Aphonion Tales (New posts 6/13, 6/15, 6/19)

Before reaching out to her agent, Kit discussed her background with the rest of the Council. Kit’s prior scan had identified Lady Baroness Breena Talinis as her agent in Debonai. Unlike almost all of the other agents linked through the fan, the Baroness detected Kit during her scan of the various agents. Both Alistair and Dame Brionna recalled persistent rumors of silver dragon ancestry in the House of Talinis. The House was also notable for the many paladins in the family, along with some hospitalers. One had even disgraced the family by becoming something of a private inquisitor-- something that might have won even greater honor if they had been Paranswarmian, but was viewed as contrary to church tradition by Glor’diadelians.

Kit was surprised to hear of the draconic ancestry and asked about whether Canberry should be reaching out more to good-aligned dragons. Alistair, who had been taught of dragons as more than just children’s stories, explained that while dragons are very powerful, they are even less likely to intervene than the Eldar and Noldar. The one major exception is that some lineages have long-standing alliances with human or elven families, and the dragons, even chaotic ones, will always obey their alliances. Half-dragons and quarter-dragons, on the other hand, tend to be very involved, because they are fascinated by humans.

In planning out Kit’s efforts, the Council focused on their analysis of the current situation. If the troops in the army marching from Debonai to support the Abomination remain loyal to the crown while the army’s leadership is not, the army would probably fall apart if the troops understood the situation. At the same time, the rank-and-file are unlikely to actively fight the chivalry leading them. The key would thus be to break the control of the leadership long enough to convince the troops, who would then mostly desert.

Kit snapped her fan open and focused on the crystal linked to Lady Breena. As soon as she made the mindlink, Kit heard “M’lady” in her head and the sense of a slight bow, although less of a bow than most of her contacts give. Kit heard Lady Breena shooing people away and then the amount of focus increased, as the Baroness could speak aloud.

“My apologies for the delay, m’lady, but you know how servants are. Mine are loyal and mean well, but they still gossip. I would not want them hearing anything inappropriate and creating security risks.”

“Quite. We wanted to discuss Debonai’s current military movements. We understand several detachments of troops have headed out under unreliable commanders.”

“I would hardly call them detachments. Several entire calvary units have gone missing.”

“Missing? You don’t know where they’re going?”

“The throne doesn’t and the great council doesn’t, but I have been quietly tracing them through friends. They represent some twenty thousand troops altogether. They left through the southwest border and are heading to meet up with the great horde ahead of them heading to the Spice Lands. We have had problems with the upper echelon of the knights for some time. There is a question of the legitimacy of the royal house. The old nobility support the royal house and control most of the money not controlled by the merchant clans. The younger nobility, the ones elevated in the recent border wars over the past three to four centuries have much less money, more sons, and a desire for conquest. These would be the ones leading the twenty thousand.”
 

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No update today-- sorry. Work is a little crazy right now, and I've run out of pre-written updates. With luck, I should be able to post tomorrow, but I'll be travelling tomorrow and Monday, so there may not be any posts until Tuesday. By Tuesday at the latest, we should be back to a regular daily update schedule.
 

Back to regular updates.

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“Which specific noble houses are the ringleaders in leading the missing army?”

“Duke Edelford is the overall commander and, along with his family, the ringleader. He has three younger brothers, out of seven total siblings, and nearly a dozen sons. He is a powerful warrior and a reasonable scout. He also looks very young--as young as his sons-- despite no known non-human ancestry.”

“Huh. That’s unusual. Has he always looked younger?”

“No, he looked his age when he first came to court at sixteen. His father died shortly after he came to the court, and then his aging seemed to slow down. I’m sure that’s some trick of genetics, though.”

Kit did not believe that for a second, but felt no need to argue the point with her agent. “What religion is Duke Edelford? Glor’diadelian?”

“He attends the temple, but I would say he is not a man of great devotion. His wife was, but she died in the last childbirth, some five years ago. Since her death… he still goes to services, but not particularly frequently and without any great indicators of faith.”

“I guess a death in child birth isn’t that surprising even for a noblewoman after that many children. Does he have any children from the other side of the sheets?”

“Oh, Lord of Light, yes. The gossip of the court was that he couldn’t lie down without making someone pregnant. He has dozens of bastards, to the point where the Bishop reprimanded him. There is an understanding. Most nobles take one mistress, who is cherished, because the marriages are arranged.”

“Mmm-hmm,” murmured Kit noncommittally.

The Baroness did not hear Kit’s interjection, or at least if she had, she chose to ignore it. “But proper nobles do not have a vixen in every village of their domain.”

Lady Breena’s prim tone helped Kit form more of an understanding of how her agent thought. She made a mental note to make sure that the Baroness did not allow her primness to interfere with her analysis, or with Canberry’s intelligence network. “No wonder he wants wars of conquest… That leaves a lot of people he’ll want land for. Do you know if he has magical support with him?”

“I do not know for sure, m’lady. He has a very powerful archmage in his service, but I don’t know if the the archmage is with him.”

“We need to know that, so you need to find out.”

“Yes, m’lady.”
 

“When did Duke Edelford leave the court?”

“He departed during the Canberry coronation. I do not know if that was a coincidence.”

“Still, it’s interesting. Did he act differently in the weeks before that? Unusual communications, secretive behavior?”

“Quite the opposite. I would say unusually non-secretive behavior. He demanded that he be allowed to accompany the royal delegation to the coronation. This was denied-- it was not his place to make such a demand and the crown did not particularly want him as an ambassador. The decision was that ruler himself would send representatives but would share the Duke’s sorrow in not being allowed to attend.”

