Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Page 1887

Lionel breathed half a laugh. “You flatter me. I am not so busy a man as that. These days, I pay other people to run my ‘empire,’ as you put it, for me. I am much more of a man of leisure, I’m afraid.”

Somehow, Hector doubted that. But he also wasn’t about to come right out and declare the man a liar to his face. Mainly, he just wondered what game this guy was playing.

Thankfully, he had a three thousand year old reaper to consult.

What do you make of him?’ said Hector.

Not much, so far,’ said Garovel in the echo of privacy. There was no one else around who might be able to overhear him, but Hector supposed the extra caution couldn’t hurt. ‘He’s just testing the waters right now, I think--trying to get the measure of you.

“I wonder what my aunt has told you about me,” said Lionel, tilting his head.

“She doesn’t talk about her family very often,” said Hector. “But I understand that you aren’t... on the best of terms.”

Lionel frowned and gave a nod. “Alas, that is so. Old wounds have a way of resurfacing when ignored.”

“...What do you think of her?” said Hector.

“Mm. A difficult question, that.”

“Why is that?”

“Because my opinion of her has changed over the years. Many times, in fact.”

Hector just kept listening.

“Even when I was a boy, she was a bit of an outcast from the rest of the family. But I liked that about her. She had a kind of... ostentatious energy to her. She may not have gotten along with our parents, but there was little doubt that she loved us fiercely--the children, I mean.” Lionel shook his head with a small laugh. “That woman has always been a paradox. She said she never wanted children, yet she would play with us nonstop. She said she never wanted a husband, yet she only ever loved one man. She said she wanted to retire, yet now she has involved herself with you.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Page 1886

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
For a moment, the Lord Carthrace merely sat there, perhaps expecting him to say something or perhaps just observing him. “Well,” the man said, “seeing as you clearly received many more requests than just my own tonight, I suppose I should not keep you. Allow me to get right to the point.”

Hector appreciated that.

“The reason why I--and so many of the others, I suspect--wished to speak with you was because I am gravely concerned about the direction our nation is going in.”

Hector just nodded lightly, figuring that made sense--and that the man was not yet done talking.

“Furthermore,” Lionel went on, “I believe you will play a large role in shaping Atreya’s future.”

Hearing that, Hector tried to keep his expression still. It was difficult. He couldn’t stop himself from blinking a couple times, though the rest of his face remained flat.

Shaping Atreya’s future?

Talk about pressure.

He supposed he couldn’t really deny it, though. With so many people relying on him now, so many responsibilities to be mindful of, it wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination.

It sure felt like it, though.


Yeah, that’s great ‘n all,’ said Garovel, who was hovering over his shoulder, ‘but ask him to be more specific.’

“...Was there something specific that you wanted to discuss with me?” said Hector.

Lionel eyed him for a moment. “...No. No, not specifically. I simply wished to gain an understanding of your views. In general terms. Your worldview, in other words.”

Why did Hector find that so hard to believe?

“...I find that very strange,” said Hector flatly. “I would imagine... that a man with a real estate empire such as yourself... would be a little too busy to wonder about what I’m thinking.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

Page 1885

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
Lionel Carthrace was not yet here, but Garovel informed him that he soon would be, so Hector took a seat at the table in the middle of the room and waited. The guide bowed and excused himself.

When Lionel Carthrace arrived, the man was not alone. A pair of enormous bodyguards in suits and ties flanked him. One entered the room, and the other remained just outside the door.

Briefly, Hector wondered if those bodyguards were here because of him. After a moment, though, he figured probably not.

Wait a minute, didn’t he bring a bodyguard of his own?

Wow, he’d almost forgotten about Matteo Delaguna and Ernivoc. Hector hoped the guy wasn’t too upset about being left to his own devices. He’d have to ask Garovel about where those two were later. Right now, the presence of the Lord Carthrace was demanding his full attention.

The middle-aged man had a friendlier disposition than Hector had been expecting. From the way Amelia talked about her family, he’d thought the current head of House Carthrace would appear more stern and unwelcoming.

Maybe he was just accustomed to the Rainlords, though.

“It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Lord Goffe.” The man offered him a smile and a handshake.

Hector took the latter and said, “Likewise.”

“I must say,” said Lionel as he took his seat, “I am surprised that my dear aunt is not with you.”

Hector wasn’t sure what to say to that. Inquire? Yeah, maybe inquire. “Why do you say that?”

“She has a way of injecting herself into situations,” said Lionel. “Not that that is such a terrible quality.”

Again, Hector wasn’t sure what to say to that and this time decided to say nothing.

Page 1884

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
Er... I’m pretty sure that we’re going to the solar level,’ said Hector.

Garovel paused. ‘The what?

The solar level. The floor where all the solars are. The top floor of Bosliat’s main house was designed to have a bunch of solars, as a tribute to the Goddess of Light. Important negotiations are traditionally held there because they’re supposed to be, like, sacred. You’re not supposed to do anything shady in front of Cocora.

Garovel didn’t say anything.

Hector had more, though. ‘The rooms are all on the top floor because they have windows in the ceiling--to let in the Goddess’ light. The design became a problem at one point, though, when someone used them to break into the palace and try to assassinate the king. Like a hundred years ago or something. So all the windows have bars on them now.

There arrived noticeable silence as Garovel just looked a him.

...What?’ said Hector.

I really don’t like it when you explain things to me,’ said Garovel. ‘Just feels all kinds of wrong.

Hector had to suppress a laugh so as not to freak out his guide. ‘I just, uh, happened to read up about Bosliat the other day.

You and your castle fetish.

I don’t think being interested in something makes it a fetish.

Whatever you say, you little weirdo.

Sure enough, after an elevator ride and a couple more long hallways, they arrived at their destination, which was a handsome room of mostly burnished wood with visible support beams under the ceiling--and a big window with bars under it as well. Of course, it was late enough into the evening that hardly any sunlight made it through, but a pair of tall bronze lamps still bathed the solar with plenty of warm light.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Page 1883

“Do you think it’s proper to be having the Gala now, given the current financial crisis the country is facing?” said Mr. Elias.

Wow. Hector definitely didn’t plan on answering that. He could hear his guide from the palace staff radioing for security.

“No statement?” Mr. Elias scribbled something. “That’s fine. I understand. What do you think about the Queen’s recent decision to reinstitute the death penalty?”


Hector’s guide was intervening personally now, placing himself between Hector and the reporter and trying to usher the man away. Security was already arriving from the far end of the hall.

“Lord Goffe! Do you have a statement?!” Mr. Elias struggled mildly to hold his ground. “Where have you been these past few months?! Did you leave the country?! What have you been doing?! Lord Goffe!”

Hector felt a little bad for the guy as security arrived and pulled him away, all but dragging him.


Hector didn’t have much love for reporters, given how intrusive he’d known them to be, but seeing that dude fight so hard just for a story... well, there was something admirable about that, he supposed.

They proceeded on, with Hector’s guide offering copious apologies and Hector assuring him that it wasn’t a big deal.

It was still a long way to the negotiating chamber--such a long way, in fact, that Garovel seemed to grow impatient.

Why the hell is this little walk taking so long?’ he said privately. ‘There are plenty of other rooms around here, and they’re all empty. And we don’t even need this guide, anyway. There’s nobody else around, so I can sense where the Carthraces are pretty easily. I could take you right to them in twenty seconds flat.

Actually, uh... I know the answer to that,’ said Hector.

Hmm?’ said Garovel.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Page 1882

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Truth be told, he very much wanted Amelia to be there, too, but he still remembered his own reasoning for wanting to meet her family. He wanted to know more about her. If he was going to put this woman at the helm of the largest bank in the country, potentially, then he wanted to have a better measure of her as a person.

So maybe, in this case, going against his more fearful instinct and talking to the man without her would better help him achieve that end.

Plus, he would still have Garovel with him, so it wasn’t like he’d be entirely on his own.


“...I’ll talk to him by myself,” he told her, “but I’d like you there for all the other meetings.”

She frowned but nodded. “Very well.”

They went through more names after that and began forming a list. They didn’t get very far into it, considering how many names there were in total, but it would be enough for tonight. They gave their list to the palace staff so as to help with organization, and then Hector was off to go meet the Lord Lionel Carthrace.

En route, however, a man in glasses came up to him.

“Lord Goffe,” the stranger said, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Ah--” Hector wasn’t quite sure what to say. This didn’t feel quite right. They were in a hall, and one of the palace staff had been in the middle of guiding him to a more private location where he could have his meeting. Who was this random guy?

“My name is Matthew Elias.” The guy whipped out a pen and notepad. “Would you mind if I asked you a few quick questions, sir?”

Oh, shit.

Careful,’ warned Garovel privately.

Page 1881

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
It seemed entirely apparent from the get-go that there would simply not be enough time to meet with everyone who had requested it--not this evening, at least. Madame Carthrace was already talking about scheduling future meetings back at Warrenhold for anyone they weren’t able to speak to tonight.

