Posted by: lordkyler | February 20, 2016

Short Story – Two Nations (Part Three)

This is part three of the Lithra novella Two Nations, with commentary. You’ll want to read Part One and Part Two before you read this. Probably in that order. My notes can be found at the bottom.


Nemia ducked, barely avoiding a blow to the head, and charged forward quickly. The young soldier tried to backpedal quickly, but Nemia moved like a snake, weaving to one side and planting a foot behind his own. He stumbled and fell on his back. Nemia pounced on the unfortunate man, pinning his weapon to the ground with her foot and placing her own weapon against his throat. His eyes were wide with panic.

Nemia stood up, releasing the soldier, and threw her staff against the lad’s stomach harshly. “Demons take you, Galvus. How many times have I told you to keep your stance?”

The young soldier picked himself up sheepishly, trying not to look at the other recruits watching. “I am sorry, Lady Nemia.”

“Not half as sorry as I’ll be when you’re dead, boy. If you’d followed your forms more carefully, I would never have been able to get that close to you in the first place. You swing like a child trying to swat bees.”

The young soldier stared resolutely, but she could see the chagrin on his face. Nemia sighed, cradling her brow in one hand as she shook her head. “Listen, I know you’ve been working hard. It’s not easy to be a soldier. But that is what I need you to be, and quickly.”

She gestured around her. Over the years since Sennius had gone, the settlement had grown remarkably. Tall, elegant buildings surrounded the square where they practiced, sturdy structures built from wood and stone. The streets between them were paved, and carefully cultivated trees and gardens brightened the settlement considerably. Across the square from them, men labored on foundation of the great hall, which was nearly completed.

“This is our home. This is your birthright. These are our friends, our lovers, our kin. And while I pray that the day never comes, should destruction fall upon us, we are the only thing standing between them and death.”

The men stood a little straighter at her words, their chins a little higher. Nemia continued, beginning to pace up and down the line. “You have heard the rumors. Missing livestock. Missing goods. Missing people. Perhaps it is wolves, or thieves, or bad luck. Perhaps angels.”

The troops cast sidelong glances at one another, but nobody dared to contradict her. The Karod came often these days, but they spoke to no one, simply waiting until they were given their tribute and gifts. Each time it took more to satisfy them.

“Well, we have built a wall,” Nemia said, pointing to the fortifications around the settlement. “We have set watchmen. But if it should come to it, we will need soldiers who are ready to face anything. Even angels.” Even family, she thought, but she did not say it.

She held the men’s gaze for a moment, testing their resolve. None wavered. Sighing again, she instructed the sergeants to resume their normal drills – with an emphasis on proper stance – and headed to the walls. With abundant resources and a strong work ethic, the settlement had grown quickly, so it was not a short walk.

Settlers bowed their respects as she passed by, murmuring personal thanks and well-wishes. They seemed satisfied and cheerful, but Nemia could sense a slight unease in their posture and their tone, like animals that grew restless before a storm.

They might not know why Nemia had built the walls so thick, nor why she trained the soldiers so hard, but they knew it meant something, and it made them skittish. Yet, they still seemed to trust her, and that brought a measure of peace to her heart. The years hadn’t been easy, but they had persevered and come out stronger. She only wished Sennius could have been by her side. The old Sennius.

She was nearly at the wall when the trumpets began to blare, signaling an approach. Had the Karod returned? They had been here only a week past, and left with three heavy-laden wagons. Nemia took the stairs two at a time, and found Versian waiting for her at the top of the gatehouse. That was a relief, at least. She would not have made it through the past few years without his staunch support.

He turned at the sound of her approach, and Nemia needed only one look at him to know who was approaching. She froze, suddenly finding herself more short of breath than her climb should have left her. “It’s him, isn’t it?” It wasn’t really a question.

“Him and more besides,” Versian said grimly. “Take a look.”

Trembling slightly, Nemia stepped up to the parapet, and soon had to lean against it. Her brother had not brought back another band of settlers. He had brought a legion. An army. A nation. They were spilling into the valley from the hill pass, a wave of travelers and wagons and mounted men stretching nearly from one side of the valley to the other. There had to be thousands, tens of thousands, a flood of humanity proudly marching under banners of every shape and color Nemia could imagine.