“Could that have been a manufactured slight?”

“That’s possible, because the request was not in his character. He has no particular love or hate for the Archduchy or for courtly functions.”

“Thanks for that information. Do you know anything else notable about him, or about who his allies might be?”

“There is one other thing. He is part of the Brotherhood, a claimed knightly order but without a clear lineage. It existed thousands of years ago, as the Order of the Ram, but then disappeared very unceremoniously. I only know of the Brotherhood’s past because of my father, who was a military man who spoke often of history. There are many orders in Debonai, most attached to the church, but the Order of the Ram has no ecclesiastical sanction.”

“You said it disappeared? What do you mean?”

“I don’t think it was disbanded--all the principal members died on the same night, although I have no idea how.”

“That’s another thing we’ll need to find out. Are their records?”

“There should be, but in the military library. It would be rather conspicuous if I went there… but I can send one of my knights to do the research, along with a cover mission.”

“Good. What about the other leaders of the missing units?” Kit read off her list. “Na-Duke Alonzo Avon, Sir Montevale Higgins, Dame Brittany Tirtoroth?”

“Dame Brittany was, but I do not know about the rest. I will have my knight attempt to verify that as well.”

“Good. Let me know as soon as you learn anything.”
 

“Now then, I have some more general notes. The rebels in the capital have been put down.”

“Rebels? We haven’t heard anything about that,” replied Kit, perhaps a tad critically.

“I sent the note by the usual route, several days ago.”

Kit resolved to find out what the usual route was and whether the message should have arrived. “Go on.”

“There was a sudden rising, led by common men, in the capital after the chivalry departed. It was not very successful, because the commoners tend to be content. The monarchy is not oppressive and loyal to the Church, as are most of the people. When the rest of the people did not rally to support the rising, it collapsed fairly quickly.”

“Were the instigators captured? What did they say?”

“From what I gather, they claim that they can’t remember rebelling. I was not permitted in the questioning chamber, because I am both female and a mage. I am considered too delicate for such matters.”

“I don’t know that a mage is what is needed. Under the circumstances, I think you want a psion to check out their minds.”

“Ah, that could be… I will pass that advice on through the right people.”

“Did the revolt cause any damage before it was put down?”

“It was aimed at the Archbishop’s quarters and offices. A number of younger priests were badly injured, but His Excellency was not harmed. They also made off with a few relics. Some of the participants were quite distraught-- they were devout followers who could not believe that they had attacked the Church.”

“What relics?”

“One moment, m’lady. Bridget! Come in here. Do you recall which relics were stolen during that unpleasantness? Enunciate clearly, now.”

“Yes, m’lady. Three things were taken: the crook of Archbishop Augustus I, the Chalice, and the Lamp of Havens.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you. That will be all.” Lady Breena waited a moment for Bridget to withdraw and then explained. “The Crook was a gift from the Forest of Singing Leaves. The Chalice, used as a treasure in the Cathedral, was created by the House of Segilen, about a thousand years after that-- it is not laen like the crook, but is high glass crystal. Lastly, the Lamp of Havens is a lamp that was perpetually lit, also a laen item. It was a gift of a half-Eldar who converted to the Holy Church.”

“When were these taken? Around the time the army left?”

“Well, it was about the time we became aware of the army heading south, but three to four days after it actually launched the expedition.”
 

The Baroness waited for more questions and then continued with the miscellaneous reports. “The crops are doing well, and there is no drought. Tensions are easing with Augurt, but you should know Augurt is bristling in every direction and fortifying. We are not particularly concerned, because the fortification is with troops that are not capable of rapid movement.”

“Sounds like Augurt suspects something.”

“I agree. Augurt’s current ruler is not courageous, but it is also notable that he is sending more defensive troops south than north.”

“Huh. Do you know anything about what the missing chivalry hope to do?”

“I don’t know what they’re planning. They’re chivalry, but in their direct path there is only jungle, and to some extent desert. Horses don’t do well in either. They are heading south by the fastest route possible, while avoiding major population centers. They should pass to the west of Canberry, but they are still to your north at this point. Oh, and they are vigilant-- they put up a ward yesterday against my scrying.”

“Are the regular members of the army loyal to their leaders?”

“Most of the chivalry would only be younger sons of nobles. The top sixty or eighty would be very loyal to the commanders, the rest would be more loyal to the Kingdom. That said, there would be a fair amount of discontent with the ruling house, because of the failure to vigorously prosecute a war of expansion.”

“They want land and glory.”

“Exactly, m’lady, but mostly land.”

“Very well. Thank you for your information. I want to find out more about who’s leading them; the Order of the Ram and this archmage. Check out the Duke’s ancestry as well.”

“I will have a report for you soon.”

Kit closed the fan and suddenly noticed how drained she felt. She slumped onto one of the couches in the Council chamber, and Alistair rubbed her shoulders as she passed on Lady Breena’s report.
 

“I have heard some legends about the Order of the Ram,” said Dame Brionna. “It has been quiescent for the better part of a thousand years. The Order promised great vitality to men who were members of it. It was only present in a few kingdoms, and only a few of those were Glor’diadelian. I don’t think there was ever an Order here, but it did exist in the South Kingdoms. Reputedly, men who joined it became more virile and physically able in combat.”

“I wonder…” said Alistair. “Rams aren’t as associated with demons as goats, but there is still some association. And great strength leading up to sudden mass deaths sounds demonic.

“That would explain why they avoided lands under Lord Glor’diadel’s watch, and that of His Church. I’m not certain, but it could also have been timed with the previous attempted fall of the South Kingdoms eight-hundred years ago.”

