“This is pointless!” the Khan roared. “Clear it all away.”
The Khanra stared at him, marveling, as did the assembled lords and stewards. As did the jugglers, dancers, acrobats, clowns, and beast masters. As did the Yaalkese lions, Mutasan monkeys, Batsalian ghast bears, Yaalkese miniature behemoths, Vainan parrots, and locally sourced midge-eaters. As did the poor man in charge of cleaning up after all of them; Yvmal, his name was, he thought.
The only one not goggling at him was Faris, his fool. A ghast-faced Mornal from the far north, dressed in motley of green and cloth-of-silver, Faris was still rubbing the buttocks of the nearest behemoth, trying to coax it into trumpeting and throwing the entire menagerie into disarray. Fortunately, Faris was as inept at provoking animals as he was at delighting courtiers.
“Clear it all!” he shouted, allowing his displeasure to show. Everyone continued to stare, but High Steward Gamila politely coughed into her plum-colored sleeve while shooing the crowd with her fingers. Slow as tree sap, the jugglers, dancers, acrobats, and clowns began to trudge away, looking more dejected than a child denied their sweet. In time, the beast masters began to lead the menagerie away, much to Faris’ consternation. Most disappointed of all, however, were the Lords Ibram, Jinann, and Qadira, who had assembled this nonsense.
Siriassa looked a bit dejected as well. His Khanra was five years his senior, yet none could doubt her vitality nor spirit. Merely for the occasion of this meeting, she wore a burgundy bodice over her scarlet blouse, with a small mantle of gilded chain, and a skirt of scarlet silk, pleated with cloth-of-gold. She even wore her crown, which she almost never did outside of royal audiences: a band of gold, studded with amethysts, with gilded wires woven into beautiful curves and leaf-like shapes, called “the Viisianari fashion,” forming a net over the prime bulb of her shimmering hair, along with peach-colored veils of silken-gauze flowing back over the long black braids that fell past her waist. Just now she was standing before the dais, her own throne temporarily unoccupied, gesturing with her delicate left hand to the assembled clownage before him. Her heart-shaped face and bright grey eyes looked to him pleadingly, as she lilted, “Your Grace, do you not desire a fruitful and uplifting celebration?”
“Yes, yes!” Lord Jinann agreed, gathering up his blue cambric gown to scurry over to the ghast bears. “These fine beasts have been trained to stand upon balls and use them to walk about on two legs. Two legs!”
The bears were remarkable, true. Named for their black-and-ghast fur, ghast bears were virtually unknown on the entire continent, and acquiring them was not so much a question of money as whether your political influence was advantageous to the Batsalian Union, far west across the Bitter Sea. But none of this mattered at present.
“I do not need to see bears walk on two legs,” he said. “I do it myself every day.”
“I’ve yet to see it,” Faris tossed off as he slowly followed the behemoth’s buttocks out of the grand hall.
The Khan stood at that, thrusting a furious finger. “If you think I won’t whip you…”
“Oh, I’d be a fool to think that, your Grace,” Faris cooed. “What Khan ever whipped a fool when he has lords to command? And what lord, when he has paladins? What paladin, when he has squires? What squires—”
“Shut him up!” the Khan ordered anyone who might listen. Lord Ibram, despite his rank, gathered up his sun-yellow robes and scurried over to abuse the fool out of the room. “Where is the Divine Commandrix?” he asked.
“She has been summoned,” the High Steward assured him. “She ought to be here… now, even.”
“Then find her!” he commanded. Gamila strode out purposefully.
“Your Grace,” Lord Jinann insisted, “this is the first anniversary of your reign.”
“Is it?” He rolled his eyes. “I had forgotten.”
“Your Grace, I mean only that your rule is, as yet, unsettled. The face you present to the commons may well command their love of you. These ceremonies, frivolous though we both know they are, are critical in the assurance of a happy commonwealth.”
“And how happy will the commonwealth be, when the invaders reach their towns and burn their temples down?” he asked. “How happy will they be when these eastern devils ransack their homes and murder their families?”
Lady Qadira gathered up her gown, as red as the Khanra’s blouse, to approach the dais. “This is precisely why we need these ceremonies, Grace. Without such distractions, the peasants will have nothing to speak of, save the invasion.”
“And how,” Jinann broke in, “two towns have already been taken.”
“And the Khan yet to act,” added Lord Ibram, having returned from chastising the fool.
“I am trying to—” He collapsed back into his throne, rubbing his forehead.
Siriassa floated up to him, knelt by his throne, and caressed his arm. “Yes, yes, sweetheart,” she cooed, “they are all against you, I know.”
“I never said they…” He gave up and grumbled absently into his beard. He almost jumped when the High Steward’s voice echoed out.
“Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar, formerly of the Prefecture of Dejitsa.”