At the forefront of the multitude, a contingent of riders rode in perfect formation, dressed in pure white and flashing like lightning as the sun reflected off their perfectly polished weapons and armor. But that was impossible. Only the Oracle’s personal guards could wear such garb, and there was no way the Oracle could leave Nevinia, even for a land of Amavoi. The angel himself would not need such protection, surely, but why else would they use warriors from the church?

As they watched the never-ending host march toward them, two mounted figures suddenly burst from the throng, riding like hares running from hounds. Moments later, more horsemen burst from the crowd, chasing after the first.

Nemia felt a thrill of fear. She knew who those riders were. If they were caught – or killed – all was lost.

“Play a welcoming call,” she hissed to the sentries. “Versian, get whatever troops we have to the walls. And you men, open the gates, but be ready to close them in an instant, understand?” The soldiers were confused, but they rushed to obey her orders without question. The triumphant cry of the trumpets split the air, welcoming the approaching legions. The legions answered in kind, and soon the valley was ringing from peak to peak in an unbroken song that threatened to shake the needles from the pines.

The gates were cracked open quickly and quietly, while men stood ready to slam and bar them at a moment’s notice. The two fleeing riders streaked down the path that had been cleared, galloping like the wind, but their pursuers were moving just as quickly, and some were even gaining. It would be close.

Nemia raced down to the gate to give orders, but even here she had to shout at the top of her lungs to be heard over the sound of the trumpets. “Prepare yourselves! Only the first two riders can be allowed to enter! If you do only one thing right in your lives, make it this!”

The men tensed like drawn bows, ready to burst into action at the slightest release. The horns rang on, drowning out rational thought, feeding the anxiety that twisted knots in her stomach.

The riders were closing in, near enough that she could nearly make out their faces. They were bent low over the saddle, applying the spurs liberally as they tried to force every bit of speed from their mounts. One was the man she had planted among Sennius’s bodyguards. The other would be Sennius’s downfall.

Assuming they lived.

The drone of the horns began to lull, enough that Nemia could hear the furious drumming of hoofbeats. She squinted closely, judging the distance. “Ready…”

Two blurs shot through the gap.

“NOW!”

A dozen soldiers threw themselves against the door, and another four set the timber into place a heartbeat later. Nemia scarcely had time to draw another breath before she heard the scream of horses and the curses of men. She could hear hooves sliding in the dirt as they tried desperately to check their headlong rush, followed by several thumps on the gates as they failed to do so.

Nemia raced back up the stairs to the parapet. A very angry man wearing Sennius’s colors was struggling to get his horse back under control. Nemia had never seen him before, but his markings showed him to be a captain. Several of his men seemed to have injured legs where they had been caught between the horse and the gate, but none seemed badly hurt.

At last the captain subdued his mount enough to look up at Nemia. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “That man is a deserter and a traitor.”

“If that is the case, he will find no refuge behind these walls,” Nemia replied.

“Who are you to make that decision, wench?” the man spat. “I don’t care who you’re married to, you have-”

“I do not have a husband,” Nemia said. “At least not for the moment. But I assure you I am fully qualified to render that judgement, as the man in question is under my command.”

The man squinted up at her, as if seeing her for the first time. The family resemblance must have been clear after a moment, because his face paled and his jaw dropped. “Lady Nemia?”

Nemia smiled beatifically. “Why yes, captain. Perhaps you could remind me of your name?”

“Cap- Captain Harrus, my lady,” the man stammered.

“Excellent. Now then, I think I have this matter well in hand, so you may feel free to return to your normal duties.”

The captain stirred uncomfortably, clearly feeling trapped between brambles and thorns. “I can’t… you must…”

A hundred men suddenly appeared at the walls, brought by Versian. Captain Harrus blanched even further, and slowly gave a nod. “As you wish, my lady.”

“As I command,” Nemia corrected. “Give my brother my warmest regards.”

She whirled around without a second look, and by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, the sound of hoofbeats had faded into the distance.

Despite her outward calm, she was trembling like a mouse on the inside. They had been mere seconds from the ruin of her plans, the end of a free people, and that rattled her more than any battle she had ever fought. She would have given anything to spend the rest of the day drinking wine in a dark place, but her work was far from over.