Abigail knocked quietly and entered. “Your Grace, there is a message from the Moriquendi’rim. Princess Curini’rim wishes to inform you that the Council has requested her personal presence in Krashmere to present the charges against Quinliart and for other matters. She has sent her younger cousin to act her stead while the matter is resolved.”

“Who is her cousin?” asked Kit.

“I have no idea. And it’s probably best if we not ask directly. Maybe Abigail could find out from the messenger?”

Kit nodded and gave Abigail her instructions.

Abigail returned to where the messenger, a young drow man, waited. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“Who is Princess Curini’rim’s cousin? The Council assumed that I know, and I don’t want to admit my ignorance by asking. They seemed pleased by the appointment. But I don’t know who she is, and I’m worried that I’ll make some gaffe because of it.”

The drow chuckled. “Who he is, not she. They really didn’t tell you anything. Isn’t always the way? If you ask, they get mad because you asked, and if you don’t, they get mad because you don’t know. Her regent is Lord Hinuu’sintu ap Curini’rim-Moriquendi’rim. He’s coming with his whole household, planning on staying and visiting others in the Northlands. You’ll like him, he’s our age.”

Abigail raised an eyebrow at that and waited to see if the messenger would fill the silence.

“His seneschal will do most of the ruling. The seneschal’s a half-Noldar, although that must never be said--Lord Hintu. He does not have the right of a family name.”

“Thanks. Do you know the other reasons that the Princess was called back? Our Council seemed to think it would be obvious, but…”

“Oh, there can be no doubt about that. The Council struggle is about the nine candidates to replace the dead lord. My Mistress backs her uncle, of course.”

“You’ve saved me a lot of trouble. I’m Abigail.”

“You need not worry. We need to stick together-- it’s the only way you can get enough information to avoid harsh punishment. I am Aleid of the Cadet House of ____.”
 
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After Abigail passed on that information, the Council sent a polite reply to Princess Curini’rim. They also extended an official invitation to her cousin to visit Canberry for a while. Kit and Dame Brionna were much more supportive of that idea once they knew that the Princess’s cousin would not be an attractive Noldar woman. They also asked Abigail to invite Lord Silverleaves to join them later that morning for a discussion of some of their new information.

The Council received their daily report on the devastation caused by the orcish hordes. The report confirmed that Storr had been utterly sacked and was now burning. Fortunately, the people had already evacuated.

“I wonder if we could use the Debonai army to draw off the hordes,” said Alistair. “It will pass near their dependents-- if we could make the orcs think that the army planned on attacking their dependents, we could draw them off, without our having to actually do anything.”

“And if they know about the army, the rest won’t be hard,” said Kit. “The orcs will think that a human army wanting to rampage among their dependents makes sense, because it’s exactly the sort of thing they would do. Plus, if they fight the Debonai army, it helps us deal with two threats at once. But how do we get the message to them?”

“A captured courier pouch with our ‘analysis’ that the Debonai army is moving against the orc villages, I would think,” said Alistair.

“But we can’t let them actually capture a courier-- that would be murdering whoever we sent. If we just leave the pouch, there’s no guarantee they’ll notice, or that it will make it to someone who can read.”

Dame Brionna nodded. “So we take the body of someone who has already died, dress it in an obvious courier uniform, and leave it in the field where they’ll find it. If we send one of the scout vollers to put it a short distance away from the army, they should find it within a day, maybe two.”

“Done. Send the orders.”
 

The Eldar entered the Council chambers. “You wished to see me?”

“Yes, thank you for coming,” said Kit. “We have some historical questions that we hoped you could answer. Do you remember anything about the Order of the Ram?”

“Yes, that.”

“What are they?”

“Were they,” corrected Lord Silverleaves.

“No, are they.”

“Oh, they’re back?” The Eldar seemed interested and perhaps even dismayed, but in the detached way of the elves. “Some being from the lower planes formed that order many years ago. I’m not sure what exactly, a demon lord or a powerful daemon or something-- more likely a demon than a daemon, I think. It offered a great deal of power to its followers, who were humans of course. He gave them tainted abilities, but his claw marks weren’t visible-- he was careful to make sure they never knew what he was. The members of the Order had great fertility, resistance to disease and damage, and power in combat, but they burned up-- he gave them twenty years and then consumed their life force. It was part of some grand plot, about eight-hundred years ago.”

“Do you know of any tie to the Abomination of Shur?” asked Alistair.

“Hmm. I am not certain. There was some sort of alliance between a number of cthons of animals, especially of vermin, and the Abomination of Shur. If the Order was tied to a cthon of rams or something similar, it could have been part of that alliance. In time, the alliance fell apart. Demonic plots tend to be more frightening than actually dangerous-- their last major accomplishment was the formation of the Shadowlands. Their disorder is their undoing. Since then, they have not succeeded at any major goals. You could count the seizure of Caldefor, I suppose, but that looks more like one of the periodic border fluctuations.”

“Do you know if any descendants of the original Order exist?”

“It is not something I have watched closely; demon lords are pathetic beings and not worthy of much attention. Nonetheless, some families of that blood certainly exist. It runs strong and the members of the Order were most fecund.”

“We know that the Order has reformed in Debonai, and that Duke Edelford is among its leaders,” said Kit. “It may exist elsewhere as well, but we can only confirm its presence in Debonai.”

“Perhaps I should look into it. My people and Debonai have been allies for a long time; the first time around, we planned on intervening in the next seventy or eighty years, but then they all died. Edelford’s whole lineage was engendered by a frail and elderly man who was about to die without issue. In all likelihood, everyone in his line is descended from the Order’s power.”

