sphira." Iocathe smiled.   "Sphira, if you would. We do not use your titles." She turned to Vance. "A question. Is it custom that the men of Etoile are always so well armed? Your warbow is no hunting tool, and you wear heavy armor for this heat."   Vance shook his head. "I'm a hired guard, bonded by contract. If necessary I will disarm myself." He unbuckled his harness and handed his weapon belt to Kardu.   Urrthus turned back and nodded. "You may keep the sheath knives under your vest but it would be best if you did not bear weapons openly during your visit. Now, if you would follow, I would bring you to Korr. You must have had a long journey from your great Cities."   Rathnait gave a slight smile. "It has been some distance, Urrthus. Captain, go ahead, we'll see you in eight days."   ---   Within the borders of the Principality, Korr would have been little more than a quaint seaside village, with its shell-studded walls and lines of drying fish swaying in the breeze. The people were far louder though, and the children were everywhere -- packs of them running back and forth, screaming and yelling and getting underfoot of the procession in their excitement. Iocathe had her eyes wide open and was frantically scribbling notes as she walked.   "Is it like this every day?" Rathnait reached into the pocket of her coat and held out some candies. The children snatched at them greedily before sprinting away. She watched them warmly as they chased each other.   "We told them to stay inside the gates after sighting your ship, otherwise they would be in the fields or woods playing. But as long as you are here, they will beg you for more sweets." Urrthus led the train past a row of small homes made of kiln-fired clay and into a small market area. Most of the local adults looked friendly enough, but a few turned away when Vance made eye contact. A group of women were in a circle around a fruit stall, feeling them with their hands while talking. Urrthus approached one of the women, exchanged some words, and grabbed a number of bluish fruit, the size of a common peach.   "We get...harvest these from an island just north of here, they do not grow in other places. Dimisteen, in our tongue, this is roughly 'blue gem' in your language. Have a taste." Urrthus offered one to Vance. A warm, sharp citrus flavor, coupled with a cloying sweet aftertaste.   Rathnait chewed with a thoughtful expression. "There are similar fruits to be found at some of the outer tradeposts, but these are significantly larger." She brushed her mouth with her kerchief and reached for her trader's bag. "What do these cost in your market?"   "We do not use money as you do." Sphira was walking ahead. "Ours is simply the trade of goods in kind, and all such exchanges are made equal over time."   The trader blinked. "No currency of any sort? Your ledgers must be quite something indeed, to maintain those records."   Urrthus laughed. "We get along. Myself I think that no money means we are free from money. Our traders do not agree, but this is how we have lived for many seasons, and we have come to no harm." The procession had arrived at a wooden greathall, a two story building larger than any other in the village Vance had seen. Above its gate, a massive leather tapestry was pinned to the rafter, a intricate series of scuffed leather hides stitched together, each painted with a different design - a two headed boar, two fish circling, four hooks intertwined.   Urrthus paused at the gate and glanced up. "Ours is a town of families, and each of family bears a mark. Should the last of a family leave us, their mark is added here, so we may remember our roots. Does a likewise custom exist in Etoile?"   Iocathe shook her head. "Our houses of nobility bear a similar symbology, but we don't have a specific equivalent. This is beautiful!" She was rapidly sketching some of the designs.   "There will be some time for you to explore the town to your desire. Please, enter the hall." Urrthus pushed the gate open and stepped inside. The inside of the hall was bathed in the afternoon light, with a series of wood benches arranged around a central cooking pit. Some villagers were already present, and they stood as the entrants filed in.   "Urrthus. Sphira. So the meeting went well." The woman speaking was wearing an unpatterned robe in pure white. She put a hand to her chest. "Welcome to Korr, strangers." Her Etoilean was accented but precise.   "An honor." Iocathe sat on a bench in the center of the room, taking notes as quickly as she could. Rathnait and Vance sat next to her.   "We are all here? Assembled? Let us begin." Urrthus clapped his hands, and a number of people left the room, leaving only the three travelers, Urrthus, Sphira, and three women in white robes sitting around the cookpot. Sphira reached for the cookpot and spooned out eight bowls of a brown broth, passing them around the benches. Vance stirred his bowl. It was a hearty brown beef stew, with floating carrot chunks and sprinkled with cilantro. He ate a mouthful.   "Saumann spices? This is delicious!" Vance dug in with gusto. The spice of the broth was tempered by the thick meaty flavor from the beef, which had been softened to the point where it disintegrated in the mouth.   Rathnait put her bowl down. "Not Saumann spices, they cut the tongue deeper, but likely related. Don't look like a pig, Randell, we're supposed to be dignified." She sat ramrod straight on the bench. "Thank you for sharing your food with us."   "Under one roof and from one pot we share life with each other." Urrthus finished his bowl solemnly and stood. "Now that we have had a meal, I would greet you with respect, I am Urrthus, chosen to be the leader of my people. My wife, who cooked this meal, Sphira." She gave a bow. "Moira, our spirit guide, twenty and six in that lineage." The tallest of the three women in white nodded. "Rivan, her student." Rivan looked up but refused to make eye contact. "And Lodia, an acolyte." The hooded girl made no move.   Urrthus continued. "Decisions in our village are made by the shared voices of all, and I can no more order anyone here than they could order me. Yet, ours are the voices many listen to, and we with respect welcome you to our community. If we could get your names?"   The three stood at once and pulled out their insignia in unison, bowing.   "Iocathe Black, Prime Cartographer of the Etoilean Cartographer's Guild."   "Rathnait of the noble House Numio, Master Trader and Officer of the Principality of Etoile."   "Vance Randell, Mercenary Guildmember of the first rank."   "A mercenary?" Sphira cocked her head. "So you are only here then for the promise of coin?"   "A simplification, but yes. We sell our martial talents in service to those willing to pay." Vance felt strange explaining the purpose of his Guild. "Our contracts are vetted and approved by the Principality."   "Barbarous." Moira murmured. "This may sound of offense, but such an idea is evil. To kill out of lust for gold. What prevents you from being bought again, to slay your master for additional coin?"   Vance spoke carefully. "Contracts that demand crimes are themselves crimes and invalid. We're not simple murderers or robbers, we usually protect from such. Mostly our contracts are guardwork or hunting down bandits."   "Still, you would not be here if it were not for the money. Am I correct?" Moira had a sharp gleam in her eyes. "If these two women did not have the means to pay you, they would have arrived here without a defender."   "Hopefully there's nothing here that requires them to be defended, is there? Skill at arms is a skill of value, and it rightly commands a price from those who require service." Vance matched Moira's gaze.   Sphira nodded. "Enough. We are not here to talk about the good or evil of money." She turned to Iocathe. "We are here because someone sent a message to your Etoile saying that we were now open to trade. Now that you have arrived, we must figure out who sent that message, and what we can do to fix this problem."   "Easy to answer. It was me." Urrthus had a tired expression, while the other three Korr spun to him.   Moira leapt to her feet. "Why would you contact them? Our affairs are our own! What would we possibly have to gain, compared to what we would lose?"   "Calm yourself, Moira. I am sure Urrthus can explain." Sphira turned to her husband. "Am I correct?"   Urrthus leaned back on the bench, arms folded and eyes closed. "Moira, the loss of the Temple of Mezic was how long ago?"   "Sixty-eight seasons ago." Seventeen years. "I remember it as though it were last season, and I would be shocked if you did not."   "I do." He scratched his beard. "Yet it is time we move past it. The Etoileans will come again, sooner rather than later, and I would much rather work with the ones that speak with word and coin than the ones that speak by sword and arrow. The world is changing, we must change with it."   Iocathe frowned. "The record keeper for this area informed us that you were victim of a pirate attack. If so, on behalf of Etoile I would like to apologize."   "Not pirates." Rivan spoke for the first time. "I have visited some of your trade posts. Those ships were your military vessels, the ones with the rotating towers."   A siege-sail with launcher turret. "So it was the Navy." Rathnait muttered. "But why? Why would the Principality attack you here?"   "I would answer that as well. One of your ships wrecked not too far away around that time. The ship's plate said 'Windhaven'." Urrthus gestured vaguely westward. "A large ship, carrying many people and cargo. We found bodies on the beach and some of the cargo, but when the Etoileans came they believed we had hidden some of it away, even after we returned what we found. They sacked our temple at that time and looted our relics when their search found nothing."   Rathnait had a dark expression. "With proof, this is treason. Political actions are under the sole purview of the Princeps, and attacking a non-Principality people and land is inherently political."   Iocathe shook her head. "Unless they were fool enough to leave obvious evidence behind, it would be our word against that of the Navy. We're not in a position to threaten the military, especially not on behalf of a foreign society." She looked troubled. "Needless to say, Urrthus, I and my cohort had no idea of this history and would like to extend our deepest apologies."   "Save those apologies, Etoilean." Moira stood. "There are sixteen emblems on our tapestry that were added after those events. I made them myself, and I will remember them until my own passing. Urrthus, we will discuss this later." She left the room with long strides, the other two white robes on her heels, though the hooded one tilted her head at Urrthus before departing.   