Versian placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. Nemia smiled shakily in return, and took a moment to steady herself. They had made if this far. There was no going back now.

“Your man says that the Emperor has appointed Sennius as the Oracle of the North,” Versian reported. That explained the Oracular Guard. The connection with the church would make him the highest authority in the colonies.

“And where do we stand?”

“Caicephus has declared our colonies to be full Nevinian states, subject to his decrees but nearly autonomous. But with Sennius appointed as our Oracle, he is essentially in command of all the states.”

“And the treaty with the Karod?” Nemia asked, not daring to hope.

Versian sighed. “Passed without amendment. Half of our increase, no guarantee of expansion or even permanent lands.”

Nemia had expected nothing less, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. “Is our plan still intact with Sennius’s appointment?”

“Yes, we have checked the law thoroughly,” Versian answered gravely. “But the law may not be enough to sway the faithful. He has an army with him.”

Nemia felt exhausted, hollow. “That’s a chance we’ll have to take.”

She put on a weak smile, and left the gatehouse, summoning up as much enthusiasm as she could find. The man her spy had brought to safety stood waiting for her, beaming with arms outstretched. His unusual blond hair gleamed like spun gold, and he had the regal bearing of his father. Nemia felt her spirits lift slightly. He was everything she had heard.

Prince Necharthius the Sunblessed, second heir of Nevinia and the man who would save them from the Karod. Necharthius, her secretly betrothed.

•••

Sennius tossed a handful of pure white sand into the air, watching as the wind carried it to the heavens.  “May Eitra bless the fruit of this union,” he declared, though he nearly choked on the words. The air filled with cheering and applause exactly like that he had experienced in Nevinia. This time it soured his stomach, but he twisted his lips into a smile anyway. The Emperor’s bloodline superseded his spiritual authority, and there was nothing he could do to prevent this marriage. At least nothing he could do without sparking an outright war, and he did not doubt that would leave every side worse off in the end.

Nemia and Necharthius exchanged totems, and then slaps, and then kisses, completing the ceremony of marriage. Trumpets and drums burst into song, and the new couple turned and raised their hands to the crowd. Nemia was radiant, as lovely as Khiss, as joyous as Alassal, A traitor. He hated that she was happy. He despised himself for his hatred.

It was a perfect marriage; everyone had agreed. Necharthius was wise, and kind, and handsome, his sister was determined and lovely and far too clever for her own good. He felt like he had that first day they entered the valley. He had worked so hard and so long to achieve his goals, and at the last moment Nemia had swooped in and stolen victory from him. He still found it hard to think that the heir to the throne had been hidden among his own caravan, unnoticed for years, hard to believe Nemia had planned this for so long. The fact that he had been forced to perform the wedding was an extra insult. He wished he could believe it had been teasing.

Nemia had changed since he had left. She still had the same quick wit, the same sharp tongue, but her playfulness had vanished. She was just as brilliant, simply tougher, like sap hardened into amber. Before, she had been annoying. Now she could be deadly.

Nemia looked back for a moment, grinning from ear to ear, and somehow – for an instant – Sennius believed she was still the girl he had once ridden goats through the kitchens with. A tear threatened to fall from the pain of that beautiful thought. Maybe… maybe they could still work things out. They both wanted the best for their people. If she could only be persuaded to try… they could still establish this nation without bringing the wrath of the gods upon them. Without tearing each other apart.

Most likely it was a fool’s hope, but ever since Nemia had trumped him, he felt the biggest fool in the north. He had to try.

Nemia and Necharthius descended the stairs of the unfinished great hall to receive the congratulations of the nobility, and Sennius slipped away quietly, ducking behind the half-constructed pillars. It was late evening, nearly twilight, and the bloated red sun was sinking into the gentle embrace of the clouds all too eagerly.

Tomorrow Nemia and her groom would be off to the highland lakes for their wedding retreat, and when they returned, they would be eager to begin their work. Sennius wouldn’t be able to halt their momentum long enough to make Nemia reconsider. She was the key to all this. She had arranged the marriage; she could persuade the prince, so long as he could persuade her.

He needed to speak to her alone, tonight, and there was only one time he would have the chance to do that. He would have to be quick about it, though, or else hope that Necharthius was as merciful as they claimed.