“How much longer will he last?”

“If he entered before his first child, he could not have more than a few more months.”

“Could we speed up the process? He is leading an army that we think is aligned with our enemies.”

“There is no way to speed it up. The process is inexorable; it could be slowed somewhat by destroying the demon lord that granted the power, but there is no way to accelerate the pact.”
 

“We also wanted to speak with you about several artifacts that were stolen from the Church in Debonai,” said Dame Brionna. “The Archbishop’s Crook, which was made of laen.”

“Oh, yes, and quite intelligent. The temple was both very pleased with the gift and at the same time something like appalled. We knew that the Temple served the Lord of Light, and that there were devas and angels who served Him, so we bound an archangel in the crook as a gift.”

Dame Brionna stammered, “But… but… what does the archangel think of this?”

“He was rather surprised at first. But he can come and go as he wishes, and quite likes it there now.” Lord Silverleaves nodded at Dame Brionna’s reaction. “You see, that was the same way the temple reacted. We learned a great deal about human psychology through those discussions. What were the other artifacts?”

“A high glass chalice.”

“That would be the Chalice of Simonea-- the material that became that Chalice was at one time soaked in the blood of St. Simonea, one of our people. We thought that since holy blood had touched it, it might help assuage the temple after the crook. The Chalice is an ocular device. If you put pure water in it, visions will appear. You can compel the type of vision, but the chalice can be tricky to interpret. I believe that the temple uses it for eucharist, and the people believe it can cure dread maladies, but that is probably just common rumors.”

“And the last artifact, a lamp of laen?”

“That has been taken as well? The Lamp of Havens. It has no fire in it; instead, the Lamp is filled with water from the Overqueen’s fountain, the only substantial amount in human hands. The water can give life to anything, but Galadriel alone can touch it without causing great change around her, because she bears the Ring of Water.”

“That may be what they were after-- that would surely be useful to the Abomination’s plans,” said Alistair.

“And they may have simply known that they needed a laen artifact and grabbed all of the ones they could get to,” added Dame Brionna.

Kit looked at the Grandmaster Farsensor. “Can you sense where they are?”

“I can probably find the crook, but not the others. Perhaps they are being kept together, however. It will take hours of meditation.”
 

“We think that the people who stole them may have been under mind control,” said Kit. “The theft was part of a revolt and rioting of a large number of people in Debonai’s capital, but afterwards they had no memory of their actions, let alone why. Some of the people who specifically were involved in the theft are otherwise loyal to the Church and were very upset afterwards. I suspected psionics. What kind of effect could do that?”

“A coercer, certainly, but… it would take a full circle of coercers--likely a guild of mind flayers or a circle of aboleths. If they used their slime, aboleths could do it with the fewest members. It would take at least four, even then, and only that few if one were a noble.”

“What about a paragon-level coercer, Lord Silverleaves?” asked Alistair.

The Eldar thought before answering. “A paragon-level coercer could stop a thousand men in their tracks. But it is harder to make people do what they do not wish to do than to cause inaction. A paragon perhaps could affect a few dozen at a time to do something against their essential nature. The whole act could possibly have been done by a Noldar lord titled Lord Goldurum, but he would no more step in a human city than slit his own throat-- I mean that quite literally. Demons are weak in psionics, so the master of the Order of the Ram could not. However, the Unseelie are particularly good at drawing webs across people’s minds. An unseelie lord, using psionics and other means, and having spread fairy gold throughout the city, might be able to do it. Of course, fairy gold can be turned back to its natural form if struck by lead.”

“So your best estimate is either a group of aboleth or the unseelie,” summarized Kit. “Any idea which is more likely?”

“I would have to examine victims to see. Do you have reason to believe that the unseelie have been allied with the Abomination?”

“Some,” said Alistair. “Nothing has been confirmed, but that is what our investigation suggests.”

Lord Silverleaves nodded thoughtfully. “To be fair, the Archduke, in his rise to the throne, gave signals that the empire might expand in the next few decades. The unseelie would fear that possibility greatly. But working against him directly would be suicide for their kind, as the land would protect him, and that has more effect on anyone of fae blood.”

“We will pass on a warning to Debonai, then, and increase our guard against the unseelie. Our thanks, your lordship.”

Lord Silverleaves bowed his head politely and withdrew.
 

The Council discussed its outstanding matters over lunch and then dispersed to take care of several matters individually. Kit focused on finding out why the reports from Debonai did not reach her as quickly as they should have. She began by speaking to her secretary.

“I was told that a message was sent to us from Debonai, ‘through the usual channels.’ What are the usual channels?”

“We have a standard set of protocols in place to maintain security. The standard system involves a set of drop points that the actual agents or their principal couriers use, linked to secondary drop points. For normal messages, the secondary couriers deliver the messages to the secondary drop points, and thence through tertiary couriers. The tertiary couriers ultimately bring the messages in through the northwest border.”

“That has to take a fair amount of time… just the riding alone could take weeks. Is there any way for more urgent messages to get through more quickly?”

“Indeed, m’lady. The secondary couriers make a judgment on urgency-- for most messages, they use the courier service, and as you say it delays the messages’ arrivals by some weeks. But when they deem a message urgent, the secondary couriers signal via semaphores for a scout voller.” Kit’s secretary was too well trained to ask what the nature of the message was, but he did raise a curious eyebrow.

“The message that was delayed was a report of a revolt in the capital of Debonai. The rebels seem to have been under mind control and attacked various people and places associated with the Church, including stealing three major relics.”

