Cale was happy to be out of his riding breeches. The ceremonial legwear had been all fine and good while he was standing and walking around at the King’s Ball, but after a night in the dungeon, he was glad to be back into a pair of jeans.
The experience had left him bitter, sore and tired. His wrists had been rubbed raw from the tight manacles that chained him to the wall, his ass had gone numb in the first hour (he was still trying to get the feeling back), and he hadn’t been fed. At all. It certainly left something to be desired from the Halish justice system.
But still, he was free, back at the House of Roses and feeling much better. He was surprised to hear of Terra and Ryan’s ordeal through the night, but relieved to hear that Ryan would be fine. He even came to think of Terra in a new light, hearing of her daring escape from the assassin.
The last decree Nadus has made at Cale’s trial– the decree which awarded Cale a title for his troubles was what was foremost on his mind. The King hadn’t stayed long after that, and the details were sketchy, but from what Corpus had shared– it looked as though Cale would be receiving a deed to the estate once owned by Izon Dueck just outside of Arronay.
Cale wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He wasn’t the blue-blooded type, and he didn’t think himself fit to be an aristocrat, especially in a world he wasn’t born into. He understood the gesture, however. It was meant as an apology from Nadus to the way he’d been arrested, accused and promised an execution.
Now, the tables had turned. The trial had come and gone, and it was Izon Dueck, Glavius Sonora and Delora Ruus who had been arrested instead. Corpus had been told that Dueck and Sonora would be facing immediate execution, while Delora, being of foreign nobility, would be returned to Rasza with a list of charges and demands. How she would be treated upon her return was yet to be determined.
As fatigued as Cale was feeling, however, he felt a large stab of hope that they would be able to complete what they had come to Halen for. He checked his watch, now returned to him, and made sure he kept his gun close at hand. Whether he was in the King’s presence or not, he didn’t want to risk having the assassin sneaking up behind him again, and finishing the job.
He didn’t want it to happen to Terra or Ryan either.
Ryan had returned to the House of Roses soon after Cale’s return, looking a little sickly, but none the worse for wear. The kid seemed to spring back to full health after getting back. He merely spent some time in his room, changed into some nicer clothes, and by the time he got out, he was in top form.
Terra had been dozing off all afternoon, but even she had hit her second wind, and was very adamant about dining with the King. Even Corpus said that he would join them.
The door to his room opened quickly, and Cale stood, startled. He had reached for his sidearm, but relaxed when he saw that it was Erma, one of the House servants. She seemed just as startled to see him, and blushed furiously, looking to the ground.
“Terribly sorry, my Lord,” she said. “I had thought the room empty.”
Cale shrugged. “It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to call me Lord, you know. You can call me Cale.”
Erma wore a look of near revulsion, as if the very idea of calling him anything other than Sire, Lord or Master Shephard was an unheard of insult. She looked to the floor, nodded slightly and mumbled out another apology and put her hands into a large pouch on her apron. When she turned around, Cale instinctively reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Hold on,” he said. “What have you got in there?” She was acting somewhat suspicious, and Cale wanted to know why.
“Nothing, Sire,” she said. “I must go– father will be angry if–”
Cale spun her around and pushed her against the wall. She passively allowed it, but her eyes never left the floor. Cale examined her face closely. Erma was hiding something, and Cale had a feeling he knew what it was.
“You’re the one who took Ryan’s things, aren’t you?”
Erma’s face opened into surprise, and she looked up at Cale, her lower lip quivering. That look told Cale all he needed to know. He released her shoulder and let her stand free.
“Why?” Cale asked.
“Sire, I can’t–”
“You can,” Cale said. “And you will, or I’ll go to Ottom.”
“Sire, you don’t understand,” she said. “I was going to return them, just now. We only needed them to–”
“We?” Cale asked. “Girl, you’d better start making some sense.”
Erma sighed, then met Cale’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Sire,” she said. “But I was put to the task by my father.”