Vance flexed his right hand. "Now I see why the situation's complex. Still, this is more than a simple request to trade, isn't it?" He glanced around the now-empty hall. "If trade in technology was your goal, you could have started trading at Erimia or the other outposts. Instead you extended your invitation directly to the capital. Why?"   Sphira spoke quietly. "We need your help."   Urrthus sighed. "My own apology for not being wholly truthful, but I had to speak without Moira or the others. I did send that message, and I wish to open trade, but you are here to stop a threat to our village." He paused, before speaking with a low voice. "Did you look at that third girl, Lodia?"   Rathnait narrowed her eyes. "I did. She does not resemble the rest of you."   Sphira nodded. "We found one alive from the Windhaven. A girl still swaddled, her mother drowned to keep her daughter above water. Now our own adopted daughter, though she is not aware." She exchanged a sad look with Urrthus. "And now, a faithful acolyte of Recol'taya, the spirit of prophecy."   Iocathe looked stunned. "You refused to give her up to the Navy, so they sacked your temple in response?"   Urrthus gave her a hard look. "We would have returned her to her parents, had they survived, but the Etoileans that did appear were, violent, and not open to conversation. Keeping her was no mistake."   Vance spoke with unease. "I doubt the Navy was aware of her existence. Everyone else was dead, why wouldn't the baby have been drowned or eaten by a Nautilus? My guess is it was pretext -- the attack on the temple was likely inevitable once some greedy whoreson of a Captain saw the gold."   "Hold on a second." Rathnait cocked her head. "How is she not aware of her heritage? Surely she has realized she looks different from everyone here. Forgive me for saying this, but your face marks you as from the frontier as easily as my face marks me as Etoilean."   "She has never seen an Etoilean, before the three of you." Urrthus stared at his hands. "She must have doubt now, but that was my intent. Her presence, now that she has come of age, is a major problem for us, as she can no longer simply be hidden away." He looked up. "At some time, an Etoilean would have arrived, and as soon as she was seen, questions would arise, yes?" He spread his hands outward. "Why a young, blind woman of your Principality was seen amongst the savages of a small island village."   Iocathe shook her head violently. "It is not our custom to consider any of you savage. The First Princeps decreed that no one was above any other in any imagined hierarchy."   "Ah, of course, which is why your First Princeps ate in the common halls with your laborers and beggars." Urrthus gave a sad smile. "We know of the news in the 'frontier', and we know that your Principality has been growing ever further, moving from island to island, taking villages and their peoples, bringing your laws and soldiers to bear."   "I've heard nothing of this." Rathnait crossed her arms. "Even if that were the case, what would you have to lose? Power makes life easier, and our science cures diseases previously thought mortal. The Principality has no interest in destroying local traditions."   Sphira raised a sleeve of her patterned robe. "Our clothing is an example. The clothing you wear is made with machines, correct? I have been told this by visitors from other villages." She swept her arm forward, casting the cloth of the sleeve over her knee. "In our custom, the parents of each person weave their clothes for them by hand until their passing, and we weave for our children in turn, mending and repairing. A slow process that fills the days, but each of our robes tells a story passed through the families and ages, written with the hopes of our people." She clasped her hands forward. "Now, the day comes and your machine clothing arrives. Would any young man or woman of the village mend the robes of their forebears?"   She looked at Rathnait, her right eye clear. "Moira wishes fight. She wishes to protect our custom no matter the cost, but she and her followers do not understand the strength of your Principality. My husband and I know that we cannot stop you. We wish to merely protect some aspect of Korr, so that we can survive once more of you come."   The group fell silent for a moment. The cooking fire had gone out, and the stew in the cookpot was forming a surface sheen. Vance looked up sharply. "You mentioned blind. She didn't seem blind to me as she was walking out."   Urrthus looked at his feet. "Our daughter is an acolyte of Recol'taya, and upon the next brightmoon she will gain her true vision." He closed his eyes. "It is our belief that when Recol'taya sees a woman give up her eyes, she will embrace the sacrifice, and share her sight. Through those visions we will see the future." He opened his eyes again. "My own wife was an acolyte until her ceremony failed."   Vance flexed his hand again. "You don't believe in it."   "No." Sphira turned her good eye to him. "It is an old custom and no more than that."   Rathnait had a grim expression. "I can see the rags back home. 'Etoilean girl maimed by frontier tribe'. The journals do enjoy their scandals." She held her palm out. "So, we're here. You've called us. I'm more than happy to discuss trade to our mutual benefit, and far be it for me to be the one to trample your ways, but this problem seems out of our ability to handle. We cannot stop others of the Principality from deciding to pay a visit, nor would we be able to successfully petition the Princeps."   "Yes." Urrthus paused, looking at the rafters. "There is only one thing you can do. Take Lodia away from here, before the ceremony, with her eyes whole. And as far away as possible. Her being here is cause for Principality takeover, and she will not be safe here."   "No." Iocathe snapped instantly. "The first thing Etoile does here cannot be a kidnapping!"   Vance spoke slowly. "It's a straightforward solution that eliminates the immediate danger. A simple plan, if she's agreeable."   Iocathe turned to Vance with a snarl. "You're talking about taking a family's *daughter* away from them! A community's religious symbol. And presumably against her will and that of their religion. What would you know of this, mercenary?" She dropped her voice. "In the Principality this would be an enormous crime. We will not simply do as we please because we are on the frontier. Our law underpins our civilization."   "It is no small thing for us to ask, as our daughter is not willing, most like." Sphira went to her feet. "There is a bunk house on the edge of town where travellers may stay the night. Tell none of the other villagers of this, if you would be kind, and let us talk again in a day or two once you have had time to think."   ---   The next day was a gloomy one. Iocathe had gone to map and draw the village, and Rathnait went to talk to the villagers about spice and trade, leaving Vance alone with his thoughts. The locals gave him a wide berth as he ambled around the perimeter of the village.   The cartographer was correct in many ways. There was no reason that they wouldn't still be bound by the law of the Principality, and they had no obligation to act in any interest other than that of Etoile. It wasn't their responsibility if the Korr decided to take up arms, and it especially wasn't his responsibility, as he was only here to provide security, no more than that. Moreover, even if events did occur the way Urrthus feared, why would they need to take action? Surely Urrthus could have simply spirited the girl out of the village at some point. Vance walked past a collection of barrels, filled to the brim with dried fish and harvested seaweed. That was the question at hand. There was still a missing piece - something that had kept the girl's parents from taking action themselves. There was something that required Etoileans, in specific, to save the village.   "Mercenary." Vance looked up. Moira was sitting on a chair against the wall of a small crafter's hut, threading together a shoe. She stood, leaving the needlework on her seat. "Randell, I mean. Apologies for my curtness." She bowed her head slightly.   Vance nodded. "Did you have business with me?"   The woman looked stung by his cool tone. "As I mentioned yesterday, I did not mean to give offense." Her expression softened. "I fear I may have been a bit hostile, but rest assured that I bear neither you or your companions ill will."   "No offense was taken." Vance considered his words for a moment. "Urrthus told us a little of your goddess, Recol'taya, but I was wondering if you could explain her further."   "Not a goddess, a spirit, and easily the most important of them. No doubt Urrthus tried to explain her as best he could. Walk with me." Moira picked up her needlework and started for the village gate, with Vance in tow behind her white robes. "What do you believe about the nature of your life? Or, rather, most Etoileans? The question of where we came from, why we're here, what happens after we pass?"   "So uh, personally, I don't really think about it, but it's hard for me to speak for the entirety of my people." Vance scratched his chin. "The question of the origin of people is being researched, but there are many who keep the ways of their forebears. Myths such as the Separation, or the Shrinekeepers and the Gods they allude to. Nothing I personally believe in. My best answer for what happens after we die is that I have no idea, and it won't concern me as I'll be dead."   "Not an unexpected answer." They passed through the northern gate, on a well trodden path leading into the rainforest. "It is sad to me. If the entirety of the world can be explained through study, and you simply ignore what cannot be explained, then there appears to be no room for wonder."   "You sound like the Grand Philosopher we have back at the Etoilean Academy. He goes on at length on these topics. Me, I'm just a hired spear, so I don't think too much about this sort of thing." The trail meandered through the forest floor next to a stream, with the pathway showing signs of being regularly cleared. "Where are we going?"   "The Shrine of Recol'taya. I believe it would be better to discuss her there." Moira stepped over a creeping vine. "The faith of Korr does not claim to provide the answers to my earlier questions, but it does try to maintain the wondrous nature of what we see around us. It is our belief that accepting the vastness of existence will humble even the proudest man."   "That's a pretty strange belief system, if it also has a spirit of prophecy." The hunter ducked a low branch. "Wouldn't the unknown of the future present the most wonder, under your rules?" He could hear a muffled voice through the trees, singing.   "It continues to do so. Prophecy is imprecise by its nature, and all of the spirits of the world revel in being fickle." The path they were on opened into a clearing. A small waterfall burbled across the way, with its waters encircling a patch of ground covered in white and yellow flowers. The flowing water lent its backdrop to the song.  