Sennius shucked off his priestly robes, foisting them onto one of the waiting attendants, and vanished into the growing darkness at the fringes of the celebration. It was peaceful here, almost too peaceful, with the babble of conversation fading away, leaving only the gentle crooning of the evening and his footsteps on the flagstones.

Again he was reminded of their first night here. How much had changed? A town had sprung up, lovely as a picture. His sister had married a prince. He was an Oracle, for Noctis’ sake! This should have been a happy day. And yet the town was walled, the marriage a scheme, and his appointment undermined. Even the angels seemed less glorious. He had heard the rumors whispered in dark corners. Rumors about angels that struck worrying chords in his memories…

No. He could salvage this. He only needed to convince Nemia, and all would be well. They could live in harmony with the Amavoi. They could build a nation that would rival – nay, exceed – Nevinia, if only he could talk to her.

He reached the palace, such as it was. It would have been nothing to the great manors and keeps of Nevinia, but it was still the greatest building in town, save perhaps the unfinished hall. Lights flickered within; even on an auspicious occasion such as the wedding, there was still work to do, and so many had come with him from the south that it was impossible for all to attend. He would have to be careful. If anyone saw what he was up to, well, things might go poorly.

There were guards stationed at the doors, chatting idly, but they straightened up quickly when they saw Sennius approach. “Your grace,” one of them said, looking confused as he bowed. “You are not at the celebration?”

“It would seem so,” Sennius said sarcastically, venting some of his worries on the poor guard. “Unless I have passed on and my shade has come to haunt you for asking foolish questions.”

The guard gulped, standing so stiffly that Sennius thought they could have used him to replace one of the pillars should the need arise. “My apologies, your grace. I simply did not expect to see you until later this night.”

Sennius sighed. The man didn’t deserve such treatment. “You were not in the wrong, soldier. I have been tired, and I think I may have had some bad clams. I am going to my quarters to rest now, I hope.”

“You don’t think… you’ve been poisoned, do you, sir?” the guard asked hesitantly.

“I think the only thing this poison might kill is my dignity,” Sennius said lightly. “But if the problems worsens, you’ll be the first to know.”

The guard looked puzzled, unsure whether Sennius was being sarcastic or not, but Sennius had already stepped past the man into the dim light of the palace, letting the door slam shut behind him.

Well, that was his alibi established. Nobody would disturb his chambers unless it was strictly necessary. Now he simply needed to find a way into the bridal… into his sister’s room without being seen. There was a discreet passageway for servants between the walls. If Sennius could clear them out, he would be free to get in and out inconspicuously.

He pretended to stumble, knocking over a vase loudly, and servants came running. He thanked them and apologized profusely, and insisted they take the evening off after they swept up the mess. That took care of the servants.

He had to admit it was kind of exciting, in a way, like when he used to play sick to escape his tutors and then run off to have an adventure. As often as not, Nemia had come with him – and shared the punishment when they were caught. He smiled slyly to himself at the memory. He and Nemia had shared years together. Could a few years of trouble really break a bond like that? He was still Sennius, underneath his obligations; his little sister had to be hiding beneath the mask of the guileful queen.

He waited in his chambers for a moment, waiting for the servants to clear out, and when they had left, he snuck into the servant’s passage and found the door into Nemia’s room, artfully disguised with a tapestry. Thankfully, the door was unlocked, and he stepped inside reverently, careful not to disturb anything.

A few fresh candles flickered in the corners of the room, providing just enough light to see around the large chamber. The bed was strewn with flower petals, and Sennius quickly turned his back on it, blushing. If the timing had not been so urgent, he would never have dreamed of coming here.

Instead, he walked over to the chests of drawers that lined one wall, running his finger along the edge as he looked fondly at the keepsakes displayed on top. There was the necklace their mother had made for her before she passed, and the geode he had given her for her birthday. In a little box was the jade figurine she had won in a game of sabat she had snuck out to attend. Arranged in a line were miniature busts of their family, modeled after the large ones in their ancestral home. He was pleased to see his figurine was still out, placed right beside her own.

He paused when he came to the last item: Nemia’s sword. The double curve of the blade was elegant and sinuous, naked and shimmering in the candlelight. It seemed almost to be watching him, judging him. He had seen her take heads with that blade. It seemed to be asking if he wanted to be next.