The Commandrix was at first hard to see. The festival fools and beasts, further displaying their talents for disruption, were still lumbering out of the hall. But Ges Ra Ividar stood a head over many of them, and as she broke through them like a charge through enemy lines, he took heart.
To be sure, the Commandrix’ appearance was not one to charm most men or women. Her face was at once flat and square, lined by cares and the sun but no laughter, her small eyes sharp as a hawk’s but lusterless as a bullock’s. She was already armored, having no doubt anticipated his intent, with the black mail, peached banded steel, peached pauldrons, black tassets and greaves of Zalja, along with the black and peach pantaloons, shirt-and-jack, and sweeping peached cloak of a commander. Her helm was absent, unveiling her limp, dark hair, that depended from her head like rotting moss off a ruinous old brick. Every inch a Zaljan warrior, the small white badge at her left shoulder, bearing a black silhouette of the storm shrike, was the only indication that she had pledged her sword and her life to the Solulan, the Highest Temple, and was therefore, technically, not his to command. Normally.
All the same, she approached the dais without ceremony and fell to a kneel. “Your Grace,” she said, simply.
“Rise,” he answered. She did so.
“How may I serve your grace?” Her voice was solid and deep. She was a woman of near forty years, at least twenty of them having been spent in battle.
“You have surely heard what is happening in the east, Commandrix?”
“Forgive me, your grace. I have been traveling.”
“When I received the honor of your summons, I was aiding in the subjugation of rebels up in Bariat Uur. They were trying to steal a shipment of magic from the Fire Mine. Divine Commander Acal Ro Isan led the counterstrike, so I was free to answer you, Grace.”
The Khan rubbed his face. He had not even heard of this rebellion brewing. The Fire Mine was among the least valuable of Zalja’s magic mines, but this was still a serious afront. Something had to be done about communication in his growing khaganate. “Who else is aiding in this?”
“Paladins Sir Rahil, Dame Thana, Dame Taliib, Sir Nas, and Dame Nuhara, as well as their adherents, and the local security of Bariat Uur and the Fire Mine, your Grace.”
“Those are good names,” and dully given. Listening to Ividar speak was like listening to a lecture on mushroom breeding. But despite her lack of a warrior’s passion, Ges Ra Ividar’s reputation was unchallenged. She had once stood between his own father and an assassin’s blade, and that was only one of a list of honors to her own name. Divine Commander Acal Ro Isan was younger, less tried, but well supported. The Khan could forget about Bariat Uur, for now at least.
“Good, good,” he muttered. He cleared his throat, and Siriassa glided up into her throne. “I must then inform you, that the eastern border is under attack.”
Ividar’s beady eyes brightened at that. She had been heir to the Dejitsa Prefecture, once, and called the eastern lands her home. “Does Dalsaman stand, your Grace?”
Lord Ibran bowed in, clutching his yellow robes. “It does, Commandrix. These forces have taken Yabrad and Makh, and are reportedly moving southwest toward Mansaikhan.”
“Do they mean to take the eastern mines?” she asked the Khan, ignoring Lord Ibran.
“It is as yet unclear,” Ibran persisted. “They may even risk crossing the Euskati Plains, if they are fool enough.
“Let them,” Lady Qadira boasted. “The Euskati barbarians will rip them apart, and the royal army will destroy what remains.”
“And East Mine is practically empty, besides,” Lord Jinann added, uselessly.
The Khan sighed into his palm. He still needed to send exploratory forces into the Shadowgate Mountains, in search of more magic veins to mine. That would have to wait. “The mines are well guarded,” he said, “and the Euskati stand between them and the capitol. We must therefore assume they are marching toward Dalsaman. Intelligence says these barbarians have no port of their own, so Dalsaman would be an invaluable plume in their cap.”
“Ah,” Lord Jinann nodded, “wisely put, your Grace.”
The Khan sighed again. Siriassa stifled her titters.
“Surely you will ride to the defense of Dalsaman,” the Khan suggested. “It is the home of your youth, yes?”
“It was, your Grace, but I belong to the Holy Solulan now. I am a soldier in the All-Mother’s army.”
The Khan stifled yet another sigh. “Hand her the writ.” Silence followed. “Lord Jinann,” he growled. “Hand her the writ.”
Jinann grew moon-eyed, tapping his fingers together. “The uh… the writ, your Grace?”
“Yes.” A pause hung in the air like sweet bees flying between victims. “Where is it?”
“I don’t, I think, that is…” he floundered, but only for a moment. “I believe you gave it to Lady Qadira, your Grace.”
“You – No – Your Grace, I never touched the holy writ.” Predictably, she thrust her finger at Lord Ibran. “It was him, your Grace.”
“No! I haven’t touched it! You are quite right, your Grace, it was Jinann.”
“Liar!” he spewed. “You’re covering your own incompetence!”
The Khan flew to his feet and roared, “One of you has the writ!” He succeeded in silencing them, but could not stop himself. “It is a holy writ, from the hand of the Holy Archon himself, and is therefore a sacred artifact. One of you has misplaced it, and will hang in the city square until such time as—What!?”
