In the hilly plains north of Port-Odo, there is an army composed of forty-thousand soldiers, twenty-thousand peasants, and two thousand Templars. All of them armed with sword and shields, apart from the peasantry of course. Those soldiers from the most successful succession lines arbor chain-mails and helmets, very few have breastplates or full steel helmets.
The quality of their equipment varies wildly depending on their and their liege’s wealth. The tents are planted in rows and form a camp with four quarters, three belong to Dukes and Duchesses who are meant to defend the King who occupies the center.
The northernmost camp is that of Duchess Hetlan, a woman with a reputation for ruling her subjects with an iron fist, whether they be high or low born. It is organized in the same manner as the larger one, Counts and Countesses hold the circumference while her large tent was set in the very center.
It is a sign of Caeviel’s division that, even when part of the Kingdom’s very army, there are as many soldiers guarding the space in-between the various faction’s tents than there are to protect the camp from outside enemies.
The Templars planted their tents away from the larger army, very close to the enclosures erected to hold the army’s eight thousand horses. The exalted Order of legend stands apart for several reasons. First, to signify their independence and role as arbitrators.
Second, to be close to their all-important mounts who allow them to crush through whatever army opposes them. Third, because they aren’t popular among Nobility at the moment, ever since the Phalanxes that were on the way to Caeviel turned around and headed back south to the Lisilese border.
During the day, a good portion of the army works on cutting wood from a nearby forest to create rudimentary fortifications, each topping a hill on a line that runs east to west, one that should block what many call the ‘insect plague’ from venturing north.
Cenwalh sits on a wooden throne set in the middle of a huge, empty, tent. He has a cup of wine in his left hand, his golden crown hangs from the throne’s armrest, his right hand occasionally rubs his nascent beard. He appears calm on the exterior, almost bored, yet inside is turmoil.
He may be about to enter his elder years but his Royal line is comparatively young, his mother was Queen before him yet his grandfather was a simple Duke, about as powerful as Duchess Hetlan is today.
He has two daughters and three sons, all of them rather qualified to rule. Yet, he fears that none will be able to succeed him or that, if they do, they will sit on a throne weakened by Duchess Hetlan’s ambitions.
His closest allies and advisers have taken to ask him why he doesn’t use the Rykz Princess. Cenwalh does not know how the rumor that one is held in the institute got out or spread so quickly. He would suspect the Shades if not for the Emperor’s role in securing that being.
Cenwalh’s best guess is that the one responsible is Elizabeth Vil, the Red Dwarf. She has been described to him as a brute with little finesse. He does not believe that, no simple-minded fool would be able to do as much damage as that woman has in such a short amount of time. Elizabeth Vil has provoked unrest in every stratum of his Kingdom, from simple peasant to High Nobility.
His response, when asked why the Rykz Princess isn’t used, varies depending on who asks. To his advisers, he says that to do so without a fight would weaken the throne. To his allies, he tells that holding the Princess means that the Rykz are pressured to act, that it is to their advantage.
He tells the truth to no one. The dark truth he can no longer admit to anyone because it would be the end of House Cenwalh, sooner rather than later. He could have before, when he was stronger. Instead, he tried to twist it to help himself and made a deal with the Emperor.
The Court has not dared bring up the matter, yet. He could tell them of the deal he made with the Emperor but, by now, they are all aware of it. That deal, which was supposed to strengthen his position, has weakened his hold on power. Because he made the deal, his enemies now fear his ambition. Because the deal backfired, his allies now doubt his capability.
Suxen is at the root of it all. She promised results in years, or a decade, yet she hasn’t even delivered on the simplest portion of it, the data on Rykz flow distribution frequency. That very data that should have laid the foundation of his rise and repaid the Emperor’s help, isn’t anywhere near being delivered.
He cannot free the Princess. The Emperor would depose him through his own Court if he does so before delivering on the deal they made. Those who are too successful or not successful enough all fall.
Among King and Queens, none have great-grandfathers or great-grandmothers who were rulers. No house has held a Kingdom’s throne for more than three successive generations.
It is no coincidence. Cenwalh suspected so before. He knows so now, it is the only thing that makes sense. The Emperor cares not for internal strife, He never has. On the contrary, he encourages it between Nobility and peasantry, within Nobility itself.