“I see. That definitely should have gone through a scout voller. We must send instructions upline to deep agents to find out what’s happening to the couriers.”

“We have people who check on this sort of thing?” Kit waited for her secretary’s nod, and then continued, “Good. Send the orders. I want to know what’s going on. And then expand this out to checking the rest of our communication networks. This isn’t the first message that hasn’t arrived on schedule, and we need to make certain that there are not any that failed to arrive altogether.”

Alistair, meanwhile, spent the afternoon attempting to prevent his assignation with Princess Mirabelle of Gates from turning into a major incident. They had not seen each other since their torrid first meeting a few days earlier, but Alistair knew that he needed to speak with her soon to prevent her from feeling angry and bitter. He considered sneaking into Princess Mirabelle’s chambers-- he could probably succeed, but the consequences of discovery could be disastrous. Instead, he invited her to see the Archducal jewelry collection. In light of her interests, she would likely be eager to see the many fabulous pieces, and she would also see this accurately as an opportunity to come to the palace without a formal chaperone. After she arrived, Alistair slipped through the secret passageways and joined her in one of the galleries while her guards waited at the entrance.

“Oh, Alistair!” exclaimed the princess as she rushed over to him. “I so hoped we would get a chance to meet today.”

Alistair kissed her gently but then stepped back from her embrace. “Indeed, my darling. I merely wish that it were for a better reason.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You know how much I care for you. Were it up to me, I would send a formal proposal to your brother and mother this very day.” Alistair looked away and swallowed hard, as if what he were saying pained him greatly. “But, as you know, marriages of royalty are matters of state more than of love. I have little choice but to obey the recommendations of my government, and they firmly oppose our marriage.”

Princess Mirabelle broke into tears. “Then there is nothing for it. I know of our duty to our realms, and I could no more expect you to neglect your duty than I could neglect my own.”

Alistair knew that, in fact, Princess Mirabelle was much more under the control of her court than he was of his. Sure now that he knew what her answer would be, he pushed on, “No. But perhaps… we could run off, leaving the chains of duty behind. I only returned to Canberry to save it from a struggle over the succession, but I did not know then that it would cost me you.”

“No, dearest Alistair. We mustn’t.” She tried to present a brave face. “I could not ask you to abandon your duties for me. I will miss you terribly, but we must attend to our duty, not our desire.”

Alistair nodded, his eyes glistening slightly. “I should have known better than even to mention the idea to one so noble as yourself.”

They spoke a little longer, before parting tearfully. Alistair slipped back into the hidden passageways, cleaned his face and reordered his doublet, and nodded with satisfaction. He was sure that no harm would come from it now, and that he would always have a strong ally in the court of Gates, despite her sorrow.
 

While Alistair and Kit dealt with those tasks, Dame Brionna returned to her office to attend to some paperwork. As she worked, she noticed a scrap of parchment on the floor. Incoherent, barely legible words had been scrawled across the parchment. Even trying to assemble a clear text out of it was difficult, let alone trying to figure out what it meant. What was clear was that it spoke of rats and skittering repeatedly. There were also references to a woman, with some statements that implied that she was not all that she seemed to be.

Dame Brionna reported the message, along with her guess that it was from the Scree through the “dog” in the kitchen to the rest of the Council. They immediately focused on the continuing effort to rescue Princess Anastasia. If there was a danger of recovering an imposter, disaster could ensue.

Kit formed a mental link to the Duke of Snatterkaz. <<We received distressing message; what’s your status? Beware of princess’s concealed identity. Is she really there? Do you need help?>>

Snatterkaz responded promptly. He seemed both clear and tired. <<Female knights- Seachen-joined us. Thank gods-- have Anastasia-- seems to have amnesia-- Contessa says she will recover--returning now.>>

The Council was relieved by this message, but not fully calmed. There was still the danger that the Duke might have been deceived as well, or that there might be some lurking harm that had been done to Princess Anastasia. Still, the news that she had been rescued and would shortly be brought out of the Southlands was welcome indeed.

* * *

Sorry for the short update. I will be travelling this weekend. I may not be able to post an update tomorrow-- we'll have to see. Regular updates will resume on Sunday.
 

The Council proceeded to the Lady Mayor’s townhouse to meet with the Chief Engineer of the Seachen. After some careful consideration, they decided that Dame Brionna would be the best person to actually conduct the meeting, with Alistair and Kit safely hidden behind a wall and observing through a mindlink. Dame Brionna greeted the Chief Engineer and looked with curiosity at the careful drafting sketches that she was preparing. “Those look like Canberry City, but not quite…”

The Seachen noble nodded. “While this city has walls, they are haphazardly designed and of considerable age. I was passing my time drawing up some potential designs to fortify them further.”

“Canberry City has not been attacked directly in twelve-hundred years. That is why some of the City has grown outside of the old walls.”

“Ah. We must always fear attack.”

“From whom?”

“The First, of course. But also… you never know, you never know.”

“The First, your ladyship?”

“The legends say that the First were in the land before us, but they are still sometimes seen. They are horrid mixes of human and serpent, from the reports. It is said that at least two villages have become infected, filled with mixed blood. Those villages were burned, with all within them. But we must always be ready to repulse further attacks.”

“I see,” said Dame Brionna, deciding not to comment further. “We wanted to ask you a few questions about your faith and the Dead Gods of the Seachen. Are there three of them?”

“There are many more than three.”

“Has any been described as the Goddess of the Pale Bone?”

“Ah, that is what you were wondering about. That worship has been forbidden by the Matriarch. There are still hidden cults, throughout the land. It permeates the nobility, but it is forbidden.”