“And who’s your father?”
“Ottom Nighasty,” she said. “The Master of Servants.”
Cale blinked. Ottom had put her up to it? When Ryan had mentioned his things being stolen, Ottom had seemed adamant about finding out who was responsible. He seemed enraged that such an act could occur under his watchful eye. But he had put Erma up to it. He had put his daughter up to it.
“Why?” Cale asked.
Erma looked Cale dead in the eye. “We were set to watch over the Lady Nalya,” she explained. “We mean no harm, we merely wished to examine the devices for ourselves to verify that they pose no threat to her.”
“Ourselves?” Cale asked. “Who do you keep referring to?”
Erma sighed. “We’ve taken control of the House of Roses on behalf of the Cloudstalker Enclave, to watch over and protect the Lady.”
Cale was taken aback. He’d heard the name of the Enclave mentioned before, but always under hushed tones. All he really knew of the group was that they were a collection of warriors and spies loyal to the King.
“What does the Enclave want with Nalya?” Cale asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You’d better start talking,” Cale said. “Or I’m going straight to Ottom with this.”
“He’s likely to be ignorant of why we’re to watch over the Lady as well. All we know is that word came from the Zoar Enclave that she be protected at all costs while in Halen,” she said.
“The Zoar Enclave?”
Erma nodded. “Rasza’s Enclave,” she said. She cocked her head to one side. “Do you not know of the Enclaves?”
Cale shook his head. “No,” he said.
“I could not say how much is true,” she said. “But our histories say that six Enclaves were formed after the fall of Eventide, put in place by Rasshauer Flenn in order to protect the interests of the six nations and watch over the doings of the Council. Three Enclaves have been lost to us for years, but the Cloudstalker, the Zoar and the Antara Enclaves still operate, although Antara had separated themselves from the others nearly fifteen years ago now. They’ve perverted their interests to serve Cuerian and the Council.”
“Cuerian? Tammil Cuerian, that guy from Vector?”
Erma nodded. “Yes.”
“I thought he was Emperor,” Cale said. “He’s got masters?”
“Cuerian was not born into royalty,” Erma said. “He usurped it. Damas Cuerian, his father, was a kind man with a good heart. A member of the Antara Enclave, but he was killed some time ago. Since then, Cuerian had been running Antara as his own private army, using them to quell any dissidents within Vector. He ascended to the throne quickly, using the Enclave to perform his political assassinations, briberies and whatnot. The other Enclaves knew nothing of this until it became public that his rise to power took hold,” she said.
“So he’s just a puppet, then? A pawn?” Cale asked.
“In a fashion. He wants for the culmination of his master’s wishes. However, it’s hard to say exactly who his master is and what those wishes may be. Antara is guarded, and any who we’ve sent to infiltrate them have never returned.”
“So he’s using the Antara Enclave,” Cale said. “But who’s using him?”
Erma sighed. “It is forbidden for any of the Enclaves to take orders from foreign interests,” she said. “Unless they be one of the other Enclaves. But now, it’s only us Cloudstalkers and the Zoar. We can’t know where they receive their orders from, but we’re convinced that Shavi is the point of origin for these orders.”
“The High Magus Council?”
Erma shrugged. “It could be. Or it could be one of the lost Enclaves. Of six, only three are known.”
“So the other three, they’d be in Shavi and Caede, right?”
“And the third?”
“The Disputed Lands,” she said. “But it’s hard to say. Ever since the Freeman wars seven hundred years ago, that Enclave’s been lost.”
“And you stole Ryan’s things because..?”
“We needed to know if you or your people represented a threat. We’ve since determined that you’re not a threat to our Enclave, or Zoar. But you may still yet present yourself a threat to Antara.”
Cale thought about it for a moment. He released Erma, and she rubbed her shoulder.
“Take Ryan’s things back to him,” he said. “And no more thievery. If you guys want to know something, you ask. Understand?”