If humans die, each individual becomes stronger in flow. Suxen told Cenwalh as much and he verified it through contacts in the University, at great expense. As long as the population of the Empire does not fall too low to field armies and hold the borders, Emperor Rasaec does not care how many die so that he remains in power.
The Emperor’s left hand has ensured for centuries that Nobility cannot grow strong enough to challenge Him. Assassination, rebellion, sedition, corruption. Cenwalh might have had the possibility to reveal such a truth when he was stronger, but it would have been the end of him, whether others believed him or not.
He knew that, once revealed, that truth could have sown the seeds of a rebellion against the Emperor… in the future. Cenwalh is not so altruistic as to sacrifice himself and House Cenwalh for the hope that Rasaec would be deposed, not unless one of his own were to rise in His stead.
An alliance between Kings and Queens is only possible when the whole of Nobility’s privilege is threatened. Otherwise, there is so much bad blood between Kingdoms that, if they tried to unite to save their thrones, they would be deposed by their own Courts long before they could pose a threat to Rasaec.
If threatening Rasaec would even be possible, He is more popular among the peasantry than their most benevolent lieges. The Templar Order is to thank for that. The Arbitrators. When they fail, the blame falls on Nobility, when they succeed, the fruits are reaped by the Emperor.
The Templar Order, through its duty to defend the population, evolved from which they originally were, the Emperor’s deadly right hand. Their duty has made them grow distant from the Emperor’s true nature. But that also means they have learned to despise Nobility as peasantry has.
A bitter laugh escapes Cenwalh. It all fell apart so quickly, he thinks. He had decades before him, during which Director Suxen would have strengthened his Kingdom. Yet, because of the Rykz and Elizabeth Vil, it all fell apart.
The data, and what the Emperor planned to do with it, was a guarantee that he and his line would remain on the throne. Now, it hangs over his head, if he delivers that data, he might barely hold onto his throne, if he doesn’t, it is over for him.
But, thankfully, regardless of Cenwalh’s success or failure, his House should be able to hang onto a Duchy as long as they appear strong, as long as they don’t fold to these insects invading them. Rasaec cannot purge an entire branch of Nobility without justification.
Cenwalh rises from his throne and starts pacing on the red carpet leading to it. A truce would be a start, he thinks. A shift to Caeviel’s political landscape would be another step. The Court needs to lose power, allies and enemies alike, he needs subjects to survive, not rivals.
The exiled Lady Edusa who he is considering receiving for an audience may provide that lifeline while the simple fact of hearing her is provocation enough for Duchess Hetlan to break away and rise in rebellion.
Cenwalh thinks little of that risk, there is no future for him unless he flips the game board. As the thought crosses his mind, he throws a glance at the sculpted Shah stone board set on a small oak table.
An arrogant smile shatters his gloomy outlook. He may be weakened but he can still crush a single Duchess, especially right now with the Duchess’ army outnumbered three to one by the rest of his subjects.
The Rykz are a threat that unites the Kingdom. What amuses Cenwalh is that Hetlan made the same mistake he has. She is the only one who dared ask for something in return for answering his call to arms, the contract to supply the Kingdom’s standing army with weapons and shields.
Her ambition unsettled her rivals and the fact that she hasn’t shared this newfound wealth with her allies, yet, means they look upon her with suspicion. Cenwalh knows that Duchess Hetlan is holding that carrot in reserve to reward those who show loyalty, she is too smart to do otherwise.
But her allies are too involved in the outcome to be certain of it, they fear she will hang onto it all and grow in strength until she stands so far above them that they fall to subjects rather than partners. That is an opening Cenwalh hadn’t found a way to use, at least until he received a cryptic message from Lady Edusa.
That Duchess has been eyeing his throne for the better part of a decade and this very moment, surrounded by his army and unable to defy him, she is weak, vulnerable. Cenwalh knows that the chance to take her out will disappear as soon as the war with the Rykz end.
But, like Rasaec, he cannot act without justification. It all depends on what this Lady Edusa can tell Cenwalh, what she can offer him. Cenwalh does not care about the consequences for meeting her, he has everything to gain by receiving her and little to lose apart from perhaps precipitating his fall by mere months.
Yet, he hesitates. The reason for that is Lady Edusa’s liege, Lady Leomi Lance who, according to every report, now holds power on Izla Meria. Cenwalh, in his arrogance, cannot consider that the Council is anything more than a tool for the Countess. A tool that buys her the population and the bourgeoisie’s hearts at little expense.
