Sunday, July 29, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 1

~ 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 sunlight 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 he 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.

Lagaroc, 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 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.

Hopefully.

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 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 already one strike against them. They didn’t need a fucked up life of solitude with their debatably sane father, too.

It was 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 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.

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 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 in it 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 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 tellin’ me your business?”

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

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 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 like. 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 ultimately 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.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Page 1861 -- CXCIV.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
I see,’ said Garovel. ‘So, then, what’s your strategy moving forward? If things continue on like they have been, then it sounds like you won’t be able to keep up appearances for much longer.

At that, the Queen was silent for an uncomfortably long time.

Hector studied her expression, as well as Lynn’s, and he couldn’t help worrying about what he was seeing. Their solemn gazes. Their aversion of eye contact.

This wasn’t right at all. He was the one who was so supposed to be afraid of eye contact, not them.

At length, however, the Queen finally answered. “It may already be too late,” she said. “I know you are expecting me to say that I have some grand plan to save the kingdom, and if you were any other of the other lords here tonight, I would say exactly that. I would tell you what I thought you would wish to hear--indeed, what I would wish to hear. But with the two of you, at least, I feel I must share the fullness of my thoughts on this matter, terrible though they are.”

Hector’s own expression hardened as he listened, bracing himself for whatever he was about to hear.

“I fear there may simply be no way out of this particular crisis,” said the Queen. “Not for me, at least. Not for the Crown.”

Hector was confused. He waited for her to explain what she meant.

“Atreya will survive,” she went on. “There is no doubt in my mind about that. Because Atreya is its people. And we are a hardier bunch than I think even we ourselves realize. We are tough and often underestimated.” A thin smile crossed her lips briefly. “I would say you are a fine example.”

Hector might’ve blushed if he wasn’t more concerned about where this was going.

“And perhaps I am being overly dramatic,” she said. “It is not as if I will be gutted and thrown out onto the street.”

Hector couldn’t hold his questions any longer. “What are you talking about? Why are you saying all of this?”

For a short time, the Queen merely looked at him, her eyes softening before seeming to find their steel again. “This information is not yet public, but... Intar has offered to annex Atreya.”


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Four: ‘Thine uncertain destiny...’
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Hector’s head reared back. He didn’t even know what to make of that news.

The Queen was not done talking, however. “I have not yet given them an answer, but it is certainly not something I can dismiss out of hand. And the terms of it, as they have been relayed to me thus far, would be rather generous, considering our circumstances.”

Wow,’ said Garovel. ‘And what are these “rather generous” terms, if you don’t mind my asking?

“Complete absolution of all our debts to them,” said Helen, “as well as the shouldering of all debts we have to other nations--namely Korgum and Dozer.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

Page 1860

The Queen regarded Hector and Garovel both another time. “I see. Forgive me if I seem skeptical. I have had few reasons for optimism, of late.” She removed her hands from the table and folded them over her stomach.

“I can imagine,” said Hector. He wanted to say something more, something reassuring preferably, but nothing was coming to mind.

“This financial crisis,” the Queen said slowly, “it is... my failure. So many of this nation’s problems might have been avoided if I had only been more attentive in these last five years.”

Hector observed her face with silent surprise. He’d been seeing her all over the news lately, giving speeches and the like, and she always looked so confident and composed. But here and now? Hector had never seen her so uncertain.

Come to think of it, her worried reactions earlier were a lot more expressive as well.

It put a question in Hector’s head.

“...Is the crisis even worse than the public realizes?” he asked.

The Queen met his gaze but didn’t answer him.

Perhaps that was an answer in itself, though.

“...Madame Carthrace wants to open a bank in my name,” said Hector.

Helen’s eyes drifted away from him, seemingly in thought. “A bank? Why would she...?”

“Ah... she seems to think that, er... that my reputation would be able to help stabilize the economy. I mean, I don’t know if, uh... if that would work, but... eh... that’s what she said.”

The Queen seemed lost in thought, but she still managed to say, “I see.” And then, after a beat, “Interesting.”

Hector supposed he shouldn’t stop there. “She, uh... she also wanted me to ask you for funding for it.”

Helen frowned at him.

“Ah--if you can’t help, though, then, er, I understand...”

She sighed mildly through her nose and shook he head. “At this time, I am afraid I can offer you no such assistance.”