“Is the same true of the One Other and the One Beside?”

“They are… male. The nobility would not, could not, follow a male.”

“I was uncertain-- we know little of them.”

“We know too much. There was a great shrine to her in our territory. The First may have worshipped her, for it shares features with others of their structures. There is also a city of the One Other, but it is taboo to enter there. We had heard rumors that the cult rises again. The Matriarch has also heard these rumors. Chaos is growing rapidly upon this world; it must be stopped. Knights were sent south, southeast, and southwest, to support those of good will and their male chattel, to investigate two places where the rising is rumored and to bring back news of conditions among the refugees. The Matriarch thought we had been insular too long; I agreed and spoke out, and others did as well.”
 

“That is wise of the Matriarch. We also have heard of things that suggested that there were people in your lands who support the Abomination of Shur’s efforts, even though the Abomination is male.”

“The City of the Abomination of Shur is in our lands. It was originally he who broke the power of the First, which allowed us to claim the lands. But he rose up too fast-- he built an empire-- it built an empire-- and ruled as a cat. There are some who think it is one of the dead gods, for it is a cat, but others do not. All cats are revered, small and great, even the males. We hunt with them, fight beside them in war, and breed them to attain new types. We even ride them. Their lord alone has granted us some solace in our long, long wait for the return of our dead gods. The Catlord has spoken often to us. He has from time to time granted a cease of plague or the like.”

“I know little of the Catlord.”

“He is essentially a saint of Mider-- not a real god. Some of the rakasta worship him. I do not believe the Abomination of Shur is like the Catlord. I have studied the architecture of the City he built. I cannot imagine a creature of law building a city without straight roads, with a footprint that would preclude agriculture to support the people living in the City.”

“We are confident that the Abomination is in no sense a creature of law.”

The Chief Engineer nodded. “He was defeated in the recent past. The defeat should have destroyed him, but a prepared host or series of hosts could have kept him corporeal. If that is true, he will be seeking a more powerful host or body soon.”
 

“He has a host now.”

“Of sufficient power to allow him to perform his ritual?”

“We believe so.”

“Then there will be a war,” said the Chief Engineer fatalistically.

“Not if we could strike at the host.”

“Indeed. Is he guarded?”

“Yes-- but less so against the Seachen. He believes he has your support. We think that a group of Seachen could make their way into the heart of his army without having to battle their way in. We fear that the field army that is moving north seeks to aid him.”

“There are limits to what can be done if the marshal has formed an alliance with him. Only the Matriarch can command more than one army at once, and she must take the field herself. One of the Field Armies could follow him, if the marshal is of great rank and he has attracted her support. The only other way a marshal could be removed would be by assassination-- the same as the host.”

“If it is a war, they are viable targets.”

“True. If the Abomination’s horde seeks to punch through the army that holds the pass, they will find it hard to break through. If the Seachen field army intends to ally with the horde, however, the other defenders are doomed to a being. The marshal would not ally with a man, but with a great cat, she might. And if it finds male chattel useful, well, most young women hope to someday have male chattel of their own.”

Dame Brionna cleared her throat. “Perhaps the Seachen with more sense need to act then. If your empire were to assassinate the host and the field marshal, it could be an important step towards reestablishing law in the region.”

The Chief Engineer nodded. “There are people who I could contact who would be willing to make the attempt. Even though the host is chattel of the cat, it is inappropriate for Seachen to be beholden to a male.”

“And allied to predominantly male orcs and demons. Orcs cannot be trusted.”

“That is true. Orcs are great rapists. I will talk to my contacts. It is not like we are proposing to assassinate the Matriarch. This is possible.”

“I am glad that the Matriarch is reasonable and that she does not serve the deranged gods.”

“She is most respectable. The Matriarch is a devotee of the Mistress of the Heights, a goddess who died 1500 years ago.”

“I should take my leave, but before I depart, may I compliment you on the detail and sophistication of your drawings? Few if any of our people could rival this level of design.”

The Chief Engineer inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment with a smile. “It is a great focus of my people, and I am chief in the studies of fortifications.”

“Would you be willing to examine our maps of Furrows, another city in the Archduchy, and make recommendations for its defense? It is more exposed, and we are more likely to wish to expand its defenses.”

“I would be most happy to do so. I would be proud to have some of my designs built in this far-off land. I will also teach my hostess’s younger son something about engineering, even though as a male he will never get to use it. He has been most interested in my drawings and seems unusually smart for a boy. Someday, he will make fine breed stock for the Lady Mayor’s allies.”

Dame Brionna bit back an offended response and simply thanked the Chief Engineer for her kindness to the Lady Mayor.

After the audience concluded, the Council briefly met with the Lady Mayor to discuss the state of things in the City. They described the threat of the imposter and asked to be apprised if rumors of his activity began circulating among the Canberry nobility. She stated that she had heard rumors, but that most of the nobles had not-- as the Lady Mayor of the capital, she had more contact with foreign nobility than most. They also discussed the status of crime in the capital-- the rate of crime had dropped precipitously, back to its usual levels. Likewise, the krif situation appeared to have resolved itself within the last two weeks. The constabulary identified about one hundred users, but not significantly more than that, in withdrawal. The constabulary turned them over to the Sisterhoods for treatment.

