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Soulblade: Chapter 28

DRAGAR STRIDES INTO the encampment with his usual swagger, demanding to speak with the patrol captain. This band of military guards is made up of half-recovered war wounded, probably from the battle on the Annubian border if the dragonfire burns on their arms and faces are anything to go by. Others are either too old or too young to have been included in the expeditionary force that attacked Samaran. Even without the ambush, these half-starved soldiers would have no chance against the blade-skill of even fifty Elves fiercely defending their homes.

I can see that Dragar knows it too.

The guard captain approaches us. His white hair and lined face tells of a retirement postponed for too many years but there is a knowing look in his eye that also speaks of fighting skill not yet entirely lost to stiff joints and fading strength. He reads the sigils on Dragar’s uniform accurately and beats a mailed fist to his battered breastplate.

“General Dragar. Sir. It is a great privilege to speak with you. We have been pursuing bandits who killed a caravan of slaver merchants and stole their property. What are your orders now?”

Dragar only just manages not to look at Kariel in case he reacts violently at the mention of property.

“There has been a change of priorities. I have recently returned from our successful campaign in Samaran. I demanded that the Samarian King should furnish me with his best Mage-warriors to destroy the source of the blight emanating from the ruins of Duhokan.” He waves condescending hand in Marin’s direction. “This we have done. At my command, Tandarion has also sent a delegation of Samarian Elf-sorcerers to restore the lesser Elementals to our land and provide abundant food for our magnificent soldiers when they return.” A brief dip of the head to Kariel.

I open my mouth to protest this outrageous pack of lies but Marin treads heavily on my foot to shut me up. Kariel doesn’t look too pleased either but he gets the message without receiving his own share of bruised toes.

The grizzled Rapathian captain scratches his white hair, looking relieved but somewhat confused. “So your orders for us are…?”

“A few dead slave-merchants are of no importance as slavery is soon to be outlawed. We return to the capital at first light to announce this new age of plenty to the people. The war is over and a new age of wealth is beginning! I leave you to impart the good news to your men.” Dragar turns and walks away, an imperious flick of his fingers telling us to fall into step like obedient retainers.

As soon as we are out of sight of the camp he stops and faces Marin, forcing himself to look him in the eye.

“Thank you for not reacting to the lies I was obliged to tell yon guard captain.”

Marin gives a wry smile. “I understand why you needed to do it. You’re going to have a hard enough time convincing whatever power-brokers remain in the capital that such momentous changes must start to happen very soon. I think your story may have a chance of succeeding.”

Dragar offers Marin the return of his sword.

“While the story of a defeated army general would not.”

Marin shakes his head. “Keep it until you can reclaim one of your own when you reach your home in Komopolit. If we are to ride with your troops as escort tomorrow, they will doubt you if you come unarmed.”

We walk back to our own camp in silence. I can feel Kariel’s anger growing until Marin speaks.

“Kariel, I know this is not going to be easy. But now you have been introduced as powerful guests from Samaran, your havens need never be spoken of outside your own borders.”

“Respected Samarian guests whose contribution is appreciated. And I have already given my word that the havens will remain secret.”

To my surprise, this last comment is from Dragar, albeit spoken with a certain amount of effort. Then the calculation behind it becomes apparent.

“I will be better able to enforce that pledge when I have established my claim as Emperor.”

I NO LONGER FEEL PANGS of regret at leaving behind the luxury of the Elven-ships as we ride the last stage of the journey to Komopolit. All I want is to return to Samaran as quickly as possible and find out what is happening with my sister. And also with Shadow and the Eldrin––and Sarinder, soon to be crowned King and leader of my country barely three days after his fifteenth name-day according to Marin.

Kariel has brought only three of his forest archers into the city with him, all volunteers and warned of the risk to their lives now that Dragar has a hundred soldiers at his command.

If he betrays us now, we are all dead.

The Elf-captain’s hand rarely strays far from his sword hilt these days. “If he breaks his pledge and turns on us, I will be sure to take him down with me.”

Marin tries to reassure, even though we are all aware that this is a precarious gamble.

“Kariel, Dragar needs us on his side if he has hopes of making a claim to the Imperial throne.”

“And once he has it?”

“He will need your help to heal the land and feed his people. That should guarantee that you will be indispensable for at least a generation.”

Kariel doesn’t reply.

KOMOPOLIT IS A SPRAWLING remnant of decaying grandeur, a relic of a past age long in decline. Ostentatious towers and mansions huddle in lumpy, lichen-crusted fortifications set within overgrown city walls. The Imperial Palace at the heart of the city is the only building with smooth white façades and gilded domes, a massive square monolith in service to a dead Emperor and a corrupted Elemental, the deadly pairing that had brought so much destruction to an entire country.

Dragar commands his patrol captain to announce his arrival and uses his status to stride straight through the pillared entrance with Marin, Kariel and myself following him in our designated roles as visiting Samarian sorcerers. When we reach the vast echoing audience chamber I catch a brief glimpse of Dragar watching me. I roll my eyes.