Really?’ said Garovel. ‘I don’t want to give you a hard time, but it seems a little odd that you wouldn’t choose to subsidize a potential solution to the main problem facing the nation. Or HELP subsidize it, at the very least.

The Queen’s frown deepened. “I would if I could,” she said.

It’s that bad, huh?’ said Garovel.

It is,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘We’re already running on fumes, as it is. The Gala? Everything you see here tonight? Bought with funds borrowed from Intar.

Intar, huh?’ said Garovel. ‘Well, it’s true that they’ve got plenty of money to throw around, but I can’t say I like the idea of Atreya being indebted to them.

“Nor do I,” said Helen, “but it is all we can do to keep up appearances, for the moment. Why, if not for David’s silver tongue, I doubt even they would have agreed to lend us any more.”

And now they’re pressuring us to grant special privileges to their businesses. Their influence is growing stronger by the day.

Well, that corroborated what Madame Carthrace had told him, Hector figured.

He would’ve much preferred to learn that she’d been wrong.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Page 1859

Yes,’ said Garovel, ‘but if nothing else, then at least YOU could come, Mehlsanz, and give them a look.

Mm, perhaps. But I’m a busy girl, too, you know. And besides, I don’t think Helen values my opinion that much.

The Queen gave her a flat look, now.

Heh, well, if that’s true, then maybe she’s right to not care about your opinion,’ said Garovel.

Excuse me?’ said Mehlsanz dryly, though Hector heard a hint of amusement in her voice.

You can’t just revive someone and then expect them to treat you like a sophisticated intellectual,’ said Garovel. ‘I know I make it look easy, being this obviously smart all the time, but trust me, it’s a whole ordeal unto itself.

Careful,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘You and I are old friends, but not THAT old.

Garovel just chuckled.

“This fugitive from Sai-hee,” said the Queen, apparently wanting to get the conversation back on track, “tell me about him. You said that you did not think these Rainlords will be a problem but that you think someone else will. You were referring to this man?”

“Oh,” said Hector, “ah... yeah. He’s... well, his name’s Leo. He seems to trust me, but... ah... he might be under the impression that I’m... one of the oldest servants in the world.”

The Queen expression remained blank, and she just stared at Hector for a time.

Hector and Garovel did their best to bring the Queen up to speed with regard to what had happened with Leo in the Undercrust. It ended up drifting all the way back into what happened at Dunehall and even in Marshrock, however, and by the end it, Helen and Mehlsanz were looking more bewildered than ever. Even Lynn was eyeing him as if he was suddenly a different person or something. It was always tough to tell what was going through her head, though.

But anyway, enough about us,’ said Garovel at the protracted silence. ‘Tell us about what’s going on with you. We’d like to help, if we can.

It sounds like you already have your hands full,’ said Mehlsanz.

Yeah, well, if we can help you with your problems, then maybe you wouldn’t mind helping us with ours.

“I am not certain how I could help with this Leo character,” said Helen. “He sounds rather unstable. Do you have a particular tactic in mind?”

We have a few,’ said Garovel, though Hector wasn’t sure if that was a lie or not. ‘But for the moment, I don’t think we’ll need your help in dealing with him. The way Hector talked about the man was a bit foreboding--and not unduly so, perhaps--but as for me, I’m optimistic about our relationship with him. I think Hector and I will be able to bring him around and count him as another valuable ally and protector of Atreya.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Page 1858

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
“Well, they’ve been driven out of their homeland,” said Hector. “But they’re very... proud, to say the least. I’m sure they’ll want to go and win it back, sooner or later. I’m just hoping that it’ll be later.”

“Hector.” The Queen rested her hands on the table and interlocked her fingers together. “I know you have only been back for a handful of days, but even so, you must realize that Atreya does not need this manner of trouble, at the moment.”

He frowned, knowing that her mood was probably not going to improve after what he was about to say. “Ah... honestly, I don’t think the Rainlords are going to be a problem. But I do think someone else will be...”

“Excuse me?” said the Queen.

There was no good way of putting this, he felt. “You know who Sai-hee is, right?”

Helen blinked at him a couple times. “Please tell me Sai-hee is not going to invade.”

“Oh, uh, she’s not. I mean, not as far as I know.”

Helen did not look very reassured.