“But that also presents its own challenges as well,” she said. “These people are tremendously prideful. If we do not prioritize those with the most influence, some among them are liable to feel slighted. And while I would find that intensely amusing, it would unfortunately be counterproductive.”

Hector just listened closely. He had little doubt that Amelia’s knowledge and experience here needed to be the driving force behind these interactions. Mostly, he just wanted to not say anything stupid.

“With your permission,” said Amelia, “I would like for us to meet with Lionel Carthrace first.”

Hector blinked at the name but didn’t say anything.

“You previously mentioned wanting to meet my family,” she went on, “and this is as good an opportunity as any. My nephew should not yet know about our plan to open a bank, and I would prefer that you talk to him before he does. I fear that knowledge will change how he presents himself to you.”

“I remember you mentioning that before,” said Hector.

“I don’t know what he wants to talk to you about, but there is a strong chance that he will not wish for me to be present during your meeting. In fact, it may even be better for me to not go with you at all. My presence will likely change his demeanor as well.”


“That being said, I would still like to be there with you.”

Hector considered her words.

Page 1880

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
He had no idea what do, but he tried not to let that show on his face. He didn’t know how successful he was at that, since there were probably about a thousand different ways for facial expressions and body language to be interpreted, but he did his best. It helped that he was able to compartmentalize this panic a little. He could focus on his body, his breathing, his posture--his existence in the universe, even. Like meditating.

When everyone started moving again, though, that wasn’t much of a solution anymore. For a terrible second, he was worried that the press was going to start asking tons of questions, but apparently not. They were only allowed to take pictures and video, thankfully.

The dining tables were cleared away, and Hector was given a box to store all his cards in. The guests began to spread out and talk amongst themselves again, but Hector still couldn’t help feeling like everyone was still staring at him. It was enough to make him consider putting on his armor again, just to help him cope with the pressure.

But then, he supposed he’d felt worse than this. Not much worse, but worse. Talking to Ivan and Leo, specifically came to mind. And Malast, too?

Actually, no, not really. He hadn’t felt all that much pressure talking to that guy, comparatively speaking. Perhaps it was because he’d never really felt like Malast might slaughter him and everyone around him. That did tend to increase the stress level of a situation.

Ugh. He was not looking forward to talking to Leo again.

When he thought about it like that, though, it made all this attention feel a bit more bearable.

Madame Carthrace soon found him and started going through his invitations with him.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Page 1879

It looked as though most of the dinner guests hadn’t received any cards at all, and the ones that did had only received seven or eight, but here he was, sitting in front of a small mountain.

This did not bode well for the rest of the evening, he felt.

Now that he was thinking about it, he recalled reading about something along these lines during the dinner preparations. In the preliminary paperwork, where he’d also submitted his meal order, there had been a list of names whom he could extend up to four invitations to. He hadn’t given it much thought, since he wasn’t especially interested in meeting with any of the other guests, specifically. He might’ve picked the Queen, but she hadn’t even been on the list, probably because she was the host, not a guest.

“Looks like you’re in for a fun night,” said Lynn dryly, brushing away a couple cards that had spilled over to her side of the table.

David was chortling as he stacked his own cards together. “I am not sure whether to envy you or pity you.”

“I wonder what they all want to talk to you about,” said Lynn.

Hector was wondering that as well. It probably wasn’t just one thing, right?

Might be easier if it was, though.

After that, as if all the sudden attention from the other lords wasn’t enough of a weight, the media was also let back into the dinning hall in order to take more pictures and even video this time.

He couldn’t help but notice that they were fixating on him again. This stupid pile of cards was going to make the news, wasn’t it?


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Page 1878

Hector kept his composure, though. He’d expected it to taste horrible. Maybe not quite this horrible, sure, but his plan remained unchanged.

He made his face light up. “Wow, it’s actually pretty good,” he said.

Lynn blinked and then tried the concoction herself. She wasn’t able to conceal her displeasure at all this time, and she had to put a hand over her mouth.

He tried not to laugh too hard while she was glaring at him with her one eye, but he could see that she was trembling from muted laughter of her own, as well. He pushed his cheesecake closer to her as a peace offering.

The cheesecake didn’t last much longer with the both of them sharing it, and not even Lynn wanted to touch the milkshake monstrosity again.

As everyone in the chamber finished up their dessert, Hector began noticing more movement among the serving staff all around them. At first, he thought they were bringing out some kind of secret extra course, but when he saw that they were carrying folded cards instead of food, he began to wonder what they were doing.

To and fro, they scurried, dropping cards off in front of the various lords and ladies. He didn’t have to wait long in order to find out what the cards were for, because several of them arrived in front of him. He unfolded one and read its contents.

‘Lord Henrich Masden requests a meeting this evening,’ it read.

He picked up another one, and it said exactly the same thing, save that it pertained to Lord Arnold Greenway. Still another was for Lady Margaret Holbach.

And more cards kept arriving with more names, all requesting a meeting.

As he looked around at the other lords and ladies in confusion, he couldn’t help noticing that they were all staring at him now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Page 1877

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector didn’t know why he was listening to her now, but he did as she asked and took another bite. It was just as bad as the first, if not worse.

Horrible as it was, though, he was enjoying himself. They kept taking turns, and Hector watched her face, waiting to see her facade break--which it eventually did, though only barely. But even just that small twist in her expression was more than enough to make him laugh. He helped her finish her abysmal meal and shared the rest of his own with her in order to alleviate the aftertaste.

It wasn’t much longer until the servers began bringing out everyone’s chosen dessert courses. Hector had ordered himself a slice of strawberry cheesecake with whipped cream. Prince David had gone for the chocolate cake, Hector noticed, and Lynn, apparently, had ordered... some sort of thick, yellow drink with a carrot sticking out of it.

Hector just looked at it, then at her, not saying anything.

She noticed his gaze. “What?”

He pointed at it. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s carrot cake,” she said. “In milkshake form. With honey. And something else, I think. I can’t remember.”

“Why...?” After a moment, he realized that word alone was enough. “Just, why?”

Another tiny smile crept into her face, and she looked momentarily distressed. “Why not?”

Hector just blinked slowly and shook his head. “Have you ever ordered that before?”


“I am not helping you finish it.”

“Oh, come on! It might be really good!”

“Yeah? Well, I can’t wait to see you try it.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to try it first? I don’t mind.”

Hector almost refused immediately, but then he thought better of it. “Alright, fine, I will.” He reached over and grabbed a spoonful for himself.

Lynn just watched him in silence.


It tasted like a sugar pixie had taken a shit in his mouth.

Page 1876

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
Hector hesitated, but Lynn was looking at him expectantly. Well, shit. He wasn’t about to refuse her, but he still had to ask, “...What is that, exactly?”

“Calamari and squash,” she told him, pushing the plate even closer now. “Try some.”

He was not pleased to know that his guess had been correct, but he supposed it didn’t matter now. He cut off a piece with his fork. It gooped together quite easily. And he shoveled it into his mouth.

“Oh,” he said as the taste hit his tongue and his face tried to scrunch into itself. “Oh, that’s awful.”

“I know, right?” said Lynn, laughing. “I made a huge mistake ordering it.”

He placed his fist in front of his mouth as he tried to muscle the food down. There was something especially horrible about the sauce. It was sweet in the most unfitting way he could imagine.

He got it down, though, and couldn’t help coughing a little afterwards.

“Want some more?” she asked. “I’ve got plenty left.”

“...You’re a bad person,” said Hector.

She laughed. “I’m sorry. But I need help finishing this. I don’t think I can get through it on my own.”

“I don’t think you have to finish it.”

“My mother would disagree with you.”

Hector recalled Isabelle Edith and had no trouble believing that. “Well, I won’t tell her if you don’t.”

Lynn just smiled faintly again before reassessing her meal. She took another bite. Her face remained perfectly undisturbed as she chewed.

“...You’re good at hiding your disgust,” Hector observed.

“It’s a matter of professionalism,” she said. Then she pushed the plate closer to him again. “Now have some more before I vomit.”

Page 1875

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
“You definitely do seem like you’ve gotten stronger, though,” Lynn went on. “How about a sparring match later on? I’ll gauge your progress.”

“Uh--sure,” said Hector unthinkingly. “Oh, but, uh... I’m not sure we’ll have time for that...”

She glanced across the banquet hall. The myriad of guests were all talking amongst themselves at the moment, but there was little doubt that they would all be wanting attention from the Queen shortly. “You’re probably right.” Her smile turned faintly more mischievous. “Maybe we should just fight right here and make the news.”

Hector gave her a look. He was only mostly sure that she was joking. “We’ve been in the news enough already, I think.”

“Heh. Maybe you have. I wouldn’t mind being in the news a little more.”

“Really?” said Hector. “You want to become even more famous than you already are?”

She sat up more rigidly in her chair. “Oh, I don’t want anything. I serve at the pleasure of the Queen. I have no desires of my own.”

Hector just kind of blinked at her.