That woman who has tamed the Red Dwarf and managed to negotiate with the Rykz to preserve the island. Cenwalh waves the concern away. Whatever that Countess can offer this Lady Edusa, it is less than the Duchy he can offer. The fact that his spies in Izla Meria assured him that Lady Edusa is not one of Lady Lance’s lovers also reassures him.
Cenwalh frowns, a woman who sleeps with other women. It is a perversion according to him, but he cannot afford to hold onto what he thinks are sacred principles, the human species’ duty to grow and spread.
He already gave those up when he made a deal with Rasaec who covertly quells the Empire’s population through war and manipulation. And so, Cenwalh sits back down on his throne, he takes hold of the golden crown hanging from the armrest and sets it upon his head.
King Cenwalh lays his forearm where his crows hung, affecting a casual appearance, unaware of the arrogance he displays as he aims to look calm and in control regardless of circumstance. After all, he is a King and as such chosen by the Lake, if at a lesser degree than the Emperor.
He holds a belief in his heart, one he has held since he learned more and more of Rasaec’s century-spanning deception, one he held onto since he made his deal with Rasaec. The Fiery Lake helps those who help themselves, the only limit to the power one wields is one’s ability in seeking it out.
King Cenwalh accesses his reserve of flow, it is so large that he sometimes thinks of it as a lake in its own right as it holds two thousand times what a mere human would.
Not as much as what those Rykz Princesses are given by birth but the army whose oaths all lead to him allow him to increase his power thirty-fold if there is a need.
King Cenwalh has discovered that such power is fleeting, it informed his understanding of Emperor Rasaec’s pursuit for more personal access and gave him enough assurance to make the deal.
He shapes a sound construct and makes it ring out like a bell. His personal chamberlain, Richard, enters the wide tent a mere moment later. The old servant has white hair, a closely shaved white beard, and clothes embroidered with gold, fitting of his position at the King’s side.
“Bring Lady Edusa Hetlan to me, Richard, and activate the runic array when she enters, I do not wish this conversation to be spied on.” Cenwalh orders.
“Are you certain, my King?” Richard asks. “Lady Edusa and Lady Lance have proven to hold disruptive ideals to our Kingdom.”
“I’ve spent an hour considering it on your advice, old friend. My opinion remains unchanged, if the Court is to be used as a dagger to stab me in the back, then I shall remove the handle so that he or she who wishes to wield it against me injure themselves in the process.” Cenwalh explains.
There is another layer to Cenwalh’s reason for choosing this path. His path of action is one that Emperor Rasaec has demonstrated works. If this Lady Edusa provides him with justification, then he is going to elevate her and Lady Leomi Lance to the rank of Duchess, to his Court.
It amounts to creating strife in his ranks so that they are too busy fighting among themselves to challenge his power. And if there are any that the rest of the Nobility cannot accept, it is those who seek to place bounds on their power.
It is a gamble for him, but one that he cannot truly lose from his eminently precarious position. Cenwalh is arrogant in that he thinks it unlikely for him to lose to Countess Lance and Lady Edusa but if, by some twist of Fate, he does, then the two are very likely to eventually strike at the Emperor in some way, fulfilling his revenge without endangering his House.
The largest benefit in making this move is that their ideals mean that Shades will be unable to pull their levers in the same way they have for the rest of Nobility. The idea that the rest of his Court could defeat the two if they are capable of overtaking him doesn’t even cross his mind.
Kind Cenwalh is torn out of his thoughts when Lady Edusa pushes the tent’s flap and walks in. He does not notice the chest that she leaves at the entrance, he only notices her beautiful curves which speak to the aging man who has lately only interacted with titled Nobles who, in his mind, are all out for his throne to some degree.
Her beauty speaks to the aging man, awakening youthful desires. She is wearing a dark green dress tightly wound around her body, matching the color of her eyes. There are no frills at the hems, like most Ladies like to ornate their Court clothes, and Lady Edusa wears no jewelry.
Cenwalh sees the simplicity of her clothes as another point in the exiled Lady’s favor. He infers from it that she is relatively poor, which he thinks is good, the lack of adornments on her person reveals Lady Edusa’s lack of understanding in how to play the Courtly game, which is what he seeks in this Shah pawn.