“...But I did bring another fugitive from her group with me,” said Hector.

At that, the Queen actually buried her face in her hands.

Mm,’ said Garovel, ‘if I could butt in for a second here, I feel like maybe Hector isn’t explaining the situation quite as well as he could be.

The Queen did not look up, but she did answer through her hands. “Do go on, then, Garovel.”

Well, y’see, we didn’t really have a whole lot of options with this Sai-hee fugitive. This guy isn’t one of the Rainlords, by the way. In fact, they kinda hate him, at the moment.

I’m not sure your explanation is any better,’ said Mehlsanz.

Look, okay, we get it,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s a precarious situation. But it’s also an opportunity like no other, right? Like Hector said, the Rainlords are incredibly powerful. And right now, we’re on quite good terms with them.

“Yes.” The Queen removed her hands from her face and took another. “Amelia mentioned that these guests of yours might make for valuable allies. I, however, remain unconvinced.”

Abruptly, Hector realized that Madame Carthrace had not followed him into this meeting. Jamal and Matteo weren’t there anymore, either. With the Scarf, though, he could sense that they were waiting outside the room with a pair of royal guardsmen. He had no idea where Madame Carthrace had gone, though.

That’s perfectly understandable,’ Garovel was saying. ‘I encourage you to come to Warrenhold and meet them yourself.

The Queen gave the reaper a flat look.

We don’t really have the time for that,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘And all eyes are on us. It was difficult enough arranging this meeting here without drawing the attention of the entire media. If we visited Warrenhold, it would make it that much more difficult for you to keep your “guests” hidden--which I assume you wish to continue doing?

Page 1857

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“I am, however, very curious to hear about these ‘guests’ who are currently staying at Warrenhold,” said the Queen.

Hector had been wondering when that would come up. He’d known that Madame Carthrace had told her about them.

He considered his next words carefully. He knew that he shouldn’t keep any of the important details from her, but it was still tough to know where to begin. He supposed he should just get the hardest part out of the way, though.

“...They’re fugitives from the Vanguard,” he told her.

For a moment, the Queen merely looked at him, her expression tightening. Then she exhaled and averted her gaze. “And here I was worried that they might be on the run from Abolish.” She rubbed her brow with a manicured hand. “This is far worse.”

“...Sorry,” was all Hector could think to say. He glanced at Lynn, who seemed more interested with the Queen’s reaction.

Helen took a long breath. “I assume you have a good reason for bringing them to Atreya?”

Hector had had plenty of time to prepare for that question. “They’re good and noble people,” he said. “The Vanguard was in the wrong. And, ah... Abolish attacked them, too. They were kind of desperate for help, so...”

The Queen nodded. “So you volunteered.” She still did not sound terribly pleased. “I also understand that they are... warriors, of some sort?”

Lynn was looking at him again, he noticed.

“...Yeah,” said Hector. “They’re... well, they’re incredibly powerful, actually.”

“Wait,” said Lynn, her one eye widening, “these aren’t the Rainlords you went to help, are they?”

Hector head reared back a little. “Er, yeah, they are. I... thought you guys already knew that.”

Helen’s eyes widened a little now, too. “You brought the Rainlords back from Sair with you?”

He gave a small nod. “Ah, well, about half of them, anyway. The other half was captured by Sanko.”

“You fought Sanko?!” said Lynn.

“What? No, I didn’t fight her. The other half of the Rainlords did. And, er, they lost.” He was little surprised that Lynn even recognized that name, but after a moment, he supposed he shouldn’t have been.

The Queen was rubbing her brow again. Suddenly, she looked a lot more exhausted than she had a minute ago.

“...Madame Carthrace didn’t tell you they were Rainlords?” said Hector.

“No, she did not,” said Helen.

That was surprising. When she’d said that she’d “told the Queen about their new houses guests,” Hector had just assumed that she’d informed her of everything she’d been learning about them while managing Warrenhold’s affairs.

Clearly, he should not have assumed that.

Bah. How amateurish of him. Not very lordly at all.

“How long do you intend to give them refuge at Warrenhold?” the Queen asked.

Now there was an important question. He exchanged looks with Garovel, wondering if he wanted to chime in here, but the reaper merely nodded at him.

“...As long as they need,” said Hector.

The Queen expression tightened again. “Indefinitely?”