“Aside from this salmon here.” She reached over to Hector’s plate with her fork and skewered a piece for herself. “You don’t mind, do you? This looks really good.”

That made him laugh, and he scooted the plate closer to her. “Go crazy.”

She took a bite. “Mm! Yeah, that’s great. Here, you want some of mine? It’s only fair, right?” She pushed her plate toward him now.

Oh geez. This was getting kinda--

Wait, what the hell was that on her plate? Octopus? Squid? Slimy, whatever it was. Covered in a white sauce and squishy yellow vegetables. Squash, maybe.

Ugh. He’d always hated squash.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Page 1874

None of that helped Hector to know what to say right now, though. He was still so far beyond confused that he was beginning to wonder if this was a dream or something. Or possibly a nightmare.

“Not that it looks bad on you or anything,” said Lynn.

What was she talking about? Oh, the Scarf. Right. Agh. He had to say something. She was going to think he was a weirdo if he just kept sitting there in silence.

Well, she probably already thought that.

But what was he supposed to say? Nothing was coming to mind. All he could think about was how much he was fucking this up, right now.


Perhaps Lynn grew tired of waiting, because she pulled back a little. “In any case... it’s good to see you again.”

Had she really just said that? Even if she was just being friendly or polite, Hector was over the moon. Did she actually mean that?

He had to say something in return, though. He had to.

“It, uh--” C’mon, he told himself. This shouldn’t be that hard. “It’s good to--er... to... I...”

“It’s good to see me, too?” said Lynn. “Is that what you’re trying to say?”

For a moment, Hector just stared at her, trying his hardest not to look like a wide-eyed idiot. He managed to nod, though.

“Well, thank you,” she said with a demure smile.

Good god, this woman was incredible.

“On second thought, though, maybe you’re not as different as I thought,” she said.

Hector didn’t know if he should take that as an insult or a compliment, but after a second, he realized he didn’t really care. It was clear enough from the tone of her voice and smile on her face that she was enjoying herself.


This was the best dinner ever.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Page 1873

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
Somehow, he managed to clink his glass against hers without the entire universe exploding.

He sipped his water quietly and tried to focus on keeping a clear mind. Clear like the water. Nice and calm. Nothing worth freaking out over. As peaceful as meditating.

“Are you okay?” said Lynn. “You seem a little...”

Oh fuck. A little, what? What was she about to say?


Agh. What in the hell did that mean? He needed more information. But that meant asking a question. Fuck! “...What do you mean?” he managed to ask without dying.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You’re kind of... zen. Or something.”




“Also, what’re you wearing?” She touched the Scarf of Amordiin.

Hector was not concerned about her suddenly being overwhelming by its sensory enhancing properties, however. Previously, that had been a worry, but he had discovering during his sparring with Zeff that the Scarf didn’t work for other people. At least, as far as they had been able to tell. They hadn’t revealed its power to Zeff, nor did they wish to, but the Lord Elroy had definitely touched it several times and apparently not noticed anything strange.

Hector still wasn’t entirely sure why the Scarf didn’t work for other people, but Garovel seemed fairly certain that it was a matter of the Scarf only being able to bond with one soul at a time. Something to do with the way bodies functioned as conduits for soul. Hector hadn’t really followed the reaper’s explanation too well.

Page 1872

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Ah.” David took a quick bite before lowering his voice a little. “Might this have anything to do with these ‘guests’ of yours I’ve been hearing about?”

Talking with his mouth full didn’t strike Hector as very princely. Hector decided to keep that thought to himself, though. “What have you been hearing, exactly?”

“Oh, this and that. You’re taking people prisoner. You’re building an army. You’ve cloned yourself.”

Hector cocked his head to the side. “Excuse me?”

“Wild speculation en masse,” said David. “You are a popular subject, you know.”

“...Cloned myself, though? Really?”

“At this point, I think people just have fun talking about what you might be up to. Much of what gets said is similarly unbelievable. But perhaps you would like to inform me of the truth of the matter?”

“Uh... I would like to, actually, but...” He looked toward the Queen, who was busy conversing with her husband, then toward Lynn, who merely gave him a knowing look. “This may not be the best place for it,” he told the Prince. “But I already told, er... ah...”

The Prince glanced toward his sister as well, then nodded. “Ah. Say no more, then.” David went for his glass of wine and held it up to Hector. “Let us forestall our worries for the moment and enjoy this fine meal, shall we?”

“Ah--” Hector grabbed his own glass of ice water and tapped it against the Prince’s.

It was to Hector’s surprise, however, when David turned to the man sitting on the other side of him--his brother Meriwether--to toast with him as well.

Which meant that Hector suddenly felt an obligation to do the same with the other person that he was sitting next to.

Lynn was already looking at him, holding her own glass, and waiting.

Dear god, why was this situation so immediately terrifying?

Page 1871

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
“I take it you disagree?” said David.

Hector looked at her.

She looked back at him, perhaps thinking, then gave a small shrug. “I’m not a philosopher. It just seems... impractical, I suppose.”

“Mm,” was all David said.

She wasn’t wrong, Hector felt. Trying to get an entire nation to become pacifistic? Especially one as big and proud as Intar? Impractical wasn’t even the word for it.

He could only imagine what the Rainlords would think of that. Though, Intar had its own Rainlords, too, didn’t it? Now more than ever, he wondered what they were like.

David skewered a small slice of buttered duck with his fork. “So would you mind joining me on my next trip to Intar?” he asked.

Hector hadn’t forgotten the proposal. He’d been trying to work out an appropriate response in the back of his mind. “I, ah...” He looked toward Garovel, who was on the other side of the room, apparently eavesdropping on some of the lords’ conversations.

Hector supposed he would have to decide on his own. If he was being honest with himself, though, he already knew what he needed to say. “I’m sorry. I... don’t think I can leave the country, right now. I’ve got a lot, uh... that still needs taking care of here.”

The Prince frowned but nodded. “I see.”

After a moment of observing the man’s face, Hector reconsidered his answer. “But... I may be able to find someone else to escort you.”

“Oh?” said David. “Who, might I ask?”

That seemed to pique Lynn’s interest as well.

Hector recoiled from both their gazes a little. “Ah, uh--er--like I said, I may be able to find someone. I don’t, uh, have anyone in particular in mind yet...”

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Page 1870

That sounded familiar to Hector, but he didn’t want to jump to any conclusions about what the Prince was referring to. “...What ideas do you mean, exactly?”

Before the man could answer, however, their food began to arrive. Hector had almost forgotten what he’d ordered. He’d had to choose four days ago from a menu the size of a book. Apparently, the staff needed that much time to prepare all of these dishes.

A simple salmon entree with mashed potatoes and vegetables was all he’d gone for, but they’d managed to make even that look lavishly gourmet--and taste fantastic, too.

David picked the conversation back up as soon as the servers were gone. “I believe the clash of ideas, at its deepest core, is between pacifism and interventionism.”

Hector was mid-bite as he thought about that. He wanted to say something, but he figured he should finish chewing first. A voice to his right was therefore able to beat him to the punch.

“Pacifism?” said Lynn.

Hector barely avoided flinching. He’d almost managed to forget that she was there.

“Indeed,” said David. “It seems a popular ideology among youthful Intarian activists. They argue that their nation has been ‘an arbiter of subjective truths on the world stage for too long.’”

“What does that mean?” said Lynn.

“Yes, the language they use makes it a bit unclear,” said David, “but I believe they are saying that they think Intar is unfairly imposing its own sense of morality and justice upon the rest of the world. Eloa, in particular.” The man paused. “Which, I have to say, is not an argument without merit.”

Hector supposed that lined up with what Garovel had said about Intar becoming more interventionist in recent years--and growing closer to the Vanguard.

“And they think pacifism is the answer?” said Lynn, apparently not caring to conceal the disapproval in her tone.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Page 1869

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
The Prince frowned. “Not as productive as I would have hoped, sadly.”

Hector just listened.

“Rather a turbulent place, Intar,” said David. “You wouldn’t know it just by looking, though. It’s a country full of deception. Calm on the surface, but a maelstrom beneath. Spies everywhere. I’m not sure I met a single trustworthy person while I was there.”

“Wow,” was all Hector could think to say.

“My business there is not yet concluded, however,” said David. “I will have to venture back into that den of vipers in a few days.” He allowed his gaze to linger on Hector a moment. “I don’t suppose there is any way I could convince you to accompany me, is there?”

Hector blinked at that. “Uh...”

David merely waited for an answer. He was genuinely asking, it seemed--not making some sort of strange joke.

“...Are you really that worried about your safety?” said Hector.

David bobbed his head. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes. I visited Intar much in my youth. I even studied at university there.” He paused. “Various universities, to be more precise. And before this year, I felt I had a fairly good grasp of the Intarian culture, mindset, and even its political landscape. But now...”

“Something’s changed?” Hector inferred.

“That is putting it mildly. Though, perhaps it is only my perception of it that has changed. Certainly, learning about the existence of... your less corporeal friends has had an effect on my worldview.”