Suddenly his plan seemed remarkably poor. What if they came together? It was traditional for the groom to linger and share a last drink with the unmarried men, but some chose to forgo it. And who was to say Nemia would even listen to him? Her mind would be on her husband, far from thoughts of angels or treaties. He might even drive her further away.

He should leave. But then what? Try to catch them in the morning? Interrupt their marital retreat? Surely that would be more tactful than the wedding chamber, but would it be too late?

He was frozen with indecision, like a hare caught between wild dogs. Suddenly the door creaked open, and Sennius started guiltily, knocking the sword down and nearly cutting himself in the process. He whirled to find Nemia standing in the doorway, holding her shoes in one hand and drawing a knife with the other. She stared at him for a moment in disbelief, then brandished the knife, scowling.

“What are you doing here?” she growled.

“I just… I just wanted to talk,” Sennius stammered. “I needed to talk to you, before it was too late.”

Nemia continued to scowl, and her arm wavered as if she would like to throw the knife at him, but after a moment reading his face, she threw her shoes at him instead. Sennius caught them awkwardly, rooted to the spot. Nemia stormed in, slamming the door behind her.

She set the knife down and began removing her jewelry with exaggerated precision, not looking at Sennius. “I suppose this is about the Karod?”

There was no point pretending otherwise. “Yes.”

Nemia made a sound halfway between a snarl and a sigh, and with a sudden motion picked up the knife and send it spinning across the room. It struck the bedpost point-first with enough force to make the flower petals shift.

Sennius stared at the knife, but was quickly distracted when Nemia marched up to him, one earring still dangling lopsided from her reddening ears. “Can’t you see, Sennius? They’re not angels! They have stolen cattle behind our backs and robbed us to our faces! They keep us confined like animals and kill anyone who dares to defend themselves. Can’t you see it?”

Sennius’s mouth worked, but he found no words to say. Nemia looked at him with a mixture of pity and anger, and when he could not speak, she cried out in frustration and slapped the shoes from his hands.

Sennius stood numbly while she spun around and stalked over to the window on the far side of the room. She could have been staring outside, if the curtains had not been drawn.

“I have seen too much trouble and too few miracles to believe they are divine,” she said softly, her anger spent. “The only sign they have showed was when they chose you, and that could have been the work of dominators. I fear… I think they may have warped your mind.”

Sennius would be lying if he said that the thought had never occurred to him. But he couldn’t let his doubts stop him now. This was bigger than him, or his sister. It was about their people.

“Maybe the Karod… maybe the Karod aren’t angels,” he said. It was hard to get the words out, like forcing himself to be sick. Once they were out, he actually thought he might be sick, but he pressed on, his words spilling from him in a torrent. “Maybe they’re just ordinary men that look like Amavoi, the same way atna and khifi berries look alike. But that doesn’t mean they are demons.”

Nemia said nothing. Sennius carried on. “Even if they are mere men, why should we antagonize them? We are a mighty people, but they are many as well, and they know these lands.” He hesitated before he spoke next, but Nemia seemed to be listening, so he stepped to her side and whispered the secret he had carried for years. “They are not immortal. They can bleed, they can die. I have seen it in the words they taught me, and I once saw Hanach cut himself while eating.”

Nemia’s head whipped toward him in surprise, and Sennius hastened to carry on the thought before she interrupted him. “But Nemia, they are also mighty warriors, skilled with weapons and masters of great beasts. Even if they do not have the power of Eitra behind them – and they could – a war between us would be deadly. Either side could be destroyed.”

Nemia flexed her fists and bounced on her heels, as if trying to talk herself into taking a leap of faith. “You have a point,” she admitted. “Maybe we should just start over. Approach them as equals. We have the power to alter the treaty.”

“I do not think that even Amavoi would be offended by that, so long as we are respectful,” Sennius said carefully, like a hunter slowly readying himself for the killer blow. “Angels or men, we will be stronger together.”

Nemia fixed him with a stern stare, weighing him like a housewife at market. “You can arrange a meeting with Karod? Not Hanach or some local leaders, but their emperor or their king or what have you?”

“Yes,” Sennius promised at once. “Hanach knows them all. I can guarantee they will come.”

