I hope you are well. Don't be alarmed at the news you hear concerning relations between Brevoy and the P.U.R.K. I'm about to tell you what really happened when the Swordlords decided to bring us to heel.
|Temple of Erastil|
As you know, after a year of mourning Vlad married Ilse and together they've had three children. Vlad was reelected President, but the shenanigans of the legislature make him wish longingly for the good old days of monarchical rule.
“I can stand the hassles over taxes, corruption, and ignorance, but what I hate are the provocateurs from Rostland and Issia. They buy votes and subvert our government!” he complained bitterly.
For myself, I feel the citizens need to learn how to survive without us, for good or ill. If we set for them the right example, they will always have a cornerstone upon which they can build.
One morning I rode into town as High Inquisitor for a meeting of the Council. I noticed right away that Vlad, who tries to affect the conviviality that made Lev so popular, was grim and ashen-faced.
“As you know,” he began, “our relationship with Restov has been steadily eroding. Two days ago their army crossed our border and destroyed Varnhold.”
“Again?” The table erupted with angry shouts. Vlad waited patiently for us to quiet.
“The 3rd cavalry was able to chase them back, but I'm afraid it's only the first sortie of a sustained effort. We must admit that diplomacy has failed and call out the militia.”
There were groans. “Lord, lord!”
As we complained, Vlad rolled up his sleeves. I'd never seen him so happy. “The wait was killing me," he said, "it was just a matter of time. Let's get to work!”
Many hours later he invited me into his office where he poured us each a snifter of fine Cheliax brandy.
“We can call a decent army into the field,” said Vlad. “Hell, the Pitaxians are spoiling for a fight, but I just don't believe we can whip the Swordlords, even if New Stetven sits it out. That's why I want you to get us an edge.”
“What sort of edge?”
“It's a two-part plan. In the second part you use your old contacts in New Stetven and convince them in the rightness of our cause. . . .”
“That won't cut much slack with those lizards. What are you offering them?”
Vlad smiled. “That's the first part of the plan.”
So, the next morning I found myself saddling old Autolycus and preparing for another long journey. Lily was there to say goodbye, with Junior, who ran skittishly about the barn, pursued by Lily's admonitions.
“I don't know when I'll be back. It could be weeks, it could be months . . .”
“. . . It could be never,” she finished for me.
“Not if I can help it.”
“Well, Marquand, I'll take care of the boy—either way.”
I looked once again at her ruined face, eyes bulging like cancerous frogs, teeth shattered, hair patched and gray.
“I love you,” I said.
“Fuck you,” she replied. “Let's go, Junior,” she called the boy to her. He ran up energetically and jumped, landing with a two-footed thud in front of me.
“Marquand, take me with you!”
I smiled and grabbed him with a growl, whirling him above my head before setting him down. He burst into giggles.
“Settle down!” Lily scolded us both. Taking his hand, she turned to go. Then stopped. “Take care of yourself, Marquand,” she said as they walked through the door.
“Goodbye, Marquand!” I heard Junior's reedy voice from afar.
After a moment's prayer, I saddled up, taking Autolycus into the courtyard where my Inquisition had gathered. After a short ceremony we rode northeast along the road to Whitehorse Abbey. Once again I was surprised at how quickly our land has been settled. No wonder Brevoy feels threatened, or is it envy . . . or greed?
Crossing the grassy plain, one of the scouts claimed he saw a “dragon or wyvern or something big” in the far distance. For my part, I was on the lookout for crow, and, sure enough, spied one a short time later. Soon after, we came to Whitehorse Abbey, which, like the rest of the P.U.R.K., had changed a great deal. The monks of Erastil living there had turned the place into a productive farm.
I turned to find Evindra smiling at me. “Friend Marquand,” she said, holding out her hand. I quickly grasped her.
“Maybe we should retire elsewhere,” she sighed, leading me to a nearby room. “But not just yet.”
“Marquand, you son of a beehive!” Cane stood there, grinning maniacally as he grabbed my hand. That's when I saw three tigers regarding me languidly from the far side of the room. “Don't mind them,” said Cane. “They've eaten.”
He led me into the next room, where, to my astonishment, sat Nyrissa herself. “My lady!” I said.
“Ah, citizen Marquand, how good to see you again, it seems like just yesterday.”
“Actually, it is yesterday to us,” Cane shrugged apologetically. “She wants to get this over with as quickly as possible.”