“But even so, I cannot help but feel as though there is a greater game being played in Intar, right now.”

“Greater, how?” said Hector.

“Greater than a typical power struggle, I mean,” said the Prince. “Those are common enough among those with influence. Neverending, one might even argue. No, this strikes me as something different. It is more a war of ideas, I think.”

Page 1868 -- CXCV.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
He had to relax. Everything was probably fine. They were in the dining room. Everyone was being seated. He just had to focus on finding his assigned spot. His eyes half-panickedly searched among the triangular name cards for “Hector Goffe.” There were so many tables, all pristinely decorated, but the Queen’s was the largest and at the center of the room. That one would probably be reserved for all the Belgrants and Lumenbels, though, right? He wouldn’t be assigned there, would he? He’d have been placed somewhere--

Nope. His name was right there at the Queen’s table, only one chair away from her. And that one chair between them had the name “Lynnette Edith” assigned to it.

He was going to have to sit next to Lynn.

Of-fucking-course he was.

He closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead with one hand, and inhaled deeply.

It was going to be a long dinner.

Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Five: ‘The furtive banquet...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The media was finally allowed into the castle, but only to take photographs of the enormous gathering before dinner. They were soon ushered back out by the security staff, presumably so as not to disturb the guests while they were eating.

Hector appreciated that, at least. The last thing he wanted was to have this miserable meal televised.

Unfortunately, it also had the effect of lessening the overall tension in the room, which seemed to make people more comfortable talking.

Hector was not one of those people.

But perhaps Lynn wasn’t, either, because she was remaining noticeably quiet.

The person sitting on his left, however, was very much one such talker. Not that Hector minded. Prince David of House Lumenbel was someone he was most interested in listening to.

“I’m glad to see we both made it back in time for the Gala,” said David.

“How was your time in Intar?” asked Hector, thankful for any excuse not to look to his right.

Page 1867

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
“I am sure they will be happy to see you as well,” said Helen.

Yeah, no kidding,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘Darsihm wouldn’t shut up about you the other day. It seems you left quite an impression on him, Garovel.

Oh, really?’ laughed Garovel. ‘That makes me happy.

There arrived a knock at the door, and the amusement on the Queen’s face diminished suddenly. “Enter,” she said loudly.

The same guide from earlier poked her head into the room. “Dinner is ready to be served, Your Highness. Everyone is gathering.”

“I see. Thank you, Willow.”

The young woman bowed her head lightly and disappeared again.

Helen inhaled deeply. “I suppose we had better make an appearance.” She stood, and her gigantic dress moved beneath her like a suddenly disturbed sea. Lynn had to step out of its way.

Hector stood up as well.

“Let us speak again later tonight,” said Helen. “There is more I would yet discuss with you.”

Hector just gave her a nod and followed her out of the room.

Somehow, he ended up walking next to Lynn.

It didn’t seem like there would be enough time to say much of anything to her, but he still couldn’t help being intensely conscious of her presence. She was so close. All of his discomfort from earlier came rushing back, stronger than ever, and his neck felt suddenly rigid as he tried not to glance awkwardly at her.

It was just a short walk. No big deal.

But she was right there next to him...

And she was looking damn good, too.

Oh, shit, he’d glanced at her, hadn’t he?

And she’d noticed, too. He could see her looking at him in his peripheral vision.

Shit shit shit shit.

Friday, September 21, 2018

TZKS will return on October 6th

Hey, everyone. I'm sorry for the radio silence all this time. It's been a hell of a year for my family. I meant to give you guys an update ages ago, but I just kept getting distracted and putting off, and time got away from me.

I guess I needed more time away than I thought. I'm very sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I can't thank you enough for all the support you've given me over the years, but especially lately. Many of you have sent me emails expressing your concerns, and I can only thank you for your kind words.

But yeah, I'm still not QUITE ready to start posting again. I'm gearing up for it, though. Going through my notes. Rereading. Reminding myself of lots of thing. And actually writing new text, of course. That part's pretty important.

I'm gonna do what was working for me before, which was building up a backlog. That's my current game plan. As the title of this post says, I just need a bit more time to get back into the swing of things. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, however, there is something you guys could do for me. Considering how long TZKS has become, and how many mysteries still permeate the text, I've begun wondering which of those mysteries you guys are most eager to get answers to.

Or in other words: what are your most burning questions?

Of course, I'm not promising to answer them anytime soon, as I have many plans for when and where I want to reveal certain things, but I'd still like to hear from you guys on this. The feedback could prove very helpful, both in the short- and long-term. So please leave a comment, if you can think of anything.

That's about it for now. I'll see you on October 6th. And as always, thank you for reading.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 2

<<Page 1 || [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 3>>

Rex’s brow receded. “That right?”

“It is.” Colt bent down to pull his kids out of the car and show the man.

Rex’s brow receded even farther upon laying eyes on them. “Wow. Well. Color me surprised. Shocked, even.”

A child in each arm, Colt closed the door with his leg. “Shocked, huh? Is it really so unbelievable? Seems like a great little town you’ve got here.”

“Oh, it is. It is.” It took the sheriff a moment to find his smile again. “Of course it is. Just don’t get many visitors around these parts, much less folks who actually want to stick around.”

“Why’s that?” said Colt. “Any reason I should change my mind right now and turn around?”

“Oh, ah, no, nothing like that. Unless you count my ex-wife. Which I would, if I were you.”

Colt was able to smirk at that. “I hear you, brother.”

The man gave a short but hefty laugh and stepped closer. “I’m sure you’ll find that the locals around here are as friendly as can be. But we have had a string of burglaries lately.”

“Oh?” That piqued his interest. He hadn’t seen or heard anything about that during his scouting.

“Yes, sir. It’s nothin’ too outrageous, not like you might see in the big city. Probably just some teenagers getting up to no good, but all the same, you’d do well to keep a close eye on your belongings while you’re here.”

While he was here? He just told him that this wasn’t a temporary visit. “I appreciate the warning, officer.”

“Sheriff,” the man clarified, pointing to the silver star on his chest.

“Ah. My mistake.”

Rex gave him a shrug and another smile, then eyed the children. “Adorable little darlings. Twins?”

“You can tell?”

“Sort of. Lucky guess, mainly. What’re their names?”

“Stephanie and Thomas.” Colt had thought long and hard about changing their names, but he’d ultimately decided against it because of what that doctor back in Atreya had told him. Getting them to learn their own names at this stage in their development was important, so changing them now seemed like an unnecessary complication. No one was going to identify him through their first names. No one was even looking for him.

“Fitting. Oh, and what’s your name, sir? Never did ask.”

“Colton Thompson.”

The sheriff paused. “Thompson, huh? So then, your son’s name is Thomas Thompson?”

Colt didn’t even blink. “That’s right. And don’t blame me. His mother named him that.”

“Ah. And where is the little lady, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Colt did mind, actually, but he figured it would be best not to say so. “Dead,” he said flatly. That was a lie, of course, but he preferred it to the truth, not the least because admitting that she was in an institution for the criminally insane would likely spark more questions. Maybe Rex wouldn’t actually ask those questions, but Colt didn’t want the man thinking them, either.

And hey, maybe it wasn’t actually a lie. It had been a long time since he’d seen her, so technically, for all he knew, she could have died.

That would’ve been nice.

“I... see,” the man said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

It took Colt a moment to realize that he was supposed to act sad. “Thank you. It’s been difficult since her passing.”

“I can imagine.”

That was good, because Colt honestly couldn’t. As far as he was concerned, his life had improved a thousand fold after that crazy bitch had been removed from it.

“Might I ask what it was that made you choose our humble little town?” said Rex. “Not every day we get new residents.”

Colt didn’t want to admit that he had come here because his grandparents were originally from Snider. He figured that would only lead to whole new line of questioning that he didn’t wish to answer, especially if this guy somehow happened to be familiar with Colt’s grandparents. Unlikely, maybe, but not outside the realm of possibility. Small towns were like that, after all.

Instead, Colt gave an answer that he felt would be much safer. “Wanted somewhere nice and quiet with a good community. This place seemed like a good choice.”

“Ah, I see. You’re a man of real taste, then! Orden is a great little town. And quiet, of course, yeah, I understand that. Unfortunately, I’d say we’re not quite as quiet as we used to be, what with being so close to the capital ‘n all. That city’s been growing like mad in recent years. That’s somethin’ we’ve all been worried about, actually. Don’t want our humble country lifestyle to disappear as those city lines inch closer, but ya know how it goes, sometimes. Not much we can do about that, eh?”

“I actually liked that the capital was so close,” said Colt.

“Oh.” A brief frown crossed the sheriff’s face before he wiped it clean with a smile again. “That so?”

“It is,” said Colt. “The big city has its benefits, after all.” Health and education came immediately to mind. In the event that the modest facilities here in Orden proved somehow inadequate, Colt had liked the thought of having relatively easy access to the more extensive ones in Lagoroc.