Ard nummien crratubria terbi
ispir allt carrtikio
sllemp fliu srens emptorrhis
illyam o'sn negait
  A stonework altar was placed in the middle of the flower field, simple and unadorned, surrounded by flat rock seats, under a woven net of vines. The vines overhead had been tied and pinned together to form a near solid canopy over the clearing, casting the altar in shade. A girl in white robes was singing in front of the altar; she turned at the voices. She was blindfolded.   "Lodia. How goes the preparation." Moira cupped the girl's face, picking dirt off of the blindfold. "Cho'rrian akthei."   "Menos rhrila." The girl turned her head. "Is one of the Etoileans here?" Her Etoilean had the barest hint of a trader's accent.   "Yes. He wished to learn more about Recol'taya, so I thought it best he converse with her acolyte." Moira took a seat. "Ask what you wish to know, Randell."   Even knowing that Lodia was Etoilean, Vance was unprepared at how little she resembled the others of Korr. All of the locals he had seen were light of complexion and hair. This girl had the olive tones and sharp face of an Etoilean of the Capital. "Good afternoon, Acolyte Lodia. Who is Recol'taya?"   The girl nodded. "She is the spirit of prophecy, the queen of the natural spirits, and she who tends the gardens of the future."   "Natural spirits?" Vance flexed his hand again. "What do you mean by that?"   The girl gestured to the rainforest. "All of the world is imbued with the spirit of that which composes their essence. The jungle, the spirit of unending growth, life, sustenance." A finger upward. "The sky, the spirit of the wind and the change it brings, and the bringer of pure water." A finger down. "The earth, the spirit that resists change, life's cradle, and to which life returns." She pointed at Vance. "You and I are spirits as well, the spirit of thought, of creation and destruction, merely present in human form for the short period of our lives before we return to the earth. And above it all is the spirit of the future, fate woven and ordained, she who we name Recol'taya in our arrogance."   "Iocathe would have a field day with this." Vance muttered. "Urrthus told me a bit of the ceremony. Why would Recol'taya demand your eyes?"   Moira sighed. "Urrthus is a good man, but at heart he is a simple fisherman and no great thinker. You have arrived in our village seeking trade, correct? Everything works in the same way."   "All spirits demand exchange." Lodia placed her fingers on her blindfold, above her eyes. "The spirit of the jungle demands earth and water for life. Life exchanges air and water, and creates thought and idea. The thought and idea is sustenance for the spirit of the future."   "Okay. I'm not quite following. If the spirit of the future needs thoughts to create that future, why does she then need eyes?" said Vance.   "The thoughts form the future, but it remains veiled until it washes over us as the tides. But foresight can be had early, with a trade." Lodia bowed her head. "In times of need, the faithful of Korr will volunteer their sight, to bear vision onto a true prophecy and foretell the future as Recol'taya would speak." She tilted her head up; despite the blindfold she seemed to be looking directly at Vance. "Did you know that your arrival was foretold?"   "No." Vance said. "Although, was this before or after Urrthus sent his message?"   The girl smiled at that. "Three seasons ago, prior to the passing of the old acolyte. A man and two women, arriving on our shores, with packs glittering with wealth but behind them the bright sun of Etoile, in front of a red sword of conquest. That is what she saw in her vision, and it requires little interpretation." She turned back to the altar. "I know that you bear us no ill-will, but your arrival signals our end. Our faith will fall as the old Temple did, and your cold and unfeeling machines will take its place. Only the next prophecy that I will read can tell us how to achieve victory in the face of this fate."   A true believer, then. Vance spoke quietly. "Lodia. Are you aware that you are an Etoilean?"   Moira cut in sharply and stood. "She is no such thing!"   "I'm not a fool, Vance Randell." She turned and untied her blindfold. Green eyes. Capital nobility most likely, contrasting with the greys and blues of the Korr. She gave him a penetrating stare. "I knew as soon as I saw you enter the great hall. Still, Moira is correct. It is my faith and my choice that makes me what I am, not some simple accident of birth, so my eyes and my face ultimately mean little and less."   Moira grabbed Vance by the arm, leading him forcefully out of the clearing as Lodia tied her blindfold back on. "The acolyte must have time to prepare for the ritual. You have learned what you wanted, and it is time for you to finish whatever business you think you have in Korr."   ---   Vance sat crosslegged on the earth floor of the bunkhouse. It was midnight, or near enough, and none of them could sleep. The hunter had no mirth left. "Who was on the Windhaven?"   "We'd have to go back to the Capital to find the records. A power-sail, lost deep in East Saibh, seventeen years ago." Rathnait frowned as she leaned against a beam. "You are absolutely sure she had green eyes?"   "I've seen enough nobles," said Vance quietly, "and even though not every noble I've seen has green eyes, everyone with green eyes I've ever seen was a noble. No question about it."   "What difference does it make?" Iocathe sat against the side of her bunk. "Why should her nobility change anything? That's an awful sentiment."   "It matters because it ups the stakes, if she's a noble of one of the Foremost families." Rathnait crossed her arms. "There's no way she can stay. If news gets back to the Principality that a daughter of one of the Foremost had taken up with frontier savages? Do you realize the amount of wealth she would command? And how many idiot treasure-hunters or deluded patriots would try to steal her away, if for no reason than greed?"   "That must have been why the Navy attacked. They knew who was on that siege-sail and Captain Moron thought he had a golden ticket. If she was the last survivor of her House, as her 'rescuer', he could make a claim for guardianship." The trader exhaled sharply. "Our journey here was on public record. Anyone who knew of the circumstance those years ago will wonder why the Principality has now suddenly taken an interest in a closed off society. The Principality itself would be forced to act if the news became public, that 'frontier savages' blinded a stolen noble child to try to hide her green eyes. And the Korr are not likely to react peaceably given the last time Etoileans showed up."   Iocathe pulled her knees to her chest and spoke slowly. "I hate this. This was supposed to be a mission of journey and discovery, and now we're caught up in conspiracies." She rested her chin on her knees. "You make good points, but again, who are we to determine this girl's fate? We cannot kidnap her. We can't know if our actions wouldn't simply make things worse."   Vance put a hand to his forehead, exasperated. "Have either of you killed anyone?"   The cartographer shot him a look. "No, of course not, but we're not killing anyone here."   "No." Vance flexed his hand. "Let me tell you a story of my early days as a mercenary. I was of the third rank at the time, hired muscle on a job looking for a bandit group that had attacked caravans. We found them, flushed them out, their leader had dragged a woman out and was holding her hostage, threatening to kill her if he didn't get a horse to escape on. I had a shot lined up from his blind side. You've seen my warbow. One hundred thirty pound pull, enough to punch through a skull. I was the only one with a clear shot, since he held her as a human shield."   "I hesitated. I never killed anyone before. He cut the woman's throat, and I put my arrow through his neck, right under the skull. But when the time came, I did not act decisively, and a woman died without reason. Suffice to say that I don't believe that inaction is the wise choice in most circumstance." He made a sweeping gesture. "People here will die fighting Etoile if we don't act."   Iocathe had a silent tear running down her left cheek, and her voice cracked. "We should never have come. Korr is doomed whatever we do." She blinked and wiped her face.   "Not necessarily." Rathnait ticked off her fingers. "We can take command of this fiasco. One, return the girl to the capital, explain her story, find her origins. Two, find the people who attacked this town and bring the justice of the Principality on them. Three, negotiate a trade deal that allows those here to maintain their ways as best they can. Improve the lives of the people here. The people here will be better off thanks to Etoilean trade."   The cartographer buried her head in her arms. "It's all lists and numbers to you, isn't it, Master Trader? What absolute arrogance. How sure we are that we can always make things better. As though we of Etoile stride the world and rain down our benevolence as gods." Iocathe looked at Vance. "What will you do, Randell? This discussion is academic unless you choose to act."   "I'm a simple mercenary, working your security. What I do is going to be your call." The hunter gave a tired smile in the moonlight. "Siegfried told me before we set out. 'Try not to think, it's outside our paygrade.' But I've just realized something, Iocathe. All three of us are high standing members of our guilds, correct?"   "What of it?" Iocathe tossed her insignia on the floor. "What good does it do?"   "Urrthus knew. Or at least he was able to guess, that she was someone of special import in the Principality. That's why he needed a diplomatic mission to do what he couldn't - return Lodia to Etoile. He knows little of Etoilean politics and knew that he would be unable to keep her from being used as a pawn, but that we could navigate the waters." Vance stood. "That's my hunch, at least."   The trader picked up Iocathe's insignia. "The danger to Korr will pass once we establish at the Capital that Lodia is who we think she is. She'll be able to return here as a Principality noblewoman in her own capacity and advocate for her interests, and I'm sure Eudelind would keep an eye on her." She held the chain out. "I believe with the three of us we can minimize the harm to Korr and establish a trade relationship on good terms. Anyone trying to steal her away or violate the terms of any agreement with Korr after the fact would be committing treason against the Princeps."   The cartographer took her insignia and rose to her feet. "This cold-blooded course of ours. I do not like it, but if you need me to voice agreement..." She turned to her bunk and sat with her back to the others. "As you will."   Rathnait gave Vance a look. "Do what needs to be done."   ---   The village was small enough that all Vance had to do was look for the white robes pinned to drying lines. The task was simple. Rathnait kept a bottle of ether handy, and Vance had a length of rope in his pack. The wooden window cover was easy to pry open with a sheath knife, and he slipped into the small one-room house silently. It was for naught; there was a candle lit, and two women were watching him bemusedly.   He awkwardly got to his feet. "Rivan. Lodia. This, uh, isn't what it seems."   "Is this a courtship ritual of Etoile, where the man breaks into the home of the woman and steals them away?" Rivan shook her head. "Get going, Lodia." It was only then that Vance noticed that Lodia was dressed and packed to travel, wearing a striped shawl over a leather overcoat, with a woven shoulder bag. "Vance Randell. Moira told us this would happen after your conversation at the shrine. She told me to sound an alarm as soon as you showed yourself." She sighed. "Lodia would have none of it. I will say this. If you allow any harm to befall Lodia, I swear upon the spirits of my ancestors and the earth that I will hunt you down to the end of your days. Not just on behalf of myself, but all of us in Korr." She choked up. "Keep her safe. We will sing for her return."   