Erma nodded. “I’ll return his things at once,” she said. She looked up at Cale for a moment. “I have to ask that you not share what I’ve told you with Lady Nalya or the others. I can’t say why, but it’s of the utmost importance that she be unaware of our presence around her.”
“What about when Nadus sent her to the Disputed Lands?” Cale asked. “You were out of her range then, how could you have protected her?”
“The Enclave is never far from the Lady,” Erma said. “Always there is someone there to protect her. Whether she knows it or not, her safety is in our hands, even in the Disputed Lands.”
The King’s dining room was nestled high in the Palace, overlooking the city of Cilasia as it spread out below and led into the lake. It had taken them a while to climb the stairs. Ryan was at the top of his game, however, but the others started to get fatigued, even Corpus. That was bound to happen, as Ryan had inadvertently been the only one to get any sleep the night before.
As they walked in, the guards directed them to their seats, and they were afforded a nice view of the city. The walls were covered in banners and tapestries, all dedicated to the Hillbreaker line. Corpus had explained to Ryan how each tapestry told the story of a King or Queen of Halen, all down the Hillbreaker line to Nadus the First. However, much of the stories could only be guessed at through the images shown. Most texts from that period had disappeared or rotted away. Only the tapestries, lovingly cared for by servants and kings alike had survived all that time, but still their age showed through.
Before long, they had settled into their seats, and even Quick had learned he had a place at the King’s table, Nadus having been told of Quick’s brave effort gathering the proof they needed to oust Dueck and the others.
“Dueck’s been executed,” Corpus said, looking down over the city. He pointed at a small square below where a number of people had gathered together.
Ryan looked down to see a still shape being carried off of a large stone platform. It didn’t take him long to recognize that the figure they were carrying away was headless.
“Serves the bastard right,” Ryan said, narrowing his eyes and observing the large red stain that spread across the platform. “But I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it. I might have lost my lunch.”
“Lost your lunch?” Corpus asked. He thought about it for a moment. “Oh, I get it. You might have vomited?”
Ryan nodded. “We’re not used to seeing things like that.” He continued to watch as they pulled another figure up on the platform. He assumed it to be Sonora, but he couldn’t be sure from the distance.
“When’s Nadus getting here?” Terra asked. “I’m tired.”
“He’ll be along shortly, lass,” Bayne said. “Be patient.”
“I’ve been patient,” Terra said, rolling her eyes. “Now I’m anxious.”
The group settled into their seats, and after a short while Nadus strolled into the room, a wide smile on his face. Queen Arquina followed closely behind, and they took a seat.
“A Tyl at the King’s table,” Arquina said. “How the society will talk.”
“Bah, let them,” Nadus swore. “Be you man, Tyl or El’Dar, let it be known that King Nadus hails bravery!” He looked to Quick. “I understand we owe you a debt of gratitude, little one.”
Quick stood up, squeaked and saluted the King, inciting a chuckle from the man.
“Husband,” Arquina said. “Have you not something for the Lady Nalya?”
“Yes, yes,” Nadus said. “I haven’t forgotten.” He looked to Nalya and smiled. “With the help of you and your friends, we have ousted three conspirators from our midst. With that, I consider your service to Halen complete, and I award you with a title, recognized among all the lands of Halen.”
Nalya’s eyes widened and a wide smile began to play across her features.
“I’ve since decided also, that the House of Roses will from this moment forward pass into your hands. Delora’s being sent to the Raszan border as we speak, and she’s been warned that should she ever set foot in Halen again, she will be executed upon sight. As such, no Ruus may call the House of Roses their own. From hereforth, it is you that will decide its use,” he said. “Additionally, I would like to award Ryan and Terra as well, for their part in what took place. Glavius Sonora’s Manor shall pass into your hands, and all of his assets given over.”
“What?” Ryan exclaimed. “Wait. What does that mean?”