“That, it does,” said Rex. “Plenty of extra appeal for young bucks like us, am I right?”

Colt cocked an eyebrow. “That sarcasm I hear?”

“Why, yessir, it is.”

“You don’t think you’re young anymore? You can’t be a day over thirty-five.”

“Heh, I appreciate the compliment, friend. I’m thirty-two but sometimes, I feel twice that.”

Thirty-two was pretty damn young for a sheriff, Colt thought. “Maybe you should go see a doctor, then.”

“Nah, it’s just the job. Makes a man feel his age, this line of work.”

Oh, yeah, patrolling a sleepy little town for rowdy teenagers must’ve really been eating away at his soul.

Fuckin’ dumbass had no idea how good he had it.

Rex wasn’t done running his stupid mouth, however. “You sure you wouldn’t be happier living somewhere with a bit more excitement? I know you got kids ‘n all, but somethin’ tells me you’re a man who lives for adventure.”

“Oh, no, not me,” said Colt as genuinely as he could manage. “I’ll take order and stability over adventure, any day.”

Rex squinted at him. “That right?”

“Yes, sir.” Colt knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to look him in the eye, get the measure of him. Too bad Colt’s sunglasses were in the way, and the sheriff had no justification for asking him to remove them.

After a few moments, the man relented. “Well, if you say so. But are you sure your kids’ll like it here? Youngins need stimulation and whatnot, right? Won’t find much of that here in Orden, I’m afraid.”

At that, Colt paused. What the hell was this? It was perfectly normal for the local sheriff to take an interest in a new resident, but was that really all this was? Because it was starting to sound like he was trying to dissuade him from living here.

But what sense did that make? Colt had already asked the guy if there was any reason to change his mind and go live somewhere else, and the man hadn’t offered any actual reasons.

Maybe this guy really was a fucking idiot.

Well, shit. It was best to be direct with idiots, Colt had always found. “...Sheriff, is there some reason why you think we shouldn’t stay here?”

And Sheriff Rex Margot just stared at him for a moment.

A long moment.

“Ah,” Rex finally said. “Sorry, did you say something? I must’ve missed it.”

Colt resisted the urge to conclude their conversation by strangling him. “...I said, is there some reason why you think we shouldn’t stay here, in Orden?”

Rex gave him another big smile. “Oh, no, no, no. Orden’s a wonderful place. If everything you just told me is true, then I’m sure you’ll find it very cozy and welcoming.”

Why was he becoming less convinced of that, all of a sudden?

“Anyway, I suppose I’ve taken up enough of your time,” said Rex. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Thompson.”

“Same here, Sheriff.”

Colt watched him walk over to his patrol car and drive away.


He supposed if the sheriff’s intention had been to unsettle him, then the man had achieved his goal.

Fuckin’ prick.

Colt filled up his own car’s gas tank and then went inside the shop, taking the kids with him. It wasn’t particularly hot outside, so they probably would have been fine on their own for a little while, but there was no way he was going to risk it. For all he knew, some fucking psycho could come along and kidnap them while he wasn’t looking.

Also, he felt like having the kids with him made him look like much less of a suspicious asshole.

It was all for naught, though, because the store didn’t have much that he was interested in. Not even any diapers. What kind of grocery store didn’t have diapers? He paid for his gas and left.

With Orden being so small, there wasn’t a whole lot to do or see, but it did help him to remember where everything was. With all the scouting he’d done, he already had the town’s layout memorized, so he already knew where he would most likely be able to find diapers. The local market was one of the largest buildings in Orden and the big neon sign with the word “ANYTHING” on it was pretty difficult to miss.

It was a strange name, Colt thought. What kind of person names their store Anything? The kind of person named Fred Millerman, apparently. Colt had scouted this guy, too, of course. Owning the largest shop in town obviously pointed to him being one of the most influential people around, and what Colt was able to learn of the guy only seemed to confirm that.

Fred was a middle-aged man of above average height and a full head of inky black hair. And yet, Colt didn’t think that anyone would claim the guy had been burdened with an overabundance of physical charm. Colt wasn’t usually one to give even half of a shit about anyone’s appearance, but Fred’s lopsided face was difficult to ignore, as was the scar that extended down the left side of it.

Often, scars had an odd appeal to them in their own way, but not Fred Millerman’s. His scar had a discomforting sort of sheen to it, and rather than looking twisted or gnarled, the flesh looked more bloated and sickly smooth, as well as paler than his already pale skin. It was a burn scar, Colt was fairly sure, and it looked like the guy might’ve endured a botched surgery or two in an attempt to fix it.

Colt pitied the poor bastard, but not that much. Instead, he was more interested in learning what kind of person was behind that fucked up mug, though not because Colt was looking for a friend. In his time as a cop, Colt had encountered a few other people cursed with that level of hideousness, and he’d come to notice a few similarities between them.

He felt that there was something that happened to a person psychologically when they had an appearance like that. Other environmental factors were at play, of course, but in Colt’s experience, it seemed like there were basically only two possible outcomes for something this extreme. Either the person was one of the nicest, most compassionate people Colt had ever encountered... or the exact opposite. A real, genuinely heartless monster.

Colt wasn’t sure why that was. It was just something he’d noticed. He suspected that it had something to do with how different people reacted in the face of overwhelming cruelty and trauma, but then again, maybe it was a chicken and egg scenario. He might’ve asked a psychologist about it, if he’d ever met one who seemed like they actually knew what the fuck they were talking about.

Regardless, all of this meant that Colt had become keenly aware of Fred Millerman. From what Colt had seen during his time scouting the city, Fred didn’t seem like an especially dangerous son of a bitch, but that was far from confirmative. It was true that people who were genuinely monstrous usually didn’t know how to regulate their behavior, much less hide it, but exceptions certainly existed.

He was one such exception himself, Colt knew.

Whatever the case, he didn’t intend to let his guard down around this Fred Millerman anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter.

“Will this be all, sir?” said Fred after Colt had finished placing the items from his cart on the checkout desk.

Diapers, baby food, and a can of mixed nuts were all he’d picked up, but the shopping cart had been useful to let the kids ride in. He would’ve liked to pick up a stroller, but he hadn’t been able to find any. Pretty disappointing for a store called Anything, he felt.

Maybe he just had to ask, though.

“Actually,” said Colt, “do you have any strollers?”

“No, sir,” said Fred, “but I can custom order one and have it here by lunch time, if you like.”

Huh. Interesting. “Alright, how much?”

Fred held up an index finger and turned to his computer.

While Colt waited, he stopped Thomas from chewing on his own thumb. The kids had pretty much all of their teeth now, and they’d become quite the annoying little biters.

Colt kept an eye on Fred, too, though. It was strange that the owner of the biggest store in town was tending the checkout himself. Granted, that wasn’t saying much in terms of size, but Colt was pretty sure the guy normally had a couple teenagers working for him. An airheaded-looking girl and a boy with a serious acne problem. He might’ve asked where they were if it wouldn’t have given away how much he knew about Fred’s life.

“Would I be correct in presuming that you would like a double stroller?” said Fred, eyeing the twins.


“Are there any other features you’d like it to have?”

“Ah... what sort of features?”

“Cup holders, extra wheels, extra pockets, extra cushions, a pull down cover--it’s a pretty long list.”

This was turning into a more complicated purchase than he’d expected. The old stroller that he’d used back in Atreya had just been some barely-held-together piece of shit that the twins’ mother had shown up with, one day. He hadn’t been missing it terribly.

And perhaps the scarred businessman could sense his uncertainty, because he started scribbling something on a piece of paper. “Here are the general price ranges we’re talking about.” He slid the paper over. “I can show you some pictures as well, if you like.”

Hmm. Pretty steep, some of those prices. But you got you what paid for, right? He didn’t really want the kids riding around in another cheap pile of crap.

Agh, but he also had to conserve funds. And from what he’d come to learn of Sniderian financial law, all purchases over a thousand marcks were supposed to be logged and reported to the government for monitoring. The country had been infamous for its financial crimes a few years back, and international pressure had mounted in a pretty frightening way for the government here, as he recalled.

Of course, Colt had everything he needed in order to pass an identity or background check, but he still wasn’t exactly in love with the idea of having his activities logged in some database.

He was living in the woods, after all.

“Just give me something from here,” he said, pointing at the mid-tier price range.

“Very well, sir. One moment.”

Colt waited again. He’d heard someone’s footsteps approaching from behind a few moments ago and now turned to see who was there.

It was a blonde woman, maybe a few years younger than him. She was stunningly gorgeous as well, the complete and utter opposite of the man on the other side of the counter.

She was Alice Ridgemont, Colt knew. The local nun. Or priestess. Or whatever the fuck the women who devoted themselves to Cocora and covered themselves in white-and-gold robes were called.

Colt had never much cared for religion. And from what he’d seen, Orden didn’t much care for it, either. Alice’s chapel was a rundown pile of dogshit on the edge of town, and she was the only one using it. She, alone, comprised the entirety of the clergy here, apparently.