Vance turned to Lodia. She gave him an irritated look. "Are we going, Etoilean, or did you want to tie me up anyway?"   "What about your ritual?" Vance frowned. "Earlier today you were discussing the importance of prophecy, yet now you're willing to discard it?"   She pointed to her left eye. "There is something important about the way I look, correct? Something that shocked you to your bones, and made you resolve to steal into my home and take me away." She spoke without hesitation. "I know of the discussions. I have overheard Sphira and Moira debating deep into the night, moving my future as though I was simply a stone to be placed here or there. As soon as whatever mystery surrounding my birth is solved, I will return, having learned more of your Etoile, the better to defend Korr from it."   "You know that's impossible." Vance said. "Moira wouldn't accept you simply returning to the life of an acolyte. And the Principality would arrive as well. This village will change."   "Then I will be the master of that change, mercenary." Lodia regarded him coolly. "I love my family and all of Korr, but they are driven by fear, in the end. My father fears an attack. My mother fears for my life. Moira fears for our tradition. I fear for nothing." She opened the door of the house. "Let us go discover whatever is in store for my people."   ---   The docks at the Capital were always busy, so the Meridian had to wait an hour before being directed towards the farthest pier on the western side of the Grand Canal. Rathnait had her spyglass out as the power-sail pulled in to make charging contact. "Trouble. Got some people coming."   Three cloaked and hooded figures were walking up the pier. Vance kept a hand on his dagger's hilt. "Stay behind me. Attacking a Guild Mercenary in the Capital is a fool's move even in the best circumstances."   The power-sail latched onto the dockside clutch with a click, and a longshoreman laid a ramp to the deck. Vance stepped onto the pier in front of the first hooded figure and spoke with a sharp tone. "State your business with the Mercenary's Guild."   "This is the Meridian out of Erimia?" The shorter man gave a glance at the ship's plate.   "I would know why you have an interest, friend." The two flanking figures were tall and bulky, their cloaks were hiding armor and arms. Vance tensed his grip on his dagger.   "All of Etoile is my interest." The man lifted his hood and held out an insignia, the radiant sun of Etoile, in pure white. Constantine didn't look much like his portrait on the florin note, with his pinched nose and a scarred cheek. He grabbed Vance's shoulder. "No bowing or going to the knees. Not here."   "Princeps." Vance glanced around. Rathnait and Iocathe had overheard and remained standing. "An honor that you would grace us with your presence."   "Save it for a moment. You were part of the mission to Korr." A statement, not a question. "Those girls on the Meridian's deck as well. Cloaks on, hoods up, follow me to the street. We can discuss in detail once we're at your guildhall." He turned and strode away.   The four travellers tailed the Princeps as he marched down the dock and past the main dockside warehouses. Vance noticed that other hooded figures were falling in step behind them as they walked. The harbor street was crowded with power-wagons, but a particularly large one was marked with the emblem of Etoile on its doors, and the guardsmen around it ensured that the surrounding space was empty. They climbed in.   "This is powered by the same mechanism as your ships, correct?" Lodia was looking all around the cabin of the power-wagon as it smoothly rolled down the street.   "It is." Constantine kept a neutral expression. "Not from around here, are you?"   "Merely visiting." Lodia gawked out the window. "There's so many people here. I never could have dreamed of this many."   "This is the Capital. Follow closely." The power-wagon slowed to a stop; the Mercenary's Guild was only a few minutes away from the harbor. Guardsmen wearing the Etoilean sun were already posted at the doors, rendering salutes as the Princeps strode through the entry hall and into a conference room.   The dimly lit room seemed ill-suited to host the most powerful person in the world, but that didn't stop the Princeps from pulling up a chair and sitting at the common table as though he were anyone else. The four travelers sat, facing him, while his guards stood watch. Constantine eased into a practiced slouch, the pose of one used to the exercise of power.   "Apologies for the cloak and dagger methods, but some events have transpired in Etoile while this mission was away and I dislike unnecessary risks. A group of Navy men tried to steal a power-sail. Under questioning, they admitted they were bound for Korr, but they claimed that they acted on their own initiative." Constantine had his fingers on the table, tapping a staccato. "Tell me what occurred at Korr."   Rathnait straightened. "Princeps, our arrival at Korr was met by the locals. We entered discussions about potential trade negotiations, and promised to return at a future date."   "...And?" Constantine folded his hands. "Speak. I must know what you have discovered."   Iocathe looked away. "We believe we've uncovered evidence of a crime. A Principality Navy Captain sacked and plundered one of the Korr temples seventeen years ago."   "Hrm." The Princeps seemed unsurprised. "I had archivists pore over everything we've ever done in that area of Saibh. In our records, it was a search and recovery operation prompted by the loss of the Windhaven, for any survivors of the House of L'Asair. The captain in charge recovered some cargo but no survivors."   Vance sighed. "So it was one of the Foremost. Princeps, there was a survivor. This is Lodia." He gestured to the acolyte.   The Princeps gave her a glance. "Lodia of L'Asair. Welcome back to Etoile. Can you verify that this search operation was in fact an attack on your community?"   "Yes." Lodia didn't seem at all intimidated. "The remains of the temple are still there, as well as the word of all of my people who bore witness to the events that day."   "No need." Constantine was casually dismissive. "I have the evidence I require. Seventeen years ago, questions were raised as to the sudden newfound wealth of Lord Numidine, and as to why the House of L'Asair in its entirety was on a single power-sail deep in the frontier. Circumstantial evidence it all is, but fortunately I am Princeps, and not a Magistrate. The man was a fool to draw my attention and will learn the consequences of his skullduggery shortly." Iocathe sucked in her breath at the implication. "Vance Randell." He turned his gaze. "The Principality of Etoile requires your service."   ---   It was night in the Etoile Capital City, and two men were standing on the roof of a building. One was holding a warbow and an arrow with a strange, bulbous head. The warbow had a contraption attached onto it with a lens and weighted swing. The other man was holding an arrow, wrapped in rags, and a small hand lantern.   "You can go downstairs if you want, Alistair." Vance raised his warbow. "I can handle this myself."   Alistair glanced around the rooftops, the light of his lantern dancing against the rotation of the rooftop power-shafts. "No doubt, but that's my long-range bowsight you're using. Last thing I want is for this to somehow come back to me."   "It won't." Vance drew; the sight's counterweight swung freely in the air, and Vance lined the lens up with his target. "Two hundred thirty feet to the estate, yes?"   "That's correct." Alistair closed his eyes. With a muffled whistle, Vance fired the arrow deep into the night sky. There was a crash; the fuel arrow had landed and scattered its load. Alistair lit his arrow before handing it to Vance. The hunter loosed the fire arrow. It traced a luminous arc in the night before landing, and a roar echoed as the flame made contact with the fuel. This was a special alchemic formulation meant to ignite and spread quickly, and the two men watched the column of black smoke rise against the flames. Panicked screaming echoed in the distance.   Vance lowered his bow and drew a note from his vest. "Lord-Captain Troyes Numidine, you have been chosen to die for the crime of conspiracy against House L'Asair and the Princeps of Etoile." He crumpled the note and patted Alistair on the shoulder. "Come on, we need to tell the girls that this is dealt with. Lodia wanted to visit her old estate tomorrow morning, but before that I wanted to try out that new restaurant near the Chanticler's for breakfast."


Author's Notes

This will likely be my entry into the Kyanite Fiction contest of Aug 2019, and I welcome all input and feedback.   Draft revision: 4

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11 Aug, 2019 13:14

I really had to put my political head on for that! I can see the amount of effort put into worldbuilding, and I love the lengths you have gone to with embroiling intrigue within this story, and the characters so clearly out of their depths having such a difficult decision to make that would have such a huge impact on their nation. Not only that, but you were able to communicate all that information mostly through clean, well thought out and organic dialogue - incredible!   My only feedback currently is perhaps a little more description on what the main 3 look like, the descriptions of their respective insignias were very well done but I had a hard time picturing how they dressed and what they looked like. I only say this because the story is so dialogue focused, so having a clear picture of the 3 would - at least in my mind - help me immerse myself into the world more.   I'll have to have another few reads through it to fully capture everything and get a 'lay of the land', but if this is your first draft then I will have plenty of chance to do so. Brilliant work!

11 Aug, 2019 20:02

Thank you so much for the input! I'll be sure to reciprocate for yours. I initially had some physical descriptors for the three but I cut them a bit too early. I'll be sure to revise with this in mind. Thanks!

4 Sep, 2019 03:04

Hello Travakh!   This was a wonderful read! I could really get into the setting, the characters had their own voice that made them interesting and well-developed, and I positively enjoyed the ending!   There was a couple of times where the worldbuilding was laid on a bit thick, mainly when Vance, Moira and Lodia are talking about Recol'taya. At the same time, this is a worldbuilding challenge and there is an understanding that you are showing off that worldbuilding, so you decide how you want to take that.   I also feel that Constantine got involved in this intrigue rather willingly and talked to Lodia very frankly. I don't know if you've explored the Princeps's character thoroughly enough on this, but is he this honest and open with everyone? Why didn't he work through an intermediary and therefore avoid being seen? I'm not very up-to-date on Creus, so maybe I am mistaken on this.   But honestly? Fantastic work, keep making it, I've liked and followed. Good luck with the rest of the challenge. Feel free to check my entry out as well, it's called It Eats At Our Table under Extras :)

4 Sep, 2019 03:34

Hi! Thanks for the feedback! I very much appreciate it. I intended the dialogue about Recol'taya to be a dose of romanticism that draws a contrast with the very enlightenment-rational mindsets of the characters from Etoile. I agree that it's pretty thick there, but hopefully it was interesting to read!   As for Constantine, I ran out of wordcount to describe him (and his article is very sparse; I can't update it till the summer camp challenge releases its article lock), but suffice to say that he's quite young for someone who rules the known world, he has some very big shoes to fill, and his getting involved in something that's relatively small-potatoes is a sign of a mindset that may come back to impact him going forward.   I'll definitely reciprocate very soon!