Page 1856

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Hector was still feeling locked into his poker face, so he didn’t smile, but his the corners of his mouth did edge up ever so slightly.

Wow, it was good to see them. Safe and well, seemingly.

The Queen was looking more queenly than ever, he thought strangely. It was probably because of her dress. He’d never seen her wear anything so elaborate and flowing. It covered the entire booth she was seated at, draping over the side and sprawling across the floor like a sparkling blue carpet.

And her crown. She wasn’t wearing it at the moment, but it was sitting right there on the table in front of her. A circle of silver, lined with gold and topped with sapphires in the shapes of stars. He’d seen it a few times in a history book or on television, but laying eyes on it in person was providing a decidedly different feeling.

He was perhaps the most keenly aware of Lynn’s presence, however.

Her uniform was a little more elaborate than he recalled, too. The Atreyan Seal and the crest of House Belgrant were both woven into her collar. He remembered that she’d often taken to wearing her white cloak while on duty, but the one she was wearing now bore long silver stripes and boasted miniature Atreyan flags at each shoulder. It also had a deeply black interior, perhaps to conceal pockets or to be reversible.

She still had her eye patch and sword as well, of course. And her bone half-gauntlet was concealed beneath a glove, but Hector had no doubt that it was there, too.

And damn.

He was torn, wanting to both stare at her and to avoid eye contact.

“There you are,” said the Queen upon seeing him. “I am glad you were able to arrive before the Gala was officially underway. I doubt we will have much opportunity to speak privately tonight--certainly not before midnight.” She gestured to the other side of the table. “Please, come and have a seat, Lord Goffe.”

Hector made his way over. Lynn was watching him like a one-eyed hawk. He thought she might say something, but she didn’t, and he sat down.

Oh shit, he was probably supposed to say something here, wasn’t he? “Ah, uh--thank you, Your Highness...”

Helen smiled warmly at him. “It is very good to see you again,” she said. “In truth, we had been growing quite worried about you.”

“Oh, ah... yeah. Er. Sorry about that...” He glanced between her and Lynn. Mehlsanz was there as well, he noticed, floating up from behind the Queen’s enormous gown.

“I understand you had quite the eventful trip,” said Helen.

“That’s... one way of putting it, yeah.”

“I wish I could hear all of the details, but from what Amelia told me, it would be quite a long story, and we have other matters to discuss.”

Not to worry,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ll tell Mehlsanz all about it later, and then she can relay it to you.

Yes, I think I’d rather hear it from you than Voreese,’ said Mehlsanz.

Heh. I’ll let her know you said that.

Oh, god, please don’t.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Page 1855

Garovel kept pointing notable people out to him as they continued toward the main entrance. It provided him with a helpful distraction, but even so, the walk felt like it was taking an eternity.

And everyone was staring at him, he realized. Not just the cameras but the other lords, too.

He just had to walk. And breathe. Walking and breathing. He could do that.

In theory.

Holy fuck, this was way too much attention. All the lights on him, the eyes, the noise. The weight of it was almost physical, as if he were suddenly moving underwater.

He’d known it was going to be like this, of course, but he still couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed.

He could help showing that feeling, however. He just had to keep his thoughts and his actions separate, to maintain a poker face. Maybe that wasn’t going to look particularly welcoming or friendly, but at least it would be better than looking like a panicking wreck. And at least it was something he’d been getting considerable practice with, too.

How we doin’, buddy?’ said Garovel as they neared the enormous double doors with inlaid silver ornamentation. ‘You’re looking a little rigid there.

He honestly didn’t know how to answer that. Almost there. Just a bit farther. The long, flat steps up to the doors were only six in number, but they were beginning to look like a mountain climb unto themselves with so many people crowding the edges of the path.

Oh god.

C’mon,’ said Garovel. ‘Keep talking to me. You can do it. You don’t want the people of Atreya to see their fearless hero freaking out on national television, do you?

...That’s not helping, Garovel.

Well, you’re talking to me, so I think it is.

He might’ve frowned if he wasn’t so intent on keeping his face like stone.

Miraculously, he managed to make it up the steps and into the building. The noise from outside began to fade slowly, and a sharply dressed woman appeared in front of him, bowed, and then motioned him to follow her.

He did so.