She was looking at the kids, then noticed him eyeing her. “Beautiful children,” she said.

“Thank you,” Colt told her.

“They’re yours?” she asked.


She held a hand up toward the kids and smiled warmly. “Do you mind?”

“...Do I mind, what?” he said flatly.

“Do you mind if I lay hands on them?”

“...Yes, actually, I do mind.”

She blinked at him, but her smile hardly diminished at all. “I... see. My apologies.”

Hmm. If her reaction was anything to go by, that wasn’t the first time she’d been shot down.

Colt almost felt bad. “I’m worried about your germs, not your religion.”

“Oh.” She pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “Then, would you be okay with it if I use this first?”

Colt’s expression remained unchanged. “Do you always carry that around with you?”

“Only when I go out looking for kind souls to bless.”

<<Page 1 || [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 3>>

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 1

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 2>>

~ Part One ~
A New Man in an Old Place

The sun had just begun rising high enough into the canopy of leaves that long beams of light were starting to angle their way toward his humble cabin in the forest. The deep, satisfying thunk of an axe splitting wood was the only noise that wasn’t ambient, and when that, too, ceased, the man once known as Jeremiah Colt wiped his brow and glanced over at his two children.

Stephanie and Thomas were both standing there behind the wooden bars of their makeshift playpen, staring at him like they were prisoners waiting for the warden to let them out.

He hated it when they did that. With as active as they’d gotten recently, he couldn’t very well let them roam around freely while he was swinging a damn axe, but did that stop them from giving him those big, sad eyes? Of course not.

He rested his axe and began taking stacks of freshly cut logs down into the cabin’s cellar. He might’ve liked to keep more firewood stored down there, but too much would just attract bugs. He figured it would be better to simply chop wood more frequently than risk having to deal with an infestation problem. He knew the quick turnover wouldn’t give the wood a chance to dry out properly, meaning it wouldn’t burn as cleanly, but there were many things about his circumstances that were less than ideal. That was the least of his problems.

When he was done, he let the kids out and watched them walk around. They liked to play in the fallen leaves, so he’d gotten into the habit of making a pile for them. Thomas fell, but Colt resisted the impulse to help him back up. Instead, he watched the boy do it on his own and enjoyed the tinge of pride in his son that came along with it.

Much as he might have liked to sit around and just watch them, however, there was still more work to be done by nightfall.

He had never lived off the land to this extent before. These past few months had been a learning experience, to say the least. The cabin that he’d settled in was one that he’d visited a couple times in his youth. His grandfather had taken him here, purportedly to “show him a thing or two about how to be a real man.”

It had been hell, of course. The old bastard didn’t seem to care that he was only seven years old at the time. If he couldn’t find food, he went hungry. If he couldn’t build a shelter, he slept out in the open. If he couldn’t make a fire, he didn’t get to warm up or cook anything unless he begged and cried for help. And certainly, if he didn’t understand something after Grandpa explained it to him the first time, the old man made him feel like a complete fool.

But he’d learned. His grandpa, for all his harshness, never actually gave up on him--not like his worthless father had, at least. Perhaps that was the reason why these lessons had stayed with him so clearly more than twenty years later, even if some of the skills that accompanied said lessons had since become a little rusty.

The cabin had barely been standing when he found it again after all this time. The roof was almost entirely caved in, so the first task had been replacing it. Doing the job properly would take days of work cutting down trees and carving battens and hooked tiles out of the lumber, but for those first few nights, it had only been a badly-woven canopy of leaves that kept the rain out--and not very effectively, either, especially after the wind picked up and knocked half of it off.

After a couple weeks, however, his perpetual worries about the state of the cabin began to abate. His continuous attempts at maintenance paid off, more or less, and the creaking and groaning mostly stopped. He made sure the walls had fresh support beams, and any patches of wood that looked rotten were replaced. Insulation was a bit of a problem, but thankfully, much of the cabin’s original material was still usable, and for the areas where it wasn’t, he resorted to a mixture of mud, clay, and straw.

He could’ve simply gone into town and bought new insulation instead, but that wrapped bale of straw had just been sitting there in the basement. No point in wasting money when he didn’t have to, though he supposed he should replace the bale at his next opportunity. He couldn’t get more straw from the forest itself, and there was no telling when something like that might come in handy again.

And yes, it was difficult living without electricity, but the basement also had a nice cache of candles and matches, which made things easier. And the cabin didn’t have running water, either, but it did have a sliding chamber pot for easy cleaning. Relatively easy, anyway. He’d even managed to make his own soap from wood ashes and animal fat, though he bungled the boiling, filtering, and mixing process a few times. That had been frustrating, the first few days, but by now, he had it down to a science, and he’d started mixing in new scents to make the soap more like something that he could find in a store. He preferred lavender, but that stuff didn’t grow around here apparently, so he’d mostly been trying sandalwood and evergreen aromas. The kids seemed to like it better, at least--possibly a little too much, considering Stephanie had started trying to eat it.

All things considered, though, he couldn’t really ask for more.

Except maybe diapers. He would’ve killed someone if there was no other way he could get his hands on some proper diapers. He intended to get some from town eventually, but first, he tried to make some on his own. And he even succeeded, though not without many failed attempts, and his successes--while admirable--had been middling at best. Sure, the twins looked excruciatingly adorable in diapers made mostly out of leaves--like little Tarzan babies, really--but the leakage was still quite the problem.

He’d tried getting them started on potty training, but alas, they hadn’t taken to it very well yet.

Still, in spite of everything he was doing--all the time, effort, and resources he was pouring into this little place--he knew that it wasn’t enough. Not for much longer.

Yes, he’d succeeded in creating a relatively safe and stable environment for them here, and yes, he could teach them how to live off the land as they grew older, how to take care of themselves and one another--but what kind of lives would they have?

These were his children. His boy and girl. They deserved the world, even if it didn’t deserve them.

He knew that he would have to return to civilization eventually. Probably sooner rather than later. He’d known ever since he came here.

That was one of the reasons he’d chosen this old shack in the first place: because it was near enough to a town in the case of some sort of emergency, but not so near that he had to worry about unwanted visitors.

That town was called Orden, and he’d been sneaking into it periodically under the cover of darkness in order to scout it out and learn about its inhabitants. Bohwanox had been of help on that front, too, but he still preferred do his own scouting, as well. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about the twins crying and giving away his position, so he could simply take Stephanie and Thomas with him instead of leaving them alone in the cabin with only an intangible reaper to watch them.

He tried to avoid doing that whenever possible. It was still necessary when he had to go hunting--which was just about every day--but he tried to never be away from them for more than half an hour, and he was always ready to bolt back to them at the slightest word from Bohwanox.

Mostly, though, the reaper didn’t hang around with Colt very much. Bohwanox spent his time elsewhere, presumably in Lagoroc, the capital city, which was only about a ten minute drive from Orden.

Snider was a good country like that. Everything was close together. Not a whole lot of wilderness to wander around in. Colt’s patch of forest sat right on the border with Dante, perhaps even crossing over it. The exact lines were a bit unclear. That was what it was like living in the second smallest nation in the world.

Lagoroc, therefore, made up most of the country by itself, so it was a safe assumption on Colt’s part that Bohwanox would go there. He could’ve simply asked, but he frankly didn’t care that much. Sure, Bohwanox was important, and Colt knew that acquiescing to the reaper’s “commands” was a necessary part of his life now, but Bohwanox didn’t seem particularly interested in ordering him around, either. From what Colt could tell, the reaper just wanted to do precisely that: reap.

Orden, on the other hand, was a small enough town that reaping wasn’t much of a priority. With a total population under one thousand and a peaceful social environment to boot, death was a rather infrequent occurrence, comparatively.

Which was good. Colt hadn’t come here to get stuck in another death trap. He’d come here to raise his kids.

And the people of Orden were going to help him do that.


That was the biggest problem, he knew. No matter how hard he worked to provide for the twins, they needed to be around other kids if they were going to be properly socialized and develop into functional human beings.

If they were going to be normal, in other words.

That was perhaps his greatest fear. That they would turn out like him, instead. They already had his blood. That was one strike against them. They didn’t need a fucked up life of solitude with their debatably sane father, too.

It was a strange thing to be worried about, he thought, because he wasn’t ashamed of who he was, of what he’d done. He wasn’t proud, either. He just was. Reality was reality. He was who he was. And he was fine with that. He’d been fine with it all his life, even when he was a little punk-ass elementary schooler, lighting shit on fire and picking fights with kids twice his size and just breaking things for the hell of it. He’d grown and changed, of course--learned what was acceptable behavior if he didn’t want to end up dead, broke, or in prison. But he’d never regretted who he was or what he’d done.

And yet, now, the idea that Stephanie or Thomas might take after him... or end up like him...

He just couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t even really explain why, either. Maybe he was lying to himself. Maybe it was parental instinct. Or maybe it was a goddamn paradox. He didn’t give two cold shits, whatever it was. He only knew that he had to do something about it.