“Well, then, to cut to the chase, Rostland and Issia have been independently trying to destabilize the P.U.R.K. since Lev died . . .”
“Lev's dead?” Cane cried.
“Oh yeah, about five hours ago your time. Kelm and Skot, too. It's a long story.”
“Anyway, now that the Stolen Lands have been tamed, the Swordlords have decided to reap the harvest of all our work. Their troops have massed along the border and cross over with impunity.”
“What's that mean to me?” Nyrissa replied grumpily.
“If they invade and conquer the P.U.R.K., well, you're a part of the P.U.R.K., which means sooner or later they'll be knocking at your door.”
“I'd like to see that!” she sniffed.
Cane looked at me. “Sweetie, what he's trying to say is that if we kill them now while they're far away we won't have to clean up their sorry corpses in Thousandbreaths later.”
She looked from Cane to me, disdain changing to malevolent glee. “You have a point, my love! I had all kinds of ooshy things I was going to do to Tuskland if I'd only had the chance. Let's do it to them instead!” She leaped into the air with excitement.
For much of the rest of the evening we talked strategy, mostly Nyrissa telling us what she was going to do to Rostland once I got there. I took notes. Afterwards, I joined Evindra for a late repast on the porch of the guest house where I was staying. The prairie stretched dark and flat beneath the starry sky.
“That's what's wrong with these kind of relationships,” she said as we toasted one another. “Humans grow old so quickly. It's like you're made of smoke. I hardly get to know you before you're gone.”
And like smoke, I, too, drifted away the next morning, waving goodbye as she stood sadly by the gate. As much as I wanted to stay, my duty pushed me on. Not for the first time I wondered if duty was a force of Nature, like hunger or sleep.
We crossed through the fertile lands of House Lebeda. I wish I could say that it felt like a homecoming to me after all these years, but I saw the land through different eyes than when I left, judged the people by different standards. Like all serfs, they are ready to hear the words of Comrade Lev and receive the love of Erastil.
We camped at the woods across from New Stetven as I explained the situation to Nyrissa and Cane listening through her Fable in the The House at the Edge of Time. Unfortunately, it's a one-way street, but at least they'll know how our plan progresses. Across the river in New Stetven we passed along the lake until reaching the family mansion where we were staying. There I was greeted by cousin Earle—the Duke of Earle—who showed me around the property.
“You can see that it is quite private. It's got it's own pond and is encircled by some of the finest vineyards in Brevoy. They help discourage interlopers.”
“Do you think we're in danger?”
“Well, you have your enemies, but overall enough friends to get you a fair hearing.”
“That's all I ask.”
Earle regarded me silently. I remember him as a boy. Fastidious. As a young man, the joke was that he would put anything in his mouth when overindulging the wine. Now, he is one of the most powerful men in New Stetven and someone, at the moment, on our side.
He left us, but the next day summoned me to a government building downtown. There were all of the important representatives in his faction. They bade me sit. I knew many of them from my days as a judge on the bench, and a few from when I was a student at the Academy. Such as “Bruiser” Brodeen.
“Marquand, you old son of a bitch, I never thought I'd see you again!" he shouted, grabbing my hand. "We heard you'd 'gone native.'”
“I'm a simple defender of the faith.”
“Yeah, Err-ass-tull!” He said obscenely, popping his eyes wide, like a vaudeville clown, mouth open, tongue lolling. “That's what I'm sayin'!”
I laughed with them. When the laughter died, Bruiser called for drinks and I had, for the first time in a long time, some of the finest lager on the planet. It helped wash down the taste of gall. Then he said, “Obviously, our government can't recognize yours,” he shrugged. “You're still bandits as far as we're concerned.”
“But . . .”
“But nothing,” he waved dismissively. “You're lucky we don't turn you over the Swordlords.” I heard a sharp intake of breath from cousin Earle. “But you still have friends.” He put a finger to his lips. “What I recommend is that you keep very quiet. Don't make waves.”
With that, my public scolding was over and we retired for more lager. What I learned, over cigars and fine liqueur, was that Issia, the estates to the north, was very nervous over the situation in the Stolen Lands, they had always seen it as a plot by southern Restov to regain the upper hand in their ancient rivalry.
“That's why you need a strong P.U.R.K.,” I told them. “To act as a counterbalance. If they have their way they will add us to Rostland and destroy your balance of power. But if we can join Brevoy as an equal partner we will act as the balance, like the fulcrum in a pendulum, and we will all benefit.”
“Or we can send our own forces in and have our share!” Basquat del Grayhaven interrupted.