Nemia nodded, though it seemed like it took an effort. “Very well. If you can arrange a council, I will do my best to come to an arrangement that suits us both. If not… I will make the best choice for our people.”

Sennius nearly fainted from relief. “I can do it,” he said, a grin creeping across his face of its own accord. “Thank you, Nemia. Thank you.” Before he could think better of it, he grabbed her in an embrace. She stiffened awkwardly, but did not resist, and when he came to his senses a moment later, she had tears glistening in the corners of her eye.

They stood staring at one another for a second that felt like an hour, but then they heard faint footsteps climbing the stairs. Necharthius.

Nemia gave Sennius a sharp kick in the shins. “Shoo, boy,” she hissed. “You’ve said your piece. Now let me have my wedding night.” Sennius bowed quickly in apology, stepping quickly behind the tapestry, but he paused for a second before closing the door. He could hear the sound of jewelry being tossed into drawers, followed by the rustling of fabric.

“Nemia?” he called hesitantly. The noises stopped.

“What?” she snapped.

“Congratulations. I hope he makes you happy.”

“…thank you,” she said. A pause. “If you’re not gone in the next three seconds, I’ll see to it you won’t need your own wedding night, understand?”

Sennius grinned, but he made sure the door closed loudly enough that she could hear it. Seconds later the lock clicked into place, and he heard Necharthius enter the room. Sennius beat a hasty retreat.

His heart was pounding like a war drum, but he felt as though the low ceiling was the only thing keeping him from floating away. She had listened! There would be no war, no god-scourge. They were saved. Everything was going to be fine.

•••

Nemia had never seen more than a few of the Karod at one time. She knew that there were many of them, but it had always seemed abstract, an amorphous concept well beyond the bounds of their valley. That illusion was shattered now.

The Karod column wound their way into the valley from the northern side, looking for all the world like some wyrm of ancient legend slithering toward them. They did not march in cadence as a Nevinian army would, but neither were they some disorganized swarm like some of the desert tribes. They moved as individuals, but each was a piece of a unified whole. They moved like a wolf pack.

There had to be thousands, each armed with axe or hammer, and clothed in the fur of wolves and bears. Those pelts were thick, nearly as good protection as leather armor, and the craftsmanship on the weapons was of the highest quality.

Nemia felt a chill crawl up her spine. Sennius was right. The Karod were a force to be reckoned with, divine or not. It was best that they held this summit now. A Greatmoot, as the Karod called it. There had not been one among them for decades.

“Send forth riders,” Nemia ordered. “Have them give the utmost courtesy, and relay my instructions.” The leaders of the Karod would be allowed inside, with a small honor guard. The rest would shelter in a camp that was provided on the outskirts of village.

A captain nodded and stepped away to relay the instructions. They had several men trained in the language of the Karod, and while they could not speak it half so well as Sennius, they would do.

Versian arrived at the top of the gatehouse, smoothly sliding in next to Nemia. “Everything is prepared,” he said. “I brought the… water you asked for. It is good. My men have already tested it.”

Nemia nodded absently, eyes fixed on the approaching Karod, but she hesitated before taking the drink. If she carried through, it would be written in blood. There would be no going back.

“The feast is ready?” she asked, stalling. “The entertainment?”

“Yes, my Lady. Prepared at your instructions and well staffed.”

Nemia finally turned to look Versian in the eyes. He seemed calm, but there was haunted look in his eyes. Nemia suspected she had it as well. She still wasn’t sure if this was the right choice for her people, but it was too late to go back now.

It was too late to go back. The weight of that realization struck her like a hammer blow, crushing her hesitation and numbing her regrets. This needed to be done. She drank the liquid Versian had given her without a second thought. It was more bitter than vinegar, but she did not grimace. It was only fitting.

The Karod were almost upon the gates now, walking in slow procession, with their leaders mounted on strange, hoofed creatures.. Nemia recognized them by descriptions she had been given.

In the center of the column, an enormous, shaggy-haired beast with strange, hand-like antlers stood tall above the assembled warriors. Upon its humped shoulders rode Drakiren, their supreme leader. The arch-angel.

Were his likeness made into a statue, it would forever stand as one of the great pinnacles of the arts. But however well the sculptor might render the chiseled face and proud jaw, Nemia did not believe anything could capture those eyes, that confidence. Drakiren looked as though he stood in one place and moved the earth under his feet; immovable, immutable, unbreakable.