He spotted more nobles loitering around the massive welcoming chamber, talking amongst themselves and throwing glances his way. Apparently, the press hadn’t been invited inside yet, but Hector was fairly sure that they would be eventually. As he understood it, most of the Gala was going to be televised.

The guide led him through a number of rooms, and Hector relied on the Scarf to scout ahead a little. He was trying to make out where the Queen and Lynn might be. It was probably safe to assume that they were together, he figured, but there were just too many people around to tell. Bosliat was positively bustling with activity. He could only imagine how busy the palace’s staff was.

Then, abruptly, Hector realized that the guide had taken him to a familiar room--a small offshoot of the main dining chamber. He’d previously had dinner with the Queen here, he recalled. That was when she’d decided to give him Warrenhold.

And lo and behold, there the woman sat again. With Lynn standing beside her.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Normal posting will resume on Tuesday, July 10th

Lately, my schedule has gotten all screwed up, and I apologize for that. I think it's time I just admit that I need a break to relax and get organized again. I really don't like missing my deadlines. So I'm gonna take a week off.

Thank you for your patience, everyone.

The past couple months have been pretty strange for me. I had a family emergency that kinda just turned my whole life upside down. Things are better now, but there've been some lasting consequences that I've been trying to get used to. And today, I found out that, sometime soon, there might be another family emergency involving a different family member. Maybe there won't be, though. It's just one of those things. Worrying news that you can't do much about. But that's life for you, I guess. We deal with these things the best we can as they come.

I'm sorry if you'd like greater detail, but I'm uncomfortable sharing much more than that. At least, for the time being. However, I also don't want you guys to worry too much. I, myself, am perfectly fine, and I certainly don't plan to stop writing TZKS.

In any case, I'd like to thank you all again for your support over the years. It really has meant the world to me. I'll have more story for you soon.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Page 1854

((Belated Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
The Rainlords had also put up something of a fuss about letting him go to the Gala alone. They’d repeatedly told him that he should take a team of servant bodyguards with him, but the obvious issue with that was the Rainlords’ infamy. As much as Hector might’ve liked to bring Diego Redwater or Dimas Sebolt or someone else along, it wouldn’t do if the Vanguard saw their faces on camera. Sure, the Gala was not an international event, but it wasn’t like it was a national secret, either.

But the Rainlords had nonetheless been insistent. And the solution that they’d come up with was to simply avoid sending anyone recognizable. Hector had outright refused a full team of bodyguards, believing that would be more intimidating than protective, but he did decide to accept one Rainlord bodyguard, at least.

Matteo Delaguna was the chosen young man’s name. Hector had seen his square face and heavy gaze a few times before, but that was it. The guy couldn’t have been much older than him, probably not even twenty years old. His reaper, Ernivoc, accompanied them as well.

Matteo seemed to be taking his role as a bodyguard pretty damn seriously, too. He even dressed like one, complete with a dark suit, black tie, and sunglasses. He’d barely said anything since they’d left Warrenhold, though that was just fine with Hector. Ernivoc and Garovel talked plenty in their stead.

But it was weird, having this extra body around, following him like a shadow. He’d just been starting to get used to Jamal’s frequent presence, and now there was this guy.

Hector felt like maybe he should’ve asked him some questions or something. Tried to get to know him better, maybe.

He felt that way. But he didn’t act on that feeling, which ended up just making the feeling worse.

Agh.

Baby steps, he supposed.

It didn’t help that that he had about a thousand other things on his mind, as well. In between conversing with Ernivoc, Garovel had privately been explaining to Hector about all of the intel he’d been gathering recently about the various Atreyan nobles, and even now, as they were walking down the greeting carpet toward the palace, Garovel was still coming up with new things to tell him.

Ah, see that guy?’ The reaper pointed subtly forward with the tip of his scythe.

Yeah?’ said Hector, noting the well-dressed, gray-haired gentleman whom he was referring to.

That’s the Lord of House Vollier right there,’ the reaper said. ‘Domitrus Vollier. Important guy. Arguably the richest man in Atreya, right now.

That name caught Hector by surprise. ‘He’s named after the first king?

Yep. Heh. Surprised you picked up on that. I’m proud of you.

Even first graders know who King Domitrus was,’ said Hector.

Exactly my point. That’s very advanced historical knowledge for you.

Shut up.