I let a moment pass before answering. “You can do that, but I advise you to wait another day before placing your bets.”
They laughed. “What are you going to do in a day, Marquand, run them out with centaurs and boogeymen?”
“Something like that,” I grimaced, taking my leave. I'd done enough good work for one night.
The next morning, as the fated hour arrived, I imagined what people were seeing at the headwaters of Lake Reykal. First a dimple in the water, quickly swirling and growing until it was a vortex 500 feet across. Then the black swans appear, hissing and honking as they make the lake their own. Anyone who dares drink the water sickens. Anyone who dares to move onto the water is quickly met with the force of the elementals that have gathered there.
It took some time, of course, for word to spread, but after it did I heard banging at my door. It was a delegation from the government. I met them in the study.
“What do you think you're playing at?” Count Eskew Rogarvia growled as I entered.
“Me? I'm not playing at anything.”
“Don't bullshit me,” he strode up until he stood inches from my nose, quivering with anger. I couldn't help notice that, despite protocol and plain courtesy, his sword was belted.
I sighed. “This isn't play. We will defend the P.U.R.K. with everything we have.”
“But this . . .”
“Is only the start.”
Kicking over a chair, he stormed out of the room.
I looked to the others. “What do you think?”
Cecil Medvyed, cleared his throat. At least my old fraternity brother wasn't overtly wearing a weapon. “Pardon the Count," he said dryly. "That lake borders his estate. How long do you expect it to last?
I shrugged. “Whenever they manage to destroy the water elementals, I guess . . . unless they chase them downstream, of course.”
“Marquand,” Lord Cavvandisch of House Surtova interrupted. “We're downstream from there.”
I shook my head with resignation. “And in a few days the poisoned water will reach us and sicken everything that it touches.”
The room erupted with outraged anger. In a moment they'd left, cursing me on the way out, until only Cecil remained. Studying me, he offered a pinch from his ornate snuffbox, but I shook my head.
While he indulged, I walked over to the window overlooking the stormy lake. “It's my country, too,” I said.
“What do I tell Lord Mayor Sellemius?”
“Store water,” I said. “Lots of water, although, really, the Swordlords should be able to take care of this . . . eventually. It'll cost them.”
“That would be telling,” I looked back at him. “It won't get better and New Stetven may be the capital of Brevoy but it's in Rostland.”
“I thought you'd say that.” He stood to take his leave. “Sellemius is only the mayor but I think he can act as a conduit to the King.”
“Then tell him that in about a week Rostland's western forest will have a little . . . problem.”
“You won't miss it.”
And so, over the next few weeks, Nyrissa's First World minions came over to play. First the so-called Shrieking Children—swarms of miniature mandragoras—invaded the nearby towns. Killing them was something like reaping nettles and more than a few proud Swordlords were nibbled to death by their fearsome wooden teeth.
While the younger lords were occupied, their elders found themselves the target of the Horned Hunter and his ettin companions. The shredded corpses of several Lords were found in the streets of New Stetven the next morning. I began receiving death threats with the mail.
There were reports from Restov of a Nightmare Spire's sudden growth outside of town and the dreams it inspired of the Nightmare Rook. Having endured the Rook's attention myself, I felt some pity, but not enough to end their torment.
From the Ice Rime Peaks above the Valley of Fire came word of Ice Giants descending to destroy everything within their reach. Meanwhile, the Rostland Plains grew thick with razor-sharp briers. My old friends, the three-armed athach trod morbidly amongst them.
That day I found Cecil once again at my front door, this time to summon me to the Ruby Fortress to meet King Noleski Surtova. Of course, I'd once roomed with the King—Bertie—at the Academy, but here we had to be formal, at least in front of the Swordlords, who looked a little frayed around the edges.
“Now, Lord Marquand . . .”
“Just Marquand will do, your Majesty. We eschew titles in the P.U.R.K.” I heard one of the Swordlords snort with derision.
The King cleared his throat. “We've gone over your proposal and have made a few changes, but nothing too drastic. If they meet your approval, when next my government convenes it will be as a tripartite body. The P.U.R.K. will be an equal partner with Issia and Rostland, enjoying all the rights and protections of what we're calling Greater Brevoy. I'll visit these new lands next summer.”
Despite the glowering Swordlords, the room echoed with applause. “Well done, Marquand, well done.”