He studiously ignores me.

In turn, I watch him suspiciously as he pushes his claim to the Imperial throne with increasing ruthlessness. A dozen aristocrats deemed too old to join the invasion force have remained in the palace awaiting news of the invasion. Three of them clearly have a long-standing dislike of General Dragar and strongly oppose his claim.

They fail to appear at the meeting of the High Council the following morning. Kariel says they were murdered in the night by Dragar’s newly-acquired followers. On his orders. Seems like the ambitious would-be ruler is in too much of a hurry to go through the charade of trying them for treason. Enhanced Elvish sight and hearing is proving useful for intelligence gathering and we are relying on it to stay alive.

The coup is swiftly concluded. Dragar sends an armed patrol to fetch his wife from whichever fortified pile is his home in this city. I watch as the new Emperor adjusts his ceremonial robes and settles himself on the Imperial throne, his wife resplendent in jewels on the gilded seat at his side, the remaining aristocrats bowing nervously and obsequiously at his feet.

“Marin, should we be colluding in this?”

Marin hasn’t stopped frowning since we arrived here but he shakes his head.

“Not much we can do, with so few of us in the city and not many more waiting beyond the walls. I suspect this is the normal Rapathian way of deciding the succession. My main concern has been to check if Deris passed on the power of Blade adept when he healed him. It seems not. We would have seen it manifest by now. Either it was never in our gift to pass it on, or else something changed when Shadow sensed your death and formed a binding with your sister.”

I have been watching for it too, more concerned about the possible effect on Nem. It is some relief to know that she will only have the compelling effects of Zandar’s dragonfire to deal with––although that will be challenge enough. Marin’s words are a sharp reminder of our pressing need to return home and deal with our own crises.

“When do we set off?”

“I informed the new Emperor that we will be leaving before noon today. He wanted us to stay for a great banquet of appreciation, to present us with medals in gratitude for our help. I declined.”

“Good. One more minute of being paraded up and down as part of his propaganda campaign and I’ll start to throw up.”

“I also warned him that it would be unwise to break his pledge to the forest Elves because Kariel and his kin are able to summon the Annubian dragon that caused so much destruction on Rapathia’s eastern border. Having watched Zandar’s exploits first-hand, I think Dragar was well convinced.”

“Even better. I’ll send a message to Nem to make sure Zandar keeps watch on developments here. After all those tedious days listening to Dragar’s rants, I’m sure she would be delighted to intervene if the need arose.”

WE PUSH THE HORSES as fast as we dare without driving them lame and reach Al’harin in three days. The pace gives me little time for scrying and I fail every time I try in any case. My main concern is what Shadow might have done at Maratic but the vision will not come. Maybe because of Maratic’s power, but I have no way of knowing.

When we have sold the horses in Al’harin and finally reach the busy quayside, Shan’domir is waiting for us with Farhaz and Nilan, his orange-robed bulk distinctive among the scrawny dockworkers and sailors. He strides across the rough paving to greet us, his large persona back to its usual ebullience.

“My Eldrin friend! I hoped you would be here so that we could send you on your way with messages for your new King and his glorious Queen!”

I look around, wondering if any of the other Nishan are concealed in the shadows.

“Shan’domir? How did you know we would be… Ah. Zandar has been gazing into flaming dew-ponds again.”

The Master of the Nishan confirms my guess with a wry shrug. “It seems that the balance of power in Annubia has shifted and changed in more ways than we could have expected. Or hoped for.”

“Is Nem all right?”

“She is… a little overwhelmed. But the Nishan are giving her every support. And the new Queen needs to be seen by the good citizens––and especially by the military––alongside her powerful sister and fiery ally while things are still… shall we say, somewhat volatile.”

“Perhaps you could take a message to Nem for me.”

“Of course. And she mentioned some of the difficulties you have been experiencing back in Samaran. If things fail to work out for you there, you are always welcome to return and make your lives rich and pleasant over here.” He gives an expansive wave of gold-ringed hands. “Annubia is a very fine country! And now the yoke of the despot has been relegated to the pages of history, it is very civil and respectable again.”

“Thank you Shan’domir. I am sure we will be back to see our friends, but whether it will be permanent or not we have yet to discover.”

Shan’domir has already booked our passage on the same pirate ship we arrived on, now docked and re-loaded with its second cargo of grain supplies bound for Samaran. Its new Annubian captain is pacing the deck, waiting impatiently for permission to set sail. Turns out Shan’domir had ordered him to hold his departure until we arrived, the threat of Nishan retribution a heavy inducement to comply.

As soon as we are on board, Deris goes in search of the ship’s windsinger. When he does not return I feel uneasy and go to look for him. I find him sitting in a cramped alcove in the hold, his arms around the slender form of the silver-haired windweaver as she weeps on his shoulder.


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