“It means you have all performed an invaluable service to Halen,” he said. “And as such you’re all now Lords and Ladies of Halen.” He looked to Bayne. “Sir Bayne, I would also like to thank you and Corpus for your part, but as I understand it, you’re of much the same attitude as Corpus at the idea of receiving a title.”
“Aye,” Bayne said. “I’ve no time for the trappings of nobility. Better a free poor man than a trapped rich one.”
“Very well,” Nadus said. “I can respect your wishes. Still, should you ever request it, a title will be waiting for you.”
“I appreciate it, Sire,” Bayne said.
“That being said, my wife has informed me of your plight with Vector, and I’ve decided that Halen will be giving you and those you come to represent our full support,” he said. “Only hours ago, I sent a runner to General Liass at Godri’s Gate. He’s to lead ten thousand men south into the Disputed Lands to assist in protecting your town against Ryde’s army.”
“Ten thousand!” Cale exclaimed. “You’re serious?”
Nadus nodded. “Of course. It may be a silly move, but I’ve sat in fear of the Council for far too long. I know this is not something they would wish for, but it would be difficult for them to impose upon me the title of Oathbreaker, especially considering the words of Dueck. Far too many would look upon that as proof of their inordinate influence over the workings of Halen. They would not risk it. But I see here, in you people, a chance to sway the will of the people against the Council. It’s something that I’ve for a long time felt needed doing. So, you have Halen’s full support in your campaign.”
“Our campaign?” Ryan asked. “What campaign? We only want to protect Dunsmith.”
“It’s much more complicated than that, I’m afraid. We cannot force Vector to leave the Disputed Lands unless your people stake a claim for it.”
“Wait, what are you saying?”
“The Disputed Lands have been without nation for so long, it’s strange to hear me say it.” He sighed, then looked to Ryan. “Dunsmith must lay claim to the lands, or Vector won’t stop their march northward.”
Cale blinked. “The whole nation?” he asked. “All of it?”
Nadus smiled. “From the borders of Halen to the borders of Vector,” he said. “Yes, it will all be yours, if you’ll have it.”
“Oh, Goose is going to shit himself,” Ryan said.
“The goose will what?” Nadus asked. Terra almost burst out laughing.
“No, no,” Ryan said. “Goose, he’s our… never mind.”
Nadus kept looking at Ryan for a moment, then shrugged and let it pass.
“Also,” he said. “I would like to immediately open trade relations with you, and I’m sending someone to act as ambassador between our two nations.”
“Who?” Terra asked.
“Why, the Lady Nalya of course,” he said. He looked over to Corpus. “And you shall be our trade negotiator.”
Nalya almost fell out of her chair. Corpus only nodded solemnly.
“Enough of that, then,” Nadus said. “Let us talk of Dunsmith. I’m most eager to hear of your advances with machines. I’ve heard much, and I’ve seen evidence of such wonders first hand. The camera device, for instance. How does it work?”
“I’m not really sure,” Cale said. “At least not with the newer cameras. It just takes what it sees and turns it into a digital image.”
“Digital?” Nadus asked.
“It’s hard to explain. It’s like… information coded in such a way that when it’s translated, it makes an image,” he said. “It’s still fairly new technology, even for us.”
“Wonderful,” Nadus said.
“Lady Terra, I’m most interested in your style of fashion. Last night you wore an intriguing dress. Is that to be expected from Dunsmith?” Arquina asked.
“I dunno,” she said. “I guess so.”
“Terra’s style of fashion is unique, even in Dunsmith, your Highness,” Ryan said.
“Nonetheless, the colors are wonderful,” she said, gesturing to the small plastic bracelets on her arm. “Not gold or silver, but they each shine in their own way. You announce your very presence, yet you’re humble about it. The way you all dress seems to confuse us. For instance, Lord Shephard. You wore a uniform last night, which is commendable, but surely such a uniform is awkward when performing your duties.”
“Well, it’s actually a dress uniform,” Cale explained. “Although we did used to wear these back when we were on horseback most of the day.”