“One moment!” came a loud voice from the floor of the chamber—Eskew Rogarvia. He strode to the foot of the throne. The King's Guard moved to block him but Surtova waved them away. “What is it, Count Eskew?”
“I declare Right of Challenge !” he barked.
There were gasps.
“But you're the best swordsman in all of Restov,” the King replied. "It will be murder."
“It's not my challenge!” he crowed, gesturing melodramatically, “but his!”
From the hall beyond came the ominous clanking of heavy armor and the startled murmuring of nobles as they scurried out of the way of what looked to me like a giant Hellknight, but in fact was a creature called First Blade.
“I have to fight him?” I gulped. I admit, dear Pino, that I was afraid.
“Wow,” grimaced the King, “too bad, man, but it's the law.” His face had the look I remembered from when we were freshman. He had been very fond of pranks. He shrugged, “Nobody's invoked that law since the days of Choral the Conqueror!”
“Justice,” I said quietly, turning to meet the First Blade.
“Not here!” Eskew Rogarvia cried, but it was too late, I struck with all my might, holy sword flashing true strike. Sparks flew as my sword bounced off her chestplate. I heard low laughter as I struck a second, then a third time. By now the others were forgotten as we circled one another.
“Get your weapon so we can fight!” I cried.
“She is the weapon,” Count Eskew called helpfully just as the powerful giant lunged, catching me with two powerful butcher blows that left me gasping. Unexpectedly, I was revived by an overwhelming anger, like a barbarian's rage.
Whipping my vorpal blade towards her head, I landed two solid blows that nevertheless seemed to do little damage. Once again she slammed into me. I tasted blood. No longer able to restrain my anger I cast flame strike, hoping to broil her within her thick armor.
“You didn't want to do that, Marquand, ” Eskew Rogarvia taunted.
“And why not?” I growled, exasperated.
“She's kind of immune to spells . . . except fire, which rejuvenates her!”
The First Blade thwacked me so hard I was flung halfway across the room. From there it became a straight up fight, and while the First Blade was better protected, I had the better weapon and moved faster, landing three blows to her two. I also kept pulling true strike out of my hat until finally hearing her grunt of surprise and the satisfying sound of my blade hitting home. But she wasn't done, erupting into shards of razor sharp spinning metal, sleeting against me relentlessly. I fell back in disarray.
I ran, as from a swarm of bees, but the metal blades continued striking. So many crammed into my visor that I stumbled blindly and fell. That's when I felt the first thin blade that had somehow breached the seam of my armor. I felt it scratching up my leg. Then there was another and another. I felt a sting in my nose, felt the blood run down my face, realizing something was in my helmet. I screamed as my throat filled with dozens of tiny bites.
Sometime later I woke in a convalescent bed, a nurse staring mournfully at me. I tried speaking but my throat felt like it was filled with fire.
“Don't try to talk, hon,” she said sympathetically. “You're lucky to be alive.”
I fell asleep again and the next few days passed like a dream as I slowly regained strength. On the fourth day I heard a commotion at the door and before me stood Cecil.
“Why . . .” I whispered.
“Don't talk, my brave friend.”
“Why am I alive?” I persisted.
“I finally prevailed upon the King that, as the First Blade was not a citizen of Rostland—not really alive at all, when you think of it—that it couldn't actually invoke the ancient law against you.”
I coughed, spitting bloody phlegm into a brass cuspidor. “Very clever. Why didn't you think of that before the fight began?” I rasped.
He actually laughed. “To teach you humility, Mr. Citizen-Inquisitor,” Cecil leaned forward, hissing, no longer my friend. “Your P.U.R.K. is an equal partner in Greater Brevoy but, remember, some partners are more equal than others.”
For once I was grateful for my sore throat. Time will tell, dear Pino. I think they're whistling past the graveyard, myself. Once the citizens—not the gentry—of “Greater” Brevoy see how Comrade Lev's (pardon me, Saint Comrade Lev's) participatory democracy works, there will be no saving the old order. Some will survive, of course, and even prevail, but at least a ruling class that has to earn its living is better than one that floats on top due to an accident of birth.
I spent the season in New Stetven, recovering and acting as minister until the first elected representatives arrived, drilling them in protocol. That's when I learned I'd been elected to lead our faction in the new Estates-General, so I will not be returning to Tuskland until the King visits there. I'm sorry for this, I have not been able to see you grow up as I promised your father Jaquizz.
Which is why I've asked your Mother to return to New Stetven with me and to bring you along. It's a brave new world and you must prepare for your place in it.
Say your prayers,