Which was why, after months of getting settled in the cabin and scouting Orden for potential danger, he was finally going to go into town today and let people see him. Him, and his two kids.

He had to clean himself up first, though. It wouldn’t do to look like some kind of hairy-assed wild man, not as a first impression. The last thing he wanted was to give anyone there a reason to think he might be an incapable parent. He knew only too well how nosy some people could be.

And that was the kind of thing that he would have to kill someone over.

So when he finally entered Orden for the first time, he was looking about as good as he could manage. He was cleanly shaven. His gray shirt and black pants were both freshly handwashed and air dried. His work shoes and old leather jacket had both been scrubbed mostly free of dirt and mud. His hair was cut short enough to remind him of his boring days in the Atreyan military. And he was wearing sunglasses, because of course he was. It was so goddamn bright out.

The kids weren't looking quite as sharp as him, since their clothes barely fit them and would probably soon need to be replaced again, but all he really cared about for now was covering up their leafy diapers in order to avoid drawing unwanted attention. He was glad he'd thought to buy a box's worth of larger kids clothes before leaving Atreya. At the rate they were growing, though, that supply probably wouldn't even last another two months.

He wasn’t just here to meet people, though. He hoped to be able to get his hands on some supplies as well, and he hoped to get them via trade as well. He had some money, but he didn’t want to dip into it unless he had to. He’d considered the option of trying to find a steady paycheck instead of the woodsman life, but he doubted that a town this small would have much work available. That, and he also didn’t want to leave the kids at the local daycare while he was busy at whatever crappy job he could find.

Bohwanox thought he was just being paranoid, but Colt didn’t really give a shit about the reaper’s opinion on this particular subject. He had been scouting the staff at said local daycare--with the reaper’s help, sometimes--and what he’d discovered was easily enough to disqualify them.

The manager, Nina Margot, was a heavy drinker who also liked to get behind the wheel of a car while doing so. If Colt was still a cop, he would’ve absolutely arrested her stupid ass by now. He thought about trying to get her caught red-handed by the local sheriff, but he just didn’t have that kind of free time on his hands, right now. Maybe later.

Then there were the two daycare employees, an elderly man by the name of Isaiah Marsh, and a teenage girl named Susan Rock. The old man was barely conscious enough to look after himself, let alone children, and the girl was a fucking pothead.

Colt had always hated potheads. Having attended a high school that was absolutely full of them back in the day, he’d come to see them as just about the pinnacle of obnoxiousness; and the thought that this girl might light up a joint while she was supposed to be looking after Thomas and Stephanie--or perhaps in front of them, even--well, that just wasn’t going to happen. And he definitely wasn’t going to pay for that kind of service, either.

If you’re looking for a perfect babysitter, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,’ Bohwanox had told him.

They don’t need to be perfect. Just not pieces of shit.

Bit harsh, don’t you think?

No. Fuck ‘em.

You know, you’ll have to trust someone other than me, eventually.

No, I won’t. And I don’t really trust you, either, by the way.

Wow, okay.

The only reason I ever let you look after them is because it’s physically impossible for you to harm them. No offense.

Oh, yeah, sure, why would anyone be offended by that?

If he was being completely honest, Colt did find the reaper amusing every now and then, but trust was a strong word, he felt. When he genuinely stopped to think about it, there was probably only one person in the entire world whom he would trust to look after his kids for him. Sure, there were other people that he liked, people from his past, people he would’ve been happy to see again. But liking someone didn’t suddenly make that person competent and responsible.

Unfortunately, that one person he trusted was in a completely different country now.

He wondered how things were going for Hector back in Atreya. Colt had pretty much stayed completely off the grid all this time, only occasionally checking his phone for messages, but he had a feeling that if he found a real internet connection and searched for news about the Darksteel Soldier, he’d find plenty of information about the kid.

And most of it would probably be wrong, too. That was part of the reason why he hadn’t bothered with it in the first place. He didn’t much care to read a bunch of twisted truths and made up horseshit. That would probably just make him angry, and he wasn’t looking for a reason to go back to Atreya.

And besides, Hector would be fine. Better off, even.

Colt knew that was the truth. One hundred percent.

He drove into Orden via the main entrance, an old and tired archway that had the town’s name written on it in bold and fanciful letters. He parked in front of the very first building on the right, which was both a grocery store and a gas station.

As he exited his vehicle and gathered the kids up, however, he noticed a familiar man in a familiar uniform already approaching him.

Rexford Margot. Or Rex, for short. He was the son of the daycare lady.

And also Orden’s sheriff.

“Wow, that’s quite a vehicle you’ve got there, sir!” the man called out to him as he approached.

“Thank you,” said Colt, trying not to sound immediately annoyed. He hadn’t gotten the kids out of the backseat yet and decided to let them just sit there for a bit longer, out of the sheriff’s view for the time being. The ex-cop in him was curious what the man’s first words for him were going to be.

Rex stopped as he reached the front of the car, admiring the headlights. “Why, I don’t believe I’ve seen this beauty around town before. You must be new here.”

“I am.”

“Well, then! Welcome to Orden!” The sheriff showed him a wide, toothy smile. “I hope you won’t think me rude for asking, but we don’t get too many visitors around here, and this is a place where folks appreciate their peace, so would you mind tellin’ me your business?”

“Not at all,” said Colt plainly. “I’m actually looking to raise a family here, believe it or not.”

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 2>>

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Page 1866

And for the record, I do think it would be ideal if we could resolve this crisis without relying on the Intarians or any other foreigners,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector and I will continue to work towards that end--at least until you tell us otherwise.

She looked between the two of them and nodded. “I appreciate that. I will take your words into consideration.”

You look great in that dress, by the way,’ said Garovel.

The Queen seemed surprised by the compliment and eyed Hector, perhaps for an explanation.

He scrambled for an answer. “Ah--yeah. Uh. You do.”

“Thank you,” said Helen, though not without hesitation in her voice.

Ask her about the King,’ said Garovel privately.

It took Hector a second to realize that he was receiving instruction. He’d gotten comfortable just listening. “H-How is the King doing?”

“He is well,” said the Queen. “I am sure he would like to speak to you, himself. He has been wanting to visit Warrenhold.”

“Oh, uh. Well, uh, we’d love to have him.”

“Only him?” said the Queen with a teasing smile. “Am I not invited, as well?”

Hector felt a flash of embarrassment at having missed that, but then realized that it was probably too late to backtrack with any sort of dignity, and so decided to just go with it. “...Eh, I’ll have to think about it.”

And the Queen actually laughed. Lynn cracked a smile, too.

Hector wasn’t sure he’d ever felt more pleased with himself.

What an amazing feeling it was to make someone laugh. And royalty, no less.

Strange. For the briefest moment, he felt like he was having an epiphany.

He really liked making people laugh. In fact, it was one of the things he liked most.

How was he just now realizing this about himself?

The party’s going to begin soon,’ said Mehlsanz.

Soon isn’t NOW, though, is it?’ said Garovel.

You have more you wish to discuss?’ she said.

Not particularly. But it’s rare that I get to enjoy such fine company. I don’t want it to end yet.

What a charmer.

Hector noticed Garovel’s hollow gaze turn toward Lynn. ‘How is your bodyguard doing, by the way?

The Queen perked up at that question, glancing at Lynn herself before regarding Garovel again. “Good, I hope. Is there anything specific you would like to know?”

Lynn’s expression shifted somewhat as she was perhaps sensing that she was being talked about.

Her aura seems a bit stronger than before,’ said Garovel.

Oh? That certainly piqued Hector’s interest.

“Yes, I am not surprised,” said the Queen. “She has been training diligently.”

What manner of training would that be?’ said Garovel.

“Attempting to unlock the secrets of that gauntlet,” said Helen. “Mr. Norez has been kind enough to offer his assistance in that regard, as well.”

Lynn just looked around awkwardly.

Oh, yeah, Harper,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing him and Darsihm again, too. They’re here, aren’t they? It’s tough to sense them with all these people around.

They are, yes,’ said Mehlsanz.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Page 1865

Maybe,’ said Garovel. ‘The loss in Kavia shouldn’t be disregarded as a total fluke, I think. Considering the Vanguard’s current advantage in numbers, that loss probably shouldn’t have happened, so the fact that it did is a warning sign, in my opinion. And now you’re telling me about this annexation offer? I think there may be a connection. I think the Vanguard is trying to pull out every weapon in its arsenal in order to finally deliver a decisive blow to Dozer.

“That may be true,” said the Queen, “but it does not answer the question of whether or not I should accept Intar’s terms.”

Garovel laughed mildly. ‘Are you asking me to make that decision for you? Why, I’m flattered you hold my opinion in such high regard.

She gave the reaper another flat look, but the edge of her mouth turned up with the whisper of a smile. “I would appreciate your counsel, though nothing more.”

Heh. Well, regardless, I won’t pretend to know what the right decision for Atreya is, but as should be evident from the explanation of my perspective just now, I don’t think Intar is looking to abuse or exploit Atreya or its people, necessarily. I think they’re playing a complicated political and military game, and Atreya is just one small part of it.