He was flanked by his advisors. The broad, balding man astride the big spiral-horned goat was Hondag, his grandmaster-at-arms, and Magira, their seer, was a tall, imperious woman who rode on a creature that seemed to have dead branches sprouting from its head. Behind them followed a string of lesser dignitaries, riding great, shaggy oxen and small camel-like creatures. The dignitaries were accompanied by an honor guard, distinguished by the circlets of bronze that held back their wild black hair. They were the largest men Nemia had ever seen.

She made a silent tally in her head. They were all here, every significant leader among the Karod gathered in one place. Perhaps this would work after all.

The Karodan company paused at the base of the gatehouse. Drakiren looked up at Nemia expectantly, as if there were no question about her position before him. Beneath him. It was the look of a master waiting for a slothful servant. Nemia held that gaze, refusing to be cowed, and flicked her eyes toward the soldiers. The messengers, standing to one side, shuffled nervously, as the bearers of the command now being enforced.

After a short eternity, Drakiren murmured a word to Hondag. The grandmaster hissed and tilted his head in the direction of the camp. Without a word, the warriors loped off in a long procession, until only the honor guard and leaders remained. Nemia nodded slightly, satisfied, and ordered the gate opened.

Confident and unhurried, the Karod filed in, Drakiren at their head. Soldiers led them to the great hall, where long tables laden with food awaited under the vault of the open sky. Necharthius would greet them there. Lanterns in the hall shone cheerful and golden in the descending twilight, and the music of flutes drifted enticingly across the cool air, beckoning the Karod on.

Nemia paused before heading to join them, looking up at the blood-red sun perched malevolently on the horizon. It seemed like the eye of the Deathwatcher, weighing her soul in judgement. But Nemia was not afraid of judgement, only failure.

She turned to leave, but found Versian in her path. “Lady Nemia,” he said softly. “What of those who are gone? Do you worry that the Karod will notice their absence?”

Her reply was somber and heavy. “They will be distracted by spectacle and wine. If they ask, we can say they have fallen ill.”

Versian laid a hand on her shoulder. “And what of your brother? How will he take this?”

Nemia shrugged off his touch and stared past him to the golden hall. “After this, I will no longer have a brother,” she said. Without looking at Versian, she headed down the steps, checking that her sword was ready.

“Close the gates and ready the men,” she said coldly. “I have guests to attend to.”


 

Section One Notes: This is another instance of me putting a little bit of action at the beginning, just to keep your attention primed. Although this sparring doesn’t lead to any real action, it does dovetail nicely with a little exposition on the changes over the years, and there’s some actual action at the end of this section.

I hope the schemes taking place here are clear enough to understand. Necharthius couldn’t leave ahead of time without tipping them off or risking capture. Even if they wouldn’t hurt him, Sennius would know he’d been had, and the homecoming would have been a very different affair. Hence the desperate race at the very end, which, when successful, allows Nemia to equal her brother’s power once again.

I like how this scene played out. The homecoming was one of the big problems in earlier drafts, and framing it this way is a vast improvement over the old versions.

Section Two Notes: Again, this is a section that required several re-writes, but it is much improved for it. As much as the characters have changed, they are still the same characters in many ways, as you’ll see here, especially getting so deep into Sennius’ head.

Like most people, Sennius isn’t a bad person, nor is he a particularly good one. Nemia is the same way, although the balance is different. That was one of my goals in writing this story, to write opposing characters that were both sympathetic but ultimately tragic. I hope I pulled it off.

You may notice some similarities to the scene in prior sections where Nemia tries to talk sense into Sennius. This was intentional, but perhaps more than you realize, but I’ll discuss more about it in the final section next week.

Section Three Notes: And just as Sennius betrayed Nemia, now she betrays him, signaling the final breaking point. Sennius started these events, but Nemia finishes them, a theme throughout the story.

I kept Sennius’s absence hidden from the reader during this section until the end, to try to disguise Nemia’s goals, and did the same thing by not revealing her full ambitions. Hiding things from the reader is something I’m not very experienced with, so I thought this would be a good chance to practice that.

Next week is the conclusion of this story.

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