“I would think that a Mounted Police officer would… have a mount, is that not so?” Nadus asked.
“Well, we found a more efficient means of transportation and started to phase horses out,” he said.
“A more efficient means? Do tell.”
“Automobiles,” he said. “Cars. They run on four wheels, and they’re powered by a mechanical engine inside.”
“A mechanical engine? It can’t be very reliable.”
“Not always. But they’re our primary means of transportation. They can go faster than any horse, carry more than any pack mule, but unfortunately they’re limited mainly to roads.”
“How many can they carry?” the King asked.
“Well, it depends. There are different types of automobiles. A car can carry maybe at most seven people, while some buses can carry up to seventy-two.”
“Seventy-two people? At speeds that can outrun even the fastest horse?” The king stopped eating for a moment, and thought on it. “I think I should like some of these automobiles,” he said. “What would the cost of such a vehicle be?”
Cale shrugged. “Hard to say. We’re not quite sure how to properly measure the differences between our currencies yet. Besides, even if we could get them here, there’s no way to keep them fueled.”
“They run on a type of refined crude oil,” he explained. “Back home, there are massive refineries which do all sorts of things to turn it into gasoline, which is what fuels them. I don’t have the slightest clue how it all works, and even if we had people that did, we don’t have the equipment to do it.”
“I see,” the King said. “Your alchemists aren’t already working on the problem?”
“Actually,” Ryan said. “We don’t exactly… have alchemists.”
“No alchemy? And yet you have built such machines?”
“The limits of alchemy were a lot different back home than they are here. I suppose it’s all the same now. There’s a chance, I guess, that a good enough alchemist could figure out how to refine oil into gasoline, as long as he knew the constituent elements. A little magick might do the trick here, right? You never know.”
“Corpus, do you not have a colleague you can call upon?” Nadus asked.
Corpus nodded. “Yes, my Lord. Arynn Shima was invaluable to us in saving Ryan’s life. It was he who identified the poison used.”
“Arynn Shima, that names strikes me as familiar.”
“He was blamed for accidentally poisoning the Lady Tommin,” Corpus said. “But I do not think it was his fault at all. Shima is an altruistic man.”
Nadus sat and thought about it for a moment, then hit his fist on the table. “Then Shima shall go with you to Dunsmith,” he said. “I remember him now. He was a gifted alchemist, if anyone can help to figure it out, it’s him.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” Ryan said, shrugging. “If we can start producing gasoline again, it’d give us a huge advantage over Vector.”
“And so you shall,” Nadus said, smiling. “That bloody fool Cuerian will be shaking in his boots when he learns of what’s really to become of the Disputed Lands.” He looked to Nalya for a moment. “I understand you went to see your Uncle before coming here,” he said.
Nalya nodded. “Yes, King,” she said. “I had to.” She looked to Terra for a moment, and an unspoken agreement passed through them. She looked at the King. “It appears that Dunsmith’s arrival has much to do with prophecy.”
“Prophecy?” he asked. “How so?”
“Well,” Terra said, breaking into the conversation. “For one, it appears as though I’m a Green Seer.”
The King seemed to turn pale.
“A Green Seer?” the Queen exclaimed. “There hasn’t been once since Wendael Maer at the fall of Eventide! Even before the Pacts were signed.” Her skin, too, turned somewhat pale, and the hair on the back of her neck began to stand up. She looked to Nadus, and the two passed a severe look between them.
“What’s wrong?” Terra asked. “You look like I just dropped a bomb.”
“It’s difficult,” Nadus said. “I.. I hadn’t expected.”
“What’s the matter?” Terra asked.
“There’s an old story passed down from father to son in the Hillbreaker line,” Arquina explained. She took a deep breath. “A story spoken to Nadus the First by the last Green Seer.”
“What story?” Terra asked.
“That the day will come when a new Green Seer will emerge,” Nadus said. “And unto him, I must pledge my entire kingdom.”