[End Session 26]
 

[Session 27]

The following morning Kit received a new briefing:

"Unto The Mouth
From The Heart

Honoured Mouth – There is news being reported by our agents that we think you should have, the results seem to me to be ... mixed:

1. In rough areas of cities throughout the empire over the last two nights men have been being found dead. There are not many of these "victims" but a few in each major city – most were slain by very precise slicing and stabbing attack with blades estimated by various royal examiners as being incredibly sharp and very fine. No ripping was observed, the cuts were clean and the stabs were as well. A very few had been slain instead by poison, which appears to have been delivered on small darts – the darts were subsequently taken. One was slain by being ripped into pieces, but only one – and that may have been for some other purpose or by another agency.

Several of the men found dead were wanted by the authorities for serious crimes. Others were not wanted but had past histories and had served in the work houses or been imprisoned at various times. Small bricks of Kryff were found with or near almost all the corpses. Several of these bricks showed evidence of having been crushed with the flat of boot heels, apparently after the men were dead. The marks found in the Kryff indicate that even the boots worn by those doing the crushing were also of the finest workmanship, for there was no unevenness as one might expect, and the edges were very clean cut.

In the eight cities where the largest number of men were found dead, lists, written in very fine ink with gold dust suspended in it, on pure white parchment, were found near the dead men (we take this to indicate that whatever group committed these murders, it was very wealthy). In each case the lists contained over a hundred names – all people known from the city registries and church records – but in no cases criminals. Local authorities do NOT have a unified response to these lists. In Furrows the bishop of Furrows has ordered an investigation by clergy – with a clergy-person to speak to each person on the list – we do not yet know what the results of that intervention will be. In most other jurisdictions neither Ecclesiastical or secular authorities have ordered systemic investigation.

2. With the exception of these murders, crime overall is down significantly.

3. We have, almost accidentally uncovered a barebones network within the empire. It does not seem likely, given the composition, that it is an intelligence network representing any particular nation. Instead, we believe that it may be an intelligence gathering apparatus specifically for factors from the Eastern Trade Federation. The focus is entirely on domestic production, importation of and pricing of, in no particular order:

< Beef
< Dairy products
< Grain
< Vegetables
< Salt – of both types
< Herbs, particularly preservative herbs
< Spices, particularly preservative spices
< Sugar, honey, and molasses

We have been thorough in the investigation and have found no evidence that the network is linked back to the government of the ETF, and no evidence that it has any interest, even passing, in anything except business intelligence.

We have not undertaken any additional intervention in this case, pending your direction.

Respectfully submitted."

Kit looked over the message, sounding out some of the more difficult words, and then decided that she needed to take it to her scribe. It would be faster than reading it herself, and he would be able to answer some of her questions.
 

“Good morning, ma’am,” said Kit’s scribe as she entered her office. She handed over the dispatch, which he quickly read aloud.

“Clearly, someone is busting up a krif ring,” commented Kit.

“Finishing it off, it looks to me.”

“Yes. But just for my own peace of mind, I’d like to know who it is. I think we’ve got enough information here to figure it out. Gold dust in ink, fine blades, fine cuts – something in the elf family?”

The scribe coughed delicately. “Could it be people belonging to that ally of ours that is unusual and makes some people nervous?”

“There are a lot of folks who fit that description.”

He sighed a little: his mistress was going to make him be direct. “The Noldar. Though I didn’t think they did things like kill humans.”

“Yes, most of them wouldn’t lower themselves to even kill us. Can we get a copy of those lists?”

“That’s going to be a bit difficult. We don’t really have the resources in place to investigate hundreds of people in eight different cities.”

“Right now I just want to know who; we can figure out how to deal with them later.”

Kit’s scribe nodded and made a note to himself.

“As for the trade network… It seems important, but…”

“His Grace should probably know about that, m’lady. It could be of strategic value.”

“I suppose so… The only problem I can see is if these merchants are getting information so they can supply an army who isn’t ours. Maybe we can use this to our advantage, but otherwise I don’t see how it’s useful.” Kit continued thinking about it. “By the way, do you have a list of body parts anywhere? I’d like to know what all of our assets are.”

“Oh, there’s one locked away somewhere. I can dig it out for you. We need to add the Naughty Bits anyhow, although I don’t suppose we need to make the drawings for that very distinct.”

“There’s an actual picture of a body?”

“Well, that methodology has been used for our service for hundreds of years. It grew in recent generations, of course.”

“Of course. Well, I’d like to know all the parts of my body.”

Kit’s scribe resolutely maintained a straight face. “I should mention something else. The lady must remember that the young prince is still here; his advisor does not seem to approve of the krif trade.”

“So that’s another reason to link this to the Noldar.”

“Oh, and there is one other piece you should probably know my lady.”

“Oh?”

“North in Enclaves, I received a pigeon that a dreadnought had landed in Zorplona Argoni and was apparently carrying staff for the young lord, preparing the way, as it was. They don’t have many of those; they’re clearly concerned about him.”

“Well, wasn’t the election expected to go on for some time?”

“Oh, decades, but there will be some murders along the way. It’s rare that they would go after children, but succession crises are rare to begin with in Noldar circles. Since this boy is young, he will be much less powerful. They may be trying to transfer him away from their capital and make him safer. If I may make a recommendation?”

“Of course.”

“We’d be well advised to keep him safe ourselves and build up friendly ties.”

“Fortunately, we’ve gotten pretty good at preventing assassinations.”

“Glor’diadel be praised.”
 