Siriassa was tugging at his sleeve. He turned to find her leaning over the arm of her throne, holding a rolled-up paper toward him. She whispered, not all that quietly, “You set it down by your throne a half-hour ago, sweetheart. When the lions were first brought in.”
He seized it from her with a growl, took a moment to calm himself, and offered a grateful nod to his Khanra. “Thank you.” He looked back to find three smug expressions on his lords’ faces, which quickly vanished upon his observance. He held the writ out to Ividar, who received and opened it.
“The Holy Archon of the Solulan has declared this a matter under the All-Mother’s auspices,” he explained, sitting back in his throne. “He has declared you champion of the All-Mother, and charged you to lead my forces in the defense of the eastern front, as well as any paladins and their adherents that choose to volunteer for this divine mission. I have been told that several paladins have already come up from the Solulan.”
“You must act quickly,” Lord Jinann insisted, quick to reassert himself as the voice of redundancy. “Yabrad and Makha have already fallen.”
The Divine Commandrix stared at the writ like a math puzzle for a moment, then looked back to the Khan. “Your Grace, what can you tell me of the defenses for these towns? How is it they are falling so quickly? What do we know of the enemy numbers? Have they communicated their cause to you?”
A cloud passed before the Khan’s eyes, and the lords shrunk away.
Khanra Siriassa took a deep breath and leaned forward. “These barbarians, from Monos to the east, they attacked by surprise.”
Ividar winced in confusion. “By surprise? No defiance? No writ of intent? Your Grace, are you sure this is an army, and not a crush of bandits?”
“They are an army,” the Khan said darkly. “They fly colors, and bronze-and-gilt flag, and reports speak of their leader wearing a golden crown.”
“The khan himself is leading this invasion, Grace?”
“They are barbarians,” Jinann answered with theatrical disgust. “They call their khans ’kings,’ and they fancy themselves divinely appointed.
The Khan leaned forward. “So you understand our point. You must reach Dalsaman as quickly as possible. You must engage these honorless barbarians. Do not treat with them, as they cannot be trusted. Meet them, and crush them, and let all of Monos learn what it means to strike at Zalja like common cutthroats.”
Ividar nodded. “I will. What forces are already assembled?”
Ibran stepped in. “A thousand riders, three-thousand archers, seven-thousand foot, and a smattering of paladins and rat-wizards, say fifty of each. The paladins’ adherents add another two-hundred to our horse and eight-hundred to our foot. Roughly.”
The Khan himself raised his brows at this. “These are good numbers,” he muttered. “Risen quickly.”
Not to be outdone, Qadira added, “We have also sent word to Al Skati and Qabarjat, even Ogoonduul, to send their foot and riders into Dejitsa, to place themselves under your command.”
The Khan briefly found himself looking at his lords in a new light.
“And of course the Dalsaman city guard reside within the walls,” said Jinann, desperate to be included. The Khan rolled his eyes overtly.
“This is excellent news,” the Divine Commandrix agreed. “We shall depart tomorrow at first light and ride through the Euskati Plains.”
Jinann stuttered at that. “You… through… the Euskati, you say? Isn’t that… risky?”
“I dare say war is risky,” Siriassa added lightly, reminding the Khan briefly why he fell in love with her. “We commend your valor, Divine Commandrix. You may depart to prepare.”
Ividar gave the Khanra an odd look, but bowed all the same, turned, and strode out.
The silence was quickly interrupted by Lord Jinann. “Now then, might we return to the matter of the midge eaters? They are frighting the behemoths, and a frighted behemoth quite overtaxes our manure-collector.”
“Get out,” the Khan grumbled.
“Get out,” he commanded, calmly, but firmly. “And send Faris back in. I need someone who will be a fool on purpose, rather than by happenstance.” Jinann gave an affronted mow in answer, little realizing the Khan was referring to himself.
He was leaning forward, rubbing his temples, when a pair of soft hands brushed his fingers away and took up their charge. “Now, now,” Siriassa cooed. “None of this matters anyway.”
“The eastern front is over six-hundred miles away. They could carve out the eastern half of the nation, and they still wouldn’t reach us. We’ll be fine.”
“And what will our people think,” he said, melting into her fingertips, “when they hear I’ve let half the nation be overrun by bandits.”
“The dead people? They won’t think anything. As for the rest, they’ll be looking to you to save them from the bandits. You are the Khan, and your right to rule is every bit as divine as that barbarian king’s.”
“Moreso, I should hope.”
“Moreso,” she whispered. “Come to bed, sweetheart.”
“It’s barely past noon.”
“And what a troubling morning you’ve had.” She let her lips brush lightly against his ear. “Your work is done today, your Grace. My Khan. Come to bed.”
When Faris hopped back into the grand hall, a midge-eater cradled in his arms, he found it empty.