“I do not know if that is a relief to hear or a worry,” said Helen. “Even if Intar holds no ill will towards us, I still fear that Atreya is far from their mind. What is to stop this kingdom from being trampled under the feet of these warring juggernauts?”

What’s to stop it, you ask?’ said Garovel. ‘Well, I’m pretty sure that’s our job, isn’t it?’ He motioned not just to Hector but to everyone at the table. ‘And perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of our feelings on that particular subject are going to change anytime soon, even under Intarian law.

The Queen’s gaze fell to the table, and she was silent.

So was everyone else for a time.

A question occurred to Hector, and given the current opening in the conversation, he decided to take it. “...If you did decide to give up power, what would you do?”

She looked at him, considerate. “A good question. I would still be queen, but I would have no legal authority. That does not mean I would be powerless, however.”

Hector understood her meaning. Not being able to order people to do things didn’t mean she wouldn’t still have considerable influence.

But still. Queen Helen not being in charge?

He could hardly imagine it.

Well, so far, I’m not hearing a whole lot of reasons why you should turn the Intarians down,’ said Garovel.

The Queen merely frowned.

Whatever you decide, though, you should know that we’ll be with you,’ said Garovel. ‘Even, hypothetically speaking, if you were to make a horrifically unpopular decision that caused the public to turn on you, Hector and I would still be on your side.

The Queen exhaled a curt sigh. “Thank you.”

Monday, July 16, 2018

Page 1864

“What does that have to do with their desire to annex Atreya?” said the Queen.

Your debt to Korgum and Dozer,’ said Garovel. ‘Intar may be thinking a few steps ahead here. Suppose, for instance, that you went on being unable to repay your debt to Dozer, and then Dozer decided to come and collect? How would a country with such a reputation for violence do that?

“You think Dozer would attempt to conquer Atreya?”

I think Intar may think that. And they probably have a better grasp of the situation across the continent than we do, so if they think it might happen, then I’d say, yeah, it might happen.

You’re using a bit of circular logic there, aren’t you?’ said Mehlsanz.

Am I? Well, you see my point, though, right? Intar is quietly allied with Korgum and therefore at war with Dozer. So in their eyes, it would probably be best if you never repay any of your debt to Dozer.

The queen seemed to give the idea some thought. “If that is true, then that is quite the expensive strategy on their part...”

Not as expensive as Korgum losing the war,’ said Garovel. ‘Abolish already has a fairly strong presence in Azirat, Kortan, and Calthos. It may not be completely dominant there, but Korgum and Lyste are currently barring Dozer’s passage north. If Korgum were to fall, though, then I suspect that Dozer would storm into those countries and have them subjugated within a few months. Maybe less. Then Dozer would be able to knock on Intar’s southeastern door or maybe just invade Sair and try to add that to the pile.

The Vanguard would never allow Dozer to take Azirat, Kortan, and Calthos that easily,’ said Mehlsanz.

Oh, I don’t think they’d LET them do anything,’ said Garovel. ‘The Vanguard is having plenty of its own problems, right now--and worse, I think it might be blind to about half of them.

“But its recent victory in Jesbol is a good sign, no?” said the Queen.

Sure, but its even more recent loss in Kavia should raise a few eyebrows, too,’ said Garovel. ‘In fact, the line of thinking you just brought up is exactly what I’m most concerned about. It’s true that the victory in Jesbol was a major one and that Abolish is no doubt suffering hugely for military strength now that both Dunhouser and Gunther are dead at Jackson’s hands. But this is a full-blown war we’re talking about. It’s more complicated than just how strong its top guys are. The Vanguard still has to worry about managing its time and resources properly and not playing into the enemy’s hands. Overconfidence isn’t going to do them any favors. And anyway, the real top threats are Dozer and Morgunov, and they’re both still alive.

The Queen just folded her hands in front of her again.

You think the Vanguard is growing overconfident?’ said Mehlsanz.

Page 1863

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector could hardly blame her, especially after all she had done to hold on to her power.

Everything Hector had helped her do, no less.

What a strange notion, that it might have all been for naught.

Well, okay, not all. They weren’t at war with Rendon. That was kinda important, Hector felt.

“In my stead,” Helen continued, “a governor would be elected, as is the case with all of the other Intarian territories. The ultimate authority over Atreya, however, would defer to the President of Intar.”

And this governor would be elected by Atreyans, right?’ said Garovel. ‘Not some sort of Inatarian council somewhere?

“Yes, it would be a fully republican process,” said the Queen. She shook her head. “And my traitorous brother’s goal will have been achieved...”

Hector had no words for her.

Nor did anyone else, apparently.

The Queen soon found her composure again. “Apart from that, of course, Intarian federal law will apply in Atreyan territory, which will usher in a host of legislative changes. Taxes, in particular, come to mind.”

Still, that’s pretty tame,’ said Garovel. ‘Were there any other stipulations?

“Not as of yet, no,” said Helen.

Hmm. Then, is it just me, or is this deal sounding a little too good to be true? Not that I’m eager to see you removed from power ‘r anything.

No, I was thinking the same thing,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘The worst part is that it’s not entirely clear what Intar stands to gain from this deal. Land? Sure, but not that much. Atreya is a tiny country, after all. Extra taxes? Maybe, but it’ll be some time before that revenue pays off all the money that they would be spending on this deal.

Ah, well, I may be able to answer that for you, then,’ said Garovel.

He had both Mehlsanz and the Queen’s attention.

Technically, Intar is not at war with anyone at the moment,’ said Garovel, ‘but from what I’ve been learning from the Rainlords and their reapers over the last month or so, Intar has developed a tendency in recent years to discreetly involve itself in international conflicts.

Mehlsanz nodded. ‘Mm. Yes. I heard that as well when I was working for the Vanguard. The Vangaurd doesn’t keep its own “territory,” per se--not like Sai-hee and Abolish do, certainly--but at the same time, it would not be wholly inaccurate to say that Intar is one of the main countries where the Vanguard operates.

Yes,’ said Garovel. ‘One of the core values of the Vanguard has been to never interfere with the peaceful governing of a people, so it has historically held Intarian law in high esteem--and even agreed to work for it, from time to time. It seems, however, that the bonds between the two are stronger than they have ever been. There is some fear that they may be merging into one, as is the case with Abolish and Dozer.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Page 1862

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Atreya is indebted to Korgum and Dozer?’ said Garovel. ‘How the hell did that happen?

“A parting gift from my incarcerated brother, Luther,” she said. “And it is no insignificant sum, mind you.”

Goddamn,’ said Garovel privately. Then, publicly, he said, ‘Okay, well, is that all we’d be getting out of the deal? Debt removal?

“No,” said Helen. “Intar would also grant an additional four billion troa to each of the great houses of Atreya. Which would include you, by the way.”

Hector just blinked at that.

The “equivalent” of four billion troa, you mean,’ said Mehlsanz.

“Yes,” said Helen. “The troa would become a defunct form of currency. We would have to transfer over to the Intarian tero.”

I can’t imagine that the exchange rate on the troa is doing so great, at the moment,’ said Garovel.

“I am aware,” said the Queen. “I assure you, I would never agree to such a deal without being entirely certain of such details.”

Of course,’ said Garovel. ‘But still, is that all? Money is great and all, but it takes more than that to make a nation whole.

“Yes, Atreya would also be formally recognized as a ‘territory’ within Intar and granted all accompanying rights,” said the Queen. “Every Atreyan citizen would be granted full Intarian citizenship, as would any child born in Atreya in the future.”

Ah.’ Garovel paused. ‘Alright, now THAT does sweeten the deal quite a bit, if you ask me.

“Indeed,” said Helen.

But still, are they offering anything else?’ said Garovel.

Is that not enough for you?’ said Mehlsanz.

What can I say? I’m greedy. And if we’re gonna go through with this, we should aim for the best deal possible, shouldn’t we?

“No other beneficial stipulations were put forward,” said the Queen, “but there is time yet for further negotiations.”

Ooh, interesting,’ said Garovel. ‘So you could theoretically still swing for maybe another few billion for new infrastructure or schooling, eh?

A faint smile crossed the woman’s lips again. “That would be pushing it, I imagine.”

Maybe a nice, big park for every city?’ said Garovel. ‘Gray Rock could use a nice, big park. Weirdly enough, Gray Rock has a lot of actually gray rocks everywhere. Not much greenery for all the proud, Atreyan families to raise their healthy, Atreyan kids in.

The Queen tilted her head at the reaper. “I can no longer tell if you are for or against this deal.”

Why, I’m neither. Yet. You still haven’t told us what they want us to give up. Specifically.

The Queen’s frown returned. “First and foremost, I would have to relinquish all governmental authority.”

Mm,’ hummed Garovel.

“I would still remain Queen of Atreya, but I would have no actual power. I would become a figurehead.” She did not look like she much cared for that idea.