Dame Brionna reviewed a briefing of her own:

"Unto the Honored Dame Brionna of Stanway, OKV, Captain of the Archducal Guard, Chief Military Attache to the Throne, presumed
From Sir Clarence Richards, Director, Military Intelligence
Re: Present movements of armies surrounding the incident with the Abomination of Shur. Daily update and brief

Movement continues of the following major forces:

1. The First Field Army of Brightspan together with forces formerly owing allegiance to the houses of Caligshire and Caldra – continues methodically forward at a steady pace. Drowan forces, still flying no banner but with two battle barges continue to accompany this army. Tendencies continue as before – all goods taken from (now scattered) farms are paid for in silver; no rapes or other breaches of discipline are permitted; courtesy is shown, even to refugee encampments, or which there are few that far north.

2. The Horde of the Ripping Tusk – continues forced march. ETA to join with Brightspan is this evening at the latest, they could have joined already if the Uruks and Orcs were not foraging extensively, and driving a large number of Kine with them. As per your direction, a dead “messenger” in livery has been left in such a position that Orcish scouts should catch sight later today.

3. The Armies of renegade chivalry from Debonai continue to move South, and will be passing west of Canberry. These number 20,000 crack troops and support personnel.

4. Lesser Orcan hordes in the West are continuing to harass us, and abandoned farms in the western dales are now being looted and burned by them.

5. Spicelands forces are not moving. Supplies and equipment are being moved into Taluni at great speed. Already fortified, the city is becoming a giant bunker. Rammed earth is being used to strengthen stone walls, a layer of strained tar and tar-oil has been added to the moats, all trees and other cover within a powerbow shot of the walls have been removed, chopped and taken inside the walls to underground storage and the number of trebuchets, catapults and powerbows has been increased, and ammunition for those engines is being turned out at great speed within the walls. Supplies for a siege of years have been laid in. At the same time, at the suggestion of the Doge, a steady stream of civilian refugees are fleeing the city to take refuge in Tummalstac, Jondril and Cammarra primarily. Those that remain are ready for the siege, and willing to sell their lives along with the troops for their homeland.

6. The Seachen army is also unmoving, and has greatly increased its fortifications.

Analysis: Even without the Debonai forces (which we do not see how can join them in time), the force under arms (not counting supply and medical personnel) is in the range of 34,000 – a huge army unprecedented under circumstances such as these. If Debonai can magically join them, the army becomes 54,000.

However, the Doge of Tulani, together with the Archbishop of the Spicelands has, beyond all hope, made his city a tougher nut than could be expected to crack. Chivalry are worthless in siege, and Orc-kind not much better. We have cautious hope that if the elves and Rakasha that have joined the defense can balance out the power of the drow and Trolls with the attacking force; Tulani may be able to hold until it is relieved.

The lesser orcan hordes are harassing our territories to pin down our armies – unfortunately, we believe that this will work. If we send our most powerful available units to the southwest while our own lands are being burned – the fallout will weaken the loyalty of the commons in the western holdings for generations – and will do more to weaken the empire than almost anything else could. From a military perspective, the orcs raiding the western duchy must be stopped. From an intelligence perspective, other possibilities may unfold – but I must leave these decisions to you, most gracious eminence.

Respectfully submitted to the throne."

She considered it carefully-- it was not quite pressing enough to require waking the Archduke, although she would surely wish to discuss it with him later that morning. Still, she judged, it could wait until she had dealt with a different matter of security.
 

Brionna asked the Sixth Daughter to meet with her. “I would like your assistance in testing and improving the defenses for the Palace. Under the previous Captain, parts of the Archducal Guard focused on appearances rather than on security. I intend to change that. I would like you to test the Guard’s readiness and advise them on how to tighten security.”

“I understand. I will do so.”

“It might be most useful if we began the exercises without warning them to be ready or telling them that it is a drill. Of course, I do not want to expose you to danger.”

“The guards will not hurt me seriously,” replied the Sixth Daughter dismissively. “I agree that it is best that they be unaware. It will make the exercise more useful.”

“Also, I want to be clear that I do not want you to kill any of the guards.”

The assassin nodded. “I understand. I will not harm them, except perhaps for their dignity.”

“Excellent. Shaming guards who are remiss in their duties would be excellent, although not to the point where they would leave our service or seek revenge.”

“I understand. If they attend to their duties diligently but fail, I will correct them but not humiliate them. If they are careless or inattentive, I will shame them privately, to motivate them but not to destroy their standing before their fellows or outsiders.”

“Perfect. I think you understand exactly what I want here.”

“Are there specific enemies that you expect might attack the Archduke?”

“A few. The most dangerous that are likely to act against him in the near future are Lord Quinliart Mori’Quendarim and the Unseelie Fey.”

“You will not come under military assault from the Unseelie, but their curses are singularly effective, especially against newborns. Therefore, it is important that the magical defenses are strong and that the religious rites of Glordiadel are performed over the heir-apparent as soon as possible.”

Dame Brionna made a note. “When His Grace has a child, I will see to it. You should also know that there is a baby in the Archducal nursery-- a relation of sorts to the Archduke. You should view strengthening the nursery’s security as a priority for at least two reasons: first, because His Grace’s children will be placed there when they are born, and second, because the infant could be used in a plot to create a succession crisis if it were kidnapped.”

The Drow’s eyes widened. “Yes… I understand how that would be important. My apologies for my surprise. I was shocked that a potential pretender has not been killed quietly, when he is in your power.”

“The Archduke would not permit such a thing. That is why you must assist us in keeping the baby under our watch.”

“I understand. The Archduke is most merciful.”

“You should also understand the limitations of the Archducal nurse, Mommy Cupcakes. She is intensely loyal to His Grace, but she is also very trusting at times and can be led astray or deceived. She will be useful to your preparations, but you should not rely on her overly much.”

“I understand. If that is all, I will begin my preparations for the first round of tests.” She smiled in anticipation.
 

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