Here, he is King in full, receiving a supplicant that poses no threat to his position but is perhaps the instrument that can bring his salvation. His affected casual appearance has entirely faded from his posture, his chest has risen and his shoulders are squared.
Lady Edusa kneels in front of his throne, a dozen meters away as is proper. A naive but ravishing woman, Cenwalh thinks. He does not notice the slight slant in her posture, that of a warrior used to carry a sword at their side.
“My King.” Lady Edusa says.
“You can rise, Lady Edusa.” King Cenwalh declares. “Are you well?” He asks.
He gets up to her feet and makes a small curtsy before replying, bringing a smile to the King’s lips. He rubs his nascent beard and regrets pushing Richard away when he offered to shave him in the morning.
“I am, my King.” She replies. “I hope you are in good health.”
“Stronger than I’ve ever been.” Cenwalh smiles, peering down at her to sneak a look down at her discreet cleavage. “What brings such an alluring young Lady to set foot on a battlefield to request an audience with I?”
“Proof of deceit, my King.” Lady Edusa answers in a direct tone.
Cenwalh’s smile widens into a grin, overjoyed that he didn’t misread her reasons to request an audience. But he laughs loudly instead of jumping on the revelation.
“Who would be so foolish as to deceive their King?” He asks.
“My Mother, Duchess Hetlan, my King.” Lady Edusa replies.
Cenwalh rises from his throne and walks up to the young Lady. He faces her with his full height despite the small pains in his back from remaining seated a large part of his life.
“Quite an accusation. Is this revenge for your exile?” He asks.
“She exiled me for my success and popularity, my King. Because she knew I would stand with her when she defied you and that the population would stand alongside me.” Lady Edusa explains. “It is my duty to report what I’ve found to you, my King.”
Cenwalh notices that she has avoided answering the question but does not care as it is quite obvious the young Lady seeks some form of revenge. He pushes his desires aside and focuses himself on the matter.
“Where is the proof?” He asks.
“In the chest.” She replies.
“Fetch it for me.” He orders.
Lady Edusa nods and makes her way to the entrance, she picks up the chest with some effort. Cenwalh already knows it contains all manners of weapons and military equipment, that she is using a strengthening construct to be able to lift it.
He allowed her to bring it inside his tent because, even if it defies protocol, he is in no danger in here. His own Court put together, without their armies of course, would be hard-pressed to defeat the defenses protecting him.
“This chest was taken from Duchess Hetlan’s supply convoy, her personal reserve if you will my King. Our crest is plainly visible on the outside.” Lady Edusa declares, opening it wide.
“You could have arranged this in an attempt to deceive me.” Cenwalh notes.
“There are carts full of them, my King. She forged these in secret, stockpiled weapons as she lied about the output of our mines up north. She cheated on the taxes she owed Caeviel and is hiding weapons we desperately need to preserve her forces while we bleed.” Lady Edusa appeals.
Cenwalh reads how desperate the young woman is to convince him. He is counting on how thankful she will be to him, personally, to secure some degree of loyalty when he agrees to her request.
“And you guarantee that I will find more of those were I to look.” Cenwalh says, leading her on.
“I do, my King. Dozens of these containing helmets, swords, and even chain-mails. Undeniable proof of treason.” Edusa affirms.
“It was indeed rather odd that the Duchess’ entire fleet sailed south.” Cenwalh ponders.
He thinks that he should have seen through this but he has been preoccupied between the Rykz and the Emperor’s message that came along with his Due. The tone was unmistakably threatening, holding him responsible for the leaks that allowed the Rykz to find out where their Princess was taken.
Cenwalh recalls that the barges even remained anchored in Meiridin, perhaps because the Duchess needed her sailors to remain in the capital, to scout the defenses so that she can strike as soon as the Rykz are dealt with and his subjects’ armies disperse.
King Cenwalh thinks that, if that is her plan, the Templars will be mysteriously sent to another corner of the Kingdom, likely on Izla Meria on pretense of restoring order.
Of course, Cenwalh chuckles, once it is over, Duchess Hetlan will make proper apologies for defending herself against my attack. It will be a bold-faced lie considering that she will be the one assaulting Meiridin but one that will pass if she demonstrates proper contrition when chastized.
“What do you request of I, young Lady Edusa?” King Cenwalh asks.