Are the old farts really this crazy?
Zemril NerMagten, daughter and field agent of the Order of the Most Radiant Daughters of Ankad the Beloved (which was only ever called the Neralene Order owing to Ankad’s wife Neralene having been the founder) read through the mission briefing again. The words did not change. Rather than the kevas going along with the warlords’ selection of Orlin ArdAnkadia as emperor and confirming him as Preparer as well, a faction headed by the High Keva himself was moving to appoint Rixken ArdAnkadia, Orlin’s younger brother, as Preparer instead. Seeing as the Emperor had to be the Preparer and the Preparer had to be the Emperor… well… problems.
When she finished reading she folded the mission briefing and slid it into a large armored pouch attached to the side of her honey-gold kring-composite motorcycle armor. Then rubbed her gloved hands on her plated arms and tried to comfort herself through several layers of ballistic protection. It didn’t work.
Yes. Yes they are this crazy.
“They’re really doing this right now?”
High Daughter Imrien PirDotan, head of all the Neralenes, turned in her gold and white armored habit, complete with a kring-scaled hood that made her look just a bit like a white-necked tree dragon, and raised one gray eyebrow at Zem.
Does her wrinkly face ever not look disapproving? Or is it just when she’s looking at me?
“When exactly would you suggest they do it? The next time we have a choice between another grasping, murdering, power-hungry monster of an emperor or someone with faith in Kai and a conscience?”
Okay. Granted. Emperor’s didn’t get replaced very often, and ArdAnkadias with the latter disposition hadn’t been very common for the last few centuries. But still.
“Respectfully, High Daughter, I kind of like Okend like it is: Not on fire.”
Some of the lines smoothed out of Imrien’s face. She looked ahead again and sat back.
“So do all of us, Zemril. But sometimes the forest needs to catch on fire if the trees are to continue living.”
“This is gonna blow the entire continent to pieces. The warlords won’t stand for it.”
“If you had studied your Teachings as much as you should, and especially the Law Over the Preparer, you would know that the Kevas’ choice is the one that matters. The warlords only took the lead centuries ago because the Kevas weren’t deciding, and we have had terrible emperors ever since.”
And now, theology.
“They still won’t stand for it. And Orlin the Defiler definitely won’t.”
Imrien shot a glare at her when she used the new Emperor’s unofficial title. It had probably crossed everyone’s lips at some point, but the High Daughter still thought it disrespectful. Zem figured Imrien should be happy she wasn’t using any of the other titles she had heard. Or come up with.
“Your job isn’t to figure out if it’s wise or not.” Imrien stared straight ahead, voice calm and cold. “Though you might want to consider how our order and the Kevas have fared under the delightful progression of Emperors the warlords have blessed us with. If you are lacking motivation.” Imrien glanced at her.
Zem bit her lip.
Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
“Is that clegmokker Orlin’s little brother really any better?”
Imrien hissed at the profanity. It really was a vile one.
But she nodded anyway.
“Yes. Inexperienced, but then he isn’t much older than you. But all the reports I could gather say he is kind, considerate, honest, chaste, and devoted to Aihay. Now, are you prepared to do your duty?”
Zem canceled a sigh and intentionally tilted her ears forward to a respectful listening angle.
Imrien pursed her lips.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Do you understand your first mission?”
“Deliver the package to Rixken ArdAnkadia. See that he accepts it. Keep him alive and get him to a safe location.” Safe. Ha! Nowhere on the entire continent would be safe. “I have a list of sympathetic warlords in the mission file. They may provide shelter. If I can’t get him to one of those warlords, then I am to use any means available to get him to as safe a location as possible. Once I get him to a safe location, I am to guard him until further notice.”
“Very good. And your second mission?”
Zem felt her stomach twist.
Of all the power hungry, manipulative, grasping…
Zem did not like the second part of her mission. Even if, as she had been told, she had a certain aptitude for it. That really only made it worse. She was about to respond when a chirp from the headset hanging around her neck called her attention.
“Bristi spotted the High Keva,” she said. “He should be on his way here.”
Imrien sat up straighter. If that was possible.
Zem clucked into the headset three times, then checked her face in her smartphone one last time. The absurdly expensive device showed the face of an older boy, not a woman, a trick accomplished with careful shading and highlights to make her face look more angular and emphasize her chin. The light brown, crop cut wig was still in place, hair coming low enough to hide the hairline. Not that it mattered. She had anchored that down well enough. It wouldn’t come off or show.
No one was spotting her for a woman until she wanted it.
A scratch sounded at the door of the office they were in.
Zem got up and opened it.
A small, dark blue, vulpine creature scurried in, long, feathered wings held tight to its body so they didn’t hit anything. Zem closed the door behind it. As soon as she stepped back the female kerchax leapt up to her shoulder and draped itself around her neck.
Imrien rose behind her and motioned Zem to her side with a flick of her chin.
They waited that way, side by side, until High Keva Demir PerKeltin opened the door.
He jumped when he saw them. He probably hadn’t been expecting to find them in his own office.
Zem assessed him, like she did with everyone. He wasn’t much to look at. His knobbly hands held a sheaf of papers and a sealed envelope. Soft white mepi robes piped in green and stitched with gold covered a frame that had a bit of stoop to it and very little meat. Long, pointed ears lifted their tips above a head that hadn’t seen hair in decades and framed a tanned, wrinkled face that definitely looked like it had stared up at the sky too much.
But he had a nice smile. A little old grandfather smile.
“Imrien! You are already here! Of course you are. Always punctual.”
Imrien bowed, dragging Zemril down as well with a hand on her arm.
“High Keva, it is my pleasure to serve.”
“And who is this young man?” Demir asked. “A messenger?”
Zem tried to stop the smile, but it made it out onto her face. Oh well. She wasn’t trying to sneak past him, so she didn’t have to hide the fact that there was a joke taking place.
Imrien bowed again, half as deep, and didn’t tug on Zem this time.
“This is Daughter Zemril NerMagten, one of our finest agents and the best choice for the mission you gave us.”
He looked at Zem more closely, eyeing her face as if trying to convince himself she was indeed a woman and not a man. After a moment he nodded, but Zem could still see the slight confusion in his eyes.
Her smile broke wider.
“If you recommend her, then I can’t argue. She does seem a little young, though?”
Twenty-five, old man, and plenty blooded!
“Zemril has already accomplished a number of missions many would consider impossible. While we may have a few daughters more suited to simple messenger work, we have no one who can equal her… creativity… when it comes to solving problems.”
Zem winced at the way Imrien said “creativity”. It called to mind certain events she would rather not think of.
“Well, as I said. You know your agents best. Here are the official copies of the letter of investiture for each of the provinces. I’m certain you will get the information out to as many sources as possible.”
Imrien took the sheaf and made it vanish into her habit.
“And here is the letter of investiture.” He held out the letter to Zem. She took it and put it away in her sidepouch. “You know who it’s for? Of course you do.”
Now that there was nothing in his hands, he wrung them together.
Zemril was surprised to feel an echo of his nervousness twisting in her own arms. His actions would probably mean his death. And he knew it.
She had to feel for that.
“I will ensure that this letter is safely delivered and do everything in my power to keep Rixken ArdAnkadia alive.”
Demir smiled again.
“Thank you. Ah, but you need one more thing.”
“The sword,” Imrien said.
Demir nodded and lead the way to his desk. There he opened a long silvery harexwood box sitting on top of it, revealing a gleaming steel hand-and-a-half sword with a straight crossguard and a wire-wrapped hilt. Inset into the fuller that ran most of its length, in gold lettering, were words in old Doga, the language most of the Teachings were originally written in.
Zem sounded them out in her head, but she already knew the translation.
“The promise will surely remain until the Name is known.”
The Sword of the Preparer, forged by the prophet Tilam and given to Ankad in the year 20 LR. Supposedly never sharpened since, though it had been used in battle on numerous occasions to deadly effect.
She couldn’t see a scratch on it.
Some said it was a fake, like the Iron Crown, which was a copy of a copy of a copy of the military helmet Ankad had worn into battle. Maybe with more copies in there.
She didn’t know, but from the way Imrien was looking at it, she at least thought it was real.
Demir handed it to Imrien, who held it flat and studied the light reflecting along its surface for a moment. Then Demir put it into a sheath, gold-chased white kringwood with a kring-fiber sword belt rolled up around it.
He held it out to Zem.
She held her breath as she took it.
Heavy. As expected. But not heavier than a sword that size should be. She slid it out a few inches and looked at the edge.
“You know where to find Rixken?”
Zem looked up.
“The Iklind Border Station,” she said. “Six-hundred miles Northeast.” Where had she put that bag? Ah. Yes. She picked up a long padded bag and slid the sword into it, sheath and all, then shouldered it by its strap. Bristi grumbled as she was forced to consolidate her perch.
“How long will it take you to get there?”
Zem nodded. Of course just two. Six-hundred wasn’t that far. Even if she did have to cross a few well-guarded borders on the way, none of them were hostile. Maplen was still very much Imperial territory.
“Then we’ll try to delay for three. Hopefully Orlin won’t press for our answer before then. Only the other over-kevas in the selection council know, so I should be able to guarantee you that much time.” He turned to Imrien. “How are your plans to get the other kevas out of the city?”
“Ready at any time. We could smuggle you out as well.”
Demir shook his head.
“No. One of us must stay to answer Orlin, and the Palace is my duty.”
Zemril had been right. She really was looking at a dead man.
He looked at her again, and waved her closer.
“Before you go, I will pray for you.”
“Of course, High Keva.”
Zem approached and bowed her head. When he laid his hands her his touch was light and gentle. A moment later Imrien joined him and laid her hands on Zem as well. She tried not to sidle away. She might think of the High Daughter of the Neralenes as a hypocrite at times, but this man in front of her… if any man truly prayed to Kai, he did. She would take his prayer and ignore the other hands.
“Aihay, great Terai Darr, we beg you for your strength. Please go with this woman and give her faith to trust you and strength to accomplish her task. Please have mercy on your people and deliver us from a wicked ruler. We ask this in the most holy Name that you have promised.”
Zemril stood for a moment, with Demir and Imrien’s hands on her head.
Then shuddered as the reality of what lay ahead of her set in.
“Agreed,” she whispered. She would certainly need all the help she could get.
All of them would.
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and cultural elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki and pure sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.